Sunday, January 1, 2012

Catching Breath

In the last month of the last year, ill health forced me to take a long absence from my writing projects—except for journal writing, the only kind that didn't require too much in the way of editing or paying attention.

For three entire weeks in December, I was breathless; not the emotional-intellectual kind like in Godard's namesake film, but the literal, asthmatic kind.

One of my favorite memoirists, Louise DeSalvo, wrote a book called "Breathless", a wonderful diary-cum-intellectual analysis of what it means to have asthma (and what it meant to other writers who suffered from the disease, such as Proust, Bishop, Barnes). 
I cannot add much to her thorough insights, but I will state the obvious anyway: breathing is a gift we take too much for granted. Like the many everyday, common place things we fail to see, it is so banal yet so profound.

We only pay attention to breath if we are seriously into yoga, or meditation, and maybe sports (though I would argue that too many athletes perhaps misuse and abuse their lung capacity). But most of us are not serious students, observers, practitioners of breath. We just breathe as we go about our life: carelessly, unthinkingly, often in either too shallow or too labored a way, but we don't really pay attention to breath. As part of our Western culture collective delusion about the reality of death, we just think it's always going to be there.

And then one day you find yourself out of breath. The reality of it is overwhelming. No matter what fine tricks you try, the tricks you learned from your scant and scattered forays into the practice of yoga or meditation, you simply cannot push more air into your lungs—or out of them for that matter. The airways are constricted, the lungs just refuse to open up. The phrase "take a deep breath" is now only a metaphor, not something that can be taken literally anymore.

The lack of sufficient oxygen in your body translates into a lack of energy. You are utterly fatigued by the simplest everyday chores: getting in and out of bed, pulling on your clothes, fetching a glass of water; doing laundry, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the cats' litter box become grand enterprises totally out of your reach. Taking a shower is an almost impossible goal, and you go days without washing yourself. You can barely eat or drink water. You can do nothing without panting, without having to double over a counter trying to catch your breath back. You, usually so independent, need your husband's hand to get the morning cereal or a bowl out of the cupboard, and that makes you feel tired, irritable, and ever so helpless—helpless like a very young child that cannot do anything by itself.
Any action that before this condition would have been performed without a second thought, any insignificant movement now requires slow motion, concentration, unbearable effort. And more doubling over a counter to catch breath, for entire minutes that seem to last forever. 
Precious minutes, hours, days of your life are wasted in the constant effort to recover your breath—a shallow, labored breath that will allow you to survive. Your nights are spent hovering between shorts bouts of restless sleep and longer bouts of insomnia, while you toss turn in the bed trying to figure out which position can allow to maximize that tiny amount of air you can summon in and out of your body.
The rasp, sibilant noise of wheezing has become the soundtrack to your days.

Breath is energy: you now understand—no longer just philosophically or intellectually, but factually and literally—why in Eastern cultures the word for energy would also be equated with breath: Chinese Qi, Japanese Ki, Sanskrit Prana.

Three entire weeks of this ordeal, while I try all the natural remedies that have so far worked so well, in my nearly twenty years of having been diagnosed. And on day five of suffering I try the inhaler that has previously always helped to restore my breath during violent but infrequent asthma attacks. And finally I have to surrender, for the first time ever, to the poison of corticosteroids.

And the day before Christmas, I am able to breathe again. I've hated Christmas all my life, but this is probably my best Christmas ever: I am able to go out of the house, take a long walk, catch the bus, shop for food and a present for my husband—all without wheezing and panting and having to stop every few minutes in the street. 
Back home, I am also able to vacuum, do laundry, cuddle the cats, and to cook again. I make a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of seafood: penne with shrimp marinated in wine and saffron and then cooked with cherry tomatoes, Portuguese-style salt cod with potatoes and black olives.

And now that I've been able to breathe for days and days without giving it so much as a fleeting thought, I'm in danger of taking this for granted once again. Of forgetting to be grateful for the gift of breath, of energy, of vital force, of creative energy.
There was a lesson in all this suffering, and I must not relinquish it, I must keep it always present within me.

Yes, my new year's resolution is a very simple one: do not forget to breathe.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Have We Lost the Capacity to Observe?

This (now past) summer I was going to go to a Vipassana retreat. 
I was all booked up for August, but then my darling cat Billie got cancer and I didn't know how much time she had left, but I knew for sure I wasn't going away even for a day while she was still around. 
It was probably for the best as I'm not sure I would have been able to go through the experience of the retreat without freaking out: for a week, there would have been no privacy (you'd share a room and bathroom with another woman), no conversation (absolute silence except when asking a question of your teacher), hours and hours of meditation a day, and total contemplation even when not meditating: books and writing (and, needless to say, any other more technological medium) were forbidden.
I think this latter clause would have been the one to really freak me out: I can tolerate sharing a room for a week though it would not make me happy; I could tolerate the loneliness of silence because a lot of the time I spend many of my days like that; but no reading and no writing? I am not sure.

And then I think of all the people I see in the streets, at the supermarket, on the bus; people who shop and talk on the phone and text at the same time, people who sit on the bus thumbing their iPhone while listening to their iPod while maybe reading on their iPad or Kindle, people who nearly get killed crossing the street or driving because they are on text or cellphone, people who can barely pay attention while having a conversation with someone because they are also "talking" to (many a) someone else via Facebook...

What would all these people do at a Vipassana retreat? Die, go berserk, or maybe, finally, let go and allow the silence and the contemplation to penetrate into the innermost folds of their being?

I have often been a critic of these contemporary mores of ours, the excessive reliance on technology or "social media": the turning what should be a face-to-face into a Facebook conversation; the replacing of a letter with a text message, of a phone call with an email—and the misplaced idea that these media all equal each other, are all one and the same.
Not true.

But that is not what I want to write about, not again. I want to reflect on the very fact that reflection, observation, and contemplation,  may be lost or in-danger-of-extinction art forms, ways of being.

This is not news or an original though by any means—it just came to me more urgently and deeply a few days ago as I was shortcut-walking through the campus of Reed College here in Portland, to get somewhere for a job training. 
I walked across a bridge that spanned a beautiful pond, the trees all around turning into their Autumn color palette, the reflections in the pond water in many shades of green, gray-blue, azure. 
As the photographer that I once was, I mused on how difficult it would be for me to capture those hues, those reflections, and especially the peaceful, slightly eerie feel and look of the pond on film; I remembered the technical steps I may have to take in order to approximate on film, and then on photographic paper, what my eyes were seeing so quickly and easily.
 And then I thought, but today a photographer would not even need to actually see this, they would just make it up on the computer, in Photoshop. Or they would digitally combine several images into one, whereas I once had to spend hours in the darkroom to make a double exposure under the enlarger. 
And I thought how much has been lost because of this. 
It is not just that I bemoan (I do!) the replacing of film with video, of analog with digital. (And, on this subject, take a look at the British artist Tacita Dean's elegy for 16mm film. She has vowed never to use digital in her art, but what will she make films with in the future?)

My musings on Reed College's footbridge were more about a deeper sense of loss: the loss of our capacity, as a Western culture at large, and as humans in general perhaps, to observe, to contemplate, without distraction, without hurry, and with our utmost attention and focus.
Everywhere I look, everybody (including me, you could say, even now that I'm writing this, because I'm also half-listening to the Classical radio station) is "multi-tasking"; no one is deeply, intently, concentrating on one thing, and one thing alone.


Are we afraid of what we would discover about ourselves if we were to train our gaze and mind on one thing and one thing alone for a prolonged period of time, if we were to let go of all the distractions around us? Or are we afraid of what we would discover in the thing observed?
Are we afraid to find only emptiness at the bottom of it, or are we afraid to find too much, too many murky depths there instead?

Why can we never just sit and sit still and do nothing?

Why the hurry, why the constant chattering, the constant noise, the constant multiple engagements of our mind? 
Do we need to demonstrate to ourselves that we can, that we are better than animals who apparently can only focus on one task at a time? Has it really come to this?

I think about those photography students today who may never have to develop a roll of film, may never have to mix chemicals, may never have to spend many patient hours cooped up in a darkroom like some art vampires, to then emerge with the gift of a beautiful print... 
Most of all, they'll never even have to hunt for that Cartier-Bressonian "decisive moment", or that Ansel Adams-like obsession with the right light, the right composition in the viewfinder. They'll never stand in front of that pond for minutes, contemplating the eerie reflections, pondering the vermillion, ochre and russet in the tree leaves, and then take out their camera and aim for a picture. 
All this would require too much of their attention, too much of their introspection, perhaps. 
It would require them to switch off their cellphones, to disregard the urgent beep of a text or Facebook message, and surrender to the two worlds at hand: the one inside them, the one immediately in front of their eyes. 

I'm happy that writers still have to go deep inside themselves to find the world they aim to convey; they still need those capacities of observation and introspection and they still need the solitude (at least inner—though I can never understand those who can write in a coffee shop, I need my own house and silence all around me, preferably at night) to be able to write.

But I worry that all of us as humans are losing the capacity to observe and contemplate; and that, as artists in any medium, we are also at risk of losing our imagination.
Imagination is born partly of observation and contemplation, and also of limitations. As a photographer, I knew that not all images were possible to me as they are in painting, so I endeavored to recreate those that came into my mind within the confines of my chosen medium. In that process, new images and ideas were born.
Limitations are as nourishing to the imaginative mind as possibilities are, and I do not believe that the endless possibilities offered by Photoshop result in better, more imaginative, artistic creations.

I stood on that bridge for minutes, contemplating the eerie pond, the lovely hues in the trees and the water, while streams of students rushed to classes behind me, not one of them stopping even for one moment, not one of them even shooting a glance at the pond, because they (thought they had) seen it a million times before. But each time it was a different pond, with a different light. But what did it matter to them? They didn't need to observe those changes in light, they could just sit in front of a Mac in the art lab and create their own shade of light in a digital image. Yes, that is creative too, I am absolutely not discounting that.

But can we see how much we lose when we do not watch?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A brief post to announce my first (for a while) publication, an excerpt from my memoir in progress in the October issue of Hippocampus Magazine.

Gentle readers, I hope you will read it and share it and leave me a comment if you please...

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Bee, Today...

My blog lately came to a halt, first because of the aftermath of my beloved cat Billie's death (at the end of July); and then because of the weather. It's been so hot here (and long overdue!) that I've been wanting to do nothing other than sitting in my garden, in the shade, and admire the progressive blooming of my vegetables. Red and orange tomatoes, green and purple basil, yellow round cucumbers, white eggplants, deep violet chili peppers, and a multitude of fuchsias in all shades of pink and mauve are the colors in my otherwise very, very green garden.
Today, as I sat under the carport that has been set aside as our seating and BBQ area, I saw a bee alight on the pink and lilac flowers of a blouse that was hanging on my washing line.

So, a bee's memory can be fooled by bright colors that mimic real flowers; and our memory can also trick us with a sudden spark of color, a sudden burst of sound, a sudden issue of scent that bring us back to another place, another time.

In these days of summer heat, when scents are particularly salient in the air, and I've been living off the bounty of tomatoes and basil off my garden (all manners of pasta sauces hot and cold, cooked and raw; gazpacho; pesto galore) I've experienced food as memory in deep and powerful ways.

Gentle readers, you all know, of course, the oft-quoted proustian passage about the madeleine, which recounts the tricks that memory can play on our mind: one morsel of a taste long lost, and we are suddenly precipitated back into the past, a past we'd believed gone forever.

Indeed, since leaving Italy in 1984 I have been experiencing the almost obsessive recall of three distinct smells, that for me have always represented the quintessence of Naples (yes, I know, the cynics out there will want to add the smell of burning garbage to my proustian list, but I must assure you that what you read in the news is never the complete story).

Firstly, there is the smell of basil: the particular kind that here is in fact called Napoletano, and has tough, large, crinkly leaves of an emerald shade. This variety is not the most suitable for pesto (though it will do), being rather fibrous and a touch bitter if eaten raw.
But it is heavenly if a few shreds (ie. juliennes for all you culinary purists) are tossed into a caprese salad (if possible, made with the best mozzarella di bufala, and the ripest summer tomatoes); and it is wonderful to add to a tomato sauce because its big leaves do not disintegrate and retain some flavor even with the long cooking.
In Italy, you could buy this basil in large bunches at the greengrocer's, but if all you needed it for was your sauce or salad, they'd give it to you for free, together with some parsley and a celery stalk; these are called gli odori, the scents, and most greengrocers will just slip them into your bag of fruit and vegetables without you needing to ask.

And then, there is my second proustian smell: coffee.

Oh, sure, there's plenty of coffee alright in the Northwest (too much, I think, used as an addictive pick-me-up against the depression derived from a constantly grey sky—but that's another story); but that is most definitely not the coffee of my heritage.
In Italy, there are no "varieties" of coffee, no fancily named concoctions of syrups and foam and milk and chocolate, in different shapes of cups; there is only espresso, and espresso doesn't come in "one shot or two?" (a question that here always makes me chuckle internally), you order it simply as un caffĂ©, a coffee, because it's the only coffee there is (yes, there is also cappuccino, but no one in Italy would drink it in the middle of the afternoon as tourists do, only in the morning for breakfast with a cornetto—a particular type of Italian croissant—or a brioche to go with it).

The smell of coffee, or espresso, has accompanied me all my life in Italy: if Naples is the Italian capital of pizza, it is also the capital of espresso. You can use Naples as a departure point on the scale of espresso strength and move upward along the boot, with the strength of coffee decreasing as you go. Espresso in Milan resembles more the kind of coffee you get in Paris (also simply called coffee, not espresso), with the unlikely yet nice twist of a lemon rind draped along the rim of the cup like the scarves that Parisian women do so well.
But, in Naples, coffee is dark, black with a brownish tinge, strong, very strong: as we say in Italy, ristretto (literally, tightened, or short, to indicate a small amount of coffee). It is served very hot, in a very hot cup (at the bar—which in Italy is not a drinking hole but a place where you drink your coffee or other drinks standing up at the counter—they keep the coffee cups immersed in boiling hot water).
And the smell, the smell is everywhere, the sharp and slightly acidic and nose-tingling smell of coffee wafting out of every window in every apartment block in the city, at most hours of the day (and, sometimes, night).
And I miss that smell, and when I make myself a coffee at home, it brings my city back to me—my crazy city with its over-the-top behavior, its over-ripe smells, its all-around sensory overload...

And then, there is the smell of jasmine; a jasmine that may not rival its Indian, or Persian varieties, but it is certainly much more fragrant than anything I've ever smelled in non-Mediterranean countries. In the summer nights, when the intense heat of the day slowly dissipates but lingers on just enough that you can sit bare-armed on a terrace under a jasmine/entwined pergola and converse with your friends into the wee hours while sipping some cold white wine, the smell of jasmine emanating from above your head can be deeply intoxicating.

Maybe I'm bitter because my own memoir might never get published, and it will certainly never sell for a six-figure sum, but I just don't get the appeal of books like "Eat Pray Love". She didn't have to go to three different countries for these activities, she could have found them all in Italy. And the foods to accompany each one of them.

Yes, basil for eating, coffee for praying, and the jasmine most definitely for loving.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Can You Write It While You Live It?

Can you write death while you're living it, however vicariously?

The answer is no, not so much; because if you try to write it, it will distract you from living it. And if you write it while you're living it, afterwards you'll have perhaps more exact details put down on paper, but less of the mysterious and twisted workings of memory.

For over a month I've been living with the imminent death of a cat so dear to me that should I ever hear anybody utter any of those off-handed remarks about this being "just" an animal I'd be ready to pounce and kill. But I know that there will be many who think it, as there will be those who shake their heads and comment "Well, this is just because she doesn't have any real children".
People who think that way for me are superficial, crude, are rendering banal the ineffable thing that is grief. Because, it doesn't matter who—or indeed what—is dying; grief is not commensurate with the nature of the person, creature or thing lost, mourned for, but rather with the weight of our attachment to, and bond with, that person, creature, thing.
Grief can only be measured by the weight of its hold on us; the depths it can reach sinking into our skin and bones; the size of the festering wound it leaves behind.

My beloved cat Billie, who I watched come to life, come out of her mother's belly on an early morning of November 4th 1991, in London, England, will die tomorrow of a fatal injection, after for nearly two months we tried all we could to abate the horrible cancer that suddenly attacked her jawbone. She will die just a few months short of her twentieth birthday.

This is all I can bring myself to write for now, but I intend to write about her afterwards, of her eventful life—she has been quite the jet-setter, moving with me from England to America to Canada and then to America again—because, if we can write memoirs of people, who says we shouldn't write memoirs of animals too?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Meditating on Meditation and Meditating on Writing

As you can see, gentle readers, my blog has been desolate and neglected for a while, and so has been my writing life in general. There are reasons for this, though they may not be good ones: firstly it is hard to keep up the motivation when you experience only rejections for a long time. Secondly, my personal life has been a twist in the wind, what with the house renovation still looming large and causing marital strife, stress, ill health, and financial loss. It is a burden I have had to bear whether I liked it or not—the product of bad decisions, or perhaps it was just a karmic baggage I brought into this life with me.

This last explanation wouldn't have occurred to me until recently: to be sure, I was never the "new age" or spiritual type. As a lapsed Catholic (very devout until the age of 13) I was suspicious of all things religious and even spiritual; in my teens, I'd toyed with the hippie culture of the times (as hippie as you could get in Italy, of course), but I was always the rebel who refused to read Castaneda and take acid on a "vision quest just because everybody else was doing it. I was always the skeptic, the questioner, the non-joiner, and, for the longest time, cynical about all manners of spiritual practices and communities.

And yet, fate had other plans for me: at the end of March, finding myself emotionally and physically at the end of my tether, I decided to take a trip to the Expanding Light, a spiritual retreat in Northern California. Their website told me this was the Ananda Village, home of the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda (a yogi from India who came to America in the 1920s), and his disciple Swami Kriyananda, an American man who founded the Ananda Village where I took my retreat. Yes, I'd read all that, but I was ignorant of what any of it meant, and probably all the better for it, as I was able to approach the situation with an open mind.

When I booked into the retreat, I had no idea what I was getting into; I was just seeking a quite place where I could rest, recharge, read, eat healthy foods, and maybe do some yoga. Meditation wasn't even on the cards for me at that point: I'd always believed myself incapable of sitting still for any amount of time without doing anything. Indeed, judging from the million people restlessly thumbing through their iPhones at any given moment on the bus, in the streets, at the restaurant, even at concerts or the movies, this must be the disease of our epoch.

I was at the retreat for nine days, with no television and no cellphone reception up there, at least not for my cellphone, though the folks at Ananda have decided to bow down to the pressure of modernity and the place did have wireless internet everwhere.
For nine days, I ate healthy vegetarian meals, I slept, waking up to the sound of birds and nothing else, and participated in the daily yoga and meditation practice. After just a couple of days, I began to feel a calm and peace inside I'd never experienced before in my life.

I have always considered myself a lazy person, yet I am also deeply neurotic (a very common combination in my hometown of Naples); meditation did something to me that nothing else—no drugs or lovemaking or other nearly-ecstatic experience—had ever done: it helped me quieten (sometimes even completely silence!) that little voice inside that has kept chatting for as long as I've been a sentient being.

Most neuroscientists today have finally come to the conclusion (millennia after non-Western cultures, and even Christian religious practices, had already discovered this) that meditation can be a great help for a host of diseases, mental and physical, and is generally a good thing to do even if you're in perfect health (but who is these days?). There are many articles and books out there that talk about this—one I've found particularly good is Buddha's Brain.

One sentence the Ananda people were very fond of repeating was a quote from Yogananda: "Environment is stronger than will power", and after returning from the retreat, I could see why as I struggled to maintain that sense of inner peace and bliss. There was a slow waning of that peace starting from the moment I came "down the mountain", literally in this case as the retreat was in the Sierra Nevada, and had to regain my place in normal, everyday life again.
As I felt that bliss slip away little by little every day, I had to face a deep crisis of loss—a similar sensation to having experienced a great passionate love and then seeing it wane through the unavoidability of everydayness. You know it's out there, you know it does exist, you know you felt it, but now you don't feel it anymore.
Thus with the intensity of spiritual practice: I don't know how other people who don't live in a spiritual community approach it, but for me it's been a struggle to find the time and place and mental space and willingness to meditate every day.
And yet, I've tried, and even the trying alone has made me feel better at times.

And I have come to see that meditation is very much like writing: you know it's inside you, but it often doesn't want to come out, yet you still have to sit and meditate everyday, whether it will "work" or not, just as you must sit and write every day, and the discipline of doing it will make you write better and more, eventually.

Writing is also like meditation in that it requires a pulling away from the trappings of modern life: the blogging, emailing, the online chatting, facebooking and twittering that seem to waste so much of our writing energy and capacity these days. Despite constant advice that I should, I have chosen not to participate in the "social" networks, but I do use email, far too much because all my friends are far away; and I also blog, though of late I have felt that I needed to take a break from this, to follow the inner lead of silence and contemplation without action that the meditation gave me.

We live in a society that doesn't support "non action", the practices of "just sitting", meditating, contemplating—anything that doesn't appear to have a sense of purpose and a visible, practical outcome; anything that doesn't yield a "product".

This is also true about writing, and perhaps our greatest crisis as writers occurs when we feel reluctant to give ourselves permission to say "I am a writer" because we haven't been published or received public recognition yet. And yet, we may have been writing away for years, silently and quietly and lonely, just like one does with meditation...

I'm still a novice at meditation, and a reluctant self-disciplinarian at both meditation and writing, but I am learning, exploring new meditation techniques and schools as I have explored poetry and fiction before getting into writing non-fiction. This is as much an anthropological curiosity with me as a way of perfecting a tool that I can use for the rest of my life. 

Meditation and writing seem to go hand in hand, and I'm sure the meditation I am practicing now could eventually make the writing better and different, by taking me it into writerly directions I may not have been open to before. 

Most of all, meditation takes me inside myself in a non-judgmental, non-active way, allowing all thoughts to flow and pass me by, without the need to arrest them.
There is a mind cleansing aspect to this that cannot but be beneficial to creativity.

And so, I will continue to meditate (or try to), despite the house renovation still going on, the fights with the husband, the lack of a job and publication, and the neighbors' barking dogs...

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Suitable Job for a Writer (or any other kind of artist)

A few weeks ago, I took a job in a supermarket deli. Out of sheer desperation, because in a year of living in this town where employment was never easy at the best of times, I could find nothing.
Or rather, yes, I did find a job: once a week I teach creative writing at the PHAME Academy, a wonderful organization that runs creative classes for adults with learning and developmental disabilities. As gratifying as this job is, however, it only pays for a few bus tickets a week.

So, the supermarket job: I lasted all of three weeks, before quitting. During that time, my back ached like hell from standing on a concrete floor (something apparently the union rules don't consider a health hazard); I kept getting strong headaches from the fluorescent lights and the cleaning chemicals; and I was shocked, and aggravated, by the petty attitudes of some of my co-workers (yes, as the adage goes, power corrupts; but nothing is more contemptible than the sight of powerless people yielding a power they don't really have).
Furthermore, it was utterly disparaging for me, a food lover, to sell people the kind of junk food I would not even give to my worst enemy's dog.

So, I quit. And this got me thinking: it seem that all the artists I've ever known are divided into two camps: those who would rather not "compromise" their art, and take up soul-deadening jobs that have nothing to do with anything remotely creative, just for the money, while working on their art in their spare time. And those who would rather take a job that is as close as possible to their artistic vocation: like teaching, if there's still anybody lucky enough to get that kind of gig; or practicing some kind of commercial art.
Both positions, in my mind, have their pros and cons; in the first instance, you may have more mental and creative space to do your own work if you are not absorbed in, or by, a job that doesn't require any expenditure of creative energy; but, on the other hand, you may end up so dried up at the end of your work day, or week, that the only thing you feel like doing with your time off is curl up on the couch and watch some mindless TV.
If, however, you have a somewhat creative yet commercial job, you will be immersed in your chosen craft and given talent every day of your life; yet you may end up completely burnt out by the demands of your job, and maybe jaded by the fact of having to use your talents in a commercial way, turning out artwork that you yourself may judge harshly.

What kind of artist are you? I am curious to know...

Me, after being somewhat a purist in my young age, I've decided that anything is better than a crappy, and badly paid at that, job.
I'll gladly "sell my soul" (though I doubt there's anyone out there who's buying) as long as I can make money doing something that requires me to utilize my brain rather than my "talent" for slicing ham and cheese, or scooping cooked food into a container...