A River to Wash the Pain

I feel like I need to get this off of my chest: I lacked courage all along. Just now I asked myself “why don’t I feel like writing even though I know I want to be an author?” yet another instance in scores of times. This time I answered myself honestly: “because I don’t want to feel how far from excellent, perfect, and totally confident I am at that art.” I know that I need to go through an awkward, even repulsive exploratory stage and I do fear that time will soon be biting my heels, since I could have chanced writing garbage in my teens and twenties rather than waiting for a Light from Heaven to make the task easy. I did not suffer from lack of encouragement. I suffered from always finding some cramp or another in my life to rob me of extra energy, and therefore provide me with endless excuses, distractions, and even responsibilities. The final category is most insidious because those things are easily mistaken for things I ‘should’ be doing. All the while, I’ve often kicked myself both for not reading enough and not writing enough, for not reviewing what I’ve already done enough and for not doing new things enough. I’ve been like an overly strict parent to myself.

Not so with music. My passion burned hot at a tender age, then slackened under the corrosive influence of my teenage days. At only seventeen or eighteen I had to shoulder the heartbreak of not being good enough for the two schools of music I auditioned for– yes, I only auditioned at two schools and expected life to hand me a success. I failed in auditions and excelled at application essays. Dr. John T. Madden, then director of athletic bands, urged me to continue at Michigan State University… as an English major because I wrote eloquently. Yet when I spent a month away from the trumpet, I swear to you that an alcove under a bridge enticed my sixth sense. I knew its acoustics would be exquisite; I went beneath the bridge to nurse the musician in me who would not die. In Creative Writing classes I did well but was plagued by the need for deadlines, sometimes even for whiskey, to get me over my speed-bumps. Meanwhile, I found even more nooks in which to keep my embouchure dredged, toned, and ready in case I miraculously returned to music as a career.

Reality eventually hit me hard. After my undergraduate days, my writing became inconsistent — as it is to this day. My personal life collapsed, which is an inevitability in life. Something remarkable happened: I gave myself permission to be the shitty musician who plays in a riverside park every day. Again, some space was calling to the musician in me. This time, I gave myself wholly to the notion that I had no future — I was only playing to be playing. Fully present with the instrument, I could be absent to the rest of my failings. Despite or even because of having less talent and promise as a musician than as a writer, I became a musician in the truest sense: I’d rather die than not play, I’d rather not die so I could keep playing. The voice of the inner musician saved me at age 24 and then again just a few weeks ago– I play at a blues jam. The funniest part is that I am a better musician after seven years. I knew it was possible but I could not set my sights on something that took so long. I had to close my eyes to the future because I lacked that kind of patience… yet the patience to be imperfect on my instrument, in the present moment, was something that I gained automatically.

I never stopped believing in myself, neither as a writer nor a musician. As a musician, I stopped worrying about myself as much. The black dots and lines of classical training went away and I relied wholly on my ears, probing for sounds, and getting better at improvising… rehearsing the feeling of getting lost and finding my way in scales, lately in blues chord progressions or attempted variants of familiar tunes. There were no more ‘mistakes’, as if I were performing for invisible audiences, as whatever I played would go forward and backward in imagined time like tides rising and falling– trying this combination of notes, then another, then changing the inflection again…

…it’s easy to forget how difficult it used to be. Those first few weeks by the river, with a broken heart, hearing my mistakes on trumpet was still painful. My resolution was to feel the pain in the presence of the river and my music, feel the pain of my imperfections on trumpet along with the rest of my decaying life. Practice makes happy, as music students sometimes say, and I gave myself the gift of a facet of life that I could improve upon. Moreover, I am so much an audiophile that I eventually became my own supporter; who else but me can play me what I am feeling? I can play you all what I am feeling without feeling as vulnerable, since my faults are transliterated in music; listeners are free to interpret.

Here, in ink, I am still my own biggest critic and I fear my words are less elastic. Glancing at my guitar, the one I can’t actually play, I am reminded of how much striving goes into art. Terms like “process-oriented” versus “product-oriented” are missing the crucial dialectics of art. Is the art a module to add on top of yourself, to try to stretch your outline bigger in this world, or is it an emulsifier — something you use to blur that outline and transform?



Smashed Pear (entry fragment)

He left when he heard I was graduating. I wanted to follow him into the hallway and plead that I could drop my capstone class and hang around for another year but too many pieces of me were invested in matriculating. I wished him a good day and listened to the door shut behind him. A voice from the front of my brain, sitting on the tip of some pessimistic wrinkle, volunteered that he wanted eighteen months to get me into shape. Yet somewhere deeper inside the skull, buried between my hemispheres, I knew that he thought I was ready to play. Another musician — the director of jazz-bands — had affirmed that I was worthy of joining. But it all happened a year too late.

In my chest I felt something like a smashed pear. My heart felt cold, bathed in a cool ooze as if it had been dropped on the floor of that practice room. Everything seemed perfectly normal in the wake of his leaving, as if my life were wrapped in a plastic bag. A layer remained between me and the possibility of being recognized and developed as a jazz musician but the impact, the thrust of falling, could not be stopped. I wanted to lay on the floor, smashed. My heart was still beating but its skin was broken and it dripped cool sweetness into my chest, pumping it out into my extremities. I put my instrument to my mouth as if I were pressing it to the abrasion on my bruised heart, sealing the wound with a quick lip of my lips and the long buzzing kiss against cold metal. I played something familiar — “Love Gets Old” — but much bluer, with some new twists. The music and the motif met: a real musician with real blues.

Reverse Exile: Declaration of Intent

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...Today marked my unceremonious social-media announcement to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing (and/or Poetics) and to do “whatever it takes” to get into a program. I would be lying if I said this was a pivotal turning point of any kind. No movement in my actual existence, the life I have lived for twenty-seven years and dragged to three continents, was heavy or momentous enough to crack walls that are psychological. Seeing a therapist every week and being forced to remember and re-experience my past is creating more of the energy and direction needed to reverse my stray trajectory. Instead of a pivot, I feel like I am paddling across a lake, turning the boat in small increments.

Looking at old blog entries is another way I am prying open lock-boxes in my mind and getting past feeling ‘scattered’. I wish I had more space and time to explain the feelings of disjointedness that accompany my uncertainty. Instead of reaching the point of certainty through great accomplishments or signs of “destiny” I had to abandon the dreams of being ‘significant’ (via activism or otherwise) and start asking myself which field(s) I was most suited to explore deeply. I wanted a big plot-twist, like becoming a conflict mediator or an interfaith peace-builder, but even my plotting is emblematic of my desire to be a writer. My favorite professor, and one-time Writing Center supervisor, commented that I kept “circling back” to the idea of an MFA and that it was “in [my blood”. If I still felt the need to be superlative — you know, to be the best at everything — I might re-enter the cycle of hope and self-abuse. A few faithful friends remain in my corner: telling me I can do whatever I set my mind to and gently rebuking my self-deprecations.

Another writing center colleague has made sharper rebukes, such “quit saying you can’t” and “stop judging … you could be writing something to be edited later” and “no one said it was easy; that’s what makes it worth it.” Childish as it is, I respond better to the tarter variety of criticism because it impresses me as more genuinely concerned, not a platitude given by a well-intentioned acquaintances but the admonishment of a committed friend. Naturally, that’s trash: the others are no less sincere. Still, the bitterness of one spice often brings the others into relief — a more shrill voice of love and encouragement is really helpful. I’ve never been so touched by someone accusing me of bitching at myself too much. I felt like I was being defended from my harshest critic (myself). Simultaneously, I feel a nice sting of shame for being self-absorbed, even when I am tearing myself down.

Maria's (Mattson) Adams' photograph.

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

As went my music, so must my writing go. There was a time, when I was twenty-four, when I grappled with the reality that I would never, ever play professionally but that I could still develop my musicality in small ways that made life richer. The catch was that I could not berate myself for having a bad day anymore — I had to reward myself for picking-up a horn/bass and practicing. My relationship with these ideas are changing over time in order to embrace practice as an act of creativity rather than preparation for an event to come later. In my writing, that means abandoning a myth I stitched together at fifteen or sixteen. In those days, I believed that I needed to make every piece of fiction or poetry count toward my final goal or else I would not be able to distinguish myself from other aspiring authors. Now I see that all I did was make creative writing into a game of higher stakes than my non-fiction practice — something I did automatically. It was one psyche-out after another, unless there was external pressure. As I sheltered my anemic creative-writing practice, I robbed myself of precious opportunities to feel some pressure from my peers. Maybe I was embarrassed or not sure if I would not rather do something else with my life, knowing the difficulty of the road ahead. The only thing which has changed is that I now believe that I can lead a happy life with many difficulties whereas, before, I always believed that difficulties needed to be overcome before happiness possible. If I’ve fallen out of love with end-outcomes, I can fall in-love with the process. As Mercer Ellington said of his father (the Duke, himself), “his favorite piece was always whichever piece he was working on at the time — never something already finished…” Challenge is always with us.

And this ain’t the best written post — but ya’all should have heard me honk’n the first day I decided to start playing trumpet again. Wow — but now my sound is smoother than it’s ever been (for what that’s worth…)

The nastiest nay-saying ‘voice’ in my head is the one that reminds me of how much ‘practice’ I missed by procrastinating my decision to commit fully to the idea, noting what seems to be diminishing returns. An accompanying voice is one that tries to justify & otherwise redeem all of the other ‘practices’ I use to procrastinate. I am tempted to say “bad habits” but I want to dissolve that paradigm. It’s a problem of proportions, strictly, not necessarily of choices. Getting past these two diametrically opposed but mutually reinforcing voices is a matter of practice.

Palestinian 'X'

A redesign in solidarity with Palestine, with apologies to Capcom.

When I say that I intend to work on my MFA, it’s almost an admission that I am going to quit trying to work on myself all the time. I can shape myself concurrently. Whether I make applications this winter or next winter, I am stating for the record that I am going to privilege

my aspirations over my uncertainties. Yet, I can say that all I want and never have these paragraphs become ‘performative’ — like a promise or an oath. What I really need to do is be vulnerable to the process of writing creatively, hoping everything and expecting nothing but more trouble and missteps.

Let’s do it. I have themes I want to explore, characters to develop, subjects to teach, and ideas to air. Activism will always be with me, shaping the ways I shape the world — and music, too, keeping me from imploding. Let’s do it.

Reverse Exiled: Avocational Crises

blacknessLast week I opened a two-months-fermented word-document [rexiled_definitive] titled “Reverse Exiled”, like the name of this WordPress outlet. The Reverse Exiled blog materialized from the great visa-excursion of 2012, as I tried to return to my position at Wi’am. The blog shared a common purpose with the journey across Asia and back, which I understood to be navigating life from a new, multicultural perspective. Like this flagship entry, though, Reverse Exiled and all its predecessors are about the search for significance. The past ten years have been characterized by vocational crises whose genesis, ironically, is in the fear of failure and the outgrowth of warped, rushed plans wrought from wanting only excellence amid struggle. Sand-blast with personal struggle and compulsive coping mechanisms: it’s a search for significance that goes from Detroit to Davao. No negative stage has passed without some attempt to redeem the experience in my imagination — rationalizations, perhaps.

The outline I composed on the airplane between Chicago and DC this June is concerned with vocation:

-reversing exile; on my way home

-Quarter-life Crisis at Starbucks

-All of my recent challenges – interruptions to the story

-Retracing back to Mindanao/Bethlehem/sense-making. Things stopped making sense in Uncle Tom’s laboratory (should have been an ecologist) – society is made of systems of its own.

-One Love: MUSIC – then the blown audition. Never any hope… the drift away from myself

-Then came the Writing Center position?

-Then came the crash in the later years of college and just out of college

-Real-world woes… relearning life when I never learned the life I had been in…

-Coming to the yellow park-bench: having let go of music, found the deepest solace in playing

-Playing in caves

-Moving to DC; therapists;

-“What’s stopping you from writing?”

-“What’s stopping me from playing?”

-Musicianship as the underlying identity…

-…and yet: The Writer

-“Seriously… what is stopping me from writing?”

-(overkill: acknowledging the addictions)

The crisis in Starbucks is not hard to unravel: when I saw the price-tag on a graduate education I started to reconsider studying conflict resolution; the ‘man in the mirror’ is not a mediator. My work supporting Wi’am Center was indicative of my values and interests… but not necessarily my talents…

I am no stranger to vocational crises; my career as a biochemist trickled to a hault in the back laboratories of Notre Dame. My uncle showed me his neurological work zebra-fish eyes and, though animals fascinated me, the process failed to resonate in me — that kind of scientific research is something I love to read, not do. I enjoy unraveling systemic relationships; I realized this January that I could have been a wetland ecologist working in the muddy waters around this world. I might expose the subtle stitches in the changing tapestry of our world from tiny strands: the gills of mayflies or the mating habits of frogs. I could have flourished, with the right guidance…

Trumpet resonated. My dreams of playing and composing jazz hovered high above my musical foundations — I lacked sufficient training. My entire, teenage sense of significance coiled itself around a few music program auditions. Too much was at stake —my very self— and I was so far behind the musical curve that could not even acknowledge the coming turn of fortune. I lost the will to practice in the Autumn of my senior year of high school, hoping for a precipitous moment of genius that never appeared in my adult life. What even many in my family do not know is that I would have dropped out of Michigan State University and tried to audition at a smaller school had it not been for John T. Madden, director of MSU’s athletic bands. Based on the essays in my application to the marching band he encouraged me to stay in the English program, at least until I was ready to audition again. Five years later, I left with two BAs — neither of them in Music. Also, neither of them necessarily more lucrative.

When my grandfather had told me that music was an avocation, which confused and angered me. He and Grams bought most of my hardware (horns), paid for lessons, and came to concerts. Young men hate to fall passionate in love with something or someone and then be told they are “too serious”; I was the same way with ladies. Shabaab (an Arabic word — the only fitting term for that season in life) struggle to manage that kind of relationship and not lose themselves in the horror of loving without mastering, of practicing without possessing. I interred my horn in the space behind a couch and pretended to be an intentional English major. Yet my music rebounds, no matter what mode or stage of decay I reach. The avocation illuminates The Way to Vocation, no matter how long the dream remains deferred.

I developed the uncanny urge to sneak under the Bogue Street Bridge on campus and play trumpet (badly) — eventually, my tone was better than ever. Sometimes I would entertain ambitions but I mostly used my practice time as personal therapy. I learned to use a practice room when I moved across campus but I made weekend migrations there. That space was held together with graffiti and spiderwebs, held aloft over the limitless, contradictory depths of mud-steeped water running through the brewing night. Someday I want and even need to write more about the uncanny ways that alcove by the Red Ceder River worked, not just acoustically but as an expression of psyche — a motif.

The first lesson is that a true vocation — even an avocation — will keep finding ways to manifest itself; my musical experience is one of recurring ‘reverse exile’. Music creates a an irregular hollow in the quest for significance because my practice exists mostly for myself, to stave off despair and keep my prowess at a satisfactory point. Music demonstrates both that the unexercised talent becomes dull and unfulfilling but also that enough exercise revives the vocation to previous levels ~ or adds new dimensions. The unsteady love affair with the trumpet traveled to dormitory lounges, park benches, church sanctuaries, and cavernous basements (literally, caves beneath houses). My last week in my old apartment building, in DC, I haunted the vacant room downstairs and disinterred the same sweet sound that keeps saving my sanity, the sound of dreams bridled into a regulated longing, the distillation of “what-if” — a consolation. I did have the raw gifts… but to what end?

The previous ‘all time low’ in my quest for significance came in the wake of my final relationship. I started going to Riverside Park (Grand Rapids, MI) every day to riff for a while and soak in a sunset. The process of making music offered too much and the prospect of suicide too little. The hurt of the (true) blues is transcendent beyond despair because it takes us beyond shame to expression, again. Quality became irrelevant for a while. Instead of leaving the world with my give-a-damn still in it I decided to just live and not give-a-damn. I became truly process-oriented about music.

I speculated that my music would lead the way for my writing but my career interrupted my development. Last week, I kept getting to this point in the essay and freezing. My writer’s block developed into an impossible bind. Always at this point because I never succeeded — I never moved beyond that point. I walked away from my creative self to become an activist for a multitude of reasons and tonight I need to confess that I second-guess that regularly and have since I discovered, in France, that no one wants to listen to prophets. Now, I am becoming tired of listening too. Rather than believing I have a mission, I have begun to believe that the mission grew from that desire for significance — if there is a God, that God made good use of that urge but it seems all but expended as I start avoiding the constant stream of progressive news reports, longing for more beautiful things again… wishing I could braid them together because the most gorgeous facets of life — love, expression, resilience — are in real danger.

—and I’m learning this just as I write, trying to be honest instead of crafty. I want to say that the activist interceded to rescue the artist before he starved or finally had that date with the toilet-bowl cleaner (or the watermelon knife, or a half-frozen lake, or…). The activist grew not only out of that selfish longing for significance but also of preservation, a defense mechanism. I failed to launch in many ways for a complicated suite of reasons (that is putting it simply, since there is a memoir lurking in these words). More than merely saving my life, the activist in me wanted to save my existence by making my soul part of a movement toward a better society. Tonight, my optimism was challenged by a close friend, who seems content to keep doing good despite her belief that things are inevitably getting worse. One a decade-long scale, she is right. On a century-long scale, I believe she is wrong but, through the millennia, neither of us can know the prevailing arc or our species. What I do know is that I did it again: I fell in love with a vocation that I will never master. It is another element in my true vocation, another part that became a mask when it should have been an appendage.


I am a writer. I am a writer among many writers. I am not especially notable, thus not significant. I wish I could be something else. On the other hand, perhaps only the artist in me can rescue what is left of a very harrowed activist.




[A post to “Sibling Share”, copied & pasted]

The Aukstronaut considers prickly-pear...Since I am having trouble opening-up, let alone writing eloquently, I decided to complain to my sister (the almost-librarian):

There isn’t much doubt that I have been fretful about my career since I was fifteen or sixteen, back when I could not decide if I wanted to be a biologist or a musician. Many people do not know this but it was actually John T. Madden, the director of the athletic bands at MSU, who told me in an audition that my application was well-written and that he would rather see me get any degree at MSU (especially an English degree) than have to go to a lesser institution. That was a confusing day, Molly…

I meant to blog about these thoughts last week. Most of last Wednesday, I was feeling depressed and shameful after my visit to the therapist. Somehow, that all came out in my music (I still practice every day that I can) and started to fill my head with the idea I could have ‘made it’ if I had just practiced with the right attitude for enough hours of the day instead of, you know… making-out with my girlfriend like a teenager. I wonder if it will always be the same way with my writing: if I would have dedicated myself with the right attitude for enough hours a day, I could have at least developed a manuscript. As of right now, I have a messy constellation of poems, blog-entries, and old short stories. Yet, if I can have a good day playing the trumpet then it stands to reason I could have a good writing day — I just reached a point with trumpet where I recognized I loved it whether I was ever going to be great at it or not.

–and I still love Jazz more than most other things in life–

Reading advice from ‘successful’ writers online gives me mixed feelings — part of my self-thwarting is to avoid them entirely. John Green (who I would like to read) was probably the most helpful ~ he just admitted that he didn’t do it all on his own but also, yes, that he did work late into the night on his first book and make connections in the publishing industry. A friend forwarded me an article by another writer (whom I had never known before) and I read his list of 33 unusual tips. When I researched further, I found out that he had worked for years and years, suffered through a divorce and lost fortunes, and read religiously. After all that, I saw he had produced books on self-help and a blog of personal essays that were not that much better than mine (in other words, I have no desire to read him). So… John Green must be right: work hard, have friends who help, get lucky… but still read extensively!

In my youth I worried about reading the ‘right’ things and bought several books because I thought a well-rounded person needed to read them. I never made it through A Tale of Two Cities — and never plan to. The Canterbury Tales are in my book tub, along with several other books I have no interest in reading. I wasted so much time convincing myself I wanted to read this kind of literature when I know very well the kind of literature I want to read — experimental and post-colonial. I have Jorge Luis Borges by my bed; he’s my standby. I would really like to read whats-his-name that wrote The Kite Runner and such. World literature is what I prefer, not the English classics. There is almost nothing like that in my book tub right now. This time, I’m not going to try convincing myself that I want to read anything there…

That leads me to my conclusion: I want to go ahead and study post-colonial thought through literature. I don’t quite know how or if it will lead to great success in my life but I feel that, having lived with neocolonialism in real life through my experiences in Bethlehem, that is probably the best starting place for me as a would-be author and possible professor. Do you think I could be a teacher? Do you think I could direct a writing center? Wouldn’t it be funny if we both became WC grad-consultants (or tutors, excuse me) at the same time? Maybe before you finish, I’ll be back in school…

The main reason I want to is simply because I want to be immersed in that kind of literature without losing touch with history and current events completely. At the same time, this would mean giving-up on conflict resolution as a main career choice. Somehow, I might be able to keep incorporating activism, development, and peace studies into my work but my heart was leaning away from that so I could get back to being a word-nerd.

–which is not to say that I stopped being a music nerd or a science nerd. You know very well that I watch as much Sci-Show as I can stand. I also don’t know what I would do without music in my life, even though it competes for time with other things. I’m wondering right now…

…what I have to sacrifice in my life to finally make a commitment to someTHING instead of someONE.

Trumpet & Accordion

‘The Cave’ has joined the constellation of favorite jamming places tracing back to my visits to Bogue

Maria’s (Mattson) Adams’ photograph.

Street bridge, freshman and sophomore

years of college. I felt drawn, in an almost mystic way, to that alcove under the bridge crossing the Red Cedar River. By chance, a young artist named Maria found me and took an iconic photograph of my silhouette, with the river in the background and the outline of a trumpet protruding from my shadow. In starkest contrast, I became the daemon of a sunny park bench by the Grand River after the collapse of my last romance. I am nostalgic for the bath of unbridled sound and reddening sunlight that I took every day for a year, finally finding the fortitude of heart to improvise without worry. That was the last place I called home before I moved to Bethlehem. I wept openly, last fall, mumbling “I just want to be by the river again.” Since then, I have managed to dry my eyes –and my heart.


A piece of my heaven in the midst of strife.

Friday blustered as if every gust of wind wanted to bring the first surge of winter rain. Wa’el, Drew, and I were out in the drizzle for half the work-day, trying to unhook the tarp that covers the picnic area before it takes any more damage. It was weighed down and holey with a mixture of stones and expended tear-gas canisters, since the nearby gate became the locus of all Bethlehem’s coiled frustrations with occupation, released courtesy of Gaza’s suffering. My own angst started to leak out of me when I got an e-mail to the effect that “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was ‘more of a Christmas Eve song than an Advent song’. I had to scrap my rendition of the former for the first Sunday in Advent for what I understood to be a nit-pick. Consequently, we had a discussion in our staff meeting about anger and Sara suggested that I fill some of the empty spaces inside myself with music or sports.


Friends make the difference in life. I practiced moodily for a few minutes before the heavy iron door creaked open. There was Rajaee: carrying a square instrument case. He had brought his accordion into the blackening cave to play music with me!  We have a history together, by now. He used to play the piano while Lucas strummed his guitar and Rafiq played the drums – we would all play together, getting gradually more chaotic until we either faded into awkward chord progressions or else ended abruptly in laughter. With only Rajaee and I, we were able to play long improvisations on minor keys or renditions of “Time to Say Goodbye” that decayed into original melodies. There is a point, in encounter like this, that I used to become embarrassed and excuse myself. My need to be ‘perfect’ and ‘excellent’ holds me under curfew during those times but this time I was with my friend. I knew I could play however I felt and we would make it work, together.


Eventually, we played something more upbeat and polka-like (this is an accordion and a trumpet: how could we stay drear?). My lips were already beginning to give-out but I continued to pop joyful, staccato notes to match the swells of Rajaee’s harmonious accordion. When we tired, we stepped out into the court-yard area and enjoyed the falling rain. Without introduction, I started to play “Singing in the Rain”.