Sontag state of mind: Serious, never cynical.

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Today’s inspiration comes to us from the inimitable Susan Sontag:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

Found via Brain Pickings, a website that’s basically one big hors d’oeuvres platter of brilliant thoughts and words.


Seaweed farming, radical homemaking, and about that book I wrote…

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I recently wrote a piece for To Market magazine about seaweed farming in New England. It was a real pleasure to research and write this feature—even though it did involve going out on the water off the coast of midcoast Maine in the middle of December on a day so cold that my phone turned itself off and my hands stopped working—mainly because it focused on a topic I think it incredibly important: food sustainability.

I’m reading a book right now called Radical Homemakers and I can’t stop thinking about it. The author, a PhD who lives on a farm in rural New York, makes the argument that the best way we can save our planet is through turning our households from consumer spaces to production spaces. When we grow our own food, mend our own clothes, build our own barns, we free ourselves from needing as much money (and from buying as much junk that’s designed to fail). It’s an obvious argument, yet I am still so caught up in the make-money-buy-things cycle that I occasionally feel defensive when I’m reading it. Which is probably a good thing—it’s shaking me up. That’s good.

Anyway, this does relate to seaweed, and to my book, Handcrafted Maine (due out this summer!) because these are all ways of approaching sustainability through creative means. Homemaking is a creative act. Seaweed farming is creative, innovative, and totally fascinating. And every person profiled in Handcrafted Maine is contributing to our state economy in intentional, beautiful, small-scale ways.

I really believe that intentional, small living is the way forward for our planet. I believe small farms are the future, homemakers are onto something, and the things we do with our hands are just as important as the things we do with our heads.

Pre-order Handcrafted Maine here. 

See more images by photographer Greta Rybus (who shot both the book and the To Market seaweed feature) here.

Buy Radical Homemakers directly from the author here. 

You would enjoy this more if you were dead.

Kaja Rata ImageA few years ago, I had a period of exhausting confusion, a kind of general malaise that was dreary and slow but punctuated by these terrible migraines and even more terrible panic attacks. Everything felt overwhelming. The future seemed like this murky, gloomy thing. A fear monster. A poisoned well. A shadow place. In short, it sucked.

I’m not, like, over it by any means. I’m still an angsty person. I’m still prone to freak outs and night sweats. But slowly I’m coming together.

Anyway, during this shitty time, I went on a “how should a person be?” tour of my friends and colleagues. I asked basically everyone intrusive questions like, how should I exist in the world? how do you live in this universe without going crazy? how do you keep bad thoughts from taking over your life? who should I be and why and how? I got a variety of answers. Some of the best answers came from my friend Sophie. Other good thoughts came from a former professor, who had clearly been in that weird disorienting mental space before. He told me to ride it out, expect bad times, keep the faith that nothing ever stays for long.

But if I could send an email back in time to reach previous-Katy, I would send her two quotes. They’re both pretty much the same idea, just articulated differently.

First, via Brain Pickings, here is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s advice on how to be grateful:

When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look — the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so… endearing.

Similar, but not quite, is this bit from Department of Speculation author Jenny Offil:

A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.

I’m going to hold onto these techniques for the next time I find myself feeling generally unimpressed by my life. I struggle to just “be grateful” for what I have. But I have no problem imagining the worst case scenario, the loss of everything, the complete and utter demolition of my own life. I’m great at that! This is positive thinking via negative imagining, and I can lean into it.

Image by Polish photographer Kaja Rata, part of a project about space exploration, Sputnik, and Eastern European culture. All her photographs are phenomenal, but this series just blows me away. 

Marvelous puddles.

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I do get a deep pleasure from looking. I mean, I can look at a little puddle on a road in Yorkshire and just have the rain falling on it and think it’s marvelous. … I see the world as very beautiful.

David Hockney on looking, from an NPR piece: Artist David Hockney Says the Drive to Create Pictures is ‘Deep Within Us.’

Image via Art News

Serious question: How does one write about the northern lights?

peder-balke-northern-lights-1870-trivium-art-history.jpgSerious question: How does one write about the northern lights?

One girl in our house sings about them, a sweet and clear song that sounds like birds whistling and cooing, rhythmic and keening.

The photographers set up tripods and sit with them, waiting behind on their knees for the camera to record light our eyes can’t quite register, purples and blues that shimmer where I can see only green.

Another woman laughs, says she feels drunk, and throws her arms out wide as she stretches into a yogic backbend, body limber in the cold, face open to the sky.

A musician wants to record them; he says they make sounds our ears can’t catch. I imagine they sound like alien chimes, but they probably sound like celestial static.

I stand below them and I curse under my breath. I’m rude to the sky because I don’t know what else to say. I bend over so far backward to see that I stumble around, boots unlaced from my haste to get outside, see, look, drink it all in.

The Finnish name for the aurora borealis is revontulet, which means “fox fires.” The Sami people believe they are the souls of the dead. Some indigenous North American groups think they are evil; others think they are spirits of hunted (and consumed) animals.

I don’t know how to write about them, so I write about what other people say, how they sing, what they do. I think I do this partially because I want, on some strange and ugly level, to have them all to myself. I have to remind myself: This isn’t yours. You don’t get to name it or claim it or take it with you when you go. You only get to visit. Until, I suppose, I die and then maybe, if some folks are right about their religion, I’ll get to join them.

Image by Peder Balke, a Norwegian painter from the early 19th century. There’s an exhibit of his work coming up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From their exhibition description: “The Norwegian landscape and marine painter Peder Balke (1804–1887) merged the Romantic movement’s spiritual vein of naturalism with an expressiveness rarely equaled by his contemporaries. Born in humble circumstances in what was then a northern hinterland, Balke trained as an artisan before pursuing his aim to become an artist in the broader European tradition, which led to formative contacts with Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl. From the 1840s onward, Balke searched for ever more personal means to convey the wild beauty of Norway, producing dramatic, even hallucinatory paintings that reject conventional fine-art techniques in favor of radical simplifications of form and color. Balke seems to have ceased painting after the 1870s, and he was essentially forgotten until the 20th century.” More here and here. 

Britta Marakatt-Labba’s embroidered scenes of Sami life.

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Tomorrow I arrive in Hammerfest to begin my residency in the Arctic. I will be studying Norwegian myths and stories, including legends from the Sami people. Traditionally a nomadic culture with an economy that centers around reindeer herding and harvesting, the Sami are the only indigenous people recognized and protected in Scandinavia. I’ll be staying in Lapland, where many Sami still make their living off the land.britta_2-1024x366

However, like Native Americans living in America, the Sami aren’t some ancient tribe that exists in a time capsule. Many Sami lead thoroughly modern lives, while others combine elements of twenty-first century technology with ancient customs, beliefs, and practices. Admittedly, I’m still learning about their culture (and I hope to learn a lot more) but from everything I’ve read, Sami society, literature, and art seems utterly fascinating.

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Today, I spent a few hours in Tromsø at the Center for Contemporary Art. There was an arresting exhibit of video art on view by Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova about the extermination of the Turkistan Tiger. While I was there, I also picked up a book on contemporary Sami art. This book featured works by Britta Marakatt-Laba, a Swedish artist who makes abstract yet precise images of her northern landscape. I love embroidery art (I love any “feminine” coded genre that transcends the purely decorative) and Britta’s pieces are so cool. Gestural. Tonal. She says a lot with thread and cloth.

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Over the next month, I hope to feature more Scandinavian and Sami artists on my blog. It’s one of my many goals for this writer’s residency. Since I won’t be sharing my fiction (yet), I’m going to use my site as a place to highlight works by artists that are entirely new to me, like Britta.

See more of Britta Marakatt-Labba’s work here.