Introducing PAC’s Blog!

Hey everyone! Welcome to Paper Animal Collective’s Blog! We know what you’re thinking…a blog?!?! WHY?!?! You already have a website!

Shameless plug: paperanimalscollective.com

This is true. But: we’ve been thinking (I KNOW. Crazy.) and we think that a blog would be a fun thing to do! Something to connect us to you guys a  little more. The thing is – writing actual stories and poetry and other content like that is time consuming (and we all have day jobs!), so this is something we thought we could do a little more regularly!

Here, we’ll post small blurbs, thoughts, real-life connections to the writers at PAC, and pretty much anything else we want BECAUSE WE CAN! It’s going to be random and fun and light, but at the same time, we’re writers. So – we hope we can make it interesting and thought-provoking and inspiring and beautiful and great. Let us know what you guys think about this idea and give us suggestions about anything else we could do! As always, share us with your friends and families – we greatly appreciate it.

The Words we Live and Breathe…

Aneesh

¿Soy útil? / thoughts on Alain de Botton and Grammys

¿El arte o el amor es útil?

***

Alain de Botton, philosopher and writer, co-founder of the New School, the atheist who taught me why the doctrine of original sin has merit after all—rescuing St. Augustine for me, who I’d overconfidently chosen as my confirmation saint back in sophomore year of high school—was on this week’s On Being episode, his second time (at least) on the podcast. His first episode aired last fall. At least, that’s when I listened to it, driving home, thinking about my first WordPress post.

(The other Paper Animals might vote me off the blog if I keep turning it into a podcast review. But then, I’m the only one with available free time right now, so I’m in charge of this road trip.)

Krista Tippett gushes a little too hard over how wisely de Botton wrote about romance and relationships in his first book, Essays in Love (or On Love in the US), published in 1993, when he was shy of twenty-four years old.

I roll my eyes because I am a petty, covetous man—but de Botton says, then and now, some pretty basic things that we know about love. We may forget them in practice, but many of us learn them early.

  1. Stories and songs have lied to us about romance.
  2. Real life relationships must endure the mundane. Ending the movie (or play) at the wedding doesn’t tell us anything about the real work of love.
  3. Each of us is flawed.

Tippett interviews him again because de Botton’s essay, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” was the most-read article on The New York Times website last year, apparently by a long shot, to de Botton’s surprise. For those keeping score, last year was 2016.

***

To maintain my meager Spanish, besides my spurts of Duolingo, I’ve been listening to two songs on repeat this past week: Enrique Iglesias’s “Escapar” and Shakira’s “Suerte (Whenever, Wherever).”

It’s been pretty good. I know essentially every word to “Escapar” now. I first listened to the Spanish version of this song back in high school, and remembered chuckling that the emphasis on “aunque corras, te escondas, no puedes escapar” was substantially creepier than the English “you can run, you can hide, but you can’t escape my love.” The former is a stalker—literally, “you cannot escape.” The latter is the good shepherd, singing her unstoppable love.

Deciphering Shakira presented a greater challenge. Her voice is throatier, she kind of yodels, she probably dances even in the recording booth, she has a laugh in her voice. Sus frases contienen más palabras. But the phrase that stuck out to me, first listen, was: “sabes que / estoy a tus pies!”

“I’m at your feet” sounds dignified somehow. “At your feet” carries a queenly connotation: servants, guests, and subjects bowing to the monarch, the audience in their hearts to Beyoncé, Israel with their bodies to Jehovah, a gauntlet on the ground. Immature me connects el pie with pie, the food, and always has since I learned it in seventh grade.

But the phrase is brilliant, especially when Shakira calls it from the mountaintop. Know that I am at your feet. In the English version, she sings: “Can’t you see, / I’m at your feet?” There’s a way that that lyric whines—“see?! see how desperate I am for you?”—whereas the Spanish lyric has this mythic oath vibe. I’m at your feet, whether you like it or not. We’re bound.

So, I guess both versions possess a dignity and a silliness. Both make me feel powerfully embarrassed and embarrassingly powerful. If I were to recite either line in either language to someone, my face would burn and my knees would knock.

***

Once de Botton had said three smart things in the interview, I was forced to fold and never play poker again, to never again roll my eyes at someone beating me to the thing I had half-heartedly daydreamed about doing when I got around to it.

  1. Compatibility is an achievement of love, not its precondition.
  2. We are generous to children when they lash out at us, understanding they wield words like “hate” without knowing better. But why aren’t we just as generous to our lovers, who are little children inside? Why do we suddenly think their outbursts have premeditated meaning? The satisfactions of shouting and stomping are timeless.
  3. Flirting is a social pleasure in and of itself—two people noticing together that they are living in the same time signature, at least at that moment. Flirting is not necessarily sexual.

Then Krista Tippett asked him: how can these wisdoms about love apply to each person’s public role as citizen? And they light up. They agree that a good partner is not the one who shares all your tastes, but can navigate difference in taste, who has a tolerance for disagreement. Ditto the citizen?

I hadn’t given the guy enough credit. Alain de Botton is a man who decided to apply his life to seeing how knowledge could produce a demonstrably decent romantic life for people. He’s a philosopher writing popular books about love, our main preoccupation, our bottom-line fantasy, that ocean we all crash landed in. No puedes escapar.

***

I saw a preview of Straight White Men at Steppenwolf this weekend. Matt’s father and two brothers lob different versions of the question: “Why aren’t you happy?” And Matt replies: “I want to be useful, and what I’m doing is an acceptable use of me.” But the other men cannot accept it—he seems too neutral, unfulfilled, lacking self-esteem. He’s cleaning the house all the time.

I remember Philip Dawkins seriously peering into each audience member’s soul toward the end of his gorgeous one-man show, The Happiest Place on Earth: “Are you happy? I am sometimes, but it is not a state I sustain.” Tears rolled down my cheeks as his knowing eyes brushed mine.

The Book of Joseph at Chicago Shakespeare. Fran Guinan declares, “Kids have to think you’re happy,” and Adam Wesley Brown, playing his adult son, replies, “I never thought you were happy.” “My mistake,” Fran mutters. “One of many. If I live long enough, I’m sure you’ll document the rest.”

I’ve mostly written about what men’ve said. Does that mean something about happiness, to say nothing of my biases?

***

Back in 2009, Alain de Botton got a bad review in The New York Times for his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The reviewer wrote de Botton was a snob. The author fired back: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.” Days later, de Botton was ashamed of himself. Years later, his short essay about marriage being a mixed bag would top the readership metric for the Times. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, indeed.

Awards are not everything. Acclaim is not everything. The Grammys are frustrating, but not everything. Krista Tippett loves your book you wrote when you were twenty-two or whatever, and ignores the forgettable work you produced at forty-two.

In 2009, Adele won Best New Artist.

In 2009, Beyoncé released “Halo” as a single.

In 2009, I was in need of an article titled: “Why You Will Choose the Wrong College and Major.” Because given free choice, you will always be surprised how different the reality is from what you fantasized. I made my best call, but it brought a world I did not expect.

At least, that’s true of me. Because in 2016, I was only writing like this, then, way late.

***

Should art be useful? Should art make you happy?

Your answer is no, I would guess. My answer wriggles across the line and back again.

Should art be useful? Should art make you happy?

Art is for its own sake, or else there’s entertainment.

Is writing useful? Yes, it has uses—but overall? Socrates was against it. Because once an argument was written down, it couldn’t defend itself.

And if an argument can’t, how can art?

Are awards useful? Do awards make you happy?

If you’ve ever read a recommendation letter someone wrote for you, have you been overcome afterward with a feeling of, “Why do I want x, if someone is already willing to write something so nice about me?”

What is usefulness? What is happiness? Are they related?

What is an award? What is reward?

What good are riches if they don’t make you happy?

What good is happiness if it doesn’t make you rich?

***

25 bores me, as an album. 21 is unstoppable. 19 is a treasure.

Lemonade is something more.

But I’m buying a hard copy of A Seat at the Table.

***

Correrás,

Te esconderás,

Pero no te escaparás.

 

 

-kyle

Paper Animals in Paper Towns?

If you haven’t read the book Paper Towns by John Green, I highly suggest you drop everything and do so now. It is absolutely fantastic, as is everything he writes, in my opinion.

Now, disclaimer: this isn’t one of those posts that’s like – “Oh I’ve moved to Chicago and here’s what I’ve learned!”

Okay, it is.

But it’s definitely not one of those posts that’s like – “Here’s the view of Chicago you see when you visit…but I’ve come to know the REAL Chicago…”

Okay, it’s that too.

But it for sure isn’t one of those posts that’s like – “Chicago is a paper town just like all the others.”

BECAUSE IT ISN’T.

For those of you who haven’t read John Green’s book, or have never heard of this idea of a paper town, it isn’t too complicated. Paper is thin and temporary and easily crumpled and fleeting and other such qualities of paper. A paper town is a town that exhibits these qualities. It’s “fake” – for lack of better words. A paper town, full of paper people, living their paper lives – this is the lackluster reality of American urbanization…blah blah blah.

I’m not buying it! I’ve been in Chicago for just a little over a month now and I’m already seeing such amazing things. I’m in school to become a teacher and I get to interact with some of the most incredible kids. I get to interact with some of the worst educational administrative faculty members I’ve ever come across sometimes…but that’s all a part of the job, right?

A paper town is supposed to be just this fake, superficial, shallow place without any meaning or realness. Chicago isn’t like that. But I’ll leave you with a question: is that because of Chicago or because of me?

In essence, is a paper town actually paper because of its nature or because of the person perceiving it. It’s one of those “beauty in the eye of the beholder” questions.

Let us know what you think!

–Aneesh

We Should Only Consume Art We Dislike

The following may include Rogue One spoilers.

The following is part of a series I’m probably going to write (that I’ve already been writing kind of) on personal taste.

I have the privilege of dating Lindsay, an all-around great person, with many praiseworthy qualities. But when she isn’t around, I think I most often brag to other people about her reading habits. Lindsay read a little over a hundred books last year, and she’s already on her third for 2017.

I hadn’t been able to track every book she finished in the years we’ve been dating, but a few days ago, Lindsay showed me her reading list Pinterest boards. (The idea was that I was going to make a similar list—looks like I’m going to read a book every two weeks. Also, Pinterest: who knew?)

Browsing the almost two hundred works pinned to three different boards, four main groups emerge: popular plays, short stories, young adult novels, and “great works.” The lists progress from a lot of plays the first year to mostly books last year. Her goal this year is a hundred books—no plays to pad the score.

I’ve finished one book out of my planned twenty-six: Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, which is only eighty-nine pages of poetry. It kind of felt like a gimme, size-wise. And then I already realize the trap of the Reading List: turning pages into tallies on a scorecard, turning covers into trophies to display.

**

I am behind on award-season movies this year, so most of my impressions come from Facebook statuses. It puts me in a common place. Many people don’t see most of these movies, and most people don’t see all of them. It got me thinking about taste.

Some people liked La La Land, some even called it, say, an interesting meditation on following your dreams, or the magic of love. Some people thought it was bland, filling the room with smiling gas to obscure the fact that it is an empty world, no matter how beautiful the cinematography.

Most people I know liked or loved Fences. Most people I know liked Moana and Zootopia. Most people I know liked Hidden Figures. Nobody has seen Silence yet, that I have read. I heard good things about 20th Century Women.

This is to say nothing of Birth of a Nation or Manchester by the Sea.

We all note which was present and which was absent.

Universally, people praised Moonlight. It is the one movie this year that I know I should see.

Are you disappointed with the Golden Globes, then? Whose voters Spotlighted it?

**

I think of a bad movie I like. This Thanksgiving, I told a group of people much older than me that Shrek was my favorite movie. They groaned. I asked: are you asking me what I think is the best movie? Or my favorite one? One of them said Gladiator and another person said A Beautiful Mind, so.

I still am trying to think of a bad movie I like. By which I mean, I can’t remember disliking a movie.

**

Lindsay once told me, after years of seeing plays together, and dissecting them afterward, that she wished I would tell her something I liked about the plays. She never knew how I felt—it seemed like our conversations were just me picking at what she liked or didn’t like.

Well, she was right, there. I did have an annoying habit of immediately pushing back on her thoughts.

But I was surprised. I thought my feelings about whatever we saw were always clear. And when I talked to other friends with whom I saw plays, no one seemed confused about whether I liked it or not—because we were immediately evaluating it in chunks. Ditto movies.

And my mind jumps back to a time in high school. Kids from my theatre department and I went to see a play—we all had to write a critique for a grade. The parent who drove us home from the production listened patiently for a while as we all chattered about what the play had done well and what had been lacking and what was laughable and goodness, did you see how the actors didn’t cheat out so we could see them? Eventually, the parent interjected: “How do you guys talk about it like this? Doesn’t this kill the fun?”

I am paraphrasing, yes.

**

Debatable opinion: it is your job as the audience member to find a way to like something. Even more debatable opinion: it is your job to learn to like everything you see, no matter how much work it takes.

I realize my studies and work as an artist have pushed me to fancy myself the doctor in the house, waiting to diagnose the play or film—in a way that I would never critique a rock concert. That sets me up for having mixed feelings about a lot of material.

Two sentences later, I am already frowning at my own debatable opinion, but I’m going to run with it.

Example: the movie everybody saw was Rogue One. Many people adored it. But the major critique I remember coming across was “they didn’t make me care about the characters.” “The action sequence at the end was amazing.” “That pun was either perfect or wretched.” But I think pretty universally, even if they were glad for diversity (and we should be), people seemed to agree the characters were flat. The actors were good—but they weren’t given enough. I saw this in official reviews and Facebook reviews alike.

And that’s fine: but Rogue One is what it is. It’s up to you now. With research or imagination, can you fill in the necessary character shape for you to like it? Because I bet a lot of kids will see it, and do just that. When I was a child, I made Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon into seven-dimensional people after I saw Phantom Menace, playing Legos in basements . Come to think of it, Rogue One is the manifestation of the research and imaginative labor put towards the wonderful but kinda simple A New Hope.

The audience must do whatever work they need for the work to be better.

This opinion is a badly built racecar, already falling apart on the first lap, but I think I’m tapping into something.

If storytelling, on stage or on screen, is empathy jungle gym, then we are not really judging how much grace the people telling the story extend (whatever that sentence means.) Rather, each story we see and hear is a chance for us to get better at loving each one like a child’s original joke—maybe nonsense, maybe genius, but a thing unto itself.

**

I didn’t really like Mad Men as much as I’d hoped. But that isn’t a movie.

The problem is me.

The problem maybe isn’t me. I don’t mean to discount the various types of craftsmanship, that there is difference in skill, that taste is a spider with a million eyes—a perspective for each of us.

I also don’t mean we shouldn’t analyze or spike problematic work, which is abundant, too.

But I wonder if the job of refining our taste is to try our hardest to go against our palate—not to see how each new piece of art measures up against our preferences, but to see if we can befriend the bland or disgusting or challenging. And couldn’t this be a better way to help us empathize with people, to love our enemies? If we love only the stories that we naturally love, aren’t we missing out on potential further progress?

Then again, bias is subtle. La La Land is going to win more than Moonlight? Really?

I thought an answer was to lean into the work we thought was lame. But then isn’t that how good work from surprising sources gets missed? Because so much is kind of lame, right?

Maybe I need to be a swifter judge, to bang more gavels, to skip more movies, and not just Manchester by the Sea.

I was going to suggest we all watch Battleship a dozen times straight, to force ourselves to empathize with Liam Neeson’s cameo, with Rihanna’s character.

But perhaps, I should go Netflix a movie I’ve never heard of. I should fish in different water.

I must work harder to make the world more colorful.

**

I look again at my reading list. It is mostly books I was planning to read, catered to my taste. All seven Narnia books. Award-winning poetry by a man who lives in the same city as me.

I look back through Lindsay’s list. By necessity, she is taking so much in, she comes across stuff that she doesn’t like (I know she does, because she tells me) and stuff that surprises her with how much she likes it.

Maybe the idea is to avoid that which we naturally enjoy. But then, life is short.

Yet Pinterest calls.

**

Opinions are like sand in my hand. Why even type them up?

**

I think of my friend Robert, who likes all movies for some reason, who inverted my distaste for (cf: fear of) horror movies years ago with a single sentence: “What other kind of movie makes you feel so much?”

**

I’m going to go see Silence after I post this.

-Kyle

Demystifying the Creative Process

brain

Last week, I showed a video in my English class. It features Neil Gaiman answering a question that can be summed up as, “Where do you get your ideas from?” The question spawns a meandering-yet-insightful take on writing and the creative process. I like Neil’s answer for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because he speaks openly and plainly about ideas and creativity, which is a lot more helpful than writers who behave as though their best-selling novels occur to them all at once, complete and fully-formed.

Neil begins by saying that writers—and I’m sure creative individuals of all flavors—are terrified that they’ll lose whatever intangible, unidentifiable thing they have that grants them the ability to create. This fear spawns from the widely accepted idea that there are “creative types,” that certain people are destined from birth to create art while the rest of the world is destined to punch clocks. I rail against that idea and so does Neil.

“Writers,” he says, “tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea. It’s not that they have any more ideas or are inspired more… We just notice when it happens a little bit more.”

I think train is the operative word here. Train implies that this idea-noticing ability is a skill that one can hone—something one can get better at. This very notion flies in the face of the idea that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. Everyone has this potential, and yes, some may be more naturally talented in this area. But it’s something that you can nurture and grow with enough discipline and time.

Neil also breaks down the early steps of drafting a story in simple terms. He boils story creation down to the simple idea of confluence: smashing two thoughts together to create something new. It can start with a simple question, such as, “What would happen if a werewolf bit a goldfish?” A host of scenarios immediately come to mind, and clarifying questions naturally present themselves. Ask and answer enough questions about this new idea and before you know it, you’ve got the beginnings of a story on your hands.

And finally, he drops a hard truth on us: as much as we wish it were so, there’s no magic solution to writer’s block or creative slumps. We have to power through or find a way around them instead of despairing. Desperation and deadlines, Neil notes, are legitimate sources of inspiration. But it’s also worth remembering that ideas often occur when we’re doing something other than writing. Ever wonder why we get all our best ideas in the shower? It turns out we’re at our creative peaks when we’re relaxed and allow our minds to wander.

So, don’t be afraid to practice your craft, to ask questions, and to daydream. Such is the stuff great stories are made of.

-Alyssa

From Whence it Came

We’ve been pretty scarce with the fan-fiction – but here we go! This is a little piece of a story from the background/history of Visha Patel’s novel “The Protectors: Undiscovered Land.” It takes place about 16 years prior to the beginning of her novel.

Let us know what you think!

“Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much you love someone,” Lauren said, stroking Daniella’s hair. “They just drift away from you.”

Daniella wiped a tear from her face and rested her head on the other woman’s shoulder. She could smell the rain outside, like wet clay and tree bark. She felt a childish desire to run out into it.

“Nina can’t know,” she whispered softly. She felt Lauren nod.

“She won’t. You won’t let her.” Lauren kissed Daniella’s head. “She’s already so smart. Barely a year old and already tapping into her powers – that’s impressive. Maybe Ian can learn something from her.” The two women sat there in silence for some time.

Forcing out a laugh, Daniella said, “Don’t worry. Miguel will take care of that. Ian is going to be amazing.” There was sadness in her voice, the sort of sadness that clings to the mind like a dying protector clings to life.

“Daniella!” She jumped out of Lauren’s arms and stood straight. She smoothed out her dress and clasped her hands behind her back. Felix walked into the room. Lauren was always surprised by his figure. He looked like a small mountain had sprouted legs and started walking. His bulging muscles were barely contained in his shirt and jacket.

“We have to leave now.” His voice was deep and booming. His dark eyes were small, but fierce. He fixed his wife with such a frightening glare that she stammered her response.

“Y-y-yes, of course.” She glanced at Lauren apprehensively and said, “I’ll just get Nina and…”

“Your daughter will not be joining us,” Felix said, straightening his tie in the mirror. “It’s embarrassing enough that we have to meet the General like this, we don’t need another thing to explain.”

Daniella’s hard expression gave nothing away, but Lauren could feel the woman’s pain emanating from her body. If only her husband was a sensor.

“The nanny…”

“Has been called. Come now, or we’ll be late.” With that, he walked briskly out of the room. Daniella sighed and Lauren stood up to stand next to her. Smiling sadly, Daniella said, “We weren’t always like this, you know.”

“I know, dear.” Lauren smiled, but she knew the truth. Daniella was always a bit naïve. She didn’t know what real love was. Lauren always felt a little selfish during her visits to the Brooks house. They made her think of Miguel and how lucky she was.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” Lauren said, giving Daniella a final hug before leaving. She unfurled her umbrella as she stepped out into the autumn rain. Checking her watch, she cursed and found herself wishing that she had baby Nina’s ability to transport herself anywhere she wanted. But, she would have to settle for a taxi.

When she got to the park, the rain had stopped. She walked down the stone path towards the lake. She thought about the protectors and their keys. She hadn’t yet met many of them, but she knew their natures. Many of the men were ruthless, like Felix. But everything about Miguel had made her think that they were capable of great compassion and love.

She turned a bend and smiled as she saw him standing there with their baby boy in his arms. He was talking to him, pointing out at the lake. It was probably something about the energy of the world and how he needed to feel it and make sure he could use it to fulfill his destiny as a protector. When he noticed her, Felix grinned and quickly made his way to her.

“The four elements,” he said before she could say anything. She cocked an eyebrow at him and he said, “The four elements, Lauren! Ian’s ability is the four elements. Today, he coughed and the fire went out. Then, just now, he made it rain INSIDE THE CAR. It’s incredible! I’ve never seen an infant present such power!”

“That’s great, honey,” Lauren said, smiling at the joy she could see in her husband’s eyes. They sat down together on a bench overlooking the lake. The autumn leaves fell around them like a cascade of the first half of a rainbow.

“Our son is going to be extraordinary,” Miguel said, excitedly. Lauren smiled and looked at him. She saw ambition, pride, and above all, happiness in his eyes.

“He always has been,” she said, putting her head on his shoulder. She held onto him tightly and closed her eyes. The autumn breeze blew softly around them and Lauren felt her life slow down. She wanted to savor the moment because she knew that once Ian grew up, things would change. The protectors lived dangerous lives. But she didn’t want to think about that.

No. She didn’t want to think about that at all.

 

–Aneesh Shukla
Paper Animals Collective

A Candle with a Broken Wick

“…a candle with a broken wick,

a puddle that reflects the sun…”

My sense of smell is duller than an old bike frame. Been that way my whole life. Squinting hard, I think I can see, way at the back of my memory, images of a hospital interior—I’m little more than a baby—no, not the memories when I was twelve, getting moles scraped out of me—the dimmer hospital visions, of being collected by a now-blurry adult. I don’t believe it was my mom. It wasn’t my dad.

This is my only memory of when a doctor removed my adenoids and put tubes in my ears. The procedure aimed to relieve my sinuses and end a tiring cycle of ear infections. It didn’t, in the long run. I got and still get ear infections. I get sinus infections. In fact, an ENT told me in my teens that my adenoids grew back, which should be impossible—and that my nasal septum deviates enough to weird my breathing. So, my nose is perpetually stuffed.

My whole life I’ve automatically inhaled and exhaled through my mouth. Dentists used to comment on my rounded-down teeth to my mom. I did not have great breath control running in PE. My nose has been little help to me. Still isn’t. My sense of smell is my third cousin I met once. It has no constituency in my head—and my sense of taste busies itself with food’s texture, not flavor. Two of my senses, set to grayscale.

Nevertheless, I light candles in my apartment daily. I have three burning right now. I like the way burning candles massage and exfoliate the air, glaze the atmosphere in anointing oil, something like that. Two of my current burners are the multi-scented kind—three smells are layered one on top of the other. As it burns, a new smell escapes. I don’t know why I bought this type. Probably more expensive. Must’ve done it years ago, when I was dumb. Luckily though, past Kyle purchased me a small epiphany.

A few days after Clinton lost to Trump, I jammed my snout-nosed lighter into one of these candles and noticed that I had just unlocked the final smell-layer. Wintergreen or something. It’s gone white-pink, magenta, and now wintergreen. I assume it’s that or pine—or iswintergreen” the Hallmark word for “pine?” I’m not checking, it’s across the room. Anyway, while jamming the lighter down, trying to light the damn thing, I suddenly reached a new understanding of Time.

Outside, it was misty—a cement-colored sky—unseasonably warm. An idiom which will have no purpose by the next election.

**

Krista Tippett interviewed Ruby Sales, the lifelong civil rights activist and public theologian, for the On Being podcast. The episode is titled “Where Does it Hurt?” In the middle of the program, Sales loosens her genius a little further—begins to speak profoundly about white Americans. Here are her comments (slightly trimmed):

“I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is that how is it that we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying…

I don’t hear any theologies speaking to the vast amount — that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling….I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying of a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today.

…There’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology…I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.

And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”

Wisdom swims into your brain in a specific way, I think—or it’s like diving into a clear river. You swim into it. It’s a different temperature. You have to widen your eyes to take it all in. A salmon reorienting. I felt that way hearing Sales words then and when I read them now.

What strikes deepest in me is her diagnosis that perhaps white people have given up on each other—at the precise moment when we’re all trying to deal with how we can’t feel all the power we’ve been told we have. We forsake each other. I’ve done it. How often have I dismissed a million souls in abstract. Why do I roll my eyes? It’s the worst way to flip the world back over.

**

In 2002, when I was nine-and-a-half, the West Coast hip-hop duo Blackalicious released their masterpiece, the double-album Blazing Arrow. You might know them from an earlier track, “Alphabet Aerobics.” The team’s DJ, Chief Xcel, is a serious beat builder and world constructor. And emcee Gift of Gab is an intellectual, mile-a-minute, force-for-good wacky uncle: anti-violence, pro-advice, meditations on time, frequently dwells on family and positivity. He mentions Saturn more than you’d expect. You know, they’re dad-rap. And if you know me well, I mean, what did you want? One of my favorite bands is Keane (cf: dad-rock).

I heard Blazing Arrow‘s single, “Paragraph President,” on a PlayStation2 game’s soundtrack around the time of the album’s release—maybe a Madden game—but I wouldn’t think to listen to the whole thing until a decade later, at college in Oklahoma. Once I did, I had turned a musical corner in my life. To this day, it’s one of my favorite albums, above No Strings Attached and beneath Channel Orange.

On one of the final tracks, “Release Part 1, 2, & 3,” Saul Williams recites a poem over this visionary supporting soundscape. He occupies the middle section—“Release Part 2.” I’m not sure if he wrote it for this song, or if it’s a poem he already he had that he just records for them. Either way, he is heads-and-shoulders the best part of the track. Hell, he’s the best part of the last quarter of the album. 

His lyrics quoted at the top of this post surfaced in my mind as I was lighting the candle last week: “a candle with a broken wick.” Duh, I realized. What good is a candle with a broken wick? It’s a waste. And I’ve tried to dig out a candle’s wick before. Clearing the airway is not easy. I never lit that candle again.

And the inverse image: a puddle that reflects the sun—a thing eradicating itself by its own toil. How a candle is supposed to operate. What white people are doing to each other now.
I glean from Saul William’s images a theme most art offers up: that time is incremental and professional yet slippery and devious. But the epiphany for me was pondering the physical thing: the candle with a broken wick. Like—here I am sitting with an unusable chunk of wax, a feathertease, the only artifact from a world behind a door I’ll never open.

I think of other unburned candles: the candle of my childhood where I play fewer video games and study better; the candle of my teenage where I lifted weights; the candle where Gift of Gab doesn’t have to deal with kidney failure; the candle where I was disfigured in that car accident; the candle where Episcopal martyr Jonathan Daniels shields young Ruby Sales from a shotgun blast, but survives; the candle of Hillary Clinton’s, or Bernie Sanders’s, or John Kasich’s, or Mitt Romney’s presidencies; the candle where I didn’t help smear that person with gossip; the candle where my mom’s mom or our first dog is still alive; the candle where the Eagles won the Super Bowl that year; the candle where I have more siblings; the candle where I am born a different person altogether, somewhere else in the world.

Reading it, I feel silly. Of course, you’ve all thought about “what could’ve been” without needing a candle to help you. We all know the butterfly effect. It’s pretty much all we think about, right? Really, an unused candle is the dollar store equivalent of Frost’s road not taken—a version not pursued (for ninety-nine cents.)

What tickles me, what feels worth sharing, is I listened to that song for five years, and only just now understood what I’d heard. It took me five years to have ears to hear. That was the real epiphany.

**

The tubes fall out of your ears eventually. And when I was little, they did. My sister and I embarked on a new journey of childhood illness: strep throat. We contracted it all the time, a streak of doctor’s visits every season that must’ve driven my mother mad. The two of us finally stopped getting it when the doctor very sternly told us that, if we got it again, they’d remove our tonsils. She and I didn’t want surgery.

I didn’t test positive for strep until college after that.

**

The candle wick metaphor improves (imperceptibly) looking into the future. If some candle wicks are broken, what candles are currently burning? What candles remain available to light? Imagine yourself in a warehouse full of candles, a cavernous ceiling, cold-smooth floor, and you are a lone, lots of Yankee candles scattered everywhere, poorly spaced. Some are empty, some are wickless, some burn, and some remain. Should you extinguish some? Of your options, which one(s) should you light?

I could attempt to rattle off some neatly-packaged vague ideas about a correct path into the future. “Light the candle of exercise!” “Plant a tree.” “Buy Campbell’s stock.” Blah blah blah—I mean do those things, but you didn’t need me to say them. I will, however, offer you the one part of Saul Williams’s verse that floored me back when I was nineteen-and-a-half. It is some of the best poetry I know. A brilliancy that seemingly comes from nowhere in the song. A sweet tune, that cries out to each of us, singing: what you consider improbable, about reality or your fellow human, is just a blockage in your mind. Release it.

“I can think of nothing heavier than an airplane.

I can think of no greater conglomerate of steel and metal.

I can think of nothing less likely to fly.

There are no wings more weighted.

I too have felt a heaviness,

The stare of a man guessing at my being.

Yes, I am homeless.”

**

I think about my first memory, which now is only a memory of all the times I’ve concluded this is my first memory, smoke trapped in a jar.

I am looking up at my mother, being carried into our Virginia townhome. My sister unborn for seventeen more months, is an unlit candle herself. Around my mother’s face, others’ faces. Are they my relatives? Are they angels only I can see? Does my mother think she and I are alone, yet infant me can see the guardians who will help her raise me? I won’t be a difficult child, but I won’t be what she expects. This memory is a complete wash, dim—a salmon asleep, afloat, the river at night.

How wonderful to be collected, to be little enough to be cradled, to wait in place until they come to get you.

Terror in that, too.

**

Pardon me, anyone, for the times I have counted you out, failed you. Over and over, I have lit the wrong candles, burned them as I slept with all my clothes still on, teeth unbrushed, not seeing I was neglecting better flames.

-Kyle

Light up the Night: Lantern Fest

Do you remember that scene in Tangled where lanterns light up the sky in honor of the lost princess? If you haven’t, I highly recommend you watch that movie even if you aren’t a child because it’s still good at any age. Basically, thousands of lanterns are released in the sky and make a pitch black night glow. It looks as amazing as it sounds in the movie. Ever since I watched that scene, I wanted to go to a real lantern release. At the time, I didn’t know they existed, but a few months ago I saw an event on Facebook called Lantern Fest. It happens all over the nation, and there was a couple in Dallas. Long story short, I mentioned it to my friends over dinner at BJs a week before the event, and I just got back from it. Needless to say, it is now on my top five favorite views. (If you are curious, the order is: 1) View from a fortress in Cortana, Italy 2) Lantern Fest 3) Field view of stripped out game vs Ohio State 4) Tops of Maui 5) Parasailing on the Big Island of Hawaii)

 

I’m going to try to convince you to go to this event in this post.

 
This event is from 1pm-10pm. We ended up getting there around 5pm because they release after sunset. Throughout the event, there is live music, face painting, food, and good vibes. When we got there, we checked in and got a lantern, s’mores essentials, and a few items to light/decorate our lanterns. The setup of every event is probably different every, but there were fire pits scattered around the event center with a stage in the front and food in the back. You can bring blankets, chairs, and food with you, so we picked a spot next to a fire pit and set up our blanket. My friends and I made and ate multiple s’mores while we enjoyed the music and stayed warm next to the fire. In the box they gave us, there was a marker to decorate our lantern. They had tiki torches spread across the venue, so as it became darker, they lit them. We all decorated our lanterns by the lights as we waited for it to become dark. When it finally did, the MC instructed us on how to light our lantern. I aired out my lantern to expand it and used one of the fires to light up the bottom. While we were all trying to figure out how to do this, the countdown to release had already begun. When the MC said one and as we continued to use the fire, hundreds and hundreds of lanterns were released in the air. I took a second to just look around, and I can still picture in my head the glow and grace of the lanterns as they slowly floated towards the sky. In seconds, the dark sky illuminated with lanterns. I stopped trying to get my lantern lit and watched memorized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as numbing as that moment. I could never imagine something that stunning. Eventually, I got my lantern lit and let it fill with hot air. As it expanded, people continued to release lanterns. Finally, I felt the tug of my lantern wanting to float, so I released it. I watched alongside my friends as my lantern joined the glowing sky. In those moments, you just stand in silence and enjoy it. After the week I had with the months of endless work, I needed that moment. It reminded me of beauty and peace. We all need that sometimes.

 
If I haven’t convinced you to go, let me just end with I cried three times because it was something you only dream of or see in movies. It was better than dreams and movies. Go my friends. Remind yourself about beauty, peace, and love.

– Visha