Rock stealers confess in beautiful book.

badluckhotrocks12-1024x824I am a rock thief. I left Iceland with pebbles in my pocket, black lava stones that had been smoothed by the ocean, pieces of wild nature that fit into my palm. No terrible luck has befallen me as a result of this practice—yet.

Collected in the book Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest are dozens of confessions that were sent to Arizona’s National Park. There are over a thousand such letters, and they date back to the 1930s. In these letters, people apologize for stealing rocks, often returning the pilfered items alongside handwritten tales of woe. Broken down cars, sudden illnesses, divorce—all supposedly stem from the curse. Bad luck befalls anyone who steals from the petrified forest.

I think maybe I should return my Icelandic stones. Now I feel guilty for taking them off the beach. It’s just so hard for me to resist the desire to pocket rocks. They’re simple, potent symbols for an experience of sublime awe and beauty. But… perhaps they belong where they belong. As the old Leave No Trace credo goes, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” I need to get better at that one—and some others. (At least I’m aways improving, right?)

P.S. I bought the book. You can, too. It’s a perfect gift for naturalist magpies or whimsical outdoorsmen.

 

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“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree.”

4167-frauen-auf-baeumen-lr-04Collector Jochen Raiss gathered hundreds of vintage photos of women lounging in trees and recently published them in a comprehensive coffee table book called Frauen auf Baumen (in English: “women in trees”). From what I’ve seen so far, the pictures are delightful—silly and strange and happy. Obviously, I want this book.

While we’re on the topic of trees, and German folks, I found this passage by writer Hermann Hesse in which he muses on what trees can teach us:

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree… A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. Trees have long thoughts, long—breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

Beautiful

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. 

The hours we spend becoming ourselves.

Hope_Gangloff_the_girlsEmma Cline’s debut novel got a seven figure book deal. Seven figures, you guys! But after reading The Girls, I have to say, she earned it. Based on the Charles Manson murders, The Girls is the story of a young girl named Evie who falls into a cult. But she’s not drawn in by the charismatic leader (who is, of course, a man). Instead, Evie is seduced by a bad, beautiful, dirty, black-haired vixen named Suzanne.

Unlike most Manson-based fiction, the novel really isn’t about Russel, the angry hippy with poor guitar-playing skills whose grudges incite murders. Cline’s book is less about the sensationalist violence and more about girlhood and all its complications, pains, and joys. It’s a compelling story (an all-nighter page-turner) but the best part of The Girls is how Cline captures the obsessive insecurity of teenage femininity. Like take this passage:

Every day after school, we’d click seamlessly into the familiar track of the afternoons. Waste the hours at some industrious task: following Vidal Sassoon’s suggestions for raw egg smoothies to strengthen hair or picking at blackheads with the tip of a sterilized sewing needle. The constant project of our girl selves seeming to require odd and precise attentions… Back then, I was so attuned to attention. I dressed to provoke love, tugging my neckline lower, settling a wistful stare on my face whenever I went out in public that implied many deep and promising thoughts, should anyone happen to glance over… I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you—the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

Daaaaaamn. I wish I had read that at age 15. I wish I had known how little difference those ritualistic pluckings and preenings would make, how much energy I was wasting on thankless tasks that always made me feel worse, never better.

I wish I could say I’m beyond vanity now, but that would be a hilariously transparent lie. I’m so vain! I probably think this song is about me! But I’m also less inclined to spend time or money on my vanity. Because at the end of the day, I’d rather spend those hours becoming more and more myself.

Image by Hope Gangloff, whose work I’ve written about before and admire so goshdarn much. 

Two nice things: A body like mine, a body like yours.

Kathe_butcher_fuckeditupOne.
For a long time, my answer to the question, “Who is your favorite artist?” was spat out quickly, thrown from my mouth like something vaguely disgusting: Egon Schiele. Don’t get me wrong. I adore Schiele. But I love his work because it is so twisted and tortured, so uncomfortable to look at, so unsettling. Today, when I first saw the work of Kaethe Butcher, an artist from Leipzig, I gasped. Her illustrations have all the deranged, manic agony of Schiele, and all the raw sexuality, but Butcher adds a fierceness to her portraits. While Schiele’s subjects often seemed terribly sad, Butcher’s have an air of fuck-it-ness about them. They don’t care if you like it. They aren’t here for you. 

Two.
While we’re on the topic of female bodies, I’m reading two strange books. One is a first-person portrait of a sociopathic pedophile, a young female teacher with a taste for adolescent male flesh. The other is the story of an anorexic, image-obsessed young white woman and her jealous roommate. (Click here to see Tampa by Alissa Nutting and here for You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman.) While the subject matter is entirely different, there are so many similarities between these two bold books. Both authors zero in on the female body and explore every inch of it. They write about taboos and urges, inappropriate needs and pathological desires. They both feel feminist, but in very different ways. And I recommend both novels for your Unflinching Books By Badass Women reading list.

And now for something a little lighter in tone (and lower in brow, but higher in theme!)

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Sometimes, when people ask me where I live, I say in reply, “The internet!”

It’s mostly true. Today, the internet made me very happy. That’s because something special happened today: I discovered the awesome Tumblr Dirty Library.

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It’s everything I hoped for.

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It’s everything I dreamed.

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It’s basically me. Childish, NSFW, filled with puns, sketchily drawn, good for a quick laugh. Me, me, me, me. (Quoth the Millennial.)

Check it out.

Two nice things: witches like saints & harvesting the moon.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 7.00.22 PM1. Isabel Allende is one of my all-time favorite authors. House of Spirits has always felt like a more feminine version of my favorite book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I know my love for magical realism has always made me seem a little immature—espeically compared with the “serious” literature majors I knew in college, who preferred texts that felt impenetrable to me, walls of text made by dead white men with axes to grind and bones to pick. But goddamn it, I like what I like, and what I like is crazy, New Agey, magical shit. Stories where cats walk on two legs and newts have sexy, sophisticated romances and snowy sculptures come to life.

But enough with my dumb, pretentious, self-critical rambling. Allende is wonderful and everyone should read her. She makes femininity feel like such a powerful thing—witchy and earthy and crude and delightful and free. I love how she writes women. Her female characters are round, and I mean that both in the literary sense and the curvy sense. I’m currently reading her memoir Paula, and it really makes me appreciate the power of female companions, friends, lovers, daughters, etc. Here’s one of the best quotes:

Witches, like saints, are solitary stars that shine with a light of their own; they depend on nothing and no one, which is why they have no fear and plunge blindly into the abyss with the assurance that instead of crashing to earth, they will fly back out. They can change into birds and see the world from above, or worms to see it from within, they can inhabit other dimensions and travel to other galaxies, they are navigators on an infinite ocean of consciousness and cognition.

Damn, girl. That makes me want to be a witch, like, yesterday.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 7.21.42 PM.png2. The second person I’m vibing on today is Bruce Monroe. He is a Pennsylvania-based artist who makes striking installations. The top image is “Moon Harvest,” a visual pun that projects images of the moon onto bales of hay. “Shower of Light” is the second image (directly above). He also uses CDs frequently in his installations, which, when placed together, turn into giant reflective surfaces that look like oversized sequins, glittery and fractured. Check out his other work (and find out where you can see one of his luminous pieces in person!) by clicking here. 

“A wandering mind unsticks us in time.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 4.31.32 PMNeed something to read in your post-holiday downtime? Here are a few interesting things from around the web, including the story of a very fancy French dominatrix, a theory about the real Jack the Ripper, and an article on why your brain needs to chill. Here we go!

A smart, obsessive screenwriter from England thinks he has figured out who Jack the Ripper really was, and he has a convincing theory as to why police never caught him. He suggests there was a massive cover-up born out of the cop’s connections to freemasonry (and the politicians and royals, too). The real Ripper was a philandering songwriter named Maybrick (in my head, I picture him like an old timey Mark Ronson):

In 1992 a diary surfaced in Liverpool, ostensibly written by a man named James Maybrick, in which he confessed to being the Ripper. Maybrick – who also happens to have been a Freemason – was a cotton trader and serial adulterer who died in 1889 as a result of poisoning. In one of the most controversial trials of the era, Maybrick’s wife Florence was convicted of the murder.

The diary was dismissed as a hoax. But reading it, something struck Robinson as a little odd. ‘It was written in three acts. Nobody writes a diary in three acts, because you don’t know what the third act will be. But the middle act, talking about the homicides, was so potent, so powerful, it got me thinking it could have been written by the murderer.’ But not by James Maybrick. Jack the Ripper, Robinson believes, was Maybrick’s brother Michael.

Michael Maybrick was a hugely popular singer and composer in the Victorian era, who is virtually forgotten today – for reasons that Robinson believes are no accident. He was particularly well known for his sentimental seafaring songs, written under the pen name Stephen Adams, among them Nancy Lee, the sheet music of which sold more than 100,000 copies in two years, and – ironically – They All Love Jack, which was written in 1887, the year before the Ripper killings began. His composition The Holy City sold more than one million copies, making it the best-selling song of the 19th century.

This Vanity Fair feature about a French author/dominatrix is straight-up bananas. It’s kind of over-written in that fancy, Voguey kind of way, but trust me, it’s still a reallllly good read. Here’s a taste:

Catherine embodied his lifelong obsession with young girls, resembling a little girl in her height, size, and manner. “Alain always said, ‘She’s my wife and my children,’ ” says Catherine. Well into her 30s she was regularly mistaken for Alain’s daughter. (Vladimir Nabokov met Catherine when the Stanley Kubrick film of his best-selling book was being cast and abruptly announced, “I want her to be Lolita!” He was sorry to learn that she didn’t speak English and so couldn’t play the role.)

Here’s an interesting detail about her book, which was published sous la table (a completely unnecessary bit of French is par for the course with this kind of rich-person profile. Note to self: Never do that!):

Susan Sontag named L’Image, alongside Story of O, as an example of pornographic books that she regarded as “belonging to literature.” And the book uncannily foretold Catherine’s own future erotic switch—17 years later—from submissive to dominant… L’Image was banned upon publication. The police arrived at the office of the publisher, Jérôme Lindon, demanding to know who was this “Jean de Berg”? “I have no idea,” lied Lindon, and, under their orders, he handed over copies of the book, which were burned. However, he continued publishing the book sous la table.

While we’re on the topic of sex, here’s a weird question: How does one design a cover for the book Lolita? Obviously, it is a difficult task, since designers need to chose imagery that nods at the subject matter but doesn’t glamorize it or sexualize the character. Many have tried. (And many have failed—too often the book looks like it’s about a consensual love affair between a precocious, sexy teenager and an older man, which very, very much misses the point.) Here’s an entire website devoted to Lolita covers, and here’s a great New Yorker article on the topic.

dee-nickerson-freedom-2015-30x40cmFinally, let’s all read this Scientific American story on why your brain needs more downtime and then immediately after, we’ll all close down our computers and go for a walk. Logically, I know I need to take breaks in between working and playing, but it can be really hard to make time for nothing. I’m great at doing things but I’m less adapt at just chilling, solo, without turning on some sort of stimulating device (TV, computer, podcasts, etc). But this article makes a great argument for taking out your earbuds, closing that book, and just… thinking. Without distraction. Here’s a good bit:

In making an argument for the necessity of mental downtime, we can now add an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to intuition and anecdote. Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.

Top image via Pinterest, artist’s page here. Second image by artist Dee Nickerson. See more of her work here

On polar bears and Barry Lopez.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 8.50.19 PMI dream about bears.

I am not sure when bears entered my subconscious in such a strange and vivid way, but they did, and I think they may be here to stay. I dream about ferocious grizzlies and playful fat black bears. I dream about big white bears with paws the size of dinner plates and hollow hair that gleams creamy-yellow in the northern sun. In my dreams, I see cubs climbing trees and sliding over the ice. I sometimes think I can smell them in my sleep; I’ve been told they smell of pinesap and animal musk. Sweet, sticky, fresh, brutal.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a bear. I never see these phantom bears in the woods or in any landscape when I might meet an actual bear. Once, when I was very tired and working late at Maine magazine, I thought I saw a bear descending the stairs on all fours. Of course, it was just my co-worker, bending over to pick up something he had dropped. I shook my head clear of fuzz and fur, and went back to my computer screen.

I don’t know where this fixation comes from. I never liked bears, not particularly. I always felt kinship with hares and foxes, smaller animals that leap and scurry, not big lumbering things. I was never afraid of bears, either. Not like I’m afraid of heights (that terror is illogical and visceral, something that breaks my composure entirely, turning me into a quivering puddle of metallic fear and foul-smelling sweat).

I saw a video today of a polar bear cub dreaming. I wonder if it dreams of people. I hope not. I hope it dreams of calving glaciers and frigid ice floes, of the epic sounds of its northern homescape. I hope it dreams in a palette of blue and turquoise, deep rich indigo and startling mint green—the colors of frozen water and star-lit midnight.

I am reading a most excellent book right now: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Never have I found an author whose career I desire as much as I want his. He makes nonfiction feel as pleasurable as fiction (and that is NOT an easy task). Someday, when I’m old and grey and going over my body of work, I want it to feel like his—varied, complex, focused on nature and the natural world, brave, smart, poetic. Here’s just a tiny sample of the wisdom and beauty that flows throughout Arctic Dreams:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Dreaming of bears and leaning into the light—one is my reality, the other, my goal. Not a bad place to be, for now.

Image: Sculpture by artist Ellen Jewett who makes “natural history surrealist sculpture.” See more here. 

Baring it all, body and soul. (Or, why poets are the bravest people on the planet.)

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Found today: “Poets Without Clothes.” It’s a website of—you guessed it!—poets without clothing. Some are half-naked. Some are nude. Some are showing their bare toes. Some cover their breasts. But they’re all vulnerable and rather sweet. The Tumblr was inspired, naturally, by Walt Whitman, he who wrote:

   Let us all, without missing one, be exposed in public, naked,
monthly, at the peril of our lives! let our bodies be freely
handled and examined by whoever chooses!
Let nothing but copies at second hand be permitted to exist
upon the earth!

I wonder, which feels more raw: stripping off your clothing for a photograph, or stripping bare your soul for a poem? Which tears at the fabric of your being more? Which induces more shame, which brings more joy? They’re similar acts, but not the same.

Here’s a good would-you-rather for your next party:  Would you rather bare your body in public, warts and all, or publish your most jagged and painful personal thoughts? Personally, I’d rather take my top off.

Above: Patti Smith in the nude. More here.