Prompt 5: My kid’s school essay assignment

Today my kid had a writing prompt. The prompt was to compare the climaxes of two different stories about hiking. I told her I’d write an essay about it too, to better feel her pain. I admit that I am not entirely feeling her pain because the poor kid has to write long-hand on special essay paper, whereas I get to type. This means that I can go back and revise much more easily. (I think schools should teach kids to type and write simultaneously — isn’t typing a more necessary skill than writing, nowadays?)

One of the stories was about a little boy who decided to hike through his small town to explore a bee farm; the other was about a little girl who went on a hike with her big brother. The one about the little boy was clearly about urban exploration. It was the type of adventuring that happens when you invade private property in a city, with all the usual details including encountering trash and concrete barriers, a bit of parkour, entering someone else’s property illegally, and meeting something scary that turns out to be an interesting twist on the mundane.

The story about the little girl was…ok, honestly, it was boring. The little girl went hiking but got tired, and due to the support and encouragement of the man in her life (her big brother) (who also kind of insulted her for being “little” when he reminded her that she was already ten), she was able to move on and overcome her fatigue.

I grew up either outside or in a book. When I was outside, I was down a literal hole (or over hot lava), and when I was inside, I was in another land. Later, I evolved from a rural adventurer into an urban adventurer, so I admit that I resonated more with the story about the boy.

I guess because I grew up outside, I immediately found holes in the little girl’s story. First, the little girl put on her hiking boots at home before she went on the two-hour car ride to the hike. In real life, you wear your clean rubber sandals in the car (well, in Hawaii), and stick your dirty hiking boots in the trunk. The first thing you do when you reach the trail is put on your socks and boots. Second, the little girl is only able to push through her trail fatigue after words from her brother, who says, “You’re ten, you can do it.” The story also says that the little girl believed him, because her brother “never lied.” Hmmmm. I admit to being skeptical about the limited perception of the narrator. In fact, the ten-year-old girl was written as much younger than my own ten-year-old girl tends to be. Was she infantilized? Am I just used to stronger heroines?

The little boy, on the other hand, only screamed “a little” when he saw the beekeeper in the bee suit. After his understanding shifted and the alien turned out to be a human in a bee suit, he allowed this person to teach him about bees. Interesting side point — my daughter also felt more affinity for this story, because once upon a time she got to visit her aunt’s bee farm and wear the bee suit (there she is, above).

Dave, who also wrote with us, said that he was pretty insulted by the difference in agency between the two protagonists. I can see his point. The boy was definitely the ruler of his own fate, despite his fear. The girl needed assistance from a man to push through her own internal battle. I’d love to see these stories genderswapped to figure out where the actual fault might lie. Oh, the story about the little boy was much longer and more detailed than the one about the little girl. That bothered me too.

In the concluding words encouraged by Monkey’s teacher: SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. My essay about an essay about essays.

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Prompt 4: A high-heeled shoe, a rubber dog bone, a burned out pot, a piece of jewelry, an old pair of pants

Last night, my daughter left a dripping-wet trail from the shower to my room, calling my name. “Come here, mama,” she said mysteriously. “Come look in the bathroom.”

“…Did something break?” I asked.

“No, just come here!”

My daughter is a master of piquing my curiosity, so I went, fearing that I’d find a swamp or maybe a shower curtain tugged down around the ceramic of the tub.

Instead, I found a neat row of nail polish on the bathroom counter, sorted carefully into a rainbow, next to a green index card reading “HINT HINT.”

My child grinned at me. “I want one color on each nail, please! Tonight!”

“How about this weekend, when the light is good?” I replied, sighing.

“Okay, I guess. But you can’t forget,” Monkey said. “And you have to wear some too.”

That’s my kid, dragging me reluctant and kicking into the ancient rituals of self-adornment. She also really loves to accessorize and wear fancy footwear, and has been trying to break me of the habit of thinking comfort-first when putting on clothes. (In retrospect, maybe I should’ve read her fewer Fancy Nancy books when she was little.)

I spent a lot of formative years with my dad, and during the years when most teenagers begin to play with clothing and makeup, I owned two different pairs of jeans: one for wearing to school, and the other (the older pair) ripped enough for hiking and caving. My t-shirts were of the geek variety, and very often had pictures of insects, or things like “National Speleological Society” written on them. Makeup was unnecessary for beauty, in my dad’s books, and I believed him.

This is probably why it’s taken me a long time to value traditionally feminine approaches to self-adornment. At some point in my twenties I realized that I looked nice in dresses, and it’s taken me until my 40s to realize that a bit of makeup isn’t always a bad thing, and apparently helps people look more professional, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. I’ve admired women who understand how to put themselves together, hair and makeup and clothing. I’ve suspected that women who have to learn to present themselves continue to look nicely put together as they age, perhaps because they’re always used to spending some time on their appearance.

It’s been a shock to my system to have a daughter that is both tomboyish and extremely girly all at once. There’s a vast spectrum of feminist responses to “girliness,” but maybe the most important one is the easy affinity that my daughter has to the idea of it. She doesn’t consider it anti-anything to put on a dress and beg for some lipstick, she just thinks she looks nice, and why not look exactly the way she wants?

I’m glad I have someone teaching me how to inhabit my body with as much joy and unselfconsciousness (well, that part takes work) as my kid inhabits hers.

Prompt 3: What brings you the most inner peace?

It took me a long time to realize that I grew up an athlete.

For some reason, it never struck me that practicing ballet from age six to seventeen (and studying modern dance in graduate school) constituted athleticism. I only realized it recently after I’d read about hockey players and the physical routine they go through to play their sport. Reading about hockey, I realized that I comprehended the players totally — their daily discipline, their commitment to pushing past pain and physical limits, the difficulty of learning certain moves, the joy of attaining them.

“Why do I understand this so well?” I asked myself in great puzzlement. I guess I proved that the athletic stereotype is true — sometimes I’m not the brightest. But then I smacked my head and realized that I grew up pushing my body just as hard.

I have to thank myself for working so hard for so long. I am not now that strength which in the old days let me move below heaven and above earth, but my body retains the possibility of regaining some of it. I exercise reasonably often. Mostly I’m amused when I look down and see a body that no longer can dance ballet, but that’s what happens when you form your opinion of your body when you were a fourteen-year-old chronic dancer.

So, hockey. For a while I’ve found the most inner peace watching, listening to, and reading about, hockey. I’m not sure where I found it before, which troubles me. Maybe I had no space at all in which I lost myself in something else. Or maybe this sense of losing myself isn’t peace so much as escapism.

I don’t know?

Over Thanksgiving, my father-in-law asked me why I liked hockey. I stared at him for a moment with an empty mind, because honestly, there’s no rhyme or reason for passion about something.

“Because it’s awesome,” I said finally, making stuff up as I went. “It’s the gracefulness of figure skating, the difficulty of soccer, and the danger of football, all on this slippery surface. There’s nothing like it.”

He didn’t buy my answer, but mostly because (he said) I was the last person he’d ever suspect would enjoy the game. He’s somewhat right, the real answer wasn’t any of that.

Watching Hockey is watching deadly choreography, a modern dance set to metal, a desperate scramble on a tricky surface over the fate of something that ultimately doesn’t matter at all. It’s such an intense metaphor for life that I can’t look away. Somewhere outside of that rink, whole universes exist that don’t care about whether the puck hits the net, and yet these young men are staking their lives and health on it anyway.

Bless this painful game for bringing me closer to the truth of Kharma Yoga — to watching it embodied by men who strive as hard as Arjuna to fulfill each physical action as perfectly as they can, fighting against their brothers to whatever end the universe decrees.

I find peace in hard, honed, desperate movement. Nowadays, it’s what makes the most sense to me.

Prompt 2: What was the best part of 2014?

Once when I was a kid, my dad explained to me that children and adults remembered the world differently because of the way our brains work.

“Kids perceive everything with no prior set of memories, so time works differently. Every moment is full of new discoveries that the brain has to process in a new way each time. The older you grow, the more the mind tends to batch up memories into groups that are all alike. So when a child remembers something, it’s clear and detailed and distinct, but when an adult remembers it, it’s part of a memory batch, all the other times that this event has happened.”

My dad, for what it’s worth, has always wanted to remember life like a child does.

When I ponder 2014, I remember it in three parts. Two of these parts are long, indistinct blurs of grey cube walls, driving in traffic, and routine suburban chores. These two parts were broken up by a summer of strange unemployed freedom. It was the first time I’d ever been laid off, and for four months, life became distinct again. Parts of this past summer were memorable in a terrible way. Unemployment is a tedious round of paperwork and shabby strip-mall offices and filling out forms online about how many people rejected my resume this week. But in between, that time was also a happy glut of art and writing and learning to move my body again after two years of chemotherapy.

I have memories of swimming outside every day, of feeling the sear of sun on my skin as I slid into the municipal pool’s water. I remember the coconut scent of sun screen and the sharp chlorine. I remember the burn of the soles of my bare feet as I walked toward the water. I swam backstroke and watched birds and clouds and planes. As I swam, my mind shifted, and each thought became different.

Maybe my father’s life is an example of how to make each memory distinct. He is outside as often as he can be, and when I was a kid, he took me with him. My memories of each cave, each hike, each trip to the coastal cliffs to catch insects, are still pretty distinct.

I have a memory from these days that I unearth from my mental hoard whenever I need to think about something beautiful: I was seventeen, and the clouds had given up their hold on Hilo for a day. We were snorkeling at Richardson’s beach in Hilo bay. Surfacing from a long exploration of a reef, I reclined on the water and noticed that the full moon was hovering above Mauna Loa. For a time there was nothing in my mind except for that — the gentleness of the water holding my limbs up, and the moon above the mountain.

Maybe these moments are the only ones that survive the wash of batching, the moments when I’m caught off-guard by beauty, and there’s no barrier of thought at all between myself and the world.

The best part of 2014 was getting shoved into a waking series of moments that I couldn’t batch up and box away.

Welcome to 2015: The year of somewhat irrelevant writing prompts

This poor writing website has been languishing for a long time with nothing on it, partly because all of the things I desperately want to talk about are things that I ultimately can’t. I believe in my little website, however, and decided to make a concerted effort to revive it. At Barnes and Noble the other day I bought a discounted book of writing prompts, and I vow to fill this site with writing, as often as I can, for at least a year. I realized that I’ve been wanting to write with no outlet for it, and this is as good an excuse as any. I can’t promise to stay remotely on topic, but who wants that, anyway?

Rite of Spring

Prompt 1: What are ten sounds that you associate with winter?

At Rutgers, one of the first General Honors Program classes that I took was about musical synesthesia, taught by Dr. Gary Chenoweth. The textbook for it was the first dense book of academic philosophy that I’d ever read, entitled Sound and Sense. It was so dense and philosophical that it actually broke me, and I honestly haven’t been able to read a book of philosophy all the way through ever since. I remember the gist of it, that western music created a lexicon over time that enabled people to associate certain sounds with other senses — smell, touch, taste, movement, words, nature, etc. Conversely, commonly accepted onomatopoeia made its way into music and became the standard “phrase” for referring to things. For example, thunder = drums. (See, book? Not to be anti-intellectual, but that wasn’t so hard to state in two sentences!) Despite the density of the textbook, I really enjoyed the class.

On second thought, maybe this textbook (with examples written in musical notation) was my first realization that there was a level of learning I’d have to achieve before being able to comprehend certain things, and in this case, the bar was constituted by an entire musical language. Perhaps that was the point at which I threw up my hands and admitted academic defeat. “I guess I’ll have to just pretend that I get it,” I probably thought to myself, staring at musical notation interspersed with philosophical writing.

Defeated or not, the best part of class was when we listened to things. Chenoweth introduced me to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and handed me the realization that the classical music I’d learned in ballet class was just the flat plain from which mountains of crazy, joyous sound could emerge.

I remembered that as a child I’d watched Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Rite of Spring on PBS, and recalled falling into the intense story of crazy sacrifice, watching the crash and fall of dancers as they invoked ancient myths. The music fell like a hammer, drove the naiads to a frenzy, described the rise and fall of their limbs. Researching further, I discovered that the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky. I found his published Diary and read it, and stared at the black and white pictures of what must have been the most exciting and vibrant modern dance performance to ever flop completely.

Nijinsky wrote in searingly direct prose. His choreography was the fascinating iceberg that described the fruition of thought about myths and rituals and their meaning. (I tried, just now, to find a connection to Carl Jung, and am surprised that I haven’t found anything written yet — they were all contemporaneous, Jung, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and their philosophies were of a kind.) Through the synesthesia of ritual turned into a musical lexicon, movement took shape, meaning arose.

Although I’ve never felt the need to revisit Sound and Sense, I’ve always wanted to dance this choreography. This is something that I learned about myself. My first impulse when synthesizing a new idea is to create art out of it, and not something academic.

So here are ten sounds of spring instead, all hidden in this terrible, beautiful music.