Where did I go?

It’s been 358 days since I quit my social media accounts.

At the start I said I’d keep loved and curious ones updated here, but since my last post was in October, some of you may be wondering what happened to this blog. My bet, however, is that most of you aren’t. (Good! Live your lives!) This post is for the few in the former category. If you did happen to think about this blog from time to time in the past year, likely in the form of, “Is this girl even still alive,” I’m happy to say, 1. Still alive and 2. Abandoning this blog was actually… great.

This year I took a true break from obsessing about my public perception online. I stopped phrasing my thoughts in statuses. I could watch a sunset without itching to post a pic. I learned how to fall asleep without holding my phone. I enjoyed hanging out with my friends without worrying about how I would let the world know that I was hanging out with my friends. I could even frequently repeat outfits. It all sounds superficial (not to mention embarrassing) when I lay it out like that, but I think a greater shift took place. I could focus on myself in the right ways, on how I felt and who I was instead of how I looked and who I was trying to be.

I also learned that when you stop caring so much about what other people are thinking about you, you may choose to not update your personal blog because, you realize, you don’t need to keep the masses updated on your every move. Wow!

But, here I am now, back on the blog and preparing for re-entry into these strange cyber worlds of disappearing photos and looping gifs and heated debates with people you’ll never meet.

Maybe you’re wondering why I’m coming back when, tl;dr, my experience off social media was all smiles and ponies. I have my reasons, and they belong in another post or, even better, a real-life conversation.

For now, I hope I can hold on to my healthier ego and freedom of thought as I come back online. Life is truly great off social media. I’m wondering if it can also be great if you choose to come back, this time hopefully a little wiser.

We’ll see, June 10.

Advertisements

What We Learn When We Allow

It was a few minutes past the start of school, and a few cars were still trickling in to drop tardy students. A van pulled up next to me, and I opened the door for Carlos, a cheery first grader ready to leap out. Normally his kindergartner sister Melanie follows, but today she stayed in her carseat with tears streaming down her face.

“Ella no quiere ir,” their mother said. Carlos was peering expectantly into the van.
“No reason to be any later, Carlos. Get your tardy slip and head to class,” I said. Carlos didn’t budge. “Really, I’ve got this,” I reassured. Carlos, ever-protective of Melanie, threw me some side-eye before bounding off.

“Melanie,” I coaxed, “I think you’re going to have a wonderful day at school.”

She shook her head, unconvinced. I tried a few more times until she relented and climbed out. As I was wondering what I had finally said that worked, I turned around to see that Melanie was walking over to Carlos, who had returned for her instead of going to class, and was now beckoning her over with two tardy slips in his hand.

Carlos put his arm around his little sister and wiped her tears. I opened my mouth to remind Carlos and Melanie that they were already late for class, but I hesitated.

So much of teaching is rule enforcement. In this case, the siblings were breaking a fairly clear rule. Once you get your tardy slip, you go straight to class. I wanted to let Carlos soothe his sister, but I needed to enforce this rule for their own good—they both needed to get to class right away so that they could begin their learning for the day.

With good intentions, I tried to break the moment between them. “Carlos. Melanie. You need to go to class. The day’s already started,” I insisted.

Melanie looked up at me. She was still crying, and Carlos’s arm was still around her shoulder. “I’m going to walk her to her class,” Carlos announced, though his own classroom was in the opposite direction of Melanie’s.

I opened my mouth to insist that Carlos go to his own class instead while Melanie walk alone to hers, but before I could speak, the two had already turned their backs to me, and Carlos was gently pulling Melanie along to her kindergarten classroom.

ct-cth-sibling-bonding-jpg-20150121

I checked my watch. It was now 7:57, seven minutes of learning lost for the pair. It would likely be ten minutes for Carlos, given his detour to his sister’s classroom.

I’m not one to be openly defied, so I began to catch up with them, intending to tap them on their shoulders, separate them, and demand that Carlos go straight to his class, and Melanie to hers, alone. As I was striding forward, I noticed Melanie’s sullen demeanor had shifted slightly. Her shoulders and head had lifted a bit, and I heard her giggle as Carlos whispered something in her ear.

I stopped as the siblings, oblivious to my dilemma, walked on. I wanted them to go to class in the name of an ideal—learning—but what would they learn from me, from school, if I forcibly separated them? That you leave behind your loved ones when they’re having a tough time? That at school how you feel is unimportant? That learning only happens when you’re seated in your classroom chair?

I’d like to think that by making them go to class immediately, cutting out the comforting, I would be doing the “right thing.” It’s so easy as a teacher to get caught up in demanding the right thing, and to default to the idea that the right thing, especially in gray moments, is to follow the rules. But watching Melanie smile in the presence of her brother’s love, I wondered if this time the right thing involved breaking a rule.

What would they discover if I instead let them carry out this small mission together? Hopefully, something greater than what they’d learn seated in their classroom chairs. Maybe something about humanity in place of math; maybe something about love in place of English.

So in the name of learning—theirs as well as my own—I let them walk on.

 

Note: Students in all posts on this blog are given pseudonyms. 

Strangers in My Photos

Imagine a world where Brandon Stanton walked around Central Park tilting his lens over the crowds of strangers just to take photos of the scenery. Or imagine if he did decide to take photos of people, but only of his friends and family while trying to angle out strangers in the background. If that were the case, the beauty of strangers and the compassion we can have for them may never have been realized through HONY.

Strangers love strangers. We love Postsecret, Instagram likes from people we’ve never met, stories about people we’ve never known. And yet, on my trip to Florence, I had only one wish: can’t all these strangers go away?

Battling throngs of people just to get some gelato, craning my neck over shouting Italians to see the Eurocup screen, balking at passport wallets swinging from the sunburned necks of tourists, I decided Italy would be a much nicer place if, like in Iceland, people were harder to come by.

IMG_0573

Strangers were the reason I couldn’t see the statue of David–they snaked in lines so long in the Italian heat that the wait for the Accademia Gallery wasn’t worth the reward. Strangers also caused great aesthetic frustration: I could never capture Florence’s quaint city streets or magnificent architecture, because the crop tops of teenage girls and potbellies of American men diluted the charm I wanted to photograph.

In short, strangers–especially in large quantities–are annoying. But they’re still people with stories, sometimes even more fascinating that the histories of Florence’s most famous sites. Without easy access to the lives of strangers, as, say, we do to the life of Michelangelo, it’s easy to write them off as unsightly. Sometimes, though, if you’re in a good mood and the chance presents itself, any stranger can be a site worth experiencing instead of a burden of travel.

Strangers have a special beauty, but untapped, that can be hard to believe. If you’re the type, like I am, to try to block out strangers in your photos–both mental and physical–I’d suggest including strangers sometimes. I tried it in Iceland and Italy, and some of my favorite scenes became all the more beautiful with a stranger in the shot.

 IMG_0487

Dettifoss in Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland

Pro-tip: If you’re not worried about getting that perfect shot for social media, photography is way more relaxed and enjoyable! There’s no need to capture just the waterfall with no one in the way of it; if there are some tourists, so be it–it’s just another part of the photo for you to enjoy.

IMG_0547

Lava fields in Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula

IMG_0578

Courtyard in Museo di San Marco, Florence

IMG_0649

Lovers in Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

In Iceland, On Equality and Art

I was certain that I had taken a plane to Keflavik, but in my bleary-eyed stupor aboard the bus to Reykjavik, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had changed planets instead of continents.

There’s a single, straight road out of Keflavik airport, and for about 20 kilometers, that’s all there is. Just one road, and nothing but lava fields on either side, jagged and sprawling until they reach the base of far-off mountains as austere as the rough rock they rise from.

Maybe the shock is specific to those homegrown in America, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much land for nature’s taking—where was the development? Farms? Billboards? Paths? People? Anybody? Someone? Hello?

“Bleak,” muttered an older woman seated near me, as we stared out opposing windows. “Very stark.” The only evidence to the contrary were little pockets of dandelions and lupins sprouting bravely against the dark landscape, warding off the dementors.

We rode on in silence for a bit, before the woman said to no one in particular, “Not much going on here.” With foreigner’s gullibility, I was inclined to agree with her: we were coursing through desolation. But in a few days time, I’d realize this landscape was far more alive than the sidewalk city paths streaked with bright lights that I for long have considered to be the definition of vibrance.

*

Before awakening to the intensity of Iceland’s raw land, which I first mistook as too harsh for my liking, I warmed to the beauty of something more familiar to my aesthetic tastes—the quaint yet modernized seafaring city of Reykjavik.

The city is teeming with art, from street murals to store fronts to the presentation of an espresso, and I was most amazed by its general proliferation than any particular piece. I took a class called Philosophy of Art with Lydia Goehr in college, and she began the semester by asking us, in her strong British accent, to define art. As it turns out, that’s a tall order, and she knew it. You can’t define art by saying it’s pretty, or it’s something you enjoy, or that it’s visual, or that it stimulates, because you can easily find counterexamples to all of the above.

When confident each student was thoroughly dumbfounded, Professor Goehr offered the following definition: art is the opposite of utility. If we appreciate something as art, we appreciate it strictly for what it does not offer us in direct use. I battled with that definition until I finally succumbed, realizing that despite my resistance, I resonated with it. In some sense, the ability to appreciate something beyond what it serves you is more than just art—it’s beauty.

And so, the art everywhere in Reykjavik surprised me—how could so much space and time be willingly devoted to that which lacks utility?

IMG_0162

*

Once I saw the prices of paintings, ceramics, and even pleasantly laid out espressos, the answer to my question was clear: art did have utility; art paid. The catch is that only a few are able to pay the price.

I’ve long held a theory about inequality that I don’t often share. It’s this: what separates the rich from the poor, the expensive from inexpensive, the desirable from the disagreeable, is access to beauty. It makes sense, too, if beauty lacks utility; that means beauty is available to those with disposable income who can afford beyond what’s necessary.
The reason I don’t widely share this idea is that I can see how easily it can degenerate. I’m not trying to say the ills of poverty can be condensed to “not having pretty things.” However, what often distinguishes the price of something (and therefore what also distinguishes who can afford it) is its level of beauty.

The price of a car that has been keyed can be thousands less than the same car equal in all other aspects, but with perfect paint. The price of a penthouse with a picturesque view can be hundreds of thousands more than the price of another apartment a few floors below it, with an identical layout albeit a lesser view. Even the pursuit of human beauty is governed by price differentials; elective plastic surgery is available for those who can pay, but those who can’t may have to deal forever with a protuberant nose. In these examples, the utility offered by the compared items (two cars, two houses, two noses) is the same but the price, and therefore access to the different items, is largely affected just by beauty and the status such access represents.

These thoughts were running through my head as I stood in an avant garde art house in downtown Reykjavik. I was admiring an abstract painting—or was it a scene of a choppy harbor?—but I also felt foreign to the work, knowing that it was not mine and, given its price, could not be mine. It’s strange, experiencing something you don’t own. It’s like standing at the bay windows of a friend’s penthouse apartment, with your admiration of the view tainted with longing and maybe even envy. Can you truly enjoy the experience of such a view as much as you would if you owned it? Lost in these thoughts while gazing at the blue waves of the painting, I felt a sense of distance. I was just a visitor, not an owner.

*

Stepping out of the art house and back into the streets of Reykjavik, an elaborate street mural caught my eye. It was an expansive black and white sketch that covered the side of a building. The faces of two women spread across the facade. One was applying lipstick to another with her right hand while her left hand pressed into the woman’s cheek, creating shadows where her fingers pushed into the skin.

I paused my walk to linger in the scene. Who owned this art? It couldn’t really be the building’s owner, because the owner can’t experience this art when they’re actually in their building. And it couldn’t be the artist, because they’ve laid no claim. Then who was this for?

This art, I realized somewhat basically, was for everyone. And so it belonged it no one. In fact, it could not be owned. I could not buy this mural and keep it for myself, and neither could anyone else; the question of ownership was irrelevant, and so the relationship between ownership and experience had evolved. What I owned in seeing the mural was my experience of seeing the mural, and that ownership of experience was as available to me as it was to anyone.

In that moment of thought, I wasn’t just a visitor. And if I had had that understanding before touring the art house, maybe I wouldn’t have felt like a visitor there, either. It’s possible I could have even felt like an owner, at least of the moment, with my experience of observing the art perhaps as authentic or even more authentic that the eventual financial owner of that art.

I could not own that painting in the art house, but in looking at it, for a moment it was mine nonetheless. And even if one day that painting were to go home with a new owner absconding with it to privacy, she wouldn’t be able to reclaim what I’ve stored in moment and memory.

*

As a traveler, it’s easy to feel like an outsider—not just with what you see that you don’t own, but with your experiences, too. You are an outsider to the sidewalks you navigate with a map. You are an outsider to the conversations in languages you don’t know. You are an outsider to the sights you’ll see once, and likely never again. But on this trip to Iceland I’ve decided you don’t have to feel like an outsider, even if you are one.

This perspective grew as I tested the waters outside of Reykjavik, starting with a day trip around the famed Golden Circle. It wasn’t long before I realized on the tour bus that Iceland’s beauty extends far beyond Reykjavik’s art scene. As I explored the land, I toyed with the idea that the art of Reykjavik was just trying to offer a simple beauty for those looking for a respite from the intensity of the land. Was that geyser too much? Here’s a painting of it that doesn’t erupt when your back is turned. Was the experience of oncoming frostbite too painful? Here’s a photo of the conditions that led to it instead. And so, in this way, the gentle art of the city plays call-and-response with the fire and ice of the art of the surrounding nature.

There was art in Iceland’s nature, everywhere. In geysers bursting, waterfalls thundering, mountains domineering, sulfur pools swirling, sheep snuggling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, questions of ownership cropped up, too. Before stopping at a waterfall—one of Iceland’s most mesmerizing art shows—the bus driver announced that we were not supposed to walk around certain parts near the base, because “the owner doesn’t want visitors there.” How do you own a waterfall, I wondered, as we stepped out armed with cameras.

The question soon left me as all five senses took in the scene. The water crashed so violently on the rocks below that some of it rebounded in mist, clouding my glasses. I took deeper breaths to catch the scent of the lupins, which were seemingly unaware that the ground they believed to be secure enough for their roots gave way to a colossal upheaval in the meeting of water and rock just a few yards away.

I broke out of my trance to take a few photos, but since I no longer have Instagram or Facebook to drive to me to keep clicking for that perfect snap, I was able to pocket my phone and just be for the rest of our short visit.

When we boarded the bus again, the driver thanked us for complying with the rules about walking around the waterfall set by its owner. I thought back to the beauty of my visit and laughed quietly to myself, because the owner of the waterfall didn’t know that I owned it, too.

In Pursuit of Organic Thought

What would you be thinking about if you weren’t thinking about what you’re always thinking about?

Yoga, for many months after I began daily practice, was a flow of cannots. In warm ups, my fingers couldn’t touch my toes. In crow pose, I could never find balance. In wheel, my arms couldn’t support my head and shoulders off the ground. For a long time, the only pose I could faithfully practice was savasana, where you literally just lie down with your eyes closed, and even that I didn’t do quite right, since my mind would wander when it was supposed to be quiet.

One day, a few months ago, something strange happened. I was in my flow of cannots, preparing to not be able to do wheel. Hands by my ears, I pushed my palms into the ground, expecting to not go anywhere. But this time, my body lifted. I was in wheel!

Of course, I was so surprised that I immediately fell out of it, landing on the crown of my head. In confusion, I tried again, and I was in wheel, again. Where’s my phone? I wondered, as I stared upside down at my mat. How can I take a photo of this? Wow! What should my caption be? Should I use my go-to self-effacing ironic hashtags? (#blessedandbendy) Or should I be honest about the struggles it took to get here? How about both?

It’s hard to explain how I finally realized the absurdity of these thoughts, but suffice it to say that my exhausting tendency to think about thinking is ultimately what saved the internet from the birth of another Instagram yogi. At some point before I got off the mat, I had a thought that was distinct from the ones wondering how to frame my new pose: I wanted to know why I was thinking about what I was thinking about.

In the mental aftermath of my first wheel, the irony, thankfully, wasn’t lost on me. In a practice that is meant to go inward, I was immensely concerned with my outward portrayal. Perhaps I owe it to yoga for facilitating the realization of my mental absurdity, but I guess I’ve known for a while that social media has actually changed my thought patterns. I just never thought this change in my thinking was such a bad thing.

As a verbal processor, I think mostly in sentences as opposed to pictures or feelings. When I was younger, the sentences were unrestrained–I knew they were just mine, and I could speak them out loud if I wanted, or I could keep them to myself. But in the past five years or so, my processing has changed; now, I tend to mentally process according to shareable online platforms.

For example, I mentally process short, funny moments into tweetable phrases. In line at Starbucks, I may think to myself, “Mini fraps for the mega basic” — fitting nicely under 140 characters. If a memorable moment can’t fit in a tweet, I mentally word it into a Facebook-ready status. This happens all the time, but one salient example would be whenever Donald Trump comes up in my classroom. The student reaction is always noteworthy, and these moments are definitely social media like-bait. So, at these times at work and more, I am processing my experiences into shareable status blasts, even though I only actually share about one-tenth of the statuses I’m constantly generating in my head.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 10.41.30 PM

I’ve never had any major gripe with the way my thinking has changed; I’ve simply recognized that it has changed. However, I can’t help but feel that my first moment in wheel, and perhaps many other moments in my life, have been tainted by my new thinking patterns focused on public perception.

While non-enlightened thoughts in a new yoga pose certainly don’t mark the demise of my mentality, I wonder if there are more insidious consequences to this new type of thinking. For example, processing a student reaction to Donald Trump in a Facebook-ready status may crimp my ability to empathize or deeply process. Donald Trump is more than just a buffoon to some of my students and their families. Especially for my students whose parents are recent immigrants from Mexico or other countries, the idea of Donald Trump as president is more than annoying–it can threaten their very sense of safety in calling America home. By processing a Donald Trump moment in the classroom into a funny Facebook status, is it possible I’m allowing myself to avoid the harder, deeper thoughts that I should be facing about American politics instead? And beyond this one example, in all the other moments throughout my day when I process in captions and statuses–even the ones I don’t post–what am I forsaking? 

The truth is, I don’t know. I really just don’t know to what extent my social media persona has affected my thinking. I don’t know if it’s overall affected me negatively by making me a shallow thinker or positively by helping me make light of the difficult. But I no longer want to be a bystander in the face of these mysteries.

Right now, I cannot know what I would be thinking about if I weren’t always thinking in terms of my online presence. I cannot know what else I would have been thinking about after my first wheel. I cannot know whether this blog will further limit my thinking (because for a year of my life, I’ll be thinking about how to phrase things in posts) or whether this blog will expand my thinking (because I’ll be processing my life in writing). I cannot know if I will look back at this blog and cringe, or look back at it and be proud of myself. (Okay, well I’m pretty sure I’ll cringe at the Q&A.)

In confronting my new flow of cannots, what I do know is that I will no longer passively sit with these questions, in the same way that I didn’t passively sit with my inability to do wheel. Cleansing one’s habituated thought patterns is a little more complicated than building tricep strength of course, but I’m up for the challenge.

And so, in the face of a new cannot–not being able to know what I’d be thinking about if I weren’t thinking about social media–it’s time that I start practicing a new way of thinking.

I want to know what it’s like to return to organic thought (is that even possible?) and so from June 10, 2016, to June 10, 2017, I’ll be aiming to find out. In this time frame, I will be closing all my social media accounts. The exceptions are LinkedIn and this blog, where I’ll be documenting my experiences, at last, in full thoughts instead of like-bait snippets. If you, like me, are curious about what will happen, you are welcome to follow me here. Thank you for joining me.