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.

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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. 

Greetings from the Arctic Circle (and why animal sounds are just sublime).

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Today I am revisiting a book I haven’t read since college (though in college we called it a “text”), Edmund Burke’s On The Sublime and Beautiful. Despite it’s rather strange specificity (he devotes paragraphs to explaining why some colors evoke feelings of the sublime, while others do not, or why looking down from a great height feels more moving than gazing up at something equally tall) it feels appropriate for my current geographical situation.

A few hours ago, I crossed over the imaginary, human-delineated line into the arctic circle. I flew into Bodø and boarded an old 60’s cruise ship, which goes port-to-port all the way to Hammerfest. The weather is poor—rain, sleet, and some muculent snowflakes—and the waves are rough (I have fed myself enough dramamine to dizzy a whale) and the company is blue-haired and heavily accented, but I’m enjoying myself immensely despite all that. I’m reading a lot and staring at the ocean for extended stretches of time. I’ve thought about a lot of very stupid things but I’m trying my best to keep focused on more useful ideas or (gah, excuse the cliche) living in the moment. Sometimes, that second thing comes naturally, even for me, because certain emotions occupy the brain like hostile soldiers, leaving no room for dissent (or intrusive thoughts or niggling worries). Fear, even fear of vomiting from motion sickness, will do that. But so does astonishment, and I’ve felt a good deal of that in the past four hours. Burke explains the effects of astonishment like this:

The Passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

Mountains, whether I’m looking up at them or down from them, never fail to astonish me. Animals, too, can be astonishing. Later in his very thorough book, Burke grapples with four-legged things and the sounds they make:

Such sounds as imitate the natural inarticulate voices of men, or any animals in pain or danger, are capable of conveying great ideas; unless it be the well-known voice of some creature, on which we are used to look with contempt. The angry tones of wild beasts are equally capable of causing a great and awful sensation… It might seem that these modulations of sound carry some connexion with the nature of the things they represent, and are not merely arbitrary; because the natural cries of all animals, even of those animals with whom we have not been acquainted, never fail to make themselves sufficiently understood; this cannot be said of language. The modifications of sound, which may be productive of the sublime, are almost infinite. Those I have mentioned are only a few instances to show on what principles they are all built.

There haven’t been any polar bears in this part of Norway for a long time, but I still dream of seeing one. From a far distance, while I’m wearing an armored suit and holding a flare gun, just in case. Just look at these sexy beasts:

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Anyway, I have to go now. They’re serving warm fish soup (“varm fiske suppe”) on the outdoor deck and I’m going to try to sneak a second portion.

Images by Jill Greenberg, an amazing photographer who somehow makes every piece look like a silky, rich painting. See more of her series “Ursine” here. Read the full text of A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful for free on Bartleby.com. 

Jetlagged in Zurich & where I’m headed next.

rhythmic-landscape-on-lake-geneva-1908On the plane ride from Boston to Zurich I met a girl named Desiree who was flying home to Bern. She had been visiting her boyfriend (a Mexican-American serving in the US Air Force). She missed him already, and I told her I missed my guy, too, even though we had only been apart for a few hours.

When we got off the plane, she helped me find the shuttle train, those quiet and sleek trains that seem to have been installed in every major airport. I was asking her about Switzerland—do you like living in Bern? what is the best thing to eat while I’m here? what’s cool about Zurich?—and when we got on the train, she pointed up with one finger. Her eyes were the kind of pristine china blue that inspires men to write longwinded rock ballads. “Listen,” she told me. “They play cows and the sound of birds and that big instrument that you blow? That big one that is shaped like a…” here she used her hands to draw a large swoop in the air. “That’s Switzerland,” she said as the sound of mooing started playing over the intercom. She laughed.

Earlier in our conversation, I asked her what she liked about America. She said a lot of things, but my favorite was this: She said it was just like the movies. She wanted to go to a house party, having seen so many on screen. “Those red plastic cups!” she exclaimed. “Solo cups,” I provided. “I love them, too.” I asked if she got to play beer pong, and she said yes, and even though this sounds silly—your country has cows, mine has house parties and drunk college students—it made me feel infinitely better about America. We’re the country of flip cup and Hollywood and boyfriends in the Air Force and lots and lots of land.maggia-delta-before-sunrise-1893

I’m in a Holiday Inn in Zurich now. It’s a 24-hour layover before I fly to Oslo. I can’t sleep, because my body hasn’t figured out which knob to pull to reset and rewind its inner watch. I spend the day wandering around the city. I spent hours in an art museum (more on that another time) before walking aimlessly around the streets until my feet hurt from the cobblestones and my mind felt foggy. It’s a Sunday, so all the shops are closed, but it was 50-something degrees out and it seemed like the entire population had come out to celebrate. I walked across bridges, back and forth crossing one side to the next, like I was lacing up a shoe. On each bridge, I stopped to look south, out to Lake Zurich, out to the Alps. I’m always looking toward mountains.

Tomorrow I fly to Oslo. From there, I go further north. It’s as though I harbor a compass inside my ribcage, an iron needle that hums and worries when it’s being ignored. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always fantasized about the far north, the arctic, the cold, the clear truth of ice.

I’ll be there soon. Zurich was lovely, and I miss America already, but I’m excited for Finnmark. I hope to write more on this blog while I’m there, so whoever is reading this… I’ll see you again soon.

Images by Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, who may just be my new favorite artist. He believed in something called “parallelism,” a system of symmetry and rhythm that connected people to the landscape and created world harmony. (I think? I’m not sure I fully understand.) His work reminds me of the Viennese Secessionists (my fave) and I spent a very long time in a room with his paintings today, just staring. Today was a good day. 

Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of imagination.

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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. 

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.

On color, beauty, and joy.

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Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways… For the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion. He does not conceive an idea, and then say to himself, ‘I will put my idea into a complex metro of fourteen lines,’ but, realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete.

– Oscar Wilde, excerpt from “The Critic as Artist”

Images above from (of all places!) a Sony ad, in which eight million flower petals were exploded into the air above a Costa Rican town. The petals, which took weeks to gather, weighed 3.5 tons. While part of me wonders at that many flowers being torn apart (and picked from the ground) a bigger part of me thinks: This is what pure joy looks like.

What a joy that day must have been.

A small and lovely thing for which I am grateful.

Roberta_ZetaI love the way people move around a sleeper. The exaggeratedly slow motions, the subtle attempts to be quiet, the way they step lightly. Have you ever seen a child tiptoe around their dreaming parent? It is the sweetest thing—they invariably seem to make more noise as a result of their awkward little steps, overcareful and unnatural, burdened with an excess of intent.

I confess: I sometimes pretend to have fallen asleep because I love to listen to how others move around me. When I stay at my mom’s apartment, I feign rest for longer than I’ve been awake. I lie there, listening to her quietly put on the kettle for her morning tea. She shuts the refrigerator with elaborate slowness as I stay still, silent, with closed eyes and slowed breath. Of course, I most often experience this sensation around Garrett (my roommate and love). Sometimes, when I am close to sleep or very relaxed, I will feel him begin to pull his arm from out from under me, gradually inching it from under my neck. I could just tell him I’m still awake, and if he wants to go play video games, I don’t mind one bit. But instead I let him extract his arms from my tangles of hair and move out of the room with calculated lightness. The door shuts without a creak, no puff of air to mark the insignificant transition from one state to the next.

I’m not sorry for this little white lie, because it is such a happy thing, to be taken care of as you sleep.

Image: Picture by the very talented illustrator Roberta Zeta. See more here.

On radical empathy and trying to be a human being.

Walton_Ford_Wolf_ParadeI teach kids writing part-time. One of the things I teach them is how to actively listen. “When you interview someone, you have to listen, really listen,” I tell them. “You have to listen hard to what they’re saying. You have to be an active listener.” I tell them variations of this. I tell other writers variations of this, too. I say I’m working on being an active listener, an empathetic listener. I say this will help my “craft,” though I don’t like to use that word (it seems much too lofty for magazine writing). What I don’t tell anyone is the truth. That I listen most when I’m most depressed, that this is my way of hiding how toxic I am, how poisonous my company can be.

Does this sound virtuous or self-pitying? I would prefer it to sound virtuous, as though I were saving my bad energy for those who deserve it (i.e. myself). I suspect it sounds self-pitying and rather self-promoting. Look how good I am! I practice empathy like overachieving children practice the violin. Fumbling, out of tune, cringing at their audience, balanced narrowly on the edge of embarrassed and proud.

Listening closely allows me a way out of nearly every social situation. It doesn’t require me to pass judgment or think analytically. I have sat quietly and listened while friends describe their ongoing affairs with married men. I have nodded and told them I could sympathize, that I could see how hard it was on them. I have listened closely while someone very close to me told me about her suicidal thoughts. I looked at her, staring into her face. “I understand,” I said. I offered nothing else. I have let justifications sweep over me quietly as one friend eviscerates a mutual friend, tearing them to tiny, petty shreds. I nodded. She needed to vent. I get it. I always get it.

This is my biggest strength and my greatest weakness. I am a big bloody mess of emotion that drips all over everything. Am I staining your carpet? I’m so sorry. I have had things ruined by this problem, too. Please forgive.

It’s a complete cop-out though. It’s a way to phone-in human interaction. It seems so deeply virtuous, so wonderfully kind. Empathy is so important—I do really believe that. But I also feel an excess of empathy sometimes, a porousness in myself that I fear goes both ways. The world bleeds so easily into me, I must bleed so much onto it.

I read about someone who was practicing radical honesty. They weren’t allowing themselves a single lie, not even the kind we call white. No “I’m almost there, just give me five minutes!” No “Seriously, it tastes great!” I find that idea terrifying. Honesty all the time can be exhausting and dangerous. But maybe empathy all the time is just as bad? I believe that there’s a brutality to any kind of excess, just as there’s a beauty in excess. Maybe brutality and beauty go hand in hand and they always will—the older I get, the more I suspect this is true.

Or maybe I just don’t understand the world yet. Maybe if I listen more closely, I will.

Image by the great Walton Ford, whose work I admire so, so much. 

Jenny Slate is a wise little chicken.

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I
 fell in love with Jenny Slate in the brilliant indie movie Obvious Child. After the credits rolled and I finished drying my leaky eyes, I went back and rewatched all the Marcel the Shell videos before falling down the YouTube rabbit hole of Slate appearances. Obsessed is far too strong a term, but I do really admire this lady. Especially since all her interviews make her sound warm, funny, kind, thoughtful, and fascinating. Check out this little nugget of wisdom from a recent article in Rookie mag:

The goal should be that when you’re on your death bed, lying next to your body [there] is another beautiful body that isn’t physical, only you see it, and that body is your body of work. That to me is very comforting and exciting to imagine sometimes–who’s lying next to me when I’m dying? There’s me, my husband, and who’s on the other side of me as my body of work? What does she look like? Is it even me, is it even a woman, or is it an animal? A lot of times it’s an animal. [Laughs]

Your body of work doesn’t need to be seen by others, necessarily. It just needs to be yours, and to be beautiful to you, and to be something you love. I can’t help but imagine my body of work as a large, skinny-legged dog with gray hair and a wild streak. But who knows? Maybe my body of work will change, and someday I’ll find myself in bed with a kind old Garrett and an invisible giraffe with black hooves and brown eyes.

But Jenny knows she’s not there yet (and obviously, neither am I). When asked, “What stage of your career are you currently at?” she replies:

Hmm…building? I would say that if I was a chicken, I would have hatched out of the egg, but still have a little bit of egg goop on me. I don’t look like a [grown] chicken yet, but I’m almost to a fluffy, yellow chick [and] a little bit dirty, still. In a few years I’ll be a fluffy chick, then a slightly larger fluffy chick hanging out with a lamb, but I don’t think I’ll be the chicken until I’m 60 years old. Then I’ll be, like, the chicken. Right now, I’m still hurting my little foot by stepping on a bit of shell.

I look at Jenny Slate and I think: What a successful, put-together person. She sees herself as a chicken stepping on shells (side note: girl has a way with similes). It’s all so relative. I have time to shape my skinny dog still.