another lifetime / light leaks

Happy First Day of Spring! Thank you to all those who have left me subtle or not subtle messages about reading my blog.

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It’s an informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we might play in it. Hope looks forward but draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections. It means not fetishizing the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.
— Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises
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I accidentally light leaked the roll of film I shot at Big Bear, which was disappointing but also resulted in some intriguing images, like the one above. These were taken with the Leica M2 and 7Artisans 28mm f/1.4 on Fuji C200 (pretty much my go-to film) over the past few weekends. I’m still obsessed with the colors and textures of California, and I sincerely hope that I never get over it. Also, mountains, lakes, and my grandma are basically my top 3 favorite things, so it’s been a good time.

The last 2 weeks in books:

Educated by Tara Westover

It feels like everyone has heard of or read this book by now. It’s one of those memoirs that reads like fiction because growing up in a Mormon fundamentalist household in Idaho probably won’t be too relatable. Westover’s life is incredible, and she writes about it incredibly.

1984 by George Orwell

Slightly ashamed to not have read this book until now. I’m not really going to try to write a review of this book because that seems daunting, but I’ll say that it was unnerving to read because it is disturbingly relevant at times.

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I have so much admiration for Michael Pollan. The way he is able to engage readers in the food/plant world is incredible, and I owe much of my interest in the food industry to the first time I read The Omnivores Dilemma a few years ago. This one was a fascinating history of potatoes, apples, tulips, and marijuana. It’s about plants and food, but it’s ultimately about the symbiosis of life.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I read this after some reviews of Wild by Cheryl Strayed suggested this book. Bryson is amusing, but it felt more like a long, entertaining trip than the epic physical and emotional odyssey that Strayed took. Still worth the read for anyone interested in long-distance backpacking. Oddly motivational.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This book is an imagined conversation between a mother and a teenage son that committed suicide. I think it’s important to know that Li’s child committed suicide, and she wrote this the months following his death. It’s a lot, but it wasn’t depressing. It’s a confrontation of loss and unanswered questions, but it’s also a fascinating discussion of language. Li has such a unique voice.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

I don’t think I’ve adequately digested this book yet. I don’t know how to talk about it. There’s so much within it’s pages about family dynamics, regret, racism, trust, afterlife, and the unbreakable bonds of reliance and gratitude. I’m not sure how I feel about the way the characters developed (or didn’t develop), but Ward crafts an unforgettable story.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I was honestly a bit disappointed by this one given how much I’ve heard about it and how many “best of” lists it’s been on. At its core, this book makes you think. There are so many sides to take, so many perspectives to consider, and I love that there are no clear answers. Everything is a little bit of a debate. It’s a complex web of moral ambiguity. Beyond that, I wanted a little bit more out of the characters. Maybe I’m placing unreasonable pressure on Ng, but as a woman of color, I wanted her to make her Asian characters more interesting. I wanted some sort of indication that this wasn’t written by another white author, but she never really got me there. For that, I was disappointed, especially because she does make the effort to Chinese characters. They fell flat. Still, it’s a very well-written book, and definitely worth a read.

Response prompt for you if you’re still reading this:

When was the last time you felt pure happiness (even for a split second), and what triggered that feeling (if anything)?

the last lecture: a review, of sorts.

I just finished The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The book, published in 2008, is a sort of accompaniment to Pausch's last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, where he was a human-computer interaction, design, and computer science professor. I remember watching the lecture a few years back and being touched, and wanted to go through the book since I've been interested in memoirs lately.

Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer a month before giving the lecture and writing this book. He talks about childhood dreams, lessons he's learned, stories from his life, and things he's learned from teaching. The book is really moving. It's evident that Pausch has a sincere love and appreciation towards his life. He's acutely aware of what his death means, but is able to maintain a deep sense of optimism. I found that incredibly admirable.

I also found the book difficult to get through because of the various parallels I found between his life and mine. Pausch's oldest son was five years old when he passed away, which was the same age I was when my father passed away. The difference, it seems to me, is that Pausch had the mental and physical capacity to prepare for his death in a way that was unimaginable for my family. He had financial security, a strong support network, and an abundance of resources at his fingertips. He could hire someone to help him write a book about his life. He could spend money to swim with dolphins with his son and go to Disney World. He could spend time crafting and curating the image of himself that he wanted to leave with his children. Dying young is always a tragedy, but of all tragedies, his was the fairytale. He said all of his goodbyes, witnessed the glory surrounding his own life, and left his mark on the world. 

His message about achieving dreams, gratitude, and making the most of life are universally relevant, but by the end of the book, I felt resentful. The things he left his kids with - stories, security, entire pieces of himself - were things that I would not ever get. They were things that my father couldn't prepare for, and for that, the book wounded me. 

At one point, Pausch leaves a specific message for his kids - that he wants them to pursue their own interests, and that he would never want them to feel obligated to become something because that's what they thought he wanted for them. Those were words that I needed to hear and to fully believe. I cried when I got there because I didn’t know how much I had wanted to hear those words in a different voice until they hit me. 

This book drips with privilege, but it is a genuine celebration of life. It is a love letter to his family, Disney, academia, and the opportunity to say goodbye. It is a complete collection of everything I wish I had received from my own father, and for that reason, I cannot love it. 

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book updates / emotional rollercoaster

Thank you, Spotify Discover.

Time for a little book update before I forget what I've read.

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

I think this book is a must-read for any 20-something who is confused about their life direction. I fall very neatly into that category. This book won’t solve all of your problems, but it was a much needed reality check for me about what I’m going through and also concrete steps to find a direction. It hasn’t necessarily changed my day-to-day life because I think I’m pretty proactive about learning, but it’s made me think about my fears and how they are potentially becoming detrimental to my development.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Memoir by the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene-American writer. This book is heartbreaking, but I also feel like it was a bit ruined for me because i learned of his sexual misconduct allegations halfway through it. I won’t really comment on it.

Lab Girl by Hope Jehran

Hope Jehran is a geobiologist and geochemist who has done dope research with isotopes (and many other things). The language in which she uses to speak about trees is breathtaking. She also describes one of the most fascinating friendships I have ever read in a memoir. Worth the read, especially if you’re a woman in science.

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich

I really didn’t like this book. It felt overhyped and overdramatized and the writing sort of made me distrust the author, which isn’t great for a nonfiction book. Pass.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

THIS BOOK IS ADORABLY HEARTBREAKING. Read if you want to read a young love story layered with stories of domestic abuse, body image, and bullying.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

This is about a multiverse situation. I don’t even know what else to say without ruining it…a professor wakes up in a different version of his reality?! Very fascinating and plot-twisty and I basically consumed it in a single day because it is TRIPPY.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Chinese ethnic minorities, adoption, tea. This book basically follows the unfortunate young life of a Akha woman named Li-Yan who is forced to give up her daughter for adoption, and their parallel lives that follow. I really enjoyed this book for many resonant themes and stories. Highly recommend if you love tea culture or if you want fictional insight into the adoptee experience.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

“But home isn't where you land; home is where you launch. You can't pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” 

A very poignant look at the true messiness of human relationships.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Just read this. So insightful. So important.

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett

This book is very long and potentially a bit dated, but anyone with an interest in the history of infectious diseases would love it. That’s what it’s all about. I am scared. We’re all gonna die.

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In other news, finally got my wisdom teeth pulled. The scariest thing is apparently being awake for half an hour after general anesthesia and having normal conversations people with no recollection of it at all. I’m sick of soup and smoothies already but glad to not have jaw pains anymore.

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Finally sent my beloved Leica M2 for a CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) and shutter curtain replacement. I realized in Hong Kong that there were holes in the shutter and that shutter-speeds beyond 1/250 were completely inaccurate. Super excited to get this back and keep shooting. :)

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.
— Hope Jehran

time beings and psychedelics / shrike

I need songs that better segue into post content. Anyway, Hozier is always lovely.

I'm going to try to be more systematic about getting some thoughts down about the books I'm reading. They won't necessarily be "book reviews", but maybe more thoughts, questions, and bits of resonance that I find.

A book that I read during the first week of the Asia trip was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Reading that book was a magical journey (so lovely that I read Ozeki's first novel, My Year in Meats, as soon as I got home), but it is Dogen's concept of time that has stuck with me. Basically, if you haven’t read the novel (which I highly recommend), it’s about a 16 year-old Japanese American girl named Nao who keeps a diary, and Ruth, a Japanese American writer who finds the diary on the coastlines of British Columbia after the 2011 tsunami. Time, and the concept of time, plays a pretty integral part in the story. Ozeki’s magic realism reminds me of Haruki Murakami, whose work I fell in love with in college but grew distant from as his characters starting feeling redundant (lonely male narrative). Anyway—the important thing here is Dogen’s concept of time. Here is a translated excerpt from Dogen’s work.

"The way the self arrays itself is the form of the entire world. See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time.

Things do not hinder one another, just as moments do not hinder one another. The way-seeking mind arises in this moment. A way-seeking moment arises in this mind. It is the same with practice and with attaining the way.

Thus the self setting itself out in array sees itself. This is the understanding that the self is time."

The complexity of this concept is not something I feel like I have enough grasp on to explain, but is something that I've been thinking about a lot and trying to make sense of. I finished reading Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind today, a book about the history and scientific revolution of psychedelics. There's a lot to unpack with that one, but the dissolution of ego is a phenomena that Pollan discusses extensively. A sense of detachment from the self is an experience that many have while on psychedelics, and it is that phenomena that is said to change the way people perceive and experience the world post-trip. The book goes on to discuss ways in which psychedelics can be used to help users cope with death, addiction, and depression (with many supporting studies and interviews with people who have sought psychedelic treatment through pilot research projects at NYU, Johns Hopkins, etc.).

The part that I found fascinating was a brief explanation of the "default mode network"—the part of the brain that becomes active when we are daydreaming and self-reflecting.

"If a researcher gives you a list of adjectives and asks you to consider how they apply to you, it is your default mode network that leaps into action. (It also lights up when we receive 'likes' on our social media feeds.) Nodes in the default network are thought to be responsible for autobiographical memory, the material from which we compose the story of who we are, by linking our past experiences with what happens to us and with projections of our future goals."

I have pretty much zero knowledge of neuroscience so this may be an oversimplification, but I took the default mode network to more or less be the part of the brain where the ego lives. And interestingly, this is the part of the brain with reduced activity during psychedelic trips where users felt disconnected from self and experienced ego dissolution.

However, while psychedelics are one way of reducing activity in the default mode network, meditating can also have a similar effect. And then suddenly, it made sense why this idea of a universal "time being" would spring up in Buddhism, a religion rooted in mindfulness practice and the transcendence of self.

Basically, my reading came full circle today. I still have many questions about the brain functions of the default network, about the science behind meditation, and about the philosophy of a universal time being. As someone who has meditated almost every day since I was around 7 or 8, I wonder about my own ability to manipulate activity in my default network and whether the detachment of self that I experience while meditating is at all similar to that of a psychedelic trip. I love when things that I perceive to be so different come together like this.

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Normal waking consciousness feels perfectly transparent, and yet it is less a window on reality than the product of our imaginations—a kind of controlled hallucination.
— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind