Song of the Twenty Something

Sometimes I think about my time in New York City and think about my life as a ribbon, like the ones from the elaborate May Day dances around May poles that I watched when I was little. My thread moves around and twists into a whole mix of different colors, sometimes weaving into and weaving out of the fabric created by the dancers.

While I lived in Manhattan, my life was woven into a steady stream of carefully planned dinners and drinks with friends who worked in Capital C for CORPORATE jobs. The timelines were clear, the hours ground them into the ground, the bonuses served as a metric for their success. Time was scarce, time to think freely and ask interesting questions at work… even more scarce. Projects they wouldn’t have dreamed of working on as undergrads were justified with just a handful of words. A tense sort of existence and interaction with time dominated our conversations… and it was hard to tell when we were doing a good/bad job taking care of ourselves.

I moved to Brooklyn in June and soon the colors I was weaving into were more forgiving. They asked questions and explored concepts that didn’t have answers yet. My friends had day jobs, and learned the most from what their did in their own time. The questions they explored over dinner tables and hours in the public library, were more in line with my own thinking and desire to explore.

With this opportunity to reflect and collect myself again, I cracked. Pausing long enough in the doorway one evening after I had fully moved in, I collapsed into the bones and flesh in my body, finally tacking stock of the two years of damage from living in Manhattan. My metrics and expectations for myself were fucked up. I had to come to terms with that. The joy I had derived from exploring new questions and developing tools for difficult academic explorations… were finally acceptable again. Not having an answer was ok. I was free to build, anew.

I started to weave my life back into a world of artists and academics and explorers. People whose day jobs explained far too little about who they were, what they thought about, and what they wanted to do with their time. I was at home, once more. ‘What do you do now?’ meant so little.

University was the last time I found this freedom. A space where my academic pursuits devoured 3/4 of the day, but the last 1/4 was for me to do as I chose… and I chose, frequently, to build things.

What I loved about the Liberal Arts program at Yale was that people had these small points of interactions with people who were completely different from them where we built teams and shared thoughtful critique to help each other improve. My natural science requirements brought me in touch with more of the pure science students than my life did normally and I learned as much from them as I did the students who were on a similar technical trajectory in my political science/sociology/latin american studies programs. It meant recognizing my stronger points and weaker points immediately, and asking for help or advice regularly.

Perhaps the best part was that we were pushed to create and innovate. To develop our own projects, learn the practical skill set of executing projects and seeing them through to the end, evaluating our own results, asking for constant feedback, building and changing teams, developing product concepts and testing them… everything that has been so useful to me post college. It was food for the mind and the senses…. and such a necessary contrast to constant work in abstraction and academia.

I think this “side hustle” in extracurricular work prepared me most for the work force. Well, maybe that and experiment design from my academic work. I learned to play by doing and I learned to think by working with my peers in seminars and team based coursework.

For me, the balance I found in college, among the builders and the thinkers, was what kept me sane. I needed to play in both spaces with time to evaluate. I lost that sense of balance in Manhattan, amid the high profile, high focus jobs and culture and regained it in the fluidity of Brooklyn.

It taught me, most importantly, that the concept of “home” is so much more about the people and the pulse of thinking that I wanted to surround myself with. And sometimes that pulse comes in much less obvious forms that I had accepted when I first moved to New York. I am thoroughly enjoying this new exploration process.

Extended Eulogies: Remembering Marina

I am working on a long form project that I am calling “Extended Eulogies.” I am interested in the role of the “curator” behind a profile of the deceased, particularly when the deceased has left behind a portfolio of written work where they explores who they are, who they think they are, and the questions they tried to answer. This is much an exploration of memory as it is about process. The following is one of many pieces of my research to answer my own questions about how I will remember some of those who are closest to me in my own life.

I still remember the morning over the summer when I woke up to 16 missed calls from a close friend and another series of texts from someone I had become friends with over the course of that spring that started with “have you read the news?” followed by “Diana, can you call me? I’m scared.” And finally, “Fuck. I feel so lost right now.” Everything had come into my phone between 1am – 4am, the last one at 4:11am.

Remembering Marina Keegan…

On May 26th 2012, Marina Keegan, one of my high school and college classmates (we both ended up in the Saybrook college at Yale) died in a car accident that shook our communities. For days, my newsfeed on Facebook was filled with people posting on her wall, sharing memories and their disbelief that she was gone. Best know for some of her prolific written works like The Opposite of Loneliness and Even Artichokes have Doubts. And even a handful of spoken word pieces, that just as quickly as her writing does tear a hole in your heart or fill you with joy.

Among her many talents, Marina was a writer, a playwright, an activist, and a creator. Her voice is well documented, as were the questions she took time to explore with you in her written work. Marina is now the author of a bestseller titled The Opposite of Loneliness, which was like sitting in a time machine and relieving my high school and college experiences in a way that knocked the wind out of me.

Who served as a curatorial voice?

I got to know Yena when we started a salon series at Yale in the spring of my senior year. Nearly a year after the accident, Yena was a brilliant soon-to-be Philosophy Ph.D student living in New Haven and making sense of what had happened to her college roommate a year earlier. Yena is a brilliant thinker, talented writer, and dear friend to many of us.

In the months following Marina’s accident, Yena was tasked with an enormous project: she was handed Marina’s Hard Drive and told to organize the work and consider which works she would have selected to use to contribute to a lasting profile of Marina. She, alongside Marina’s mother and a handful of others, began to think through the dimensions of a collection of some of Marina’s short essays and stories. [I am comparing this collection of stories to an effective “profile” of the voice of an author.]

As Yena was remembering the experience with me, she said, “You begin to look at life and death through the voice of a person. With every artist, so much of them is embodied in their work, it feels like you are interacting with that person. It feels like a pseudo interaction that you’ve had with the person who is gone now.”

How do you process your memories? What does it mean to build a profile through Marina’s voice?

Yena first wrote this piece for the Yale Daily News to remember her friend very shortly after her death. “The YDN was me and Marina. It was very raw and [the grief] was there with me. The book was more collaborative.”

Yena started by re-reading all of their Facebook messages and emails. Some long, others shorter, asking quick questions. Some sent over summers apart, others between Saybrook and the Library.

“You are not an objective bystander. You bring a different element of you to every conversation that you have, already there is a filter or an angle. We are biased by our grief, the personal relationship with the person, and how we think about that person. When I looked back at her work, I wanted to look at it through these filters, but I also wanted to try to represent her accurately, objectively, in the ways that I loved her.”

This role, as an editor, was perhaps most pronounced when Yena was deciding what was most important to include in the book, and where some of the work needed to be trimmed or cleaned up. “[T]here is also an element: this is something I am sure she would not want other people to be reading.” The process was about taking in all of the work Marina had written over the course of her life time, beginning to organize it around common themes, and present a few pieces in a collection that captured the voice of the artist.

“It was a difficult experience — with her writing, you could hear her voice,” she added. “When you encounter that grief… it’s the expression of it that is so hard. Sometimes I felt like I needed to laugh really hard, I needed to get it out of my body.” Yena started to see this project as a “personal exercise.” It became a process that required her to manage and really feel the grief that seeped into her physical and emotional responses to the work, but it also helped her celebrate the great achievements of a friend that she admired and loved.

[Sidenote: Yena was not the only collaborator on the final version of The Opposite of Loneliness. When I first asked her about the project, she told me that the questions were a little startling because she forgot that she had helped put the work together. She remembers this book as something that was a collection of Marina’s life’s work, not a book by those who curated collection for the final product.]

What I learned from talking to Yena:

We spent a lot of time talking about what it means to “know someone.” We discussed the levels of friendship that exist and how well you get to know the rhythm of someone’s thoughts and the questions she wants to spend her life answering.

We wondered, does the product itself change depending on how well you knew someone before they died? I said yes. Because to really capture the pulse of someone’s thought patterns, you would need to see them at their most carefully edited, at their most raw and unrefined, and everything in between. Yena had the opportunity to see work by Marina in many different stages of completion.

Then Yena asked me, what is the difference between a biography and an extended eulogy?

My answer was that biographies are about extended narratives: you are meant to interact with the narrative provided by the writer and the context the writer decides to provide you with as you engage with the narrative. You are not interacting with the individual.

When the artist can leave something in her original voice, you interact with it. As Yena has told me earlier in our conversation, you build into the relationship with the artist a little more.

The extended eulogy, for me, is a project about building and protecting memories that are multi-dimensional and offer a few perspectives on a person simultaneously. You see the person, in how they would describe themselves, but you also see how others (the curators) see and remember her. You also see what their life looked like, to them, from 30,000 ft. You see what questions became important to explore and what stones they unearthed to find their answers. The Extended Eulogy offers the artist a chance to remember themselves and leave behind a breathing memory that engages with you and challenges you and promises to be the same thorn-in-your-side that the artist may have been while she was living.

The work of some artists requires little context for me. I react very powerfully to it, in the same way that some relationships with other people make sense and others don’t or don’t register in our memory at all. Some voices vibrate like strings on the cello through your memory and their questions haunt you. This is not true for every conversation and person that we come across – but for the ones who do leave a mark… we remember them. We remember the sound of their voices and the pulse of their thoughts and it stays with us.

Many of us continue to serve, in our own ways, in Marina’s memory. Though my own relationship with her was largely based on the interactions we had as activists working on some overlapping issues in our communities, I remember her for her writing.

“Do you want to leave soon?”

“No, I want time to be in love with everything… and I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” [Marina Keegan, Bygones]

Midsummer Night’s Dream (or how we use fantasy to make sense of the truth)

As an undergrad, I would go visit a specific painting in the Yale University Art Galleries every time I needed to go somewhere to think. It was a piece by Kandinsky called The Waterfall. It used to be hidden on a little wall panel in a corner of the second floor gallery. There was a bench for me to sit on and wait, sorting through thoughts, until I was either kicked out because the gallery was closing or I had finished sorting for the day.

This isn’t my favorite piece by Kandinsky, but his pieces have always helped me make sense of my most tangled thoughts. In his paintings, I see all the vibrance and pain and absolute ecstasy of life. Their abstraction helped me find ways to live with my questions.

1941'529_1.tif Luna Imaging, Inc. 1315 Innes Place Venice, CA 90291 (310) 452-8370
Luna Imaging, Inc.

When I first moved to New York, I was very skeptical of the psychic on the corner of my street in Chelsea. I saw her there every day, sometimes she would beckon me to come in from the sidewalk when I was walking home from work. And then, I started to notice lots of psychics spread out across the city… including one in the West Village on my walk to work that often had expensive black cars waiting outside of it for women in sunglasses to disappear into after their “appointments.”

There are enough psychics spread across the city… a city with exceptionally high rents and overhead costs for businesses… that you can find one easily on a basic google maps search. Which means… people are going to see them regularly enough that being a “psychic” is a viable career option for a handful of people.

I learned, from Kandinsky then and from the psychics now how valuable it is to find ways that help you live with your questions. And, more importantly, learn to ask better questions of yourself. When the answers cannot be answered with Yes or No, we have to turn to other tools that help us cope with and make sense of truth.

We turn to abstraction.

Why?

First, Rainer Maria Rilke was quoted to me, on a Friday, in a way that has haunted me ever since: Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, liked locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

At a certain point, with many things, we realize how little we can approximate, predict… or even guess. I’ve noticed, from working around investment analysts, labor organizers, artists, and teachers… we all seek tools to help give us direction and ways to cope with “living the question.”

I visit modern and contemporary art collections to let myself feel. In the same way I experience an instinctual reaction to the answer I receive while flipping a coin when I need to make a decision that I feel largely conflicted on, I can find roots of an emotional response through art. How often have you flipped a coin to get an “external answer, reacted to the draw and made your own decision independently from this information?

Art helps me ask questions. Better questions than I often start with. For example: What should I do next? Is a broad question that feels like an aimless sea in a fog. When forced to pick directions, especially those that scare me, like dive into the deep! I find responses within myself that force me to think through the reasons I am reacting that way. Therein, I begin to find some truth.

But for others, psychics and tarot cards, their symbols and metaphors, provide important insight. In my travels, I’ve met successful investors (even, billionaires) who rely on astrology to pick their trades, economists who discuss network structures in communities in geometric terms to make sense of their personal identity questions, and introverts who rely on the symbology of Tarot cards to have conversations with their closest friends about their personal fears and questions.

If nothing else, the vagueness of symbols forces us to communicate better. When answering, what this artwork means to me, I have to begin my providing tools to explain the framework of my thinking. I introduce my questions. Without finding these questions & defining this framework… my friend cannot engage with me. And I’ve grown most recently from these shared experiences.