Art & culture

Fashion design display

This afternoon, I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book about creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I ended up liking the book more in the end than I did in the beginning: early portions of the book where Gilbert emphasizes the mystical nature of creativity, with ideas floating in the ether just waiting for an artist to claim them, left me cold, but I resonated with those sections of the book where she describes the more mundane characteristics of a creative life.

Fashion display

I agree with Gilbert when she talks about the need to press on with undying commitment regardless of whether one’s creative endeavors seem to be bearing fruit: creativity, after all, is about doing, not judging. Writing, drawing, dancing, and other creative endeavors are enjoyable whether you do them well or not, so don’t worry about who’s watching while you do them. Creativity is something you do because the doing is intrinsically worth it: once you’ve been writing, drawing, or dancing for a while, you realize that you write, draw, or dance simply because these are the things that feed your soul.

Fashion design display

Gilbert rips to shreds the myth of the suffering artist, calling it out for its tendency to excuse bad and unhealthy behavior. Creativity, Gilbert suggests, isn’t about suffering: it’s about following your creative impulses with a sense of playful joy. Instead of worrying whether your work is meaningful, profound, or profitable, you continue doing it because the actual Doing It brings you satisfaction. Even in the face of rejection, criticism, or failure, you follow your curiosity because there’s honestly nothing else you’d rather be doing.

Fashion design display

Gilbert’s encouragements on this point seemed particularly apt because we live in an age that is perpetually starved for joy. So much of what we see on the news and in social media is inspired by hate, insecurity, and exclusion: by a desire to be seen as Right while everyone else is Wrong. In a world filled with so many attempts to get rich quick, so many attacks and insults, and so many pleas for attention and adulation, the only true antidote is joy: the seemingly frivolous things that creatives do for pure playful pleasure. This is why videos of children dancing or kittens cuddling go viral so quickly, attracting umpteen views and re-views. Deep down, we want to experience the joy that comes from doing something purely, with one’s whole-heart, and for its own reward.


It’s after dark and I’m bone-tired after a long day of teaching. I have a handful of tasks to check off before I can unplug for the night, but I feel uninspired: like Old Mother Hubbard, my cupboard is bare.

Kid Photo Op

I pick up a book I recently checked out from the library but haven’t yet had time to read–Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear–and read the first chapter, hoping for a glimmer of inspiration or encouragement.

And there it is, only a few pages in: a poet corners a shy student and asks her what plans to do with her life. When the student says she wants to write, the poet responds, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work?”


It takes great courage to show up to the page, especially when it’s dark and you’re bone-tired. It’s so much easier to curl up with one’s doubts and insecurity–so much easier to rehash the old complaints and rehearse the usual excuses. Last night, one of my colleagues quoted one of his own teachers as saying “It’s my job to make sure you pursue your ideas.” It takes great courage to pursue an idea wherever it goes, tracking it relentlessly like a bloodhound hot on her prey. Do you have the courage and tenacity to follow your inspiration wherever it leads?

Aldermanic Chamber

Today J and I walked over to Newton City Hall for this weekend’s Newton Open Studios juried art festival. Newton City Hall is an impressive old building that houses an assortment of municipal offices, and today a variety of painters, potters, and other artisans set up booths in the hallways, right next to offices where locals pay parking tickets and register for marriage licenses.

Second floor women's restroom

Because Newton City Hall is an old building, it doesn’t have central air conditioning, so when I ducked into the second floor ladies’ room, I was met by a heaping pile of window AC units, including a surprisingly small one marked “Mayor.” More impressive than the crowded corner where air conditioners hibernate was the empty Aldermanic Chamber where each city alderman has a seat at a set of circled desks, each one piled with important-looking paperwork.

Goodies from the Newton Open Studios fall juried art festival

The whole point of an art festival, however, is the art, so J and I did our civic duty by purchasing a handful of locally crafted items, including a pair of figurative mugs by Emma Vesey and a ceramic tile by Lisa Blacher. All art tells a story, and when you buy an artwork directly from the artist, that piece forever has a face on it.

The week before classes start

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, without much time to process all that’s been happening. A few weeks ago, I accepted a last-minute one-year appointment as an assistant professor at Framingham State, so I’ve been in the curious scenario of being “new” faculty at an institution where I’ve been teaching part-time since 2012. Right as I was navigating the day-long orientations, benefits-related paperwork, and last-minute schedule changes this surprise appointment necessitated, our cat Snowflake had a medical emergency involving several days in the intensive care unit followed by a labor-intensive, messy, and ultimately doomed recovery period at home.

Live to the truth.

On Friday night, after I’d survived my first week back to school with my new job title and new responsibilities, we put Snowflake to sleep. Perhaps not coincidentally, Friday night was the first time in weeks I had a full night’s sleep, relieved that Snowflake was out of his misery (and the school year was started) at last. For the past two weeks, I’ve been scrambling to prepare for the semester, scrambling to keep up with the usual errands and chores while making umpteen trips to and from the vet, and just plain scrambling. Too many days have gone by without me finding a spare minute to write in my journal much less blog, and I’ve missed it.

Construct webbing and shadows. #lightandshadow #framinghamstate #underconstruction

Writing in my journal is how I make sense of my life: you might call it an inexpensive form of therapy. When I don’t have time to write, I feel uprooted, as if my center of gravity has shifted. Psychologists say that happy changes can be just as stressful as unhappy ones, and I agree. I’m happy about my new position at Framingham State, I’m sad that Snowflake is gone after a miserable struggle, and both realities feel stressful: developments I need (but haven’t had time) to make sense of. Writing is one way I stay grounded in the midst of life’s changes, so when I don’t have time to write, I feel scattered and un-centered.

Changing leaves

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and I think I know what he meant. When I’m not writing, my life seems both foreign and shallow, an insubstantial and flimsy thing I observe as if from a distance: someone else’s life, not my own. When I’m writing regularly, I feel more present to my life as it unfolds: I’m present and paying attention, inhabiting my own existence rather than watching it flash before me without conscious consideration. Forget about trying to walk in someone else’s shoes: first you have to learn how to walk in your own.

View from new Science Center fifth floor lounge

I’ve been writing long enough to know I always come back to it eventually, even (or especially) in the aftermath of upheaval. These past two weeks have felt like the moment when you’ve been unexpectedly plunged into deep water. Your rational mind reminds yourself you know how to swim: after the initial uproar of immersion, your body will naturally and inevitably rise. But in the interim, everything everywhere is fluid, and you can’t tell which way is up toward air. Before your body remembers how to float, first it must fall, and you struggle to see anything that isn’t a blur of bubbles and blue.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Today I sorted through a dozen photos I’d taken when J and I saw an exhibit of model planes, trains, and automobiles at the Museum of Fine Arts last December. That exhibit is long gone, so it was fun to revisit photos I’d left on my camera and nearly forgotten about.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I enjoy reliving art exhibits when I go through my pictures, regardless of how much time has passed in the meantime. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll click through my Flickr albums of past exhibits as a way to nudge my Muse. Even if I don’t “use” any of these archived photos in a blog post, I do “use” them as visual prompts: something to look at to stir my creativity, like smelling salts used to revise an unresponsive patient.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Looking at pictures stimulates my noticing muscle, and for me, noticing anything interesting–whether that be an unusual idea or intriguing angle–quickly converts to language. When I notice something interesting, my Inner Narrator perks up and wants to understand and explain that thing. Even if I”m writing about something completely different from whatever I”m looking at, the act of looking seems helpful, even if only as a distraction: something to pull me outside myself, and something for me to fiddle with, like intellectual worry beads.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I suppose there are people who use music in this way, a backdrop of sound serving to invigorate, inspire, and drown out distractions. For me, though, sight is more evocative than sound. I’m adept at ignoring sounds–a skill I acquired after being married to a musician for more than a decade–so sight is the sense that most directly gets me thinking. When I look at something closely, a string of sentences automatically appears and ultimately accumulates into some sort of narrative.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This is why I stockpile pictures from museum visits. Those visits are an immediate inspiration, lighting up a visual part of my brain that isn’t accessible any other way. But long after that immediate inspiration fades, my photos remain like preserves stocked on cerebral shelves: flavors from an earlier abundance.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Henry David Thoreau famously said that firewood warms you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. In a similar vein, I find that art inspires me twice: once when I see it in person, and once when I revisit my pictures, stashed away like souvenirs from inspiration gone by.

STEAM Expo and summer reading pennants

Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.

Summer Reading pennants

When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.

Summer Reading pennants

In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.

Summer Reading pennants

Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.

Rabbit overlord

The Lawn on D is exactly what its name implies: a rectangular patch of grass along D Street in South Boston, next to the Boston Convention Center. Although I’ve walked past the Convention Center on numerous occasions, I didn’t know there was a lawn there until this past weekend, when I met friends to check out a temporary installation of giant inflatable rabbits.

Beside a bunny

As I approached the Lawn on D on Saturday afternoon, I heard upbeat music blaring from loudspeakers before I spotted any enormous bunnies. “I have to let you go,” the young man walking ahead of me shouted into his phone. “I’m on my way to a party.”

And he was exactly right: there’s nothing like giant inflatable rabbits to transform an otherwise bland rectangle of lawn into a festive atmosphere. Titled “Intrude,” Amanda Parer’s installation of giant white rabbits is intended to shock and unsettle: where did these behemoth bunnies come from, and what exactly are they doing here? As an Australian, Parer knows the environmental havoc invasive rabbits cause…but in Boston this weekend, the big bunnies’ cuteness undermined any real sense of invasive threat.

Hug a bunny

As it turns out, kids of all ages love white rabbits, even if they are both invasive and alarmingly large. On Saturday, there were parents posing their kids among the rabbits, and twenty-somethings taking selfies, and a seemingly interchangeable cast of characters lounging beside and even beneath the bunnies. Rabbits are quintessentially cuddly, and giant inflatable rabbits are infinitely huggable, as soft and inviting as fluffy pillows or clouds.


Art is something many people associate with indoor, buttoned-up places where signs and guards tell you to keep your distance: you can look, but you can’t touch (much less hug) the art. At the Lawn on D, the whole concept of art as an indoor endeavor seemed entirely irrelevant. More than an exhibit or installation, Intrude felt like a beach party or backyard cookout, with throngs of people congregating around lounge chairs, ping-pong tables, and a seemingly irresistible set of swings.


What does it take to turn an otherwise nondescript rectangle of grass into a communal conversation piece where kids of all ages can relax and play? Nothing more than an inflatable invasion of large, cuddly creatures that are entirely out of place but immediately make themselves at home. Now that Amanda Parer’s rabbits have come and gone, I can’t imagine how empty the Lawn on D must feel without them.

One bunny, two minions

Next Page »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,131 other followers