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

polar bear jill greenberg

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:

Polar Bear_Jill Greenberg_2

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. 

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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

Lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, and under-appreciated words: Part 1, M.

Greenland Drawing by Zaria FormanI don’t often start at the beginning, primarily because I rarely know where to find the beginning. As a writer, this is probably a bad habit, but I don’t care too much. Usually, it works out for the best—I find that starting at the beginning is the swiftest route to reader-boredom. I admit sometimes have trouble finding the end or figuring out how to wrap up an article, though I never have much trouble finding the punchline. I should probably just not write serious things and focus on telling jokes, but I am getting ahead of (behind? I’m not sure?) myself.

Anyway, the point is this: I am starting a new series of my blog of words that are lost, dead, underused, untranslatable, or under-appreciated. Basically, it’s going to be a bunch of cool words that I like and think others might enjoy.

I’m starting near the middle, because that’s what feels right (and because alphabetical order is great for glossaries, but not all that crucial for rambling bloggers). So today, I found three words that begin with M. Here ya go:

Montivagant (Noun, English)
This English word was used most often during the 17th Century and although it is considered a “dead” word, it’s not entirely forgotten. It describes a person who wanders over mountains and hills, a particularly ambitious vagabond. It’s someone who gains and loses altitude as they put one foot in front of the other, up and down, up and down. It’s a rambling man, a roadie without a band. In short, it’s how I want to live my life.

Mångata (Noun, Swedish)
This is a Swedish word that has no exact equivalent in English. It describes the “road-like reflection of the moon on water.” It’s that stairway to heaven that happens when you’re lakeside on a summer night and the moon rises big and slow and lazy.

Merrythought (Noun, English)
This word for the wishbone of a bird is extremely dated and sounds it (“Would you like to pull my merrythought?” asked no one ever). The first known appearance of “Merrythought” was in 1607. I’m squirreling this information away for use at Thanksgiving. When the dinner table talk inevitably and uncomfortably turns to politics, I plan to bust this one out to distract the quibblers.

Image: “Greenland” by Brooklyn-based artist Zaria Forman from her series “Chasing the Light,” which focuses on the interplay between light and water. I’ve blogged about her before, and I’m a huge fan of her work. See more here. 

Jenny Slate is a wise little chicken.

jenny slate is my hero
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.

How to be alive, according to Willa Cather’s grave.

georgia_okeeffe_paintingI’ve never understood why people visit the graves of famous people. I’m a very morbid person, yet this never struck me as something I wanted to do. However, I’d like to see Willa Cather’s grave, for as I recently learned, it holds a rather incredible message about happiness, life, and death. The line—”that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great”—comes from her novel My Antonia. Here’s the full passage (found via Brain Pickings):

The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Although I love the entire passage, I think my favorite part might just be: “Nothing happened.” I’m such a speedy person—impatient to my core. I frequently describe my motions in fiery terms. I burn through my work and blaze through books. I light up and burn out. I consume the world with big steps and fast motions. You know what doesn’t come naturally to me? Slowing down. Letting nothing happen. Being quiet and calm. Sleep.

I often wish I were different, that I could dissolve more easily into a moment. But perhaps that will come with time. If not, I’ll just try to keep Cather’s words in mind. At the very least, it’s a lovely way to think about death—a self disbanded, a body dispersed, a part of something entire.

Image by Georgia O’Keeffe, since the theme of the day is badass ladies of the American west, apparently. 

“You are the only custodian of your own integrity.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.12.15 AMBrain Pickings is one of my all-time favorite websites. It’s a thoughtfully curated selection of intellectual inspiration and bookwormy quotes. The woman who runs it, Maria Popova, who describes the site this way: “The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.” So good, right?

Naturally, Popova has accumulated quite a bit of knowledge in her years of running the site. In 2013, to celebrate seven years of pickin’ brains, she published a short essay on seven things she learned. It’s a lovely little meditation on how to generously give your time while protecting your own integrity, how to respect yourself and others, and why changing your mind is an important part of being human. Now, the fundamental points of this piece have been made into a sweet animated video. It is the greatest way to start a Saturday—some gentle music, some inspiration, and a reminder that slowing down and doing nothing at all is sometimes necessary. Vital even. It gives our brains time to be creative, space to play with new thoughts. I tend to think of my best story ideas in the shower. I think it’s partially due to the water (few things make me feel creative or light or good or strong like water on my body) but it’s also because showering is metal downtime, when I have nothing to do but let the drops wash over me and think, quietly and unfocused, open and without purpose.

I’m getting sidetracked! Go watch the video. Then go create things. Or do nothing. It’s Saturday, after all.

Here’s to finding sparkles.

muchaThis year, instead of making resolutions, I decided to think about who has inspired me in 2014. I have a bad tendency to compare myself to others, and it usually makes me feel horrible, lacking in some way. But it doesn’t have to! When I slow down and think about the people I love, and the traits I admire in them, I don’t feel lacking. I feel lucky. Lucky to know them. Lucky to learn from them.

Here are just a few people who inspired me in 2014. Every year, I resolve to be braver, to be kinder. This year, I want to be brave, kind, compassionate, ambitious, creative, and to see the sparkles that light up every day.

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