Pecking away at some bigger idea.


I moved to a house that is far from things, tucked away down a road that starts as pavement and turns to dirt, surrounded by farmland and woodland and land, land, land. In the evening, my bedroom turns pink as the golden hour sun sinks down behind the wall of sugar maples, leaves gone tomato red from the autumn cold. At night, I can see stars from my skylights. I don’t know their names, but they are brighter than the red glow from my cellphone charger, more beautiful than the things I can watch on my screens.

And yet there are days when I feel disconnected, lost in the woods, far away from everything. Sometimes, this makes me feel a savage happiness, almost like defiance. But not always.

For the past few days, a woodpecker has been pumping away at the logs outside my bedroom. I sit at my computer and try to work, my fingers thrumming away on a keyboard, knocking down one word after another, and I hear it again. It beats a rhythm into the dark dead wood of my little Maine home.
I use my fingers to type questions into a search bar. Within seconds, I’ve learned that the bird is a downy woodpecker, most likely a juvenile male, and that he could be confused. The house, I read, just looks like a big, oddly shaped tree. He could be digging for carpenter bees or practicing his hunting skills. He could be looking for a place to borrow in and hide from the cold. He could be practicing his mating behavior, bumping and grinding away on my roof.

I see him fly away one morning, and I’m startled by how beautiful he is—black and white with intricate patterns on his sharp-edged wings. He is lovely and fierce (and exceptionally annoying).

Today it is quiet, save for the sound of wind blowing through dead leaves. I miss his rattle and his swagger. I miss being irritated by something so wild. For the sake of my house, I hope he stays away (we can’t have birds digging holes in our log cabin, nor can we pay for exterminators for those possible carpenter bees). But I also hope he comes back, at least to visit.henn-kim-fly-away

Images by Korean surrealist illustrator Henn Kim. Buy her prints here. See her website here. 

Fiction: What the stones know.

Last winter, I submitted this lil’ bit of flash fiction to a contest. The winner would get a scholarship to attend the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat. I didn’t win. (But I was a finalist, so that’s something.) I’ve never published the piece—it just languished on my computer and I kept meaning to add to it but never did.

I’ve decided to publish it here. Enjoy!

What the stones know. 

Stones are the best storytellers. Few people know this, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Stones, with their ancient hearts and silent breath, speak the beauty of the world more eloquently than any bard, more honestly than any reporter. Even when they’re sleeping, even in the years where they lay dormant, waiting, even now, they still know.

But on the shores of Iceland, some stones still speak. In low rumbles, they reveal their stories. The newer stones, the ones that were forged by fire spit up from the earth (that angry infant still hasn’t cooled at her core), are positively chatty compared to their elder counterparts. And in the center of the country, where stones are split and torn apart, ripped by forces they understand all too well, there the stones speak with rage, telling stories that fall like shards from their mouths, knife-sharp and intended to hurt.

But don’t listen to those stones. Listen to the stones that curl against each other, smooth and round as merry wives. They roll shoulder to shoulder as the waves pull them up and down the shore, and they go with the ocean, happily. These are the stones that tell the best tales.

They tell of fish that are larger than cruise ships, with dull eyes and gleaming scales. They tell of pearl-white seawolves, creatures with large teeth that run through the waves, disguised by the surf and safe in their speed. They tell of men as large as mountains with faces only half as sharp. They tell of cloud women who wrap the air around them in diaphanous cloaks, their feet bare as they step down from the sky and onto the black sand shore, where they gather treasures to bring home to the moon. And sometimes, if you ask nicely, they will tell you of the drowned girl.

She was a child, a black-haired little one who belonged to a fisherman. She lived on a cliff over the sea, near a big stone bridge that attracted tourists with cameras and busses filled with foreign faces. But the little girl ignored them all. She wanted to learn to fly and at night she dreamed of airplanes and engines. One day, as she ran over the stone bridge, arms outstretched like wings, her mouth humming a quiet tune, one foot slipped. It was followed by the other. The bridge had tricked her. The jagged stones had shifted, and so she fell.

The girl was never found, and her father never knew what happened to her. But the stones knew. They curled around her body, one by one, as the waves granted them motion. Salt turned her skin white and the tide washed away the blood. The stones continued their slow crawl over her body, hiding her from sight, protecting her from any more harm. Or perhaps they wanted to keep her on earth, never to fly. Either way, she is gone, and only the stones know where to find her bones.

Related: Image-based fiction, inspired by Finland. 

Above image: Detail from a painting by Rebecca Chaperon

A perfect word for that good kind of melancholy.

andy_denzler_sad_pleasuresFrom an NPR piece on Brazilian music, a beautiful word that has no direct translation in English:

Perhaps my favorite of these elusive words is saudade, a Portuguese and Galician term that is a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond. The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

This is the perfect word for when a sad song gives you goosebumps and makes your throat ache but you still play it on repeat. It’s also the perfect word for so many artistic experiences, so many encounters with art and literature.

But is it bad to suffer a pleasure? The word saudade reminds me of the problem of sentimentally, particularly Leslie Jamison’s defense of the term  She grapples with the pleasure of sentimentality, with the dangers of feeling something too acutely or performing that feeling with too much flair. The New Yorker thinks the pangs of pathos that come from reading a sad story are fundamentally lazy. In an article about Humans of New York, the venerated magazine argues that storytelling has lost its teeth and become something less savage, more concerned with egos and sentimentality and branding than ripping away the veil:

In this way, [Humans of New York] joins organizations like ted and the Moth at the vanguard of a slow but certain lexical refashioning. Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.

I agree that stories can be daggers, or as Kafka puts it, axes to hack away at the frozen sea inside. But I also agree with Jamison and de Melo—some ailments are too sweet not to enjoy. Some pains are pleasurable.

And I’ll take my pleasure where I can get it. I am lazy and I am very, very susceptible to saudade.

Image by Andy Denzler. See more of his glitchy paintings here. 

A thing that I love more than makes sense.

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-10-16-12-amAbout ten years ago, I purchased a small white foldable hairbrush from a Muji store. It was at an airport, either in New York or Boston, but I don’t remember exactly where I was, nor do I remember where I was going. I do remember picking it out of a bin of brushes, all exactly the same, all wrapped in crinkly clear plastic, and deciding that it was something I should own.

In the past decade, I’ve used this brush thousands of times, and it never fails to please me. I like its color—white, but somewhat sheer, not entirely opaque, better than clear plastic, but somehow very plastic, like the essence of plastic, the epitome of plastic. I like its size—it is small enough to fit in any purse, and exactly the right width to add a slight curl to my bangs. I like its texture—the tongs are hard and scrape against my scalp like little claws. I like how neat it appears, how uniform, how small and rectangular. When it is folded, it takes up just a few inches of space. It weighs almost nothing. It is easy to clean, and so it always looks clean. Even when every else in my car is covered in dog hair and the bottom of my backpack is filled with mysterious sand, the hairbrush remains white as teeth, tidy as a dustpan.

I love this object, and although I just told you why, I don’t really know why. It’s orderly and I’m not. Maybe that’s it.

Sign me up.

Japan-retirement-home.jpgA Tokyo-based architecture firm designed this cluster of pods to serve as a retirement home for elderly Japanese women.

I feel about a thousand years old and I have been sleeping a lot lately, so I think I would fit right in with the old lady wood-pod lifestyle. Tonight, I’m going to shuck off my shoes and head off into the woods in search of a pointy pod of my own. The grass looks nice and soft and ahhhh yes, let’s all take off our tight jeans and sit on the floor and look up at the sky through the round holes in our domes and see the moon, just there, just now it fits there perfectly, like it was made for the chimney, all bright and full.


Via Dezeen

Current mood: Icarus


“Antoine Josse’s suitcases are full of images and noises, desires to fly, to get to the moon, to be a trapeze artist, a human cannonball…. In his sculptures, as in his paintings, everything seems light: the material is light, the poetry and the desire for flight are ever present.” – Annabelle Cavallin

Image by French surrealist sculptor Antoine Josse.

Women & Art: We’ve got a long, long way to go.

louise_mamanHere’s a statistic that should make your blood boil: on average, only 5% of the pieces in permanent collections of museums around the globe were created by women. 95% of the art that has been purchased by museums—the very institutions that safeguard our culture—was created by men. While women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. 

We’re over half the residents of the planet earth, but when it comes to culture, we’re still woefully underrepresented, undervalued, and underpaid.

I’m researching a piece right now about gender inequality in the gallery world. While part of me is overjoyed to be doing this kind of work, to be writing about a subject that’s so important to me, there’s another part of me that is just angry. Filled with rage at the injustice of it all.

A recent study from Lehigh University found that “artistic careers are subject to the same social forces that drive gender wage gap in other fields. ‘Though one might expect that the flexible nature of many artistic careers—well as research indicating that artists tend to possess more liberal ideologies than other professionals—would result in greater gender pay equity, our research shows that the difference between the incomes of female and male artists are about the same as you’d find in other fields,’” explains study co-author Danielle Lindemann. Not only is there a significant pay gap for women working in the arts, but there is also a “fatherhood premium” and a “marriage premium” that applies to men only. While women’s pay takes a plunge when they have children, men’s paychecks get a nice little bump. Fortunately, in the arts, women don’t experience the same motherhood penalty (but men do still receive a fatherhood premium).

Does this piss you off? It should. Whether you’re male, female, or don’t ascribe to gender binaries, this should really make you mad. Because it means we still don’t value women’s work. As a society, we place a higher value on art produced by men. Their work goes for far more at auction. Male museum directors and curators make more money than their female counterparts. Male writers are paid more, and their books sell more copies. It’s true across the board.

For years, I’ve been seeking to address this in small, quiet ways. I buy books written by women. Much of the art that hangs in my house was painted or photographed by women. I buy albums by female artists, rather than just listening for free on Spotify. When I want to read a great new book by a talented female author, I buy it. I get Melville from the library, but I pay full price for Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Zadie Smith, Emily St. John Mandel, and Eleanor Catton.

I believe in voting with my dollars. I also try, in this small, tiny, personal corner of the internet, to highlight female artists as often as I can. While men make great work, too, they don’t need my help. Not when their work comprises 92% of lots for sale at New York evening auctions. Not when there are men like Georg Baselitz arguing that “women don’t paint very well” in well-respected places like The Guardian.

Baselitz says, “the market does not lie.” But money doesn’t equal talent. We should all know that by now.

I’ll end this rant before I get too wound up and decide to quit working as a female writer and start selling my eggs instead (they’re worth more than my words, apparently). But I want to say this: If this subject is something you care about, you need to start voting with your dollars. Spend money on women artists. Pay women writers. Support women in the arts, because we still need it.

Image: Maman by Louise Bourgeois. This piece, which sold for $25 million, was the only one to make the top 100 lots sold at auction in 2015. All 99 other top-selling pieces were by men.