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I Want to Be Carried

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Sunday, 10th April, 2016
13:13
Longing

(This post is part 2 of the Brooklyn Chronicles: reflections of my ex-pat life, based on John Crowley’s 2015 movie Brooklyn.)

This is not a critical analysis of Brooklyn, John Crowley’s 2015 movie. Nor is it a love letter to Nick Hornby (who wrote the screenplay) and Colm Tóibín, although that could be its unintended destination. This is a journey, a reflection of how Brooklyn touched me, and the associations it pulled and triggered from the depths of my ex-patriot personal experience.

I am not an Irish woman leaving home in 1951 for the foreign shores of America, drifting alone into the streets of Brooklyn. But if there were ever a more apt description of what the past few years of my life has felt like, I guess I might have written it myself. In lieu of that, I prescribe this movie to anyone who has ever experienced, witnessed, or survived the crippling plague of displacement, homesickness, doubt, and wonder.

There should be very few spoilers, insomuch as I assume you might figure out that Brooklyn is a movie about a girl who emigrates to America from Ireland. If that’s a spoiler, sorry!)

*

I wrote four poems when we lived in Amsterdam. Only one of them was about life there.

I Want to Be Carried
Emma Sedlak

Today, my third floor flat
has become an Everest:
an unrepentant ascent.
So much of living
in a foreign country
is about swimming upstream.

The gulls are tethered
to the winds, buoyed
in the air like puppets.
Below, withdrawn
and lonely houseboats
strain against their moorings,
sink back steadily into the drift.

Not everything is difficult;
moments of ease wash
over like headlights.
I sit backwards on buses
because I want to be carried.
Out on the sleeping streets,
breezes lift the leaves,
help them fall.

When we lived in Amsterdam, everything was in a foreign language. The Dutch speak perfect English (often better than we do!), but we shopped at markets for the first few months to avoid the inevitable linguistic breakdown of trying to decode Dutch labels in the grocery store. At least we could recognise vegetables in real life without having to know what they were called.

At the market, we had a Cheese Guy. He was awesome, but didn’t speak very much English. Since cheese was, and is, very important to me, I was determined not to let a mere difference in language  deter my mission.

“Are you still trying to teach me Dutch?” I ask him.

“Yes – trying.”

And then it hits me:

There are so many things I want to say to him that I’ll never be able to.

— from ‘Vier – Negentig‘ (December, 2011)

Learning takes a lot of energy. Learning places, faces, routines, gestures, customs, language, rituals, politenesses. Learning how and when to admit: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What does that mean?” Learning to translate internally, learning to observe, and watch, and assimilate, and participate.

This is especially true living somewhere with a new language. But even when we speak in English, a common language doesn’t solve my sense of displacement.

*

I still love Surry Hills when I walk through it. It feels like my first Sydney home. We lived in temporary business accommodation on Crown Street for two weeks when we arrived (read: short-term apartment rentals). Surry Hills library was the first Sydney library I met. There’s a 5-block stretch of Crown Street embedded in my memory of places – it was the first part of Sydney I met. It’s true: first impressions absolutely dig deep into the long-term memory and lodge there.

I don’t know what I’m trying to recognise. I’m just glad when part of the new city jumps out as a place I’ve been before.

*

When I went to the doctor’s for the first time in Randwick, I met Dr. Brittain. Ironically, his name instilled a sense of comfort in me. Then, I discovered he had actually practiced in the UK, and new quite a bit about the US medical system. At one of our appointments, he tried to explain to me where I might fill my prescription, then said: “I forget. You don’t even know where to buy newspapers right now.”

It wasn’t condescension. It was a clear explanation. I was grateful that I happened to find the perfect doctor who could explain everything to me in terms of how it related – or differed – from the UK and US medical systems. Co-pays. Insurance. Prescriptions. Appointments. Referrals. He knew how to translate for me, and it helped me figure out more questions to ask.

*

When Andrew turned 30 this year, I wanted to record a video of 30 friends and family members sending him love and birthday wishes. But it just happened to be a few months after we had moved to Sydney. And I got many more volunteers than I expected; all of it accumulated into a 45-minute video.

When I showed it to him, Andrew got through the first 5 minutes and then left the room crying (I’m really glad I wasn’t recording a reaction video). I thought it would be a salve to help the transition of being far, far away from almost everyone we love. It didn’t help. It was too soon.

This year for my birthday Andrew took me for a drink at Baxters, a Sydney whisky bar. I teared up for a few minutes. I miss Scotland. Almost every day. I hadn’t expected to be sharing my birthday with Scotland. The longing was temporarily overwhelming, and then we went back to celebrating.

*

I’ve been an ex-pat for how many years? That’s a difficult question for me to answer, because being an ex-pat (“ex-patriot”) relies on a central place to call home. Which country is the one I’ve departed from? I introduce myself as Scottish-American, when in Sydney I don’t really sound like either of those. Recently, people have told me that my British accent is sounding very Australian. But there’s still so many Aussie references that fly straight over my head.

The act of living in different countries affords great chances to adapt, to learn new places, becoming fluent in new contexts. I may only speak English with a smattering of Dutch and Italian — but I’m multi-lingual in cultures and how to set up foundations.

In Scotland, our landlord wanted to put the flat on the market to sell it. Knowing that we would be moving to Australia in 6 months, we packed up and moved to another area of Edinburgh. We were packing up to move apartments, but it was like a trial version of the packing up we did 6 months later to move countries. It’s not something we did on purpose, but it became a good exercise in letting go, paring down, distilling to essentials (even though we still moved to Australia with too much stuff. I would blame my books, but literature can never do wrong in my eyes).

All of this came with the inherent echo of: I’ve done this before. It both instills confidence, and feels discouraging. Another new city to get lost in. Another culture to decode. Another community to build, brick by brick, person by person. Another time zone to keep track of.

When I get exhausted by the constant learning, the constant adapting, I look for small ways to let myself be carried. I sit backwards on the bus. I spend whole days in bookstores. I have tea and lunch with other ex-pat friends and I ask them to temporarily help me carry the international burden of separation. The hardship of missing what we left, as it weighs against the gift of being where we are.

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An Unreasonable Cover Letter

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(If this cover letter had a title, it would be: All I’ve ever wanted is to live a life of purpose; and yet, here I am reading the CliffNotes.)[i]

 

“Relationship is the key to knowledge,
and creativity is the key to the whole cosmos.”

– Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work

Dear Unreasonable Group,

Last week, my friend Ben gave me Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth. It was our first coffee date: we’d barely known each other a week. But it was important to him.[ii] And from our first meeting at the LinkFestival conference he got a good enough view of who I was to think I might resonate with it too.[iii]

I scanned it; words jumped out at me (think: Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, or Cumberbatch’s Sherlock). Flipping to the second page I told him, “This definitely resonates.”

“What the hell?” he asked, “You haven’t even read it!”

I went back to the first page, and pointed at number 11: “_____________. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.”

I said, “I think this is genius. I can already tell it’s for me.”

If I were to write my own job description, it would include the importance of intuitive reading. I tell people that a book might be made for reading from beginning to end, but that’s not what my mind was made for. I cross-read, cross-reference, ideate, connect, and bridge narrative gaps. This job description would be a job for someone who sees both the forest and the trees, and can oscillate back and forth between large-scale vision and specific details. My zone of genius is in diving deep. Into multiple ideas. Simultaneously. With mental K’Nex sets.

Some of my unconventional skills: picking out grammar and spelling mistakes before you’ve even written them; pattern recognition; reading people; practicing Circling and other inter-subjective relational meditations[iv]; taking extensive notes; making a list and checking it thrice so all the details are covered.

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize my unique creative perspective for what it is: an asset. I don’t see content like other people might. I’m an avid reader, a professional writer, and a creative thinker – but these are just the forefront of a very different set of foundational skills. I’m a philosopher, which shapes the way I inquire, interrogate, search, question, and revolutionize possible solutions. I’ve also worked as a professional singer and actress, which I use in coaching presentation, delivery, speech and performance skills. Pair performance with philosophy, and I can watch a presentation with one lens for content, and another lens for emotional narrative design.[v]

Also, I can read a page in less than 30 seconds.

The technical things: I’ve recently worked as Lead Content Developer and Editor at Get Storied, the online school of Business Storytelling. Using my experience of 10+ years in editing, I developed membership programs, executed online events, produced team communications, and created strategic content. I demonstrated exceptional writing, editing, verbal communication, networking with external contributors and teachers, and negotiation skills with a remote team. I helped Get Storied create and maintain a consistent voice, tone, and house style, while constantly bringing our attention to our own brand guidelines. The more I read about your work at Unreasonable, the more I want to offer my skills and support to your journey.[vi]

Working for Get Storied also afforded me a background in Business Storytelling. I was responsible for curating their in-house library of assets and resources (my inner librarian is showing); this has provided me with many insights in the most effective use of storytelling in branding and marketing.[vii] Stories are how we stay human. What greater hope can we have for the future of business than that it might embrace our quality of being-as-humans-in-the-world, instead of merely consumers?

In the current digital climate, I don’t think we have time for less effective solutions. I do pay attention to a company’s tone and grammar, because it tells me whether they value an editor. I’ve spent most of my time pitching for the importance of innovative content. I’d love to focus more of my energy in actually building it, rather than fighting for it. I want to disrupt the stories we tell about things we think are impossible. I deal in potentials, and I’m always driving to a place of evolution.

How I work: I demonstrate consistency in on-going projects. I’m able to switch to fast-twitch skills for deadline sprints and tight production schedules. My roles in app development (Poptime) and a technology education start-up (One Month) allowed me to collaborate with graphic designers, coders, tech specialists, directors, product managers, and user experience designers. In short: I play very well with others. I know the value of having a posse. Especially if that posse is comprised of people who know a lot about what I might not.

As a professional researcher, scribe, and polymath, I’m applying for the position of Associate Editor and Staff Writer with you at Unreasonable. I feel like you are my people. I think we both believe in skill and magic. What a fortuitous combination.

As an inter-personal human being, I’d like to come by for a cup of tea and play with your dogs. But I’d settle for Skype or my next assignment.

Best,

Dr. Emma Sedlak[viii]

*

[i] Let me just tell you now: this cover letter has endnotes. You don’t have to read them: most of the important stuff happens before this. If anyone in the office a) knows the Enneagram, and b) is a number 5 (let’s say, George? Arya?), feel free to share. George and Arya might get a kick out this.

[ii] I thrive on knowing what is important to people. I’m also great in creative tissue ideation (yes, I just coined that term). If I know one book you like, chances are good that I can pull out my biblotherapy prescription pad and offer up something new. (This is one of many perks I bring to the office. Another: I’m British. So I make excellent tea.)

[iii] Tech + design + social change = LinkFestival (put on by Engineers Without Borders)

[iv] I would explain Circling, but you’re from Boulder. And you deal in Radical Transparency. So I’ll bet money that I’m preaching to the choir. That’s actual money, not interSubjective relational money.

[v] Okay, this is important. I think stories and human-centered design are what will drive the new economy forward. If we’re not telling stories properly (in words, in person, about our vision, about ourselves), how can we cut to the heart of authentic connection? And isn’t that what any business is about: relationship?

[vi] Yes, this absolutely includes the vision of your Manifesto. I completely geeked out over all of that.

[vii] I just hit 500,000 followers on Pinterest. #Humblebrag (Just kidding. I hate hashtags. At least, that one). But I value good visual stories.

[viii] Don’t be put off by the “Dr.” I slaved for three years to be able to use it, so of course it’s on all my credit cards. When we board planes, my husband reminds me: “Don’t raise your hand. You can’t heal people with poetry.”

Oh no? Challenge accepted.

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Value Beyond Money

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Thursday, 10th March, 2016
22:01
Fulfilled

(This post is part 1 of the Brooklyn Chronicles: reflections based on John Crowley’s 2015 movie Brooklyn.)

This is not a critical analysis of Brooklyn, John Crowley’s 2015 movie. Nor is it a love letter to Nick Hornby (who wrote the screenplay) and Colm Tóibín, although that could be its unintended destination. This is a journey, a reflection of how Brooklyn touched me, and the associations it pulled and triggered from the depths of my ex-patriot personal experience.

I am not an Irish woman leaving home in 1951 for the foreign shores of America, drifting alone into the streets of Brooklyn. But if there were ever a more apt description of what the past few years of my life has felt like, I guess I might have written it myself. In lieu of that, I prescribe this movie to anyone who has ever experienced, witnessed, or survived the crippling plague of displacement, homesickness, doubt, and wonder.

There should be very few spoilers, insomuch as I assume you might figure out that Brooklyn is a movie about a girl who emigrates to America from Ireland. If that’s a spoiler, sorry!)

*

Before Eilis leaves for America, her sister Rose stands in her bedroom helping her pack.

“I can’t believe that’s all you own,” she says, as they both look at Eilis’ single suitcase. (In the book, she has two suitcases – and she’s unendingly concerned about how she will negotiate dragging them on her own. While the movie prioritises the sparseness of her possessions, Book-Eilis’ two-suitcase problem of autonomy is one I know intimately.)

You can tell Rose is upset, perhaps ashamed, that Eilis doesn’t own more clothes, nicer things. It’s not her fault. While Rose has a full-time job, Eilis can’t find one. Of course she wouldn’t have the money for these things.

Rose says, “If it were that easy, I would spend my every last penny on you. But I can’t buy you a future – the kind of life you need.”*

That line was a Nick Hornby addition. In Tióbín’s book, Rose barely discusses the move with Eilis (yes, I have read this far!); instead, she organises the emigration with Father Flood and eventually gets her mother on board.

But I’m grateful for this moment in the movie. I think it fleshes out the narrative motivations more explicitly.

I am not offering you more money, or a better job, or nicer clothes. I did this so you could have a future.

I imagine that was a typical refrain in the emigrant-immigrant experience: where – somewhere over a stretch of land or expanse of sea – a shift occurs from being someone who leaves one country, to someone arriving in another. We are no longer emigrating. We are no longer what we have left behind. Now we are immigrants, already  changed by our destination – even before we arrive.

We think migration is a pattern of history. But it happens all the time. Fleeing war, chasing stronger economies, looking for global opportunities, international transfers, to move closer to family in other countries, to seek out new horizons.

I think what Rose tells Eilis is important. Historically, we connect migration with economics, with the ability to make more money, to escape famine or scarcity of employment. But it’s too easy to associate migrations with opportunity: new jobs, new land, new families, new chances to make money, to have a better life than the one left behind. That was never the whole picture.

“If that was all this was, I would spend every last penny I earned on you.”

“If this were only about money, I would give you all of mine to keep you here.”

“If only this were about money. But it’s not. It’s about so much more.”

“What you need most deeply is nothing I can buy for you.”

“I can’t pay for what this experience will give you.”

Over the years, I’ve moved away from the economy of things, into embracing the experience economy. Part of this comes from being married to a Service Designer, who often works in User Experience (UX) design, whose hands are elbow-deep in intangible projects. It’s hard enough to explain to people: “What do you mean he designs services? Designs experiences?

Except, once you start to subscribe to this philosophy – it makes perfect sense.

There is more to life than what you can pay for.

I’ve seen the humourous slogans (“If you think money can’t buy happiness, you haven’t been to a bookstore”). I don’t care about new clothes, a big house, a big car, the newest gadgets – but new books make me swoon. I do get it.

And I know money makes things easier. Sometimes I get caught up in the comparison game. Not the “keeping-up-with-the-Smiths-and-Joneses,” but the overwhelming context of: A just bought a new car, B just had a baby, C just bought a house, D just paid off all his student loans. Georgia told me a few days ago: “Don’t be jealous of other people’s money. Everyone has their own financial journey.” I’m trying. But I’m surrounded by people achieving great things, and a lot of those achievements are financial milestones.

It’s taken me years to let go of that, and to clarify what my own financial goals are. Am I someone who wants a big house? To take nice vacations? To buy new clothes and go to expensive events? Some of this feels like excess to me (although I know I have a lot of leeway to say that, when I’ve been lucky enough to live in some highly-desirable vacation destinations).

Do I want a home? Yes. Do I walk by the houses and apartments by Coogee and Clovelly, and imagine what my own library would look like with that sea view? Absolutely. But I’ve done the same thing on the Isle of Skye, on Iona, in Tobermoray (in Tobermoray, we even discussed the investment opportunity of buying a Post Office that was going out of business). I have visions for what I would like to build, what I would like my space and environment to look like, and where I would like to turn the key at the end of the day and call home.

But it’s not at the top of my priority list. It’s not an immediate, right-now goal. And neither are the new clothes, or the fancy car (upcoming blog series: Why we haven’t owned a car for 5 years…), or the luxury items, jewelry, gadgets… I’ve even put a cap on book purchases.

It’s true: we moved to Sydney for a new job. But the choice to emigrate doesn’t just come down to economics. It can’t. That would be putting a price tag on how much money it would take for me to leave my friends, my family, the city I’ve called home, the country I love. For Eilis, it would be like putting a price tag on how much it would take for her to leave everything she has ever known.

No amount of money can fully propel us into the unknown. What urges us to leave? It’s the call of possibility, the spirit of discovery, the lure of building something new. Some people weigh that up against the world they know, and decide to stay.

We decided to take the leap.

Last night, Andrew and I biked home from a workout in Clovelly and stopped by Coogee Beach in the twilight. With a soundtrack of guitar buskers, squawking seagulls, and the waves crashing on the beach, we sat under the stars to think.

“What are we doing here?” he asked me.

“I don’t know.” I admitted. It’s a question I’ve asked myself constantly over the past 10 months. “But it’s beautiful.”

“What’s beautiful?”

“This,” I said. The scene in front of us. “The beach, and the sky, and the atmosphere. The Australian lifestyle. The chance that we have to be here at all.”

Why are we here? We didn’t come here for the money. We didn’t come here for the job, although it often looks that way. We seem to have come here with a large shipment of uncertainty.

I tell my students all the time: “I’m less concerned about you having the right answers. I’m more concerned about you asking the best questions.”

Sometimes I wonder whether we came here looking for better questions. The kind without a price tag. The kind that have no immediate answers.

 

 

* (All quotes from the movie are pretty much summarized as per my memory and references from scribbled notes in the cinema darkness. Apologies for any inaccuracies.)

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Holding Hands In Our Sleep

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Tuesday, 8th March 2016
7:38
Grateful

I received a really welcomed, tentative acceptance email this morning: The Poets’ Republic would like to publish one of my poems. Why was it tentative?

Thank you for your submission, which I enjoyed very much. I am now going to make a suggestion, and if it does not suit you, I apologise… So, I’ll take a deep breath and hope what I’m about to say is at best acceptable and at worst is something you can reject but feel hopeful about, and please feel confident that we would very much like to see future submissions from you.

I feel that your poem Questioning is stronger without the last stanza. I absolutely love how the poem opens, and both as a standalone poem, and in the context of The Poets’ Republic, I think it would work very well indeed as a two stanza poem. How would you feel it we were to publish it in that form? We would be delighted if we could.

If that does not work for you, I understand completely, and I wish you every success in placing your poem elsewhere. If you would let us know whether you would like us to publish your poem in two stanza form or not by Friday 11th March that would be marvellous,

With thanks and good wishes,

I read the email upon waking up: in my confused and wondering mental state, it was really endearing (spoiler: it still is). I understand why she would be nervous, taking a deep breath, hoping for the best reception of this suggestion. I’ve had an Editor make cuts to my submissions before — the first time it happened, it was very patronising. It was: there are erroneous things here and you need to do a better job at honing them, at driving them out to get to the good meat. (My words, not his. He probably said: this shorter version is better than what you have. Look at my example.) At the time, I was very grateful for the feedback. I replied and asked if I might resubmit the poem for consideration with his edits. He never wrote back.

The email this morning was far more measured, humbled, grateful, and gave perfectly logical reasoning for the cut. When I fully woke myself up, I looked up the poem in question (no pun!), covered the last stanza on the screen with my hand, and re-met it. And she was right: it was a stronger person for the cut.

Thanks so much for your response, and for your editorial suggestions. I know enough about my poetry to accept that I can never really submit final drafts anywhere — they are always evolving, changing, becoming different poems like we hope time will evolve us into different people. I heard Galway Kinnell at a reading once — I was reading along in his (published!) book, and he was still evolving and changing the words. I thought: there’s no reason to lock anything down if Galway Kinnell refuses to. Why not just keep making the poem better until it fits somewhere new?

All this to say, I fully accept your suggestion. And, having looked at Questioning as a two-stanza poem, I don’t have any further requests or edits to it. When I read your email I wondered if there was anything I needed to mine or adjust from the final stanza. But you know what?

I don’t even miss it.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to house my poem in The Poets’ Republic. I feel very confident about this adoption. Let me know any other details, or information you may need from me.

Best,

(Being the map-maker that I am, I still have my copy of Strong Is Your Hold by Galway Kinnell, with the changed words circled and annotated. It’s a bit like my bible.)

 

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The Brooklyn Chronicles

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(Passenger – “Caravan” with Ed Sheeran, Stu Larsen, Natsuki Kurai and Bree Bullock in Brisbane)

*

Monday, 7th March 2016
20:57
Contemplative

I went to see the movie Brooklyn earlier this afternoon at the Ritz Cinema in Randwick with Georgia. Mom told me about it a few weeks ago (one of those recommendations hidden as a command: “Have you heard of Brooklyn? Go and see this movie!” Thanks Mom!)

I brought my notebook, just in case.

I have this thing with movies. Or concerts. Or plays. Or poetry readings. Or any kind of performance, really, of which I am an audience member: I have a higher likelihood of being struck down by inspiration.

I’m not entirely sure when I realised this. It’s possible I’ve done it for years without noticing, but it became very apparent at some point during my PhD in Edinburgh — during which time, my days were categorised into a few “productive” periods, and many, many more “unproductive” periods. I became determined to hunt down the pattern of productive periods. One very reliable writing technique: listen to the same song on repeat, over and over, while staring out the window. Another: to write down my dreams as soon as I woke up in the morning. And another: go out. Anywhere. Listen to something, watch an event. And write.

This happened in the park, just observing other people. At poetry readings in Charlotte Square. On the train. Train platforms were a big favourite. All the way back to the short-lived Midnight Edinburgh poem series with Corinne (for which we wandered around Edinburgh at all hours of the night and made up our own writing prompts).

It became apparent that the way to get myself to write was — in fact — to do virtually anything else. (Jacob! I remembered what I wanted for my birthday: I’d love some movie ticket vouchers so I can keep going to movies by myself and getting inspired.)

I don’t have too many theories about this. I mean, I’ve considered why I seem to be prolific in the dark, distracted, writing short notes in scribbles by feel. I’m distracted from my own over-thinking. Letting my hand trace the page, while my mind runs wild, fed by external stimuli and expert storylines. But I’m loathed to over-analyse it. I don’t want the magic to disappear.

So when I venture out, I bring along a pocket moleskine and sketch out thoughts and reflections if I feel so inclined. I also aim to bring along a friend who understands these inclinations — like when Nikki brought me to the Peter Doig exhibit and I spent most of the time scribbling in a notebook instead of carefully considering the paintings (hey! I got two of those poems published eventually! Thanks, Nikki!). Georgia was a great tolerator of my notebook today. I say tolerator, but she actually enjoyed it: “We sat down and I thought, is Emma really writing right now? Yes, she is. Of course, she is.”

These notes and jottings are more of linguistic sketches than anything else. Rarely, do they amount to a poem. Even more rarely, do they build the scaffolding of anything else. Brooklyn is poised to be a big exception, which is where these chronicles come in.

I came home with a few pages of notes, a huge hole in my chest where my heart used to be (I spent most of the movie crying it out for various reasons), and a rough outline of maybe 14 blog posts.

This is not a critical analysis of Brooklyn, John Crowley’s 2015 movie. Nor is it a love letter to Nick Hornby (who wrote the screenplay) and Colm Tóibín, although that could be its unintended destination. This is a journey, a reflection of how Brooklyn touched me, and the associations it pulled and triggered from the depths of my ex-patriot personal experience.

I am not an Irish woman leaving home in 1951 for the foreign shores of America, drifting alone into the streets of Brooklyn. But if there were ever a more apt description of what the past few years of my life has felt like, I guess I might have written it myself. In lieu of that, I prescribe this movie to anyone who has ever experienced, witnessed, or survived the crippling plague of displacement, homesickness, doubt, and wonder.

In the next 14 posts, I’ll probably spend a good deal of effort chasing down the feelings that swam through my heart, and my eyes, and my hands at the Ritz this afternoon.

There should be very few spoilers, insomuch as I assume you might figure out that Brooklyn is a movie about a girl who emigrates to America from Ireland. If that’s a spoiler, sorry!

The rough ideas:

  1. Value beyond money.
  2. Emigrating: the loneliness of a new country.
  3. Unusual things I love.
  4. What and who we miss.
  5. Where are you from?
  6. Community: new Christian values.
  7. Musical memories.
  8. Inherent knowledge and the fraud.
  9. Earnestness is so sincere.
  10. Intimacy: nonverbal translations.
  11. Granddad.
  12. From the outside.
  13. What we endure.
  14. What we build.

I also plan to download Colm Tóibín’s novel and neatly speed read it. I wonder who will finish first: the book, or these reflections.

It’s nice to finally organise some thoughts on this. This being: living abroad. The pattern and style of the life I’m building. I’ve been asked about it so many times, but it’s like the fish who is unable to see the water they’re swimming in. It’s just… my life. Living outside my comfort zone has become too normalised to know where to begin to deconstruct it.

Thanks, Brooklyn.

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The idea you carry..

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When I was younger, I wanted to be famous. What to be famous for? Some skill, a book, writing, performance? Who knows? Some as of yet unknown thing.

When I was even younger, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I fell in love with James Herriot and Animal Ark books, and I never looked back. I wanted to be necessary in that way. I wanted to contribute to rescuing animals, to reducing pain, to healing families.

And then I wanted to be a teacher. And I thought: better to be a vessel than a star. I’d love to be famous for not being famous. For helping to facilitate other people’s growth and success.

I want to be famous the way my grandfather was famous to me.

 

Famous
by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

*

(Notes): A sense of curiosity about each other’s lives.

The deep attribute of poetry to pause, to look, to listen, to respect, to pay  attention to variety.

I think a lot about empathy, one community to another. Paying attention with respect and curiosity to people who aren’t exactly like us.

Poetry can help us have a window into someone else’s experience, or loneliness, or difficulty.

Seeing often a kind of respect rising up (among kids) after someone describes something with an honest voice — what changes in the room.

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These are a few of my favourite things!

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A prompt to Start Writing, from the wonderful Sarah Peck. This is the perfect prompt that I actually desperately need today.

Write a list of at least 50 things that make you feel good.

  1. The ocean. The sea. The sea and the sky.
  2. Mountains. Hills. The moors and the highlands. Anything rolling.
  3. Books. Pages and pages and pages. Empty books, books with print, amazing fonts. Books with images.
  4. Tea. Black tea, Earl Grey, white tea, Darjeeling, ginger tea (Andrew just taught me this year: ginger tea is my new personal migraine solution.)
  5. Letters. Envelopes with handwriting, stamps, addresses, pictures, tape, secrets. Paper, lines and lines of stories. Anecdotes. Photos. Found things. The unfolding. (Yes, emails do count, if you craft them like a good letter).
  6. Correspondence. Linked to letters, but I feel good getting to know someone. Learning them. Seeing the way their world looks.
  7. Soft fabrics. Sheets, sweaters, blankets, socks.
  8. Skylights. Skylights that let the sunlight in. Skylights that show the stars.
  9. Pens. I can’t believe pens made it so far down on the list. Lamys, Pilot pens, .3, .4, .5 size pens. The random free pen from cartridgesaver.co.uk which I will mourn when it runs out. Uniball jet stream. And, the new Retro 51 Tornado Classic.
  10. Fresh air.
  11. Trains.
  12. Sofas you can sink into.
  13. Libraries.
  14. Hiking and camping.
  15. Seeing the stars.
  16. Ferries. Sailing. Kayaking. Boats on water.
  17. Music.
  18. Singing.
  19. Dancing. Jazz is fun — tap is so happy!
  20. Gene Kelly.
  21. The Scottish highlands and islands.
  22. Swimming — feels like flying.
  23. Rock climbing.
  24. Rope courses — stepping out of my comfort zone.
  25. Manicures. First, to stop biting my nails. Then, to reward.
  26. Homemade soaps.
  27. Farmer’s Markets.
  28. Cooking with Andrew
  29. Playing video games with Andrew
  30. Philosophizing with Andrew — of all the things I love to do with Andrew, these are my top three
  31. Going to the movies by myself. And taking notes.
  32. Observations of the world.
  33. Dogs; specifically, I love when they are happy and fulfilled.
  34. Cats; specifically Purrface.
  35. Sherlock Holmes.
  36. Benedict Cumberbatch.
  37. Cate Blanchett.
  38. Live theater. And taking notes.
  39. A great book series. Or four.
  40. Reconnecting with old friends
  41. And finding kindred spirits in a short span of connection
  42. Knowing other INFJs (the redeeming part of my Myers Briggs experience)
  43. Exploring the Enneagram.
  44. Kindle reading, especially while travelling.
  45. Beer, especially in Amsterdam.
  46. Amsterdam.
  47. Naps.
  48. Pinterest!
  49. Wellow, specifically my Grandfather’s cottage.
  50. Reading and exchanging ideas with Granddad.
  51. Sitting on benches, reading.
  52. Passports.
  53. New jeans.
  54. Lists.
  55. Finishing things.

 

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Ice Bucket Challenge: There’s a Book For That

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In 2010, it was hard to even approach technology with any kind of problem or question without being met by the Apple trademark slogan: “There’s an app for that!” I found myself parroting it back to friends for the humor factor – “Can’t remember if you called your mom today? – (Everyone join in!) – There’s an app for that!”

But anyone who knows me will tell you – I’m not a subscriber to technology’s apparent universal wisdom in solving all of life’s problems. In fact, four years later, I find myself parroting that familiar cadence with a new replacement:

There’s a book for that.

Having a hard time adjusting to life in a new country, or finding where you belong? There’s a book for that. (I would recommend: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit).

Unsure about the future, or your life’s work, or really everything in general for that matter? There’s a book for that. (Definitely pick up Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathan Fields).

Even – bear with me – searching for meaning in this seemingly ridiculous viral trend of throwing a bucket of ice water over your head in order to raise awareness for ALS?

There most certainly is a book for that.

Time Magazine, The Huffington Post, and NBC are only three of the major networks engaging in a current debate to answer the question: how does dumping ice water help to cure a debilitating disease? (By the way, my favorite subtitle: “Ice Bucket Challenge Brings Flood of Donations.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for puns).

Does taking a video of your flinching face, posting it to Facebook, and challenging friends benefit ALS awareness in the long run? Probably so, judging by all the current statistics of money raised, visits to the ALS Association website, and also likely to Google or Wikipedia. There is a conversation happening, and that fact cannot be denied.

The heartier debate is whether or not the simple act of social media circulation really bolsters causes towards a solution. Or, conversely, whether we are all just made to feel better, more “involved” in the current trending discussion or debate, assuaging our sense of participation, duty, or accountability without actually taking action.

But I digress. That’s just one discussion. For the other part of this video – the momentary meeting with a bucket of ice water – there’s a book for that.

In 2011, Julien Smith wrote a book called “The Flinch”. It’s short, sweet, and free on Kindle. But just because it’s short, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And just because it’s free, that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

What is “the flinch?”

“The X is the flinch. The flinch is the moment when every doubt you’ve ever had comes back and hits you, hard. It’s when your whole body feels tense. It’s an instinct that tells you to run. It’s a moment of tension that happens in the body and the brain, and it stops everything cold.”

Julien circulates this book for free online purely because of the weight behind its content. The flinch is a problem that too many of us face, without facing up to it at all. And this kind of problem – this shrinking back, this maintaining the status quo, this fear of change – is exactly the problem that perpetuates apathy. Fake involvement. The desire to reach out and affect something, but the inability to take the step. In essence, exactly what this ALS donation versus social media is about.

“If the flinch works, you can’t do the work that matters because the fear it creates is too strong.”

In “The Flinch,” Julien has created a practical workbook, short enough that you may actually finish it, but dense enough to be packed with real challenges. When I read it, I had to fight the urge to flip forward past a “homework assignment” I didn’t like – I wanted to keep reading, yes. But my mind was also glossing over the work of having to do A Real Thing – an action that I could really perform, a step I could take right now to start affecting a change.

Where does change first happen? Within the self. The person who finds a cure for ALS will have to believe that it’s possible for them to do it. And a small – although not insignificant step towards this – is the urge to walk forward and face your own flinch. To know that action is important, even if your instinct is to pull back. To push on through the reflex, towards a better result with more resolve.
Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 22.33.19
Yes, this #icebucketchallenge is a summer-month flinch, a wearing-your-bikini-while-filming-flinch. But after watching ten of my friends drench themselves, it was easy to recognize the moment when the body pulls back, wants to abort. And then decides to push on through anyway.

In fact, the first homework assignment in “The Flinch”: take a two-minute cold shower, everyday for a week. Meet your flinch. Get to know what that feels like in your body.

“This is a book about being a champion, and what it takes to get there. It’s about decisions, and how to know when you’re making the right ones. It’s also about you: the current, present you; the potential, future you; and the one, single difference between them.

It’s about an instinct – the flinch – and why mastering it is vital.”

There’s a book for that.

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Goodreads Review: S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

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I bought this book when I was living on the Isle of Iona for 2 months. Iona is a six-mile island, off the West coast of Mull (which is a larger island, off the West coast of Scotland). It takes 8 hours to travel from Iona to Edinburgh. It took many more than 8 hours for this book to travel from the mainland to Iona.

S.

S.

My friend T. recommended the book to me for its marginalia, for its blatant role as J. J. Abram’s love-letter to books. Doug Dorst, I am unfamiliar with, but I was willing to give him a try. I ordered the book on Amazon, and waited. I ordered a few other books as well, from other sellers. And waited.

The other books came. I waited. S. was ellusive.

I contacted the sellers.

Where is my book?

“Coming,” they said. “Just wait,” they said.

Eventually, they admitted it was lost.

*

They sent a new copy, which arrived 2 days later. It only takes 2 days for a book to come from the mainland to Iona, when that book is in a hurry, when those sellers are in trouble.

 

It was wrapped so carefully, and the package was heavy. This book has heft. It came in a brown envelope, which opened onto bubble-wrap, which held the clear-wrapped book inside — at least, the box which holds the book. I had to break a seal. It was all very official. More than official. It was adventurous.

ship-of-theseus-3

When I was younger, I fell in love with marginalia. It was a magical conversation between unknown elements: a book that cannot be changed, an author that cannot speak back, a reader that cannot be silent. I read Mortimer Adler’s essay How to Mark a Book, and made it my manifesto. When I got S. this spring, I carried the book around with me, all over the island. I was crawling out of my skin with excitement. I showed it to everyone.

*

My roommate Cassidy was from Canada. She and I became friends by virtue of the fact that we were accidentally reading the same book. She showed up on Iona, moved into the room, and started reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. She had brought a copy with her. I had left most of my books at home, but had found Steinbeck downstairs in the volunteer house’s communal bookshelves. When she told me what she was reading, I didn’t believe her. I made her hold up the book to make sure she hadn’t stolen mine.

I had told her all about S. from the beginning, when T. first introduced me to it, when I ordered it, when the order got lost. She was the first person I showed the book to, when it actually arrived. We were in the Abbey refectory after dinner. I turned away for a second, and when I looked back, the book was gone. I panicked, glared around, and eventually caught on to the joke. Cassidy had ‘borrowed’ it — just moving it out of my reach into her bag. She stood there grinning like the prank was the best of the century. She hadn’t even held it for 5 minutes when I demanded it back.

*

Later in our room in Cul Shuna, Cassidy broached the topic.

“Emma, I know this is kind of like asking to play with someone else’s Christmas present before them…”

Go on, Cous Cous.

“… but can I read S. while you’re not reading it?”

My immediate response: absolutely not.

I had chosen not to start delving into S. until after returning to Edinburgh from Iona. I had read the introduction, part of the first chapter, and discovered that I was getting too far in over my head. I was getting lost in the book. It felt really overwhelming and suffocatingly wonderful, like if left to my own devices I could drown before putting the book down. It scared me slightly. I thought, now might not be the time for this. It didn’t mean I wanted anyone else to have the book first.

At the time, I was sleeping with it in my bed. No joke.

But it only took me ten minutes to change my mind. I laid ground rules:
– Don’t take the book outside of the house.
– Don’t let any of the added things fall out of the pages.
– Don’t spill anything or eat anything near it.
– Above all, DO NOT speak to me about the book while you are reading it.

S., from The Guardian

S., from The Guardian

My philosophy for the rules: I wanted my knowledge of the book to be exactly the same as if Cassidy wasn’t reading it. That is: I wanted to know NOTHING.

My philosophy for letting her read it before me: This is clearly a book that deserves to be read.

And I guess that’s the bottom line.

*

Part 2 to come: When I finally started S...

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A poem can travel far…

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       ‘Presence is something you sense and know, but cannot grasp. It engages us but we can never capture its core; it remains somehow elusive. All the great art forms strive to create living icons of presence. Poets try to cut the line of a poem so that it lives and dances as itself. Poems are some of the most amazing presences in the world. I am always astounded that poems are willing to lie down and sleep inside the flat, closed pages of books. If poems behaved according to their essence, they would be out dancing on the seashore or flying to the heavens or trying to rinse out the secrets of the mountains.

      Reading brings the presence of other times, characters and cultures into your mind. Reading is an intimate event. When you read a great poem, it reaches deep into regions of your life and memory and reverberates back to you forgotten or invisible regions of your experience. In a great poem you find again lost or silent territories of feeling or thought which were out of your reach. A poem can travel far into your depths to retrieve your neglected longing.’

– from Eternal Echoes: Exploring our hunger to belong by John O’Donohue