Summer goals.

Heres_to_best_friendsHere are my goals for this summer:

Spend more time with my best friend. Spend an afternoon lying in the sun and eating pizza and talking until we have nothing left to say, like we used to do as teenagers. (I’ll allow myself one cigarette, but only one, since smoking is much less pleasurable after watching Garrett march through cancer.)

Swim as often as possible. Never turn down an opportunity to swim because I am worried about how much I ate and how my stomach looks in a bikini. Never turn down an opportunity to swim because it’s raining or because I’m lazy or because I don’t have a swim suit. Just swim anyway.

Finish my book. Be happy with it. Remember that this book has been years in the making. Be proud of what I’ve done.

Sleep late.

Eat pie. Particularly pies made of berries and cherries.

Go camping. See more of Maine. Climb mountains. Ride a bike through the woods and be afraid, but do it anyway. Nap in a canoe. Pee behind trees because there are no bathrooms way out here. Eat s’mores. Make dandelion wine. Read magazines on the beach. Smell tree bark. Get drunk and swim in the ocean. Be too cold. Be too hot. Build a fort. Watch the stars.

Image: Illustration by Adams Carvalho, who makes being young look so fucking fun. 



Why I read, why I write: Erica Jong edition.

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Beware of books. They are more than innocent assemblages of paper and ink and string and glue. If they are any good, they have the spirit of the author within. Authors are rogues and ruffians and easy lays. They are gluttons for sweets and savories. They devour life and always want more. They have sap, spirit, sex. Books are panderers. The Jews are not wrong to worship books. A real book has pheromones and sprouts grass through its cover.  – Erica Jong

A very close friend recently told me that she finds my writing to be extremely tactile and sensory. That made my day. I have been told that my writing can be very physical before, that it oozes a little. Once, a copyeditor pointed out that my description of white water rafting sounded a bit too much like a description of rough sex. While I was mildly embarrassed (and pretty amused), I have to admit I was also a little proud. It wasn’t the effect I was going for (I was aiming for adrenaline and I guess I overshot!) but I think the slightly-sexual-ness comes from an interesting place. When I read for pleasure, I am drawn to writers who make everything feel sexy and alive and real. I admire prose that makes my stomach churn and my spine tingle.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize about myself: I want to viscerally connect with everything. People, places, animals, buildings. You name it, and I probably want to touch/taste/feel/smell it. I want this impulse to translate into something more than just a desire for experience, and sometimes I think it does (other times I think I’m just a glutton for novelty). I think, with a little more rigor, I can shape that into something worth reading. I want to pull out my guts and assemble them on paper, blood staining white to red, hands messy with the effort. And to be totally honest, I’m just practicing right now, on this blog. This is where I play around with words. It’s where I hone my skills and sharpen my knives. (So thank you for reading, because every page view makes my effort feel WORTH IT in a very real way.)

Today, I feel inspired by the work of Erica Jong, who makes me want to be a better writer and person. I’m inspired by my friend, Sophie, who gave me that lovely compliment mentioned above. (If I write from the gut, Sophie writes from the heart, and her heart is a compassionate, fierce, and beautiful place.) Finally, I’m inspired by Aleksandra Waliszewska. She makes art that is outlandish, pagan, brutal, and just a little bit pretty. For me, she strikes all the right notes in perfect order. Check out her stuff, and see if you agree.

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. 

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
 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. 

Pencils are trendy.

pencil shop cw pencilToday in hot trends: the humble pencil! Here’s my evidence:

1. The hilarious/absurdist Artisan Pencil Sharpening skills of David Rees, who offers his service by-mail from his home in the Hudson Vally. Because… why? Who cares. It’s funny. (Here’s David Rees chatting with The New Yorker.)

2. An exhibit called “The Secret Life of the Pencil” opens in London this week featuring photographs of the writing implements of famous artists, writers, and designers. Dying to know how Dave Eggers sharpens his pencil? I wasn’t either, but I clicked on this link and read the story anyway.

3. A pretty young hipster lady in New York City has opened a store called C.W. Pencil Enterprise which sells (you guessed it!) pencils. She has a tattoo of a pencil on her forearm. Her store has been described as intoxicating and charming. Then there’s this: “Her store is the size of a juice box, with a checkered floor and jars of yellow button chrysanthemums sprinkled around. With its spanking newness and luminous blocks of color, the place looks like an Edward Hopper canvas.” It sounds terribly twee and yet despite my cynical whining I still really, really want to visit!

Pencil, I’m so glad you’re finally getting your moment in the limelight (after being No. 2 so long to the pen). (Ugh sorry, I seriously couldn’t help myself.)

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.

I learned how to be a girl from Mary Karr.

moonrise-kingdom-04When I was 12, I stole Mary Karr’s first memoir, The Liars’ Club from my dad’s office and read it all the way through in a day or two. I remember rushing through it, gobbling it up like Melville with his oranges, hungry for every detail, thrilled by every disaster. I read it under the covers late at night as my sister slept in our shared room, snoring her little-girl snores and muttering in her sleep. I hated that I was the older sister—kid sisters, it seemed to me, were always more fun. Karr certainly was. Younger sisters had someone to teach them how to be a girl, someone to emulate. I had only books and a nerdy older brother, who taught me how to make chain mail, but not how to apply eyeliner (hence my early forays into makeup were rather unfortunate).

Some might say I was too young to be reading Liars’ Club (like my dad, for instance) but I think I read it at exactly the right time. That book gave me permission to be a little bit bad. And her next memoir, Cherry, taught how to be a teenager, how to be a tough little beast who takes a beating and gets right back up.

Karr continues to teach me how to live through her graceless mistakes and graceful language. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Karr in The Paris Review: 

You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.

But we remember the bleakness.

That’s mostly what we remember.

I’ve read this interview several times over, and each time, I learn something about being in the world and writing to it.

Anyway, if you haven’t read Liars’ Club or Cherry, they’re both wonderful books. Cherry is the story of her high school years. I read it when I was in high school myself and it was so refreshing and real. It felt like someone I knew was talking to me, telling me that it’s all going to be okay. I wish schools taught Cherry instead of Catcher in the Rye. Boys that age could use a little female perspective once in a while.

Why I read, why I write: Making jewelry for the inside of your head.


My work is incredibly important to me personally. It brings me joy and it brings me life and it brings me meaning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be important to the people who read it. It would be nice if it did bring them life and meaning, but it doesn’t have to. It’s not their fault that I wanted to be a writer. I just want to do it because I like doing it and it’s a pleasure. I always quote Tom Waits, because I had this amazing experience of getting to interview him and every single thing that he said was so Socratic—he’s just biblically wise about the arts—and he said something like, “You know, it’s not that important what I do. I’m just a guy that makes jewelry for the inside of people’s heads.”

OH GOD Elizabeth Gilbert nails it, all of it, in this very long, very wonderful interview with The Rumpus. Most people know her from Eat, Pray, Love and  many “serious” writers and readers tend to dismiss her because of the chic lit nature of that particular book. But she’s so much more than that! She’s a wonderful nonfiction writer (The Last American Man is one of the most fascinating true stories I’ve ever read) a sharply funny fiction writer (Pilgrims, her short story collection, is also worth a read) and one of the best TED speakers ever (seriously, go watch this right now—it’s awesome).

I’ll stop fan-girling now and stick to the facts. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert makes me feel better about getting rejected, because that’s just a fact of writerly life. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert recognizes the value of hard work and fights against the whole idea of genius, a toxic concept that’s killed plenty of genuine creativity. Fact: Elizabeth Gilbert also recognizes that writing isn’t truly that important. It’s not! It’s a wonderful thing to read and a wonderful thing to write, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. It’s one way of addressing the existential despair and the turtles-all-the-way-down nature of the unknowable universe but it’s not life or death.

And, once you recognize that slightly uncomfortable fact about our work, there’s no excuse for not having some goddamn FUN with it.

Above image: sculpture by Ellen Jewett, a Canadian artist who creates fantastical and otherworldly animal pieces.