Recognizing Where the Needle Is

At a weekly (virtual) meditation group I attend, the guide said today, “It feels like the world has changed since last week. But it’s not that it’s changed, it’s that we have become enlightened to it.”

I think that’s right. Yes, the world changes, but not overnight in either direction. I think if we’re doing it right, we’re constantly awakening. Awakening and expanding our perception to include more and more realities of others in this world. That might be through getting to know the stories of people around us. It could be through reading. It could be through research. It could be through podcasts. It always means having an open mind.

This week, like many in the United States, I was searching. Dejected, I signed on to the vast e-book collection of my region’s library network. In searching for a number of titles on race, I was heartened to see that all of them had a waitlist. Other people were looking to educate themselves.

The internet is now flooded with reading recommendations, but for those who might want a glimpse into what I’ve read in my corner over the past few years, here is a selection. They range from humorous, irreverent memoirs by Black comedians, to fiction that takes the reader through real neighborhoods, to thought-provoking nonfiction.

Memoirs
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Essays
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Humor
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Fiction
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Nonfiction
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

A couple of quotes from these books that struck a chord with me:

“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“But no matter how it panned out, I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming

The Seattle Public Library

After lunch and conversation (about fundraising) at a café, my friend and I walked to the Central Library, which was designed by architect Rem Koolhaas and built in 2004. The library is part of The Seattle Public Library system.

What lines and angles.

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And waves.

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I’ve never seen a library like it.

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This wall seemed a bit prisonlike.

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What is a books spiral?

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My friend wanted to show me a weird red hallway.

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Even the bathroom, which I did not capture on proverbial film, was strange. When you stood up in a stall, you could see over the top. It felt very exposed—someone who walked up to the stall door could look right in at you. My friend explained to me that it was to prevent people from injecting drugs in the bathroom.

After I had taken in the architecture and my friend had found her books on Native American history in the Northwest, we perused in the gift shop (!) and then ventured back out, where it was raining. Our day out was on foot, and by the time we reached the supermarket, my feet were wet and I was ready to go back to her apartment. We had some food shopping to do first, though, for our camping trip the next day.

We gathered up our ingredients and snacks and trekked back to her place, where her little cat was waiting.

Call Me Old-Fashioned

This week an acquaintance called me a throwback. I think I will adopt this moniker.

My mom calls herself a dinosaur because she doesn’t know how to use technology (which is not really true. She discovered search engines recently. And when texting was new to our family over ten years ago, she figured out how to type the upside down exclamation mark used in Spanish faster than any of us. Her texts are well-written, correctly punctuated, and rarely contain typos. She takes and sends pictures with her phone).

I wouldn’t call myself a dinosaur. I can speak knowledgeably about technology, social media, and popular apps. I’m surrounded by people who use them, and I read articles and listen to podcasts about latest trends. I can talk about a range of online dating apps as if I’ve tried them. Social media is even one of my responsibilities at work. But when my acquaintance called me a throwback, I readily acknowledged its verity:

– My cell phone isn’t a smartphone.
– I borrow books from the library.
– I write postcards, cards, and letters.
– I don’t have Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat.
– I take pictures on my digital camera.
– I write my rendez-vous in my planner.
– Gmail isn’t my primary email provider.
– Oh yeah, I still use email.

While the majority of my peers aren’t to that extent, thankfully I still have my share of friends who use AOL addresses and have Paypal instead of Venmo. And I do have friends younger than me who use planners rather than syncing everything in the cloud. Postcards still arrive in my mailbox—once in a while.

My acquaintance’s comment was actually prompted by his observation that I wear a watch. A lot of people now wear Fitbits or check the time on their phone.

I wouldn’t say that I’m proud to be using a basic phone or wearing a watch; this is just normal life for me. It’s other people (even strangers!) who comment on it. One time I was sitting at a table in Bryant Park, and a man walking by said, “Be careful, someone might steal your phone!” The joke being, I suppose, that no one would steal it.

On the other hand, I must admit that my two college friends and I probably get too much pleasure from not having Venmo.

It’s funny how something is considered normal if everyone else is doing it, yet quirky if you’re in the minority.

Journées du Patrimoine

This year was the first time that I was available and aware of Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days, in France. For one weekend, historic cultural and political institutions are open to the public. Some, like cultural centers or national museums, are usually open to visitors but offer extra hours, free admission, or special exhibits. Others, like government offices or not easily accessible historical sites, are only open for Journées du Patrimoine. I picked up a program listing all of the places participating, and it made me wish that this event lasted a whole month. There are so many things to see that a couple of days are hardly enough.92.journeespatrimoine.2014aAt some sites like the Elysée, where the president lives, you should be prepared to wait for hours. While I would be interested in seeing the presidential residence, I didn’t want to spend my whole day there, so my first stop was a quiet location with more staff representatives milling around than visitors. The Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la recherche houses the national office of high education and research. I know a number of people who are pursuing their Masters in Paris, so it was interesting to think that this is where decisions are made regarding their education and those of students all over the country. 92.journeespatrimoine.2014bThe building used to be the Ecole polytechnique, a school of science and engineering that is now at another site. I was standing in front of this memorial to students who died in the First World War when a security guard told me that I could take a picture. So I did. How often are we encouraged to take pictures?92.journeespatrimoine.2014cInside the building I was delighted to see this work by the artist Ben. I discovered Ben a couple of years ago when I bought a series of postage stamps with his playful expressions on them. His art is words and his words are art. This piece was a very American phrase in French.92.journeespatrimoine.2014dThe line to enter the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Site Richelieu was longer than the nonexistent wait at the Ministère, but it fed my love of beautiful libraries.92.journeespatrimoine.2014gInside I also browsed the Musée des monnaies, médailles et antiques and the temporary exhibit of Greek vases.

Smaller but quite pretty too was the sunlit library in the Ecole des Mines, a school of earth sciences, engineering, math, and economics.92.journeespatrimoine.2014eThe library contained this ubiquitous rug. One time as my colleague and I were climbing the stairs to our office, she pointed out the rug and said that it’s the tapis you’ll find in every building constructed during a certain time. From then on I noticed it everywhere. I realized that it was the same rug in the building where I live, and the same one at the Ecole des mines.92.journeespatrimoine.2014fIn another area of the building, I walked through room after room of glass cases displaying rocks. Their collection is a feast for a geologist.

In the Journées du Patrimoine program, I read that you could see the Arche enceinte de Philippe Auguste, which is at other times closed to the public. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded intriguing. The only meaning of enceinte that I knew of was “pregnant.” Philippe’s pregnant arch?

The address of the site had no door, but a locked gate that seemed to lead to a driveway. A young woman stood in the entrance. I tentatively approached, and she asked if I was there for the Journées du Patrimoine. When I answered in the affirmative, she said that a group had just been let in and that it would be twenty minutes before a new group could enter.

No problem. I walked to the nearby Seine River to take a breather. Lo and behold, a little further along the banks, I saw a man drop to one knee to propose to his girlfriend. It warmed my heart.

Back at the mysterious gate to the pregnant arch, a crowd had gathered.92.journeespatrimoine.2014hThe volunteer let us in, and our group of a couple of dozen people descended a dimly lit staircase underground. We seemed to be under a parking garage. We passed through a heavy metal door, and there it was. The arch.92.journeespatrimoine.2014iA volunteer explained the history of the enceinte to us. In the late 12th to early 13th century, King Philippe Auguste had a wall constructed around Paris to protect the city from potential English invaders. The arch we saw is a remnant of that wall. Tucked away, it was restored by volunteers.

Apparently, enceinte can also mean “outer wall.”

No doubt about it, there is a lot of heritage in this city. The great part about Journées du Patrimoine is that not only does it open private spaces to the public, but it also introduces us to places that are always accessible but not necessarily on our radar.

Craft Night

On Friday night my current favorite library hosted “Craft Night : soirée bricolage autour du livre” for the first time. To participate in this free book-themed crafting event, I simply RSVP’d by email.

On the lovely airy second floor of the médiathèque, library employees guided participants in four activities: making ink prints, constructing small notebooks, practicing calligraphy, and creating paper butterflies. A generous spread of hors d’oeurves, fruits, sweets, and drinks added to the soirée atmosphere.

I would have liked to do all of the projects, but since I took my time on my string of butterflies, I only tried my hand at calligraphy afterward. Recently I’ve felt rushed in my professional and personal life, and this evening I refused to let myself be rushed by anyone. The peaceful space was perfect for relaxing and quietly creating with fellow crafters.71.craftnight.2014a 71.craftnight.2014bUsing clear plastic shapes the library had provided, I traced butterflies of different sizes onto old sheet music. The lyrics of the piece I picked up happened to be quite romantic, so I took advantage of this luck and deliberately positioned my tracings over specific phrases that struck my fancy. I cut them out and strung them on a nylon thread. They now flit across my wardrobe.71.craftnight.2014c 71.craftnight.2014d 71.craftnight.2014e 71.craftnight.2014f 71.craftnight.2014gThe most interesting part of the calligraphy table was the man who explained the art to me. It’s always a delight to see someone passionate about their craft. When I sat down and expressed interest in trying it, he showed me how to fill the ink pen, blot it on the paper to reduce the ink at the point, and position it at a 20 degree angle to the paper. He set down a piece of paper that displayed the alphabet in Carolingian, a font from Charlemagne’s time. He then proceeded to demonstrate the technique by writing commonly-used letters—‘a’ and ‘o.’ There is a specific order and direction in which you make each stroke. Much like other arts, the result appears to flow freely but is actually very precise in practice.

After his detailed presentation, he invited me to give it a try. I picked up the calligraphy pen, and he immediately reacted in dismay, “Vous êtes gauchère ?” (“You’re left-handed?”) Yes, I said with a laugh, Does that change everything? Well, it changes quite a bit, he said. This font, all of the order of strokes that he showed me—they were made for right-handed people. He showed me a couple of options, one of which was to turn the paper at an angle and write that way. I guess if I lived in Charlemagne’s time, I would have worked as a butter churner.