Everyday algebra

Why is it when only as we sit down to do the final arithmetic of a year, that we give ourselves permission to acknowledge everything? We live our lives as though some parts are destined to be glossed over as quickly as possible, stowed away in a drawer somewhere, or wiped out of our memory. While others, perfectly polished are placed on a pedestal, with tailor made lighting- for everyone to see and admire- and blown out of all proportion. What does it do to us, that we live parts of our lives in hiding and some parts in flamboyant hyberbole? What does it say about our understanding of humanity, that only praise and boisterous pride is accepted in public, while everyone should bear the darkness on their own? 
All this year I've felt this battle being fought inside of me. The tension between my own contradictions, my own selves colliding and not quite finding peace amongst themselves. And all the while, on the outside, looking in, our time's glaringly loud gospel; FIND YOURSELF! It evokes the image of someone rummaging through ones inner parts, trying them out, discarding them until one finds oneself, one's real self.  Such an exhausting illusion, this quest for some hidden right way which we are doomed to spend our lives looking for. I am large. I contain multitudes, wrote Walt Whitman
Never an enthusiastic math student, I quite enjoy calculating the sum at the end of each year.  The word algebra comes from the Arabic meaning 'Reunion of broken parts'. Our obsession with keeping our lives sunny, neat and pretty, and throwing out the ugly, broken, messy bits digs at our humanism. It ripples across our ability to see one another and builds walls within and between us. We are large, we contain multitudes. And so, for the coming year, I wish for myself, and for you, that we put a little more algebra into our everyday lives.

Mind the body

Is there nowhere out of the mind, I asked last January, nodding to Sylvia Plath,
and vowing to put physicality back into my life.
So many of my joys were abstractions. 
Politics, philosophy, poetry are labors of the mind, not the body. 
Surely, there's more to being human than cogito ergo sum?
Being diagnosed with a chronic disorder is an effective way to transition from mind to body.
As the body starts attacking itself, abstractions offer little help and poetry becomes a poor distraction.
It used to shield me from outside enemies, but my immune system has gone rogue- it rebels.
Moving into a disease is like diving through grief.
At times it is difficult to remember that this does not define me,
difficult to see that just because my body is fragile- I don't have to be.
But navigating between nodes of denial, melancholy and renegotiation,
I find myself seeing so clearly what we already know: the mind-body problem is a false dichotomy.
There's nothing I am thinking that does not originate in my anatomy.
There's no way out of the mind unless you leave your body behind, too.
A humbling thought on my way to acceptance.
So, here I am
more human than ever
frail and herculean,

in my own hands

Having been parts of my body that I take for granted;  hardly ever even notice,
my hands are suddenly transformed into the truest embodiment of me,
extensions of myself.
All my euphemisms reflect this new strange state of mind:
I need to get a firm grip on my feelings, grab a hold of my life so it does not fall between my fingers. 
But how, if I can no longer close my fist, will I be able to really hold on to anything?

Kafka: A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us

Some books are keys that open up rooms inside us, rooms that we used to know intimately but lost touch with. Jhumpa Lahiri's "In altre parole"- in which she tells the story of how she was drawn in by the Italian language to the point that she packed up her suitcase, her family and moved to Rome- is precisely such a key. Trust a writer to take language seriously enough to put her whole career to the test as she starts from scratch and composes her first work in Italian.
As she describes the painstaking, yet universe-expanding feat of immersing oneself in a language that one has already fallen in love with, I find myself remembering quite vividly my own life in a world in which all roads suddenly led to Rome. A world where there was really no difference between I promessi sposi, Neapolitan antimafia rap and those short concise provebs found on the insides of the chocolate kisses wrapped in silver and sold next to the cigarettes at the Tabaccheria. They were all products of the same language, and that place which had encapsulated me completely, erasing everything that had come before this. No, that's not true. It was more like I had come to finally understand myself, who I'd been all along, but never could fully embody.
It is a strange existence, to be in between languages; limited yet liberated, which Lahiri portrays with uncanny accuracy. Communication is difficult and one becomes raw, vulnerable somehow, without the armor that euphemisms and linguistic convention offer. 
Italian is a language that you fall into, head over heels, un colpo di fulmine. So much in me was awaken in Italy. I had my first taste of the complicated concepts of love and loss, which will be forever twisted, tied up and tangled with my memories of the place. Italy provided the backdrop to my first steps into adulthood, a strange space in which to break free and explore the boundaries of myself. I do not mean to glorify, but nostalgia is a tough adversary.
Reading Lahiri did feel like an axe, breaking the frozen sea inside of me and unleashing waves of melting water that I had built bridges over a long time ago. What a miracle to dip my hands in the warm stream again.

some sort of release

Sometimes I come to the viewpoint at Place Polaert to look at the city from above. I go to remind myself of where I am, to tie myself visually to this city which already at first glance had me falling in love. That was almost five years ago and at times I stroll past my favourite places, remembering how I felt to still be discovering them. The joy of collecting these personal pearls of mine, of saying that I have chosen them, although I had the distinct suspicion that this city had in fact chosen me. 
I come here to chase that feeling of being found. As I ask for a glass of rosé from the make shift bar, I see the waitress has a perfectly symmetrical cactus tattooed on her elbow. It's just so unoriginally hipster and for a moment I am unsure of whether I dislike it for its banality or if I envy her. Envy her for not caring at all about anchoring herself to a tattoo meant to embody everything she is, hoping it'll help her touch the ground. Envy for that unbearably casual way in which she greets every patron, all of whom are much more heavy spirited and have come here- to the top of the world- for some sort of release. 
It is a worn out cliché that getting physical distance from one's ordinary life can provide psychological clarity. Here, looking out over the rooftops, over this crazy jumble of buildings strewn across a certain geographical space and subsequently dubbed a city; it soothes me. I think of the sign my sister proudly displays in bedroom, the one suggesting a messy desk is the sign of a creative mind, and I want to explain the peace it gives me to look at something so improbably chaotic and know that it still makes sense. 

life-long learning

'She's so vulnerable
Like china in my hands'
I remember singing along to those lines and each time wondering about that strange word, vulnerable,
trying different pronounciations, not really understanding what it wanted to say.
its meaning for me became an exact extrapolation from that image of broken pieces of china.
All my life I've known I never wanted to be china in anyone's hands.
I have spent years meditating on the phrase "if he broke her, where would the pieces fly?"
(never mind my disrespect for the context Jeanette Winterson provided for it)
and each time I used it as a charm against whatever unknown thing I was warding off,
my skin grew just a little bit thicker, (wait, are those scales?)
my tolerance for uncertainty a little weaker.
And me, I lost another chance to chase what I wanted and suffer the consequences of really living.
It is easy to confuse a devotion to self-sufficiency with strength,
and cultivating real vulnerability- having understood the actual meaning of the word at age 33-
feels like learning how to walk all over again.
Even so, I vow to not shy away from stretched out hands just because they might break me.
To remind myself that, yes, vulnerable means open to attack, but it also means capable of being wounded.
And to remember, always, that before anything shattered into pieces, it was once beautiful.

origin story

Abstraction extrapolated from metaphor,
my fingers digging, desperately, for the origin of some thought,
any- to touch
Caressing expressions, poems, they find hope and they rest for a moment
Physicality replaced by inflections and rhymes
my words stumbling out, running, reaching everywhere-
falling hard on busy streets, their echoes competing with the sound of beer and Wednesday evening,
their subtext dissolving in the polluted air and sweet shisha smoke, and so
what now?
If I cannot name it, will I ever find it?

Mona Lisa's tear

For years I've been the guardian of this place
watched the comings and goings of travellers
who never thought to thank any god
for arriving here in one piece. 
My gaze- you might call it the male version of Mona Lisa-
has rested comfortably on the ordinariness of this urban motion; 
this urban emotion.
But here I am, with this tear perpetually tattooed onto my face. 
A tear for those who will never again feel the salty taste of their own tragedy;
a tear for those who have run out of tears to cry.
The urban emtion of this place is forever changed from ordinary to existentially disorderly.
And my Mona Lisa-eyes have become one with a city in mourning.
Not secretively smiling, but desperately holding the broken pieces together. 

bridge over troubled water

What do you do after a rupture?
Exhale, down an amaretto sour, click-clack-click-clack, onto the next thing?
Or dwell on the pain that is the impredicability of humans? 
Curse your instincts, sew your heart shut?
We were something both of us took for granted,
so often how the mechanism of friendship works-
no need for affirmations, explanations or declarations of intent.
How could we know that big chunks of our common lives would soon be cut out, obliterated, meaningless?
How does anyone ever know before the event?
Perhaps a table of content would have made all the difference,
could have prevented the piercing of hands and feet that must come before the absolution?
Only gaping holes were left after the crusade was over. 
Only filtered images of another life, where there were were dogwalks, weekend trips and drunken confessions.
I like that 'getting over' evokes a sort of imaginary bridge that we somehow must climb to be OK.
I just wish the damn thing weren't so difficult to locate.
We don't stumble through the present;
we create it for ourselves, incredibly, moment by moment. 
And so we invent our lives in the remembering,
I'd like to remember mine from the other side of the bridge.

unapologetically falling

'Your task is not to seek for love. 
But merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built
against it.'
                   - Rumi.
Why is it so difficult to put down the armour?
to look around me and not see fronts that need to be protected, but strangers to be seen and invited in.
to let all of myself just hang out there, flopping about in the wind.
How do you get from what you fear to what you feel? 
I fear that I have become what Susan Sontag gloriously called forever structually maladapted.
After a life-time of standing guard, how does one begin to live freely?
Is it in the simple steps, neglecting to turn the key, letting the door squeak open just a tiny bit?
- just enough for the light to pry its way in...
Mine are not walls and doors built from concrete, 
does that mean that only a metaphor can make them crumble?
Only someone who excludes nothing, wrote Rilke, will live the relation to another as something alive.
I've been trying to contain everything, but forgot how to make room for another.
To find the barriers, we must let ourselves be bruised.
To jump and fall an unapologetic kind of fall,
risking everything we know we should not.
And savouring this crystallized quality of something passing from fear into feeling. 

hope as resistance

I will not be their alibi / it will not be for me
when they wave their dark flags and send in the boots to march
And I will not stand in the crowd and yell -Outrageous! Catastrophe! Civilization Over!
Fear is ignorance masquerading as unassailable conviction.
Hyperboles will not be my ruin.
Instead I will feed this radical beast within me called hope
give it everything I have; anger, love and fierce precision 
hell, I'll get some it cookie dough ice-cream if it asks for it.
Hope is a function of struggle, of trial and error- of knowledge.
Hope is the opposite of naivité and defeat.
It is the result of having exhausted every impulse of scepticism and found no reason it should win.
I will not confuse tragedy with despair.
or wallpaper myself into a state of frenzy.
Camus asked us to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls.
Without giving up, without announcing the end of the world or fall into cynicism.
Superhuman is just a word for things we take a long time to accomplish. 
And in the end, all we can do is stand up and face the ocean
- even as the storm is approaching-
and know in our hearts that there will be calms seas and sunsets again.
So, when they yell their false litanies, 
when they scream foul play! and change all the rules.
my heart will resist and my mind will remain hopeful.


How quickly the heart forgets
All that it learnt
laboriously, assisted by red wine and encyclopediae.
As though wounds could be stapled back together with knowledge.
And as though you could prepare for vulnerability like you would for an economics test. Insomnia and repetition.
It surprises me, how readily it opens - like those first times before it knew rejection, abandonment or clumsiness.
Not sure if it's a failure to learn or a genuine form of amnesia I did not know it suffered from.
Quietly, I give thanks. 
- I'll buy a leash.

Literary lifeline

Re-reading old books is the closest I'll ever come to time travel.
It's more than the familiarity of the story, the way the words feel soft and friendly
- like memories of a distant relative-
it's the barely intelligible thoughts scribbled at the margins of pages that once made me dream,
or made me despair.
I pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because I know that Kundera always challenges me, 
and tonight I am looking for anything difficult, anything at all.
Instead I find my own questions randomly strung next to a tense conversation between Sabina and Franz.
                                   All the things we don't know, it says, become our downfall.
                                            How to answer expectations never spoken?

Not sure if I used the story as a prism of my own life, or as a means to step out of it for a while.
The highlighted phrases remind me of another time, one of unexpected hope in the midst of failure.
I discovered some of the few quotes I could easily recite in my sleep in this book.
They've lived side by side with my delusions, exaltations, achievements, 
giving birth to ideas that caused me to change my life and leading me to question those same ideas.
Some of my dearest life companions are invisible to others. They live between the pages of books I've carried between cities and countries since before I owned any furniture. How could I ever be lonley when I've got Joyce Carol Oates on my night stand, and Jeanette Winterson in my tote bag. How will I ever lack magic when I can pick up Gabriel García Marquez, or sit down with Salman Rushdie.
I was just a little impatient back then, with Kundera in my hand and a broken heart aching for pessimism.
I have learnt this. What I don't know will not become my downfall.
It will catapult me into a world of wonders.

Follow yourself.

My imaginary bags were already packed,
I could smell the pisco, my face cringing at the thought of swallowing it, but I would learn.
I felt the guardian gaze of the mountains over my shoulder and the pull of Cape Horn from the south.
Hours after I received the news of my upcoming posting in Santiago de Chile,
I was mentally prepared for the task.
There were books that I devoured.
An architect's guide to Santiago, Chatwin's phantasmagorical novel In Patagonia
an investigative reportage about mining in the Andes, the complete travel guide to Chile and Easter Island.
I watched Gael García Bernal as the confident director of the NO-campaign in Pinochet's 1988 referendum,
and sat through a 2-hour horror film of a demolished discoteque in a Valparaíso earthquake.
There were radio documentaries from exiled Chilenos in Sweden,
there were friends of friends that I should get in touch with. 
And then suddenly here I was, unpacking my very real bags in the midnight sun
- as far from Patagonia as physically possible. The taste of pisco no longer on my tongue.
Forever chasing an illusion is a convenient way of ignoring the now that you are making.
Life becomes a line of stepping stones to help you cross an ever expanding river delta,
When you pause in the middle, you see oceans before you, but yet you don't stop.
If you stop you might have to feel something. You might not know where you are. You might change your mind. 

Mediated experiences always seemed to trump situated ones for me.
Elsewhere is an enchanting place that can be molded into perfection,
And I've spent most of my adult life in a most exciting There.
This time I stopped. 
Instead of following a dream I decided to follow myself.
I felt. And I changed my mind.

cherry blossoms and pieces of self.

Sometimes in the recent yet distant aftermath, the whirlwind of it all becomes appearent
that what seemed so irresistibly undeniable and right, 
was perhaps just another inevitable act in your own megalomaniac trajectory of life.
It was the power he had to make the otherwise insignificant parts of my body appear important
And in his delirious logic my awkward feet suddenly became perfect. 
Those small clues make me realize it was nothing but ego,
but mine had been shattered by someone else and I would happily let him staple me back together.
What a strange notion,
stealing a few hours from someone else's life and playing along knowlingly,
just to feel like yourself.
Mending yourself is not to be taken lightly.
If you leave the holes gaping you will always be wanting,
the temptation will be insurmountable
to plug them with anything you find along the way.
your hands always reaching out, grabbing more than you can carry,
spilling everywhere
spoling everything.
You cannot fix what was broken by carelessly picking up pieces that others leave behind.
Even if I once used this as a romantic projection because I so wanted to feel something.
- if he broke here where would the pieces fly?!- 
I would write it like an exclamation point, a challenge.
A rhetorical question that took its meaning from its lack of bearing on reality, 
Yet I willed it into being and those pieces became real companions of mine for a while.
Too young to know the archeology of pain, but wise enough to understand that feeling requires sacrifice.

Sliced up.

All this time I spend in my own mind,
I always thought I was feeling my way through things, 
but really, I was just weaving myself narratives,
intricate, complicated slices of life, neatly served and ready for consumption.
Sometimes I catch myself unable to face things until I've composed the story
And I wonder if others do the same thing,
or if I am the only one constantly building towers for my own feelings
so that I know how to behave.
How to play out the story. 
Maybe now that the narrative is creaking, my behavior is becoming too obvious to ignore.
Maybe I needed the story to arch prematurely this time,
so that I could finally deconstruct it and simply live my way through things. 
Could I-
Let everything happen to me- beauty and terror- without knowing beforehand how it is going to play out?
Trust that life is in the right, always?
Reacting instead of intuitively knowing how to act?
Sometimes falling apart instead of holding things together?
The kind of sliced up life that you have to bake yourself from scratch.


It is a false dichotomy, that between the past and the future,
and alternative worldviews are ripe with clichés.
In truth we're everywhere, all the time.
We contain multitudes, we contain contradictions, we are human.
Let us ponder that time is not linear; does that mean regret shouldn't technically be possible?
Some suggest that the boundaries of grammar set the limits of our understanding.
That without the subjunctive, how can we even entertain the idea of a counter-factual?
Does the absence of the form preclude the substance?
I'd like to think that the mind transcends the linguistic tracks we have carved out for ourselves.
That cuneiform and hieroglyphic minds imagined other worlds even if their signs don't show complex tenses.
How else could they have created words where there was once nothing?
At that first carving of the clay, what would you be thinking?
Write the word, write the world...
When the world is in disarray, language can help us fuse tenses that appear irreconcilable.
Competing ideas of what has been and must be left behind,
and what might be and should be sought can find refuge under the same roof.
The Ashanti people of Ghana created symbols to represent ideas.
The symbol of Sankofa is vizualised through a heart-like shape with roots stretching from its base. 
Its meaning- it is not too late to go back for that which you have lost.
Time and language construct life just as much as they constrain it.
And we invented them both.
Does that trap us or free us?
It is not too late.

Ne me quitte pas.

A boy's room,
making his way to manhood, but a boy nevertheless.
Stolen road signs and worn copies of Le monde diplomatique scattered on the floor.
An innocent film script covered with marginalia - the mark of someone who still believes.
A headful of dreams and parents patiently waiting on the ground floor.
His eyes lit up as he said You must listen to this- it's magic, and pressed play.
Jacques Brel burst out of the speakers, singing, but it felt more like he was weaving a story.
about the sea, tempests, infidelity and about love, always love.
Without understanding why, something heavy was pressing on me, 
I could not be sure- my French was tentative at best- and so he explained,
about the old lovers, the shadow of my shadow, the exultation of the body. 
He told me about burning, loving- maybe too much, maybe in all the wrong ways.
He explained what everyone wants to feel at 23.
Upon my return home I studied Brel furiously.
Studying for the kind of love that only exists in chansons
thinking that if I master the lyrics I can will them into being.  
Will the songs into being.
Ten years later, and sometimes I still catch myself mumbling those phrases,
an old charm, an exhausting prayer.
Laisse-moi devenir, 
l'ombre de ton ombre
l'ombre de ta main
l'ombre de ton chien
mais, ne me quitte pas.
As though they meant something.
And maybe they do.
Listen to the beauty of Brel here .

Homespun webs of significance

Not being accustomed to complaining, I am struggling to match feelings with words.
Not wanting to write myself into a victim, I'm reluctant to write anything at all. 
I am too aware that linguistic representation reproduces, permeates, consolidates, 
too scared to make a premature idea real by articulating it. 
But on the inside, a whirlwind of competing thoughts, desperately fighting for domination.
And if I don't take charge, who knows which one will win.
What were the choices that I made? Were they honestly my own?
Did I opt for glory over passion? Reshuffle over effort?
Are short-term and long-term really opposites?
What was it I wanted?
Sometimes when you look for answers, all you find is more questions

existential pirouette

I read old journals, unsure what I am looking for - some sort of core?
Last year I asked myself whether I was 
'just writing a never-ending narrative, where my lover is a character in a constant kafkesque metamorphosis.
Like a dream, where one person can take on many different faces without it ever affecting the plot.'
But maybe I am the one constantly changing and I just haven't realized that I could just stop doing it.
I haven't realized that I could let myself crack, let it all pour out - a tiny explosion-
I could say No, not this timeI could say You hurt me. 
I could turn my back on it, walk away and not take it.
I could curse- I should probably curse. 
Sometimes I think that a big explosion would be better than all the detox in the world.
That it would wash away whatever is stuck somewhere inside, blocking the good and bad from coming out.
Instead of trying to improve myself,
Instead of rebuilding myself, chin up, thicker skin, harder work, another challenge- a bigger smile.
(though, they've proven that smiling causes happiness, that's no lie) 
Admitting to pain feels like giving up somehow, like I should have been able to prevent it.
Like I inflicted it on myself,  the disappointment of finding my chosen ones unworthy.
And that I deserved to be put away in that lonley bed which was so clearly not yours.
It is hard to respect yourself, when you don't expect others to do the same.
And if you don't let yourself fall, it is impossible to get back up.

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