Friday, December 4, 2009

Searching coffee

I wrapped my fingers tightly around the coffee cup to experience the warmth it emitted. Between sips I watched the steam exit. Suddenly, as one becomes aware that someone has been staring, I saw my reflection in the hot liquid. I peered in to see what else I could discover about my world. I noticed a portion of the ceiling above my head. Its bright white color looked darker and its irregular surface became softened in the coffee. I suddenly had the feeling of waking from one of those vivid dreams during a day time nap in which I rise and ask, where am I?

As if to answer myself, I looked into the cup. I became a medium searching the smooth surface of a crystal ball. Who am I? Where have I been? Why am I in Adana, Turkey? And where am I going?

I read once, perhaps in a physics text in university, that frogs placed in a pot of water on a stove will not know they are boiling if the temperature is increased gradually enough. They never try to leap out, and instead stay in the pot unaware of the change until they transpire. If time were my temperature and Turkey my pot, how long before I start to boil? And would I notice?

In recent months I have been making an active effort to live in the present, addressing only the demands of the day and appreciating the richness of the moment. This mentality sheds a brilliant light on what is positive in each day. But time escapes easily and I wonder, could several years go by without my knowledge?

I am fearful of living a life rich in experience but lacking in progression… trying new cities and lives without finding the one that was intended for me since birth. If opportunities were a banquet table of tantalizing foods, I am standing with a watering mouth and admiring the variety. But my excitement makes me forget that at any moment this food is destined to vanish, leaving me to mourn for time lost on deliberation.

I am happier than I could have imagined, but feel I am being neglectful of a higher purpose. Thus, is action needed? Or am I to patiently wait for the right things to happen at the right time,..for 'the signs' to become clear?

In Turkey, fortunes are often read in the coffee that remains in the cup. It is done amongst friends as well as in cafes by wandering tellers. Do coffee grounds have the answers? With seemingly no other choice, I peer even more deeply into the cup with attentive eyes and ears.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lost in smoke

When the first holiday from work came, I decided without deliberation to spend it in Istanbul. I have started to notice that when I am here, I am reminded that each moment overflows with possibility for a new experience and to see the unseen. And often when I observe I am overtaken by an odd feeling of both wonder and melancholy.

I stood on Istiklal street this morning to meet a friend. As I waited I noticed three quarters of a cigarette that had been tossed to the ground, but the smoke continued since it was not stamped out. I watched all sorts of shoes, sneakers, heels, and boots walk near it, oblivious to it. The smoke continued, although it weakened over time as the cigarette’s fires were slowly extinguished in the chilly winds of a winter morning.

Except for my passive observation the smoke’s diffusion went unnoticed, like a passionate person shouting in the streets whose voice drowns in the indifference of those that pass by. The cigarette would go on preaching its message to no one as it turned to ash.

Soon, I thought, it will be flattened and sullied by footprints. It will appear as the remnants around it, whose history no one considers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When life gives you bad wine...

I rested in Savasana after practicing yoga in my bedroom. Sounds from the street wandered into my perception like the scent of food from another room that has just started to sizzle. I heard fragments of conversations, shouting vendors, dogs, and traffic..sounds that summated to a symphony of insignificance.

I heard my flatmate speaking on the phone. However her voice was distorted by the walls between us and submerged in the deep waters of my relaxed state of consciousness. I understood that she was commenting on the drabness of Adana and our apartment. Several moments later I opened my eyes, sat up, looked at the floor, and thought about how the apartment wasn’t really that bad. It was not unlike any of the old places I lived in the past that were provided by the school where I taught in Turkey. It simply looked like a free flat, and far from the Amityville that my flatmate lamented about inhabiting.

Adana is not a bad place. Most people are quite kind, the cost of living is low, and life is relaxed. However it has admittedly taken much adjusting to accept that this city is not bustling, cosmopolitan, and magical Istanbul.

In addition to the city, I have had to acclimate myself to teaching children. Attempting to maintain the attention of children is often like standing in a room where gravity has started to leak out. Suddenly the objects in the room and the furniture begin to float up one at a time, as if in the beginning only a few objects have figured out that they are freed of the earth's pull. Slowly the others figure it out and they too follow until all are out of reach and in a preferred state of chaos.

After much suffering I decided to stop trying to anchor everything down. Rather than laboring to secure what will inevitably fall upward into entropy, I must let everything happen. Until I surrendered to the restless nature of children I ended each day frustrated. As with my impression of Adana, I had been getting upset because I held firmly to a mental image of the way things should be, and continuously reminded myself of their dissimilarity to the way things were.

I am learning to think and act based upon exactly what is before me and not more or less.

I recently bought an awful bottle of wine. Its price first warned me of its dubious quality. But I hadn’t known it was unpalatable until I poured it into the glass. I observed its rusty hue and nearly felt the headache I would feel the next day if I drank it. The Turkish have a term for this very low quality wine, ‘dog killer.’ But rather than pouring this dog killer down the drain I spontaneously decided to try it in my favorite recipe for Italian red wine cookies. I reasoned that I had nothing to lose.

They came out fantastic.

You could say that every moment I live here I am making shoddy wine into sweet biscuits. It is not an easy thing to do. But for now the labor seems minimal compared to the appreciation generated for my daily experiences.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Who the F do you think you are?

I walk with a purposeful stride, headphone music setting the pace for my steps. Through peripheral vision I detect a car slowing to my side. It slows to a stop and I pass it, vision pressed forward but nonetheless I am aware of its path. It begins to accelerate, approximately to the speed I am walking. This is not a coincidence. In addition to cat calls and staring when I pass by on Istanbul sidewalks, men in cars pull over to proposition me. They speed away when I make it understood with a gesture of the hand or a lewd word that I don’t seek such attention. But this behavior perplexes me. I do not make eye contact. I dress modestly. And still, I am a walking pin-up in a junior high school boys’ locker room.

Is it because I am foreign? Because it’s a macho culture? Or perhaps it’s all a slimy byproduct of socially imposed sexual repression?

When I grew tired of reacting to each and every gawk, I learned a new kind of vision, seeing people and seeing beyond them at the same time. Not observing and not acknowledging attention seemed to be working. The men want attention, I don’t give it, and so they learn that looks and words don’t work.

As I descended a set of stairs one day I saw a group of men below. A tiny stream of adrenaline leaked within as I prepared myself to walk by without seeming disturbed by their presence. One of the men uttered something. I ignored it.

He touched my head.

I jerked out of the way and left a trail of obscenities as I walked away. He too made offensive gestures as his friends looked on and laughed.

After the shock from a stranger actually touching me subsided, I remained only disappointed that I reacted. But it is not easy to be perpetually aware of mental molestation by most male eyes day in and day out and not react.

I prefer not to react, although I suspect this preference is motivated by a passive sort of vengeance. There is admittedly a sadistic satisfaction knowing that it might emasculate the men that I choose to ignore.

And yet I ask myself, when I choose to look forward staunchly in the presence of an intense stare, does the vision of their shrinking self images fill me with a karmic toxin?

If I am as adversely affected by silence as I am by rebellion, it is hard to see the value of practicing non-reaction. Not reacting, as I presently know it, is simply turning the knife blade from facing outward to inward.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Oranges, kebabs, and mosques

‘Hairy men’ they say. ‘Hairy macho men,’ and ‘Oh they are rude, more than the people in Istanbul.’ These are some of the descriptions I get when I ask people about Adana, a city in the south of Turkey, where I am going in less than a week for a teaching job.

I know that Adana has a large agriculture industry, is famous for kebab, and from what I see of photos online there are many mosques. Beyond this I have no concept of the place, and have relied upon the answers of Turkish and non-Turkish friends alike to help me visualize my home for the next several months.
Based upon what I have heard thus far, I admit to being frightened about the experience to come.

There is little variation in the answer to the question, ‘How is Adana? ’ ‘Hot, boring, conservative.’ ‘Hot.’ ‘Really hot.’ ’Very hot’. ‘HOT!’

I start to picture myself walking the streets of Adana. They emit smoke, and the air glows red and orange like a red light district. Everyone moves really slowly, and my face bubbles and blisters from the heat like a science fiction movie.

I should know better than to let my imagination run. I usually have odd static images of places that I have not visited that are so detached from reality they are laughable. When someone says ‘Armenia’ I see green plains with a single house and a bald man standing with his hands on his hips, just looking at his house. The image is so detailed in my head and feels so real, however I am going to assume that absolutely none of it is true.

Before my first visit to Istanbul I envisioned it as one would see an image on a television screen. The image was tilted like the villains were in the old Batman show. Istanbul in my mind was endless brown and red streets crowded with stampeding bulls.

Producing images of the future and places not seen has been an involuntarily evoked system for coping with fear of the unknown. I suspect that by imagining in great detail what we don't know makes us feel somehow closer to knowing.

But sometimes the ways we try to ease our mind to make the unknown more familiar make it more bleak or scary than simply allowing the mind to be a blank canvas for reality to fill.

Up to now my Turkey travel has been limited to Istanbul. I am looking forward to the chance to see how representative Istanbul is of Turkey, or rather how much Turkey might not be Istanbul.

It is certain to be a different existence and I hope that in some ways it could even be a better one. There is comfort knowing that the population is around two million, and that it is quite urban. But in the coming days can these comforts stand up to the preconceived notions of Adana that I and others have conjured up?

Is it really a dreary land of meat, brutes, and sweltering temperatures?
I’ll have to resign myself to the following truth: I’ll know when I see.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I weave in and out of human traffic, shrewd and calculating. Here in Istanbul the population is an estimated 15 million people. That is fifteen million people, fifteen million worries, fifteen million inspirations and life paths, walking in fifteen million directions. I walk deftly, dodging people and strollers, always passing to the left as if behind the wheel. This is the pedestrian Autobahn.

I often breathe a sigh of thanks when I have reached my destination with a few near misses, but no collisions.

Elsewhere I have a characteristically lazy stroll and do things in a leisurely fashion. But just as one is unable to defy the laws of gravity, the tourist, local, and everyone in between are subject to this obligation to rush. All actions are seemingly carried out with a consuming sense of urgency.

I see it in the faces of others and frequently recognize it stirring within myself. Stress tightens its grip around the thoughts, asphyxiating peace of mind, the forehead wrinkles, the shoulders collapse inward, the heart races, and fists clench. Leaving your door every day you age a little if you are unaware of these responses.

A weakened ability to focus is another byproduct of this speed of existence. I find myself perpetually distracted by the scent of roasting street food or fruit from a stand wafting from delicate skin, voices in the streets, interesting looking and passionate people, striking contrasts in architecture and scenery, bursting colors of foods, turquoise waters, and sunsets. There is so much to seduce the senses that it lures me from productivity. Everyone moment ignites creativity and simultaneously extinguishes it.

With the profound voice of the oracles my friends told me ‘Do not stop writing when you are in Istanbul.’ And indeed I had stepped away from it, having found it surprisingly difficult to write. With so much stimulation it is easy to lose focus. A plethora of sites, sounds, and smells strike me at the core of my being, but by the time I can reflect on and articulate the feeling, the feeling is gone and replaced by a new one. As such, this is not writer’s block, to which I thought my friends might have been referring. It is writer’s ADHD.

I leave my apartment and on the way to the subway I smell corn roasting, fish from the market, bread from a bakery, a car horn honks, a child yells for his mother, a vendor yells, there is a stunning dress in the clothes shop window, the call to prayer begins, a man with piercing blue eyes walks by and another whose features are very dark searches for eye contact with me, an angelic little girl with red hair eats ice cream, a wave of warmth flows over me at seeing another black face, the tram bell dings, there are deep purple figs, rich green cucumbers, bright red tomatoes, a man’s prayer beads, the clinking of a spoon stirring tea, musicians in the street, music from the cafe, colors burst from flowers for sale in the bucket of a woman sitting on the sidewalk…

As I start to run for the metro stop life around me begins to blur like objects in the side window rushing past when driving down the highway. I reach the platform and jump into the train before the doors close and I see an advertisement that inspires a thought. I reach for my notebook to jot down the thought but my stop has come and I am rushing for the exit, rushing down the street, rushing to,.. and a voice deep within asks for my sake and for every single person doing the same, ‘to where?’

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To see, and not to see

I once went on a walking meditation with my yoga teacher training group along a pebbled beach in Costa Rica. We scattered in our own directions and I walked off slowly, attempting to feel each surface of my bare feet make contact with the earth. My head was cast downward, an ear poised to take in the sound of crashing waves. My eyes also looked down, not scanning but not exactly staring vacantly into regions of the rocky and shelled expanse. I began to detect subtle movement below me. Letting my gaze linger in a spot revealed seemingly thousands of tiny crabs, bustling along in their shells.

I was amazed how from a macroscopic point of view this shore surface appeared still and sparse of life when in actuality there was a dynamic existence. I suppose the crabs moved only as I approached, sensing the vibration of my steps. For as I walked by they shuffled then shortly after, returned to stillness. I felt like a cartoon character that nervously walks a museum, convinced that the eyes of the portraits follow them.

I began to wonder about the things in our own existence that go unnoticed..phenomena in nature, subtle characteristics and changes over time in places, and in people..It occurred to me how dependent reality is upon perception. What is experienced in any given day depends largely on perspective.

Just as switching from a macroscopic to microscopic view altered my experience at the beach that day, it molds my daily reality. An eye for intricacy has allowed me to find beauty where I might not have otherwise seen it. Conversely, being lost in detail has led me to see ugliness. When I was an adolescent I had an odd habit of looking at a feature of my face in the mirror, usually my nose, and staring at it to the point of being horrified at its relative size. I only understand now that the most beautiful nose of the most beautiful person can be grotesque if you stare closely enough at it, or long enough at it.

Can I train this lens to zoom in and out to produce a representation of reality that is nothing but beauty?

I ask myself this as tomorrow I leave for Istanbul, where I lived for a year and struggled with an unhealthy perspective to the attention I received being a foreign, black woman. Clearly, had the experience been only negative that city would not keep calling me back. However I do still become anxious when I think of returning. It’s becoming clearer that whether Turkish or foreign, man or woman, people just stare. But in the past I felt the world was looking only at me with careful inspection, or with awe like a squeamish person that is nonetheless captivated by a surgery on television. This mind trained itself to see every look, and interpret it as negative although it may stem from harmless curiosity.

What would happen if I removed the inconsequential from my field of vision? Would what I choose not to see disappear?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Win none, lose none

A friend once related a saying of her Grandmother’s to me, “Close your eyes and you will see what is yours in this world.” In adopting a somewhat nomadic lifestyle over the recent years, I’ve gradually abandoned attachments to many objects and luxuries. However, peeling myself from human relationships has proved a more difficult process.

A month ago a discussion between a different friend and I escalated to an argument. She withdrew, becoming icy and dispassionate and I left her home seething with anger. Although I left at the time, I am less inclined to put an indefinite end to communications with people that I have grown to care about. I am grateful for the growth opportunity that comes from working through differences. Therefore, weeks later, after a useless layer of pride was shed I approached her. She told me in person, and later in writing that she does not want me in her life, that she never considered me a friend, and never would.

I remember when I had a wisdom tooth removed last year. I leisurely sat in the chair, and before I said ‘Good morning’ they were injecting my gums with anesthetic. Then I heard cracking sounds, followed by a tugging sensation, and suddenly I was looking at my tooth in this mans gloved hand. I left the office and burst into tears, at last decompressing from the violence of that process and the swiftness with which it had transpired.

Such was the shock of approaching a friend in the spirit of joy and forgiveness and being met with unforgiving coldness.

Multiple rivers contribute to the ocean of remorse I presently feel. I am genuinely surprised at her reaction. I mourn the fact that I am sealed from her life, and that she does not see me as someone worth knowing. Or is this painful because fate was decided by words I never meant? Perhaps the weight of my angst rests in the truth that there is absolutely nothing I can do.

Whether you think it is right or wrong, wise or unwise, people exercise their will and do exactly what they want to do. I would love to say that she is a cruel individual, and that this adds to a wealth of evidence that an attitude of mistrust toward pursuing human connections is safest. Yet something within warns me, “Don’t let this experience close your heart to people. Don’t let it close your heart…”

After we spoke for the last time and the tears had slowed I sat down on a bench. Instinctively protecting my heart, I hugged my legs to my chest and rested my forehead on my knees. Just then someone grasped my knee as if to wake me from a nightmare. Bewildered, I looked up to see a woman on the phone smiling warmly at me. I did not wake. Still without words she caressed my shoulder, as if to say ‘Wake up! It’s really going to be ok.’ I felt a revived sense of consciousness like my hand had been on a hot stove the whole time and the heat, supplied by this kind individual, finally reached my awareness.

I am grateful to that woman who not only perceived a stranger’s sadness, but took the leap to give comfort. I feel myself becoming lighter as I let go of that person whose friendship I thought was permanent. And I smile at the richness of this human exchange, despite its transience.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Water, please?

I paused before the refrigerated beverage section at Whole Foods, amazed at the colorful chaos within the neatly stacked choices. The glowing display resembled a giant smiling mouth, proudly exposing shiny rows of teeth. Only the teeth were bottles of teas, waters, smoothies, and other organic elixirs that promise antioxidants, weight loss, energy boosts, relaxation, detoxification, stronger bones, probiotics, Omega 3’s,..and in spite of this heap of choices, mental clarity.

A sinister looking gothy hipster girl stocks the drinks. Through peripheral vision, or perhaps simply a feeling, I perceived a perpetual frown directed toward scrutinizing customers, for whose pleasure she was completing this very task. I also sensed a mild annoyance at my presence, standing beside her and looking baffled. She has seen thousands of people in a day stop and look with a similar expression. They ponder, proceed toward the shelf, pick up an object, and methodically read the labels of each product before placing it into the cart.

It seemed as though many minutes of desperate searching passed before my eyes fell on a bottle of seltzer, my reason for entering the store. I reached for the bottle, too exhausted to extract the relative importance of lemon, lime, plain, orange, or raspberry. Although anxiety had dissipated I nonetheless lingered at the other end of that consumer tight rope, releasing a mental sigh.

‘Watch out,’ I heard the goth girl warn, just before a shopping cart materialized from nowhere and tapped me in the rear. The driver swerved out of the way not angered, simply indifferent and too hurried to acknowledge my apology. I had been abruptly transported from one reality to another, not unlike the sensation of ears blocked with fluid that suddenly pop, and the cacophony of the world becomes a part of perception once again.

Considering the casual nature of the warning and the ease with which the woman dismissed our minor collision I concluded that I was in the wrong. I was driving on the wrong side of the road, head on with opposing traffic.

Upon returning from a lengthy trip abroad I often experience discombobulation amidst my own culture. The most recent trip was taken to Costa Rica. There I spent two months developing a relationship to nature, paralleled by a growing understanding of my self. I returned to urban living a month ago and have since felt like an alien observer, studying commonplace technologies and accepted social behaviors with fascination, perplexity, and occasional dismay.

This environment offers constant stimulus and so many options that threaten to envelope the self that I gradually began to know and trust.

I wonder, will I find the balance between walking these streets with others while remaining conscious of and confident in the individual willing each step?