Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday

On Good Friday I found a vulture lying in the middle of the road. Its wings spread as if crucified. Blood pooled under its belly.

And I wondered about the meaning: a dead vulture on Good Friday, its brethren circling overhead.

Good Friday, of course, is the day Christians recognize the death of Jesus Christ on his cross. It precedes Easter, the day he is said to have risen to heaven. A nice allegorical story, with meaningful conflict, rich characters, and a clear protagonist and antagonist.

And that is exactly what I understand religion to be.
A creative fiction meant to give meaning and purpose and structure. Rules. Codes. Laws.

Was a man name Jesus Christ executed by the Romans for being a traitor? Probably.

Was he the son of god?

Maybe. But maybe everyone is a child of god. Or maybe no one is. Or maybe it doesn't matter.

But it is a good story. A man on a cross, blood weeping from his wounds. Salvation just words away. And we do circle it still. Brethren, all—gleaning meaning,  purpose, heart.

Whether we believe or not.

-Naseem Rakha 4/19/14

Friday, April 4, 2014

Don't be a Sucker for Online Quizzes

They are everywhere.

What Downtown Abbey Character are you?

What Superhero?


There is even one to help you discover - get this - "What Arbitrary Thing Are You?"


Are we that fricking board? Self absorbed? Lost? What?

You know I was in Guatemala last week, and I did not meet anyone wondering about these things. Instead, people were busy working and cleaning and talking - yes talking - face to face. Not chat icon to chat icon.

What an idea.

But the bigger, nastier, more insidious problem with all these online "quizzes" is that you are not the only one investigating your inner donut.

So are corporations.

Remember the surveys?
Long lists of questions which were trying to figure out if we were better suited for Time Magazine or Playboy? Well, people don't like filling them out. Too invasive, they say. And that, my dear quiz-takers, is bad for business. Why? Because business believes they do much better knowing your business.

So, instead of surveys, Facebook and other social media sites are teeming with cute little "quizzes." Which Twin Peaks Character am I? Well, Buzzfeed will gladly tell me once I tell them my favorite movie, song, drink, and TV show. Oh, and while I am at it, also describe a bit about my personality.

Get the picture? It doesn't matter. The people willing to buy the answers to your questions just did—a great big 3-D image of what I am likely to buy, watch, indulge in and who knows what....

I heard the other day that Target knows when a woman is pregnant before she does. It all has to do with buying patterns, which they track like a hummingbird tracks nectar.

In other words, you there in the pseudo-world of internet quiz-land, while you think you are having a little fun finding out if you are Dumbledore or Severus Snape, know in reality it is you who are being played.

What kind of candy are you? Let's hope it is not a sucker.

-Naseem Rakha 4/4/14

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Wavering Capacity of Memory

Lauren Artess and Naseem Rakha, Fetzer Institute, 2010
I flew to Oakland today to spend the weekend with three women I met four years ago at a Fetzer Institute retreat for writers examining the subject of love and forgiveness. My friends are bright, funny, and wonderful people doing the important work of writing and teaching and reaching out and into the world. The four of us have talked about reconnecting for a while now, but life, you know how it intercedes—work, obligations, family. It's a rare thing to actually reconnect with those you've met along the way—the kindred spirits you've held before departing, promising to "get together, somehow, someway..."

Windswept encounters. Little jewels of life.

Yet, here we four are in a house overlooking Tomales Bay, a geologic nexus where the North American and Pacific Plates merge.
Shell Beach State Park, Tomales Bay - Point Reyes

We spent last night catching up on each others' lives. The turns in our relationships, the struggles of our work, the causticness of the publishing world, the mechanization of creativity, the pain and preciousness of this time—caught between life's three great changes—the fading of our parents, the blossoming of our children, and then our own dance with change—the new aches, the temperamental chemistry, the flux of moods. And, most worrying, the wavering capacity of memory.

Each of us notice our mind's latest gaffs: the conversations we swore we've never had, the growing accumulation of words which sit on "the tip of the tongues", the lost items, forgotten names, faces, phone numbers, birthdays.

"What was it that woman said to us about this wine?" Alison asked as she pours me a glass of Petite Sirah. The woman she speaks of is a sommelier we had only just met a few hours before at a market in Point Reyes Station. She was incredibly knowledgable, and had many keen words to describe the taste and structure of wine. We talked with her for about a half hour, pressing her like writers tend. And yet, there Alison and I were just a few hours later, unable to remember a word of what the wine woman had said. We laughed about it, blaming the gaps in our memory on the hormonal meham of menopause. But I couldn't help but worry.

Jennifer Louden and Alison Luterman, Fetzer Inst, 2010
Almost everyone I know has or had someone in their life with dementia. For me, it is my husband's parents. First his father, who passed away two years ago, and now his mom. It's a terrible thing to watch, this slow extraction of identity. It takes away one of the crucial things that distinguishes us as a species: self-consciousness, that ability to contemplate one's actions and see them in the light of how they affect others; to process and evaluate and make choices based on experience and feelings, conceptual calculations rooted in memory.

Self-consciousness is often considered something negative, associated with conceit and confused with self-absorption. But I wonder if the world isn't in need of more fully, self-conscious people: individuals who are aware of how what they think and say and do impacts others? Wouldn't the world be better in some big and important way? Kinder maybe? More considerate, at least? Maybe not. But certainly memory and self-reflection are the bones of our identity. Without these elements, what are we? That is what I, sitting on the edge of the San Andreas Fault on this fine spring morning, want to know.

Jennifer Louden, Alison Luterman, Lauren Artress and Naseem Rakha
at Point Reyes National Seashore, 3/1/14
We four talked until what I thought must be late into the night, but wasn't. It didn't matter, though. We are women of a certain age, and we do not care about convention. So we cleaned the dishes and headed off to our rooms, promising each other a morning of writing before we launch off to hike this spit of land called Point Reyes. We might stop for oysters, we might try to find elk, we might come back and soak in the hot tub, we might read to each other, and figure out someway to watch the oscars tomorrow. We have a whole day to do whatever we want. We are lucky. Blessed. Happy.

At least, if memory serves....

-Naseem Rakha 2/29/14 (oops, no such date....)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How To Shut up A Fundamentalist

I once had a house painter who tried to convince me the earth is just 6000 years old. I am a non-believer, I told him. This just fueled him more. So I told him I am a mongrel—father a Muslim, mother a Catholic, husband a Humanistic Jew, and me, just an earth-loving freak that likes to dance around bon-fires. That gave him even more gas.

Then I laid the bomb: I am a geologist.

That shut him up.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson posted today on Twitter:

If Noah's flood carved the Grand Canyon 4400 yrs ago, then it nicely exposed rocks at the bottom, laid 2-billion yrs earlier.

October, 2013 - Grand Canyon

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Year of Magic - Listening to Harry Potter with My Son

One of the things Elijah and I are looking forward to during our upcoming road trip to Denver (about 1300 miles on two lane highways) is to listen to an audio book. As we consider what to listen to we are both reminded of the magic year we had listening to Harry Potter. If you have not listened to the story told by English actor Jim Dale, you must. There is nothing like it. Here is an old essay about the experience I had with Harry Potter and my son.


Last summer, my ten-year-old son read Harry Potter. The seven book, 1,091,123 word phenomena that has swept the world. When he was done, he asked me to read it. I like to read what my son is reading. It gives the two of us opportunities to talk about books and characters. Protagonists and antagonists. Good, evil and all the gray in between. But HP was such a commitment.

Then I had a brainstorm. Instead of my reading Harry Potter, Elijah and I would listen to the audio tapes preformed by the remarkable British actor, Jim Dale. I had no idea what I was in for.

We stuck the first CD into our car stereo in October, last year, and then during almost every journey two and from school, the grocery store, anywhere, Elijah and I would listen. I was caught. Stuck. Riveted and deeply in love with the world JK Rowlings created. I laughed at her characters’ wit and charm, gasped when they faced imminent danger, wept when loved characters died, and was stunned by the beauty and terror Rowlings was able to weave into her complex and beguiling story. 

In late April, we finished the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I had to take a break. Not because I was tired or bored, but because I was not ready for the journey to end. The idea that my son and I had only one more book to listen to was just too sad. I did not want to let the story go. And more than anything, I did not want to let the characters go. So, instead of listening to book seven, I went back and listened to book one, The Sorcerer's Stone, in which Harry and his friends had not yet reached puberty and Hogworts was a bright and shining place with luminous ceilings and heavy-hitting Quidditch matches.
In June, thinking myself ready, my son and I forged forward and began listening to book seven: The Deathly Hollows. I thought I had steeled myself, yet day by day I watched with increased trepidation as Elijah put in one CD after another, leading us closer and closer to the end.

I know this is all very silly. I am talking about how hard it was for me to say goodbye to a fiction - a non-reality, a story. But it feels like so much more. It feels, in fact, almost precisely like it feels every time I open my eyes and see that my son has taken one more step into his own life, and away from mine. 

I will always remember Elijah's last year in elementary school as the year we listened to Harry Potter. Every morning we would get into our own little Hogwart’s Express and go off to school, shouting spells or debating whether Severus Snape was good or evil. (I must hand it to Elijah - he never once gave any hint of what was to come.) I will remember that Elijah turned eleven while we listened to Harry Potter, and we celebrated by driving all the way to Seattle just to see the Harry Potter exhibit. And, I will remember, always remember, Elijah reaching over to me as the final book ended, and telling me it's okay. "It's time," he said. "it's okay to be sad, but it's okay to say goodbye too."

Friday night Elijah, my husband Chuck, and I stood in line for the final Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hollows, Part 2. It was a long line, and it was filled with people of all ages, sizes, hair styles and dress. I did an informal survey, and almost every person I spoke with had read all seven books. Amazing in this day and age of Nintendo and TIVo and the internet and everything else that distracts us from the written word and the worlds it can take us. 

After the film, we watched the credits roll to an end. The war was over. Good had triumphed, and the characters we had grown to know as friends, had moved on with their lives without us. When all was quiet and the lights back on, I put away my handkerchief, and Elijah, Chuck and I rose from our seats and left. 
I know it's okay to say goodbye, but I don't want to. It’s silly, really. But I have never felt so in love with the places a book has taken me. Thank you JK Rowlings for the journey you have given me with my child. Thank you so very much.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Angel Dust

It was snowing when I dropped Elijah off at school today. At least it looked like snow - it was white and covered the ground and plants and streets and cars. Then I drove east a few miles, climbing to about 1500 feet, and poof - the snow was gone, as were the clouds. Below me, I could see the valley carpeted in fog.

This happens in Oregon's Willamette Valley from time to time. It's called freezing fog, and it crystalizes every speck of moisture in the air. The picture below shows that layer of fog. And the ones below that, the magic it creates.

Looking west toward the Willamette Valley from east of Silverton, Oregon
Fennel seed

Magnolia bud
Blue sky peaking through
Dawn the following morning - Silverton, Oregon