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. 

Sylvia Plath draws bulls and bull thistles.

bull sylvia plath“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it,” wrote 24-year-old Sylvia Plath in a letter to her mother. She describes coming upon a bull in a field (at least, she thought they were bulls for “they seemed to have no utters”) and sitting down on a river bank to draw those cows—”my first cows.” sylvia-plath-purple-thistle-drawingHer drawings aren’t perfect or particularly noteworthy. But Sylvia Plath is one of those writers who I admire reflexively. When I was younger, before I knew better, I admired her for her tragedy, for her sadness and her bitter bleak world. Now, I admire her language. She writes with the same sparsity with which she draws: simple, bold, present.

More here. Or buy it 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. 

Two nice things: a poem by Colleen McElroy and the fantastical photography of Cig Harvey.

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Sometimes the Way It Rains Reminds Me of You
Colleen J. McElroy

these days I speak of myself in the past tense
writing about yesterday knowing tomorrow
is no more than mist crawling toward violet mountains
I think of days when this weather meant you
were not so far away   the light changing
so fast I believe I can see you turning a corner
the rain comes in smelling of pine and moss
a kind of brazen intrusion on the careful seeds of spring
I pay more attention to details these days
saving the most trivial until I sort them for trash
or recycle   a luxury I’ve come to know only recently
you have never been too far from my thoughts
despite the newborn birds and their erratic songs
the way they tilt their heads as if dowsing for the sun
the way they repeat their singular songs
over and over as if wishing for a different outcome

Read that poem aloud. It is so beautiful—both in the lyrical language and the subject matter (I would like my life to smell like rain and pine and moss, please and thank you). Then, go look at these stunning images by Maine photographer Cig Harvey. Although we live in the same state, and have contributed to the same publications, I’ve never worked with Harvey. So far, I’ve just admired her work from a distance. Her photographs are rich with surreal, subtle magic. I dig it.

Hair as straight as sticks, dreams as frail as bog cotton, and eyes as big as plates.

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On the internet, this series of photographs has gotten a lot of attention under the headlines “Old Finnish People with Things on Their Heads,” which, while funny, really obscures the purpose of these strange pictures. The series is actually called “Eyes as Big as Plates,” a rather beautiful name, if you ask me. Originally inspired by Scandinavian folklore, the series has grown to cover people living in New York, Japan, and Iceland. It’s the creative work of photographers Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen and while I do think it’s peculiar and humorous, I also think it’s a wonderful depiction of human dignity, just people being people in their natural environments. Sure, we don’t typically adorn ourselves with windswept sticks and stand atop a cliff… but why not? It’s not like I do anything better with my days.

I might just be in sleepy fiction mode, but each piece feels like a writing prompt to me.

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Ilisia, the goddess of nightmares and daydreams, wonders whether she should claim credit for her most beautiful creation, the nightmare that incubated in an Englishman’s head until it was ready to spring forth, fully formed on Ilisia’s gracious loom, from his tingling fingers. Oh how she loathed the need for a human conduit! “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks,” she whispers into the air, a fine mist of spit spraying from her cracked lips. “You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout, till you have drenched our teeples, drowned the cocks!” Her voice lowers to a rumble in her throat, barely audible, but the birds listen still: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

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Marvin lay down for a little rest in the wood behind his house. He thought he could find his way back easily—if not by sight, then by scent, for his wife Nona had been making Borscht when he left and the savory red smell lingered in the air. Sadly, when he awoke, he could smell no stew and see no house. All had aged, for faeries trick time and men who stray from the hearth are seldom mourned.

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“Who are you looking for?” the man asked. “Oh no, Lars is not here. I am Otso and I am a bear.” He took a piece of dried rabbit out of the pocket of his trousers and began to gnaw at it, making the most disgusting noises as he ground and gnashed his old man teeth. For a moment, his headdress slipped, and I’ll tell you this, my friends: He really did look just like Lars.

See more.

Fanciful work: Inside the studio with children’s illustrators.

Childrens_Book_Illustrators_Jake_Green
If you, like me, get the Sunday night blues, here’s something that might get you excited for the work week: inspiring photos of artists at work! Photographer Jake Green spent the past year documenting children’s illustrators in their studios and the results are intimate, sharp, and cool. The above picture is of Katja Spitzer, a Berlin-based artist, drawing one of her colorful creatures. (If you’ve got little ones, take note: her book Let’s Go Outside is so cheerful and bright, I bet kiddos would love it.) I always enjoy seeing how creative types work, and Green’s photographs make me feel like I’m peering through the window, spying on their process (but in a nice, admiring, non-creepy way… is that possible?) Take a closer look here. 

We can go swimming.

If there is one thing I hate about spring, it’s the waiting. Waiting for your first truly warm day. Waiting to wake up to open windows and not a pile of snow. Waiting to swim.
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Swimming is the most sacred act of summer. All other warm-weather rituals pale in significance when compared to the first hesitant steps into lakes still cold from mountain run-off, ponds yet to become fragrant and discolored as leaves and twigs and small, nimble fish live and die and stew in their shallow edges. I can remember my first swim of almost every summer. Feet bare in the sand (bare feet—another pure joy that never loses its sweetness!) eyes stubbornly stuck on the place where, I imagine, I can no longer walk on tiptoes and keep my shivering chest above water, the place where I’m forced to embrace the water or retreat. I’m not the run-and-dive type. For me, it’s a slow walk. First my lower legs (that’s easy). Then my thighs (harder). As the water comes up to the top of my bikini bottoms, laps at my navel, I realize I’m in for the full immersion. That’s the point where there is no going back. One step, maybe two deeper, and then I always let go. Spread my arms out and fall forward, as though I’m leaning into the arms of some trusted beloved. Fall, and then swim.

swimmers2I can’t find image credits for either of these images. So if one is yours, please forgive. They are both so inspiring—one sinister, the other sweet, but both made me thirsty for summer.