this is a paean for ordinary moments of light

The loneliest time of my life was when I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I had gone abroad with the vague and romantic notions one has about living in a foreign country where anonymity is supposed to be met with serendipity. Feeling unsettled is as physical as it is metaphysical. It is much easier, of course, to believe that our discontent is caused by tangible problems we can solve—and so every next horizon you move towards is Arcadia until you get there. Every city in your future is one terrace higher until you realize you’re climbing the mount of purgatory. The abstraction of the people you’ll meet and the places you’ll be—the self-satisfying and perhaps desperate idealization of a better future—is dangerous. The ideal that is never realized, that is always out of reach, is a betrayal to self, a recurring, insoluble disappointment.

I lived in a dark, windowless room that had only a sliver of a pathway to move through. In the morning I smothered myself with a pillow to block out the fighting screams of Paola and Leo, which was frightening at first, but for the sake of self-preservation, I came to believe that’s what Italians did—express themselves with passion that could be mistaken for fury. Even as my Italian neared fluency, I existed as a stranger in their house. The Cappios would come home from work—Leo was a train conductor, Paola a kindergarten teacher—turn on the TV, and sit at the dining table for hours, with frozen pizza, canned tuna, hot dogs with mayonnaise, and cellophane-wrapped cornetti, among other drab and depressing fare.

I remember this time distinctly as a counterpoint—a time I never want to return to. My melancholy existence clarified the forms of nourishment my soul requires, as well as the things that were merely false idols—wayward romantic notions of fulfillment. As the latter category grew, so my notions of the ‘the good life’ dissolved. Growing up requires this dissolution. Maturity, it seems, is letting go your false ideals of what constitutes goodness, joy, and meaning; sometimes letting go is not enough; sometimes these ideals are erased by their impossibility; absence and negative space are epiphanies of their own. Living abroad, in the land of Italian men and good food (not in my household) and the most incredible art and olive oil, gave me little joy in the absence of community. Majestic churches and azure waters, smoked mozzarella and supple leather, were little consolation for an empty spiritual life. I was looking for all the wrong things.

I write about this time in my life to help myself understand why I am so in love with my community now. The contrast of darker times brings my current friendships and rhythms into relief. All of this is sentimental, I cannot help it. Sometimes sentimentality is a byproduct of gratitude, the overwhelm of abundance, a gift of grace, not of my own doing. I have little to boast about, for I know how fleeting and how fragile relationships can be. One day a solid communion—only joy and purity and the feeling of eternity—and the next, all gone, people leaving, people changing.

But if I were to tell you how joy has punctuated my life, I would tell you (head buried in the most saccharine nostalgia) of the fires that burned in the wake of communion with the people I love. There is nothing subtle, nuanced, or complex about any of this. These fires have blazed, not in embers but in the wild; not sparks over kindling but in revelatory floods. I cannot temper the simple and child-like joy of sitting around a table with people I love, celebrating our lives together, filling our bodies and our souls; indefensible against our excessive appetites and our over-sized hearts. I have put off writing about what gives me so much life and vigor for fear that I would trivialize joy; that this love letter I daily compose in my head would be so achingly cloying that you would think I have no grief in my life, no capacity for deep sorrows, no recognition of brokenness. My own soaring joy scares me even as it spills over. I swallow it back down lest my joy is robbed from me. See, I can only talk around it; I admit, I am swimming in sentimentality.

On Tuesday evening, there were peaches, honeycomb, truffled cheese, bread, homemade plum and peach jam; sweet harissa carrots on a bed of basil, mushroom risotto dotted with peas, golden cauliflower steaks lined up on a tray, piles of red and green vegetables shimmering in a wooden nest. The west-facing sun beamed its harsh light through the windows, casting our bodies and faces into chiaroscuro. We sat down to eat, knowing that in the hours to come, we would not be searching for anything beyond what we had here; that our desires were not stretched beyond this table, but that we had found meaning in existing together, caring for one another, knowing each other, being in the folds of each other’s lives. I should not speak for everyone, but the feelings that moved me that night were so large that they felt communal, and were so large because they seemed to be experienced by everyone, collectively.

When we gather like this, we forget the abstract desires that grow out of what we think we don’t have, and we meet as we are. Time stops. Candles are lit and blown out; fires glow and then pass into darkness. The peril of joy is its transience, but that is not a good reason for not cherishing it, for remembering it.

In my sleep I am humming paeans to sanctify these ordinary moments of light. Winged joy surprised by its own flight, barreling through inevitable darkness.

Thank you God for this family of mine.


this is my daily toast

I have two homes in San Francisco, one in which I sleep and maintain a monastic silence; the other, which I go to, to escape the noise in my head that results from too much silence.

Luckily for me, the latter is one right, one left, and one more right turn away, a two-minute walk, or a 30 second scamper. I arrive often with a sigh. Or an exclamation, which is sometimes the same thing.

Crystal is usually behind the white kitchen counter, which is always remarkably pristine when she is behind it. Its ultra-clean blankness is particularly notable in contrast to mine, which is currently littered with: three books, not neatly stacked; one magazine, flipped open to the middle of an article; two cookbooks; my electricity bill; a tea cup stuffed with a bunch of cilantro, half of it snipped off—I'm keeping it hydrated; and a plate with crusty peanut butter remains. Tidiness is not a factor of self-sufficiency, but messiness can certainly reflect a lack thereof.

Today she is in the kitchen with a three-page letter in hand, a notebook with a bumper sticker that says “NO RAMEN NO LIFE,” and an open Mason jar filled halfway with an amber-colored liquid. When Jacob walks in later, he refers to it as a “healing potion” and asks if I need any, to which my heart says yes and my mouth says no.

“Jacob was feeling a little under the weather today,” Crystal says. 

The “healing potion” is a mint tea tonic laced with peach-chili jam, which was made in this very kitchen yesterday, after twelve hours of chopping, stewing, and sugaring many pounds of peaches. They are sipping this tea tonic slowly, prolonging its life with more hot water.

Jacob is scanning papers, an adequately monotonous task for this grey day, and I am staring out the window, my legs pulled up into my chest, while balancing precariously on a wooden stool.

“Jacob, you are a consolation to me,” I tell him.

“A constellation?” he says.

“A consolation, which is something that makes you feel better when you’re feeling bad,” I explain.

“I thought a consolation prize is what the loser gets,” he says.

“So that they feel better,” I say.

“I like constellation better,” he says.

“Ok, then you’re my constellation,” I concede.

Jacob and Crystal, in this house, on this day, are the perfect confluence of people in a place at a time. I feel small today, trivial, and they let me talk, and they ask questions, and they are witty, funny, and nourishing. They make no caustic remarks.

Later Crystal and I walk to Local Mission Market to buy some bread for the jam. We are both condiment people. While Crystal is deciding between the boules and baguettes, I stand silently in front of the bowl of olive bread samples, eating one doughy cube at a time.

“Bread makes everything better,” I tell Crystal. “I feel better when I’m eating bread.”

Back at the house, Crystal slices the bread and lubricates it with a stick of butter. She looks like she’s giving the bread a belly rub, which is how Crystal interacts with food—elegantly, easily, gently. I like watching Crystal move around the kitchen—always deliberately, never haphazardly—a true meditator. Sometimes she whistles and softly sings—always in a barely audible, quivering tone—while washing the dishes, or wiping down the counters, and I listen intently. Her demeanor is delicate, her mien beautiful. She is one of the most thoughtful people I know. I watch Crystal pour boiling water on a fork to clean it, and then she begins reorganizing her jars, as she often does, checking on the ingredients of each jar as if they were plants to be tended to, which makes sense, because she is a gardener.

“Mama Crystal,” Jacob and I joke. Mama Crystal, who takes care of us, who prepares two plates of toast strips, two corresponding bowls of jewel-toned jam. We eat.



this is the cry of the past

I've been digging through my old computer files, just looking around the way you would mementos in a shoebox--only digitally, which isn't nearly as exciting or transporting. But anyhow, I found this, which I wrote when I was 19, living in Florence, Italy. I remember I printed it out and gave it to my mom to read when I came home and she just cried. Oh how she cried.

My mom and I spent much of my high school years making each other cry. We did not fight daily, nor did I ever profess to hate her as many adolescents do, but we both recognized the tension between us that, if even gently poked or prodded, could erupt into a full-fledged battle of verbal assaults.

The funny thing about the tears that we caused each other to shed was that they were all easily forgotten after the bouts of fury had subsided. They were unlike tears of heartbreak or of mourning, the kinds of tears that are languorous and melancholy, that crescendo like rivers into floods and then slowly evaporate. Our tears were momentary downpours in which we opened and closed our floodgates swiftly and abruptly, and after the fact, we seemed to be amnesiacs to our moody exchanges. Even now, I cannot remember anything we fought or argued over. These tears were merely an extension of our anger, a release of frustration, an attempt to tell the other that she was uncomprehending or overreacting, but they were not tears of sadness.

Aside from these mother-daughter feuds, I rarely cried throughout my adolescence and often envied the girls who sat in the front row of movie theatres sobbing uncontrollably over the unraveling heartbreak onscreen. I mistook their sensitivity for empathy and thought myself cold-hearted for not being able to do the same. I once cried because I failed a physics quiz; another time over a boy who wanted to be my friend instead of my boyfriend; and another when I was lost in New York City on a rainy night. Before I was nineteen, I could count the number of times I had cried sad tears on one hand and could date each instance too.

During the fall of my third year in college, I decided to study abroad in Italy, and it was during this time that I learned how to cry. The easy explanation for this was that I adopted the expressiveness of the Italians I was living with, whose rage, sadness, and joy all seemed to be completely unrestrained at all hours of the day and were fully conveyed in loud voices and wild gestures. Maybe living with them rubbed off on me, but I do not think that this explanation accounted fully for my newfound tears.

The tears that I cried during my time in Europe were of many types. Sometimes I cried because I was tired and lonely, other times because I was homesick. These tears made sense to me, but there were other tears that I did not understand at all. I remember stepping into St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, looking up at the gilded ceiling of the apse, which was decorated with winged angels, and suddenly feeling a sensation snaking up my body from my toes into the hairs of my arms. For a brief moment, my body felt like a strange separate entity; I was holding my breath, and I felt water welling up in my eyes, which surprised and embarrassed me at the same time. I tried not to blink and kept my head tilted upwards, hoping that the tears might drain back into my eyeballs instead of rolling down my cheeks, but my sad attempt failed, and there I was, standing in St. Paul’s, slobbering like a fool for no particular reason at all.

Maybe it was the beauty of the places I visited that overwhelmed me, or perhaps I was just becoming more emotional. The first time I ever saw the Fiume Arno in Florence was at 6 am, when the sun was just barely peering above the orange and green Tuscan hills, and the water, usually brown and murky, was gleaming from the light of dawn. The moment I looked down the river and saw how the warm hues of the run-down buildings on the edge coalesced so perfectly with the rhythm of the bridges and arches and running water, I realized with disbelief that I had arrived in Italy and that I was six thousand miles from home, on a continent I had so often thought about and imagined and now could finally be breathed and grasped. This simple realization hit me with so much gravity that I cried. These were the first tears I shed in Italy.

My mom came to visit me in Florence in November. This was towards the end of the program at a time when novelty was becoming tiring and I was desperately craving familiarity. For the few weeks prior to the visit, I had called my mom crying numerous times—tears which had no specific triggers but could probably be attributed to a combination of boredom, coldness, and homesickness. My mom and I had agreed to meet at the hotel she was staying at. I checked in for her prior to her arrival and sat in the room waiting for her. After an hour or so had passed by, I finally heard a knock on the door and opened it. My mom was standing outside, and before we greeted each other, we busied ourselves with her luggage—she had two bulky suitcases in tow—pulling them into the room and finding a space for them in the room closet. When that was done, we finally turned to each other and hugged. But for the first time in our lives, we did not let go of each other right away. Instead, I think our tears kept us in that embrace—because I was crying and so was she, and even when we both meant to pull away, we came together again. It was a new and strange experience for me—because my mom and I had never cried together before. We had each individually cried our tears of anger and sadness whenever we had previously fought, but we had never cried these tears of solidarity, tears that did not need a prompt or a trigger. This was a moment in which crying was an act of togetherness, an act of mutual understanding, and I was not ashamed of our tears.

Growing up, my mom used to tell me stories of how much I cried as an infant. I was a colicky, inconsolable baby who cried in every unfamiliar environment and in the presence of any stranger. During my first year, my mom slept little, spending hours cradling me in her arms as I wailed and screamed without pause. In her frustration, my mom would cry along with me until we both fell asleep, tired from our own tears. I remembered these stories during my mom’s visit to Florence because we spent so much time crying together, which was a new and intimate experience for the both of us.  On the night before she left, I lay in bed next to her, pretending to sleep but crying softly, hoping she would not notice. She did and began stroking my hair, wiping the tears off my cheek with her fingers. Twenty years after we had first cried together, here we were again, sharing tears that would dry up soon but were made significant by the reason for their existence. She was the mother again, I the infant.

I would like to think that living in Europe made me a more sentient being. Despite the bashfulness my tears often cause me, when I am easily affected by the world around me, I feel more human and more able to connect with other humans. I used to think tears had to be rational—that there had to be a legitimate reason for crying. Now I see that my tears are merely an emotive extension of my being. They tell me that I am here and present, that I am living, and that I am feeling.

My mom and I at the top of the duomo in Firenze.

this is recent

These are pieces I've published in the past couple of months:

Freunde von Freunden / Cass Calder Smith
On the way to work today, I was listening to an interview with the writer Jeanne Marie-Laskas, and she talked about an early profile she did of Tom Cruise, when he was filming Days of Thunder. She only vaguely knew who Tom Cruise was at the time, but because she didn't know much about him, she was able to ask the questions that mattered, the questions about who he was and not about the tangential things that surrounded him. She explained that if you're talking to a football player and you don't know anything about football, you're not going to ask about stats and games and strategies, which is all a kind of noise anyway. This is how I felt about interviewing Cass on his rooftop in Telegraph Hill. I didn't know anything about him beforehand, and I don't know much about architecture either, but the more I talked to him, the more I realized that the most interesting parts of his story were not the things that he built, but the relationships that formed him and the places he had lived--like a commune in Woodside, and Studio 54-era New York City. I loved hearing him talk about his father, Howard Smith, who was a journalist and radio personality. Cass compiled over 100 of these interviews into The Smith Tapes.

Reality SF blog / "Wisdom: Our Bodies"
One of the most memorable affirmations I have ever received came from my friend Jasper, who replied to my New Years' letter saying,"I wonder if maybe yours is less an artistic temperament than a mystical one" -- and I do believe that I feel most alive when I'm writing about matters of the soul, matters of spiritual mystery, making sense of who I am by investigating not just tangible things but their resonances and rhythms. I've arrived at a place where I can talk about my struggles with my body without shame -- those bodily struggles are more than bodily struggles. They are a reflection of the psyche and the soul, and so, at some level, when I talk about the body I am talking about much more, but the body is a place to start.

The Slope / "The Art of Wandering"
Wandering. Most of the time, it feels like I am wandering, which means I do not know what direction I am going. A lot of times it means I don't even know where I am, or where my mind is, or what my heart wants exactly, so Hall Newbegin's talk about wandering made sense to me, not just as applying to entrepreneurship, but as it applies to living through moments of everyday.


this is hiraeth

My friend Pili moved back to Argentina last week after a six-year sojourn in the United States. She stayed with me for her last few days in San Francisco and left behind a polka-dotted watering can, an abnormally large pink sombrero that she bought at a reggae festival, and a double-gallon Ziploc bag, filled with chocolate and Skittles.

On the night of her going away party, at least fifty people showed up at a bar to bid her farewell. By midnight most people had left, but all the men who thought they loved her—there are many—stayed, like moths around a light. They wanted the last goodbye, a sweet memory to remedy a bitter departure. But none of them got the goodbye they wanted. A wave, a peck on the cheek, a see-you-later- maybe. Planned goodbyes are anti-climactic and wearying. Life continues on, maybe with a little less joy for awhile, and then you forget that the goodbye happened. Elsewhere becomes a fact, no longer a lament.

The “no longer” is tragic. I cried when I read this passage from Roger Angell’s reflections on old age. Here he writes about the aftermath of his wife’s death: “Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.” Then it stopped—then the haunting, the echo stopped. Absence set in.

Two hours before her flight, Pili locked herself out of my apartment, a casual lapse in consciousness, and I, of course, entertained thoughts of what it would be like if Pili stayed in the US. We would drink more coffee together and look at picture-texts of strange tattoos belonging to men she had met online, go to Portland on a whim, eat steak. There were things about me only she understood.

Even a non-death loss feels like a death, a lower-rung death in the levels of deaths you might suffer, but losing the assurance of physical closeness, while not as painful as losing a total physical existence, is enough to stoke the loneliness of a soul, the deja-vu of melancholia.

I feel anchored to this city in a way most people probably do not; I have no desire to live elsewhere (this does not preclude a constant itch to travel), and I see my future here, even if it makes no logical sense, even if living in this city seems unbearable and unfruitful. The way I see it now, leaving is not an option, but I know for most everyone around me—it is a possibility, if not very likely.

I feel the faint and shadowy premonitions of the ordinary tragedies I will suffer when friends leave, move away, and make homes in other places, other cities. I am anxious, resigned to these losses.

Last week I was walking down Harrison Street on the phone with Shannon, lamenting the fact that I could not find a man who feels like home, at least not one I could seriously date. Later she texted me this: “HIRAETH—welsh—(HEER-eyeth)—(n). a homesickness to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the grief, the yearning for the lost places of your past.” Hiraeth, is similar to the Portuguese word saudade, is not a homesickness that can be remedied; the very concept suggests impossibility. “To feel hiraeth is to experience a deep sense of incompleteness tinged with longing,” reads one explanation of the word. It is a feeling of foreignness everywhere you go. It is place-less.

In solitude, I feel hiraeth most palpably; I feel like an alien here on earth, and I know I will not find a home, or constancy, or security, or ageless comfort, or eternity—all the things I want in a home—before I die, but even knowing that, the desire for home is not softened, or tempered.

I have many homes: the home of my parents, the home that is every place I have lived, the home that is San Francisco, the home that is my church, the home that is my community here. Most days it feels like I am living in a small village where I feel connected to everyone and everything, and yet the hiraeth is unbroken, the deeper longing that is native to my consciousness.

The hubris of my perceived independence convinces me that I don’t need people, and yet I feel absence so acutely, which maybe contradicts the self-perception. Crystal’s gone right now. My mom’s out of the country. I don’t see Shannon as much as I would like. I feel absence as a homesickness, as a sadness for something of the past, or something out of my reach, and I feel absence as an awareness of self—an awareness of my human parts, a sense that things are not as they should be.

This week was confusing. This week a lot of friends suffered grief. There’s no answer to that here or now, at least not one I can stomach contentedly. We’ll get hungry again. The tide always turns.

Roger Angell writes, “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love,” and I believe that—the surprise especially. I believe I will be surprised by my own yearnings—by the deep and all-consuming stir of desire—for a time when I won't have to say any more goodbyes or wait in expectation of a foreboding loss, when intimacy is perfected, when my friends and lovers will never leave.