Canyonlands Pt. 2

 
 

At once all lights extinguished, no moon no stars, no trace of daybreak on the sky. I’m in the canyon without knowing how I got here, unsure if my eyes are open, straining them against the dark. The earth beneath my hands and feet is cool, at first. Still and heavy and lifeless in itself, until in time it becomes granular and I begin to feel the textures change as I move closer to the river, or into rock, or clay or the tracks of an animal. Able now to feel every grain under the arches of my feet, to see the colours, which all looked rust before. In the sun it all looked the same, miles and miles of orange rock. But it isn’t, there are ribbons of colour that I can feel with the tips of my fingers. There are galaxies living inside of it, and inside of me that are speaking to each other. I can hear now, the blood rushing in and out of my heart, animals tracing the riverbanks and slipping under the water around my feet. For a moment it is beautiful, astounding, and then crashing into heartbreak and a bone deep, agonizing exhaustion on top of me. I’m filled for a moment by images of you, a home I finally returned to, only to leave again, and again, and again. I want to lie down on the river bed and let it run over me, to take everything with it and drain my body of the love I carry around for you. Carry around like the promise of some sublime, eventual rest that I want more than anything to slip into now. I want to be asleep now, to wake up when it is light again and shapes of things are certain, and to not have to listen to the quiet language of the night in this canyon that never ends. I want you to find me, for once. Am I moving towards the dawn, or is it moving towards me?

For a while, I let the current take me. The sky is pitch black, but I know where the horizons are. Know where the rocks are, gliding beneath me. I’m unsure if I’m being carried towards you or away, as though the river is a circle and you are at both ends of it. The absolute gentleness of your heart strikes me for a moment; takes me down. There is a place I’m going to and a place you’re going, and neither of us can turn away.

Weeks pass in darkness. At times I almost forget, or imagine that I do. I dream of airports and stations and running against the tide. I grieve everything I’m leaving. I try to believe in God. I try to be good, and I give up. I allow snakes to run over my body, to lay their weight on me, to coil around my neck and then slide away and release the blood back into my throat. I walk high up on the banks, skipping from stone to stone. I feel my way along the riverbed. I push rocks off the banks and hope that they hurt something. I try to let go.

Sometimes I climb up to the highest peak I can find, standing above the river. And with my eyes wide open against the sky, I imagine the dawn rolling in over me.

Canyonlands Pt. 1

 
 

at the foot of the monument
canyonlands outstretched
shadows pooling
in the mouths of the gullies

that night I walked outside
to see it in the dark
bare feet on red earth
forgotten about the scorpions -

listening to the sky
I wondered if it listened too
could hear my longing
calling back and forth

when I went back inside
the embers were still burning
and I spoke your name silently
as the smoke carried it to the sky.

The ethnicity that best describes me

When Rami Malek accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor, I found myself moved - quite unexpectedly - to tears. Unexpected, because I had not actually seen the film for which he was nominated. In fact I’d not seen him in any film, and so I felt no particular connection to him prior to the awards. Although his performance was by all accounts remarkable, what moved me was his acceptance speech. The part in particular where he acknowledged the significance of an immigrant represented and celebrated, both in the story of Freddie Mercury, and in Rami himself, a first generation American, for receiving the award. There was within of that, some flicker of resonance for me.

Growing up a Japanese-British immigrant in New Zealand was not exactly a hard life. For the most part I was considered ‘white enough’ to pass as Pakeha - a term for fair-skinned, non-Maori New Zealanders - and while most picked up that I was part-something, or half-cast (that term still existed in my elementary school days), only some identified me as Asian. I was never quite sure if the “ethnicity that best described me” was Pakeha-New Zealander, British or Asian, and so I usually selected ‘Other’. Only recently have I begun to understand that my own racial identity is one of those that was absent from the cultural narrative I was raised in.

Thankfully, as a cisgendered, able-bodied, straight woman, most other facets of my identity have been represented fairly robustly. Although my sexuality as a woman was not - and is still not - explored in authentic ways very often, my sexual orientation and gender identity were, at least, established and visible. I did not have to work hard to understand those aspects of myself, and in many ways my examination of the one unrepresented constituent of my identity is to try to understand. To try to imagine for a moment what it might be like when not one, but many layers of one’s identity is missing from the conversation.

Only recently have I begun to feel that my Japanese-ness, although largely overlooked and invisible to most, is as much a part of me as my whiteness, especially given that I was born in Kyoto and spent the first two and a half years of my life there - eating and speaking and dreaming in Japanese. Only recently have I begun to  recognise the ways in which I internalized the casual, schoolyard racism towards Asian people that I regularly observed and occasionally experienced directly at my predominantly white school in Auckland. The ways in which I pushed my Asianness away, rejecting and even hating the things that betrayed me: my eyes (hooded or slanted or almond or small), the onigiri my mum would pack in my lunchbox, my mother’s name which was, apparently, impossible to pronounce. I denied the queasy feeling inside when my very own friends complained of the “fucking Asians” taking over (not you Ayla, you’re not really Asian) and when the media reported the spate of heinous attacks on Asian pizza drivers, beaten to within inches of their lives while making their nightly deliveries.

As is now fairly commonplace, I was a national of three countries, and yet didn’t belong entirely to any of them. Although I knew I was half Japanese, I leaned into my racial ambiguity, relieved to be misidentified as Italian or Samoan or, especially, Maori. Perhaps because it belonged me a little more to New Zealand. Perhaps because it removed a barrier I otherwise felt between myself and the tangata whenua, the people of the land. Or perhaps because I felt a sense of respect and reverence towards Maori people in our country which I did not sense towards Asians or even Pacific Islanders, even though both groups were amply represented in the Auckland population at that time. Even when my elder sister and I flew to Tokyo on Japan Airlines and the bilingual hostesses would for some reason address her in Japanese and me in English, I felt a faint sense of relief. I must look more Caucasian than her, I figured, and I secretly welcomed that.

The first time I ever really saw myself represented in literature was when I read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. Not only is the protagonist a half-Japanese American woman of around the same age as me, but she was also a documentarian working in factual television which, at the time, was almost comically relatable. The fact that I didn’t read that book until 2017 when I was thirty years old, is not to say that representation of my racial makeup didn’t exist in popular culture, but that without having sought it out I simply didn’t encounter it until then. And when I did, I experienced for the first time that recognised phenomenon that occurs when finally receiving something significant is accompanied by an acute sense of how long we’ve been without it. In much the same way as we may not realise how exhausted we are until we finally have a moment to rest. It’s an odd thing, but it can be difficult, impossible even, to distinguish the feeling of being unrepresented until we have something to measure it against. And when that happens, it is the beginning, not the end, of the grieving process. When we begin to see ourselves reflected in our culture, we feel at once the ache of having been unseen. My whole life I was trying to roughly approximate myself with the closest recognised thing. Pakeha-New Zealander, born in Japan with an English Dad. Better defined as ‘Other’.

Today I feel deeply proud of my ancestry. That journey of reconciliation happened in many stages over the course of several years. They included adopting by deed poll my mother’s maiden name; joining a Japanese drumming group which, through music and movement seemed to affect me at some primal level; and rediscovering through adult eyes the exquisite beauty of the aesthetic, architecture, food, onsen and the discipline and devotion of the Japanese custom. Living now in a context that celebrates and admires Japanese culture, it’s hard to imagine the shame I once felt as a kid. Perhaps the world has changed a lot. Or perhaps I have. Most likely both, to some degree.

As Rami reflected on the remarkable story of the gay, immigrant frontman of Queen, he said: “The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this.” And perhaps that, more than anything, is what I can take away from this. To remember, as an immigrant, as a filmmaker, as a woman and as a human being, to invite another perspective. To recognize that to say “I don’t really see you as different.” is rarely enough. To look, deliberately, for who hasn’t been seen and known. To practice the craft of facilitation. Of ministering nascent voices. And of belonging those who may, in one way or another, still feel that they are ‘Other’.

Beyond Body Image

This thing we call female body-image - the relationship which women have to our own bodies - is, without doubt, in need of urgent attention. I know from my own deep exploration of the subject, that as a woman, I am unable to really separate my own sense of self from the cultural narrative which tells me, everywhere I go and everywhere I look, that my value to society, my capacity to be loved, and my inherent worth are all tied, intrinsically, to my desirability to men. Whether I subscribe to it or not, that narrative is part of me, and it’s hard to disentangle my identity from the collective doctrine in which I exist.

The issue is so vast and complex, it seems impossible at times to even imagine a world in which women were regarded as whole. Anything which seeks, truthfully, to dismantle that paradigm, I believe is valid and important. There are myriad ways to bring about change.

Right now, there are countless ‘body positive’ accounts on Instagram, posting pictures of stomach rolls and lumpy skin and so-called ‘undesirable’ bodies, alongside vulnerable testaments to the great inner work these women are doing to learn to embrace and love the way they look. In particular, there is a current trend of side by side comparison images, usually of a body which looks ‘Instagram worthy’ beside an unflattering image of the same body, accompanied by captions on how both are equally beautiful, valuable, and so on. Since this is an inversion of “progress” pictures which typically show a woman getting smaller, fitter, and celebrating the ‘improvement’ of her body, I get that it’s a kind of rebellion from that movement and therefore, progress.

But when I look at these images, all I really experience is more of a hyperfocus on what-women-look-like. Side by side images exacerbate a focus on comparison, whether or not the caption compels us to withhold prejudice. I understand that an unavoidable component of healing this wound in our psychology is to acknowledge that it exists. To face, examine, and talk about this aspect of our culture. To extract it from a place in which it has embedded itself into our consciousness, pretending to be normal, and to call it out as the insidious, malignant and categorically abnormal dysfunction that it is. Part of the process is seeing our bodies, for once, as not being wrong. To be able to look at ourselves and, whether or not we see beauty, to at least not feel repulsion.

But in a way, this seems only to funnel our attention even more into a collective gaze, not through our own eyes, but back at our bodies from the outside. The captions underneath these images are often powerful. Raw. Intelligent and courageous examinations of our cultural conditioning. Vulnerable accounts of personal suffering and resurgence. Yet we’re mesmerized by looking at bodies, and the same captions under images which don’t prominently feature female flesh don’t attract a fraction of the attention.

What I wish I could see more of, are women’s Instagram accounts and women’s blogs, articles and Facebook pages through which I can actually experience a woman’s world. Accounts which, instead of looking back at ourselves in a perpetual loop of self-examination, look out through female eyes and fortify the female gaze. Which relate to the world through the nuanced heart of a woman and begin to put our perspective on the map. That move, I suppose, beyond the healing phase of body-image-repair, and into the creative expression of female wholeness. Which demonstrate what women would be thinking about, and doing, and creating, if we were free of our obsession with what we look like. To stop trying to change how we feel about our bodies, and start focusing on how we feel about other things. To start embodying a woman who rejects the entire discussion. To get on with the business of living.

The problem with body shame and obsession, is that it drains the energy from every other aspect of our lives, creating a tragic kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which we actually forfeit substance and character to an all-consuming quest to look acceptable. This creates even more reliance on being desired, since it’s practically all we have left.

But the same thing can happen in reverse. When we begin to redirect our energy back into ourselves, to feed our intellect, our creativity, relationships and contributions, we’re too busy being who we are in the world to constantly monitor the imagined perceptions of others. And as we begin to inhabit ourselves again, re-establishing our own, tactile relationship to life, the fact of our bodies not resembling marketing images simply ceases to hold such importance. That we may even begin to appear more beautiful to ourselves is a welcome bonus, but somehow holds less weight.

I don’t believe the healing phase can, or should, be bypassed. But there comes a point when I wonder whether we might benefit from feeding it less energy. To focus instead on crowding it out with an indelible appetite for life.

30 Truths @ 30

This is an incomplete, not especially profound and only partially earnest list of some of the things that seem true to me, at 30, in the year 2018. I’m not entirely sure of its intention or usefulness to anyone, but it just seemed like a mildly entertaining thing to write as I approach my 31st birthday. Please feel free to debate or debunk any of my points.

  1. Almost everything of value I’ve learned in over a decade of intensive self-inquiry, can be summed up by the Irish prayer for serenity: (God grant me the serenity…)

  2. It takes half a second to understand something intellectually. It can take many years of lived experience to really get it, at every level of consciousness. (See #1.)

  3. One of the most radical agents of personal change and growth seems to be the practice of self-love and acceptance. Paradoxical, but true.

  4. A second radical agent of change is just doing difficult shit that you haven’t done before.

  5. Guilt is a feeling that is completely possible to free oneself from. I stopped feeling guilty for things I shouldn’t, and stopped doing things for which I should. The wisdom is knowing the difference... 

  6. Attaching your keys to a brightly coloured lanyard or a really long piece of string, however hideous, will change your life.

  7. Some things are never worth taking photos of: sunrises, sunsets, waterfalls. You will never capture even a fraction of their glory, and even if you do, who really wants to look back on photographs of sunsets and waterfalls? It’s a great relief to just put the camera/phone away.

  8. There’s still a huge amount of stigma around mental and emotional health. While those who work out at the gym or hire a personal trainer are admired for their discipline and commitment, those who invest in therapy, coaching, or other forms of mental and emotional support tend to be seen as weak, woo-woo, or defective in one way or another.

  9. Further to #8, considering the state of our planet and most marriages, it seems to me not only courageous but rather an intelligent decision to start investing in our psychological health.

  10. Kate Moss is quoted as having said: Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels; implying that being skinny is worth the starvation required to achieve it. To which I’d argue - what about ramen? Also, no degree of starvation looks as good as self-love, self-respect and the experience of wholeness feels.

  11. I believe ‘pretty privilege’ is real, in that attractive people tend to be treated with a sort of positive bias as they go through life. That said, the most beautiful people in the world do not seem to have much advantage when it comes to being loved, feeling safe, belonging or living fulfilling and satisfying lives. This is visible when it comes to celebrities and supermodels (who are often very troubled) as well as some of my exceptionally attractive friends - an insight into their life reveals that while they turn a lot of heads, they do not seem to be any more loved, cared for, respected or emotionally fulfilled than my less genetically privileged friends.

  12. No carbs, no life.

  13. The patriarchy is alive and well, even in the developed west.

  14. Do not read the comments on any publically shared feminist, female-authored, female-featuring, or in any way remotely female-supportive material. They will crush your faith in, and any flicker of hope you still have for humanity. And, especially, men.

  15. Logic and rational thinking will get you so far. Feeling and intuition will often get you the rest of the way, in half the time.

  16. If you imagine that blind fumble of your worst ever teenage sex, that astonishingly brief, feverish rush to the finish line without the least bit of control, care or consideration for the source of his happy little ending… it’s not completely unlike what humanity at large is doing to the planet.

  17. Humanity needs a love affair with an older, experienced woman.

  18. The nineties really was the golden era for hip hop. And that’s a fact!

  19. Don’t date someone who takes themselves too seriously to sing and dance to your most embarrassing guilty pleasures. Not worth it.

  20. Set your standards according to what you truly need and desire, not what anyone else is doing or saying.

  21. Do not adjust your standards according to someone’s ability to  meet them.

  22. Find the people who are willing and able to meet your standards. Treat them well. Hold them dear.

  23. If you’ve ever felt afraid of being too demanding or ‘high maintenance’ in a relationship, think about it this way: ever noticed how much time and money a guy is willing to spend maintaining a car he loves? Be the Ferrari, sister. You know what I’m sayin’?

  24. When you wake up one Sunday, and you cannot wait to spend a long, lazy morning alone doing all the things you love: reading the Guardian in print with a cup of hot coffee in a warm bed (for example)... that’s wholeness I think. That deep, resounding sense of pleasure in being on the planet as who you are.

  25. When you’re sobbing your eyes out, clutching a bottle of wine in the foetal position on the kitchen floor, and you still kind of like yourself… that’s also wholeness, I think.

  26. Life does seem to be quite a lot like the weather, complete with sunshine, rain, storms, rainbows… I’m always suspicious of people who complain about the rain. How do you even do life?

  27. Get yourself two or three very funny and irreverent friends. They will restore your will to live.

  28. The trouble with doing anything creative is that by the time you’ve completed a project, it has changed you so much that you’d do it completely differently. Then again, that’s probably why we do it.

  29. I already can’t understand half the slang the kids are using these days. It’s only downhill from here. I’m afraid for my future self.

  30. There most definitely, without a doubt, exists the force of some kind of powerful magic in this world. Life is the most fun when I allow myself to be part of it.