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

Everything she wants to say: Some paintings by Helen Lundeberg.

yas-queen-helen-lundeberg“My paintings and drawings say everything I want to say,” artist Helen Lundeberg once famously said. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about why her minimalist work is so visually appealing, but since she since she was a lady of few words, I’ll keep my commentary short, too.

Here is a dope landscape: helen-lundebergHere is a painting that made me go YAS QUEEN: here-for-it-helen-lundebergI’m HERE FOR IT, Helen Lundeberg! i-like-you-helen-lundebergIf you’re a New Yorker (which you probably aren’t since my blog is weirdly popular in Finland and Portugal but not NYC) go see her work at the Cristin Tierny gallery as part of an exhibit titled “Classic Attitude.”

Plus, here’s a NY Mag slideshow of her works. I have always liked Alex Katz, but I love Helen Lundeberg (they’ve got similar vibes going on). So flat! So minimal! Such colors!

Pretty dark: Star kicking.

mihoko-ogakiI learned a new term today, thanks to my favorite nighttime distraction, The Myths and Legends podcast, and I’m excited to share it with everyone (even though I suspect few people will want to hear it). Our history lesson of the week is the phrase “star kicking.” Though it sounds beautiful, it’s actually what famed Hungarian torturer, sadist, and murder Countess Elizabeth Bathory did to people she disliked. Well, it’s one of the many things that twisted bitch did—she also drained people of their blood, ate peasant girls, and murdered hundreds of people. (She preferred adolescent girls, because, let’s be real guys, even women hate women! That’s the real poison of the patriarchy.) But anyway, she also liked to stick pieces of parchment between her victims toes and light them on fire. They would then kick and flail in attempts to dislodge the flaming pieces of paper and animal skin. Thus: Star kicking.

Horrible, right? It sounds so pretty. Star kicking. It has a real rhythm to the syllables, a real swing to its iambic feet, those insolent i’s and careless k’s. But damn, Bathory was messed up.

The more you know, right?

Image: Sculpture by Mihoko Ogaki, part of an ongoing series of installations called “Milky Ways.”

For now we have parsley.

sadnessWhen I grieve, I feel it. Not feelings feel it, but I physically, literally, intensely feel it. This isn’t unusual, I know, but it never ceases to amaze me. When my emotions are too much for my head to handle, my body begins to ache. My chest hurts, a pain that feels heavy. Breathing becomes a burden. Tears do nothing to wash it away.

I’ve learned that there is no way to move beyond grief except by moving through it. By feeling it with my whole body. By letting my heart be a rock for a while. By letting my limbs be numb and heavy and my brain be clouded and fogged. I cry until my eyes hurt. I remind myself, “Drink water, sleep, take care of yourself.” I drink, I sleep. I eat strange meals of zucchini soggy with vinegar, bunches of parsley pulled from the fridge and balled up in my fist, pieces of dry, broken crackers that taste like ash in my mouth. I drink more water, and then it comes out in tears.

Healing will come eventually, but grief comes first.

For now, we have poetry (and water and parsley). Here are some good words:

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Barry 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Illustration by Willian Santiago. See more here. 

Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of imagination.

aster_hung

From a fascinating New Yorker article about the prolific fantasy and sci fi author as she approaches her ninth decade of life comes this perfect quote:

“Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”

Please inscribe this on my gravestone. Or maybe I should tattoo it on the inside of my eyelids as a reminder to open them every once in a while.

More bits and bobbins from her fertile brain can be found here.

Image by Aster Hung. See more of her creepy-pretty paintings on her website. 

An email to my aunt & things to do in Portland, Maine.

portland-harbor-0I get paid to write about Maine and just as importantly, to know things about Maine. I write shopping guides and restaurant roundups, bar reviews and weekend trip planners. I write for local newspapers and magazines and sometimes for national publications. As a result, out-of-towners often ask me what they should experience while in Maine. I dole out restaurant recommendations on the regular, and I love doing it.

But here’s the thing: When I’m writing for a magazine or a newspaper or even a website, I always tailor my voice and my opinions to their audience. This isn’t unusual. This is what all writers do—we write toward our audience. Plus, editors are then hired to go over my words and ideas and shift them, orient them towards their intended audience. Often, three or four different people read my writing, tweaking it all along the way. It’s a great system, and one works well. Editors are wonderful beings, and I really respect their work.

But still, sometimes the final piece, the piece that goes to print, isn’t so much about what Katy Kelleher likes as it is about what Magazine X likes.

That’s why I’ve decided to share something here. It’s an email I wrote this week for my aunt. She was coming to Portland, and she’d never seen the city. I wanted her to have the best possible experience, so I emailed her a list of my favorite places to eat, see art, shop, and just generally hang out. I couldn’t spend the whole day with her, but I could try to shape her experience a little. And unlike most of my writing, this wasn’t meant for public consumption. The intended audience was just my aunt—my feminist, funny, smart, art-loving family member. I wasn’t trying to impress her—but I hoped that Portland would.

So here is my unfiltered, unpolished, unedited list of Portland recommendations:

Continue reading

Pecking away at some bigger idea.

henn_kim_we-have-nothing

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.
henn_kim-2
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. 

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.