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.

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Your wild is tame compared to these reindeer-riders.

05-mongolian-reindeerOne of my many 2016 goals is to get in touch with my wild side. I don’t mean my party-girl-stay-up-all-night self (no, I know that bitch well enough already, thanks) but my moss-sniffing, leaf-eating, earth-worshipping wild side. The side of me that revels in storms and licks the rainwater off my face. The side that dreams of bears and sleeps under the stars.

This part of myself is also loud and a little unruly. She feels everything and she reacts quickly. She knows her place in the world and loves it (she’s joyful, that wild girl). She’s dirty and willful and perhaps even sometimes a little obnoxious. But she doesn’t give a fuck. Because that’s what being wild is… to me, right now.

But as I write this, I am reminded of the actual wild folk on this planet, the people who live off the land for twelve months of the year. Compared to many people in this big world, I’m the tamest little shrew that ever lived, typing away on my laptop, safe in my bed, miles from any the real wilderness. In many ways, I have an easy life, a cushy one that allows me to grow fat on my butt and fingernails too long for manual labor.reindeerriders1

I know “easy” is relative. I know one way of living is not superior to another. I know I am romanticizing the nomadic, of-the-land lifestyle that many people lead by necessity. But I do think there’s something I can learn from listening to my wilder side. I think there’s a lot the earth can teach me; so many things the world has yet to reveal.

Today, I am gazing at pictures by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a Harvard-educated photojournalist and scholar with a Phd in Mongolian and Tibetan languages. He spent over a decade living in Tibet and the Himalayas, documenting the lives of nomadic tribes and herders. He captured women riding reindeer and men communing with bears. He documented a girl and her fawn and a boy gazing proudly at his trained eagle. He lived amongst these people, learned their habits, and depicts their wild lives with compassion, honesty, and just a little romance.

Mongolia_Reindeer_PhotographyThere’s nothing wild about looking at pictures on your computer screen, but it is very inspiring. Check out more of his work at MessyNessy or on his official website. 

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. 

By the light of the moon.

Darren Almond Full Moon PhotographyPhotographer Darren Almond uses the full moon to light his landscapes, and the results are otherworldly, frothy and strange, with muted colors and streaks of brightness as stars move across the sky. “With long exposures, you can never see what you are shooting,” said in an interview with The Guardian. “But you are giving the landscape longer to express itself.”Fullmoon-Quatrain700

Moonlight has always felt rather magical; I think it helps reveal things that are normally concealed. It shows the landscape at its softest, most vulnerable. Like people, who undress at night and slip under the covers, turning toward each other in quiet intimacy, the earth slowly disrobes as the moon rises, shedding layers of shadow and light until only the thing itself is left. You have to strain your eyes and open your apertures to see it. You have to wait. Steady, still.  Continue reading

“When I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

Friend_A-03Sometimes, I think the stars come out at night because that is when we are tired and worn, when we feel threadbare from the demands of the day. Stars ask for nothing (and most pleasures do ask for something; even flowers beg to be smelled). They are the stalwart companions of the insomniac, steadfast enough to guide a ship. The night sky is the largest, most expansive thing I will ever see with my own eyes. I can look out across an ocean, but as the world curves, it turns and hides itself, coyly holding back a glimpse of my final destination. The night is a gift in that way, a brief time when hidden things become visible, a suitcase turned inside-out and upside-down. Those stars, bone-white and unfathomable, are infinite in a way that nothing in my life will ever be infinite. They are beyond me always; beyond the grasp of my mind, beyond the reach of my arms. And yet, all I need to do is walk outside and I can take part in that silent symphony. Always, I’ll have the stars. And never will I ever have the stars. I find this comforting. I find this to be true.

Image by photographer Amy Friend. 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. 

Great words in graphics and what I learned from kid writers.

Minimalist word poster by Mick WatsonI say this all the time, but teaching writing is one of the shiniest, happiest parts of my life. I work with the wonderful people at The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center located in downtown Portland, Maine. I haven’t been teaching for too long, but I’m learning quickly how difficult it can be—but also how rewarding.

One of my favorite things about teaching writing is seeing how kids use language. They go crazy with it! They can be free and funny and break all the rules. It’s like how Picasso said it took him four years to paint like an old master, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child—there’s something to be said about un-learning things, throwing education out the window, and thinking like a child.

But while my students may have a leg-up when it comes to sheer inventiveness, here’s one thing I have on them: Vocabulary. Kids simply haven’t learned all the beautiful, specific, melodious words that English can provide. Which is where these super cool minimalist posters come in. To address the vocabulary question, a graphic designer from Edinburgh named Mick Watson created a series of posters that depict complex words in simple graphics. “I was thinking about my 9-year-old daughter’s expanding vocabulary and wondered that if I made some posters with a visual hook and put them up around the house whether she’d pick them up,” Watson told Slate writer Kristin Hohenadel. “She was being a contrarian at the time so I started there!”

Watson’s list includes some of my favorite words, like petrichor and deasil. And I admit, I learned a few new words looking at his designs! See more of Watson’s Word of the Day project online here.