Anonymous City

March 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I have a tendency to ask people what they think of the places they visit. I like to ask myself what I think of cities I visit. We tend to keep it brief – we like it or we don’t like it. It’s interesting or it’s not interesting. It beautiful or it’s not beautiful.

We got robbed in Cajamarca, Peru. It was two days before my sister’s wedding on New Year’s Eve a few years ago. It was at her home where we were staying. Where we were playing cards when we heard the dog barking furiously outside. The men were masked and strong and demanded money by the tips of their machetes. Physical shocks of fear, as real and debilitating as a punch in the gut, rushed through my body and continued after the robbers left and through the rest of the night. Sleep was as distant as the sun I prayed to come up because the nightmare was real for as long as it was dark. They would come back, I was convinced. I shivered in my bed, my dad standing watch at the window. It wasn’t until the first peak of light made its way through the window that my adrenaline subsided. But never again could I sleep in that house.

I still shudder when I hear dogs bark loudly at night.

What is it to know a city? Is it to know its history? Does it happen when you visit every street in the city or go inside every building? Is it a certain amount of time spent there? Is it who we are with or is it when we are alone?

During a trip to Puerto Rico a couple of years ago Mike and I took a jog one morning. We didn’t want to stray too far from where we were staying so we opted to run laps around the nearby hotel/casino. It was morning and the thermal blanket of the Puerto Rican sun was already in full effect. The hotel workers and cab drivers sitting around playing dominos looked at us like we were crazy. Hell, the lizards scattering across the sidewalk to get into shade, were very likely questioning our intelligence. I didn’t make it long. I’ve never done well in the heat and after three laps it felt like a dentist had suctioned out all liquid from my mouth and I was inside an oven. Mike and I found some shade and I collapsed into the lukewarm grass. Not a minute later a hotel worker, in a long sleeve shirt and pants, walked over and gave me his unopened bottle of water. He must have thought we were crazy for running in that heat without water but it didn’t matter. A man I didn’t know in a place I didn’t know reached out and I still think about it to this day.

A dreadful moment. An transcendent moment. But neither can define those places.

Made it south by the sea. I had a five hour drive today. I am sitting in a restaurant by the sea with jazz music waiting for my fish and chips. My phone is almost out of battery. Will write more when I get back to the airbnb. That was the email I received this summer from my dad who was traveling around Europe. I saved it and re-read it from time to time. I’m not exactly sure why. I wonder if it’s the amount of beauty in the brevity. A still moment hanging there without judgment – like a picture infused with mystery and expanse.

I think about all of the places I’ve visited and the words I’ve used to describe them and the memories and feelings that have stuck with me from those places – and still I wonder can we ever really know a city? Will our descriptions always fall short? Or are our descriptions simply describing us – an amalgam of our tastes and fears during that time of our life?

Maybe simple, physical descriptions are all that we have to know a place, and the rest, well that’s on us.

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Silly girl

March 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Words don’t come so easily these days. It seems when I put my focus on something else besides writing that part of my brain shuts down. Alas, I am not as capable a multi-tasker as I thought. Or maybe it’s just a reading season. A season where I take in words instead of spew them out. That is surely fine with me. I will surrender to this season gladly, albeit somewhat deluged because of the sheer amount of things I want to read. But I must quiet the cacophony of choices and focus on that page in front me. Just pick. And read. Turn the page and read some more.  It’s the only way to get through a book, an endless list of books, the minutes of these racing days. Ya know, the thought just occurred to me that I’m writing about non-writing. How silly is that? Probably about as silly as being stressed out by the length of the list of books I want to read. If you’re looking for some extra reading these days:

  • A favorite New Yorker piece on Extreme Caving
  • This ridiculously good longform piece about a friendship that began with a mutual love for birding between two boys who lived on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, and has turned into a mutual effort to turn the former Iron Curtain into a greenbelt. That the boys began a friendship through the birds that flew freely between their two drastically different worlds just gets me right in the gut. Poetry at its finest.
  • Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes because poems like this:

I pick myself up    ignoring

whoever I was    slowly

noticing for the first time my body’s stench

I made a list in my head

of all the names who could help me

and then   meticulously   I scratched each one

they won’t hear me burning

inside of myself

my used skin glistened

my first diamond

  • The other Sunday during an especially indecisive cooking mood I read this recipe for white chicken chili and all indecisiveness skirted away. I bought two boneless chicken breasts for the soup and slathered them in butter with a decent showering of salt and pepper and baked them in a 400 degree over for 30 minutes. Once the chicken cooled a bit I shredded it into the soup. I also purchased lots of flavorful toppings – jalapenos, green onions, cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips, cilantro. This was a definite favorite recipe this winter and is being filed away in my soup recipe arsenal for all time.

My Summer Self

February 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I’m thinking about my future self today. My summer self. The self that doesn’t exist yet but I want her to so that she can gather up the bundle of emotions I’m feeling today, that I’ve felt the last two months, like stacks of weathered and frayed textiles. I want her to fold them up and tuck them away and unravel them when the sun is coaxing sweat beads out of her pores. The dark, musty hues will wave in the sun-drenched air and the needle on the spectrum of happiness will sputter towards the most. Like opposing magnetic poles she will be able to see more and feel more because of the propulsion from what was. Or rather, what is, right there in front of her.

Winter Walk

February 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

We walked mitten in mitten, I could just barely feel the pressure of Mike’s hand underneath the pillowy mit. The snow was still falling quietly all around us. We walked, looking half-drunk, trying to keep our balance under the forgiving landscape of snow. Every once in a while one of us would lose our balance just enough to entertain thoughts of a haphazard face plant into the snow.

The sun, getting bored from hiding behind the clouds all day, had given up for the night just a couple hours before. And yet it felt eerily bright outside but in an other-worldly way. The yellow streets lights reflected off of each and every snowflake it came in contact with and it felt like we were inside a frozen oven.

In the distance we could see miniature silhouettes flinging snow with their shovels and snow blowers and every once in a while a passerby, peeking out from their winter garb cocoon, would nod, as if there was some special bond between us snow-walkers.

Mike and I talked about our day. We talked about our dreams and sometimes we were quiet, just content to hear the rhythm of soft crunching beneath our feet and the faint sound of the tiny slow blowers in the distance.

I didn’t have my iPhone, or any of my cameras with me. I didn’t need them. I took pictures with my eyes and heart and made words into them.

Shadow World

February 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Sometimes, the world can seem so binary. So good or evil, this or that. I like to think of shadows as a transient world to explore where space is transformed and a whole other dimension is revealed. A world where patterns and shapes abound and endear without intention or function. Where the subtle and mundane become nuanced and bold. Where dark and light interplay. Where the stars and people collide and make art.

The World Could Wash Away

January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

The rain was incessant; hell bent on hanging around for our entire three-night stay in the Guatemalan rainforest, and completely apathetic to our need to cross the river to continue with our next phase of the trip to Antigua.

So it kept going with the consistency and voracity of a percussion line.

One might think that after 48 straight hours of rain that it becomes white noise, retreating into the vast spaces of the forest. It was, rather, the opposite. Amplified by the innumerable and dense vegetation, the sound of the rain reverberated in our ears and bones. It was unhinging, save for a couple of hours on our last night.

My sister’s friend, who was also serving in the Peace Corp., had set up a dinner with one of the families that lived in the rainforest. We had to walk down a narrow path through the forest to get to their home – a one-room piecemeal wood structure. The host family welcomed us in with smiles as big as the rainforest trees. Sans electricity, the room was lit solely by candles, allowing only bits and pieces to come alive, the rest fell away into blackness. Our feet made imprints on the dirt floor as we settled into our seats, and the sound of the rain on the tin roof melted away like the dark corners of the house, as if it wasn’t there.

They served us eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee; simple and exquisite. We ate by the pulsing light of the candles. Stories were told in English and Spanish, with the majority of the sentences lost in translation and laughter.

Outside the rain carried on without our attention and the river engorged itself with those drops. But inside for those couple of hours it felt as if the world could wash away and leave what we had there and everything would be ok.

Spaces We Once Inhabited

January 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Lewis Mumford states in his seminal book on cities that civilization arose out of our ability to contain space. Vessels allowed humans to store things, which created continuity.

For Christmas break Mike and I piled our gifts, clothes and ourselves in the car and drove past calico landscapes of hibernation – black soil scattered with hues of browns and taupes – until we arrived in Kansas City. We’ve done this for the past three years – ever since we moved from Kansas City to Milwaukee.

I’ve put down roots in four cities: Saint Paul, Milwaukee, Lawrence (KS) and Kansas City (MO). And each new city I moved to meant I was leaving a city behind.

A couple days after Christmas Mike and I drove down the meandering, stately Ward Parkway through the Plaza and up Broadway – a route I drove almost every day for two years. Like a scientist I took inventory of what had changed and what stayed the same.

We passed the building where I used to work. There was a for lease sign in front and it was, by all accounts, empty. The tall, theatrical apartment building kiddy corner to my old place of employment looked the same with its art deco neon sign and its intricate cornices. It was the building I always looked at before I made my turn into the parking lot for work, not only because it’s a beautiful building, but also because it reminded me why I had undertaken a graduate education in urban planning – that beautiful, unique places are worth saving and making.

In Invisible Cities a young explorer, Marco Polo recounts and describes to the old, Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, the cities he visited in the Mongol’s empire. The book is full of aphorisms that are clothed and embedded in physical descriptions of cities  – “you take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

We continued our drive north to the River Market, a market we frequently went to when we lived in KC, and found ourselves in the midst of closing time – vendors packing up their cars and a mostly empty parking lot. We ordered coffees in one of the stalls, and walked by the last of the vendors selling mounds of aromatic spices: anise, clove, turmeric. These were the smells I remembered. It was a few years before when a photography class I was in convened at the River Market. It was early morning and the vendors were just beginning to lay out their bounty. But that day it was not the smells I remember, it was the brilliant sun punctuating the human interactions that played out in front of my lens. It was me feeling, for the first time, free to be a documentary photographer – not as a profession but as an extension of my curiosity.

Many of the streets in the River Market were torn up so once we found a way out, we curtly made our way back to downtown. Like a skipping stone, it takes large (car-powered) leaps to go from the northern-most point in the River Market to the central business district to Westport and then to the Crossroads. I never liked the disjointed nature of KC’s greater downtown but on that day the time in the car had been fertile ground for remembering.

If déjà vu had a cousin I think it would be the moments when you repeat a routine you did years before. Driving down Broadway felt familiar in a visceral sense, and yet the reason I was there, my whole life, in fact, was completely different. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that the passage of time is imbued in cracked paint, vacant buildings, new buildings, and torn up roads. But in the car I started to understand that time demands to be seen when we go back to the spaces we once inhabited – the places we once thought were ours in some small way. Those places are the vessels that contain our movement. They enfold the questions we once asked and spotlight the answer to those questions – ourselves.

We passed through my favorite intersection in Kansas City, Pennsylvania and Westport Road, and took a right on Pennsylvania and parked outside of Californo’s, the restaurant where we had our wedding reception. We went inside and were greeted immediately by a server. We told him that we had our reception here and could we look around? He showed us around describing the rooms and, again, I told him we had our reception here and were familiar with the layout. He continued his informational tour and I gave up on the expectation that going back to this place would feel like it was ours again, that it would feel the same. We were inside for maybe five minutes and then we pressed on as the sun set and we grabbed a drink at the new bar on the corner.

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