Art & culture


Furniture & wedding cakes

An online book group I belong to has spent the past month discussing Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, and I’ve been thinking of the book as a “coming of middle age” novel. The novel’s protagonist, Ray Carney, is a grown man–married with a child–when the novel begins, but he grows into middle age (and his family expands) as the story continues. Readers see Carney’s social and professional ambitions unfold over the course of the novel–his successes, shortcomings, and disappointments–as he settles into the realities of middle age.

There are two quotes about middle age that kept coming to mind as I read the novel. First is Thoreau’s remark about the difference between young and middle-aged men: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” Thoreau, who died in his forties and thus didn’t have much firsthand experience with the indignities of middle age, recognized the way that youthful idealism ripens into more mature practicality. Instead of shooting for the stars, Thoreau’s middle-aged man is firmly fixed on earth.

I also kept thinking about the quip that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust. In youth, we are told (if we are lucky) that we can be anyone we want to be: the sky is the proverbial limit. But in middle age, we are far down the particular path we’ve chosen, and we’ve dug our own ruts. It’s no longer feasible to pursue the road not taken. We’ll never finish all the books on our to-be-read list, never reach the bottom of our to-do list, and never become the superhero, astronaut, or dinosaur-tamer of our childhood dreams.

In a traditional coming-of-age novel, a youthful protagonist gains wisdom and experience from a series of adventures and encounters. Said protagonist loses their childhood innocence during a crisis of faith where they question what they’ve been told or taught. Big lessons about mortality, betrayal, and disappointment are learned the hard way. By the end of a traditional coming-of-age novel, the protagonist will never be the same because they’ve learned the world is more complicated than they’d realized.

In Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney has youthful dreams of succeeding in ways his father, a petty criminal, couldn’t…but because of his childhood as a criminal’s son, Carney was never entirely innocent. Instead, he’s an entrepreneur who runs a mostly respectable furniture store that occasionally sells used (read: stolen) goods. Carney wants to make it as a law-abiding, “straight” businessman in order to impress his respectable middle-class in-laws…but he is occasionally tempted by the crooked ways of his youth.

Ray Carney doesn’t have a turning-point crisis of faith; instead, he gradually realizes the difficulties of social climbing. Carney wants the American dream–he wants to provide his wife and family with the comfortable middle-class lifestyle he never had as a boy–but as a Black man in 1950s Harlem, he knows the path to success has never been straight. It’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow when a crooked system is stacked against you.

Swimming lessons

Several weekends ago, A (not her real initial) and I met at the Worcester Art Museum to see “Fathom,” an exhibit of Kat O’Connor’s aquatic-themed paintings. Neither A nor I was familiar with O’Connor’s work, but Worcester is a good meeting spot between Here and There, and looking at paintings of blurred and distorted underwater figures seemed like an apt end-of-summer activity.

A form to visualize idea

If you’re a teacher, August marks the official end of summer, so the month always passes in a blur, with countless preparatory details. I’ve spent the past few weeks updating syllabi and fiddling over Canvas sites: there are so many ducks to put into so many rows. Starting a new semester feels like jumping into the deep end–with a sudden splash, all’s subsumed in swoosh and swirl–and a well-planned syllabus is a life-line, with dates like knots to keep you connected to Here and Now.

Triptych

Viewing O’Connor’s work was a welcome respite. Her lush and voluptuous images–some painted in oil, acrylic, or watercolor, and others drawn in graphite–evoke the delicious disorientation of being submerged. Underwater, sound is muffled, colors are transmogrified, and shapes are distorted: nothing is how it seems. Something as simple as a quick summer dip feels completely transformative, a secular baptism into an altered state of consciousness.

Fathom

Looking at O’Connor’s paintings, I couldn’t remember the last time I went swimming. When I lived in Keene, I’d regularly walk the dog at Goose Pond, where we both ignored the “no swimming” signs. But now that I live in Massachusetts, my schedule is far less fluid. I still regularly walk the dog, sure, but we walk around the block at routine times rather than dropping everything for an impromptu swim when the weather is right.

As I post one syllabus and prep another, I realize how grounded in the practical my life has become. Poets and painters appreciate the weightless spontaneity of the depths, but teachers in August are mired in mundane details. These days, I’m a landlubber, preoccupied with schedules and to-do lists. A syllabus is a lifeline precisely because it is practical: before my students and I get swept away in the flash flood of a typical college semester, I carefully chart out due-dates and deliverables.

CLICK HERE for more images from the Worcester Art Museum. Enjoy!



Still Life with Mary Cassatt prints and Lego orchid and bonsai

I’m about halfway through Sarah Winman’s Still Life: A Novel, and I’m completely enthralled after taking a good long time to get into the story.

I have a theory about books and readers. All books have a setting, plot, and characters, but not with equal emphasis. Some books, like mysteries, are primarily fueled by plot: you keep reading to see What Happens Next. Other books focus primarily on characters: not much might happen, or the story might meander, but you keep reading because you become emotionally invested in the inner lives of imaginary folk. And some books are centered in place: you might not connect with the characters or you might not follow the narrative thread, but you keep reading because you’ve been transported to a place–actual or imagined–that intrigues and fascinates.

This is my theory of books, and here’s my corresponding theory of readers: some readers are drawn to plot-driving books, and others are primarily interested in character and/or place. If you’re a plot-focused reader, gaps in the story, tricky timelines, or narrative details that don’t make sense will bother you to no end. But if you’re like me, plot is almost irrelevant as long as a book’s portrait of character and place are strong.

I’d be hard-pressed to describe the meandering plot of Still Life, which spans decades to unfold the aftermath of a chance meeting between a soldier and art historian in wartime Italy. Such a synopsis tells you nothing: what enchants me about Still Life is its ragtag cast of characters, those characters’ loves and losses, and the novel’s evocation of both Italy and England.

Since I’m only halfway through Still Life, I don’t know how the story will end, but what keeps me reading are the characters I’ve come to care for.


Because Once You Enter My House, It Becomes Our House

Back in November, when J and I were newly boosted and the daily number of new COVID cases in Massachusetts was low, J and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, briefly roaming the grounds before heading inside to see the colorful fringe towers at the heart of Jeffrey Gibson’s INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE.

Fringe

November’s trip to the DeCordova was in part a purification ritual. The last time J and I had gone to the DeCordova was January 6, 2021: a pandemic-appropriate birthday celebration, where we wore masks to wander the grounds before the day turned strange.

Rainbow towers

Among the many things I missed during the height of COVID lockdown, wandering museums was near the top of the list. After we learned how to Zoom with friends, order grab-and-go takeout from our favorite restaurants, and schedule curbside pickup from our favorite stores, we were still denied the joys of museum bathing: something I enjoy so much, for years I’ve kept a tradition of going to a museum on or around my birthday.

LOVE LOVE LOVE

Wandering the DeCordova grounds in January 2021 and going inside the museum in November 2021 was a step toward reclaiming an activity I enjoyed in the Before Times. I love the reverent attentiveness of museums. While the Zen Center is still shuttered, museums are the closest thing I have to an indoor sacred space outside my own home.

Three towers

This year on my birthday, J and I stayed home. Thanks to the Omicron variant, COVID cases are surging here, and we’ve spent my winter break hunkering at home, retreating from the risk of infection. Once the semester begins, my retreat will end; for now, I’m enjoying the tranquility of a self-imposed stay-at-home order.

The future is present

In the early days of the pandemic, it sometimes felt like we’d never return to our once-cherished activities. In the first days of the Vaccinated Times, it felt like life was returning to normal, but Delta then Omicron complicated matters.

POWER POWER POWER

I’m now realizing that life in the age of COVID will be a hybrid entity: in some ways like the Before Times, and in other ways not. We talk of “the pandemic” as if it were a monolithic thing, constant and consistent from one week to the next, when in actuality, the pandemic has its own seasons and cycles.

Gallery

J and I aren’t currently going to museums even though they are open…but we know we will return, eventually. Case counts will surge, case counts will fall: sickness will come and go in waves, and we’ll learn to surf those changes, venturing out when it’s safe and going to ground when it’s not.

Question authority

William Wordsworth said that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and as I look at the photos I took at the DeCordova last January and again last November, I experience a kind of vicarious thrill. During the reclusive moments of a pandemic, we sustain our spirits with the memory of past adventures recollected in tranquility.

Ziggurat

Monthly letters to myself - 2020 edition

This morning I sorted through stationery, bundling the monthly letters I wrote to myself in 2020 and making room for the letters I’ll write to myself in 2022. This is a habit I’ve kept for the past few years: every month, I read a letter I wrote the previous year, then I write a letter to my Future Self.

I’m realizing my perennial reluctance to set New Year’s Resolutions isn’t based on any reluctance to set goals for myself–I set goals for myself all the time. Instead, this reluctance stems from an aversion to setting new goals, the whole spirit of New Year’s resolutions resting on the attitude of “out with the old, in with the new.”

I don’t want to start any new habits in 2022; instead, I want to continue cultivating the habits that have sustained me so far. Instead of “out with the old,” I want to continue in with the old.

Every year, I set the same basic goals for myself: read 50 books, write daily, blog more, and get a certain number of steps (currently, my daily step goal is 17,000). Every year I also resolve to take lots of pictures: at least one a day.

Looking back on the past few years, I’ve kept these goals, mostly. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve journaled nearly every day, and I have a shelf of notebooks to show for it. I wear a Fitbit to track my steps, and I use Goodreads to track the books I’ve read. For the past few years, I’ve religiously taken at least one photo every day even though I’ve been largely remiss about publicly posting those photos.

The only goal I continue to struggle with is the intention to blog more regularly. Given the choice between posting to my blog and writing in my journal, my journal always wins. If I had a secretary to transcribe each day’s scribbles so I could easily share them online, I’d have no shortage of things to share. But since I am my own secretary, editor, and muse, there are rarely enough hours in the day.

Every new year, I tell myself that THIS is the year when all this daily writing–all the journal-keeping and blog-posting–will result in an actual Book, “publish a book” being the biggest un-checked item on what is probably the world’s shortest bucket list. But like the opening montage in the movie Up where one mishap after another prevents Carl and Ellie from taking their dream trip to Paradise Falls, the elusive Book I presumably have in me is perpetually pushed to the back burner.

The last print book I finished in 2021 was Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, where the Book within a boy named Benny literally cries out to be written. Unlike Benny, my Book has yet to speak to me, at least in any language I can hear. But my notebooks still cry to be filled, so I continue to show up at their pages.


Windblown

As the end of the term approaches, my first-year students are working on a Theory of Writing project that asks them to consider how they work as writers.

My students at Babson College have been working on this assignment for several weeks, and my students at Framingham State are just starting. In both cases, I asked students to read an essay by novelist Zadie Smith in which she talks about her writing craft.

One of the things Smith does in her essay is describe the phases of a novel’s composition. In discussing this essay with my students, I asked them to consider the steps or stages they go through when working on a paper, and I in turn considered the steps I go through when crafting a blog post.

  1. Start by writing by hand, in a notebook, about whatever comes to mind.
  2. Go back and type up relevant or usable bits from that hand-written first draft, wordsmithing sentences as I go.
  3. Re-read the entire thing, adding transitions, deleting redundant or clunky passages, and adding additional paragraphs or a conclusion as necessary
  4. Add a photo, decide on a tagline for social media, and publish.

This first approach is the ideal workflow for me: start by writing by hand, usually with no (or only a vague) idea of what I want to say. But when life is busy, sometimes the process looks more like this:

  1. Open Google Docs
  2. Start typing on a broad topic, agonizing over sentences as I write
  3. Step 3: Re-read, revise, and post as described above.

This second approach is quicker insofar as I eliminate the step of writing by hand…but it’s more tortuous. If I start with writing by hand, my thoughts flow more quickly and naturally. For me, thinking on paper is akin to thinking out loud, but safer: only I see that initial scribbled draft. When I write by hand in my journal, I’m chasing ideas, not wordsmithing sentences. This means my ideas come out fresh and raw, with the reassuring knowledge that I’ll make them pretty later.

If I go straight to typing, my attitude toward composition is different. I’m more hesitant and halting. I pause over sentences and go back to re-read, spending as much time going backwards as going forwards. Although these typed drafts are still rough, they feel more formal and intimidating. I’m more mindful of audience–that is, the fact that someone will eventually read this–and that makes me spend more time hemming and hawing over every sentence..

If blog-writing Process One is my most ideal writing scenario and Process Two is what I do when life gets busy, blog-writing Process Three is what I rely upon when I’m even busier. When I’m really, really busy, I sometimes post directly to the WordPress app on my phone, typing with my thumbs to comment on a picture I’ve uploaded. But this third approach is so far from my ideal, I hesitate to even mention it.


Maple leaves and reflected sky

I have fewer than 50 pages left in Richard Powers’ Bewildermentt, which is breaking my heart in profound and complex ways. The human and natural worlds are troubled and broken–deeply wounded and traumatized–and yet both are the site of great joy. Powers’ novel somehow captures all these emotions–the whole human gamut, from ecstasy to rage–while expressing the cosmic loneliness of these almost-end times.

Does it seem extreme to call these days apocalyptic? In some ways, Powers’ book is dystopian: he takes the political realities of the present moment–including climate denialism, anti-science conspiracy theories, and a xenophobic slide toward authoritarianism–and exaggerates them only slightly, which makes their impact that much more devastating. The world of Powers’ novel isn’t exactly the present moment, but it certainly could be.

Robin, the child protagonist who feels too much, has an empathetic connection with endangered creatures great and small. Robin embodies the limited emotional options for those of us living with open-eyes in an environmentally devastated world. Do we rage against the dying of the light as species disappear and the planet warms? Or do we ecstatically embrace the wondrous creatures who somehow, miraculously remain, endangered but still surviving (for now)?

If you knew the planet was dying, would you rage or grieve or make the most of your remaining time…or would you oscillate among all three? If you chose the latter, would that make you crazy and disturbed–a person in need of treatment–or one of the only humans on the planet who is clear-eyed and sane?


Do the math

My Babson students are currently working on a project my Framingham State students will start next week: a theory of writing. This assignment comes at the almost-end of a semester that started with students writing a literacy narrative, so I’ve been envisioning the term as coming full circle. In September, I asked students to reflect upon a specific event that shaped their attitudes toward reading and writing, and now in November, I’m asking them to articulate the larger role writing plays in their intellectual life.

Writers love to write about writing. When we started working on this project, I asked students to read Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling” as an entry into the genre of writers examining their craft, and I also pointed students toward my blog category on “Writing & Creativity.” But if you’re a first-year college student who has written a lot for school but don’t necessarily see yourself as a capital-W Writer, it can be daunting to try to explain the larger role writing plays in your life.

I feel bad for students who have spent twelve years of their young lives writing predominantly for teachers. We learn spoken language naturally, babbling then chattering as children, then continuing to talk as we grow older, but reading and writing must be taught. The compulsory nature of reading and writing–the fact that many students read and write only when required and only when graded–means many students see writing as a chore. How can you grow fluent in writing–how can you learn to think with your hand, which is how I describe my journal-keeping–if you only write with a teacher reading over your shoulder?

As a naturally bookish child, I was lucky: from an early age, reading and writing were my almost-native tongue. When students approach me and tentatively ask what I’m looking for in a given assignment, I have to stifle the urge to shout “How do I know what I’m looking for until you surprise me with what you’re thinking?” Until you learn to think for yourself–until you learn how to find then follow your own inner urge–lessons and practice and feedback will turn you into a compliant writer, not an insightful one.

I am, I’ve decided, a selfish writer: after years of journal-keeping, I recognize that I write primarily for myself, even when I have an ostensible audience. I write for my inner ear–my own sense, that is, of how a sentence should sound–and I write to make sense of things: for me, writing and thinking are almost one in the same. How can I know what I think until I’ve scribbled it out on the page, or found it under my keyboard-tapping fingers? Even after all these years of blogging, I realize my real audience is me–an audience of one–and everyone else is just eavesdropping.

Recent reads

I just finished reading Miriam Toews’ Fight Night. I’d enjoyed Women Talking, and Fight Night is similar in theme albeit completely different in plot and tone.

Women Talking was a novel told in conversation: the minutes of a meeting where women from a Mennonite colony discuss what they should do after discovering they’ve been repeatedly drugged and raped in their beds by several men in the community. Should they stay and do nothing, flee, or fight? The novel sketches the personalities and relationships among the women, who in many ways live a life entirely alien to that of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Whatever the women decide to do, they must decide together.

Fight Night shares this theme of female community, but in an entirely different context. Nine-year-old Swiv lives with her pregnant mother and sickly grandmother: a household of women. Swiv is precocious and feisty: she has been suspended from school for fighting, and it quickly becomes apparent where she gets her fire from.

Swiv’s mother, Mooshie, is an aspiring actress and single mother; Swiv’s grandmother, Elvira, is a freewheeling force of nature who talks to strangers, laughs in the face of pain, and regales her granddaughter with meandering stories of her youthful exploits, some of which might actually be true.

It is Elvira who tells Swiv she must learn how to fight, and it is Elvira who also encourages Swiv to write. Swiv’s family has a history of mental illness and suicide–many of Elvira’s stories center on people who are dead–and long after the family can no longer afford therapy sessions, Elvira holds “editorial meetings” where she encourages Swiv to write letters to her absent father in an attempt to make sense of her life.

Swiv is irrepressible and endearing. She clashes with her mother and adores her grandmother, chronicling their life together in a rollicking stream-of-consciousness Jack Kerouac would envy. Elvira is plucky, unapologetic, and entirely undaunted by physical ailments that require her to take fistfuls of pills each day. Even Gord, the unborn child who is taxing every last ounce of Mooshie’s energy and patience, has both presence and personality.

Whereas the women in Women Talking had to decide whether they wanted to flee or fight, in Fight Night it is clear that fleeing is never an option.

Norway maple leaves

I’ve made a list of blog post topics for the coming days: one way of leveraging the law of momentum over the law of inertia. When you’re out of the practice of blogging, it feels impossible to think up topics to write about: when you aren’t writing, it is natural to believe you have nothing to say. This is the law of inertia: it’s difficult to start doing something you haven’t already been doing.

But once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue: this is the law of momentum. The more you write, the more you think of things to write about. The quality or brilliance of your thoughts doesn’t change; you just adjust your expectations. Instead of waiting for an Obviously Brilliant thought to show up, you learn to embrace ideas that are Good Enough. Once you do that, other Good-Enoughs come flooding in.

During the month of November, I’m trying to blog something–a photo and at least a sentence–every day, even if that means posting from my phone with my thumbs. Instead of “saving” my blog for longer posts about deep thoughts, I want to return to the habit of posting more frequently. If you lower your expectations far enough–only a sentence, nothing sustained or brilliant–the law of momentum takes over: one sentence leads to another, and one idea invites its friends.

Now at occasional moments throughout the day, I think of random ideas for blog posts: nothing profound, just a phrase or idea that’s good enough to spur a sentence. And now that I have some seeds for sentences, I have the antidote to inertia: a place to start and a way to get rolling. Once you set one word after another, the next will follow, then the next and the next and the next.


Next Page »