Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

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.

Tricolor

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?”

Portrait

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?

Fern room

I recently started reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I don’t typically follow popular reading trends: I am, for instance, the only person I know who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and/or Fifty Shades of Gray books. But when I saw Wild listed among the Boston Public Library’s digital media offerings, I placed a hold for a Kindle download. Given the chance to read a free e-copy of book everyone including Oprah has been talking about, I couldn’t say no.

Waterfall

I’ve read the first half of Strayed’s memoir about her solo backpacking trek on California’s Pacific Crest Trail, and so far I’m enjoying the journey. Although I’ve been on only two weekend backpacking trips over the course of my life, I’m realizing you don’t have to be a serious hiker to appreciate Strayed’s quest. Strayed is one year older than me, and while she was hiking the PCT in the mid-1990s, I was living at the Cambridge Zen Center and sitting occasional week- and month-long retreats at the Providence Zen Center. While Strayed was rebounding from the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and an aimless interval using heroin and sleeping with strangers, I was married, teaching college composition, and plodding away at my doctorate.

Waterfall

Is there much of a difference between any of these grueling disciplines: backpacking for miles, sitting retreats, or withstanding the monotonies of marriage, work, and graduate school? Reading Strayed’s memoir, I’m finding countless points at which our distinctly different paths nevertheless parallel one another in profoundly significant ways. There’s a long tradition of books about travel in which a physical journey becomes a metaphor for spiritual soul-searching, and in all of them, the actual distance traveled isn’t as important as the commitment it takes to continue. Ultimately, the point of a long, grueling trip isn’t the destination but the discipline it takes to get there, and any daunting task you commit to day after exhausting day can teach a similar kind of dedication.

Fronds

I used to teach a whole semester’s worth of books about travel, and Strayed’s memoir reminds me of one of the books I assigned: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Bryson and his buddy, Katz, set out to walk the Appalachian Trail even though they (like Strayed) are woefully unprepared. Although Bryson and Katz end up completing a mere fraction of the Appalachian Trail, Bryson gleans a book’s worth of insights and anecdotes from the experience, such as the realization that the whole point of hiking is to deprive yourself of simple comforts:

I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude. It is an intoxicating experience to taste Coca-Cola as if for the first time and to be conveyed to the very brink of orgasm by white bread. Makes all the discomfort worthwhile, if you ask me.

Waterfalls

Bryson’s experience of the Appalachian Trail is so similar to my experience of sitting Zen retreats, I wonder if he sat a few alongside me, eavesdropping on my silent thoughts as I fantasized about pizza, potato chips, and chocolate bars. Sitting a retreat is a grueling experience: your legs ache, your mind wanders, and you wonder time and again why you agreed to do something as silly as sit in silence for days on end. What makes a silent retreat relaxing and renewing, however, is the simple withdrawal of life’s everyday comforts—an act of deprivation that leaves you clear-eyed and appreciative for what you do have. It’s a lesson that both Bryson and Strayed learned in their own separate ways.

Leafy

Cheryl Strayed’s account of her hike also reminds me of the legendary Walking Woman in Mary Austin’s story of the same name. The Walking Woman doesn’t have a name; Austin’s narrator guesses the Walking Woman lost her name around the time she abandoned the notion of “lady-like” behavior. A name and Victorian gender conventions are burdensome things the Walking Woman jettisons as unessential, and when the gritty men she encounters along the way need to call her something, they use the term “Mrs. Walker”: a name denoting the respect you should show a married woman as well as the activity by which she defines herself.

Tropical Forest India

Strayed also jettisons her previous name before setting out on her journey: or, more accurately, she replaces her name when divorcing her husband, exchanging the hyphenated name of her married years for a name that more accurately describes who she is and what she does. The name “Strayed” describes a person with a proclivity to wander, a “stray” being a creature without a set family or home. Like the Walking Woman, who set out to wander the desert southwest after the death of a loved one, Strayed finds her (literal) footing after her mother’s death by embarking on seemingly endless pedestrian task. The monotony of walking is one way to find one’s way, even if one’s “way” is wandering itself.

Orchid Room

I had my own stint as a Walking Woman when I took a solo trip to California in the summer of 2003, the year before my divorce. I didn’t walk the Pacific Crest Trail, nor did I backpack, but I did spend a week sleeping at the San Francisco Zen Center while day-hiking the hills of Marin County. On that trip, I had no real plan or destination: each morning, I’d simply find a trailhead that looked promising, walk until my feet ached, then drive back to the Zen Center by dark, averaging about 10 miles a day, alone. I didn’t keep a journal on that trip–I was too busy walking to write–but I do have a list of the places and mileages I logged every day, and it reads like a litany of remembered landscapes: Tennessee Cove, Coastal Trail, Laguna Trail, Bear Valley Trail, Tomales Point Trail.

Butterfly Room

I didn’t have a predetermined itinerary for that California trek, just an unsettled heart that found comfort only when I walked. When I flew to California, I was bored and burned out, stalled with my graduate work and stumped when it came to knowing what else to do. When I flew home, nothing about my life had changed, but I felt different. Feeling stronger in body and more settled in mind, I was able to resume my work, focus on my studies, and commit to my writing in a way that hadn’t seemed possible before I left.

True blue

Perhaps because I can relate to it in this way, I’m enjoying Strayed’s book much more than I enjoyed that other best-selling narrative of a divorced woman on the rebound: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail is more physically challenging than Gilbert’s junket to Italy, India, and Indonesia, and it therefore seems less indulgent and more worthwhile. Whereas I found myself envying Gilbert for her travels—few of us can afford the time or money it takes to spend several months traveling to exotic destinations—I find myself admiring Strayed for her stamina. Not everyone can devote a summer to a long backpacking trip: both Gilbert and Strayed are describing a privileged kind of pilgrimage. But Strayed pays for her story with the old-fashioned currency of blood, blisters, and sweat. Whereas I quickly lost patience with Gilbert’s book because of its painful self-absorption, Strayed’s emotional obsessions are quickly subsumed in the pure physical challenge of long-distance backpacking. Strayed doesn’t have the energy for solipsistic navel-gazing; she’s too busy breeding bruises, blisters, and backpack-sores.

Well-watered

Strayed learns very quickly that a spiritual journey is first and foremost a physical one. Strayed goes on this trip to grapple with the death of her mother and the end of her marriage: she is on a quest to find herself. But Strayed doesn’t find herself by thinking about herself: instead, the pure physical agonies of her trip quickly strip her of any sense of ego.

I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind.

Geometric

Strayed comes to terms with her emotional demons because she learns that outliving a mother then a marriage isn’t the end of life’s travails: instead, troubles like mountain crests keep on coming, and you learn to surmount them, one by one. Sometimes the way to heal yourself isn’t through indulgence but through wholehearted immersion into the reality of this painful, backbreaking world.

Orchid Room

One of the things I learned when sitting long retreats was that you’re stronger than you think. Strayed learns something similar from her experience on the Pacific Crest trail, lulling herself to sleep in the early, most backbreaking days of her hike with a mantra-like call and response, asking the question “Who is tougher than me” and answering “No one!” Whether you’re a hiker or not–whether you’ve backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail or walked no further than the end of your block–at some point in your life you’ve faced some metaphorical equivalent of Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail, something you thought would break you, both body and soul. One lesson anyone can take from Strayed’s book is that these challenges needn’t defeat us. We can do more than we’d ever imagined if we just keep walking, refusing to give up and taking each obstacle as it comes, one step at a time.

Today’s photos come from the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which I toured while visiting Pittsburgh earlier this month. Click here for more photos from the conservatory: enjoy!

Sunflowers

This summer, I’m making a conscious effort to use Facebook’s Visual Bookshelf, an application which displays on your Facebook wall the books you’re currently reading and which also allows you to share with your friends short reviews of books you’ve finished, to track the books I read.

Dusted with pollen

Typically, I’m terribly sporadic when it comes to reviewing books I’ve read. Although I like writing book reviews as a way to remember what I thought about what I read, book-reviewing is the kind of thing that often gets bumped to the bottom of my to-do list. The fact that I wrote only two reviews during last year’s Audiobook Challenge (even though I did indeed listen to twelve audiobooks in twelve months, as I’d promised) stands as a testament to how infrequently I get around to reviewing the books I read.

So far this summer, however, I’ve posted short reviews of a handful of books I’ve recently read, so for those of you who haven’t friended me on Facebook, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Blooming from bottom to top

A Whale Hunt: How a Native-American Village Did What No One Thought It Could , by Robert Sullivan
(5 out of 5 stars).

Robert Sullivan’s account of the Makah tribe’s successful attempt to hunt a gray whale is much like the movie Whale Rider, but with the addition of harpoons, blood, and whale-guts. In Whale Rider, young Pai’s attempt to become the leader of her New Zealand tribe culminates in an inspiring closing scene where the girl floats off in a traditional canoe with the now-energized and motivated members of her tribe. With a strong leader to guide them, the film suggests, the members of Pai’s community find purpose, cultural identity, and pride.

The canoeists in Whale Rider, however, didn’t kill any whales, and that’s where the narrative tension arises in Sullivan’s A Whale Hunt. The Makah Indians of Washington State don’t just make a traditional whale boat; they gain permission to hunt the once-endangered gray whale, citing their long tradition of whaling and the rights granted them by long-standing treaties. Sullivan spends two years following the Makah in their epic attempt to hunt, kill, and butcher a gray whale. Not only do the Makah have to re-invent a tradition that’s fallen into disuse, the members of the whaling crew face an assortment of challenges: protesters decry them as “whale murderers,” a hungry media hounds their every step, and government bureaucracy demands they follow official policies and protocols. Ultimately, whaling captain Wayne Johnson shows what kind of leadership, determination, and sacrifice it takes to convert a ragtag band of Indians into mythic warriors. Unlike Whale Rider, it takes far more than a picture-perfect canoe trip.

Hosta buds & leaves

The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America, by Grant Wahl
(4 out of 5 stars).

It’s too soon, perhaps, to determine whether David Beckham’s single-handed attempt to win Americans over to soccer has completely failed, but the most telling word in Grant Wahl’s book is in its subtitle: “tried.” Beckham tried to use his superstar celebrity to sell Major League Soccer in America, and to date, his attempt has been far from successful. MLS has its share of long-time, devoted fans, but they follow American soccer regardless of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s most recognizable member. Wahl’s book chronicles the PR circus that surrounded Beckham’s arrival in LA, and by book’s end, it’s painfully apparent that Beckham’s handlers woefully mismanaged his early seasons with the Galaxy.

This past year, Beckham has been sidelined with injuries, and the Galaxy has played better without him than with him. Yes, David Beckham generated a lot of attention for Major League Soccer, and his celebrity sold a lot of jerseys. But ultimately soccer is about the play on the field, not the celebrity circus on the sidelines, and it’s not clear whether droves of David Beckham fans will continue to support Major League Soccer in America after he’s left the league.

Rose of Sharon with ant

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer
(5 out of 5 stars).

Jon Krakauer’s book-length profile of Pat Tillman, the football star who grabbed headlines after he left the NFL to enlist in the Army after 9/11, is a blockbuster. Krakauer is unflinching in his account of how Tillman’s Army enlistment and eventual death in Afghanistan was used for propagandistic purposes by the Bush administration, which was eager to “sell” the patriotism of America’s involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Tillman’s true story (like that of Jessica Lynch before him) doesn’t match the version that was widely publicized. Before his death, Tillman came to disagree with the war in Afghanistan, although he kept the promise of his three-year enlistment even when offered the chance to leave the Army early in order to return to the NFL. Worse yet, Tillman’s death was the result of friendly fire, a fact the government tried to keep from Tillman’s own family in order to spin a more romanticized version of his service and sacrifice.

Reading Krakauer’s re-telling of both Jessica Lynch’s captivity and Pat Tillman’s death, you realize how many vital details were lost in media accounts of these high profile stories. The truth of Tillman’s death doesn’t make America’s involvement in Afghanistan any more heroic; instead, the truth behind Tillman’s death points to how remarkable he was and how botched the American mission in Afghanistan often was.

Pokeweed

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell
(5 out of 5 stars).

Whereas Malcolm Gladwell’s previous books feature essays centering around a single unifying theme, What the Dog Saw reflects his breadth and versatility as a writer. Gladwell is one of those writers who seems to be an expert on everything, which is a testament to how diligently he researches even his occasional pieces. What sets Gladwell apart from just another investigative reporter, however, is the novelty of his insights.

Any journalist could research the history of Enron, the life of Cesar Millan, or the hiring practices of public schools, for instance, but only Malcolm Gladwell is creative enough to compare Enron’s business practices to government surveillance of potential terrorists, to view Millan’s muted interactions with dogs and their owners with a dancer, or to compare the hiring of teachers to the recruiting of NFL quarterbacks. Malcolm Gladwell, in other words, writes the best kind of creative nonfiction. You won’t just learn from his informative essays; you’ll also look at a wide variety of topics in a whole new way.

Rose of Sharon with raindrops

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
(5 out of 5 stars).

A combination of biography, science writing, and mystery, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a woman whose cervical cancer cells–collected without her knowledge or permission–have survived in culture for decades and which have contributed to many medical breakthroughs. Author Rebecca Skloot resurrects the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cancer in the 1950s, but not before doctors harvested a cell specimen that would be immortalized as “HeLa,” a culture used in polio, cancer, and other medical research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells Henrietta Lacks’ personal life story, expresses the anger of Lacks’ family when they learn of the experiments performed on Henrietta’s still-living cancer cells, and explores the legal and ethical questions inherent in cell research: if patients don’t “own” their own cells, who stands to profit from them? The story of Henrietta Lacks brings these abstract questions into focus, and Skloot’s telling of Lacks’ story is both fascinating and moving.

Spiky

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoir, by Kate Braestrup
(4 out of 5 stars).

Although not as good as Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup’s memoir about her work as Maine forestry chaplain, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity offers a thought-provoking look into the institution of marriage, both from Braestrup’s firsthand experience as a re-married widow and her work marrying and counseling couples. The book is strongest when Braestrup focuses on the couples she counsels; when discussing her own marriages, Braestrup isn’t as objective, exaggerating (it seems) her flaws in her first marriage and idealizing her second husband.

If you read Here If You Need Me, which discusses Braestrup’s decision to become a chaplain after the death of her Maine state trooper husband, Drew, you’ll probably be surprised to learn the details of that first marriage, with its fights, broken furniture, and near-divorce. In Here If You Need Me, Drew is an almost angelic presences; in Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, Braestrup paints herself as a bitchy feminist who behaved badly in her first marriage.

Perhaps it’s human nature to idealize one’s dead spouse, and perhaps it’s human nature to insist that one’s current marriage is infinitely better than one’s first. Or perhaps Braestrup feels hesitant to write honestly about the cracks in her current marriage, given the fact that her present husband, Simon, is alive. Looking beyond the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Braestrup’s own marital history, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity offers an interesting glimpse into an institution that is often romanticized but seldom deeply understood.

Thistle

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, by Elizabeth Gilbert
(3 out of 5 stars)

Elizabeth Gilbert is at her best when she is writing about other people, not when she is obsessing about herself; her book-length profile of modern day mountain man Eustace Conway in The Last American Man, for instance, is insightful, engaging, and often wickedly funny. In saying that Gilbert writes best when she doesn’t focus primarily upon herself, I’m going against the millions of readers who loved Eat, Pray, Love, which I found self-indulgent and self-absorbed. (See Maria’s blog for an excellent review of Eat, Pray, Love that shares many of my reservations.)

Committed is Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love, with the added wrinkle that American immigration laws require her to marry “Felipe,” the man she met (and vowed never to marry) at the end of Eat, Pray, Love. The result is a book-length anxiety attack in which Gilbert tries to convince herself (and her millions of devoted fans) that marriage isn’t as terrible as she previously thought it was. If you’re marriage-phobic (or if you simply want the happily-ever-after ending to the Elizabeth/Felipe saga), Gilbert’s book might ring true for you. But if you’re looking for an intelligent analysis of the institution of marriage, there are better (i.e. less self-absorbed) books to read.

So, what are you reading? Right now I’m multi-tasking Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, and Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. Here’s hoping I’ll actually get around to reviewing each of these when I’ve finished them.

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