April 29, 2012 - 9:06 PM
It has been a while since I've read anything which has affected me so profoundly as The Grapes of Wrath. It was assigned for my cultural geography class as a text addressing landscape and power.
I don't know that I've ever seen a text which did so as completely or compellingly.
I am not sure how I made it out of high school without reading this book. I got the sense from class that most people had read it and had not enjoyed it as part of their sophomore or junior years. I can see why a high schooler would not enjoy it-the book is as bleak as bleak can be, and Steinbeck's narration switches between describing the lives of the Joad family during the great Dust Bowl migration to an omniscient narrator, speaking to the American migrant experience at that time.
Can you hear the comparative literature student as I'm writing this? It's been so long since I was turned loose on a novel in this way, and I can hardly wait to discuss it. There is so much to say about this text I almost don't know where to begin.
So I guess I'll start with the class assignment. As a group, we were to select a paragraph which most expresses the purpose of the novel, and a paragraph which we find to be the most beautiful. Here was my candidate for the core message of the novel:
"And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression." (Chapter 19, p. 161)
As I said, this is not a happy novel. It is an American classic because it speaks to the soul of this country at a moment when a huge swath of the population became displaced and then desperate. It is the story of how farmers who had been poor but proud became vagrants and then were cast as the enemy of the owners of the land, who became inhuman in the pursuit of wealth beyond the scope of human need.
And I love this passage because it speaks to the core of injustice and oppression: that the oppressors are harmed by their obsession and the repressed will eventually strike back.
Of course (spoiler alert) in this novel, any victories against the new system are symbolic only. There is no grand revolution for this moment in American history, only the slight hope of connection within the human family.
And that leads me to the quote I submitted as the ‘most beautiful' in the novel. It is again in the voice of the narrator, who sees the scope of human experience in the American migrant camps:
"No-the stars are close and dear and I have joined the brotherhood of the worlds. And everything's holy-everything, even me." (Chapter 23, p. 224)
This novel is a story of today as well. It is about dispossession and resentment, and the sense that resistance is required but so full of risk. It is a story about the pain of rootlessness and a population removed from the roots of community and security.
I kept seeing my own research in these pages: the experience of migrants, and the oppression of labor practices when workers are plentiful and regulation is not. I wondered about the resonances with the Occupy movement and the other great social movements of the recent past: of the sense of a greater humanity calling out against structures of power and oppression.
And I thought also of this one beautiful line of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape: that the stars are near and beloved, and we are all connected.
It's a lot to think over. I feel like I've got some pondering to do over the next few days to think through this book. Tom Joad promised to be with the family forever, in the darkness and in the laughter of the children. Forgive me the poetic laps if I say I feel him with me now, wondering who built this laptop and if I've labored and loved the land that supplies my food. And I have to ask myself about this changing world, and the ways in which we are surrounded by the ghosts of those who have gone before: just and unjust alike.
April 25, 2012 - 4:41 PM
This month, an article I wrote about my summer's experiences is featured in the United Methodist Women's Response magazine. Response is a national publication, and the UMW is an international organization which provides disaster relief and development aid in the United States and around the world.
You can find a link to the article here: http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umw/response/articles/item/index.cfm?id=845
This is my first significant publication. I am just as proud as can be.
I've learned a lot during my time here at the UO. It's hard to even begin to describe how much I've learned: I went from being a high schooler with good grades but no real direction in life to someone with concrete dreams and a strong confidence in my ability to achieve them. I learned what it is to be a leader and a scholar and a critical thinker. I know what it is to do research and to bring together academic thought and a commitment to social justice and making a difference in this world. I have been mentored by professors who model a kind of work that I so want to do with my life: teaching, research, writing, social commitment, traveling, and mentoring young people. I have learned that this place, the university, is where I want to spend my life. And I have the experiences now from four years of undergraduate study and a fast-approaching master's degree that I feel confident that this is my future.
But I have also been so lucky as to develop other skills and passions along the way.
I will not be a journalist. But I love the craft and see it as so important in bringing experiences to the broader world. The work done by Response magazine and the UMW will have far more immediate real-world impact than any peer-reviewed, refereed article in an academic journal. By publishing with this magazine, I know I will have reached people far beyond those who will ever read my thesis, regardless of its quality. I know I have created something with this article that is accessible and clear and an invitation into my experiences.
So here, even as I've said I won't be a journalist, I have become one.
There's another reason for the particular level of pride I have in this magazine. I am no great photographer by any stretch of the imagination. It's something I really hope to improve upon in the near future. But it's not something I consider a point of pride.
I took the photo which was chosen for the cover of the magazine. That photo, with all its emotional resonance with my experiences, is now the face of Response magazine for one month.
I've got to say that this publication has distracted me. I have ‘the bug' as my family would say: suddenly I see the next article in everything I do.
So even as I'm racing through the final stages of my thesis, I'm hoping to get to more writing of this kind. I want to tell stories and invite an emotional response. And with this publication, I know I have been welcomed into the hearts and minds of many hundreds of good people across this country, who care about justice and will now carry my story forward in their work and worldview.
So yes, this month I can look at my copy of Response magazine and feel proud. As an armature, freelance journalist, I am arriving.
Keep an eye out for me in the future.
April 22, 2012 - 8:16 PM
I've begun the task of bidding farewell to Eugene and my time at the UO. I've started mentally dividing out the books I'll keep, and have processed the fact that I'll be leaving all my furniture to new owners. I'll be pulling up roots and heading out for something completely different, and leaving so many great times and beloved places behind.
But part of this process has been in deciding what to keep, which leads me to a hilarious and sweet discovery this evening.
I was going through a tub of old notebooks which I've lugged around as part of the necessary trappings of college life: all those course notes from entry-level classes which took you so long to write that you can't bear to part ways. Plus there are interesting doodles in the margins which you might want to look back on someday.
As I was reluctantly placing my freshman-year political science notebook in the ‘recycle' pile, I stumbled upon a real treasure: my pre-college notebook. Inside were some very bad poems, some passable lists of "to do before college" ideas, and my college research notes.
That's right: I found the journal entries from when I first toured Northwest campuses the summer before my junior year of high school.
I first set foot on campus on July 24, 2005. It was my first school in a series of Northwest colleges and universities, and resulted in my falling in love with the region and applying early-decision to the UO. This is all exciting enough to have the dates and highschool thoughts written down, but here, honest-to-goodness, were my first words regarding the University of Oregon:
I can see myself here.
At that moment in my life I could hardly see clear to the next marching band practice. I cannot overstate how much I've changed in the years since then. But as a high school junior, I wrote "Eugene is beautiful, in a funny, small city way. The campus is beautiful, and I could picture myself there." Now first we have to overlook the questionable punctuation, and the fact that I repeated myself with the "picturing myself here" twice in two paragraphs. But I was so surprised to see it there, written in my eerily unchanged penmanship. I cited the natural beauty, the student union building (which I thought was super cool at the time), the craft center, service-learning credits, student clubs, community service, campus newspaper, and quality music school.
I would have a somewhat different list these days (I'm thrilled that my peers in the music school have a quality education, but am not personally impacted), the majority of my description of the UO and Eugene would be the same. That first day I sensed the campus for harboring an atmosphere of community connections, political mindfulness, and broad opportunities. I knew I would be happy in this beautiful setting, and that Eugene would be ‘funny.'
I don't usually write blogs that are quite so ‘pro UO' in nature: I figure the campus recruiters can do a much better job than I. But here I am, gathering my things and thinking about leaving, and I found my first reaction to what has become my home.
Back then I could picture myself here. And thank goodness I did. Almost six years later, I can't picture college any other way.
April 21, 2012 - 3:02 PM
Last weekend I had the great good fortune of spending a couple of weekend hours in the company of some great people, doing something mindlessly creative.
We painted pottery.
Namely, we headed to Brush Fire (http://www.brush-fire.com/) in downtown Eugene, where we spent a couple of hours painting pre-made pottery to be later glazed and returned as a final product.
Now I'm no great artist. My piece consists of two contrasting colors and some decorative "swirlies" in puffy paint. It's no great feat of self-expression or artistic genius, and actually caused some considerable distress in selecting the specific piece to paint (I chose an outlet cover, which is neither particularly inspirational nor exceptionally difficult to paint), and even agonized some over the color choices (green and blue, plus contrasting dots and swirlies). What I'm trying to say is that even the simplest visual art project is a bit out of my league, and that in my current state of mind, any decision can become somewhat of an ordeal.
But the process was delightful. I was there with a bunch of highly intelligent and witty folks from the geography department, celebrating a friend's birthday. So we sat around talking about school and politics and the spring flowers (I was the only one who knew anything about camas. How can this be?). We gossiped and kvetched and painted pottery.
I left feeling soothed and renewed. I spent a lot of time literally watching paint dry, and extra time carefully applying swirlies to my two-toned creation. It wasn't rocket science, but it was a chance to walk into a room, pick a project, watch it unfold, and see the whole thing completed before I left the room. There was something relaxed to the process, and a great vibe in that space. It was fun to see other people think through color choice and technique, and to create various kinds of art on their own bowls, plates, mugs, and flower pots.
I regularly take some time to myself to appreciate the beauty in Eugene, and to participate in my own creative process, which is creative writing. But walking doesn't create a tangible product (although I always feel better afterward) and creative writing, for me, means sitting behind a computer. I do that a lot these days, between work, school, thesis, social media, and an obsessive desire to check YouTube for funny videos. When I sit down for creative time, so often it looks very similar to sitting down to send work emails or do some reading for a class. It doesn't look like a nice afternoon off.
My Saturday was a great reminder of my need to save space for creativity in my life, and that a lot of tension gets held up behind this computer screen. I could imagine myself heading back a couple of times to spend some mindless time in simple, colorful creativity.
Even if I don't make it back, I have a lovely afternoon memory. And a nicely painted outlet cover.
April 15, 2012 - 6:57 PM
I am currently pondering two sets of technology upgrades: the E-Reader and the smartphone.
I shudder to even write these words.
First I suppose I'll tackle the decision that's been successfully made. I will be purchasing a Kindle (or similar product) for my travels this summer. I have resisted e-readers with all the enthusiasm of a "back in my day" traditionalist, but the fact of the matter is that I love books. I love reading and printed words and the feel and smell of a book in my hands. I love the physicality of reading, and the way that the "read" side of the book grows steadily as the "yet-to-be-read" side shrinks. You can see the body of story left in the pages held in your right hand.
All poetic homage aside, I just love the book as a historical object, as a fixture in homes, and as the constant companion of my journey through life. My bookshelves are among my proudest possessions, and I have never owned a purse so small that a paperback wouldn't fit in among the "necessary" trappings of life. A book is just as essential as a wallet or keys.
But the fact of the matter is that I will be spending two and a half months on the road in Europe this summer. My previous travels have provided a home base, where I could store my books and replenish my library through trades on the road, or through the purchase of the occasional new English book. But this summer I will be backpacking in earnest, and will be living as lightly as I can across a continent. I cannot carry the requisite reading material with me, and cannot count on finding good material along the way.
So I've decided to make the leap. I'm sure I'll still carry a few books, because ultimately a novel is more important to me than a spare pair of shoes. But this way I'll have the backup twenty or so books that will assure me I've got the material to accompany me on those long train rides and homesick nights. A book means I'm home, and lets me live 100% of the daylight hours (or nightlife as well). Hopefully a Kindle will be an adequate substitute.
And now for the phone. Oh, how I love my stupid phone. More specifically, I love that my phone is only a phone, and functions well as a phone. It does not hold music, it does not serve as a video camera at concerts. It does not tell me about facebook updates or offer to consume my time with interactive games. I am so behind the times I have never seen an Angry Bird in action, nor do I recognize the app squares as anything except bizarre modern art. In fact, I cannot legitimately claim to have first-hand experience with any "app." And I continue to live a happy and fulfilled life. And yet...
I could suddenly have access to wireless all over the place. I could travel without my computer and still have access to my friends and to news of the world. And I've got to admit that I'm impressed by the quality of video that comes out of those blasted smart devices.
So I guess this is the story of me agonizing over whether or not to join my generation and the modern world. Whether I really want to spend more time staring at screens, for the benefit of being more connected and living with more comfort and convenience.
Well readers, any thoughts? Do I make the plunge? And if so, any thoughts as to the nature of the devices? This is the kind of thing that brings disproportionate stress, and which I will ultimately probably appreciate.
OK I'm about to go talk into my dumb phone while holding a book. Just to try to stay grounded.
Oh the life of the modern student-traveler.