Archive for April, 2014

Absolute Beginners


I started taking a drawing class a few weeks ago. I’ve taken art history classes before, but I’ve never had formal art or design training — I’ve only ever been in writing and filmmaking courses.

So in many ways, I’m completely at sea in this drawing class. I have absolutely NO IDEA what I’m doing, and that is such a weird feeling. My hands actually shook a bit with nervousness on the first day as the instructor basically threw us into a bunch of visual memory and observation exercises without a ton of explanation. I felt that weird tightening in my chest that is basically “OH MY GOD I AM GOING TO BE SO SUCKY AND I HAVE NO TALENT AND EVERYONE WILL LAUGH BECAUSE I AM THE LAMEST.” And it’s true: I feel a lot slower than others in my class, dome of whom have clearly already been drawing since forever. I was drawing a little figurine and I only managed to finish the top of it when we had to move to the next exercise!

But I kind of got over my initial feelings of potential loserdom, fear of judgment and embarrassment — which I recognize will always plague me whenever I take any kind of risk. Perhaps it’s leftover pressure from my days as a former high-achievement junkie, or just part of my nature to want to do my best all the time. I’ve spent a lot of my adulthood feeling competent in one way or another, so it’s really strange to just be so at sea.

But the truth is, it is nice to be really new at something, to just leap and have no goals and just explore and find pleasure in something. Almost every creative endeavor and project in my life is goal-oriented and structured in some way. While that’s important and good — especially when you take something very seriously and want to succeed in it — it’s nice to have something where play is paramount and there’s no pressure except just to enjoy learning it.

You always hear talk about “beginner’s mind,” which is a very Zen concept that involves approaching something in a fresh and clear way without prior assumptions or burdens. But for me, the real pleasure of beginner’s mind is bringing a renewing sense of playfulness to an endeavor. It’s nice to be an auntie to young children, because my niece and nephews are forever playing. Playing for them isn’t about publishing a story or getting into an exhibition: it is having fun in the process, having no inhibitions or rules and just making it up as you go. It isn’t about wrong or right: it’s about joy and pleasure and moments — and sometimes just being goofy and silly and willing to look ridiculous. Ridiculousness is actually a huge element when I play with my nieces and nephews — the more we can flout the accepted way of doing and being, the better and more amusing of a time we have together.

Sometimes it’s nice to infuse this sense of play back into something you’ve been doing a long time. For me, that’s writing: it’s something I’ve been doing for ages, I studied it as a creative discipline and I do it for my job. One of my life goals is to achieve mastery, a kind of alchemy of skill, vision, conviction and confidence. But oddly enough, I’m finding that mastery is about keeping things fresh and even fun, putting myself back into a position of newness and uncertainty. Sometimes this means trying to write a story from an entire different perspective, or writing it backwards, or writing a poem instead of fiction. Sometimes it means attempting a new genre or form. Or it means writing something you never ever thought you’d write. Sometimes I’ll even write by hand — or write with my non-dominant hand. The trick is to challenge your entrenched assumptions and habits, whether they’re emotional, imaginative or technical. (I suppose this applies to not just art and creativity but life as well; it’s certainly a bit of a trick to contemplate changing up a long-established relationship to create newness and playfulness.)

Or, you can just try something completely and utterly new, which is the route I’ve taken this spring with this drawing class. I don’t ever see myself becoming a great visual artist in any way, nor do I want to. But it is kind of just fun, and fun is so underrated as a guiding virtue in life. Just this past week we learned line contouring drawings and one of the warmup exercises was drawing “blind” — we drew our hands with marker pen, only we didn’t get to look at our paper as we drew, and we could only use one continuous line, so our markers couldn’t leave the paper. The objective wasn’t to produce a great drawing, but to slow down and really look at something. Of course, the results were crazy-looking and hilariously Gollum-like. But once I relaxed into it and just enjoyed the process of trying something totally new, it didn’t matter. It was fun, it was new and it felt fresh and true.

How to Remember the Sky is Blue Beneath the Clouds

I’m “on the road,” visiting St. Louis and (perhaps) other destinations later on. St. Louis is a given and I’m here now, the Arch in viewing distance. Things are greener, with actual leaves and blossoms on trees. It’s warmer down here and when I walk around here, I feel looser-limbed, savoring the sky and sun and air.

A walk is more of an amble in this new place, and there’s a lot to explore. I’ve been to a Japanese restaurant where they lit a sushi roll on fire. I sat underneath a blooming cherry tree. I went to the City Museum and saw some phenomenal art fashioned out of the detritus of urban blight, making something unique and provocative out of ugliness…and I went down a 10-story slide. (Which was AWESOME and something I recommend everyone do!) I sat by a fire and felt sweetened and mellowed by good conversation. I’m surrounded by positive people and interesting ideas. I love just being in motion under a new piece of sky, and life is renewing and expanding in the best ways. (I’ll write a longer post about St. Louis itself next week — this is a genuinely fascinating, historically rich city!)

Traveling more is a new recent priority for me — I realized it had become one of those things that I put on the sidelines while I developed other parts of my life, but now I want that energy of physically embodied change and exploration in my life. My eyes want to see new things; my feet want to walk in new directions, and funnily enough, the beautiful Fates have pulled some lovely people in my life who share this sense of adventure. (Much gratitude, Fates!) A lot of change has been happening in my life — and so many recent efforts and changes in my life have been in reaction to events and decisions I have no control over. (I feel like lots of people I know had really rocky beginnings in 2014 — breakups, job losses, deaths, etc.)

The one silver lining of so much tumult in life is that it gives you an opportunity to look hard at your life, to examine the things you’ve been avoiding or not seeing and decide to make changes. And for me, one of those things is realizing how certain decisions and commitments in my life had not been in alignment with who I wanted to be or what I wanted in my life. And even if life was a little scary and unpredictable, I now had a lot of space and opportunity to do something.

I ain’t gonna lie: some changes weren’t fun and weren’t things I would’ve chosen for myself. They involved loss, the death of certain dreams and hopes and loves, and uncertainty. I lost love and security, and there was a lot of hurt, sadness and anger. But I have to also be honest and say that it…wasn’t as horrible as I would’ve thought. Seriously! Some parts of my life fell apart around me, but in terms of myself, I was okay. And that was because I had already been doing a lot of things to keep myself moving forward in life, irrespective of what life was throwing at me to begin with.

A long time ago, my dad once said to me that emotions and feelings were like clouds, but behind them the sky was always blue. Sometimes we forget the sky is blue, he said, because we mistake clouds for sky and think they will never pass, but they do. I still felt grief and sorrow for what had happened but I also remembered the sky was blue, and that made all the difference — and helped the clouds pass through faster.

I know that’s “fortune cookie talk,” as I said when I was a kid to my dad, so I’ll try to be a little more specific. If you’ve been reading my personal blog for awhile, you know I’m (somewhat dorkily) very conscious about what I want to learn and grow into and challenge myself with. Sometimes it’s a to-do list, sometimes it’s just an intention to bring a quality or feeling into my life. But those always boil down to specific things and practices: basic things like eating really well, mindfulness practices like yoga or meditation, spending time in nature, creative endeavors like writing novels or just fun things like riding rollercoasters or horses or having hijinks and all kinds of fun. What they all do is help me remember the sky is blue underneath the roiling turmoil of life.

All those things, too, are also proactive. I used to hate hearing that word because the only people who said it were my parents and business nerds. But now I see why: being proactive means creating your momentum instead of reacting to your life. It means knowing what you want to have and feel in your life instead of just letting whatever happen to you, and taking those small yet specific steps and actions to create that. You don’t need to do a lot, but you do need to choose something meaningful and compelling to you. I’m a real nerd — I have a big list I keep on my phone of these things, and it has everything from “really, really listen to my nieces and nephews when they tell me stories” to “do shoulderstand yoga poses before I go to bed at night” to “get a massage” to “visit my favorite perfume counter” to “go bowling with my mom and dad” to “write an amazing story that will be a good companion to beautiful souls.” And I keep adding to that list, because there’s really no limit, though it does take thought, self-knowledge and the commitment to actually do these things. Your own list may be different: it may be sourcing rare spices all around the world, climbing a mountain, writing a song. But I’m sure they all make you feel expansive and connected to whatever great and beautiful spirit animates you, which is the point.

Don’t get me wrong: none of this insulates you from negative emotions. You will not be protected from the peccadilloes of life: breakups, illness, financial problems, losses, deaths, as well as the emotional fallout from them all. It won’t keep you safe from the downs of life, from getting your heart broken, from grappling with fears of inadequacy and uncertainty — though sometimes I think we have a subconscious expectation that it will. We do those little proactive steps to connect ourselves to a bigger dream and our best selves — to keep you in touch with the blue sky beneath it all.

Reading Roundup: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things


I don’t do enough reading reports/book reviews as you’d think. Sometimes I’m reading a book because I’m “digging,” i.e. reading the book to extract material to use in a particular project. And so my literary analysis lens is turned off. But some books — like The Luminaries and The Signature of All Things — I read for whimsy, curiosity and pure pleasure, and are compelling enough for me to sit down and outline my response to them in some way. I actually enjoyed both, and thought they made for interesting companions — though clearly I loved one over the other. But if you’re looking for quasi 19th-century literature, this is your entry…

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

If there’s ever one literary stunt I’d be inclined to, it would be reading all the Booker Prize winners ever. I’m not sure why — maybe because I’ve inadvertently read a lot of Booker Prize winners and enjoyed many of them. Maybe it’s an extension of my latent Anglophilia, I don’t know. It just seems like a “thing” I’d do. I’m inclined to look at a book, go “Hey, this was shortlisted for the Booker prize,” and see that as an imprimatur for some kind of quality or taste level.

But for the like of me, I cannot see why The Luminaries won this year’s Booker Prize (especially over Jhumpa Lahiri!) Not that it is a bad book by any means — it is a highly admirable novel, with a complex, narrative structure where intertwined stories fold up and nestle against one another. All of them concern a man’s death, a hoard of treasure and a whore that seems to have inherited it all in some way or another. And the milieu is fascinating — a 1800s mining town in New Zealand — and there’s definitely some beautiful prose. And I am always in favor of authors essentially aping the feel of classic 19th-century novels, with more formal, constructed prose and a certain formality in the structure. (Indeed, with a strong emphasis on structure!) If written in the actual 19th century, The Luminaries would be a kind of adventure yarn you’d read from someone like Jack London, Herman Melville or the like. But it’s written in the 2000s, which means it lacks the buoyancy, verve and genuine bawdy spirit of a true yarn. The narrative and writing is way too controlled to rollick and roll, and the result feels strangely undramatic and much more internal than you’d expect.

That sense of interiority, though, doesn’t quite form a bridge to developing an attachment to the story or characters in general. Call me old-fashioned, but I could not fully invest emotionally in any of the novel’s broad cast of characters or the relationships between them. Maybe it’s the result of the novel’s somewhat fussy, complicated structure and broad cast of characters? I was interested enough to want to know what happened and why, which propelled me to finish the book — kind of an accomplishment, especially since I’ve vowed not to finish books out of a sense of obligation anymore. But after I finished this 800-plus-pager, I shut the covers and felt just a pale shadow of poignancy, which faded into the everyday business of the usual day.

I felt oddly disappointed in my own reaction. But when I thought about it again, I finally put my finger on what the act of reading books means to me now, and why The Luminaries failed to fulfill it. As I get older, I have somewhat returned to the old relationship I once had with books and novels and stories — I like to feel as if they are companions in my life. I don’t expect to “relate” to them or even “like” them, but I want to feel as if we’ve taken a journey together, or had a conversation that in some small way altered my way of seeing, understanding and feeling, if only for some time. And though it concerns journeys and discoveries, I did not feel that journey or sense of uncovering a new land or idea with Catton’s novel. That made me a little sad, to have spent so much time with it and to feel so little resonance at the end. The Luminaries is a bit like a monument — you can look up and admire it and understand its importance and accomplishment on a cerebral level, but it doesn’t quite feel as if you’ve lived through or with it, and in that strange way, ultimately disappoints.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I read Eat, Pray, Love like everyone on the planet who ever had to buy a book at an airport bookstore because their freaking e-reader ran out of power on an unexpectedly long layover. (Okay, maybe that was just me?) We all know what it is about, right? Middle-aged lady in the middle of a midlife crisis and divorce travels the world, finds her center and then finds true love amid exotic locales.

I don’t begrudge anyone their personal journey towards love and enlightenment, but I sort of found the “voice” of the book annoying, a bit like being trapped on a long flight next to an overly chatty lady who was trying her hardest to be super-interesting and deep and wanted you to like her really, really badly. Which is sort of odd, because in the interviews I’ve read and seen with Liz Gilbert — including her great TED talk — she seems like a lovely, smart, amiable person that I’d love to chat with. But chalk it up to one of the strange mysteries of life: I read Eat, Pray, Love, enjoyed it in several moments and just sort of had to take a break from it a lot because I felt so bombarded.

I was wary of reading her next book, Committed, but the subject of coming to terms with matrimony interested me enough to pick it up. I don’t think it was as personally compelling or alive as Eat, Pray, Love was, but I did come away feeling a kind of a respect for Gilbert’s flinty, feminist intellect. The woman clearly did her research and analysis, and the decision she made at the end was compelling.

With the surprising reaction I had towards Committed, I had hope for Gilbert’s newest book, The Signature of All Things. For one thing, it is a novel, and her personal “voice” of her memoirs would not be an obstacle. And it centers around botanists, which I have a strange affection for. And it is also a bit of an impersonation of a 19th century novel, which as you read earlier I am ALL for, since all my favorite books are basically from the 1800s. (Is this a bit like when all those bands in the early 2000s sounded like Gang of Four? Like a nostalgia for an old sound, combined with a longing for new material?) And I’m writing here to tell you: I unabashedly, passionately loved The Signature of All Things. I sometimes hate when people use this word, but it was fabulous.

It’s basically the life story of a central character, Alma Whitaker, born in 1800 in Philadelphia to a wealthy, self-made English tycoon and a stern, flinty Dutch mother. Alma is “homely,” ungainly and awkward, but she is also radiantly curious and brilliant, and devotes her considerable intellectual powers to the study of botany, then one of the few “polite” sciences women were allowed to access. She’s also a child of her historical period, and her life and development mirror the changing status of women, the rise of science and the general age of discovery in the world.

Alma has her struggles: she grows up with a distant, icy yet beautiful adopted sister, falls in unrequited love, falls in love with someone who seems to reciprocates and then has her heart terribly broken. But the real arc is of a woman deeply engaged with the world, one whose intellectual, sensual and emotional journey propels her to greater communion with the world, with a universe larger and more expansive than she can even comprehend. In this respect, the novel is deeply feminist — it respects the role that vocation and livelihood plays in the lives of women. It is also unabashedly earthy, sensuous and emotionally rich. It manages to combine the sharp intelligence Gilbert displays in her interviews with the same expansive heart and emotional generosity that made Eat, Pray, Love so resonant with so many — and yet completely avoids the sentimentality and schmaltz that made the Eat, Pray, Love movie so annoying. And it’s often stunningly, beautifully written, combining the beautiful formality and rigor of typical 19th century prose with modern sensibilities and frankness, especially towards bodies, sexuality and appetites of the flesh.

The Signature of All Things is not perfect — there are points in the plot that pretty much strain incredulity, as they say. But Alma is a character who feels very much alive, so vital and rich and vivid. I reached the end of the book and felt devastated in the best way: devastated that the book was done and I would no longer spend any time with Alma anymore, devastated that Alma wasn’t real, devastated and shattered to feel as if I’d lived the whole of a lifetime in one reading. Honestly, I shut the book when I was done and just cried. Alma’s trajectory offers such a rich, important lesson: that deep, passionate curiosity and study of the world, and the role it plays in self-determination and sovereignty, is reward in and of itself, enough to balance the disappointments of love and compromises of life. Signature isn’t perfect, but it’s storytelling at its most alchemical — and pretty much the reason why I read books in the first place.