28 January 2011

Ghosts in Their Element – Torin Stephens

I’m all over this…A very different approach to street art, courtesy of Portland photographer and painter Torin Stephens. 1) Find a photo of a recently departed Oregonian on Facebook or a Web news source. 2) Project their image onto a place that meant something to them: a favorite spot...or their final spot.

3) Photograph the image projection and repost on the Web.

"These images were a copy of a copy, but by reintegrating them into the physical world and treating them as spiritual fragments, I hope to instill them with new life,” Stephens says. As those who grieve, I think we tend to imagine people’s physical bodies still moving around the same environs they did when they are alive. Especially when they die young and tragically, as all of these individuals did. This is one thing that is so striking about Stephens’ work. As humans, this is how our mind sees them: embodied.

While he claims no relationship with his subjects, I’m sure an ethereal bond arises after working with their images in this intimate a manner. He notes,“Western culture, unlike many other cultures, resists the idea of ghostly presence. The work suggests that if we cannot as a culture see these symbols, perhaps we must create them in order to tap into their emotive power.”

Intentionally created ghostly visages via light and lens. Wow.

Stephens’ own presence on the Internet is a bit spectral, with little information to be found, except his own Facebook page and a piece on the Wooster Collective, but I hope we see more from him.

Subjects' names:
1/Kipp Crawford
2/David Minor
3/Keaton Otis
4/Seamus DuBarry
5/Grace Throckmorton

27 January 2011

A Prescient Quote from "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace"

David Foster Wallace, discussing his book Infinite Jest and the addictive qualities of TV and the Internet:

"The technology's gonna get better and better at doing what it does, which is seduce us into being incredibly dependent on it, so that advertisers can be more confident that we will watch their advertisements. And as a technology system, it's amoral.

It doesn't...have a responsibility to care about us one whit more than it does: It's got a job to do. The moral job is ours. You know, Why am I watching five hours a day of this? I mean, why am I getting 75 percent of my calories from candy? I mean, that's something that a little tiny child would do, and that would be all right. But we're postpubescent, right? Somewhere along the line, we're supposed to have grown up...

I think one of the reasons that I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people. It's a way to have people in the room talking and being entertaining, but it doesn't require anything of me. I mean, I can see them, they can't see me. And they're there for me, and I can receive from the TV, I can receive entertainment and stimulation. Without having to give anything back but the most tangential kind of attention. And that is very seductive.

The problem is it's also very empty. Because one of the differences about having a real person there is that number one, I've gotta do some work. Like, he pays attention to me, I gotta pay attention to him. You know, I watch him, he watches me. The stress level goes up.

...as the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up...at a certain point, we're gonna have to build some machinery inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better. And it's gonna get easier and easier, and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable to be alone with images on a screeen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die. In a meaningful way, you're gonna die."

It's difficult not to agree with DFW. While distraction in measured doses can be a beautiful thing, the cumulative presence of TV, Internet, gaming, cell phones, texting, IMing, smart phones, social media, and sundry other technologies has undeniably altered the ways in which we relate to other humans. I have lately acutely observed the flattened, sometimes surreal quality of relating online versus the depth of experience one feels in 3-D (aka “real” life).

Online communication adds a layer of abstraction that seems to confound my brain. There is the person to whom one is speaking, then there becomes this avatar, the recipient of the email, who, while resembling this person, is solely a cognitive/verbal entity. The physical field is completely wiped out, and the emotional field clouded. Online relating brings with it much space for interpretation, in a way that face-to-face encounters often do not. In person, we read people’s energy more quickly than we do their words, and in fact process what they say via how they look and how they say it. Actual verbal content has been proven to be just a small component in the communication process. How things are said—vocal intonation, gesture, pitch, volume, phrasing—holds much more sway. All of this is absent in virtual communication.

Email and the Internet have also impacted the length of our relationships to others. Virtual communication makes it very easy to jump ship—to move on to the next person, the next topic, to blow people off, to not spend a lot of time working through issues. There are simply too many other options, and we lose patience quickly. Like a baby averts its eyes from anything that disturbs it, we can easily perform a few mouse clicks and the offensive entity has been excised. And if I can’t see you, see the upset you may feel when I dismiss you, then it doesn’t exist, right?

So if we in our world allow ourselves to be passively entertained, and accept a dehumanizing medium as our predominant form of communication, over time, what is the end result? While Foster Wallace’s conclusion feels somewhat extreme at this moment in time, it's certainly not inconceivable.

“ …each generation has different things that force the generation to grow up. Maybe for our grandparents it was World War Two. For us, it’s gonna be that at…a certain point…we’re either gonna have to put away childish things and discipline ourself about how much time do I spend being passively entertained? And how much time do I spend doing stuff that actually isn’t all that much fun minute by minute, but that builds certain muscles in me as a grown-up and a human being? And if we don’t do that then (a) as individuals, we’re gonna die, and (b) the culture’s gonna grind to a halt. Because we’re gonna get so interested in entertainment that we’re not gonna want to do the work that generates the income that buys the products that pays for the advertising that disseminates the entertainment. It just seems to be like it’s gonna be this very cool thing. Where the country could very well shut down and die, and it won’t be anybody else doin’ it to us, we will have done it to ourselves.”

I highly recommend all of David Lipsky's fascinating book, which documents a 5-day road trip taken by the Rolling Stone correspondent and David Foster Wallace in 1996. It's both a compelling conversation and a glimpse into the writer's thought processes, interspersed with plenty of humor, humanity and bits of profundity. We're fortunate to have this transcript as a glimpse into Wallace's amazing mind.

20 January 2011

I Am a Buddhist Geek - Published Today

An excerpt from my article, which has been published by the wonderful podcast/magazine BuddhistGeeks.com today:

I have taken many lessons from Bernie Glassman’s extensive work with the homeless. Glassman’s street retreats, in which people live outside, beg for money, eat in soup kitchens, and sleep out or in shelter beds, have helped thousands of participants generate wisdom and compassion, the kind that only direct experience can spark. The first precept of Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers Order is “not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe.” Working as a socially engaged Buddhist has made me rethink many of the notions I once held, nested within my desire to help “others.” As I was busily considering them as “others,” I was looking down from a mountain of separation. Certainly I have always felt compassion for the homeless, but that issued forth from a secure position of being housed and “feeling sorry” for their “lesser fortunes.”

But as I practiced the Zen Peacemakers’ tenet, the notion of merely doing service work transformed into recognizing a truth of Buddhism: nondualism. I began to realize that, despite the illusion of separation, the boundary between “subject” and “object” is unreal. Like the Jungian use of figurines in sandplay therapy, perhaps our minds have dualistically projected the separateness of others as a way to explore concepts we could not have experienced within the closed loop of a mind.

Glassman states that not-knowing should be “a state of open presence without separation.” Yet if one has never experienced homelessness and is frightened by both the beggar’s mask and the fear of possibly being in his shoes, it is an act of courage to merge with the person on the street. It takes guts to truly own the times when we have felt homeless, not had a safe place to occupy, felt discomfort in our own skin, and dissolve into pure awareness that in essence we are all there, all the time. Whatever props we use to build security around ourselves, homelessness is our natural state. And the often intimidating manifestations of fear and other emotions that we witness in the homeless are states we have all experienced. Cold, hunger, rejection, being turned out—we’ve all known those conditions, too. And at the end of the day, we all have kindred goals: to be safe, to be loved, to be sheltered, to be fed, to be understood.

To read the entire piece, please see:

17 January 2011

Buddhist Street Art - Part 2

1/Spaulding at Melrose, LA. Photo: George Szakall.
2/Cabbagetown, Toronto. Photo: J. Diggity.
3/Leiden, Netherlands. Photo: Maurits Burgers.
4/Brazil. Photo: Tvindy, Flickr
5/"Basic Buddhism 2" by artist Jason Etienne. London Buddhist Centre.
6/San Francisco. Photo: Liz Hager.
7/Art by Karve. Photo: Mike Cargill.
8 /"Praying Monk" by artist Gaia. Seoul, South Korea
9/London. Art by Banksy.
10/Art by Shepard Fairey. Bowery, NYC. Photo: Brecht Bug, Flickr.

Happy Martin Luther King Day

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....
The chain reaction of evil --
hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars --
must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963

15 January 2011

Tucson Massacre – Violence Begetting Violence

One week ago today, Jared Loughner discharged his semiautomatic weapon into a Tucson crowd in a rampage that has been discussed, debated, and used as a symbol of every possible construct in American society today. After considering it all week, yesterday I discovered a compilation of comments from the Right that made my skin crawl. Apparently I’ve been a bit too tucked into my own little liberal cocoon to realize what’s being said these days by such conservative luminaries as Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and of course, the beloved Pontius Palin. Here’s a sample. A more complete list can be found on the Integral Options CafĂ© blog, http://integral-options.blogspot.com/2011/01/when-does-free-speech-become-inciting.html.

''Our nation was founded on violence. The option is on the table. I don't think that we should ever remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms.''
—Tea Party-backed Texas GOP congressional candidate Stephen Broden

''I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. ... No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out.''
—Glenn Beck

''My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.''
—Ann Coulter

“The Girl Scouts allow homosexuals and atheists to join their ranks, and they have become a pro-abortion, feminist training corps. If the Girl Scouts of America can't get back to teaching real character, perhaps it will be time to look for our cookies elsewhere.''
—Hans Zeiger, Republican candidate for Congress in Washington state

''We need to execute people like (John Walker Lindh) in order to physically intimidate liberals.''
—Ann Coulter

I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us 'having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people -- we the people -- are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country."
~Michele Backmann

"Don’t retreat. Instead — reload!"
 —Sarah Palin

I’m not easily shocked by anything, but I have to say that I found these comments, especially when digested as a whole, shockingly violent—and advocating shocking violence.

Add to this the fact that Palin, on her “Take Back the 20” Facebook page (which she has declined to remove), has specifically targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, using the crosshairs of a gun as her graphic. Message: Anyone who voted for the healthcare bill deserves to be shot and/or killed. These are appropriate targets for lethal vengeance.

Combine with the fact that Arizona has become one of the most thoroughly bigoted places in the country, with its legislation against immigrants designed to make the supermax prison industry wealthy and its banning of "ethnic" studies in schools.

Combine with the fact that Arizona has some of the country’s most lenient gun laws, including legal carry of concealed weapons, so you can indulge your Billy the Kid fantasy in any nursery school, playground, political rally, or house of worship you want. According to Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West, a magazine devoted to Old West history, even legendary Tombstone had stricter gun laws than Arizona has today. And ironically, one of AZ governor Jan Brewer's first orders of business was to pass a bill prohibiting property owners from banning weapons in parking lots. Those two little laws might just have changed things for Giffords and 17 others in that Safeway parking lot last Saturday. But hey, guns don’t kill people, do they?

Add to this the extreme levels of fear in the American population, induced by massive change and economic distress. Fear, because our TV and radio and gangsta rappers and films and newscasts and Web content have been telling us for years that the world is a violent place, that even if we live in suburban Arkansas, we're living in a war zone. Fear, which people tend to cover with anger/aggression/violence…and purchasing guns to tuck under their pillows at night.

As if that weren’t quite enough…. add to it the fact that Giffords, herself a long-time gun owner, was a vocal advocate of gun rights and an outspoken supporter of the Second Amendment. She herself owned a Glock—which implies no small investment in the topic, as these are some heavy-duty pieces, preferred by law-enforcement agents and Crips everywhere. Giffords once joyfully proclaimed, "We have a long tradition of gun ownership in the United States. ... It is a tradition which every law-abiding citizen should be able to enjoy."

And while we’re munching on those words, let’s make sure we combine that enjoyable tradition with utterly lax “background checks,” which probably don’t even reveal outstanding parking tickets, for those about to purchase a weapon. That way we’re all getting much more enjoyment, more bang for the buck, as it were.

And while the nation was noisily proclaiming its ostensible grief about this incident, which you think might have sedated even the gun-ho types just a little bit, sales of Glock pistols (specifically the Glock 19, used by Loughner) jumped by 60 percent in Arizona. As well as throughout the country. Why? Because hey, if Jared’s doing it, it’s gotta be cool?? Because "this is the revolution and I want a piece of it"?? Besides being a frightened bunch, we are truly a frightening bunch.

When we stir all these elements together, it becomes utterly unsurprising that a probably quite sensitive (perceptually, not emotionally) paranoid schizophrenic did his own calculations and drew a conclusion. While obviously not defending his behavior, I will say that Loughner was merely serving as the reaper for all we had sown. And reap he did.

Yet people seem surprised. How could such a terrible thing happen? Blah blah blah. When we ourselves stack all this kindling under the open flame of American wrath—white-hot these days—why are we shocked when the whole pile ignites? If we incite violence through our words, actions, legislation, and celebrity mouthpieces, we should be utterly unsurprised when violence erupts. I’m frankly puzzled that something like this never happened during George W. Bush’s two infuriating terms in office. I’m also amazed that the pile doesn’t catch fire more, given the number of mentally unstable people in the country, the degree of substance abuse, the emotional tenor of the times, the availability of devices that kill, and the great amount of tinder floating around everywhere—from the media to our Fundamentalist megachurches. We have created conditions for Loughner and hundreds more like him. You can’t tell me that at least a few of those folks who ran to Sportsman’s Warehouse for their pieces on January 14 weren’t acting out something inside them that echoed Loughner’s sentiments.

Let's get back to a very basic principle. Guns are designed to kill. They destroy human and animal life. That is what they're meant to do. And that is why people buy them. When you buy a gun, you are putting out the message, "I want to potentially take the lives of other beings on the planet. Killing is a morally acceptable option to me."

And another basic principle: As ever, context is everything. The Second Amendment was not enacted so that 21st-century posers could feel cool strutting around with their Glocks on their hips. This amendment was adopted in 1789, when our young country was threatened by Britain. Back then, because there was no established army, farmers needed to be able to form ad hoc militias. Thus the full wording of the amendment, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

I know this is asking a lot, but how might things look if we got current with all of this, both within the country and within ourselves? What if we all addressed our own fear, lost the John Wayne fantasy, and examined what lies beneath the American love affair with the gun-totin’ swagger? What if the firearm option were taken away tomorrow and we had to rethink our notions of personal protection? Might our heroes and our rhetoric begin to look different?

Would an Alaskan hillbilly running around shrieking “reload!” like a 10-year-old playing cowboys and Indians really seem like an appropriate leader for this country?

09 January 2011

Sweeter Dreams for the Homeless

Many years ago, my friend Dona requested a Native American dreamcatcher for her newborn’s crib. I thought it a nice idea for a Jersey child, and searched the shops of Madrid, NM, to find one made locally. Previously I’d not paid dreamcatchers much mind, as they are plastered all over New Mexican souvenir shops in every pastel color imaginable--New Age tchotchkes for the tourists.

But not all that long ago, the Ojibwa tribe began creating dreamcatchers not to please the tourists, but for their infants, to seize any nightmares or other harm that might be floating through the air, much as a spider's web intercepts whatever flies into it. The Ojibwa intended for good dreams to pass through the center hole to the sleeping person, while nightmares would remain in the web, where they’d perish in the light of day.

In Atlanta, an artist by the name of Ola Bad has been visiting some places that the homeless sleep and sketching dreamcatchers. He then returns at night and photographs them sleeping beneath his drawings. He ultimately plans to create a show about empathy and homelessness. While I view them as guardians of the night, to him, the dreamcatchers represent empathy and gratitude—being thankful for the food and shelter we have.

“My hopes,” he says, “are to get a show built around a series of these and donate half of what I make to the specific person in the photo."

Wooster Collective ran a nice piece on this:



08 January 2011

Hoodie Monks

While I was researching the previous piece, I came across this article on The Worst Horse about the Hoodie Monks of Japan, in the tradition of Santoka and all of those early Zen wanderers, mendicants, beggars (in today's parlance, "homeless"). The Hoodie dudes are a small group of ordained Shingon monks who are using street culture, including graffiti, to express Buddhist thought.

According to one member, Gomyo, "The whole hip hop attitude of 'just don't give a fuck' and questioning authority fits perfectly with the Buddhist attitude of free inquiry, though my take on what it means to 'not give a fuck' probably differs from the average gangsta rapper's."

This is a good reminder of just how radical a path Buddhism once was and still is.


06 January 2011

Buddhist Street Art - Part 1

[For Part 2, see 1/17/11 entry]
I've been collecting images of Buddha and other Buddhist-related graffiti for awhile now and finally decided to pull some of it together. A lot of it lives in LA, where Buddha clearly has a job to do.

Working at the car wash? Western Ave., LA. Art by El Mac & RETNA.
Photo by Robyn Franckowiak.

Must be the karma wash. Photo by Robyn Franckowiak.

Billboard by Cryptik. [Abbott Kinney, Venice]

"Simple Monk" stencil. Artist unknown.

Bodhidharma and his bike. Lansing, MI. Photo by Skylar Woodman.

More Cryptik LA.


Cryptik. Echo Park, LA. Wild--this looks just like Echo Park to me.

Dog Buddha (looks like Anubis). Downtown LA Arts District.

Toulouse, France. Photo by Ideacat.

Let's hear it for all the great artists here, who unfortunately must remain unknown due to this world's ridiculous laws about street art. We celebrate your work.

Photo of the Day - Banksy

Graffiti by Banksy

Curiously optimistic on a day I'm not

01 January 2011

Of Farmers and Their Woks

Last summer when I was moving into my cottage, I realized that there was something quite important I’d left in storage in NM. I made the rounds of our local department stores, Walmart, Target, and found a few Teflon-clad options—basic, utilitarian, functional—but bland as a warmed-over chop suey. About 20 years had passed since I’d purchased my last wok, then considered a vaguely racy item for the NJ suburbs. There it had sat, a dusty box on a lonely lower shelf, revealing its ancient Chinese secrets to none but Michele and I, who were excited about making Asian food at home. When we opened the package, we realized it wasn’t just the pan, but a complete set of tools: exotic bamboo cleaning brush, exotic strainer, exotic wooden stir fry tool, exotic wooden skewers, and, well, everything but the fortune cookies and the waiter exhorting, “ENJOY!” I still remember the first time I washed it with the brush and no soap, then coated it with a tablespoon of peanut oil before storing. Damn, I felt authentic.

In the passage of two decades, I’d come a long way in my definition of culinary esoterica, and was now simply seeking a big oval pan in which to stir-fry a few garden-variety veggies. Nothing fancy, no brush, and hey, I could probably expropriate skewers from the fondue pots littering the Goodwills of white-bread southern Oregon. I fully expected my search here could take months and might only resolve with a few mouse clicks and a credit card number.

But…one summer day while driving through the hills of a small rural community, I saw the signs: Estate Sale. After a very long drive (during which I was mostly muttering, "This better be good…"), I finally arrived at a huge plot of land in a drop-dead gorgeous setting I had no idea even existed. One of those tree-strewn patches of green grass and deep brown earth for which some 17th-century English poet coined the term pastoral.

I walked about ¼ mile from the parking area to the sale, where two gals in their 40s, husbands, brother, kids, and sundry other family members were stationed, trading words back and forth. Shopping the outside tables, I slowly pieced together that they’d inherited the property after their mother, then father, had died. I sensed the deaths had happened recently, yet they’d had enough time to pull themselves together and put on a stoic face, despite the daisy chains of memories strewn around them.

I inquired about a few tools I needed and was directed up a hill to a very large barn, where one of the husbands was assisting. I told him what I wanted, and together we rifled through dozens of implements that had evidently begun accumulating here before WWII had been decided. It seems that Dad had been a tinkerer, and for 50 cents a pop, I could assume ownership on any number of tools that, despite dings and rust, still had a bit left. The husband did his job well, carefully examining the ones I picked for their edge, degree of utility, and years left. He was not going to let me leave without the very best option for tightening my closet pull. $2.50 later, I had five starter tools I needed—and the assurance that I could return the 40-year-old Craftsman screwdriver to Sears at any time for a free replacement.

Walking back down the hill, I surveyed the land, pasture all around, a gracious small farm that had fallen into fallow status, as the kids had moved away and age and modern economics had conspired against agricultural pursuits. I yearned to see the inside of the house, though I knew from previous estate sales that homes of the recently dead often carry an eerie sadness. I walked through the living room directly into the kitchen and fought back a double take. The room, with its vintage stove and pantries, could have been the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting, or a page out of a 1940s Life magazine documentary spread about canning peaches on the farm.

I began sifting through stacks on countertops and open drawers. This was one well-equipped family. And aptly so at a time when cooking three meals a day for a family of six must have occupied much of the day. (No TV dinners, no pizza deliveries, no fudging it with takeout from the Whole Foods deli case…) Mom had assembled the culinary equivalent of Dad’s toolbarn, with everything one could possibly need to flip a pancake or bake an Alaska. In short, it seemed the very antithesis of my own childhood, in which my mom owned exactly one kitchen implement, a half-broken rounded spatula that she used to press down the chopped meat in the frying pan as if searing it into submission. I was tempted to purchase everything in the entire kitchen outright, take it home, and create a whole new childhood for myself, a new legacy. When friends stopped by to visit, I could show them pie pans handed down from Grandmammy. This would be the kind of culinary street cred you can only buy—from authentic country kitchens in rural Oregon.

Quickly realizing that this would be viewed as an Eastern city-slicker country-style grab, I decided to politely snag a few little absolutely darling objects (a wooden-handled potato masher from the 50s!) to brighten my gadget collection. However, I had never shopped such fascinating kitchen drawers, so had to employ some Herculean restraint.

In the midst of this internal tug-o-war, it occurred to me that a cook this dedicated might just have…

Impossible. This was not Paula Deen’s Food Network kitchen. This was not even a suburban NJ circa 1989 kitchen. But when one of the women asked if she could help me, I thought it worth inquiring.

Got wok?

She looked puzzled for a moment—as if making sure I really had uttered the word wok—then began flipping through cabinets and undoing stacks of pans. Finally at the bottom of a large pile sat not just a stir-fry pan but a huge, industrial-strength monster wok. “Well, look at this!” she proclaimed. It looked like something shaken over a gigantic flame in the deepest recesses of a Mott Street kitchen by a man shrieking Confucian analects. It looked like it could cook for 20 in one shot. It looked like… nothing I’d ever seen before in Oregon.

Impossible not to note was a certain black protrusion from its right side, which the gal summoned her sister to see. “Check this out—it looks like a Dad special,” she said with a big smile. The other woman just laughed. Seamlessly and very securely bolted onto the pan was a thick, black, long braided handle. “That was Dad, all right. That’s just the kind of thing he’d do for her. Took it out in the shop and just went to town on it. But it’s practically brand new—I don’t know if she ever used it.”

They both exchanged glances and the room got very quiet, like they were about to cry. I could have cracked a few tears myself. We stood there silently taking in his work. Finally I asked them, “Did you both grow up here?”

“We spent our whole lives here until we both got married. Have you seen the rest of the house?” They led me down the hall toward the bedrooms and let me explore by myself. Each room was quiet, spare, simply decorated: a table, a lamp, a twin bed or two, a framed reproduction on the wall. Yet each room felt clear and orderly, like it seemed to have enough. Not overstuffed. Just right. The bookcases held a few Reader’s Digest condensed books, The Joy of Cooking, farmer’s almanacs, maps, car manuals, East of Eden, a Carl Sandburg collection… The closets held clothes and some board games: Parcheesi and checkers, Scrabble, Chutes and Ladders. And from every window, views of rolling hills, vibrant green vistas, and sky. I wanted to return when the stars came out. I longed to hunker down in one of these bedrooms with its peeling floral wallpaper and sit in the blonde straight-backed chair, set a ream of paper beside a Smith-Corona typewriter, and stack crisp, clean sentences into a novel.

I tried to imagine myself growing up here, on what was probably the only house for acres and acres, just me and my family, the crops, animals, the farm chores, the cycle of the seasons, a few books, a few games, the only connection with the world beyond a static-y radio. In a sense I couldn’t begin to conceive of it, so different was it from my own youth in the path of a relentlessly charging, hungry ghost of a city. A place where it was just me and two parents, lobbing grenades in an all-out civil war. A place where tempers flew with no rhyme or reason across dinners that were served late and cold. A place where each day I tried to piece back together an eggshell china bowl that had shattered to bits the night before.

What would it be like to lie on one of those hills, flower in hand, staring up into the heavens like the girl in the Wyeth painting? To gaze into a clear pond in autumn and see my reflection cast beside red and gold leaves, a single fluid canvas? To spread out into the arms of childhood knowing that mom and dad, the earth and the sky, had me tucked into their wings—warm, safe and well-fed?

And so this wok sits in my kitchen, on the eve of a new year, reminding me of that family, that house, that plot of land, the love a farmer showed his wife, the love that wife showed her family. It’s amazing how concave objects can carry so much, like vessels of memory—those of our selves, those of others, which become our North Stars.