Musings on language, images and life

Month: April, 2010


I spent last night pulling together an application and samples for a local writing grant. The more I read over the selections that “reflect my best writing,” the more paranoid and finicky I became.  Questions such as “Should I really have started that sentence with ‘nevertheless’?” or ” Is this piece too ‘precious’?” quickly turned into “Why am I even applying for this thing in the first place?”

I went to bed wrapped in self-doubt, my half-finished application lingering on the kitchen table. Luckily, this morning’s cup of coffee was accompanied by a different perspective. Self-doubt is all part of the process, and I’m grateful I can move past it and be productive as a writer. I finished up that application and am actually looking forward to dropping it off this afternoon. Whether I get the grant or not, I’m happy to have gone through the process and learned more about my writing goals.

As writers, we are our own worst critics. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been terrified to share a draft with a respected writer friend (so much so that I was on the cusp of deleting the file altogether), only to have him or her return it to me with insightful feedback (mostly positive).  There have been times when the phrase I thought was my worst was the one that resonated most with a reader. I try to remember these moments as I am in the throws of writerly self-doubt. I usually come to my senses.

It’s funny, though. As soon as I have to choose “my best writing,” to try to define myself as a writer who is “worthy” of a grant, that inner critic never fails to pay a visit.



If I had to engage in some sort mandatory writing assignment that included choosing one word to describe 2010 thus far, I would pick “emergence.” I guess this isn’t really a hypothetical situation, since I’ve “assigned” myself to contributing regularly to this blog, and I have an affinity for one word titles that lead me into a concise, yet beneficial (hopefully), discussion.

In grad school, one of the many Homi Bhabha quotes that was seared into my brain was “And the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.” (The Location of Culture, 59) Of course, Bhabha was writing of the postcolonial state and the subversion of dominant Western historical discourse. At the risk of offending postcolonial scholars everywhere, I am going to pull this quote out of context (bear with me) and apply it to a different discussion altogether.

2010 has been a year of “emergency.”  As we (individuals, communities, families, nations) move through these emergencies (personal, social, political, large-scale/small-scale, local/international), we necessarily emerge changed.  We may not emerge in a place we ever expected to be (or knew existed). We may not even understand we have emerged until long after the experience of emergency has faded from our memories.  But the emergence occurs, whether we like it our not, whether we think we can control it or not. Like larvae, we metamorphose.

There is beauty in the process of emergence, there is also pain, injustice and the persistance of patterns we thought had been broken. Often, we pretend we have not emerged; we cling to old ways of thinking and doing. The challenge is to be mindful of the narratives and lessons that are revealed through the emergency itself and the emergence that follows. The emergence will happen, but we must choose to learn, grow and adapt to new realities. Those around us are emerging as well. Through our emergence we find common ground, not because we have emerged similarly or in the same place, but because we’ve gone through the process.


As an educator and freelancer, one of the themes that pervades my career (and life) is that of responsibility (personal, institutional, social, etc.). A broad concept, responsibility encompasses how we act or react to external (and sometimes internal) stimuli (people, ideas, places)  within some sort of moral (or ideological) framework. Our “sense of responsibility” is often guided by what we believe, what our values happen to be (or at least what we say they are). 

For some, the term “responsible” is given to certain actions or prohibitions one experienced as a child. “Acting responsibly” is often conflated with acting out of guilt. At times, responsibility dovetails with obligation; at others, it can be extremely liberating. As a result of all of these guiding elements, responsibility is an incredibly subjective concept (one person’s fiscal responsibility is another’s frivolity, for example).

I tend to think of responsibility in terms of an action/reaction dynamic. I understand that everything I do produces some effect. I realize that, due to my human fallibility and factors I cannot control, it is impossible to consistently anticipate the “reaction” part of this equation. However, I do know that the more I learn about the world, the more I challenge my own perceptions (especially those I think are “right”), the more responsible I become. By understanding how my moral and social framework intersects with that of those around me, I become more aware the possibilities for the reaction my action could produce.

Following this action/reaction  model, responsibility is the antithesis of remaining intrenched in one ideological framework. Rather, it is the process of constantly inputting, evaluating and massaging my understanding of the world around me so that I can be a better “actor” and “reactor” in my daily life.


This weekend, the family will gather to celebrate my grandmother’s 84th birthday. I wrote this short piece (entitled “Saving”)  in honor of her.


I started saving her phone messages instinctively about a year ago. Today, I went to erase my old voicemails and found five from her — one wishing me a safe trip to Puerto Rico, another telling me she had made soup for us out of the hambone, the next one thanking me for helping her clean for her Easter brunch, and a couple just to say she was thinking about me. I resaved them. Likewise, her thank you notes and birthday cards containing messages written in flawless script are stowed away in a shoebox in my closet. The natural explanation for all this is that I would want to preserve her, to have the ability to hear and read her after she’s gone.

In reality, my (subconscious until this moment) reasons go beyond that and are, to a certain extent, extremely selfish. Though I try not to think about it, deep down I know she’ll leave someday, and I’ll lose an important part of my identity. Humans are a narrative species, and she is an integral part of my history, of my understanding of the world and my place in it.

It was a week before she’d hold me after I was born. She was sick with a cold and worried she’d pass it on; a new grandma, she exercised ultimate self-control and smiled at, loved and talked to me from afar. My childhood memories include hugging her polyester-clad legs, listening to Make Way for Ducklings read in her inimitable throaty voice, her manicured fingers handing me sticks of black licorice, her smile as I paraded around in her fur stoles and costume jewelry, hunting for johnny-jump-ups together in the woods, snuggling with her on “the Davenport” as I curled my toes in the shag rug.

She has been a refuge during my adolescence and adulthood, offering pearls of insight nestled in comforting conventional wisdom, welcoming me with pride in her eyes when I succeed and ultimate acceptance when I fail. The combination of her moral and political convictions, candor, and sense of humor has always inspired both confidence and curiosity in me and many others.

Years ago, I found a photo from a party she had thrown for my parents before they got married. Perfectly coiffed with cigarette in hand, she’s sitting on the steps next to her future in-law, my paternal grandfather. The image is not of a Midwestern doctor’s wife and mother of 5 and a North Carolinan custodian and father of 9 — individuals who had lived disparate lives, their meeting simply a bi-product of their children’s happy union. It is of two friends, laughing and talking. This is her most impressive gift, the innate ability to cut through superficial boundaries and find common ground, to accept —  not simply to converse, but to understand.

I stand in awe of her acumen and compassion, the bonds she has forged and the lives she has touched. I will continue to save her phone messages and notes–  I know I’ll need them someday. They will serve as quotidian reminders of who she was, what she taught me, and who I aspire to be. Today, I’ll raise a vodka gimlet to toast this remarkable woman in her 84th year and watch helplessly as she beats me at croquet.


Last night, Michael and I brought dinner to our friends who recently had a gorgeous baby girl. As we were chomping on pulled pork sandwiches, my friend turned to me and said “I never knew how much I’d love people bringing over dinner after a day with the baby. This is so great.” After she finished her sandwich, she asked if we would be comfortable if she breastfed at the table. How could we not be? It’s all part of the cycle of nourishment.

Michael and I make a habit of bringing dinner  to our friends when they become parents. Selfishly, it’s a great excuse to meet the wee one and see our friends (many of whom are quite inspirational when it comes to all things related to parenting and birth). I’m not sure when we started doing this— it’s always felt incredibly easy, natural and important. Last night, I realized this tradition was one that had been passed to me from my grandmother, via my parents (the three of them never hesitate to bring dinner to friends recovering from surgery or illness). We are a family of feeders.

One of my research and writing interests is food/eating practices and the role they play in our culture(s) and lives. Though I’ve published quite a few short pieces on culinary travel and “foodie lit,” I’ve never seriously delved into the topic of food and culture. I’d like to change that. I’m not sure I can say anything that Michael Pollan, Michael Steinberger, or the host of other food writers I admire haven’t already covered, but that won’t stop me from trying.

The idea for a book on food and culture was born on a rainy November night in a pub near our house. Antsy to begin a new project, I was sending ideas over my beer mug and across the table to Michael, who would  volley them back after adding his own twist. We began talking about the best meals we’d had in different parts of the world. While Michael focused on the culinary components (recounting all of the ingredients and preparation techniques used in a meal we shared in Spain early in our relationship), I zeroed in on the practices and customs association with eating (telling him about the long, tradition-packed Christmas meals I enjoyed at my surrogate “mamie’s” home in France when I was in my early twenties). All of these elements are part of the expansive, weblike topic that is “food and culture.”

At this point, I’m envisioning this project as a book of essays rooted in culinary travel, but with an emphasis on everyday gustatory experiences (not just the exceptional, “mountain top” foodie fests). I’m interested in other peoples’ stories about meals and eating practices at home and abroad and, as always, welcome any comments you may have.

Art and Migration

One of the endeavors I enjoy most is editing collections of essays or articles. I find satisfaction in providing a forum for eclectic groups of thinkers to come together and share their work in a journal, book or online format. An added perk is getting to know so many fascinating people through their writing and our interactions during the editorial process.

My current project is entitled Representing Migration: Artistic Creation Across Borders. I am now accepting papers from artists and writers from across the globe. I look forward to hearing from you if you are interested in submitting an abstract (please click the link above to see the CFP).


Syntax, and lexemes and morphemes… oh my!

This weekend I was working on a medical translation and was reminded that the French word for scapula is “une omoplate,” but the adjective is “scapulaire.”  The term “omoplate” comes from Greek, while “scapula” comes from Latin. These lexical  incongruencies are common in French, especially in medical terminology, due to the combination of Greek and Latin etymologies. French medical terms derived from Latin are familiar to English speakers (we use very similar forms ex. “nasal,” “sinus,” etc.).

Though I’ve never studied these topics in-depth, I’ve always been fascinated by etymology and morphology — the ways words travel and change through time, how they relate to one another, how meanings shift and slip. There are words that come into fashion for a brief period of time, only to resurface a couple of decades later (like harem pants) and those that stand the test of time (like the little black dress).  There are words I used to use a lot (too much)  in my own writing (“liminal,” “hybrid,” “subjective,”) — lexical ticks, if you will. I spent some time this morning thinking about words I am currently obsessed with (“interstitial,” “hygienic,” “convergence,”) and why I love them so (their specific — or mutable– meanings, the way they look, their shock value, they way they add flavor and imagery to a phrase, the way they sound as I read drafts out loud).

We carry words, meanings and associations with us all the time.  Our brains are constantly engaged in a cycle of  inputting, storing, and retrieving words when we need them (if we’re lucky). Our emotions and experiences have a profound influence over which words enter our speech patterns and writing.  Words have the power to snap us into a different state of mind or take us down another creative path. They have the power not only to communicate, but to transform.


To tell you the truth, I’ve always been wary of starting a blog. It seemed (and still does, to some extent) like an exercise in vanity at best, an embarrassment at worst. But I’m changing and growing. While reading blogs of other writers and thinkers I admire, I’ve come to realize that a blog can indeed be a powerful space where we give ourselves permission to write, to share our budding ideas with the world, to try them out. It’s also a place to store thoughts that we may return to later, fuel for future projects. Perhaps the true beauty of a blog lies in the fact that the writer never really knows who his or her words are reaching (unless, of course, readers are kind enough to comment). In this spirit of perceived audience anonymity, we give ourselves permission to play, to send words into cyberspace to see if they bounce back and stick in our psyches (or those of our readers).

This idea of “permission” has permeated my writing career. I began writing and translating professionally in graduate school. Therefore, my aesthetics, verbiage and style were necessarily limited– I had been molded into an “academic writer.” As I’ve moved away from the ivory tower, my writing has flourished (though I still enjoy writing a good literary analysis from time to time). This was not just a happy bi-product of leaving the constraints of traditional academia. Rather, it was a conscious choice— one fraught with both anxiety and freedom. Though I didn’t realize it until recently, I had to give myself permission to explore other genres and projects outside my fields of study. My life and writing have become much richer as a result of these new practices and perspectives.

Most of the time, however, “permission” is a much more of a day-to-day concept for me. I used to prioritize my own writing last — finishing projects for my clients, cleaning the house (not as often as I should), spending time on quotidian tasks before putting my own ideas out in the world (or at least on my laptop). I’ve gotten better at carving out time for my writing, but it always helps to have a little encouragement.

Last Saturday Michael (my husband) and I decided to take a day to clean the house. Just as I began scrubbing the sink, the muse hit. For the past week I had been tossing around the idea of writing something for my grandmother’s 84th birthday. Words began to take shape and I knew I needed to get them on paper.

“Sorry, I just thought of an idea for Grandma’s thing…” I told Michael, sheepishly heading away from the sink and toward my laptop.

“Then you should write,” he said. “The sink will still be here in an hour.”

Shadows and Light

Castillo de San Cristóbal is an old Spanish fort, built in 1539 to protect the city of San Juan (Puerto Rico) against attacks by competing colonial powers. It is now part of the U.S. National Park Service, and welcomes tourists to walk the grounds and duck in and out of the fort’s many nooks and crannies. Seeking refuge from the 2 o’clock sun, we spent some time in this dark, cool hallway, watching the light spill in from around the corner. Possibility, excitement, challenge, future.