022. Wayfarer on Trial


Last week, Sam and I were both sick with the flu, and I wanted to take our temperatures, but I couldn’t find my thermometer anywhere. It’s slim, blue-and-white with a digital read, and I swear it exists. I purchased it less than a year ago, and it should be somewhere… in one of my suitcases, or boxes, or Trader Joe’s bags filled with toiletries. Yes, part of my life is packed in Trader Joe’s bags. I’m a certified hobo.

My packing methods aren’t too freakish, once I explain the logic behind them. Most of my belongings fit into socially acceptable containers. I have several cardboard boxes for my books, which I fold flat when they’re empty and reconstruct when it’s time to move again. I have a duffel bag for my clothes, and a small hard-shell suitcase for my art supplies and other miscellany. During this last move, the grocery bag contained shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, nail-clippers, and hair-ties–all of the things you almost leave behind but remember to grab right before you head out the door. The Trader Joe’s bag was a last minute decision.

I still felt self-conscious with my toiletries stashed in a grocery bag on the passenger seat beside me–conspicuously homeless. I should just buy a canvas tote and get it over with.

But the thermometer would continue to be a mystery. I don’t own much, and I like to think that I know where everything is located, even amid all the transits and transitions. I like to think that the thermometer is exactly where I put it last. Each new move is a chance to once again take account of my possessions, to whittle them down to the non-negotiables and get rid of the dead weight. It sets my organizing mind at rest: packing everything into its allotted container.

Which is why the thermometer bothered me so much. It wasn’t misplaced or forgotten, but almost certainly removed from its place in the world by some other, larger, quieter force.

It was almost certainly taken from me.

It was almost certainly inhaled into an Instrument Black Hole in a parallel universe, along with a large, clattering wave of compasses and slide-rules and bathroom scales and sundials and litmus strips and plumb lines and barometers.

It almost certainly never existed: I bought the thermometer in a particularly clear fever dream last summer and only ever placed it under my dream-tongue to measure my dream-heat, never actually depositing it in a real-drawer in a real-bathroom to measure real-flus when they arose.


I’ve been living in Silicon Valley for close to two years now, but I still don’t feel totally at home here. That’s partly my fault, partly to blame on the area’s culture of flux, and partly not a bad thing at all: just an un-weighted reality.

“At home.” The most casual of phrases.

Even I use the words casually, when my life has been obsessed with questions of home: what constitutes a home, how you lose one, how you find one, how you make one, how you leave one. How you live with the absence of home or with a surfeit of homes. How you make peace with the flexibility and ephemerality and multiplicity of home. How you form and are formed by home.

Part of my sense of un-belonging, even after two years in Silicon Valley, stems from the simple fact that I haven’t stayed in one building, one neighborhood, or one community. I lived in Campbell, Marin, San Mateo and Palo Alto; I worked in San Jose and San Francisco; I attended churches in all of those cities and have friends in countless more. I was stretched thin across the whole Bay Area until I started to wear out in important places.

I recently got a new address–my favorite one yet, though it’s still somewhat temporary. It’s the eighth address saved to my Amazon account. It’s five moves removed from the address on my driver’s license. And it’s the only address where my heart has come to rest, the only address where I’m not sniffing around the window-cracks and doorframes for an escape plan, for a quick way out. My sleep lately has been deep and unbroken, which is evidenced by the duration and intensity of my dreams, which are signs of maybe, finally, feeling at home with a capital H. I no longer wake in the night to sudden vacancies in my gut; I no longer wake shaking to cold frowns of moonlight arcing across the wall; I no longer wake defensive and afraid. Now I sleep through the night, and I think (and I hope) that I might finally be home.


Four nights ago, I dreamt that I lost two crucial teeth: my top, right-side canine tooth, and the molar directly beside it, which I’ve since learned is called the first bicuspid.

I’m told that losing your teeth is a common dream to have. Most people, in their dreams where their teeth are falling out, try to save the teeth, or shove them back into the gums hoping they take root again, or they hold the teeth carefully in a clenched fist for the remainder of the dream, banking on some elusive future oral restoration.

In my dream, I put my teeth in the pocket of my jeans, but I leave my hand in the pocket as assurance that the teeth will not disappear. In my dream, and against my will, I keep encountering friends and acquaintances from college, and each time I run into someone new, I am hesitant to smile or greet them lest they notice the gaping absence in my mouth. Many of them strike up conversations anyway. When it becomes too difficult to conceal the gap any longer, I blurt an awkward announcement to the person across from me: “I’M SO SORRY, BUT I’M MISSING TWO, QUITE VISIBLE FRONT TEETH. IT LOOKS TERRIBLE, BUT THEY JUST RECENTLY FELL OUT AND I’M GOING TO GET THEM FIXED SOON. PLEASE EXCUSE THE HOLE.” Then I resume the use of my lips in a normal, uncensored way, and the gummy black gap in my mouth flashes bold and horrible as we speak.

Teeth loss dreams can mean any number of things, but the general consensus among all the dream-decoding websites seems to be that you are undergoing seismic changes in your life, or are afraid of losing something important to you. Check and check, I guess.


Some days, when everything is fluctuating around you, a very natural and intuitive remedy is A Fixation: a tiny, often irrational obsession. You find a single object—or the absence of one—to house all of your unspecific, worried, homeless energy.

I was agitated about the thermometer for days. Sam watched me rifling through ghostly drawers and boxes in my mind, trying to locate the stupid little tool. The thermometer was just a stand-in though, one of the many things I can’t remember losing but have certainly lost, one of the many absences around which my life is constructed.

Some days, I feel I am only negative-spaces and non-matter, my neediness so immense it assumes its own gravity and yanks at anyone who comes close.

Some days, I think home is just the people who love you in your places of greatest lack.


021. Blow Through Me


By the time I arrive, he’s already been waiting on the porch for a few minutes, his cigarette burned down almost to his fingertips. It’s cold outside, so I follow him into the debris of the living room, the fallout of heartbreak: beer bottles crowded on the Tibetan black-wood dresser and along the base of the couch, pair-less shoes piled in the doorway like friendly rubble, impromptu ashtrays on every open surface (jar lids, receipts, soda cans), jeans and shirts and boxers strewn in beautiful abstract patterns over the floor, not unlike the intricate mathematical scatter with which water moss grows across the face of a lake. On the loveseat, a few sweatshirts have been shaped into a lumpy pillow. The curtains are heavy and closed; the lights are as low as they’ll go.

“Sorry it’s such a wreck in here,” he says.

“Nah,” I say.

I guess it’s a wreck compared to its former form, but what’s a wrecked room to a wrecked love? Just beyond the living room, I can see the baby grand piano, too big for the tiny vestibule in which it’s housed, a shiny black meteorite in the chaos.

Wes offers me a beer, and I clear out a space on the floor where I can lean against the couch. He sits on the ground facing me, looking a little wrecked himself: stubbled and bleary and streaky. His eyes are windshields in a heavy rain, sheeted with moisture and impossible to see through. I want to make it all dissipate; I want to see the regular clarity in his face, soft and startling.

After a while, he starts talking around his heartache in wide, meandering arcs, mostly avoiding the details. I want to tell him, Take as long as you need to finish this story. I want to tell him, You don’t have to finish this story. I want to tell him, Sometimes your sadness is too big to talk about. He keeps inserting half-hearted jokes and shrugs and “you-know-how-that-goes” and trying not to cry, and finally he asks what I’ve been hoping he’ll ask all night:

“Mind if I play something for you?”

“Of course not,” I say.

He heads toward the piano, but turns right at the last minute and picks up his six-string instead. He’s angled slightly away from me, so it looks like he’s about to serenade the back wall, deep in the red shadow of the vestibule: being heard, not seen. The imprecision of the first steely melody from the guitar is a pumicing-stone to my spirit, rough enough to clear away my deadness and my surplus.

When he starts singing, it comes out like a scream, like a thunderstorm or a flood or an avalanche, everything breaking down and coming apart around us. Loose clods falling from the walls, from his hands. A lifetime of love-gone-wrong encoded into that voice. He’s singing something he wrote himself, but it’s less a song (as in something composed, intentional) than a howl down the years, ricocheting off of everything that ever hurt him, gathering new fissures and marks and dents at every change of angle and flinging itself out into the world now, a raggedy bawl trailing sorrows behind it like the clattering tin-cans behind a wedding getaway car.



Whenever I try to write lately, I feel mechanical and dry. The unavoidable panic quickly sets in: What if writing is always like this from now on? What if I never find another groove? I think a large part of the panic is just the lurking but very real dread of being irrelevant, worthless—the paranoia that if I don’t make something beautiful and worthwhile and lasting, right now or soon, then I don’t have a good excuse to be here. Why should I get to keep consuming food and air and water, when some hypothetical other human could’ve done so much more with the resources they were handed?

I know how to consume beauty—I’m an addict, a glutton—but can I make beauty, give beauty? It’s a question that hounds me wherever I go and whatever I do, and it’s a paralyzing one.

Earlier this week, Caleb met me for dinner at a pizza-and-beer garden in Berkeley, scraping casually into the seat across from me. We talked a lot about creativity and inspiration and the so-common impulse to justify yourself through the things you create—to make yourself significant. Is there anything more basically human than wanting not to be forgotten, not to be overlooked? But it’s also such a small and paltry reason to create anything—building shaky little monuments to yourself, crafting so many desperate forget-me-nots. It’s so hard to escape your own totaling self.

In the chilly Berkeley nightfall that was purple and tender as a bruise, Caleb made this not-new idea new to me: How to rest and even revel in your own smallness and expendability, how to fiercely inhabit your role as audience and appreciator of a world infinitely more wide and beautiful than you.

Maybe we were meant more to be marked than to leave marks.

Maybe we emit the most beauty when we’re just wide open channels, letting creation tear into us and through us, seeking less to form the world in our own image than to admit and honor beauties that are not our own.

“You just have to show up,” Caleb says, talking about art-making. “Let it blow through you like a storm.” I think he’s quoting someone else, but it’s an appropriate metaphor for the man in front of me: my brother, the storm-chaser.

He runs after experiences that will mark him, not thinking about how he will edit or repurpose the beauty he encounters—just letting it bless and remake him, again and again. A few weeks ago, as Northern California’s #hellastorm was on the howling rise, Caleb went surfing off the Marin headlands in the black and roiling sea; he went to be tested and shorn, to be “untroubled in his seeking,” to be beaten and marked.

With Caleb, and with all the very very best artists I know, acts of creation are just outflows of the beauties they’ve known and been altered by: all homages and imitations, offerings and response.



Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse is one of those music venues where the shows begin on time, apparently. Caleb and I arrive five minutes after the start-time for Vienna Teng, and there doesn’t seem to be a seat left in the house. We creep up and down the carpeted aisles in the dark, finally cramming both of our butts into one empty end-row seat. Vienna is already singing–

goodnight, New York / may you be always breathtaking
cold winter, sink your teeth in me / June sun, beat me blind

There’s a full-fledged storm rushing through her, right there on stage. We blink at the smattering of bright hard rain on our faces, shake the unexpected water off our lids. Her arms are rising and rising again over the keys like waves chasing each other toward shore. It feels like the roof of the place has been lifted off, like the top of my head has been cracked open; there is wind in all my crevices, wind charging out of her mouth and leaving the whole room swept and shivering.

In between songs, she becomes human again, sharing background about the lyrics and work-life anecdotes. She’s straightforward and wry and not especially electric. I still love listening to her talk, but god—what happens to a person when they’re making music? She was something else entirely, as ominous and splendid as a tower of black clouds rising up before the skies open.

let your faith die / bring your wonder


020. Where Liberation Lies

A few weeks ago, a writer and blogger I love tweeted this:

This is where liberation lies: recognizing the systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice, not individual failings.

I can’t stop thinking about it: “The systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice.” I think about all of the ways in which I’m either a bystander or an active contributor to cultures and power structures of injustice, all of the ways in which I’m ignoring or benefiting from those weaker or less advantaged than I am. Cultivating apathy, callousness, inaction; enjoying the easy dividends of injustice; my inhumane habits and stances. Those are what human dark sides look like–not our “sins” of crudeness or immodesty or anger or lust.

Jesus spoke often and passionately about loving the weak and the needy and the downtrodden. He actively and effectively loved the overlooked and the scorned and the pitiful and the annoying and the under-resourced–and he didn’t pay attention to what they were wearing or eating or watching.

I grew up in a deeply fundamentalist Christian culture that understood sin, or evil, as the latter: individual failings. And not just failures of kindness or empathy or integrity; I mean “failings” of a very specific and petty order. It was a culture that cultivated fear at all levels of living. Fear of crossing imaginary boundary lines: interpersonal, emotional, physical, mental.

What strikes me as especially strange about the classic fundamentalist take on sin is the reasoning behind it–the idea that God is supremely and perfectly just, and thus cannot tolerate injustice. So, our individual sin separates us from God, a separation that can only be reconciled through the perfect penance of Christ’s death. It’s clean, incontrovertible logic. But in this paradigm, God’s need for justice seems to taper out beyond those individualized arcs of reconciliation.

It doesn’t tell of a God who’s saddened by the enormous systemic injustices of the world, a God who’s concerned with the the way human nature has spawned a society so tilted that some kids skip three or four meals in a row while other kids glibly let entire refrigerators of food rot away. It doesn’t tell of a God who can’t stand a world in which dead babies are acceptable collateral in national pissing matches. Or of a God who hates when someone doesn’t get a job or a loan because of their skin color. Or of a God who cares about your part and place in that global calculus.

But the God I know is more supremely and perfectly just than I was ever taught; he’s more bent on redemption than I ever knew. And it doesn’t have anything to do with curing my lust/immodesty/anger–it has everything to do with love.


I’ve generally avoided writing about my spiritual and theological formation as a teenager, but this seems like as good an entry point as any. It’s something I keep processing and circling back to again and again, from new angles and with new information, so I’ll certainly write about it again.

From eighth through twelfth grade, I attended an evangelical Christian boarding school in the Kenyan highlands, located about an hour outside of Nairobi. It was populated mostly by missionary kids (with a few children of business-people and expats sprinkled in), and was staffed by missionary teachers and administrators.

The school’s geographical isolation, coupled with its intensely fundamentalist ethos, created what I felt to be a suffocating and even harmful spiritual environment. Many people (insiders and outsiders alike) would have called the campus spiritually vibrant: kids attended chapel daily and went to voluntary worship sessions on the weekends; friends prayed together before meals and teachers worked God into the curriculum; and the administration was hyper-invested in the students’ moral wellbeing.

But enforced spirituality is no spirituality at all.

Fear-driven faith is no faith at all.

We were a young community kept in line by shame, or by fear of being shamed.

The culture that my school cultivated was one in which even the smallest actions were morally weighted. There was spiritual meaning to every tiny decision: how your body moved when you danced, your sartorial choices and music preferences, whether you missed a curfew, or questioned a teacher, or kissed your boyfriend, or cursed, or got into a fight. Everything could be “a sin” or a disappointment to God or a sign of horrific moral disintegration. Everything was punishable. Pretty hard to be a normal teenager in that context. Pretty hard to ask questions or try new things.

You know what was easy in that environment? Ignoring the world’s real and immediate wrongs. Looking inward, not outward. Carrying guilt around my neck. Forgetting entirely what freedom looked like.

For years during high school, I operated in a fog of fear and shame. I cowered at the prospect of being shamed. I was afraid of being exposed as a fraud, afraid to voice my doubts or my disappointment with God. It was paralyzing, like living in a metal cell where all the walls were humming with live electric currents, so you simply could not dance or jump or relax or fall asleep for fear of hitting one of the walls and electrocuting yourself. My actions were considered, measured, fearful.


Attitudes like the ones fostered at my high school plague so much of evangelical Christianity. They quell freedom and foster shame. They deflect our energy and focus away from the real injustices of the world, and funnel all of our energy toward policing ourselves and each other.

Instead of trusting a good God whose heart breaks for the forgotten and hurt and oppressed, we remake a god in our own image–pettiness and prejudice included. I truly believe the promise in John 8:36, that “if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed.” But what did freedom look like for Jesus? It looked like dismantling “that which feeds on injustice.” It looked like pulling out evil at its very roots. It looked a lot like the concept of ubuntu:

I am because we are.

Or, said differently, “I will be free when we’re all free.” Freedom–the way Jesus lived it out, and perfected in his death–is understanding yourself as your brother’s keeper, as someone whose freedom and wellbeing is deeply and intricately tied to the freedom and wellbeing of others. It leaves no room for fear or hesitation.


019. Waking Giants

My life is in Disrupt Mode once again! It’s something I don’t love, but am used to. I don’t know to what extent I’m responsible for the instability of my years, and how much of it is inevitable. I think rapid-fire change is difficult to avoid in your twenties, but I could’ve made different decisions if I’d wanted a stiller life.

My disruptions-of-the-month include moving out of my apartment (but on very good terms with my roommate), and considering a job switch. I also recently made the decision to leave my church–not “The Church,” but my specific church.

The move from my church was precipitated by many things, but primarily by the church’s emphatic and extra-biblical dictums on gender roles (in relationships, in the church, and in society), and its absolutist approach to Christian praxis in general. I might write more about that later–about my experiences with authoritarian Christianity–but that will require levels of clear-headedness, forgiveness, and tact that I don’t currently have.

While I know leaving was the right decision, the weeks since have sometimes been heavy. I’d like to remain friends with many of the people at my old church, but some of those relationships carry a new distance, and are marked by hurt on both sides. I’ve also been feeling the disquiet of leaving a tight-knit community, even a community that I couldn’t support ideologically or culturally. You feel stripped and hairless; you feel exposed to the elements. You feel too-contrarian. You doubt the convictions that made you leave.

You spend hours sorting through the things you will keep and the things you won’t, like clearing out desk drawers: These are belief systems I refuse to carry with me, these are truths I will cling to with my life. Sometimes, without thinking, you crouch into a defensive position, a snarling cornered wild-dog; you have to remind yourself that there’s nothing fighting you.

I sometimes picture our lives like giants, slumbering on the earth. They almost look like mountains from far away: solid and strong and immutable, and so mountain-like that you can tell the time by when the sun grazes their shoulder-ridges. You start thinking maybe it’s not a giant, maybe it’s just a mountain, planted to the planet. Then the giant wakes, moves, stretches, rises, and you realize with half-dread and half-love that it’s been alive all along–it’s no longer a mountain, or at least its contours have changed for good. Now maybe it’s walking the earth with the force of a buffalo stampede. You step out of its way, you watch its shape against the sky and feel the ground rumble all around you. And if it ever comes to rest again, it will be a different mountain, still breathing and apt to reawaken soon. Don’t be fooled. If our lives feel stable as mountains, they’re not; that illusion will break at any moment.


018. These Worshipful Bones

Everything can be worship–I think we’re starting to believe that in our bones. Worship in the smallest motions, worship in between moments. Worship inaudible and worship like a howl. Worship in the face of beauty, and worship when it leaves.

A couple of Thursdays ago, I saw Phosphorescent (one of my favorite bands) perform at Sam’s workplace. The afternoon was washed in a cool, clear light: Northern California finery. Every member of the six-person gig was wearing cowboy boots, shades and trashy baseball caps. They seemed covered in dust, unshaved and unfed. Two drumkits. Girl on a saloon-organ. Matthew Houck’s broken drawl, his voice cracking the way it might when you’re begging someone not to leave, cracking the way you talk about things you want to forget, cracking like timber falling in the mightiest of forests. Sorrow all the way down to the ground.

We were sitting in the grass up front (I would later discover damp green stains on the butt of my shorts) and hanging onto the faltering verses. Some people were listening and others were milling around, talking, eating free grilled cheese. Houck sang like a wind or a prophet, My feet are gold and my heart is light / and we race out on the desert plains all night. I wanted to remember it all–I was so scared of forgetting anything.

I was mourning the day’s passing even as it cascaded all around us, sound abundant; sensing the coming silence.

Isn’t it true that everything beautiful is passing? Maybe it passes only to be replaced by other beauties–that’s the hope I hold on to. I don’t want these days to end. I recognize now, cusping on change, the inordinate beauty of the ways we’ve been living lately: slow and light-filled, taking all the rests we want, moving through long mornings without apology. Barely noticing the luxury of silences. The luxury of rambling. The luxury of misunderstanding. The luxury of getting lost. The luxury of taking a long time to say what we mean, because we have a long time.

But that’s not completely accurate, because sometimes we did notice. We worshipped as we went. I remember you mumbling thank yous into my hair while lay on our backs, your prayers going right into the crown of my head and traveling through all the bones in my face. Worship, from the Old English worth-ship: the acknowledgement of worth. The act of saying, “This is valuable, this is good,” or of tracing beauty back to its source and saying what we really mean: “You are good.” You are worth-y.


017. Mercurial


I’ve tried to write about Zanzibar so many times and failed. Maybe it’s because only some of the things I recall are good, and many are bad things. Nightmare stirred carelessly into the rapture.

I guess I’ll start with the basics: Zanzibar is a small and deeply Islamic island located just off the east coast of Africa, lapped on all sides by the warm Indian Ocean, beset by hot hurricane weather for most of the year. When it rains, the thin streets of Stone Town start coursing with high, brown water and cackling pirate spirits. It’s a tiny civilization stranded in the hot wide sea, moving at a speed wholly unrelated to the rest of the known world.

The streets of Stone Town are too narrow to drive a car through, and the buildings rise up tall on all sides, labyrinthine. The atmosphere is all thin, filtered sunlight and wet shadow, like the inside of a cave or a darkly canopied rainforest.

When a bicycle comes through, the handlebars stretch across the whole width of the street, so pedestrians must step into the nearest doorway to make space. The streets are packed mud, jeweled with Coke bottle lids, shells and shreds of plastic–economical mosaic. When you’re standing in a doorway, avoiding bicycles, your nose gets pressed right into the smoky Arabian doors that made the island famous. There is always ganja ash on on the stoop.


Let me try another tack:

On this very same and ancient island, sixty-seven years and eleven months ago, a boy named Farrokh Bulsara was born into a Zoroastrian Gujarati immigrant family. He grew up to become Freddie Mercury, flamboyant British performer and glittering voice of one of the best-selling rock & roll bands of all time. When he was seventeen, his family fled the bloodbath of the Zanzibar Revolution and, as far as we know, Freddie never returned to the island. I wouldn’t have come back either.

Thanks to Freddie’s “leanings,” he was publicly disowned by the Zanzibari government, even as his popularity swelled everywhere else on the planet. A few years ago, on his sixtieth birthday, local officials forcefully ended a Mercury festival; one spokesperson solemnly told the press that he had “tarnished the island’s reputation & culture, and promoted homosexuality.”

What a strange, quiet kind of heartbreak–to be unwelcome in the very place of your birth.

But Freddie isn’t the only one unwelcome on the island of Zanzibar. It’s true that one of its two major industries is tourism; but outsiders are only tolerated, kept eternally at arm’s length.

Maybe it’s a kind of defense mechanism–a way of dealing with a rotating carousel of newcomers. Maybe it’s cultural or religious purism–a way of staying undiluted. Maybe it’s simply a learned distrust–a familiarity with exploitation. All I know is that I lived there for three and a half months in a kind of spiritual quarantine, broken only by rare brushes with vulnerability, or glimpses of an unveiled heart here in the half-light.


Beyond the mazy womb of Stone Town, everything is sunlight. Dhows made of sunlight and ropes. Shores of sunlight. Awnings of sunlight. Sunlight tides, sunlight stains on the docks, sunlight snack-carts, silky sunlight nets studded with sunlight fish.

It’s hard to be sad in a world like that, but it’s possible to feel alone, which is what I felt. It began as a regular aloneness, like I’ve felt in many other times and places–but in the past, aloneness was bearable because it was always broken by moments of great and resounding communion that carried me like small rafts to my next communion. In Zanzibar, communion was utterly elusive, and it began to wear me down, fray my edges. There were weeks I felt frantic, the frenzy of solitary confinement, silent fists falling on a silent wall in a no-eared night.

I remember writing letters to my best friend in California–letters that were littered with small pleas, early gasps of disorientation. I’ve been blindly acting and reacting to everything… Everyone must think I’m so strange… I feel like a racquetball bouncing off the six walls of the court, just reactive…There are nights where I’m a total stranger to myself.

A stranger in a land of strangers: shadows interacting.


I guess that wasn’t the whole story. During my third week in Zanzibar, I met Mama Anti–the ancient, anorexic sage who knew all the great works of Swahili literature as thoroughly as her own pulse, who could intuit the rises and falls of their cyclical relevance with the same ease she could predict the city’s uprisings, riots, unrest. She knew the pulse of everything. She was a hawkish, warm-souled seer.

Our first conversation was a negotiation: how much for three months of your mornings, how much for the transfer of poetry? Priceless, but five hundred dollars will do. Five hundred? So much. Priceless, but let’s make it four-fifty. That will work. Then it’s a deal. Priceless, you say? Time will tell.

She became my mighty linguistic governor. She began by forcing me to study grammar for two weeks (I was outraged, I felt swindled), but she said I’d never learned Swahili’s formalities and I needed to. Of course, it made all the poetry better, and I grew unexpectedly glad for her authority, for her oldness and how it quieted me. I was grateful for her stinging eye contact, and her laughter when I said something inappropriate, and our heads bent over pages of tenses. She asked me about the kids’ slang these days. I asked her for Swahili, sliced open and still pumping.


One more story, and I’ll put Zanzibar back on a high shelf–for now.

If you took a dala-dala taxi-bus for fifteen minutes into the jungly inland, you came to the Police Canteen, an outdoor beer-garden where famous taarab singers would occasionally perform. The Zanzibari population is 99% Muslim, but the Police Canteen is one of the island’s loose and decadent “Christian” spaces–a place where public drinking and dancing are not just allowed, but encouraged.

I am there to see the most iconic taarab singer of all time, Bi Kidude, who would die a short five months later. She is backed by ten voluptuous young women dressed in starchy parrot colors. The night begins demurely, song wails rising up like incense into the night. Tales of betrayal, scandal, jealousy, cuckoldry.

One woman pantomimes her song, pointing at a man in the crowd, turning the shy spectator into the villain of her love-story. He rises reluctantly from his plastic chair, shakes his shoulders, winks at the woman, gives her a kissy-face. An impromptu actor in this unfolding song-drama. He transforms into the song’s dishonest lover, and the crowd is tense with interest. As soon as music tapers off, the man grows self-conscious and hides his face with a long swig of beer. His friends clap his shoulders.

The singers send their wails up and up and up, and the night grows. More characters are born from the crowd of watchers: Cheaters, hopers, revengers. A messy, rising heap of loves-gone-wrong. Each song ends with a new casualty.

Soon people refuse to sit, and the cement dance-floor grows warm and packed. Men are dancing together. One young man is the star of the floor, with his pendulumic hips and his white shirt open to the waist. He takes a rotund Muslim man by the waist and whisks him into the light. Their hips are smushed together and the older man throws his head back in beery delight, his grip on the world suddenly loosened.

I think Freddie would be at home here tonight, at his birth-site, where we are being sung open. We are seeds in a wind-current, borne along. We are reborn, helpless as babies.


016. Euonym Finder

Here’s a paradox: The things that kindle the most language inside of me–the things that get poetry and associations humming through my whole mind and body–are the same things that eventually, and suddenly, bring me to the end of my words.

I’m thinking of a dark, crowded bar strung with Christmas lights and tinsel and foil fringes, Japanese beers lining the shelves behind the counter, an ancient blue-screen karaoke machine mounted into the wall. Paper tickets, $1 per song. Heavy velvet curtain near the door. The wheaty musk of alcohol dried right into the floor, porous cement. Eight people in a booth, chairs screeching to make room for casual dancers. Rickety microphone, an old man in a Hawaiian shirt keeping time on a djembe. I’m thinking of Jimmy Eat World lyrics projected against the wall, forty people shouting the punky chorus in the dark. An off-kilter duet and [the place beyond words].

This Saturday was the longest day of the whole year–the solstice, summer’s debut. It was a day where the light absolutely sprawled in all directions and at sunset, clung dotingly to the earth.

In the late afternoon, we cast out toward the coast with the sunroof open, and just before the highway on-ramp, we put on the colored sunglasses we keep in the glove compartment. There’s no better word for the movement of the car along the asphalt span of I-280 than “flying” (winging, streaming). Our hands were reaching through the top of the car, measuring the full tidal rolls of the wind–fwhip, fwhip, fwhip–and R. Kelly was crooning through the speakers and California was rolling big and burnt all around us like a voluptuous and barely-clothed woman.

My life may have started in that exact moment. What had I ever lived before then? And would I survive after? It felt like my entire life had collapsed in on itself until it was just this one dense and burning moment, a front-seat neutron-star. My brain blown entirely clean, not a shred of vocabulary left. Lexically bereft. Just the sun and you and you and you and you and you.

I love words because they help you to find the perimeter of what you know, and deposit you on the other side of it. You feel for walls, as in the dark; you determine where the solid things lie.

Love does almost the same thing, constantly plunging you into strange, deep, un-navigable waters. This is the shore, the solid land–and now you are here. So far beyond what you know.