Friday, May 20, 2011

what to do about dawn

One of my heroes, Evita Krislock, once told me, “Any time is timely.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past few weeks. I leave Chiang Mai in less than a month. A stopover in Spain, then moving to New York to start my MFA in the fall. I feel like the luckiest kid on the block to be able to spend the next two years focused on writing, and to have the faculty, peers, funding and time that enable that focus. But Lord knows there’re two sides to every coin, and a before and after to every clock.

If you asked me to make a list of the great things about the city, life, relationships of Chiang Mai, I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it before the final boarding call. This abundance is a good thing, is a blessing, is the best-case-scenario. It’s also damn hard to think about leaving.

And, at times, harder yet to imagine myself back in the states. There were months in the beginning this year when I would wake up with memories of brick buildings, the metallic smell of subway poles, the wind on Venice Beach or through orange groves, the silence in a late night cab. I would feel a calling to go to those places, return to their people. Around that time, though, a teacher told me that the first instinct in times of fear is to contract, to turn in on ourselves. The body does the same. I don’t know when I shifted from retreating to the familiar to reaching out some roots instead. But the roots have reached. And they keep growing. I guess that's how you make a home.

Since I finished my job and travels, I’ve been on a Monastic Days, Party Nights plan. Days alone to work on songs and stories, then slipping back into the night to be around tables or on dance floors, on balconies or in bars. In company. If I could write the world a thank you card, it would be for these past weeks. Time to prove to myself I have the discipline for this writing thing, this recording thing. Time to go and grow further in my friendships, my vocabulary, my understanding of values, politics, perspectives, เกรงใจ in Thai culture. Time to shoot the shit and time for heart-to-hearts. I don’t have a calendar on my wall and I don’t want one. Nevertheless, when I date a journal entry, this time just feels like a tease, or a trailer for a movie I won’t get to see. Why so good now, right before I leave? But the goodness would have been there two months earlier. It’s just richer now. I’d take a peak over a lull any day. And days are what I’ve got. It’s timely after all, timely yet.

Another lesson from Evita was that we have the choice to build something up or tear it down. When I feel most apprehensive about leaving, I try to remember that choice. My friend V-Dub said, “Okay, there’s a lot you’ll miss. Why not make a list of what’s good to come back to?” I woke up the next morning and pulled out a piece of paper from my sketchpad and got to work.

It felt good to be positive. Optimism—the faithful fallback despite my occasional lapse. As I try to prepare myself for what’ll probably hurt like hell, at least I know that some lessons don’t change and some foundations you can carry, always, with you. Gratitude. Good friends. Art and impulse.

And poems, like this one from a book a Thai friend (whose nickname’s Art—go figure) loaned me. A collection by 8th century Japanese women who wrote these killer 5-line stanzas for their beloveds. So, since I already wrote a thank you card to the world, I might as well throw in a love poem too. This one's by Ono No Komachi, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani.
The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it's already dawn.

Friday, April 29, 2011

adhoc album

Yesterday I found a piano shop at the mall that rents little rooms, each with an upright and none of them soundproof, by the hour. I snuck in a backpack full of recording equipment this morning to hammer out an arrangement for a new song. I finished just in time for some guy to rent the room next door, set up his sheet music and get going on the theme from Love Story. Just in the nick of time.

New mp3 coming soon!

Monday, March 7, 2011

"announcing your place / in the family of things"

I test myself sometimes. Could I stay here forever? Often the question arises to challenge or check myself, and other times it’s a game of devil’s advocate. In the past, when people have asked me how long I’ll stay in Chiang Mai, I don’t answer the question. “I don’t know,” or something with a “maybe.” I found out recently that I’ll be in a writing residency in August out west to work on my book. Although I’d planned on coming back to the states in late spring or summer, to have something set-in-stone feels strange. Especially when it’s tied to sharing good news with friends here. After the explanation for “Holy cow, I got a residency!” there usually comes a variation on, “Great! And when do you come back to Chiang Mai?”

How could I leave? I feel so lucky to have fallen in with the friends I have. Even if I don’t understand most of the language, my life here has been—trying to fight off the past tense: is!—a best-case-scenario in terms of both creativity and community. I didn’t want to be just another expat at an expat bar, and although my Thai still needs some serious TLC, in the past few months I’ve felt like a part of this town, even if a small part. With the exception of a writing group or country music, I feel like I have found everything I would want out of New York City.

One of my literature students once pointed out that I am always comparing texts, characters, tones. Part of it I blame on my schooling, but part of it is my self. Pros and cons. Ifs and thens. From an outsider’s perspective, Thai culture is more emotionally reserved than in the states. Could it sustain this overanalyzing, occasionally broody farang in the long-term? In times of need, the silence can prove frustrating, but in other moments it’s nothing but a relief from the agitation and drama I witnessed (and engaged) in college and the city. I don’t know if it’s a perfect fit; I don’t believe in a perfect place anymore. That said, there are evenings or early mornings when it seems, frankly, stupid to walk away from such a good, good thing.

My friend Riley often brings up the point that we never let ourselves accept happiness or satisfaction if it comes with ease. I already earned my gray hair—do I need more? I know I could organize and afford a life of writing and music here. Why hustle? I remember reading somewhere Grace Paley’s words of wisdom for young writers: cheap rent. Check. Another piece of advice from my nona Ceil: hang with people who know more than you. Although I don’t know writers in Chiang Mai, I am surrounded by 30-somethings who are making ends meet through art, music, design, which provides as much hope as it does an example.

While having soup with a friend a few weeks ago, I asked what made him decide to move from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for good. He said it was an accident. He said, “Life is not a calendar.” As we walked to his car after dinner, we saw it had been boxed in by another sedan. Nothing to do but wait for an opening, and to keep talking through the wait.

I keep coming back to T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, a poem that—much like this town, this year—I came across by chance:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

Regardless of what happens in the next few months, I rejoice the following words from a friend, unexpected, over a cup of Nescafé: “I think you come back.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

urban studies

Northern Thai dreamhomes vs. Bangkok buildings.

Stay tuned for some recordings of this weekend's trip to the city.


One week left of trying to start a conversation.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

cosmic 2k11 / สวัสดีปีใหม่

I was in Bangkok (more on that later) when I got a call from some dear friends in Chiang Mai to say "Happy Rabbit Year!" I hadn't realized it would be the year of the rabbit, which is an unexpected full-circle for this here wild child--especially since the Thai New Year's falls on my birthday.

Last semester we had a unit on New Year's Resolutions in my conversation courses. A lot of them said "I will cut down on playing video games" or "I will keep working hard in class." (Yes, yes, A+!) As for Ajaan, aside from the usual "exercise" and "respond to email," I added some poetry. But first, how about a recap?

Last year's M.O.:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

This year's is a tie (tied taught) between the following:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

The Soul should always stand ajar

Saturday, July 17, 2010

welcome home, Oat!

When I was thirteen, my grandfather took me to a music shop in Livonia, Michigan to get a guitar. She was big like a cow, so I named her Bessie. In the years that followed, my grandfather would call long-distance to Spokane and say, “Ellie Sue, I’ve been on the porch all day but I still haven’t heard a thing. You got to play louder!”

After much debate, I decided to leave Bessie in the states. I didn’t want to lose her to the humidity. The past four weeks, though, I have been wandering around Chiang Mai with a guitar-shaped hole in my heart, paired with the impatience of new songs wanting to be written. These wanderings led me to one guitar shop after the next, with no luck and a lot of “special, just-for-you” (a.k.a. astronomical) prices. Finally, a random run-in with another farang (who was from NJ but went to college in Spokane—small world!) pointed me in the right direction and I dragged Ajarn Lauren with me to a guitar shop in the north of the Old City.

As is the case with many shops and homes in Thailand, we took off our shoes to go in. I tried out a few guitars, and soon enough had narrowed it down. The price was right, and the pretty two-tone body was a hit. I asked the guy manning the counter about bars in Chiang Mai with a live music scene. Turns out he plays drums in a band here, and he gave me a list of places—and a discount on the guitar. I asked him what his name was. Oat!

As Lauren and I jetted back to our neighborhood, I suddenly had both a guitar and a name for it. In the days since, I have been happy as a clam. It wasn’t until I started writing new songs and recording the old ones that I realized just how much I had missed playing. It’s a relief, a release and a hoot. Every time I walk into my apartment and see Oat, I feel a little more at home. Bessie’s still my one and only, but Oat and I are on our way to something good. And no noise complaints from the neighbors so far…

Speaking of home, here are a few photos of mine, complete with día de los muertos flags:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

six foot angel

On Wednesday I moved into my apartment. (Mi Thai casa es su Thai casa for those of you trekking around or planning to trek around Asia this year…) The following evening as I walked home from my Thai teacher’s house, I asked a blonde girl on the street 1. if she spoke English and 2. if she knew a place nearby where I could buy some sheets. Since she was a tall drink of water, she leant down as she answered, and thank goodness she did! Fifteen minutes of conversation later, we made plans to have dinner once I finished my just-moved-in errands.

By the time I got to the main road, the rainy-season humidity snapped and on came a downpour. A Western guy outside the 7-11 handed me a folded garbage bag and said, “Here, have a rain coat.” I gave up on my errands (and on lugging big shopping bags of household goods through the rain) and, an hour later, me and my makeshift poncho made it through the deluge to the restaurant.

We ate in a hole-in-the-wall, family-run place in a random hallway of her apartment building. The cooks’ adorable four-year-old daughter paraded back and forth on her training-wheeled bicycle, sometimes stopping at our table to rattle off some Thai that I miraculously understood. (Granted, it was a four-year-old’s vocabulary, but still!) As it turns out, my new six-foot-friend was leaving Chiang Mai in two days. She had been living in Thailand for six months, studying ecological politics and working in an incredible sounding non-profit doing humanitarian work in Burma. As we finished up our curry fried rice, we swapped stories (why are you here? what did you leave? what’ll you come home to?) and every time she mentioned an experience with Thai people or the language or the urban insanity that is Chiang Mai, she literally glowed. We paid our bill, bid goodbye to our bicycling sidekick, and she said, “This is random, but do you need pillows?” Then came a different downpour: household goods. We went up to her apartment and she gave me all the cleaning supplies, cutlery, bowls, buckets, glasses and pillows she would leave behind when she left Chiang Mai—and her parting gifts were pretty much my shopping list verbatim.

I was just a few days past my arrival, and she was mere days from departure, and I’m grateful for the slim chance of overlap in our Chiang Mai chronology. The stars aligned with one big, “Hark!” While it’s always nice to go home with a garbage bag rain poncho and an even bigger garbage bag of stuff, it’s even nicer to go home with some impromptu words of wisdom and a damn good omen.

Friday, June 25, 2010

i jaywalk you jaywalk she jaywalks

To cross a street in Chiang Mai, you wait for a gap in the first lane and run. You stand on the dotted line and watch for a break in the next lane of traffic. On a smaller street this might be streamlined, but when it’s a four-lane road you might find yourself stranded in the middle of motorbikes, sedans and trucks for more than a hot minute. Cross walk? Forget about it.

Aside from the adrenaline that comes from feeling like I’m in a video game, the past two weeks’ worth of sprinted street crossings have been pretty analogous to the rest of my experience. If I want to get anywhere, I better make a run for it. Whether it be taking a stab at a spicier curry, making use of the tap-water made ice cubes, speaking some Thai, or rolling into my first class a mere 11.5 hours after getting into the Chiang Mai airport, I’ve been trying my best to curtail the hesitation. Sometimes it means going with the flow, other times it means stepping into traffic, but so far so good.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Two days from now I will be arriving in Thailand and will get this show (and blog) on the road. Don't touch that dial!