Art & culture


Sherman Alexie poses so everyone can take their fill of photos.

Last night I took the T into Harvard Square to see Sherman Alexie read from his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. I had never seen Alexie in person, but I knew from radio interviews and other media appearances that he has a razor-sharp sense of humor, and that quick wit was apparent in his reading, which at times felt more like a standup comedy routine than a serious literary event.

For us and our allies

Alexie didn’t take questions, wryly noting that with the sort of subject matter his book discusses, a Q&A session would quickly turn into a Twelve Step meeting. Instead, Alexie regaled the crowd with anecdotes and pointed observations on everything from the smelly state of his luggage after a nine-day book tour (think damp underwear) and his reaction to the election of Donald Trump. (No indigenous Americans voted for Trump, Alexie claimed, except perhaps seven Republican Indians. Alexie’s main observation about the election was that white liberals now know what Native Americans have felt since colonial days: namely, what it’s like to be stripped of power by an unholy trinity of corrupt government, business, and religious institutions.)

Organ

Amid such sidenotes, the central theme of Alexie’s talk (and his new memoir) was the death of his mother, Lillian, in 2015. After spending his career creating various fictionalized versions of his father, Alexie realized he had never given his mother her due. Alexie described his mother as an epic character: one of the last surviving speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language and the person who should have led her tribe. But instead of being revered as a leader, Lillian Alexie and her greatness went unrecognized, as the contributions of indigenous women often are.

Eagle podium

In addition to reading excerpts from his book, Alexie led his audience through an irreverent and honest recollection of his last encounter with his mother as she lay dying in one of the houses where he and his siblings had grown up. This account was simultaneously heart-rending and humorous, often veering from one emotion to the other in the course of a single sentence. Poverty, Alexie explained, was his family’s spirit animal, and humor was a coping strategy he honed out of necessity. His mother, Alexie explained, didn’t teach him their tribal language, telling him that English would be the weapon he’d need to survive. She was right.

Overhead

Lillian Alexie was beautiful, Alexie explained; in photographs from her younger days, she looked like Rita Hayworth or what Alexie called a “reservation Audrey Hepburn.” Lillian was a short woman–barely five feet tall–but Alexie said she never seemed small until she was laid low by the cancer that killed her. Alexie’s relationship with his mother was complicated. Shocking her family by turning affectionate in her final days, Lillian Alexie continued to be passive-aggressive, telling Sherman in full earshot of his siblings that he had the best hair of any of them.

Book signing with Sherman Alexie

Alexie is a master story-teller; anyone who has read any of books or seen one of his films knows that. But telling a story on paper and captivating a live audience are two separate skills, and Sherman Alexie is a master at both. Whatever skills Sherman Alexie has honed over a long and decorated literary career, however, he nevertheless insists that Lillian was a more skillful storyteller than he is. After a career of trying to mold himself into a facsimile of his father, Alexie has finally admitted how much like his mother he was all along.

In clover

I rarely sit down to write with a specific thing in mind; instead, I wait to see where the words lead. This means the first few paragraphs of my daily journal pages are often a scattershot account of mundane concerns and quibbles. Only after the first few paragraphs have made their way from brain to page do I settle into the deeper, more substantial stuff that’s on my mind: the inner tune I’m humming beneath the surface static.

Yellow vetch and red clover

For this reason, I often tell my students to start revising early drafts by deleting their intro paragraph, especially if their second paragraph does a better job of cutting to the chase. Intro paragraphs (and especially opening lines) are difficult to write: most of us don’t get them right on the first try, especially if we start out not knowing exactly what we want to say.

Instead of assailing readers with the rhetorical equivalent of throat-clearing and ahem-ing, start with a paragraph that goes straight for the jugular. Especially if you’re writing a short piece, there is no time for dilly-dallying.

Robot kid

I recently started reading David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. The book was published last year, but I checked it out from my public library last week, when I upgraded my smartphone and am hyper-aware of how reliant upon technology I am in my daily life.

Mindful Tech is filled with exercises encouraging readers to observe how they interact with technology, and it’s encouraging me to revisit and reflect upon my own use of email, social media, and other apps. Although I was one of the last of my friends and colleagues to get a smartphone several years ago, I quickly became dependent upon it for a wide range of uses.

Robot

On a typical day, I use my phone to check email, access my calendar, manage to-do lists, and follow news stories. I take photos on my phone, and I use my phone to post those photos to Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. I manage blog comments on my phone, I read Kindle books and New Yorker articles on my phone, and I use smartphone apps to pay for parking, manage my library holds, and time my meditation and writing sessions. Although I do occasionally use my phone to make phone calls and send texts, I mostly use it throughout the day, every day, to manage my time and daily tasks.

Given all the things I do on my phone, it’s easy to become an obsessive checker, even when such checking isn’t helpful, useful, or efficient. In the summer and on weekends during the school year, for example, I’ve gotten in the habit of checking school email on my tablet in the morning, before I begin my morning journal pages. I don’t check email then because I have time to answer any important emails I’ve received overnight but because I want to make sure there aren’t any important emails awaiting. What I’m looking for when I check email in the morning, in other words, is permission to start my day…and when I phrase it that way, it doesn’t sound like a good or healthy thing.

Molten

When I check school email in the morning on my tablet, what I find in my inbox sets the tone for what’s to follow. If there aren’t any urgent emails in my inbox, I am relieved I can start the day with a clean slate. But if there are urgent emails awaiting me, one of two things happens: I either get sidetracked into answering those emails right away, which always takes longer than I’d planned, or I put off answering those emails for later, which means the thought of Unanswered Messages hangs over my head like a boom that’s just waiting to drop.

On a purely rational level, checking email just to check doesn’t make much sense. Unless I have time to answer any urgent emails immediately, there’s no reason not to put off checking until after I’ve written my journal pages: any student who has waited overnight for an answer can surely wait another half hour or so. Levy’s book is encouraging me to look more closely at habits such as these, not with a prescriptive aim of telling me how I should interact with technology but by encouraging me to ask honest questions of myself. Why do I check email or interact with social media the way I do, and how well are those choices working for me?

Robot Kid

I’ve just started reading Levy’s book, so I don’t know what conclusions I’ll ultimately draw from it. But already, it’s been helpful to think about my work habits as a series of choices that are largely under my control. Although I can’t control all the parameters of my work life, there are some basic habits I can enforce, such as making a conscious effort to bring my awareness back to my body as I am working: how am I breathing? How is my posture? Where in my body do I feel stiffness or tension?

This simple act of bringing attention back to one’s body is a meditative act that can be done anywhere, including at one’s desk while doing work, so it makes sense that Levy encourages it. The mind can wander, but the body can only be here. The moment you bring your attention back to your body, your focus instantly and automatically returns to the Present Moment: a low-tech attention exercise that can be done anywhere at anytime, with or without a smartphone in hand.

Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries have been popping up everywhere in Newton these days. We’ve had a Little Free Library in our neighborhood in Waban for a couple years now; there have been two at “The Street” in Chestnut Hill for nearly as long; and in the past few weeks, others have appeared in front of the Waban Library Center, a house on Beacon Street, and a house in Newton Centre.

Take a book, leave a book

Anyone can put up a box filled with books with a sign telling passersby to take a book and leave a book, and it seems our neighbors are fond of reading and encouraging others to read. Although I mostly read books borrowed from the public library these days, having so many Little Free Libraries around is encouraging me to re-visit my shelves, looking for books I’ve read and don’t plan to revisit.

No book-lover likes to weed out books; ideally, we’d keep every book we’ve read or wanted to read. But giving books away is different. Leaving a book in a Little Free Library feels like the bookish equivalent of catch-and-release fishing. Having held a book in your hands for a little while, you set it free for some other reader to enjoy.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

Yesterday was a cool, gray day with a fine, misty drizzle: a day the Irish call “soft” but Americans call “gloom in June.” Personally, I don’t mind drizzle. Cool days make for comfortable sleeping, and misty days aren’t bad for walking: just wear a ball-cap and waterproof jacket, and you have no need for an umbrella.

Raindrops

Yesterday morning I sat at my desk writing with windows closed and the sounds of the street trickling in: a patter of raindrops, bursts of wind rattling the windowpane, a distant siren, and the intermittent chirps of birds. The dog lay resting behind me, her body right up against my chair; it was so quiet, I could hear her breathing. These are the simple moments I cherish–quiet, contemplative moments after I’ve meditated when the scratch of the pen on the page seems completely of-a-piece with my practice–meditation with and without pen.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

I’ve started to read Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, by Mary Mann. So far, it isn’t what I’d expected: I thought it would be more about the science of why we yawn and the state of “zone out” we sometimes label boredom, although it often goes by other names. But instead, the book is an uneven collection of semi-autobiographical essays loosely related to the topic of boredom, written by a woman who seems terrified to think she might ever be bored or boring.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

The result is a frustrating and disjointed book, with a lot of subtopics that are worthy of further exploration, like the intersection between boredom and spirituality (think acedia and the Desert Fathers), boredom and sex (think sex toys and sexual fantasies), and boredom and violence (think soldiers consuming porn during wartime and the psychology of thrill kills). As soon as Mann touches upon an interesting way boredom says something deeper about our society and ourselves, however, she skitters off in another direction, as if fully exploring any one idea for a sustained period is (alas) too boring.

The result is a book about boredom for the ADHD generation, with fascinating half-thoughts interspersed with rambling autobiographical associations. (I feel a bit embarrassed, for example, by the amount of information I know about Mann’s relationship with her boyfriend, Grant, but that’s probably because I grew up before the Oversharing Age.)

Raindrops

Although I’m infinitely interested in boredom, I’m not the ideal audience for Mann’s book: I’m probably the exact opposite. Mann (like, perhaps, others her age) fears and thus wants to avoid boredom; I, on the other hand, want to embrace it. Boredom is valuable because it is the entrance to something deeper, the greatest treasures hiding behind nondescript doors. Boredom is the blank patch of soil where the seeds of insight sprout…but if you continually dig up that soil to check the progress of those seedlings, the plant you’re tending will quickly die.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

As a Buddhist, I make it my practice to cultivate boredom: that is, after all, what modern meditators and the Desert Fathers share. Sitting and watching one’s breath is the most boring thing a person can intentionally do, and that is exactly what monks and meditators do to maintain and strengthen their mental focus. Flitting after butterflies, chasing rainbows, and compulsively checking email and social media are all fine and good; we’ve all done (and do) these things to fritter away nervous energy. But if all you have is flitting and chasing–if your mind isn’t also practiced at stopping and staying–you’ll struggle to attain depth.

Throughout the essays in Yawn, Mann wades ankle-deep into interesting insights only to retreat suddenly to shore rather than wading deeper. Yawn, in other words, reads like a mind-map for a larger, more interesting project, assuming Mann could pick a focus and stick with it. Ultimately, my advice to her is the same as I give to my writing students: feeling bored with a topic is a sign you need to slow down and go deeper.

Almost

This morning, I finished reading Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I agree with the book’s central premise about nature’s restorative power, but I believed that before I picked up the book. If you already think that time spent in nature is good for your mental and physical well-being, Williams’ book offers circumstantial evidence to support that belief, and it describes some interesting nature-focused therapies from places such as Japan, Korea, Finland, and Scotland. But I’m not sure the book would change the mind of a skeptic, and I found mildly annoying Williams’ occasional attempts to be funny, lighthearted, and cute.

Mossy Buddha

I appreciate researchers’ attempts to find quantifiable, scientific proof that spending time in nature is good for the soul, but I found myself thinking I’d be better served actually spending time in nature than reading a book about spending time in nature. (Yes, I could have read the book outside in the presence of trees and flowers, but this week’s weather has been cool and damp, not ideal for sitting outside with a book.)

In my experience, the curative power of nature is a holistic thing, which makes it difficult to quantify and measure. Spending time outside in nature usually means you’re taking time to step away from mundane obligations, and it often involves exercise and the unplugging of devices. Is any one of these actions “the” secret to a happier, healthier life, or is it the synergistic effect of all of them combined?

Spiderwort on drizzly day.

The proverbial act of “stopping to smell the flowers” might be restorative because the scent of roses is medicinal, or maybe stopping to smell anything is curative because of the magical effects of stopping and simply breathing. Perhaps instead of reading about scientific studies, each one of us should conduct our own individual experiment, taking time to seek out green spaces and then paying attention to how those places make us feel.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

This week when J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see Botticelli’s Venus, we also saw “Matisse in the Studio,” which places the personal belongings of Henri Matisse alongside the paintings they inspired.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

The exhibit does a wonderful job juxtaposing art and the ordinary. It’s obviously true that every artist paints in a particular place, surrounded by furniture and decor. What this exhibit explores, however, is the direct connection between artistic creation and its material environment. How do the paintings of Matisse provide a window into not merely his mind, but his actual studio?

Henri Matisse at the MFA

An artist might start with a blank canvas, but that artist isn’t a blank canvas. Artists are visual creatures, so it’s no surprise they surround themselves with visually interesting objects that subsequently appear in their works.

We don’t normally think about the material conditions of an artist when we view their art, however. Usually, we mentally erase any image of an artist standing in a studio or behind an easel, focusing on what the artist saw rather than the place from which he saw it.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

“Matisse in the Studio” invites viewers to place the artist back into his artworks, suggesting that Matisse wasn’t merely a painter of images but an assembler of objects. Before a museum curator decided which artworks and objects to include in an exhibit, Matisse’s studio was curated by the artist himself, who handpicked these objects to be his domestic cohabitants.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

Browsing “Matisse in the Studio” is an almost magical experience: at several points, J burst into laughter upon seeing a painting of a chair or vase displayed alongside said chair or vase. There is an electric moment of recognition–the satisfaction of turning a key within its fitted lock–when you recognize this pot, figurine, tapestry, or table as the very one depicted in a painting nearby.

Henri Matisse at the MFA

It’s the same satisfaction you feel when you’re sorting socks and set one alongside its mate: a perfect match. In an ideal world, art and the ordinary walk hand in hand, and it’s the job of a skilled curator to reconcile them.

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