The Santa Ynez Valley women hikers ascended Gaviota Peak last week, looked out upon fog as thick and white as a field of snow below, then walked beneath a trestle of blooming ceanothus as we came down Trespass Trail.
There are wildflowers everywhere.
Spring Equinox occurred in the Northern Hemisphere at 3:28 a.m. today, Pacific time.
Hilary in Wales tells me there are sheep with purple splotches on their backs outside her window, and “lambs with black-button eyes and noses, investigating irrelevant things like the metal of the fence, then skipping up to their mums to suckle.”
Meanwhile, at our place, a shy turtle that appeared after the rain has taken to sitting on a rock by the pond…vanishing with a splash when he senses our nearness.
My little lemon tree is heavy with fruit, lemons so hefty and numerous that I’m going to squeeze them and freeze the juice for future use. Maybe I’ll make some granita too, a summer treat for springtime.
Whales are migrating north through the channel in majestic procession, spouting v-shaped plumes of sea spray that are visible from shore.
Monte saw playful dolphins while he was out surfing, so near to him he could almost hear their breath, a mutual and peaceable awareness.
We’re getting things done: both abstract business and concrete tasks. Our paperwork is ready for taxes. My closet has been emptied of extraneous content. Monte installed storage units in the battery room, whacked weeds, and solved problems. I baked bread.
I walked with Cornelia at La Purisima Mission. We sat on sandy ground at the top of a hill overlooking the Lompoc Valley. The sun was warm, the earth hummed with life.
Beverly gave me a wooden nesting box for Western Bluebirds, tiny birds, bright blue and rust. I already have a glass bluebird-of-happiness in the window above the sink, but now I look forward to glimpsing some real ones.
It was a March birthday celebration. Kit put on a rock and roll record. Bev and I danced in the kitchen, pausing to sip wine, check the fish, and stir the mushroom risotto.
Tomorrow my daughter will be in a room in London, defending her dissertation before a panel of scholars. Whatever the outcome, I’m proud of her.
I received a message this morning from a young man I met when I visited Istanbul. He told me then about the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and so we stayed in contact, in a Facebook sort of way. “Poetry is a good reason to be friends,” he wrote today, and I couldn’t agree more. And isn’t it a miracle that we live in a time when a person in Istanbul can transmit an instant thought to some old gal in Gaviota?
Then I read these lines from “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”, one of my favorites among Nazim Hikmet’s poems: I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty/to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train/watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return.
I fell in love with the world at least three times last week and allowed myself to feel it for long moments without ache of regret or premonition of loss. I guess I had to wait until past sixty. One day I even looked at myself through a gentle lens, forgivable, if not quite forgiven.
I got an email too from a very kind man who worked at the assisted living facility where my mother used to live. “I prayed for you and your dear mother at Mass on Friday and yesterday,” he wrote. Even my Jewish mother would have recognized the love in this.
Speaking of the old ones, Lisa told me about her beloved godmother, who once went out into the light of a full moon at 2:30 a.m., despite being elderly and frail. Why? To pick figs from the fig tree in the moonlight, that’s all…no further explanation. She lost her footing, fell down, and lay there until she was discovered at dawn. But I don’t think she regretted the expedition. (I am sure I would have loved this lady.)
Nights have gotten noisy in the canyon: frogs are singing, cattle lowing, coyotes yapping. When the windows are open, we can hear the reassuring rumble of a distant train now and then, or a vessel at sea, or the sea itself.
Landis in Hawaii wrote with links to a few disturbing articles but told me to go for a good walk after I read them. Yesterday he sent images from the Stairway to Heaven hike in Oahu, in case I was in need of inspiration. His latest dispatch: “If we despair, we will have given trump yet one more victory.”
The great majority of our nation’s people recognize what is going on. The approval rating for the Parasite-in-Chief has hit a new low. Good people are rallying, meeting in church halls and living rooms, making calls, writing letters, signing petitions, sending donations, summoning up a newfound relentlessness and fighting back, seeing perhaps more clearly than ever what we love and need and refuse to lose to tyranny, incompetence, and greed.
But we are living under a pall; there’s no pretty way to say it. The shock and anger hit us daily, the revulsion, the dismay. It’s a pall, and it’s a poison, and every day brings a new assault to something we hold dear. Let the record show: we stood, we spoke, and we fought back.
Sometimes there was a dance in the kitchen. Sometimes the moon lured us outdoors. The pond turtle quietly returned. This is how it was. We continued.
The moon was shining through white wisps of fog flung like scarves upon the hills, floating scarves, and one was patterned with the black branches of a tree in the foreground, and everything was illuminated in a beautiful ghostly way. I crept out of bed as quietly as I could, which is never quiet enough, grimaced at the creak of the door when I opened it, and stood on the deck looking out. It was chilly, but worth it to be standing in the powder of starlight and glow of moon. I tried to take it in somehow, or gather it like a cloak around my being. I wanted to go back inside a little bit changed.
“What are you doing?” asked my husband as I re-entered our bed, trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid disturbing him. He sounded irritated.
“It was so beautiful, I had to go outside,” I said.
He warned me that I probably hadn’t properly shut the door, because he hadn’t heard the right noise, and that’s all we need are rodents coming in. Oh, he was definitely irritated. “You’re such an odd person,” he said, as if he had just met me.
“Why is it odd to want to watch the night when it beckons you?” I said, or something like that. He reminded me that I had fallen dead asleep twenty minutes into a movie an hour earlier, seemingly out for the night, and now suddenly I’d bolted awake to go wandering, waking him up, opening doors, going outside. Yes, odd is a word for it, he said. Or difficult.
I suppose I am difficult. High maintenance in some ways, and the sleep thing has become a big issue, and there’s a lot of angst and emotion. My husband is more functional and concrete. He tends to tangible tasks every day, both physical and intellectual, and he does them well, taking time out several times a week to go to the ocean and renew his soul on the waves, a refuge I can never know, but of which he partakes with grace and skill. By the time he goes to bed at night, he is dog tired, and falls straight into sleep with enviable efficiency. There is something unequivocal about him.
And he snores. But he also brings me coffee in the morning, and he does the dishes and pays the bills, and tells me I am beautiful, an attribute that expired long ago, but not in his eyes. Most of his frustration with me is because I act against my own self-interest. He’s crabby, but no one will ever be this protective of me, so entirely on my side…and at my side. Marriage is a constant dance of tolerance and compromise, and somehow this one works.
I began this post because I wanted to write about the moonscape, and the way it felt to be outside looking at the night and becoming part of it, and how afterwards I saw things differently and would write something lovely and transcendent. But no epiphanies have appeared, and I’m the same old pilgrim, short on sleep, and it looks like I’ve written mostly about the mundane stuff of married life. I remember now that the destination of writing is never known in advance. And it occurs to me that what else do we have but this wonderful ordinariness…until suddenly we don’t, and all we can do is yearn for it.
It was almost like a dance, wending my way toward the center along a path that sometimes seemed to be taking me ever further away, spinning within the spinning of the world, and therefore feeling still. At the start was a short walk straight in, but then a sharp u-turn curve, and a lull of a stroll to another bend, where I would steady myself for a graceful pivot, then proceed. The ground was smooth and bright with sunlight, dappled with tree shadow and garnished here and there with a red or yellow leaf, ornamental remnants of last year’s fall.
Labyrinths. The roots of the pattern reach far back into history, and labyrinth petroglyphs have been found in Europe that date even to prehistoric origins. Mosaic pavements with labyrinth symbols survive intact from the time of Ancient Rome, and the symbol was adopted by the Christian church during the Middle Ages. I found the following abstract of an article by L.K. Porter that succinctly summarizes the phenomenon:
Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, unicursal, serpentine, and often times circular labyrinth designs were inlaid into the floors of several European cathedrals, including Notre Dame of Chartres, Ravenna, and Amiens. The labyrinth’s re-emergence into popular culture through a new spiritual movement began in the early 1990’s in California. The labyrinth pattern borrowed from Medieval European cathedrals has been recreated across North America in various mediums, including inlaid stone, painted concrete, and even portable canvas. This movement has spread across North America to large metropolitan areas and small communities alike.
So I suppose that my seeking and walking this particular labyrinth, which is at Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, is consistent with a kind of California spirituality, but I don’t mind being a cliché. I had recently enjoyed a morning walk at the labyrinth at St. Mark’s in Los Olivos, and someone had suggested this one, a little oasis right downtown. I came with my friend Chris, and we first peeked into the church in need of a restroom. We could hear strains of organ music, and a young man who was practicing paused, came to the door (with a yapping chihuahua in his arms) and offered us directions. The church had a welcoming, calming ambience, and the labyrinth is right out front. A sign explains that it is a replica of one on the cathedral floor in Chartres, France, and that it is a simple path to follow, not a maze of choices designed to confuse.
I started, and Chris waited and then followed, but sometimes we found ourselves walking side by side within the labyrinth, or facing one another. We acknowledged each other at such times, but for most of the walk, we were each in our own space and thoughts…or the peaceful absence of thoughts. I formulated variations of a phrase that flickered between thanks and asking, and I tried to hold onto some sort of mantra. But my head resists even the gentlest of direction, and at times my thoughts shaped themselves into prayers, the earnest kinds I used to pray as a child, but even those fell away into the sunlight. There was traffic from State Street, the voices of passersby, someone shouting, the brief chatter of a bird…it all merged into a kind of music. And it was warm, almost too warm, and I could feel the breathing of the earth like a very near being, someone real and dear and intimate.
We often walked away from the center in order to reach the center, seeing it draw near only to discover we were headed away from it, and feeling it recede only to realize we were getting closer. Of course it was a metaphor on many levels: faith, trust, the inability to see the big picture sometimes, the oddly contradictory sense of purposeful meandering, the need to keep going even when we can’t be sure, the hope that maybe eventually it will turn out okay, and that in the meantime some of it is okay. I hunger for this message so badly now, I may be forcing it. But I felt a sense of completion afterwards, although I had accomplished nothing. And I felt I had remembered and practiced something that needed to be remembered and practiced…an old tune I hadn’t played in a very long time, a thing I’d almost lost.
In 1998, I went to Italy with my friend Donna and her mom, Sue. We rented a car at the airport in Florence; Sue and Donna took turns at the wheel and I sat in the back seat, timid and amazed. We drove around Tuscany, staying here and there in small hotels and a bed and breakfast place, eventually making our way south to Rome and Naples. It was April, and it rained almost daily. (The Italians kept apologizing for the weather.) We got lost and confused a couple of times, and once Sue drove us up what were essentially stairs at the end of a narrow alleyway. We learned to read road signs and say mi dispiace.
In addition to exploring, Sue liked to shop, and she encouraged Donna and me to loosen up, spend some lire, partake of the banquet of worldly goods. I always needed to be talked into it, but in the course of our travels, I managed to purchase a burnout velvet blouse in an elegant silver-gray color, a pair of gold hoop earrings, and a few small hand-painted ceramic bowls carefully packaged in newspaper and bubble wrap. Donna’s key acquisition was a heavy stone statue of a little girl sitting, and I can still remember her carrying it in the pouring rain through the streets of Sienna. As for Sue, she bought all sorts of things, and although I can’t recall what they were, I remember her stamina for investigating shops, her enthusiasm for color and craft, her pleasure in discovery. She surprised us once with bouquets of fresh-cut lilacs, and the day was imbued with their fragrance.
Sue was a trooper, stomping around with the two of us, despite a problem knee. I have a clear memory of her walking through a grove of olive trees outside the town of Vinci. An elderly woman called out to us from the window of an old stucco farmhouse along a dirt road. She was selling homemade figs, and we bought a little bag and shared them. They had been dried in Italian sunshine and flavored with fennel seeds, and they were the best figs I ever had, before or since. But Sue was also sad sometimes, still newly into widowhood, and you could see it in her eyes now and then despite her easy smile. She had carried with her a little vial of her husband’s ashes, and occasionally she’d fling a pinch in places he would have liked. I saw her discreetly doing that once from a bridge on the River Arno, her bright scarf blowing in the breeze. She stood and watched the water for a moment or two, then turned and walked back into the vibrant parade of life.
And I can’t remember why, but I borrowed a pair of Sue’s pajamas during one of our hotel stays. They were wonderful loose-fitting silky pajamas, the color a cross between apricot and champagne, with a subtle pin stripe pattern, a 1940s look. I felt glamorous and indulged in them; I liked the way the sheen caught the light, the way they felt against my skin, the way they moved with me. I was Rita Hayworth in those pajamas.
Sue was pleased. The material world was here to be savored, she told me, in so many words, and I deserved nice things, and really, everyone should have a pair of silk pajamas. We stood in front of a window sipping red wine and watching the night. I was in my forties then, and I didn’t even realize how ridiculously young that was, but for a moment I was a starry-eyed girl in Italy wearing silk pajamas and letting myself dream.
Sue passed away last fall, leaving a house filled with treasures and memories that Donna had to sort through. And the other day, a package arrived in the mail from Donna, a birthday present. I opened the cardboard box, undid various wrappings, and caught a glimmer of apricot silk. They’re the very same ones, said Donna.
At night I close my eyes and think of sad things, and I still hold back from extravagance, but now I wear silky pajamas to bed, and I wear them while drinking my coffee, and the morning blinks at me in wonderment and reminds me to be present.
Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I chose to spend it hiking in the Santa Barbara mountains with some very strong women. A couple of us sported red tops, whether by chance or intent, but we didn’t make proclamations, talk about politics, or stage any demonstrations apart from the quiet demonstration of resilience required to traverse eight miles of rugged backcountry. We walked along narrow brushy trails in the heat of mid-day, and crossed several fairly deep and rocky streams whose forceful currents nearly pushed me off balance. I should add that not a one of us is younger than sixty, so we’re not exactly spring chickens, as my mother used to say. No one complained. All we ever felt was glad to be there, and grateful for our mobility.
I looked around fondly at these hiking companions, all a bit faded and weathered, but sturdy and persistent, bearing backpacks and walking poles and interesting histories. These are women who have been teachers and nurses, mothers and wives and grandmothers too. There’s a skilled sailor among them, a church docent, a botanist. One is from Austria, and she is as agile as a young girl on an Alpine trek. Another spent her childhood in a small Canadian town, and one used to walk in these very mountains while a student at UCSB in the 1960s. These women came of age during second-wave feminism, before Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment, and they’ve seen a lot of changes, some of it welcome, some insufficient, and some of it wrong-headed. They are well-versed in patience as well as disappointment, smart enough to appreciate the good contained in an ordinary day, and highly attuned to the wonders of being outdoors in a beautiful place like this. All have known sorrows, glimpsed joy, and hope the future will be better. They do their part.
So yes, we know what’s going on, but yesterday was about hiking in the backcountry and coming back physically exhausted and mentally renewed. No one mentioned that name that we don’t even like to say, and there was no outrage or hand-wringing about the current issues. We had no cell phone service, no updates or alerts, no distressing news to distract us from the land and the streams and the sky.
My mind is either a desert lately or a tangled wilderness with no paths to clearings or views. I’ve been hurrying along for years, it seems, and suddenly I’m here, but I don’t know what to do. I feel separate from things, and powerless, and I’ve been sleeping poorly and don’t have any energy. The “news” is getting to me, but so is the old stuff, and I’m grateful for books to climb into, but my hands and my head are creating nothing new. And it’s warm out today, and beautiful here in the way that breaks your heart, and there’s something wrong with anyone who would stay inside with the blinds drawn. I’m going to go outside right now and look for the best part of the day. I’ll let you know if I find it.
We saw it from a long distance, glistening blue in sunlight, a sapphire set in the green. It’s a vernal pool, an ephemeral pond, an evanescent wetland offering habitat to plant and animal species that can flourish nowhere else. Nobody knows how many vernal pools dotted the California landscape in the days before the arrival of the Europeans, but agricultural expansion and industrial development eradicated most, and it felt like a privilege to glimpse this one. Recent rains had filled it well, and summer will shrink it away, but here it was, shining in its moment. It was like a little poem, all its own.
Friar Juan Crespi, diarist for the expedition of Captain Don Gaspar de Portola that set sail along the California coast in 1769, wrote this of the area: “The country is delightful, for it is covered with beautiful green grass which offered excellent pasture for the animals…” In 1791, the scout for that same expedition, Sergeant José Francisco de Ortega, was awarded a grant for more than 26,000 acres of this land, and much of it is still open grazing land, pieces of ranches that have been in operation since the old Spanish days, merging one into another in a great swathe of remarkably unspoiled country. It is in these relatively undisturbed and out-of-the-way places that vernal pools appear.
We had set out for this walk to tune out the noise, to gather ourselves together and return renewed. We knew it would make us feel better. Brush and wildflowers were in blossom, and there was good muddy earth and tall grass rippling in the wind. We walked uphill along a seldom used dirt road and at some point crossed a fence line that vaguely marks the boundary between our ranch and an adjacent one, both of which were once part of Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio.
We meandered further along a ridge toward the vernal pool and a grove of trees beyond, and suddenly in the far distance there appeared a herd of cows moving briskly, a border collie whose excited yapping carried on the wind, and a cowboy, not on a horse, but an all-terrain vehicle. We know our neighbors, more or less, and “neighbors” is a broad term in these parts, but it did occur to us that we were on the other side of the fence line. We stood motionless, but we had been seen. We descended the ridge, as quick as cats, then sat low along a hillside, staying still, feeling stalked, being children. After a long wait, we got up and stealthily made our way back to the fence line and the safe zone of our own ranch.
But oh, the vernal pool: I had seen it before, but I’d forgotten about it, and now it is in my head again, and it comforts me. What I love about this place are the quiet miracles, the wonders that unfold whether or not we notice, the reassuring touchstone of the natural world.
The rain has come in earnest. The exhilarated creek is rushing through the canyon, the hills are wet and green, the roads are muddy and now and then impassable. It’s surprisingly noisy…a continual dripping and drumming, the roar of streams and waterfalls, frog songs and cattle bluster and wind through the trees. A dead whale has washed up on the beach, gradually pushed along by tides and currents to its current location where birds and coyotes are feasting on its decaying flesh in a graphic big-screen depiction of the cycles of life. And there were brilliant rainbows late Saturday afternoon when the sun shone briefly in a lull between storms through diamond droplets suspended in the sky.
I love it here in this liquid time, when we are briefly rendered separate from the world beyond the ranch. It’s a time for wonder and contemplation, a time to feed one’s inner life. Lately I haven’t claimed the hours I need to think and read and write. Let’s face it: we are experiencing a national trauma, and every day there’s a new assault, and we are trying to cope and effectively resist, and it’s maddening. But now the elements have persuaded me to spend a few hours helping to clear debris from a creek or diverting the flow of water from a deepening puddle on the road. I am confronted with a different kind of reality, as real as those other realities and more immediate, and it demands something of me, but also releases me.
I long ago realized that if I am not writing, I don’t feel right, and that applies whether or not anybody reads my words. But I haven’t been writing. There’s so much material, but I’ve fallen silent. That was part of the original intent of this blog…it would be a place to write, possibly to connect with others, but mostly just to write. An open journal, if you will. Everyone has a blog these days, and this one is certainly less clever and splashy and important than many of those others, but I feel inclined to tend to it today.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is what it means to have been a teacher, and the privilege of having had young people in my life. The other day, in the lobby of the doctor’s office in town, I heard someone call out to me, and it was a young man who had been in my sixth grade class more than twenty years ago. I remembered him clearly, right down to a particular green jacket he used to wear, and how kind he was with the children at the Storyteller Shelter, which our class visited as volunteers once or twice. Now he’s in a wheelchair. Fourteen years ago, he climbed and fell out of a redwood tree, and that was that. In the years that followed, I know he’s been in trouble, depressed, and had lots of hard times. But today he seemed in good spirits, and he was embarking on a new chapter of his life and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “I remember our Ancient Egyptian newspaper,” he said at one point, and for some reason, that touched my heart more than anything. It’s the kind of moment when you know that being a teacher was indeed a beautiful and worthy thing to have done.
While we were talking in the lobby, yet another of my grown-up former students stepped out of an elevator and called out my name excitedly. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she said. “I need to talk to you!” Let me tell you, at this point in my life, the idea that a young person is thinking about me and even wants to talk to me is very flattering indeed, and a boost to my morale. She told me that she’s working for a local newspaper, and she was remembering the interviews we used to do. She was with us in fact when we interviewed Jackson Browne, such a memorable day. But she has questions about interviewing and writing and all sort of things…she hadn’t realized how complicated it was, and maybe we could get together and talk about it sometime. I felt special and appreciated. (I’m easy.)
I’ve had chance encounters and conversations with at least five former students in the last month or so, and the importance in my life of connecting (and staying connected) to a younger generation has been a pretty good thing for me to think about. A week ago, I also had the privilege of interviewing an extraordinary young man from South Sudan for The Living Stories Collective, and that was humbling. To me, it all reaffirms the interconnectedness of lives, and how much we have to learn from one another, and that listening, and sharing, and kindness are what matter…still, and always.
Right now, though, the rain has subsided to a mist, and I need to step outside and check things out, so this is a good place to leave off. I’ll be back, I promise, whether or not there’s anyone to read this. In short, I am still amazed…even if dismayed, discouraged, or sad…and I just feel better for having written.
This is the most recent interview I’ve done for The Living Stories Collective, the ongoing oral history project and website that I told readers about earlier here. I’ve decided to share it on this blog in addition to the LSC website because it was one of the most moving interviews I’ve done recently, and it’s incredibly relevant to what is happening in our country today.
Nyuol Tong’s story is a testament to unlikely outcomes and breathtaking possibility but, as he puts it, he’s in “a dark phase” today. A graduate of Duke University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently the inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, Nyuol was born in the South Sudanese village of Ayeit during a time of horror and chaos. In the 1990’s, armed militiamen came in search of his father and demanded that the six-year-old Nyuol tell them where he was. He has written about it: “When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in, and began to fire. Luckily I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence, and sent my mother, siblings, and me to Khartoum. From there we sought asylum in Egypt.”
For six years, Nyuol and his family lived a hard life as refugees in their own country, fleeing to Cairo in 2003. In Cairo, Nyuol met an American University professor who took an interest in him, recognized his ability and his yearning for education, and helped to maneuver a student visa and scholarship for him to attend high school at Dunn. Nyuol is acutely aware of his extraordinary good fortune and has sought to find ways of giving back. While a student at Dunn, he founded a nonprofit organization called SELFSudan that has built a school in his village. “I survived,” he wrote in 2012, “but more than two million people were killed in the war, with more dying even today.”
On this particular day, Nyuol has graciously agreed to sit down and talk to me (and one of his former teachers, Vickie Gill) for an oral history project called The Living Stories Collective, not so much to discuss the past, but to try to make sense of this very present moment in America, a time that for Nyuol evokes trauma, grief, and a sense of betrayal. With his thin frame, gentle manner, and elegant bearing, Nyuol seems almost too slight to carry the unimaginable burden of what he has witnessed and experienced, but it is with him always. He’s distinctively soft-spoken, with a gentle demeanor and poetic kind of eloquence. Part of it is a matter of linguistics, as he explains:
NLT: My mother tongue, the Dinka language, works differently. It rises and falls, as opposed to English, where everything rises and keeps going up. Ours rises and then goes down, almost to a whisper, or even silence. When people talk, it’s beautiful. It goes quieter and quieter. So sometimes, I’m very soft-spoken, especially when I’m passionate. I feel like I’ve dissolved into the language, if that makes sense, and my body, my gestures, pauses and stutters, become my only words.
CCW: You told me earlier that you feel comfortable in words. Maybe it’s because your native language is so beautiful to hear…and wrap around you…like a cloak.
NLT: It’s a monosyllabic language. Every syllable is a word. But it’s also a language that is resistant to abstraction. Abstract concepts, like freedom, for instance, don’t exist as words. We need to use a metaphor to describe freedom, that is the experience or condition of being free or living in freedom. LääuNhom or NhomLääu, depending on your Dinka dialect, is the phrase for freedom or liberation. It literally means ‘spacious mind’ or ‘mind at ease.’ To be free is to have a mind that is un-crowded, a mind free of noise and distraction; it’s to live in a condition of relative autonomy, unencumbered by external pressures or forces. I also like that the notion of freedom relates to attitude, to feeling, to thinking, to our mental state, and to space.
CCW: It’s like poetry, a language of poetry.
NLT: Yes. Every word is packed with all manner of meanings and associations. The word Tak, which is my favorite word, means to think, to remember, to long, and to invent. In other words, the very definition of a human being. I like how time and space, history and memory, imagination and invention, all these things are housed in that one word. Everything is related, and that radical relationality of everything is suggested by that word.
CCW: Your story is truly amazing, Nyuol, and although we want to have a more contemporary conversation, maybe you can just re-cap for us how it is that you came to California.
NLT: The circumstances of my coming here say something about the American values that are being destroyed right now. A kind, generous, welcoming America. I was a refugee in Cairo, Egypt, and a Dunn alumna, Brooke Comer, was living in Egypt and teaching at the American University in Cairo, and during breaks she would organize writing workshops for refugee children, and I was one of the kids that attended her writing workshop. I wrote a lot in Arabic, and we became friends, and somehow she managed to convince Dunn to give me a scholarship. I had no formal education or any credible academic background to speak of, but Dunn accepted me. So that’s how I came to be here. Brooke had her department at the American University raise money for my plane ticket, and she managed to find a family to host me in my first year, and then Dunn had me board for the last three years. I’ve been living in America since, and become a part of many American families and lives, just as many have become a part of mine.
It was very generous. And so when I say I feel betrayed, it’s that there is a generosity that is truly American that this administration doesn’t see, or appreciate. A refugee like me, found a home here. A sense of belonging. Let me explain: being a refugee is a perpetual kind of homecoming in which you move from place to place, each place holding the promise of some kind of security, stability, a community to which to belong at last, but of course that rarely happens, and so you start to look for another home again, prepare for another homecoming. That was my life as a refugee. But when I came to America, I felt like I had finally arrived, found that community in which I could begin anew. My arrival in America was not haunted by the usual specter of departure that attended all my arrivals in the past. For years I’ve been secure in the knowledge this country is my home, and since November, that sense of belonging is precarious.
Now it feels different. There’s a feeling of abandonment, of rejection, of departure. Even though the court has ruled against the ban, the idea itself, the gesture…for me it means that for all my trust and confidence in my belonging to America, I am being told that actually I don’t. My strangeness, my foreign-ness is being highlighted. There is this negative light shed on it. And even if I don’t get deported, I know now that I don’t belong to this society. The ban has re-inscribed the figure of the refugee onto me. It’s the way I am always going to be.
all this you knew, but never guessed you’d come to know there are homecomings without home
Derek Walcott’s words describe what I’ve known all my life. My life is nothing but a series of homecomings without home.
I know the symbolic importance of America to many refugees. There is a sense in which you feel that America is a horizon of possibility, a place for which you can long and endeavor to land eventually. This is an uncanny thing, but America is so familiar to everybody, that the desire to come to America, the want to come to America, is so familiar that it feels like nostalgia sometimes. Even when you’re in the refugee camps, it feels like nostalgia. You’re nostalgic for a country in which you’ve never lived, of which you know so little.
Being A Refugee (Nyuol Lueth Tong)
CCW: You’re so articulate, Nyuol, and while you’re talking, my heart is breaking. We’re appalled that this is happening. It’s mortifying.
VG: It is mortifying…but in some ways, this has been a cosmic kick in the butt for me. I haven’t been that politically active since college, and now every day, I’m writing letters, trying to be involved, mobilizing to help with children in families that are threatened. We see now how wrong things can go if people like us get lazy. So in that sense it’s been a good thing. Maybe we needed this. It got our attention. But it’s ugly. And there’s so much fear.
NLT: There’s a sense of victimhood felt by white people because the pie is being shared. It’s not their exclusive privilege anymore.
CCW: So it’s like if others can have it, they’re taking it away from me, there’s less for me.
NLT: The pie is being shared. We’re closer to equality than we’ve ever been in history. The piece is smaller because there are more people demanding their share, mostly people that white power has kept away from the table for a long time.
And if you look at the argument that the “others” are a threat to our way of life, or they are lazy, it’s just not true. No one works harder than those refugees and immigrants. They’re working really hard. They’ve been working hard all their lives.
Generally, the return to nationalism, especially in Europe and America, is not sustainable, and those who want to restore that kind of parochialism know it. You cannot keep the refugees away from your doors. It’s not sustainable.
As they say, nothing is more dangerous than a dying animal. That’s what Trump is. White power is dying, and the white establishment knows this, the Rest, as it were, are coming and are demanding their share, and the West is not dealing with this reality responsibly. In America, white power is using its wildest card, Trump, the bully of bullies. The racist, the sexist, the ignorant. The guy who doesn’t care about history, or the moral arc of history. He is the last white man standing in the name of white supremacy, and though he is doing damage he will not last, he will go down but he will not go down quietly. White supremacy will not die quietly.
And there is nothing more dangerous than a villain who knows he’s a villain. There’s no appealing to his conscience. You cannot bully him. You cannot shame him. You cannot appeal to the better of angels of his nature, because I dare say the angels of kindness and empathy and integrity have abandoned him, and he has none. That’s why when you share stories of refugees, photos of people dying, videos of people in poverty, it doesn’t affect him. Firing people, destroying jobs—he’s been doing that himself for years. He doesn’t care. He’s a villain who knows he’s a villain. You cannot hold him accountable using our basic common decency. Our sense of right and wrong doesn’t apply to him. How do you deal with someone like that?
It’s a vacuum of leadership. We basically don’t have a president, and what does that mean? I struggle making sense of the Republican Congress, both the Senate and the House. I don’t get how they could align themselves with him. Some of them are decent leaders, people with a sense of history, and yet they have aligned themselves with someone who in the long term will destroy the republic. I don’t get that.
CCW: Craven desire to hang onto power, I guess, and pushing their own agenda. It’s disgusting. You would think that at some point, a line would have been crossed, and integrity would kick in, a willingness to stand up for some greater value that’s at stake. We have to turn things around somehow, but it’s terribly discouraging and overwhelming at times. You were saying earlier that your response right now is to be somewhat more introspective.
NLT: The America that elected Trump, I don’t know that America. I have no clue who they are. A big part of this is that liberals enjoy this sense of moral high ground. It’s as though they’ve won the argument of history, if you will. And that has given them a certain confidence, where they’re not willing to even have a dialogue with those who oppose them. For example, if we have never had a conversation with a truly racist person, that’s a problem. It means we live in a world that is truly bifurcated…that’s divided…that’s polarized. It means that our appreciation or our understanding of what is true and what is false is wrong, so it makes sense that there are alternative notions of what is a fact, because we live in different epistemologies, different spheres of thinking, feeling, relating, dreaming, policy-making. Even though we live in the same country, we live different political realities. There are two Americas, and they don’t like each other or talk to each other.
Trump doesn’t seem to understand history, and he doesn’t care about it, and he’s surrounded himself with people who don’t care about history either. Or perhaps his thoughts are foreign to us, because we don’t have the linguistic codebook, we don’t have the cipher–he speaks in codes. But he has validated ignorance and given it content. So we are talking about ignorance as being powerful and content-rich, not as something empty. And it’s not pretty. It’s dark.
CCW: Do you want to share some thoughts about literature in this time of Trump?
NLT: The election of Trump has made me reconsider my reading priorities or how I invest my attention. There is a filtering that has happened to my bookshelf, what matters, what is worth reading, and what is not. But also stylistically and formally. Fiction has enjoyed relative autonomy, a distance from reality for some time, especially with MFAs, and it being this veritable industry. You can just write your novel about whatever you want. There are countless novels published every year. So many books. But there are few books about real things coming out these days. Many of the so-called literary works are metaphors about metaphors, metaphors within metaphors, and for all their technical virtuosity, all their literariness, all their knowingness, most of them barely offer any solace now.
I think literature has to be direct. The artifice has to go away. I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin these days. His essays in particular, how he eloquently engages, and articulates very complex things, not just about his own issues with America and what America means to him as a black man, as a black gay man, but also about challenges in the black community. All Baldwin’s writing is self-indicting. And that I think is a beautiful thing, and literature can teach us that.
In Trump’s era, we need to find a new kind of eloquence, an eloquence that registers this frustration, this anarchy, this so-called post-truth world. We need to find ways. How do we write in a world in which truth is absent? We need to find ways to restore truth, summon the power of truth in our politics.
Otherwise what will be the lasting impact of this madness on our grammar? There’s a lot of fracturing that’s happening. On the one hand, we need to read great literature, we need to read a lot, we need to share books, we need to find books that comfort us, but also, literature has to own up to some of this. We need to find a way. As a writer, I don’t want to have the kind of confidence I once had in grammar. There’s something ungrammatical about what’s happening in America, and we need to understand it. We need to “get” that. We need to understand it. We need to make sense of bigly and majorly. And deal with it.
CW: So it’s not that the literature should replicate this, but that literature should acknowledge it somehow?
NLT: And deal with it. That’s the only way we can break through it. We shouldn’t try to correct or impose any coherence or grammar on this incoherence, this mumbo-jumbo that’s happening. We need to actually find a way to evoke it as well. Because I think literature provides a safe space where you can inhabit even chaos and not be destroyed by it. And we can do that. I’d like someone to write a book from the point of view of Trump, try at least. What would that look like? That would be interesting. That’s what literature can do.
CCW: And I think you mentioned earlier you are working on a novel…?
NLT: For the last four years. I’m always going through different drafts. South Sudan became a country in 2011, then in 2013 it disintegrated into a civil war, and that of course impacted my own family. I haven’t been home since because of instability. I have a sense of disillusionment, and that of course impacts my writing too. And now with America also, the two places I call home are pretty much places I don’t want to be associated with. So, intellectually, I’m kind of lost, there’s no narrative, there is no history to which I can appeal and make sense of things. Or there is history, but it’s so dark, so unpredictable, so devastating, that it’s almost impossible to find any stable ground from which to start.
CCW: I know we need to wrap up, but you told me earlier that you were mourning, and that these feelings of devastation and grief were difficult to overcome. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your current frame of mind, and how you’re dealing with things?
NLT: It’s a very dark phase I am in these days. Death. Death. Death. To survive death, we assume what comes next is life. But it’s not. It’s something else. It’s another kind of death. It’s as though there are no narratives anymore. This is where I find myself these days. There are no stories. Every narrative feels fraudulent right now. I’ve told my story to raise money for the school, but there’s a part of it that feels fraudulent, something feels wrong. It’s a betrayal of sorts, to narrate and make sense, it’s a cheapening of sort, but of what, I don’t know.
Death, in many philosophical traditions and religions, is regarded as the ultimate consummation of creation, a mediating force that gives our existence a kind of plot, a storyline, a trajectory of sorts. But when you are well acquainted with death, when you live with death, when death in your life is already arrived, when death has made permanent residence in your home, it’s quite difficult to discern the contours of your life. Especially when something in the present evokes the past, like this fear mongering and hatred and bigotry and cynicism that Trump has occasioned, this darkness that is not too dissimilar to what has been happening in Sudan for many decades, it’s hard not to despair.
VG: You’re grappling with the unknowable.
CCW: But what steadies you? What gives you strength?
NLT: I don’t know. There’s not a lot of intentionality in it. Of all the sufferings that one endures as a refugee, hope is the most difficult. It’s not willed. It’s not you saying, “I’m going to be hopeful.” It just happens. Hope is often borne out of hopelessness. Refugees are the few survivors, at least in the case of South Sudan during its protracted wars, they are the ones who have made it out, the ones whom death has given a pass, to whom death has shown kindness. When you have been avoided by death – not avoided death, but avoided by death – you learn that it has nothing to do with your will.
So, to answer your question, I keep going because I have to, because there’s nothing else to do. Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” There’s nothing intentional, or heroic, or poetic about it. If anything, what you feel is probably embarrassment, a bit of shame too, that you were spared, ignored by death. And there is nothing heavier to bear than death’s mercy, but I suppose that’s what you have to bear and come to terms with, every day, the debt you have to pay, the reason you have to carry on, and carry on we must.
Yesterday as I looked out onto the hills and sea beyond, all the craziness and sadness receded, and for a moment, this was the only reality I knew. So many worlds within the world, I thought. So many moments happening within this moment.
I’ve been sick. And I’m also tired and angry and overloaded with input, trying to take what action I can, and at the same time feeling that the game is rigged against us. How is it possible that so many voters would relinquish precious freedoms and place their trust in people who are this brazenly sinister, corrupt, and dangerous?
They’re misguidedly gleeful about it even now. But my role is not to convince or convert or even any longer try to understand those others. I’ve had enough exasperating encounters to realize that we are not confronting reason, but rather a kind of brainwashing, a mind set calcified in bitterness and vindictiveness. (Maybe underneath that there is fear, frustration, and a troubling kind of ignorance, but this cannot be our focus now.) No–instead of wasting time and energy there, we need to look to ourselves and our allies, and how we got here, and how to turn it around. We cannot lose momentum, because this is unfolding with stunning aggression and speed.
I’ve been wondering lately, as I watch the shameful shenanigans of the Republicans, led by people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell: whatever happened to moral courage? With rare and tentative exceptions, they all seem spinelessly willing to go along with the naked insanity and corruption of the emperor and his puppet masters as long as they believe they can shove through their reactionary agenda (callously knocking people off their health care coverage, removing ethics accountability and environmental protections, diluting crucial barriers between state and religion…I could go on.) At what point will the transgressions become sufficiently abhorrent that even members of the GOP will stand up in brave, unequivocal opposition? And maybe it’s time to demand a mental health evaluation of this Frankenstein they’ve helped create. (I’m not kidding.)
My friend Jeanne shared a memory in an email yesterday:
“I am reminded this morning of the day many years ago when my Republican father became a Democrat. He announced his new perspective with shaving soap on half his face, having come from his morning absolutions half-done, the radio announcement of the Kent State killings of 1970 still playing in the bathroom. He said he could no longer belong to a party that could massacre its own children. I will never forget the look on his face, but most of all the tears in his eyes. I had never seen that before. There will be other good people now who will do the same, finally understanding what is happening here.”
I just hope it can happen fast enough. I’m trying to balance alarm and clarity.
Last night I dreamed about my dear brother Eddie, now gone nearly twenty-five years. He tried so hard to have the simple things so many take for granted. He was intelligent and kind, but born with the time bomb of a kidney disease that rendered him at the mercy of strangers, medical technology, constraints, complexities, and vicissitudes of funding far beyond his control. He missed out on so much, and he died at forty-five, but you know what? Life never turned him mean.
It’s the meanness I hate, most of all, in what I am seeing.
But I’ll close with these words by Edna St. Vincent Millay, because I still believe in poetry and hope and the better angels:
From the apprehensive present, from a future packed
With unknown dangers, monstrous, terrible and new—
Let us turn for comfort to this simple fact:
We have been in trouble before . . . and we came through.