this is why you should laugh at yourself

"No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stop in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of snow coming down. The fall of roofs and high buildings is treated with some gravity. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified."

-G.K. Chesterton


I screamed, and then went completely silent.

Charley later told me that that the silence gave it away. Had I made a sound, the scream would have most likely been a joke, followed by laughter. But the scream itself was the eruption, or interruption, and nothing came after it.

In one swift second, my foot had gotten stuck between the car tire and the sidewalk: a total fluke of a moment, in which two forces pulled in separate directions, unknowingly. Luke was still operating a moving vehicle; I, unaware, tried to get out of the car. As I stepped out, my foot wedged itself, literally, between a rock and a hard place, he backed his car closer to the sidewalk, and the back tire dug further into my foot, squeezing it into a chokehold.

I screamed.

Charley ran around to the back of the car as I stared down at my foot, bewildered, shell-shocked, teeth sinking into lip, trying to swallow my tears, fearing that if I let out even one drop, my entire face would shatter, a bed sheet of ice floating precariously above black water.

I couldn't feel my foot anymore--how amazing our bodies are at blocking our suffering--and yet, the sudden, unexpected bolt of pain left me mute, dumb, and frozen.

Kneeling on the sidewalk, Charley gently took off my shoe, an Adidas high top with gold zippers, now scuffed. Luke hovered above, looking distressed, afraid, as anyone would be, of having injured a friend. Later, he recounted how terrified he was as Charley untied the shoe, hoping for something less than a post-traumatic monstrosity, a mere remnant of a foot, dangling phalanges.

Luckily, my foot was intact: a puffy and swollen heel and a tender ankle, but it still looked like a foot. It could have been a lot worse.

Luke apologized profusely, surely as shell-shocked as me, if not more--not by the bodily pain of physical injury, but by the affliction of guilt, which is a horrible injury one thrusts upon himself, like an explosive and grating act of self-mutilation. Like wishing that by rubbing salt into our own wounds, we’d heal the open wounds of those around us.

First stunned and helpless, then fumbling for words, Luke turned to the surest salve that he had, which was humor. I don't remember the jokes that he tried to crack. After all, it's not the jokes that matter, these incoherent words that tumbled out of our mouths as we were frantic, panicked, and unsettled. The jokes probably weren't even that funny, but we all tried to contort our mouths into smiles and laugh anyway, because it was the only relief that we could find at the moment.

I said I was okay, that I wanted to head into the party. I didn't want to sit here and try to figure out what to do with my ailing self. In pain, I wanted distraction. I wanted to move on immediately, escape the situation. This place we had descended into—this space of post-traumatic shock—felt like limbo.

Luke and Charley wouldn't let me walk, so they carried me to the party, my arms and legs split between the two of them like a great, big chair, hoisted in the air. I could only laugh at the absurdity of the situation, that on the evening of my twenty-third birthday, I was being paraded around like a helpless babe through these dark and quiet streets. Just ten minutes ago, we were driving up Divisadero listening to Zach Condon's travelling voice, which vibrated through the car, dark, somber, wistful, yearning and sweet--and now, now the vibrations had changed, and we were trying to make sense of this minor mishap. It was all going to be okay.

When we arrived at our friends' house for her holiday party, I stumbled in, trying to smile, trying to be okay. And yet, my body gave itself away.

"Natalie!" my friend Eileen exclaimed, greeting me by the door.

"H-h-hey," I stuttered back, my eyes glassy, glazed over. I had no words.

"Have you been drinking?" she asked, which I hadn't. I never do.

"No," I shot back, but that's all I could say, and when I couldn't manage another word, Eileen pulled me outside, and then into a bedroom, where I lay for the rest of the night, icing my foot, leg propped up on a pillow. I cried, convulsing, not out of sadness, not even out of pain, but because it felt most natural, as if the tears could excavate the shock and the absurdity of everything that had happened.

By the end of the night, Luke and Charley had found me and spent the rest of the evening by my side, trying to make me laugh, slinging jokes meekly at one another, trying to find a way to soothe the sores of this strange night.

"I'm sorry I messed you up on your birthday," Luke said to me at one point.

“Don’t feel bad,” I told him. “I’ll remember this birthday forever. And I’m pretty sure this is a bonding moment.”


Sometimes, trying to find the comedy in a mishap feels a little bit like picking up marbles with oil-slicked fingers, or trying to rescue trinkets and tchotchkes from swirling flames. Sometimes, it's a compulsion, like the mischief of scaring a flock of pigeons, or touching all the dusty surfaces of antique porcelains in a museum.

I remember one time in high school, I saw a classmate frantically weaving in and out of the hallway crowd trying to get to his next class, and as he was running, a classroom door abruptly opened and slammed him squarely in the face, banging his forehead so hard it rung, so hard that his glasses fell off. I saw this and burst out in cackling laughter, roaring at the top of my lungs, as if this were all slapstick comedy, which it may as well have been. Moments later, I was appalled at my own reaction, this sadist in me suddenly making itself known. Whether it was his haplessness or my helplessness, my first instinct was to laugh.

Mark Twain said, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow.” Comedy arises out of our awareness that something is not as it should be. The injustice and sadness and brokenness around us demands that we respond with an awareness of those very incongruities, and that is what humor boils down to: interruptions, parodies, non-sequiturs, exaggerations, sarcasm—these are all ways of dealing with the incongruities in our lives. William Hazlitt says that we are the only creatures that can sense a real difference between the way things are and the way things should be, and that ability is both a blessing and a curse.

In Shakespearean tragedies, there is always a character whose role is to inject comic relief into the most somber scenes, when the rest of the characters are on the brink of tragedy. That is to say, levity can coexist with gravity—maybe it is even the way out of tragedy, a means of dealing, healing, and moving forward. Sometimes, in the wake of pain, our humor is morbid and inappropriate; sometimes it is a mere diversion; other times, it allows us to make hard-won connections with other people, or rationalize an unanticipated event, or find reason for a missed expectation, or vilify a scapegoat. Sometimes, it merely relieves tension; sometimes it eases the soul. It recognizes absurdity.

If we’re talking about tragedy, what happened on Sunday night was ultimately trivial. My foot is fine. In fact, what seemed like a small misfortune wasn’t really one after all. On the night of my twenty-third birthday, I lay in bed, surrounded by funny and loving friends, who tended to me by singing, telling jokes, and bandaging my foot. They missed out on a party to stay by my side. I was privy to the kind of categorical compassion, strength, and kindness that glamour and comfort often preclude. In a moment of collective weakness—and yes, I think all of us struggled a little—our skins were peeled back, and a new dimension of our selves became known to one another. It was that part of ourselves that we normally hide: the self in pain, the self in discomfort, anxiety, worry, or stress; the self we call ugly; the self we’re afraid of; the disoriented self; the confused self. We hope that when these parts of us creep out—because they were always there anyway—that our friends will still see us as whole, even though we’re fragmented, and yes, we really are.

“You saw me cry tonight,” I told Luke, after we left the party. “And that means we’re really friends now.”

I heard someone once say, that the courage to laugh is absolutely necessary to the pursuit of liberty—and oh, how difficult it can be, to laugh. To not take myself—or my misery—too seriously, for my own sake, mostly, if not for the sake of those around me. I’m writing this as a homily to myself: If I had to dig my own grave, I'd choose to laugh while digging, rather than cry, because either way, I’m heading in the same direction—only, I’d rather spend more of my life laughing than crying. Sometimes, making fun of my misery makes it just a little more bearable than wallowing in it.

And sometimes, when the people you love come along for the ride, and their laughter and light help you see outside yourself, farther beyond than you could on your own, you’ll find that what you thought was a tragedy may not have been so tragic after all.


this is tree pneumatika

Inspired by a conversation about carpentry and a sermon I heard at church about resurrection, I wrote this poem on the BART, on the way to work last Monday 12/9. I typed it up at work at lunchtime. I haven't written poetry in a long time, but this one felt natural and easy, like a wind that gently blew out of my body and into words.

pneuma is an ancient Greek word for breath, a person’s vital, spirit, soul, and psyche. 
pneuma is “air in motion, breath, and wind.”

pneumatika is the expression of the Spirit, the Spirit that breathes life.

t r e e   p n e u m a t i k a

You could say a tree has one thousand lives,
or one thousand years before it dies,
or one thousand ways to be made into something new.
Maybe it has just one: one soul,
one thought of where it will go,
one prayer spanning endless time,
one perfect breath beginning where it will end,
dwelling in a body that cannot contain itself,
strength not in how well it stands
or how wide it grows,
but in how it resurrects new bodies, in new places,
in wisdom, here on earth, and in the sky.
Here is the seed that flew out from under its own,
sprinkled like ashes in this cremation grove.
How did it arrive
and where did it come from?
The fluke of fallen fruit, the whim of whispering winds.
It makes a bed of the earth,
and in the secret of time and grace,
awakens from the ground, inspired divinity.
How it grows upward, not forward,
looks, moves towards heaven.
It is the closest thing to a celestial body here on earth:
its remembering roots say ‘I am here on earth.’
When one day it falls,
there is no mourning.
Only a silence where it once stood.
Its sinews soften, sallow, sunken in,
every posture a stillness.
One day it is made into something new:
its wrinkles a maker’s mark,
in our hands, a remnant of glory,
no longer fallen, but an orphan we steward,
a breath we once breathed in, we now breathe into,
came from the ground, grew, rose, and died.
Now risen again.
Age no more; grief, a witness; joy it quietly bears.
Neither slumber nor nostalgia changes course.
Here a table, there a chair.
Here we feast upon its naked core.
Once a seed, now a feat.
Here we coax music out of its heart.

The silent timbre of its divined death
stood ringing humbly in a holy breath.

NJS 12.09.13


this is the riddle of friendship

In the fourth grade, my best friend and I bought matching Christmas outfits from the Gap: red, long-sleeved shirts, red fleece zip-up vests with leopard fur-lined hoods, and stretchy black bell bottoms. Not just ordinary pants: the seams were dotted with tiny, fake rhinestones.

At that age, I had no desire to be unique. Unique meant different, which meant alienation and loneliness--it meant you had no friends, that you existed without allies, which was a terrifying thought. Your identity at school was determined first and foremost by who your friends were; your membership to a friend group classified you in the genus and species of the elementary school landscape: jock, popular, nerd.


In fact, friendships were ways of togetherness, of saying, we don’t exist alone in the world. Our matching outfits loudly proclaimed to the world that we were bound together, even if by bad taste and little fashion sense. As with friendship bracelets or hair wraps or code names, we paraded through the school hallways in our red hooded get-ups, assured by these external markers that our relationship did actually exist--and in the process, trying to assure everyone else that yes this was a fact. Mainly it was to make ourselves feel better though.

These token rituals of friendship persist, even as we age. These tokens assure us of our togetherness as much as they isolate, or protect ourselves from the rest of the world. We become more reluctant to wear matching outfits as adults because we’re aware of its loudness; how doing so forthrightly proclaims an existence apart from the world, and most of us are trying to integrate into it, or do our best to be a part of it, and we want intimate relationships and we want secret friendships, but then again, we don’t want to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We want everything.

Our tokens and rituals of friendship become more subtle, perhaps, or we might forgo them completely as our perceptions of self-identity branch out, change, and spread thinner; no longer are our identities merely in friendships, but in the work we do, the brands we flaunt, the hobbies we take on, the beliefs that seize us and convict us; and so many of us see those identities in flux, always in a precarious balance, or not.

You see, the most intimate friendships close as many doors as they open. You bind yourself to another person, and you remove yourselves, together, from the rest of the world.

In college, my best friend and I regularly walked to a pie shop on a small neighborhood street. It was hidden underneath old signage which still referred to its past life as an Italian deli. The paint was peeling on the outside, and inside the tables and floorboards were dusty, bare, unvarnished wood. We perfunctorily procured coffee and pastries, and spent mornings and afternoons there giving each other language lessons in the languages we each possessed separately but did not share (we only shared English). We tried to give each other words that the other did not have, expanding both the breadth and depth of our communication, for the nuances of every language also determine its speaker's ways of being and believing. With more words to interchange, we could share more feelings; more languages meant more significance, more ways to express the things we wanted to say, even though I know now how delicate and weighty the silences were too, like recesses in a cathedral wall. I traded her my Spanish and Mandarin for her Swahili and French. We named each other, as if we were initiating ourselves into the tribe of our friendship. Years later, writing the names elsewhere, except to each other, still feels blasphemous, so I won’t write them here, but I’ll say what they meant:

Her name was a combination of Spanish and Swahili and translated to “sweet honey,” like the color of her hair, like the jar of honey she carried back for me from Tigray, Ethiopia, wrapped in her own handwritten label, sticky and worn from the long ride. My name was French and Swahili, meaning “fierce sun in the sky.” We never called ourselves these names out loud, but like Navajo names, which are only used ceremonially to preserve their power, significance, and sanctity, we only used our names in the letters we wrote to each other, or on the CDs we burned for each other, or on the index cards we traded each other, with quotes and lyrics and verses on them--I always carried those in my backpack. These were our own little ceremonies.

Every name, in the Sioux naming system, has a separate significance: birth order, honor, special deed, spirit names. Our names, known only to ourselves and used only with each other, were markers in the lineage of our friendship: a declaration that we had our own language, which wasn’t one that existed already. We created our own, even if that meant taking what we already knew and turning it into something that was ours alone.

In these exchanges, in these signals and gestures and rituals, friendships seem immortal, and somehow, they are, even across distances and time and shifting spaces. Even when you haven’t talked in years. Despite this immortality (once a kinship comes into being, it will never cease to exist), the landscape of friendship is nevertheless eroded or built up; it is always changing. A landscape never dies, but winds and water will sand and smooth and wear a place down; or seeds will be sown and then they will grow and blossom and wither away.

A friend catches an unlikely glimpse of your soul, and it is that specific knowledge of some specific part of who you are at such a specific time in your life that seems more indestructible than our mortal bodies. No one else knew you better, maybe not even yourself.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.

This was the song we listened to and shared the first time we met. How surprised and delighted we were to find another with the same longing. No, we did not just want ephemeral, material beauty, or the enchantments of this earth, which are so easy to fall in love with. We wanted eternal, immortal beauty, the kind that is steadfast and sometimes subtle, the kind that delights in the trivial and the ordinary and in the nothings that seem not to matter. You see, ultimately, friendships are quiet harbors, not always thrilling or stomach-churning like the surging crests of romance; they are the hand-holding, not the kissing; the hammock, not the swing. The best and truest ones keep your heart safe, while making your heart bigger and more spacious, for more beauty, for more God; they are most specific in their knowledge and habits and gestures; they're life nets for insanity, and they're rich, sweetly satisfying loves that linger long, ideally, unconditionally.

This post is now also on Medium.