When was the last time I did something recklessly hopeful?

September 2013 550

I have been in a bit of a slump the last week or so. I think it is the time of year – the fact that I am not yet ready for autumn, or the fact that I have had a lot of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life drama in recent weeks, from thinking about my career to doing 10Q to trying to buy a flat to figuring out what city I will be in for the next few months. It is a lot of planning and adultness, but it is also a lot of dreaming. I have spent hours with my husband recently, thinking about our home and talking about what sort of people we will be in that home.

That’s all the background.

Tonight at work, I was trying to find a blog post I wrote about 10 years ago about how everyone in Central Asia blames the Chinese for all kinds of things. I didn’t succeed in finding that, but I did find this post that I wrote on Dec. 26, 2003. (I also learned that I need to figure out a way to download my Xanga posts somehow or I might lose them.)

There’s lots that I sort of cringe about in that post (and my comment on it later): my blog in those days was a bit more of a diary than anything I would post publicly now. But it reminded me so much of what sort of person I used to be. I mean, I used the phrase “reckless hope” to describe the way I answered a question in the interview for the fellowship I went on in Central Asia. What a great and youthful phrase!

At the same time, what else would it be? They asked me how I would know I had succeeded. I had such a confident and wonderful answer – that the goal was learning, and I couldn’t not learn. I quoted a lot of Krishnamurti in this post as well, stuff like:

It is a mad world, completely confused, in which … everybody is against somebody, struggling to arrive at a safe place, a position of power or comfort. The world is torn by conflicting beliefs, by caste and class distinctions, by separative nationalities, by every form of stupidity and cruelty–and this is the world you are being educated to fit into.


Are you ambitious when you love to do something for its own sake? When you are doing something with your whole being, not because you want to get somewhere, or have more profit, or greater results, but simply because you love to do it–in that there is no ambition, is there?

I have been circling back to that year in Central Asia a lot this past year – partly because of Ben’s death, and partly because that was the year when I felt the most like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that time. I was a great version of myself. I was … well, I was recklessly hopeful.

I did all kinds of things to reroute my thoughts to where they were that year. I bought the books I read – St. Augustine and Krishnamurti and Peter Singer. I read them, and other things. I listened to some of the music. I talked to a lot of the people, and I tried to recall our conversations.

But I hadn’t read my own words. My words in that post are a message and a warning: that if I am not careful, I will be trapped by worry or striving for external goals.

I have forgotten about what it means to learn and have remembered what it means to worry. If I am going to really learn, don’t I have to get rid of this fear? Don’t I just need to love what I am doing, to love in general and to endlessly pursue knowledge and wonder?

I have felt echoes of these sentiments again lately. My recent career decision has felt like a step in that direction, but if the goal is reckless hope, I still have some way to go.


Review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


This is ridiculously late, but better late than … well, whatever.

I basically knew I was going to like Americanah before I began reading it. I like when books are dealing with real issues, and I like semi-autobiographical books. And I knew I liked this writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from her previously critically acclaimed book, Half a Yellow Sun. Americanah got a huge amount of hype, and although I tried to avoid some of it (because I was set on reading it), I had already heard a good deal about what the book was “about”.

In some cases, it is hard to say what a piece of fiction is “about”, but some books lend themselves to being about something. This book, to be honest, is one of those: it is about race, and the experience of being black in the US, and the experience of becoming aware that you are a race by going somewhere else. All of those are things I’m interested in.

Americanah spends most of its time in the US, spanning a young Nigerian woman’s life in university and graduate school in the north-east of the US. It is very well written, and has some recognizable, understandable and sometimes a bit clichéd characters: the Nigerian woman (the main character) is the most complex. Most or basically all of the men are boyfriends/lovers of the main character, and they are more one-dimensional: a white sporty rich guy, an African American professor, and a Nigerian married man. Each felt a bit too perfect a version of this stereotype, either not flawed or not multidimensional enough to be their own real person.

Even though these characters – and some of the minor characters – feel a bit fake or forced, they also show that Adichie has a strong eye for uncomfortable truths about the US in particular. Perhaps they feel so forced because they are so recognizable. They are indeed naturally occurring specimens in the US race spectrum.

The same really goes for the blogging voice: the voice of the writer is so strong and powerful and … Adichie-like (beautiful writing), but the voice of the blogger is so different: something like antiseptic or distant or forced in comparison. It seemed to me – and this is what Adichie seems to have said in interviews – that she enjoyed making up a blogging voice, and I liked it (I would have read this blog if it were real), but I know that it annoyed some readers.

I really loved this book – especially the first two-thirds – and thought it was important, but it is also flawed. It says things that we as Americans cannot say aloud about our country, and it is uncomfortable at points. I am not as sold on the end parts – the Nigerian parts towards the end. She has written in beautiful depth and detail on Nigeria before, but Nigeria felt a bit muted in this book – much less vivid and emotionally alive than the American parts.

But perhaps all of the press, and even this blog above, gets the book a little wrong. If you think that it is about race, and the Nigerian parts are not really “about” this. In that sense, you have to sort of set out when reading this book to understand that the book is, yes, about race, but it is also about leaving home and all of the identities that that process spawns. So that means that it is about turning into a black person by going to the US, and then understanding that identity, and then going back and not being able to use that identity. In some senses, I liked that part too, and found it familiar for my own globe-trotting life.

A final point [this is the real spoiler section]: I was not sure if the resolution with her first love was a bit too clean: some part of everyone wants to go back to that first, easiest love, before you knew about the world or who you can be in other places (good and bad). I am not sure what resolution I would have wanted at the end of the book, but I guess I don’t know how I feel about story lines that take people around the world and end up with their “true” or first love… it just makes it seem easier than it really is to go back.

Analog morning

Of course I am blogging about this, but it is no longer morning, so perhaps that is okay. Yesterday I read this essay by Rebecca Solnit, which I really loved. If I were to use some of the Christian language I grew up with, I felt convicted by this essay – it made me think about how I was living my life. Especially this part:

I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things.

When I was talking to my husband D. about this essay, and Rebecca Solnit in general, we decided that reading her essays can start to approach the feeling of reading a grumpy old person’s rant, but it is so poetic and beautiful, and she always takes it one level deeper, that you don’t feel indulgent.

The fact that I spent yesterday evening watching six (yes, 6) episodes of Mad Men after running a lot and meeting a friend for afternoon drinks – I couldn’t really do much more besides watch Mad Men – meant that this morning I felt glutted on internet. And media. And the non-tactile experience of consuming using only my eyes, but not my fingers or brain. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is important to veg out. But sometimes you need a more tactile and interactive experience.

August 2013 057

So this morning I got up, and I read the TLS. It comes every week in paper form (I don’t really read the online version, although I could), but it comes to my London apartment. So it piles up, and then it is a lot of reading. And there is always something in there to concentrate on: in this issue, an essay about Shklovsky that makes me almost want to go out to the bookshop and buy some of his work, and an essay on a book about the history of exorcisms in Western Christianity. It covers such a wide, diverse group of topics, which is what I like so much about it.

I listened to the radio. I drank coffee. I stared out the window.

Then I wrote some letters, responding to correspondence. I love reading about previous times, when people would go through the letters they had received and respond to them. I imagine them at little antique writing desks, with pots of ink. It is a lot more romantic than my daily battle with correspondence, in the form of endlessly proliferating email – this business email that blocks out my ability to express myself in writing because I have already used the words I have that day.

It is lovely, and I have some observations about this experience:

  • I don’t want to be a Luddite, and to ignore all the wonderful things that the internet gives. I love the internet, and I love how many more people I can know and track in their life. I think of Facebook, for example, as a village that is centered around me: It is my couple thousand people living together in a virtual place (if you take my friends and all the members of their family members I can keep up with), and I can peek in their warmly lit windows and watch them making dinner. I can wander into the town square and hear the debates, and decide if I want to participate or wander away (close the window). But I do not want that virtual village to replace my slower, in-person contacts and friendships. I do not want this village centered around me to replace the randomness of real life. And I do not want to forget the reality that the universe that is not centered around me, and should not be.
  • In the first TLS article, I found myself mentally hyperlinking. A word would make me think about someone I should text or email. A mention of something would make me want to look it up on wikipedia. It was a pretty long article, and it made me want to check my email. I resisted all of this, and relaxed into the textual rhythm, but I found that disturbing nonetheless.
  • I wrote letters to the pen pal I have through the Letter Writers Alliance. I had the strong urge to look up what I had told her before, as if I were writing a memo. A letter is not a memo, though, and there is something magical and almost forgotten about the feeling of sending something and never seeing it again. Remember what that was like? I think there should be a special email account you can get that does not save sent copies of your messages. How strange the feeling was of recognizing that I don’t remember what I wrote and therefore who I was in January, and then remembering that I am me, and that whatever I wrote then was as much me as what I am writing now, even if I cannot remember it.