July 2017


What do you think you're doing?

Today I finished reading One Hundred Demons, a graphic memoir by Lynda Barry. In this work of what she calls “autobifictionalography,” Barry sets out to draw one hundred demons, a practice she heard about in an old Zen story. While drawing her demons, Barry revisits pivotal, often painful anecdotes from her life, which she tells in cartoon form.

The result is quirky and surprisingly powerful: a memoir-like collection of cartoon episodes that point to the persistence of even minor memories. Barry learns (and readers discover) that both our childhood and adult identities are shaped not by major, life-changing moments but by the incremental influence of seemingly innocuous events.

Who do you think you are?

Being an adult, Barry suggests, is like traveling by plane. From the sky, you can’t see children playing kickball in the streets below: the mundane details of one’s childhood are overshadowed by other, more pressing concerns. But when Barry reflects back on her childhood, it is the little stuff that lingers–an early, cruel boyfriend; the moment she became too self-conscious to dance; a first kiss that comes after she’d already lost too much of her innocence. Often, the things we don’t understand or recognize as important at the time are the ones that stay with us decades later.

I first encountered Barry when I read Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I blogged several years ago. Syllabus is a book about art, teaching, and creativity, and the playfulness of that book is what initially drew me in. Barry notes that every child can draw, but adult self-consciousness causes too many of us to put down our pencils and pens. Barry encourages readers to draw with self-abandon, suggesting that there is no such thing as a bad or “wrong” drawing.

Why even bother?

In One Hundred Demons, Barry shows the source of her creative courage. Barry isn’t afraid to draw a wrong line because she’s already lived and endured so much wrongness. When you draw your demons, you necessarily have to face them, and when you face your biggest, most daunting doubts and detractors, you sometime realize they look an awful lot like you.

Inspired by Barry’s book, this morning I doodled the demons that illustrate today’s post. Click here to see more of my demon-doodles: enjoy!

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There is in our neighborhood a house that has fallen into neglect. Tall weeds and saplings overshadow the grass, vines are clambering up the walls, and a storm-toppled tree spreads an umbrella of roots over the yard and sidewalk. Every time we pass this house, I say to J, “That house is returning to the elements.” In the absence of a diligent caretaker to keep the weeds at bay, even a suburban home quickly succumbs to wildness.

Toppled

I thought of that house last weekend when Leslee and I visited the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in nearby Lincoln. Every time I am at the DeCordova, I make a point to visit (and photograph) Steven Siegel’s “Big, with Rift,” an installation featuring towering piles of newspapers that are slowly succumbing to decay.

I’ve blogged this installation twice: first in November, 2013, when it was ripening in autumnal glory, and again in January, 2015, when it seemed soggy and dejected beneath a thin layer of wet, sludgy snow. Whereas the other installations at the DeCordova remain more or less the same every time you see them, the compostable nature of newsprint makes Siegel’s piece necessarily temporary.

Don't climb the (toppled) art

I last visited “Big, with Rift” in August, 2015, when it was sprouting ferns and flowers. Poison ivy was climbing one side of its craggy mass, and a chipmunk had burrowed a hole into one exposed edge. What started out as art was quickly becoming nature: you could almost feel the surrounding trees welcoming this looming paper pile back into the fold as one of their own.

Fallen

Given what I’d seen two years ago, I wasn’t hugely surprised last Saturday to see the latest stage in decomposition. “Big, with Rift” has fallen, its newspaper columns collapsing upon themselves while greenery still sprouts from their toppled tops. Like a neglected house, “Big, with Rift” is returning to the elements, its organic innards returning to the soil and nourishing the next generation of decomposers.

Prone

How the mighty have fallen, you might say, or you might draw droll conclusions about Fake News and the “failing New York Times.” There is something sad about a broken statue or toppled tower, but there’s nothing more natural than yesterday’s news becoming the subject of today’s decay.

First day of issue

Yesterday, J surprised me with first day of issue covers of two US postage stamps commemorating Henry David Thoreau: one issued in 1967, and the other issued this year. The stamp from 1967 is ugly as sin–its designer managed to make an admittedly homely fellow look even worse–but this year’s stamp is lovely, with a portrait of Thoreau in muted earth tones alongside a reproduction of his signature.

Postcard with Smokey Bear stamp

I was never a serious stamp collector, but I still have the albums from when I dabbled in stamp-collecting as a child, along with a souvenir postcard with a Smokey Bear stamp I bought and had cancelled at the Smokey Bear Station at the Ohio State Fair in 1984, when Smokey turned forty. (That sentence tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me as a fifteen-year-old. Not only was I nerdy enough to collect stamps, I was nerdy enough to love Smokey Bear.)

Stamps about stamp collecting

To me, stamp collecting was an aesthetic pursuit, like admiring tiny works of art. I enjoyed the serendipitous nature of stamp-collecting: getting mail was exciting enough, and getting mail with interesting stamps was even better. I still like to use pretty stamps for even mundane mail: if you have to stick a stamp on an envelope anyway, you might as well use an attractive or otherwise interesting one.

Thoreau stamps

When Thoreau’s new stamp came out this year, I bought several sheets even though I didn’t need any stamps at the time. I like to think that sticking Thoreau’s face on my mail draws attention to a writer who has left an indelible mark on my intellectual life. Even if the adult recipients of the mail I send don’t notice the stamps I use, maybe some curious child will, just as I did when I was younger.

This being said, I haven’t yet used any of the Thoreau stamps I bought; so far, I’ve been saving them, using other stamps instead. I like to think my secret stash of Thoreau stamps is there just waiting for me to use them when the time is just right: in the “nick of time,” just as Thoreau described his own birth.

Apparently, I’m a true collector at heart, buying sheets of Thoreau stamps when they became available only in part because I wanted to use them. In reality, I just wanted to have them.

Facing

It was hot and humid on Saturday, so Leslee and I didn’t spend a lot of time walking the grounds at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, choosing to spend more of our visit inside the air conditioned comfort of the museum galleries. But before we headed for home, we took a quick stroll to see the sculptures in Alice’s Garden and the grassy fields alongside the park’s entrance.

Queen of trees

I always enjoy seeing sculptures outside, as if in their natural habitat. A piece such as Richard Rosenblum’s Venusvine (pictured right) would make little sense indoors. Instead of being held captive in a gallery, Venus needs to curl her toes in the dirt and sprout her sinuous self among the trees.

Although Venus is rooted, like a tree she can unfold her slender arms and toss her twiggy head in both sunshine and storm. Does she tickle from the talons of birds perched on her head, and does she enjoy the summer songs of birds whispered into her ears?

Askance

Today Leslee and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see an exhibit of abstract paintings by New England women artists. I’m not an expert in abstract painting, but that’s part of the medium’s appeal. Because these works aren’t trying to represent anything specific, viewers like me are free to find their own meaning in them.

Cobalt

Viewing abstract paintings is like looking at the passing shapes of clouds, the flashing forms reflected in moving water, or the flickering colors that glow from the center of a campfire. You can let your eyes rest from their mundane work of deciphering meaning. With no symbols to interpret, you’re left to enjoy the wordless nuance of color, shape, and texture.

Geometry

When I first encountered modern and contemporary art, I struggled to make sense of it. If a painter isn’t trying to represent something like a face or landscape, how can you tell if it is “good” or not?

Only after abandoning this attempt to understand and assess abstract art did I learn how to enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level. When I look at flowers or eat a good meal, I don’t fret over what that food or flowers mean. Instead, I make a purely subjective decision about whether I liked this thing, and why.

Reflected

When I walk into a gallery of abstract paintings, some works grab me and others don’t. Some works pull me in and all but beg me to keep looking at them, and others whisper “Keep walking; there’s nothing to see here.” With the works that beg me to look, I ask myself the simple question of why: why am I drawn to this piece, and what about it do I find interesting, appealing, or engaging?

Neighboring

This subjective question of why opens far more doors than the interpretive question “what does this piece mean?” There are many works I like without knowing what they mean. The things I like about such works are purely aesthetic. I might like a particular arc of brushwork or an eye-popping complement of colors. Something about a particular painting resonates with me while another work leaves me unimpressed and unmoved.

Cerulean

This almost visceral way of interacting with paintings allows for a variety of personal responses; I don’t know what any given artist was trying to say or suggest in a particular painting, but I know there are works I feel warm and almost friendly toward. “Could I live with this painting” is one question that sometimes comes to mind. Is this a piece that could hold my interest for more than a day or two, or is it one I’d quickly learn to overlook or ignore?

Gallery

I sometimes wonder what museum guards think about the works they protect, given the long hours they spend in any given exhibit. Guards are paid to watch museum-goers, not the art itself, but when you spend entire shifts in a gallery day after day, you must acquire a certain familiarity with the works you’re watching over.

Guard

Surely long-time museum guards develop a fondness for some works over others. Just as we inevitably like some neighbors or coworkers more than the rest, I like to think museum guards “make friends” with some of the paintings they sit with.

I’m glad Leslee and I went to the DeCordova today. Given the long hours I spend writing and reading, it sometimes feels good to just look at beautiful things without any need for interpretive explanation.

Your moment of Zen.

I spent this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio visiting family and attending my thirty-year high school reunion. I still can’t believe it’s been three decades since I graduated from Eastmoor High School, went to college in Toledo, and never looked back. In my mind, moving back to Columbus was never an option: moving home after college would have been an admission of failure, a white flag of surrender indicating I’d botched my one big chance to leave home and make it in the real world.

I'm here.

My ex-husband used to deride my lack of corporate experience, given I’ve only worked in academia, with brief, part-time stints in retail sales and secretarial work when I was in grad school. My ex-husband believed that because I’ve never worked in the corporate sector like he did, I didn’t have “real world” experience. But from my perspective, I’ve always been in the real world, and I never worked for a corporation because I never needed to. Even though my ex-husband dismissed academia as being too “Ivory Tower” to count as “real,” it’s taken me an inordinate amount of scrappiness to survive on a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs I’ve juggled not for fun, but to pay the bills.

And for the past thirty years, I have paid the bills, persevering with an exhausting assortment of adjunct jobs because teaching is what I do. There have been many times over the past thirty years when I’ve sweated the small stuff, wondering whether there would be enough paycheck to cover the month. But I always found ways to make ends meet–I always managed to scrimp, save, and budget my way–and it doesn’t get much more “real” than that.

Goodbye, Columbus.

The story of the past thirty years has been almost entirely self-motivated. My parents were proud when I earned a college scholarship, but they never pressured me to finish; even if I quit after just one semester of college, I would have achieved more education than they had. But even in the absence of pushy parents, quitting college was something I never would have allowed myself to do: the drive to finish what I started was mine. Although I’ve had friends, teachers, and mentors who have encouraged me along the way, I went to and finished both college and grad school because I wanted to.

What I lack in ambition, I make up for in stubbornness. My path through college, grad school, and a meandering career as an overworked adjunct instructor was a difficult, clueless road: I didn’t know where I was going, but I kept climbing. Because I enjoyed the work I was doing–because I enjoyed reading and discussing literature, researching and writing papers, and ultimately teaching and encouraging students–I kept doing it, persevering primarily because I didn’t know what to do other than take the next step, then the next, then the next.

Logan Airport

The fact I’ve managed to support myself as an English major these past thirty years is, in my opinion, my greatest accomplishment: not even getting a PhD can top it. Simply surviving and supporting myself in New England, some 700 miles from where I was born and raised, is the thing I’m the most proud of. Not only did I go to college and get a degree, I’ve figured out how to support myself while doing the things I love. It’s natural at a high school reunion to compare your lot in life with that of your classmates, and I arrived back in Boston on Monday feeling pretty good about myself. I might not be the thinnest, least-wrinkled, or best-looking of my high school classmates, but after thirty years of making it in the real world, I feel like a success.

Thoreau diorama

Today is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. I wonder who of us currently alive will be remembered and still influential two centuries from now. We normally think you have to be wealthy, powerful, or both to have such an impact, but Thoreau was none of these. Instead, Thoreau is one of my personal heroes because he remained true to his own ideals and lived life on his own terms.

Thoreau stamps

I have to chuckle whenever I read critiques of Thoreau–or, more accurately, critiques of people’s image of Thoreau–since such critiques entirely miss what Thoreau himself was about. Thoreau wasn’t trying to live up to someone’s arbitrary ideal of what a pure, holy, or idealistic person is supposed to be like; instead, Thoreau’s outlook was the exact opposite of “supposed to be.”

Thoreau wasn’t trying to be perfect, and he wasn’t trying to be a role model–he never intended for anyone else to copy the lifestyle he tailored for himself. Thoreau, quite honestly, never gave a proverbial rat’s ass for what his neighbors thought, so he certainly wouldn’t be bothered with whatever contradictions or hypocrisies modern readers find in his life and work. Thoreau was simply trying to live a life that matched as closely as possible his own passions and proclivities, not the expectations of others. Centuries before the phrase was coined, Thoreau had exactly zero fucks to give.

Walden Pond selfie. #thoreau #walden

I don’t admire Thoreau because his lifestyle is one I can (or want to) perfectly emulate: in the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau himself notes that the purpose of his work isn’t to get others to try on the individually tailored coat of his lifestyle but to get them to consider critically their own. You don’t have to renounce worldly possessions and live beside a pond to live a Thoreauvian life, but you do have to consider your life choices with a wide-open and intentional eye. Why have I chosen to live my life this way rather than that, and how might my life be different–for better or worse–if I made other choices?

Thoreau seems more timely than ever

I don’t admire Thoreau simply or even primarily because he spent two years living and writing in a cabin beside a pond on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. Instead, I admire Thoreau because he lived a life in accordance with his own principles. Not believing in corporeal punishment, Thoreau quit a teaching job that required him to spank lackadaisical students. Not believing in a war fought to further slavery, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. Loving nothing more than having the freedom to walk and wander for hours every day, Thoreau eschewed a steady job and worked instead as an occasional surveyor, pencil-maker, bean-hoer, and lecturer. These were not pursuits that would ever make Thoreau rich, but they gave him the time and freedom to be outside, and that was something he valued more than cash.

Henry David Thoreau likes my new desk. #henrydavidthoreau  #brenbataclan #moleskine #notebook #waterman #fountainpen #writingtools

When Thoreau died, he wasn’t a great or famous man: his influence then was chiefly parochial. But Thoreau didn’t let worries over his influence or legacy keep him from living life as he wanted. That, to me, is Thoreau’s true and lasting gift to subsequent generations of readers. Don’t for a minute feel that you have to walk in Thoreau’s footsteps, but do not hesitate for even a second from walking in your own.

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