A Thousand Words

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Between 2004-2008 I escaped from writing to study and practice photography. I traveled with my camera to Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Hong Kong; and around the US, in Texas, Washington, California, and my home state of Illinois.

Over the next few weeks I plan to gather up my photos (scattered on various hard drives around the house) and post some favorites here.

I hope you find something you like, maybe well enough to go with an original poem or a piece of flash fiction, or collection even. Drop me a note here or email me (scribblerbean at gmail) – and let’s see what we come up with!

Day 116: Hoi An, Vietnam

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It is hot here, and full of expats. For the second breakfast of the day, The Cargo Club offers a balcony to hide in. The paint is left to peel on purpose. To sweeten the coffee a girl leaves a saucer of condensed milk. The croissant is crab-shaped. At noon I visit a seamstress named Trinh, who measured me the day before for an ao dai in teal silk.

Writers’ Blocks

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Marcus Young, St. Paul, Minnesota’s artist in residence, is turning the city into a book. For the past five years, he’s organized the Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk Project , challenging poets while creating moments of reading and reflection.

It’s similar to New York City’s Library Way, photos of which I found here.

The most striking examples of public confession I’ve come across were at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. There stands in the courtyard an old camphor tree, believed to be sacred, that’s become a depository for thousands of prayers.

Wish Tree, Meiji Shrine

People from all over the world have entrusted their dreams and desires to the Wish Tree. Unspoken but inscribed onto blocks of wood, they are accidental poems left by strangers.

Prayers on votive cards

Maybe poetry really is that. A little bit of ritual mixed with openness, and the acceptance that someone must be listening.

To Read, To Think; Perchance To Grow

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Mine was not an extraordinary childhood. It was in many ways idyllic: car trips in the summer to Wisconsin, the Statue of Liberty, Six Flags; weekend visits to small towns; the smell of bran, oats, and barn; pony and bike rides; apples in September and snow on Christmas Eve. It was a childhood I wanted to recreate for my own children; a reality reflected and fashioned by the conventions and happy endings I found in books.

But books have always surrounded me, forming a landscape both topographical and intellectual. They are portable keepsakes, one of few constants in my moves from country to country. One possession that has not lost its way is A Time For Old Magic, a collection of fairy tales compiled by Chicago educator and critic May Hill Arbuthnot. It sits in my father’s house, dusty but safe. Its permanence there is a source of comfort to someone who moves often.

My need to travel and live in different places reflects the explorations and visitations my mind makes when I read. Whenever I tell myself that studying the Great Books is “for fun” I undermine the value of reading – not as a hobby, but as vital to our growth as human beings.

By the end of last week, I had read Hamlet four times. Besides the fact that finals are in five weeks, close reading has revealed themes that go beyond most classroom interpretations. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Society still debates over what’s right and wrong; the relative goodness of people; the flaws in even the best intentions, and the moral ambiguities that challenge our governments.

This week I’m rereading Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet. I’d stopped reading fairy tales for a long, long time. I know most of the happy endings by heart. Only now I’m seeing the darker themes beneath the stories of faerie enchantment and knights. I started thinking about compromises driven by gender, institutions like marriage and religion, and how tradition still shapes the thinking of even the most advanced cultures.

So I read and relearn how to think. Perchance to dream, but more importantly to grow.

Day 110: Brew and Barthes

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Day 110: A flat white in Taipei. Eslite is more museum than bookshop, with categories filling halls of cavernous proportions. One gallery was devoted entirely – entirely – to cultural studies and literary theory, many titles translated into Mandarin. It’s surprising what one city’s bookshop can reveal about its people and their aspirations.