I'm fortunate that I'll be on sabbatical in the fall. As a result, I've taken two drastic actions.
1) I died my hair blue. Well, technically, just a swath of my hair is blue, but it was still something I probably wouldn't do during the regular school year.
2) I've moved back to Oslo. I'll be here on and off for a few months, escaping the heat, enjoying an urban environment, reconnecting with friends, studying Norwegian, and working on my project with very few distractions.
Although I've been back in Norway several times since living here, it feels different this time around. I suppose one of the differences is that most of my friends are on holiday for the month of July which means that I've been left to my own devices, to some extent. I've been reading a lot and started creating my sabbatical website today (I'll be working on a digital humanities project)--but every day, I make sure to take long walks, exploring both the immediate neighborhood and other parts of the city.
Today, my walk was incredible. I worked most of the day, so this evening, I decided to retrace my favorite walk from when I lived here: down Drammensveien and then along the fjord. However, when I got to the part of my walk where I usually turn back towards Aker Brygge, I decided instead to keep walking on Bygdøy peninsula, taking a path along the shore, then venturing into the more rural landscape complete with cow pastures. It was incredibly beautiful and I felt some regret that I hadn't taken these paths before.
I've been re-reading Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir about her early years in New York when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were growing into a sense of themselves as artists. The insecurity of that process strikes a chord with me-the idea of not being sure who you are or where you are headed. We don't always know where our choices will lead us--but that shouldn't lead us to entropy, should it? The memoir reminds me that art often comes from doubt, that the artist wills herself into existence.
Life is so unpredictable. We are capable of transformation at any moment. I love this passage from a Mary Oliver poem, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
Sometimes, we assign questions like that to the young. . . but I've been thinking about how--no matter what age we are--that question still applies. We still have choices about what we will do with the rest of our lives, no matter how many years remain.
My spring break is going by way too fast. I'm writing, reading, cooking, and enjoying the beauty of Fresno in the spring. My wisteria is just about to burst into bloom, the seeds I planted are starting to sprout, and all is right in my world.
Last Sunday, I had a perfect day. I wrote all morning--7 pages of an article I hope to finish by early May. I was in a city that I love doing things that I love; I ate good food, shopped, walked forever, saw a movie, and ate more good food. In the movie, Ginger and Rosa, there's a line that describes how I felt. A young girl, Ginger, returns home late and her mother asks angrily where she's been. Ginger replies dreamily, "We were just roving about, being free." Of course, the movie complicates that line, but I'll save the serious for another post.
Yesterday: different city, activities, circumstances--but still that same feeling of freedom. I rode my bike to a friend's house--and then we biked downtown and met another friend to talk all afternoon. Our conversation moved from books, to music, to writing. And my friends gave me ideas about where to move next with a project that has been teasing at me since last summer. I want my summer to be like these past few days, full of the freedom of exploring ideas in many different forms.
And then I went home and made recipe #2 of my cooking with Janet week: french onion soup. It took 90 minutes for the onions to cook down, so I stirred and listened to my friend's radio show before finally eating a fantastic bowl of soup.
I am endlessly fascinated with dystopian visions of the future. I just finished reading two novels by Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake and its sequel The Year of the Flood. Of course, Atwood is a master of this genre, authoring such dark novels as The Handmaid's Tale (which I couldn't put down when I read it "for fun" while in graduate school). In these novels, I find visions of the future that seem possible to me--the disintegration of society, the ubiquitous and malevolent influence of media and consumer culture, the "dumbward" spiral of humanity. Others may get hooked on futuristic visions of war and Battlestar Galactica style-conflict, but me? Give me the hopelessness of a broken world in which humanity struggles blindly to retain and revive its ideals.
In trying to identify what it is about these texts that so enthralls me, I've come up with a couple of things. First, I think that these texts reveal characters in unimaginable situations who must make difficult decisions--and that these decisions often reveal something about the self that these characters never knew before. Do any of us really know what we'd do if we were starving with no end in sight? Would we share what we have with others? Would we hide ourselves from view, selfishly eating whatever food we did find? I'd like to think that I'd be generous--to be honest, I'd like to think that I could continue to desire life even in such difficult situations. But do I really know how I'd respond? Do I really know what I'm capable of?
I think I'm also fascinated by these texts because they illustrate the classic good vs. evil conflict. In some cases, that conflict is internal, but in other versions, a pocket of heroic people fight whatever evil power has taken over the world (be it the dark majority, a lethal virus, evil institutions, etc.). In these dystopias, there is still hope--and the two sides are finely delineated. I'm drawn to the clarity of these visions--it's easy to root against zombies because they don't have consciousness, they aren't "human."
I don't want life to be this hard, but sometimes I do wish that it were this clear.
This morning, my friend Doug posted an article on Facebook--it was intended for our mutual friend Esther, a native of the Netherlands, who just returned from spending a month there. The article, "The Dutch Way: Bicycles and Fresh Bread," discusses differences between American and Dutch culture, emphasizing how respect for bicycles and bicyclists are inherent in such everyday practices as how one opens a car door (by reaching across the body with one's right hand, which also allows the driver to look behind before opening the door).
The article uses the phrase in my title, "a preference for simplicity," to point out the deeply embedded cultural differences between the U.S. and the Netherlands. It made me ponder what my life would look like if I tried to shift my everyday practices towards simplicity. Since the article uses food and transportation as its basis, these are also the areas of my life that I'm considering. In the area of food, I tend not to cook--I buy a lot of prepared foods which involve too much packaging. This is an area in which even a little change would have a lot of impact. Right now, I'm cooking more because I have more time--so I need to think about how I can continue this practice when my life gets more stressful. I do have an herb garden and some sorrel growing in pots in my backyard--and there are plans in the works to get some raised beds in my yard.
As for transportation, although I don't even have a bike anymore, I think I do okay with this. In fact, I blogged about this same issue a few years ago and have made some changes in my life. I drive a Prius, I tend to run errands in groups (i.e., go to the grocery store after my gym workout and group my visits to one geographical location), I try to work at home when I can, I'm one of the few people in Fresno who walks from one store to the next in the outdoor malls instead of driving, and I really like walking when I can. I'm sure there are still small improvements I could make, though. I'm going to have to think about that--and about what other areas of my life could be shifted towards simplicity.
My kitchen range had to go. The oven was caked with a black slick that wouldn't dissolve, no matter how much I tried to clean it off. The warming oven didn't work, and I could only use two of the burners. Although it had the charm of a much older range, it just wasn't working properly.
It seemed like a perfect space for a new gas range, but I learned that it would have cost a whole lot of money to pipe gas to the right place . . . so I went with a big electric range.
Yesterday on Twitter, someone tweeted something that I've been thinking about all day: "conversation is not a competition." I'm probably overly conscious of the ways that we can monopolize a conversation, transforming a conversation into a monologue. This comment, though, made me think about the important role of listening in conversations, especially since it was made within the context of thinking about the value of the "pause." Lately, I've been wondering if I really listen or if I just "perform" listening by nodding my head, making eye contact, and saying "uh huh" periodically to indicate my attention. Too often, I think, we use the time that someone is talking to formulate what we want to say instead of really listening.
Today in a group discussion I decided to try to focus on listening. Here's what happened: the conversation moved in directions I didn't anticipate. There were a lot of things I was thinking that didn't make it into the conversation since other people changed the course away from the topic that I was still considering. At the end of the conversation, there was a lot that I wanted to write about.
So I'm left with this question. Do I engage in conversation to share my ideas or do I value more the opportunity to learn from others?
One could argue that I need to practice the ability to listen and formulate my response more quickly (in those brief instances between comments). One could also argue that it might be a good thing to continue thinking about ideas after a conversation is over. Perhaps developing good listening skills could lead to better/more writing and a deeper understanding of a topic. I'm going to keep pondering this as I practice listening.
Spoiler Alert: Do not read further if you actually want to the see the irritating Black Swan.
I've been thinking today about autobiographical screenplays I could write. I started with the title Middle Aged Geek a narrative chronicling my movement from technological ignorance (think Natalie Portman as simpering, foolish White Swan) to competency (powerful Black Swan-like performance which, I hope, will not lead to an early demise). Or maybe I should write Cyberstalker, a noir thriller in which I'd gradually go crazy (yes, think Black Swan again) because of my paralyzing devotion to google. Or how about Intellectual Dilettante, a mannered, pretentious film (you know, like Black Swan) in which Natalie Portman (playing me) would submerge herself in a long, long string of ever changing academic pursuits punctuated by one scene in which she lets loose and actually lives life.
I have no point in this post, although I have to admit that Black Swan did give me a lot to think about--and I really did love that amazing Black Swan scene . . . I need a scene like that in my screenplay, Emerging from Seclusion, the story of how I re-integrated back into life after secluding myself because of a crushing disappointment.
During the 2009-10 school year, I decided to try something new every month. I really enjoyed the attitude that created in me, the idea that I could stretch, push, expand my horizons and that there were still many things in life that I wanted to try.
But over the last few months, I've floundered a bit. I've been overwhelmingly busy now that I'm coordinating the English credential program again. That job creates a great deal of stress in my life, I guess because I want to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that our English Education majors feel like they get good advising. I think I've still been trying new things, but I haven't been feeling the same expansion that I felt last year.
So yesterday, I realized what my next year should focus on. It's actually quite similar to the "try new things" year, only this time, I really want to challenge the negative thinking that holds me back from creating new structures and new ways of doing things. I'm going to challenge myself to think "why not" instead of caving to the idea that things are unchangeable. A lot of this will have to do with my job. For example, I plan to create podcasts related to advising. I'm going to invite learning directors at schools to attend our new master teacher meeting, as a way to try to help them understand what our vision for student teaching is. I plan to regularly force myself to think about other ways things could be done.
Although much of the work I want to do over the next year is related to my job, I hope that attitude will spill over to my every day life as well. I want to re-think how I relate to the world and try to transform how I live every day.
This feels really ambitious; I know that real change takes time. I'm thinking this endeavor won't result in the easy-to-measure listing of the one new thing I did each month. Still, I'm excited to see what effect this has on my life. Great or small, it doesn't really matter to me, as long as I'm challenging myself to be open to new structures and ways of doing things.