Art & culture


A mind of trees

I recently started reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I wanted to read before checking out her latest book, Better Than Before. The latter focuses on positive habit-forming, which is a perennial fascination of mine: I’m basically a sucker for any sort of self-help book that suggests you can improve your life by honing your habits. But I decided to read The Happiness Project before Rubin’s newer book, even though both books arrived at the library at the same time. Now that I’ve started The Happiness Project, I think I’ll return Better Than Before and then re-request it later, as I’m not sure even I could stomach two self-help books in a row.

Tresses

I’m enjoying The Happiness Project, but I can’t say I’ve learned anything new from the first fifty-some pages: so far, Rubin is revisiting familiar territory. But this is, after all, one of the things that I like about self-help books: they’re easy to read (basically, a guilty pleasure) because they reinforce the things I already know even if they’re things I’m not currently doing.

Shadowy

Reading a self-help book is like watching a workout DVD while lounging on the sofa eating bonbons: everything (including exercise) looks easy when you sit and watch it, but getting up and doing it is a different story. Much of the research Rubin cites in The Happiness Project is stuff I’ve already read: I’ve read classics such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden along with newer titles such as John M. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. (Spoiler alert: the latter didn’t save my first marriage, but it did help clarify what was wrong with it.) I’ve also read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: I did, after all, briefly train to become a life-coach, a career I back-burnered after realizing I’m not good at marketing myself. So the information Rubin shares isn’t exactly new if you’ve read these various works she’s referencing; what she does, though, is offer a new configuration of the same old ideas.

Easter bonnet

What fascinates me so far about The Happiness Project is its central premise that we can be happier if we understand and employ the specific techniques that make people happy. This belief in personal perfectibility–the notion that the human psyche is a machine, and if we understand its inner workings, we can fine-tune it to work better and more efficiently–is pervasive in self-help literature. This belief in personal perfectibility is also quintessentially American, a psychological version of the American dream: “If I work hard enough, I too can make myself into a better, happier person.”

Faceless

I recognize this optimism as a cultural myth, an idea deconstructed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as well as Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, both of which I loved. (You can read my review of Burkeman here.) But even though I fully understand the cultural mythology and outright error endemic in self-help books, I still find myself consuming them like candy, finding an escapist joy in the irresistible belief that we can make ourselves better. For me, self-help books are like fairy tales for grown-ups, offering the bewitching hope that you can be your own Prince Charming, sweeping yourself off to a happily-ever-after world where your closets are organized, your marriage is blissful, and your body is beautiful, well-rested, and well-toned.

Hat, shades, and scarf

The irony, of course, is that I’m a Buddhist, and Buddhism basically throws a bucket of cold water on self-helpism. Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular focus on what is, not what could be if only you employed a system of resolutions and self-help strategies. The ultimate statement of “what is” is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which bluntly observes that Suffering Exists. Contemplating your messy closets, listless marriage, or sagging body, a self-help guru would whip up an action plan to get your you, your relationships, and your closets back in shape. A Zennie, on the other hand, would commiserate without blame: Yes, sweetheart, it be’s that way sometimes.

In the building

Zen isn’t philosophically opposed to helping yourself; Zen, in fact, isn’t philosophically opposed to much of anything. My Inner Zennie accepts with bemused equanimity the fact that hope really does spring eternal: after all these years of failed attempts, I still hold out hope for getting my junk drawer organized. What my Inner Zennie knows that my Inner Self-Helper is loathe to admit, however, is that happiness isn’t contingent on tidy closets: I can find serenity in a cluttered house, and I can be miserable in a perfectly clean one. My Inner Zennie, in other words, knows that happiness dwells in the Here and Now, regardless of how many things my Inner Self-Helper wants to fix. Samsara is indeed Nirvana, so go ahead and either clean your closets or let them be: it’s your choice. At the end of the day, a Zennie doesn’t ask herself “Are my closets tidy” but “Who am I?”

Backyard koi pond with Kwan Seum Bosal statue

So who am I? The asker of that question has perpetually cluttered closets and an insatiable belief that someday, somehow, they might be tidy. That riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma loves to read books like The Happiness Project while wryly remembering that Ben Franklin, the Founding Father of American optimism, ultimately gave up his quest for personal perfection, noting that whenever he made progress with one of his self-defined virtues, he backslid with the others. As none other than Saint Paul noted, it’s human nature to continue doing that which we know we shouldn’t do, which is precisely why books like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project will continue to have an enthusiastic audience. We know that life isn’t as simplistic as self-help books suggest, but we still request these books from the library and greedily consume them, errors and all.

Balancing act

I recently started reading David Whyte’s The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. The question of how to make a living is one that perpetually fascinates me, especially given the amount of time and energy I devote to my day job, so Whyte’s book is giving me lots of food for thought.

Balancing act

The Three Marriages is one of those books that invites you to re-think things you’ve long assumed you understood. I would have never thought to see work as a kind of marriage: a long-term practice, that is, that couples a public commitment with a private passion. But when I think about the 20-plus years I’ve been teaching college-level writing and literature classes, the marriage metaphor makes a lot of sense. Some days I love my work, and other days my job feels like a poor match for me…but somehow I keep coming back to it, trying to make it work regardless of how “stuck” or “stuck with it” I sometimes feel.

Balancing act

Whyte argues the idea of work/life balance is too simplistic, and I think he’s right on that point: balance isn’t something many of us achieve in life, at least for long. Instead, our lives are messy, chaotic, and ever in flux. If you’ve ever been to the circus, you know the best balancing acts are perpetually in motion, not still. When you look for balance, you spend a lot of time keeping score, trying to make sure you’re giving equal time, energy, and attention to things you’ve set at cross purposes. On the one hand, you have this; on the other hand, you have that; and your attention constantly swivels between the two like a spectator at a tennis match: this, that, this, that, this, that.

Balancing act

Whyte rightly suggests our lives aren’t so tidily predictable: the more we try to muscle our way to balance, the more awkward and unsteady we become, overcompensating at every turn. When we see our relationship with others, our relationship with work, and our relationship with self as being three concurrent marriages, we can acknowledge the wisdom in not keeping score. Moment by moment, tend to the relationship that needs attention at that moment, heeding your vows to all three. There’s no need to be two or even three places at once: just be fully present Here and Now, and do whatever needs doing.

Balancing act

When you don’t see your three marriages as being on opposite sides of a seesaw or tug-of-war, you eliminate the competition inherent in those metaphors. Instead, your relationships with others, work, and self comprise a three-spoked wheel that settles into its own cycle. Instead of trying to strike and hold a balance, you learn to roll with it, recognizing the ways that any marriage moves through its own moods.

The photos in today’s post come from a balancing act J and I saw at the Big Apple Circus back in 2008. I’d never seen a slack-rope walker before, so I was amazed at how wildly both the walker and the line swung from side to side. This realization that balance is achieved through motion rather than stillness inspired the answer I later gave here to a question about being grounded in one’s Zen practice.

Hand written first impressions of Lynda Barry's Syllabus

I’m currently reading Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I’d requested from the library a few months ago after reading a review that sparked my interest. Barry teaches an interdisciplinary course on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, and Syllabus contains her hand-drawn notes, assignments, and other course materials.

Love at first sight

When I picked up the book from the library last week, I immediately flipped through it, captivated by its hand-drawn, doodle-like appearance. The book looks and feels like a well-worn composition book–the kind with black-and-white cardboard covers you can buy at nearly any dime store. I know this kind of comp book very well because I used to write in them before I switched to Moleskine notebooks, which are sturdier, more expensive, and ever-so-more serious. Moleskines are what I use now as a Serious Writer, but black-and-white cardboard-covered comp books are the familiar and unassuming standby that many of us started out with: comfort food for the creative soul.

Nature journal - Sept 10 2009

I’m loving Barry’s book and have already bought my own (back-ordered) copy on Amazon, as this is one of those books I’ll want to read and re-read even after I’ve returned my library copy. In Walden, Thoreau wonders “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and I suspect Lynda Barry’s Syllabus will be one such book for me. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was a book like this, and before that, so was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Both books helped shape me as a creative person long before I actually saw myself as being creative, and they did so by giving me a practice (not just a philosophy) to exercise that creativity.

Nature journal - Sept 11 2008

Both Goldberg and Cameron use writing as a tool to unlock creativity: timed free-writing for Goldberg (with the admonition to Keep Your Hand Moving) and morning pages for Cameron (with the insistence that you hand-write your pages first thing in the morning). I’ve been doing some modified version of free-written morning pages for years, since first encountering Goldberg and Cameron, and the results have been revolutionary. You have no idea how much have to say until you actually sit down and start saying it.

Nature journal - Sept 5 2007

For Barry, drawing is the key to creativity–and by “drawing,” she means something more akin to doodling than Serious Art. The point isn’t to produce a “good” drawing but to produce an image that is alive. Many of her students’ drawings look like they were drawn by children…and both Barry and I see that as being a good thing. Children’s drawings might not be technically advanced, but they delight with their lively lack of inhibition.

This time last year

There is a certain charm in things made by hand, and Barry captures that in Syllabus. By requiring her students to use inexpensive supplies such as index cards and dime-store composition books, she eliminates the pretension and self-importance we often associate with Art. If you’re drawing a two-minute self-portrait on an index card–something Barry asks her students to do at every class session as a way of taking attendance–you aren’t trying to create a masterpiece; instead, you’re trying to (quickly) capture the mood of the moment.

Lynda Barry's Syllabus

Many of the drawings Barry includes in her book were “rejects”–that is, drawings her students left behind because they presumably weren’t good enough to keep. But to my eye, even a rough, technically imperfect doodle done by hand has an immediacy and charm that more than makes up for any technical flaws. These doodles are like people: you don’t love them despite their imperfections but because of them.

Two views

Just as the simplest home cooking is more satisfying than a pre-packaged meal, even the most primitive hand-drawn images have a warmth of personality that is lacking in a photograph or polished painting. There is, it seems, a simple magic in making something by hand, whether you’re chopping vegetables, scribbling words, or doodling images in a well-worn composition book.

The top photo shows the first draft of this post, which I wrote by hand in my journal. The second and seventh photos are images from Syllabus itself, and the other photos show you previously-blogged images from the nature journal I used to keep when I taught a first-year Thinking & Writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College.

Looming

On a recent foggy-day visit to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, I took a detour through the drizzle and slush to revisit Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” an installation J and I had seen (and I had blogged) back in November, 2013.

Towering

When I’d first seen it, “Big, with rift” seemed perfectly suited to its surroundings, its towering stacks of decaying newspapers standing alongside windblown piles of autumn leaves. On a brisk November day, “Big, with rift” seemed both crisp and earthy, its mass serving as a kind of compost to the plants taking root in its upper layers: paper returned to the elements.

On a gray and drizzly January day, however, the dripping stacks of “Big, with rift” seem almost lonely: a sad, soggy assemblage of heaping trash. There is a kind of dignity in the careful piling up of accomplishments, but there is also something sorry in such hoarding. If newspapers represent the constant influx of new knowledge, it’s senseless to cling to ideas that have outlasted their relevance. There is nothing more useless, after all, than yesterday’s news.

Drooping

In my original post, I noted that newspaper columns are a kind of structure, “a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched.” In November, retreating to a burrow sounded cozy; in January, what once was comforting suddenly seems confining. What could be sadder than standing in a slushy woods with nothing more than wet words to keep oneself company? Looking at the dripping pillars of “Big, with rift,” I fought a nonsensical impulse to throw a blanket over the work, or at least to light a fire.

Strata

The exhibit I’d gone to the DeCordova to see several weekends ago was “Walden Revisited,” a collection of pieces inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond. I suppose there were dark, drizzly days when living in a shack alongside a pond might have felt like cold comfort to Thoreau, and countless more readers have clung to his words than he probably ever envisioned. But Thoreau, I tell myself, wasn’t a hoarder of ideas, his mental cellar being clear of such clutter. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for only two years; it was subsequent generations, not Thoreau himself, who tried to deify his image into that of a life-long hermit rather than a wanderer who tried one way of living and then moved on.

Compressed

When I first saw “Big, with rift” in November, 2013, I felt bad that it would eventually decay into nothingness; in retrospect, I think there are far worse fates than simply fading away. Left on their own for long, stacks of paper will compress and solidify, their sentiments becoming sedimentary. Instead of being piled higher and deeper, wouldn’t any active and vibrant mind prefer to clean house, jettisoning any junk that has outlived its usefulness?

Come spring, I trust “Big, with rift” will be reborn, wildflowers sprouting from its upper layers like hair. In the meantime, though, I think this slush-sopped stack sends a cautionary tale. Before you cling to your own or anyone else’s ideas, remember that words are too heavy to hoard.

Degas' Little Dancer

Last night I shared on Facebook a link to an article about famous writers and their journals. The article begins with a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, who tells aspiring writers “if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” Now that we live in an age where it’s incredibly easy to publish one’s thoughts for all to see, L’Engle’s advice seems outdated and even quaint. What is the value of writing solely for oneself in an era when everyone can have an immediate online audience?

Noh masks

As a writer who keeps both a public blog and a private journal, I feel particularly qualified to comment on this. In many ways, my blog and journal repeat one another: I often blog essays that started as journal entries, revising and expanding upon an idea that arose in my morning scribbles. Occasionally, I’ll write in my journal about something I already blogged, either because a reader’s comment led me to think more deeply about the matter or because my published post didn’t feel “done.” But even though my public blog and my private journal often overlap, I don’t see either as being redundant: instead, they each have an important place in my writing practice, and they each offer their own unique benefits.

Hollywood glamor

Keeping a public blog forces you to consider issues of audience, especially if you blog under your full name. Using your name on your blog means you necessarily have to stand behind anything you post, and you have to be comfortable with the possibility of anyone reading what you write: friends, family, coworkers, strangers, and casual acquaintances alike. This forces you to make conscious decisions about what you will and won’t share to protect your own and others’ privacy. Some would decry this as a form of self-censorship, but I don’t think such limitations are always a bad thing. Professional writers have always made decisions about self-disclosure, deciding how and how much they should include personal details in their writing. In my mind, this kind of discipline is a good thing, as it forces you to express yourself in a careful and deliberate way rather than just spewing your raw thoughts without any thought about consequences.

Protest dress

This isn’t to say, however, that raw thoughts don’t have their place: that’s what both journals and first drafts are for. If my public blog is where I publish and stand behind the work that bears my name, my private journal is where I can go nameless. Nobody reads my morning scribbles, so I don’t have to protect my own or others’ privacy, and I don’t have to worry about making sense. In my private journal I can blather on about whatever inane thoughts happen to be rattling around my head without the need to pretty them up for publication. To mix metaphors, if my blog is where I put my best foot forward, my journal is where I let my hair down.

Degas' Little Dancer

In my mind, the point of keeping a private journal isn’t to write something that is useful, even though I do sometimes use the things I write there. Instead, my journal is a place where I can practice the art of thinking on paper without worrying about those thoughts. When you don’t have an audience, you don’t have to stay on topic, and you don’t have to make sense: you can, in a word, contradict yourself, exhibit faulty logic, say stupid things, and admit all kinds of foibles and hypocrisies. Your journal will never judge you for what you say: your journal, in fact, is simply a mirror of your own mind, reflecting your thoughts without comment or condemnation.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

When you establish the habit of writing without an audience, you become intimately acquainted with your own mind, seeing the ways you repeat yourself day after day. Over time, you become increasingly familiar with your mind-habits as they unspool in sentences across the page. Even if you never revise or recycle any of this material, you still derive a benefit from producing it. Whereas talking comes naturally, writing is necessarily a second language, and a journal gives writers a place to babble like toddlers, establishing a near-native fluency as we train ourselves to think on paper.

Ready for his closeup

Back in November, when J and I walked around downtown Boston on Thanksgiving Day, we photographed a bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe that had been unveiled in October. Before seeing the statue in person, I’d seen photographs of it, so you might say its reputation preceded it. But before I judged the merits of Poe’s new statue, I wanted to see it face-to-face.

Taking it all in stride

Now that I’ve personally seen the statue, which is titled “Poe Returning to Boston,” I can say with confidence that it is simply dreadful. I like Edgar Allan Poe, and I hate this statue, mainly because it immortalizes in bronze all the stereotypes Poe spent his life fighting against. Poe wanted desperately to support himself and his family as a respectable literary man, writing serious literary criticism and whatever poems and short stories would pay the bills. Because some of Poe’s popular work was indeed popular, appealing to the Gothic and sensational tastes of the 19th century reading public, serious-minded writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rejected Poe, pegging him as a sensationalistic hack.

Keep off

“Poe Returning to Boston” both reflects and codifies this derision, portraying Poe not as a serious intellectual but as a madman rushing around town with wild hair, a vampirish cloak, a pterodactyl-sized raven, and an anatomically accurate heart dropping out of his suitcase. The statue isn’t a portrait as much as a caricature that appeals to popular misconceptions about a much-misunderstood man.

Poe profile

Poe might have been a rootless wanderer who never attained during his lifetime the level of literary respectability he aspired to, but that doesn’t mean he was a fiendish freak who rushed down sidewalks with body parts in his bag. The symbols in popular works such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are just that–symbols–so portraying them alongside Poe seems overly literal-minded. Should we immortalize Stephen King alongside life-size renditions of Cujo or Christine even though those reflect only one part of his oeuvre?

A tell-tale heart

Looking at “Poe Returning to Boston,” you’d never know there’s more to Poe than his scary stories. In addition to writing literary criticism, poetry, and an adventure novel, Poe invented the detective story. Most folks see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being a respectable chap, but he borrowed the idea of Sherlock Holmes from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Why is this less lurid aspect of Poe’s career overlooked in favor of his Gothic tales? If the literal-minded among us insist on associating Poe with ravens and beating hearts, why not also associate him with detectives and magnifying glasses?

Raven's head

Emerson famously dismissed Poe as being a mere jingle-writer, but there’s really only one thing distinguishing Poe from both Emerson and Longfellow: the latter had money and thus didn’t need to live off their writing. Emerson was born to a well-bred family of ministers–the New England elite–while Longfellow was the son of a lawyer. Both Emerson and Longfellow married well, with Emerson receiving a cash annuity after his first wife died and Longfellow receiving as a wedding present from his in-laws the house that now bears his name.

Ragin' raven

Poe, on the other hand, was the orphaned child of Irish actors: in the 19th century, a much-maligned and oft-impoverished lot. Poe wanted to be accepted and embraced by other members of the Boston literati, but he couldn’t afford to limit himself to high-brow literature. Like Mark Twain after him, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer of diverse talents who wrote whatever would sell. This doesn’t make him a sell-out; it just means that he (unlike Emerson and Longfellow) had to spend at least part of his time catering to popular tastes. 

Turning his back on Boston

Most passersby who see “Poe Returning to Boston” know very little about the man and his work: instead, popular culture contents itself with cliches and caricatures. According to the popular belief, Poe was a disturbed man who wrote disturbing stories. But doesn’t the popularity of Poe’s Gothic tales tell us more about his audience than it does about his own personal proclivities? Poe’s most successful (and well-remembered) works are the ones that gave his audience what they wanted, which was thrills, chills, and the ability to wash their hands of such sensationalism when they were done. Don’t we still blame the media for producing the violence-drenched entertainment we gladly, greedily, and guiltily consume? If there’s anything that Poe’s tell-tale heart reveals, it’s the darker side of his audience’s psyche, not his own.

Profile

Several weekends ago was my eleven year blogiversary: it’s been eleven years and just over a week since I posted my first blog entry on December 27, 2003. Each year around my blogiversary, I take a chance to review the previous year’s posts, choosing my favorite ones and otherwise taking stock of the year that was.

So, here are my top ten favorite posts from the past year:

Asleep and dreaming?

In February, J and I said goodbye to our thirteen-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, whom I memorialized in “That good night.”

In March, J and I visited a makeshift memorial to Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, two Boston firefighters who died while fighting a fire in Boston’s Back Bay, an experience I described in “A thousand hands and eyes.”

In April, J and I joined a million other cheering spectators along the route of the Boston Marathon, as I chronicled in “Taking back the Marathon.”

In May, friends and I went to see an exhibit of colorful quilts at the Museum of Fine Arts, which I described in “Make your bed.”

In July, J and I toured the Charles W. Morgan while she was docked in Boston Harbor, as described in “A whale of a tale.”

Snowy contemplation

In “Solitude,” I explained one of the reasons I enjoy writing in my journal.

In August, I memorialized Robin Wiliams with a post called “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

In September, I considered my religious devotion to the act of writing in a post titled “Like prayer.”

In “A modest proposal,” I offered my take on the student riots that marred this year’s Keene Pumpkin Festival.

And in “King hickory,” I described a quintessential October stroll.

Whenever I review a year’s worth of blog posts, I’m always surprised at how much I manage to post given how little time I have to devote to writing. Here’s hoping that pattern continues for another year.

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