Art & culture


Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.

Peeking rose

I’m currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, a collection of blog entries from her final years. The editor has sorted these entries into broad categories–aging and writing and cultural trends–interspersed with stories about Le Guin’s cat, Pard. Even with the categories, there is a delightful sense of spontaneity as you turn from one entry to the next. It’s the delight that comes from reading a well-written blog or journal. Whatever you encounter is whatever the writer was thinking or reading on a particular day: a direct insight into the writer’s mind, and the intellectual equivalent of a fisherman’s catch of the day.

Multiflora rose

Sometimes, the thoughts Le Guin shared on her blog are deep, as when she writes about utopian novels or the diminishments of age. But as many times as Le Guin’s random thoughts lead to insightful connections, there are times when a given thought peters out, a seed fallen on rocky soil. Whether the topics Le Guin pursues are profound or mundane, however, they are always fresh, the product of an active and engaged mind.

Those thoughts would have never met a reader’s eye if Le Guin hadn’t set pen to paper or fingertip to key. That’s why the first step to good writing is simply showing up. In order to snag the catch of the day, you first have to cast your line.

Iris

Today I revisited a writing project I’d worked on last summer and then abandoned when the school year started. Over the intervening months, I remembered the various sticking-points I’d struggled with, but in revisiting the actual prose today, I was surprised at how much better it was than I’d remembered: yes, this is a draft with real problems, but it’s also a project with promise.

Spiderwort in bloom

The older I get, the more I find myself repeating the same advice to anyone who asks (and some who don’t). Whether you’re facing a work-in-progress, an abandoned resolution, or an obstacle that seems insurmountable, the same piece of advice is apt: always come back.

Iris in rain

I come by this advice the hard way: namely, by perpetually wandering off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen out of the habit of meditating, fallen out of the habit of writing, fallen out the habit of exercising, flossing, or nearly any other beneficial-but-easily-procrastinated task. Whenever I find myself looking down the barrel of “how long has it been since you did X,” I return to my oft-repeated refrain: just come back.

Beauty Bush (Linnaea amabilis) in bloom

Always come back is a great piece of advice for those of us who are stubborn. Yes, we stubborn folk are easily derailed when we grow bored or frustrated with a given task, but we also are creatures of habit. We will return to tasks we’ve started–and we will keep on returning to those tasks–long after a saner soul would have given up for good.

Begonias

It’s not that stubborn folks aren’t quitters: I consider myself, in fact, to be a serial quitter, not only quitting one thing after another but the same thing repeatedly. But we stubborn folk often return to the things we’ve previously quit, unable to give up the ghost (or our hopes) entirely. Long after anyone else would have declared a project dead or a prospect hopeless, we return again and again to frustrate ourselves just a little bit more and more.

So this summer, again, I’ll be working on the unfinished writing project I failed to finish last summer. As many times as I wander away, I can’t stop myself from always coming back.

Library daffodils

April is National Letter Writing Month, and yesterday I finally wrote a letter to M, with whom I’ve (sporadically) corresponded since November, 2016, when she took a break from social media. I’d last written M in February, soon after we’d gotten Toivo, and her response had been sitting on my desk for months, awaiting a reply.

Spring green

It’s easy to procrastinate letter-writing; on any given day, there are so many other things demanding attention. But it’s wrong to think that jotting off a letter takes a lot of time or requires having much to say. If you keep stamps and stationery on hand, as I do, it doesn’t take long to check in with a quick note, hoping its arrival will brighten the recipient’s day just as her letters have brightened yours.

There is something serendipitous about receiving something handwritten in the mail that isn’t a bill or advertisement. This is, after all, the central premise behind the Postcards to Voters I write: in our always-connected era of email, Tweets, and texts, it feels like a gift to receive a handwritten things that took days to arrive.

I keep M’s letters in a box with my stationery: folded moments of connection to cherish. I don’t know what I’ll do with these saved letters; they aren’t momentous or particularly literary, just the scribblings of two gray ladies exchanging snippets from our everyday lives. This, of course, is precisely why I save these letters: not because they are greatly significant but because they represent a kind of considered care. Years from now when I’m an even grayer lady, I’ll have a box of pretty notecards in yellowed envelopes as a kind of proof that Someone Once Cared Enough to lick an envelope and walk to the mailbox on my behalf.

Spring leaves

As I wrote this latest note to M, I realized my blogging is also a kind of letter-writing, albeit in a different medium. Emily Dickinson described her poems as her “letter to the world, that never wrote to me,” and that describes my blogging as well. When you have a penpal, there is a particular person you imagine walking to her mailbox to find a handwritten note. When you post a blog entry, you have no idea who will receive your words: there are certain readers or commenters you might have in mind, for sure, but your words might find an audience–a receptive one, you hope–in anyone. A blog-post, in other words, is like a letter with no envelope whose address is the entire world.

When I write my Postcards to Voters, I’m mindful that bored or curious postal workers might read them: I’ve followed PostSecret long enough to know that postcards are not an entirely private medium. But just as you cherish the confidence of a trusted penpal, with the unspoken promise that what is mentioned in your letters stays in your letters, I hope my postcards (like my blog posts) will spread a spot of good cheer beyond their intended recipients.

Perhaps I’m as much like Walt Whitman as I am like Emily Dickinson. While Dickinson sent out unsolicited letters, Whitman sent out lines like spider-silk, an ephemeral and even invisible medium in perpetual search of connection.

Angie Thomas at FSU

Yesterday Angie Thomas, author of the best-selling young-adult novel The Hate U Give, came to Framingham State for an evening talk. In both her talk and the afternoon meet-and-greet that preceded it, Thomas described how she wrote the novel, and she fielded questions from (and offered advice to) the aspiring writers in attendance.

Book group flier

In her afternoon talk, Thomas gave two bits of advice that I scribbled in my notebook as soon as I got back to my office. First, write as if you’re getting paid, and you will end up getting paid. Second, write the book you want (or always wanted) to read.

Thomas described her own childhood, when the characters in the books she read didn’t look, act, or talk like her. In order to write the book she would have loved to have read when she was a young black girl growing up in a neighborhood that made the news only when something bad happened, Thomas had work on her manuscript every day as if that were her job.

In her evening talk, Thomas offered a third bit of writing advice: finish your projects. Thomas admitted how easy it is to move onto a new project when you grow tired or frustrated with a work-in-progress, but she advised against this, arguing that your characters–your ideas–deserve an ending.

Poster - Angie Thomas at FSU

I was struck by this image of abandoned projects being like orphaned children who deserve the dignity of a conclusion. I have plenty of half-finished projects languishing on my hard drive; at times, it feels like that is all I have from all these years of faithfully writing. Whenever I revisit the pieces of a half-completed project, I see its raw promise: what a great idea, and what a promising start! But I see, too, the obstacles and obligations that stood in the way: how difficult it is to write as if it were your paying job when it actually isn’t.

In her afternoon remarks, Thomas described the process she used to write The Hate U Give. She was working full-time at a church, and she’d spend her lunch hours typing her draft, hurriedly lowering her laptop screen whenever her reverend boss walking in, not wanting him to see the sometimes-salty language her protagonist, 16-year-old Starr Carter, uses.

Angie Thomas signs my copy of The Hate U Give.

Thomas’s account of how she wrote the novel reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s account in “A Room of One’s Own” of how Jane Austen wrote her novels in the family sitting room, hiding her handwritten pages under a sheet of blotting paper whenever family-members approached. Woolf argued that no writer–no woman–should have to hide her work or squeeze it into stolen seconds–she should have a room of her own to work without distraction or interruption.

Somehow, however, both Austen and Thomas managed to finish their novels despite frequent interruptions. You might even say the tight constraints of their writing schedules left them no room to procrastinate: like the former colleague of mine who finished her dissertation during the one afternoon a week her mother was able to tend her children, both Jane Austen and Angie Thomas made the most of the scant time they had.

Angie Thomas no longer has to work for a church; she now has that proverbial room of her own that Woolf described. But Thomas freely admitted it’s taking her longer to finish her second book than it did her first. Probably the most endearing thing in Thomas’s prepared speech and spontaneous remarks was something she said during the afternoon meet-and-greet, after offering her sincere advice to aspiring writers. Don’t listen to writing advice, she urged, including the advice she’d just given.

Graffiti alley

Today I wrote in my journal after too much time doing everything but writing: a lacuna of days. I’ve been faithfully writing in a five-year diary–just a few lines describing each day’s routine–but I’ve been too long away from my actual journal, subsumed with other things.

Pink heart

When I don’t write in my journal, my fountain pen dries up and so does my creativity. I miss simple things like paying attention to a robin clucking outside the window as the day deepens to dusk and the dog lies sleeping on a pile of pillows. One day, I tell myself, I’ll cherish this scribbled record of ordinary days; I’ll look back in curious wonder at this strange person I used to call “me.”

Mulxer

This morning I gave interviews at the Zen Center. Although I’ve been meditating regularly at home, I’ve been too long away from formal practice: another lacuna. But no matter how far you wander from your practice or the page, there they are waiting for you when you return.

Blue hair

I miss the predictable informality of daily blogging. Facebook and Flickr have become the places I post my daily jots and titles, which occasional overlap onto Instagram and Twitter. My blog has become by default a repository for longer, more methodical essays–the place I post when I have Something To Say, which means days and weeks go by between entries.

Miami

In my early blogging days, I didn’t let a perceived lack of inspiration stop me from posting. Instead, I showed up and started speaking even before I knew what would come out. In those early, more innocent days, I often found I did indeed have something to say, but I discovered that something only in the process of saying it. Leap and the net will appear, or build it and they will come.

Spread love

I’d like to get back to that routine, spontaneous commitment to show up and see what happens. It’s a habit that has served me well for some fourteen years; I’d be sorry to wander too far from it.

Madonna of the Star

Several weekends ago, J and I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to see Heaven on Earth, an exhibition of works by Fra Angelico. The highlight of the exhibit is a collection of four reliquaries originally commissioned by the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Gardner Museum owns one of these reliquaries, and the others are visiting from Florence’s Museum of San Marco: the first time in two centuries that the four pieces have been displayed side by side.

Assumption and Dormition of the Virgin

Heaven on Earth is an eye-popping display of radiant richness. J and I went to see the exhibit the weekend it opened because J is a fan of Italian Renaissance art, and Fra Angelico (aka Guido di Pietro) is one of his favorites. Seeing these four reliquaries in person, I can see why.
Fra Angelico’s paintings gleam blue and gold in a darkened gallery, museum-goers crowding and craning to admire intricate details up close while attentive guards repeatedly reminded us to step back.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi

You can’t blame us for hovering close. The figures in these paintings are small; unlike a mural or altarpiece, a reliquary doesn’t offer much space to work with, and Fra Angelico had a lot of iconographic ground to cover. These four reliquaries depict in sumptuous detail key moments from the life of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation and adoration of the Magi, the infancy of Christ, Mary’s dormition and assumption, and her coronation in heaven.

The Coronation of the Virgin

Although Fra Angelico was Italian, his paintings reminded me of the works J and I had seen at the Museum of Russian Icons earlier this year. In each case, an intricately detailed painting is intended as a window from this world to the next, the physical properties of gilt and pigment serving a larger spiritual purpose. Museum-goers at the Gardner were looking at rather than through Fra Angelico’s artistry, but it was impossible not to feel transported by so much grandeur collected in one small space.

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