Seeds to Ponder

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Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei is a profound work of art in both its simplicity and awe inspiring scope.  At first glance, it looks like a pile of sunflower seed husks, but upon closer inspection the incredible reality of this piece becomes apparent.  Each seed is handcrafted from porcelain and hand-painted.  No two are alike and more than 100 million were created for the initial exhibition that covered the the Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei, Original Exhibition in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, (Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons)

During the initial run of the exhibition, (October 2009 – May 2010), people were encouraged to interact with the installation by walking through, sitting or even lying down amid the seeds, but that was short lived as soon as health, safety, and preservation concerns caused it to be roped off.  I’m a little jealous of those who were able to tread through the seeds!

In 2011, the Tate put 8 million of the original seeds on display in response to Weiwei’s detainment by the Chinese government and subsequent disappearance¹.  The display, which represents about 1/10 of the original installation, sits in a large pile in an exhibition room on the third floor. While significantly smaller than the original, the intent and deeper meaning of Weiwei’s work has not been lost.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei, Tate Museum, London, June 2011, c.b.w.

While open to interpretation on many levels, the intent of Sunflower Seeds reaches into a dark chapter of Chinese history and the human spirit.  During the Cultural Revolution, (a particularly brutal era in history where people lost basic human rights and were stripped of cultural traditions), Mao Zedong launched a massive propaganda campaign where in some instances he depicted himself as the sun and the people as sunflowers who turn their heads to follow him.  However, the artist sees sunflower seeds as a traditional food shared among friends in China and is therefore a symbol of friendship and compassion.  This duality of symbolism creates an interesting insight into the human spirit.  Even in times of strife and struggle, kindness and goodwill continue to survive.

In addition,  Weiwei’s installation offers social commentary on today’s society.  The Tate poses several questions to consider while viewing the seeds:

  • What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society?
  • Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?
  • What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?

I had the pleasure of spending some time with this installation last summer, but even after an hour of regarding the Weiwei’s work and contemplating these questions I am no closer to answering them.  Though, I am reminded of a favorite quote, which sums up my general impression of the piece:

What happens to people who spend their lives afraid to voice their opinions? They stop thinking, most likely.

– Ivan Klíma

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¹He was released in June 2011, but remains under scrutiny.

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Sources: 

Tate Modern Exhibition Pages

Ai Weiwei on Wikipedia

The Guardian – Detained Artist Weiwei Remembered . . .

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c.b. 2012

Finding True North

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On more than one occasion, I’ve uttered the words, “Oh, great.  I have no idea where I am.”  For a directionally challenged person such as myself, this is a common phrase! Back in 2005, I added Beijing to my list of international cities where I’ve been completely lost.* In a place where English makes a rare appearance and tourists from the West stick out like a sore thumb, it becomes vitally important to find the way back to home base as soon as possible, (nothing attracts a pickpocket or worse than a confused looking tourist!). What set this event apart from all the rest was the fact that I had a compass keychain dangling from my belt loop.  Between a city bus map display, my street map, and the needle of a compass, I was able to find my way back to the hotel by matching up Chinese characters and traveling North and then East. My compass saved me that day by showing me where I needed to go and I’ve never forgotten that gift.  Seven years later, it’s still my lifeline.

I’ve often referred to my recent journey to London as a life-altering experience, despite my struggle to understand the full impact it has had on my life.  Some changes are obvious, but the deeper meaning dangles in front of me like a clue in a mystery waiting to be solved.  I am different in a place so hidden and so deep I can’t see it or even begin to comprehend it’s significance. All I have is the unrelenting sense of a huge shift towards something.  It’s a lot like standing at a fork in the road without knowing what the choices are or why they exist.

Essentially, I am lost all over again without knowing the language. Being lost in this way is both wondrous and frustrating.  Sometimes I revel in the confusion and the inspiration it brings, but there are times I wish I had a road map that at least reveals the basic layout of my new landscape.

Upon returning from London, the feeling of disorientation was overwhelming.  I couldn’t shake the duality of being excited to go home, while at the same time feeling as though I was leaving home. Torn in two, I oscillated between a life I loved and a life I didn’t know was possible, (and loved just as much). Nothing seemed real. In the months that followed, that surreality never left and I grew increasingly restless.  My perspective had changed so drastically, it effected every element of my life and made even the most the familiar things seem foreign.

I remain directionally challenged and my reliance on a compass has manifested itself in an entirely new way. About a month after my return, I was out shopping with family when I spotted a necklace with a compass pendant.  It was beautiful, not only in terms of design, but for the fact that it represented something very special to me.  With every spin of the needle, I am reminded that as lost as I sometimes feel, I will find my way to true north.

My compass necklace wrapped around the place that changed everything.

I wear my compass necklace almost every day so I don’t forget to follow my instincts and listen for hints that will eventually lead to the answer I seek.  All I know for certain is London taught me I am a lot stronger than I ever believed and that serves as my anchor.  At the moment, I walk this path with a smile on my face and growing curiosity of what lies ahead.  Just as it always has, my compass will point me in the right direction.

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*Oh, the stories I have from London, Paris, Rome, Prague, and Dublin!  I suppose that’s another post for another day.

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c.b. 2012

A Day in the Life of an Aspiring Writer

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It’s probably a good thing that I’m an insomniac or my dream of becoming a (real) writer might just kill me. Just for kicks, I decided to keep a log of what a typical day is like for me as I juggle a full-time teaching job and a rather chatty muse.

5:10 a.m.
Wake up (providing I went to sleep in the first place).

5:11 a.m.
Move the notebooks out of the way so I don’t trip on them when I get out of bed.

5:15 a.m.
Finish reading through what I call my Midnight Notes. Then, I’ll pat myself on the back for coming up with the ideas that are worth exploring and scratch my head for the ones where I wonder what the heck I was thinking.

5:20 – 5:45 a.m.
While I’m getting dressed and combing my hair, my muse and I discuss character and story developments.  We will probably disagree instantly and this will be the first of many arguments during the day.

6:05 a.m.
Start walking to work (Yes, I walk even though I have a car and a valid driver’s license. Really.) and listen to one of many story playlists. Usually, I pick a song that relates to a plot point or character quirk I’m trying to figure out.

6:30 a.m.
Pour my morning cup of coffee and get online to make sure any scheduled blog posts have gone through.  Add necessary links to Facebook page. Answer comments, e-mails, and jot down any ideas that arose during the walk to work.

6:45 – 7:30 a.m.
Start actual day job work.

8:23 – 8:30 a.m.
Check blog stats, answer comments.  Add story ideas to notebook.

9:23 – 9:30 a.m.
Check blog stats, answer comments.  Add story ideas to notebook.

*Note: These seven minute intervals are the passing periods between the classes I teach and they will appear a few more times.

9:35 – 10:23 a.m.
Prep hour filled with grading papers, copying, and preparing for the second phase of the day.  In between tasks I check stats, answer comments, check e-mail, and add story ideas to notebook.  On days where my to-do list is clear, I will read blog subscriptions or research publishing outlets.

11:30 – 12:00 p.m.
While eating lunch, I read through subscription blogs and comment.

12:00 – 12:07 p.m.
Check stats, answer comments.

1:00 – 1:07 p.m.
Talk to the student that always arrives to class super early.

2:00 p.m.
Assess real job to-do list and stay until it gets done so I can focus solely on writing when I get home.

3:00ish – 5:00ish p.m.
Repeat morning walk routine in reverse.  My muse and I will continue our morning argument as if the span of eight hours never happened.

Write down any ideas that arose from the walk home.

Grab an afternoon snack and power nap, complete daily crossword, and watch Judge Judy (it’s a guilty pleasure and there are always really great characters)

Spend time with my husband.

6:00 p.m.
Wrap up online tasks (check stats, answer comments, read subscription blogs, update Twitter and Facebook, if needed).

6:30 p.m.
Choose writing project based on the day’s inspiration (i.e. playlist, musings, idea notebook).

Write.

On days where my muse and I can’t communicate, I’ll use my allotted writing time to research literary magazines where I can submit my work, comb through agent listings, and research query letter/synopsis formats.

7:15ish p.m.
Briefly debate cleaning up my writing desk.  Within minutes I will realize it’s just a procrastination attack.

8:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Break for dinner.

10:30 p.m.
Rub temples to soothe wordsmithing cramps.

Take a shower and discuss course of story with muse.  More arguments will ensue.

11:00 p.m.
Jot down any shower ideas and call it a day.

11:10 – 11:30ish p.m.
Read

11:30ish p.m. and beyond
Try really hard to sleep.

This is my basic day, but there are slight variations on different days of the week.

Tuesdays are basically the same except from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. I attend a writer’s group and from 4:30 p.m. until around 7:00 p.m. I write with my mother.

Thursday is appointment TV night and craft night, but lately I’ve been writing at 9:00 p.m. for at least an hour.

Friday night I head to the bookstore at around 6:30 p.m. and read for an hour before heading out to visit with family. At around 10:00 p.m. to midnight I’ll sit down to read or write, depending on my mood.

Weekends are an entirely different story.  Saturday I clean the house and start the laundry before I head to the bookstore to write for a three to five hour block.  On Sundays, I spend the morning finishing up any leftover chores before heading to the bookstore to write for another three or four hours, or until I have to head home for Sunday dinner with the in-laws.  Sunday evenings are typically kept open to relax, unless my muse says otherwise.

It’s amazing I’m still sane, (sort of). Thank goodness for little pearls of wisdom like this:


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c.b. 2012

The Jane Austen Incident

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Every Friday I head down to the bookstore to read and enjoy a cup of coffee.  There is something rather cathartic about a hot cup of caffeine and the escape of a really good book. A corner table flanking the main aisle serves as my favorite place to sit.  I’m always happy to find it empty as if everyone knows that’s my spot.  Without fail I arrive at around six o’clock and leave by seven-thirty.  This little ritual may seem pretty boring, but sometimes the extraordinary realm of fate chooses to reveal itself in the most mundane of places.

One evening, I sat at my table with my customary coffee and a copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  In the midst of escaping to Fanny Price’s world of English propriety, my mind began to wander to a conversation I had with a friend about a book he had just finished reading: Villette by Charlotte Brontë.  The memory was so intense it was difficult to pay attention to Fanny’s burgeoning fascination with Edmund Bertram.  I struggled to focus for another chapter, but a growing need began to occupy my every thought.  I had to find a copy of Villette.  Not in the next day or two, but right at that moment.

When I looked at the time, seven-thirty was a mere five minutes away.  I packed up my stuff and headed towards the “B’s” in the fiction section.  Sure enough, there was a lone copy of Brontë’s enormous novel.  It should have been a simple spot and grab sort of purchase, but when I look for one book I inevitably look for more.  I wandered over to the classic literature display and perused books by D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, and Dante.  For some reason, I decided I couldn’t live without a compilation of Anton Chekov’s short stories.

At the cash wrap, the girl took one look at my books and told me I should go get a third.  As it turned out, classics were on sale: Buy two, get one free.  So, like any savvy shopper, I went back to look a for free book.  For a normal person, this would be easy, but for a bibliophile the “books I want” list is immeasurably long.  At first I thought of grabbing another Brontë book or indulging in my newfound love of Eastern European writers, but none of them satisfied the need that still burned in the back of my brain.

Jane Austen.  It was so obvious I felt like an idiot for not thinking of it sooner.  The only book missing in my collection of her works was Northanger Abbey.  I snatched it off the shelf and hurried back to the cash wrap.  It was getting late.

By the time I got to my car, I was running a very uncharacteristic fifteen minutes late.  Nothing seemed amiss when I drove to the main road and entered the on-ramp to the freeway.  I figured I’d be home in no time, until the car in front of me came to a sudden halt.  All four lanes of the freeway were at a virtual standstill and I was stuck in the middle of it.  Inch by inch, traffic merged into the emergency lane.  Only a really bad accident would warrant such extreme measures.  Still, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

Sprawled across the width of the freeway were six mangled cars.  Three were crushed so severely it was impossible to tell the make and model.  The shock of it caught my breath as I fought back the tears.  There was no question in my mind that at least one life had ended, for one car had been ripped into two pieces.

It took a moment to realize the police were still setting up a perimeter, the on ramp had not yet been closed, and the first ambulance was just arriving.  The accident was only minutes old.  Perhaps, the same few minutes it took for me to go back and find Jane Austen.

c.b. 2011

9/11: I Still Cry

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It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed, considering the memories of 9/11 remain fresh in my mind.  Raw emotion lingers and I think it always will.  Even after so much time, I still cry.  It took me a long time to find the strength to write about my experience of that day and I don’t think I could ever do it again.  Below is a journal entry I wrote on the one year anniversary of 9/11.  The writer in me wants to revise, but I kept all the mistakes for every word is a reflection of how it felt to live through such a tragic day.  My thoughts and love go to everyone who lost friends and loved ones.

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9/11 – One Year Later

I read somewhere that writing helps to heal the soul.  This past week our country looked back at 9/11 after the passing of one year.  I never took the time to write down my experience of that fateful day until now.  At the time, it hurt too much to write about it or even think about it.  I was too busy trying to live through it.

Even after a year, the details are still vivid in my mind as if it happened yesterday.  I was still living at home in September 2001 and had just started my first year of teaching.  I had been hunting for an apartment the previous weekend and had found the perfect first place to strike out on my own.  I woke up that morning with an air of excitement — I was supposed to sign the lease to my new apartment right after work.  I wore a cotton knit dress my aunt had given me, along with a pair of black strappy sandals.  I knew I would be sitting for most of the day and wanted to be comfortable.  Mornings were usually a quiet time for me, so no radio or  T.V.  Silence helped me find my peace to be ready for the coming day.  As I left the house, I thought it was just another normal day.

It wasn’t until I arrived at work, did I realize it was going to be a day that would forever live in my memory.  One of my colleagues walked up to me and delivered the news,

“Did you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“A plane hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

“What?!”

I was in a state of shock unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I ran up to my classroom as fast as my feet would go.  I switched on the T.V. and saw the buildings of the World Trade Center bursting with flames and billowing smoke.  I stood there with my hands over my mouth, trying to believe what was I seeing.  Tears stung at my eyes, but I couldn’t find the strength to cry. It was some time later that I heard the word “terrorism” replace “accident” as the cause of such horror.  Fear began to replace shock.  The newscasters continued speaking, but the site of it all drowned out every word they said.

I sat frozen on top of a student desk when I saw the first tower crumble and fall to the ground.  The tears refused to stay hidden as I cried uncontrollably.  I kept saying to myself, How many people …?  The second tower shattered soon after.  My body went numb and I cried even harder.  I feel the pain to this day.  I don’t know how much time went by before I went downstairs to the school office.  I needed to do something normal so I thought getting my attendance sheets would help.  The television was on right by the front desk.  Just as I looked up a replay of one of the planes hitting the twin towers was aired.  It was almost like it crashed right into me.  The breath was knocked out of me as I stood there watching the unthinkable.  I shook all the way back up the stairs to my classroom.  Shortly thereafter, the news reported another plane went down in Pennsylvania.  They didn’t know if it was related, but I think we all knew it was.

My students filed into my classroom with faces full of fear and sadness.  I didn’t know what to tell them.  All I knew was I had to be strong for them.  I tried to keep the day as normal as possible.  What else could I do?  I answered questions when they were asked and spoke about it when they wanted.  They wanted answers, but I didn’t have them.  I was just as confused and afraid as they were.

The school day was scheduled to be an early release day so teachers could attend staff development meetings.  The administration cancelled all meetings and sent us home.  As soon as I got home, I ran across the street to my grandparents house.  I wanted to be with someone I loved.  My mom and step-dad weren’t home yet and I didn’t want to be alone.  We sat and watched the news. It was on every channel for days.  TV stations suspended their programming and piped in CNN.  We watched in silence as new images of people covered in ash, heaps of rubble in the streets, and the huge dust cloud covering New York flashed across the screen.  Seeing the massive pile of rubble that was once the World Trade Center was heartbreaking.  They called it Ground Zero and were desperately trying to find survivors.  We all hoped.  I came home a while later and continued to watch the news.  The number of missing and dead was anybody’s guess. The estimates got as high as 10,000 to 20,000.  It horrified me.  I went to bed that night with fear.  For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel safe or secure.  My country had been attacked and many people had died.  Why was I spared?

I didn’t see images of the attack on the Pentagon until the next day.  More destruction and more death.  I still felt sick to stomach and rattled with fear.  My boyfriend (later husband) helped by simply being there.  I remember holding him tight and wondering how many people had lost their loved ones.

It must’ve been more than a week before television programming began to return to normal.  It was difficult to watch and even depressing.  Sometimes it hurt so much, I could only watch in spurts.  The pictures and people will forever be seared into my mind.  The firefighters, the police officers, pictures of missing persons plastered up and down the streets of New York, and the survivors.  One image in particular has remained etched in my memory;  a child’s torn doll laying on top of the rubble made it all so human and so real.  I will never forget.

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c.b. 2002/2011