Beautiful City

I work in southwest Detroit now.  My supervisor took me on a tour of southwest Detroit today. We drove around for an hour.

The neighborhoods have mature trees and houses that sit close to one another. Some houses are burnt to the ground. Some are fine. There is a large island of industrial landscape and it looks like some cynical writer’s depiction of the future. There are terrible pot holes with stories behind them. There are miles of railroad. There’s a historical Fort that should be a tourist attraction. There’s a river with half-sunken boats, and houses near the bank. There are stable neighborhoods where the residents have lived there for over 50 years. There’s a huge empty train station that you can see from many angles in the city. The more it crumbles the more beautiful it gets. There’s a newly-built bridge and market with new concrete and new design and no people. There are tires everywhere. There’s a foundation where a Propane truck careened off a ramp, exploded, and burned down a house. There’s a field where a baseball stadium was. There are birds and vines and weeds overgrowing and bricks falling down. There is life and death in a natural ratio; there is no discrete line where built meets nature. There are stories and history on every block.  This is the most fascinating and beautiful place I have seen.

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How Men and Women Cripple Each Other

I think about gender roles a lot.

I’m very proud of my Lady Gaga post and it was written out of love for my two transgendered friends. Transgenderism is interesting because it proves that the difference between men and women is more than physical. When a person born with male parts knows that she is a female, who can contest that?

Now that I’m at University of Michigan, I think about what it means to be a woman. Now that I’m getting married in 8 months, I think about what it means to be a wife. My favorite wedding blog (A Practical Wedding), which isn’t really about centerpieces and wedding trends but more about the psychological transition from singlehood to marriage, had this excellent post about being a wife and mother. It’s about a book Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about female roles in the family. This part was reeeeally illuminating to me:

“She talks about her mom quitting a career that she loved, because her father couldn’t handle not having her home to take care of the kids and the house.”

I hear this kind of thing a lot. That men are so invested in their careers, they need their wives to take care of everything else in their lives (the home).  Meg goes on to write

“I worry when I hear about most of us* doing the bulk of the chores around the house. Not because we have to, but because we want to (“I just care more about cleanliness than he does, so I need to take responsibility for that.”)”

She also writes about how we praise women who sacrifice themselves for their kids. There’s the general idea that our society completely depends for its survival on mothers’ sacrifices, yet we don’t put any real value on this. The post is about women losing themselves, “having to scrape bare the walls of their own souls” in order to serve their families. This is not what God meant by giving. Giving is supposed to edify the giver and the receiver.

I hear about it a lot; I hear about men who never learn how to cook a meal for themselves, men who claim they don’t know how to clean or do other domestic things. I saw a guy pushing a stroller the way people walk their bikes – to the side of his body, with one hand. They don’t want to associate themselves with feminine “tasks.”

(Please grant me my generalizations, because there’s truth to them)

Is this because of how men are “wired” biologically? Or is it a cultural cripple?

Let’s flip it around. I hear women in my class, all the time and EVERY DAY, apologize before giving their opinions. I see my classes dominated by men, I see men with wedding bands who never talk about their wives but talk about getting married as a check off the list.  I hear insensitive remarks in general, not even just about women, that go unnoticed. Women are crippled in academia, and probably in the work place (I haven’t had a legitimate fulltime job – don’t get me started on my cleaning job with Maid to Order). When women cross over into “man territory” they seem to have to assimilate to mannish mannerisms. When men cross over into “woman land,” they get called “sensitive” and sometimes, by immature people, “gay.”

I want to tangent on my last sentence. I think this is hugely relevant right now.  Anywhere in the media where a guy is acting strange, dancing, or being generally comfortable with himself, he gets a lot of “you’re gay” thrown at him.  Anywhere a guy alludes to anything feminine, a joke has to be made about it. Sometimes I think that men are more crippled than women. They’re emotionally crippled. They’re so afraid of being seen as gay or feminine, which are synonymous with weak, that they force themselves along “safe” constructs of manhood. They have to dress a certain way, like certain things, not say certain words, all out of fear of being like a woman.

Being like a woman, like our mothers who taught us much of what we know and did so much for us, that’s the greatest fear for a man.

What does that say about actually being a woman? It sort of says that it’s a necessary evil. It says we are making sacrifices just by being who we are. It says that we need affirmative action and protection because we have it so hard or because we’re weaker.

What does this do to our work? It removes the elements we think are “feminine” – sensitivity, holism, empathy.

What does this do to friendships? It makes women compete against each other and boy-girl friendships unnatural (“you guys should date already”).

What does this do to children? It teaches them that they should only be a certain way, and if they vary from that, society will punish them. Hence, to the ones who bravely cannot help but be themselves, it means a lifetime of unnecessary troubles.

What does this do to the church? It gives us a false picture of who God is. It masculinizes God, the creator of sexes. And God is all-powerful, so we then associate (subconsciously) power with masculinity.  (My favorite priest pointed out that part of the curse in Genesis is that men will have power over women. The curse of patriarchal society.)

Finally, what does this do to marriage? To make marriage work, we have to either break the mold or buy into it. Both have extreme repercussions.  One makes society constantly question us, the other continues the cycle of men and women crippling each other.

I’m not against societal structure. Clearly I’m not – otherwise, I would not be entering the institution of marriage. I just think we should be growing up, in a way. Maturing. Transcending these norms and accepting each other and ourselves for who we are. Admitting our weaknesses. Enabling each other to do what we really want to do.

Everyone should read that post from A Practical Wedding. Tell me what you think.

Meditation and Centering Prayer

I have begun a regimen of centering prayer. 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes before dinner. It is not a speaking prayer–it is a meditation in which you let your thoughts float by you without paying attention to them. The book that is guiding me, Open Mind, Open Heart, calls it “consenting to God’s presence and action within.”

This is incredibly difficult. Eastern meditation often tells you not to think. That is impossible. Centering prayer tells you not to think about your thoughts. That is almost impossible.

But I’m going to keep doing it. It puts me in my place. It reminds me that I am a vessel for love. I am not here for my own advancement, wealth, or happiness. By surrendering my thoughts and worries and agenda, I find true happiness.

We have nothing to lose but 40 minutes that would otherwise be spent watching TV or on the internet.

Also, a livelittle thing you can do to aid our Health Care crisis: Eat five fruits and vegetables a day and walk for at least 30 minutes every single day. You will prevent countless health problems.

Dreams are made on

y first graduate school application was due today. With my night job of cleaning and my internship and Catholic initiation stuff I have been sort of busy, but that’s no excuse for not posting as often.

I kind of lost sight of what my blog means to me. I had seven blogs at one point this summer, and they were all separated and stood for different things. I was treating the internet like my numerous notebooks that I have. One is for poems, one is for songs, one is for journaling, one is for lists, one is for phone numbers. Walt Whitman wrote his first Leaves of Grass poem in the same notebook he was keeping for names and notes of his general life. Why separate all of these elements? Why was I hiding parts of myself from this blog? It was all urban planning all the time and that’s not what I focus on all the time. Because if I did, I would either be smashing cars with a baseball bat or bashing my own head in. It’s a frustrating subject. It’s stuck with me forever, it is what I’m made to do, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t frustrate me. So I imported my Pretty Darn Pretty blog into this one.

And I started to doubt the whole “little life” thing. I was worried that it was a reaction to depression, that if I were a happier person I would be more courageous and willing to live bigger and dream bigger. But I’m going to graduate school for the thing I most want to do. I don’t think I’m holding back for anything. Small and large are relative concepts, I guess. The biggest problems of the world are massively generalized. Hunger. Can you think of a bigger beast? We can wrack our brains and beat ourselves out of guilt,  just ignore it, or give food to the hungry people in our neighborhood. People have got to stop resorting to the “starving people in Africa” thing to make themselves grateful. It’s unfair to everyone.

Once we admit that we are small, our lives are small, are abilities are tiny, once we accept our ordinary-ness, we can do a lot. I find that once I break my weeks, days, hours up into moments and live in them, I am enjoying myself more.

A specific way I’ve been doing that is small art projects. I love creating things. I’m writing a novel right now, bit by bit, but in my time gaps between work and sleep and internship, I like make things that are beautiful to me. I’m really surprised at how happy it’s made me.

Joseph Gordon Levitt’s site, Hitrecord.org, is giving him a lot of joy. It’s apparent in his face every time he talks about it. He’s not trying to make loads of money or save the entire world, but his project has gone pretty far (Hitrecord is going to Sundance next year) and it’s genuine.

Adam Lambert is trying to be too big. He’s using controversy as a device to get fame and nothing about his AMA performance seemed genuine. I don’t think very many people respect him. He’s trying to make a big splash by being true to himself, but that’s the wrong formula completely.

The difference between making a big impact by living your true life, making your life small out of fear, and trying to make yourself bigger than you are, is in the core of you, in the daily choice to do what’s right.

I gotta make dinner now. BYE.

Why do anything?

Sometimes I forget that I’m improving peoples’ lives immensely when I get poked at the plasma center. I think of how long it’s going to take, if it’s going to hurt a lot this time, how far I’ll get in my book, if I drank enough water. But not about the people it’s going to.

I know if I get a good job, I’ll likely stop giving it. It is about the money! I think though, in this economy, there are enough candidates to sell plasma that I’d be okay not doing it. I’d probably give someone else the chance to make extra gas money.

Speaking of gas money, I feel like a huge freaking hypocrite lately. I’m all about Complete Streets on the other blog, yet I drive 100 miles a week. I visit my boyfriend in another city twice a week. I could feasibly take a train, but schedule-wise that doesn’t work. I keep preaching about community, but I can barely say hi to people on the street. I’m scared of people!

These dichotomies are starting to get to me. I’m only doing what I can. There are ways to save water and energy that I haven’t even thought of.  But why save water!? I’m in Michigan!  Why do anything, for that matter? I’ve accepted a pointless existence for myself, this is all just fun and games.  This needs to change. That’s all I know right now.

Two best friends left me this morning. For Montana. I saw a double rainbow at a rodeo during a sunny hailstorm there once. But they’re gone. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve failed over and over as a friend. I lost two more of the few people I can be myself around. And I was zoning out the entire night with them last night, no, I was zoning out for the past year. Don’t know why.

In my novel, the main character will shaken awake by an agent of reality. I’ve always wanted that to happen to me. I haven’t written that part yet. I’m waiting for something to happen to me, but it’s likely I’ll have to escape this myself.

(Just like my dream last night, where I was a hostage of the government and women were hired to keep me and a bunch of people in this warehouse with an open screen door. The women guards had no job other than to keep us in and no reason to do so. I tried to escape and one grabbed my wrist and told me no. I pulled her outside with me and ran so far that she couldn’t go back. At that point she didn’t want to. I said to other escapees, “wouldn’t that job just totally suck? It’s so illogical!”)

Critical Hindsight

The blog world is strange. I feel I have to dig up interesting stuff and try to sell stuff and I feel I’m blogworshipping some Google God, trying to get as many hits as possible. Boo on me. It’s an exhausting endeavor. I used to just write what I wanted to write, when I was a teenager, and it came out all moody and indie and I tried to reference David Bowie in every paragraph, trying to prove to my peers that I am actually cool on the inside. But I look back on that old me and find her cute, just like the Bush supporters were cute, just as the highway and parking lot builders were so cute, thinking cars were our futures. Cute. None of these people could help it, including me.

Alexis Bledel’s going to be in a movie (probably cliche, probably a flop, but she’s SO CUTE!) about being a graduate and moving back home and not finding a job. WOW. That sounds familiar! It is incredibly difficult to stay motivated and to keep growing up when I live in the house I was born in. And I’m the youngest. Let me spill about my novel, too. I look back on what I’ve written and cringe at my dialogue. Oooo it’s bad. It sounds so natural in my head but on paper it’s like a Star Wars movie. Or Gran Torino. Anyone else notice how rotten the dialogue in that movie is? And the blatant Christ figure scene??? SO blatant, Clint. Clint have mercy. Anyway, I hope my mind can pull this novel through about 200 pages. I really hope it turns out good. And I hope it’s not the only one I’ll ever write.

Do you think good and evil actually exist? Actions that seem good at the time end up doing harm usually. But there has to be some sort of good. Art must be good. Sure, novels have come out and sparked entire movements of thought, but I can’t label any of those movements good or bad. The Modernist movement made some ugly buildings but it also produced some sweet design and it was direly needed after that opulent era. We will always look back at our personal past and criticize. We will always look back at our nation’s history and criticize. But who could have helped it? No one could have stopped the Industrial revolution from polluting our cities, even if we had known.No one could have stopped me from hating the world in high school. (That’s what breaks my heart about unhappy teens. They’re forced to be miserable by a bad upbringing until they can learn to be happy on their own. That needed self-awareness doesn’t kick in quickly enough.) There is only this moment; we can only do what we can.

I do know pain and joy exist. The latter is hard to recognize. I’m trying to connect with it more.

Grand Rapids Renewal Efforts

In my bubble of Grand Rapids, I was subjected to the “creation, fall, redemption, renewal” equation throughout my Christian education. It didn’t help that my church held the same beliefs. I became wary and tired of having to write all my papers through this perspective, including an especially ridiculous one about water, probably the broadest topic in the entire universe. Except the universe.

The Christian Reformed theology stresses that the world will be renewed before Christ comes back, and it is our job to help the Holy Spirit renew it. I can theologize about this forever, but I really wanted to write about my new internship with Grand Valley Metropolitan Council and what they’re doing to renew parts of our city.

First there’s the “complete streets” program, based on the demand/belief that roads should be ways of travel for cyclists, pedestrians, and automobile drivers. There are bike lanes on parts of Wealthy street in East Grand Rapids, and GVMC is one of many groups trying to make a law for bike lanes on all streets within the city. This is a dream come true for me, and it may seem small because it would only eliminate the walkers and bikers from cars’ way, but for the biker and walker, it is a world of difference. It could mean my being able to bike to the grocery store. Or for those who take the bus, it would mean not having to walk through fields and commercial lots and driveways to stand at the bus stop.

Also, GVMC has gotten Brownfield money (money from the government specifically for assessing and redeveloping contaminated lots) for the Division gateway into the city. Division is getting a rapid bus system by 2012 for commuters as an alternative to US-131, and this means, for developers, that the street will be a more desirable spot for developers. Add that to the brownfield incentives, and you will see renewal on Division.

As soon as new bike trails, buildings, sidewalks, and roads are built, they are simultaneously torn up, worn down, graffiti’d, and generally ruined. I’m not sure any place on earth will ever reach perfection, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from constantly growing, changing, and making mistakes.

Dreams

We are such stuff
as dreams are made on, and our little life
is rounded with a sleep.

-The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1

I am not some crazy mystic, but I believe dreams tell us things. We don’t listen to our subconscious enough. We don’t talk enough. We repress, hold things in, bottle it up, stuff it in our mouths, grind it in our sleep.

Why do we take emotions so seriously? Why is depression so hush-hush? Why can’t we call out our friends when they make bad decisions?

Why am I so afraid all the time? If I could pretend this life is a dream, and if I could lucid-dream this pretend-life, I’d do more than fly over my elementary school. I’d do stupid stuff. Like throw money on people. Put benches at every bus stop. Apologize to the people I’ve bullied. Meet people on the street. People out there are doing this, and I can only dream of it.

Jill Bolte Taylor wrote a book after recovering from a stroke which affected the left half of her brain. She couldn’t think analytical thoughts for five weeks. Without her left brain, all that she could experience was the feeling of her body, physically. She had a constant awareness of her self without any computing, analyzing, or thinking. She called it the most blissful silence she’d ever experience.

Those who meditate strive for this silence. It’s a detachment from one’s “life,” that big complicated thing we dream about every night. Do you ever wish you didn’t have to dream? I always dream I can’t see or can’t find my car. I’m always worried in those thought tangents.

Back when I was a fundamentalist, I dreamed I was fighting off demons. I also dreamed I was by a blossomed-tree that was losing all its pedals. I dreamed songs almost every night.

I wish I could turn my left brain off. For five seconds. And realize what my life really is.

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Follow Up: What I'm Doing about my Last Post

Negative thinking is dangerous. After my last post about how hard the job market is right now, I slumped into a mini-depression and my thinking spiraled down the Negative Tunnel. Not good.

To get out of these spirals, I recommend changing something. You could change your outfit, your activity (take a walk?), setting, volume (scream “STOP!” at yourself), or even your mind.

I chose to change my setting: I went to the library!

This did not get me out of my bad “I’ll never find a job!” mood–at least not until I got back from the library with six books, three about urban planning, and three about job-hunting. Here’s the one that helped me immediately.


How to Find Those Hidden Jobs by Violet Moreton Cooper

The career services at my college quoted this book in one of its handouts.  It follows the patterns of many career-help books by helping you find your skills, etc., but the way it’s written changed my pattern of thinking about job-finding. The routine I’ve sunken into for finding jobs isn’t bad, but it hasn’t worked yet and there are still many other tips to try. For someone like me who isn’t specialized for a specific job, it helps me learn the vocabulary to talk about myself to employers. Though I don’t have a ton of work experience, I do have skills that I’m sharpening every day just by living my life to its fullest.

See? Wasn’t that more uplifting? What’s going on in your mind and spirit is more important than your wallet.

Kindness as a Garden

In my American Literature and the Environment class a few weeks ago, I was arguing that an answer to the dark, cynical questions (or just statements) Cormac McCarthy poses in No Country for Old Men is found in Candide by Voltaire, a story about friends who go out trying to find meaning and end up abused by the world, turning to their own little garden in the end. I proposed this as an answer, and another student argued that those characters needed that awful journey to get to the garden. They couldn’t have arrived at a home concept without the long search.

I take these lessons very literally. I dream of tending a garden someday. But I don’t think this idea justifies being a hermit and not knowing about the world around you. I think the opposite actually. Whatever comes into your realm is your responsibility. Whoever is suffering in your path, you should help them. This is different from going out in the world and trying to force your will on it. That’s backwards. Completely backwards.

So I take this lesson to mean that my community comes first. My neighborhood is important. As a democratic citizen, by willingness to take part in this governing system, I live with a sense of duty to my fellow Americans as I expect them to live up to their duties. (haha. duty.)

Small acts of kindness can trump the worst of all evils. This is cliche and said everywhere and redundant and sappy. But only until it actually happens–then it’s reality.