Blog

Soup Brain

make note

make notes toward what you want to keep

noticing—let the notes, all the little bits of cumulative debris

(internal cumulus clouds), let these be

a kind of song, too

//

to live among & within & through words or more vitally, caring attention—that’s the daily practice, not writing poetry 24/7. but living with poetry brain, which could be the same, depending on the day, as laundry brain or long-talk-with-good-friend brain or soup brain

Chen Chen

Swoon.

“It’s a gift.”

I’m an inveterate thrower of clothes on the ground at the end of a long day. Always have been. If I’ve gotten sweaty or messy enough to huck them straight into the hamper, great, I can do that. But the truth is I usually wear things more than once before putting them in the wash, and so I throw them on the ground instead.

All days have felt like long days lately. This means I find myself wading through more and more mess as the weeks drag on, until I have to dig myself out over the weekend and return to some form of sanity.

Living in Portland it used to be easier. Or rather, I had a lot more floor space to fill up before things became untenable. But now I’ve moved my expansive Portland life back into to my childhood bedroom and there is very little wiggle room in either floor space or desk space. Things devolve from “slightly untidy” to “Death Star Trash Compactor” in very short order.

A couple weeks ago, when I found myself preparing to cast yet another t-shirt onto the ground in the desperate rush to get flat, I stopped. For no apparent reason, I thought about how putting the shirt away would be a kindness to Future Lucy. A gift.

I found myself thinking: “I want to care for this person.”

I wonder if this has something to do with becoming a caregiver for my dad. So many nights I find myself exhausted and ready to be unconscious, but I rally to do physical therapy with him, or make his smoothie for the following morning, because I love him and want him to be healthy and cared for, and also because he isn’t able to do those things for himself.

There’s a certain amount of distance I need in order to extend compassion to myself. Future Lucy isn’t here. She’s hanging around tomorrow morning, readying herself to face the day. I want to make it easier for her.

So I’ve started putting shirts away—although not without a certain degree of attitude. Usually I am muttering to myself, but I’m muttering about how this is a gift, and that it’s one I want to give because I love the version of me who’ll show up and do all of this all over again tomorrow.

It works.

Annual Workbooks

Susannah Conway just released her 2022 Unravel Your Year workbook. I’ve been doing these since…christ, 2015? Yeah, that sounds right. A long time. I love them. (There’s also Year Compass, which asks a lot of the same questions in a slightly less woo way.)

I take and leave bits of this workbook every time I sit down to do it, usually over several days between Christmas and New Year’s, but I’m always left with a satisfying stack of reflective pages that anchor me during the year to come.

A collection of printed workbooks with creative covers on a purple bedsheet, each labeled with "Unravel Your Year" and then a date stretching from 2015 to 2021.

Things I’ve noticed over the last seven years of doing this:

  • In the first few years, it was easy for me to fill out the Year in Review portion, but nearly impossible to fill out the second half of the workbook—the part about dreaming and planning for the year to come. I had a lot of fear around predicting anything. I worried about getting it “wrong,” or about setting goals and then failing to reach them and then judging myself harshly for that failure. The truth is that I have listed things I want to do, books I want to read, places I want to visit, and then just…not done them. Sometimes for multiple years at a stretch! But one of two things tends to happen: either I realize down the line that I’m just not that fussed about the goal in question, or I get it done eventually and have to admit that a single year, while long, isn’t the only possible timeline for accomplishing a project.
  • The words I’ve chosen to anchor and guide myself each year seem to be moving toward more abstract or intuitive territory. (Ask -> Tell -> Trust -> Choose -> Cultivate -> Yield -> Flow) Some definitely worked better than others, but they all brought certain kinds of gifts. Absolutely a more effective and rewarding framework for me than specific resolutions.
  • I don’t usually refer back to previous workbooks unless I’m in major pattern-seeking mode, often due to some kind of emotional upheaval or major life change. The exception is the ritual of reading through the most recent workbook in July, which is both halfway(ish) through the year and also my birthday. I try not to spend too much time with it otherwise.
  • The letters I write to Lucy in The Present while pretending to be Lucy in December of Next Year never fail to make me cry. They also tend to be shockingly accurate in ways I cannot predict.

I used to have a really robust journaling practice—pages and pages of dense prose every day, each one compulsively smushed into the corners so no blank space remained. I’m sitting under a shelf full of these books, stretching all the way back to high school. They’re a valuable record, but also sort of…exhausting.

A dense spread of handwritten text in black and white, photographed from a journal.

I was so driven to write everything down in this breathless rush, as if writing could save me.

But over the last few years I’ve moved away from that practice. Now there’s the annual workbook, which gives me a view of the year from 10,000 feet, and then a collection of larger, unruled notebooks where I doodle and take messy notes and connect ideas. I started out telling myself those were just “feelings notebooks” (I think the first one started out exclusively as a space to grapple with the dissolution of a major relationship), but they’ve gradually become all-purpose repositories of emotion. Many of the Visual Dispatches I’ve posted here come from their pages.

Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness explores her own attachment to keeping a compulsive written record of everything in her life, and how the practice has waxed and waned over time. She writes:

Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it—which is to say imperfectly. Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing. And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

Yes.

Fade Out

I expect and hope that eventually I will no longer be a public person — no blog, no Twitter, no public online presence at all.

I have no plan. I’m feeling my way to that destination, which is years off, surely, and I just hope to manage it gracefully. (I don’t know of any role models with this.)

Brent Simmons

Brent spearheads NetNewsWire, the open source app I use and love for reading blogs via RSS. I didn’t even know he had a blog until Winnie (who, I should point out, I never would’ve met if she hadn’t tagged me in a post she’d written in response to something on this blog a week or so ago) wrote a little about the magic of the app being free earlier today.

I wonder about this, too. Whether there are people I know who are already working towards having not less of an online presence, but zero online presence. What it would feel like to return to the liberating anonymity of growing up on the early internet. Whether I’ll ever reach a stage of life where I can withdraw permanently, or if I’ll want to, or if it’ll always be a seasonal ebb and flow.

Glad I’m not the only one.

Old Post-It

A post-it note with "skipping days and piling up vs. skipping and always only having to do one thing. Second more forgiving. No consequences. Gets harder the longer you don't do it vs. stays the same effort."

Historically, when I’ve done daily drawing projects like the 100 Day Project and Inktober, I’ve felt strongly about starting on a set day and finishing on a set day. It’s often built into the challenge itself (a given calendar month, or a collectively-accountable longer start and end date), so I guess it makes sense. If I miss a day, I do two entries the following day to catch up. Miss two days? Do three entries on the third day.

I’ve always prided myself on this rigorous adherence to rhythm. I’m someone who gets shit done. Even if I fall behind along the way, I will finish on time. It becomes a pageant designed to placate my completionist, perfectionist ego.

But it also means that the more time I’m away from a practice, the more stressful the task of returning becomes. The work piles up in drifts. I feel more and more anxious. More daunted. More overwhelmed.

As far back as 2016 I was busy chewing on the act of returning as the backbone of a practice, rather than any tangible output that might stem from it. Having a creative practice or a yoga practice or a whatever-kind-of-practice is less about the times when I’ve been in the habit of drawing in my sketchbook or going to yoga every week. It’s about the times when I haven’t been going and then choose to return.

[Obligatory link to Fish, because it’s all about returning. I didn’t read for the first time until 2018, but it’s definitely impacted my thinking here.]

I wrote this post-it note long before I started drawing Seacritters, when I still lived in Portland and was doing a lot of very different things with my life, but I think it’s more applicable than ever.

I decided at the start of this graphic novel project that I could reliably rough out two pages a day. It takes me about an hour per page, and I can manage to spend 2-4 hours at the studio each day. Of course I’ve already missed days in the last few months of starting work on the book. I got sick. I threw a disc out in my back. I took a road trip. I was just too tired to work.

And then on top of that there’s the fact that a comics script doesn’t always translate neatly to the illustrated page! Sometimes pages end up needing to be split in two. Sequences expand and contract like lungs.

And so I feel myself working at a deficit again. The anxiety ratchets up and I worry that my original estimate of when the book will be done will become less and less feasible over time. I push myself to rough out three, four, five pages a day when I do get back to work. To catch up. To buy myself time.

What if I stepped away from something and the pressure to return didn’t ratchet up with each passing day? What if I allowed myself the right to return knowing that the expectation will be exactly same as it’s always been? Returning is always hard. Why am I making it harder? When I return, I don’t have to draw sixteen pages in a single day. I just have to draw two pages.

I always only have to draw two pages.

(So much of this process is just trying to build a system that tells my brain I’m okay.)

What Doesn’t Kill You

I originally published this essay on Medium in 2019. I’m reposting it here on my site because a) I want it to live in an online space I own, and b) it’s still infuriatingly relevant. With the Supreme Court continuing to threaten Roe v. Wade in the United States, it feels vital to normalize and humanize the wide variety of narratives around abortion. The National Network of Abortion Providers maintains a directory of local funds here. The Guttmacher Institute also has a map of states likely to ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which makes a decent cross-reference for where to direct funds if your state isn’t likely to implement a ban.

I also want to note that this issue impacts anyone with the reproductive capacity to become pregnant, including trans, intersex, and nonbinary people. (The Guttmacher Institute only began including explicit questions about these groups in their 2017 survey.) This isn’t just about “women’s rights”. I’m still working on expanding my understanding along these axes, which I share here in case anyone else is doing this same and feeling adrift. We’re all learning. Let’s keep learning.

CW: This essay deals with the emotional fallout of having an abortion as a teenager. You’ll see no shade from me if that’s not something you’re able to read about right now, but if you do manage it: I’m grateful.


I am sixteen, sitting sun-warmed against the stucco wall of the school library, hearing my voice shake as I schedule an appointment at Planned Parenthood. I am six weeks pregnant and scared out of my mind.

The nurse is very calm, explaining slowly and clearly what I should expect. We set a date during the week of my school’s spring backpacking trip. The morning I’m supposed to leave for the desert I call the trip leader and feign illness, but I’m not really lying. I am nauseous. Me, the kid who never plays hooky for anything, skipping a trip I’ve been looking forward to for months in order to have an abortion.

My pregnancy is not the product of an assault. It is just a mistake. I am young and ill-informed and, after seeing the results of the at-home test I smuggle into my family’s bathroom, floating ten feet above my own body in a state of absent horror.

But I am also lucky. My parents are shocked, but sympathetic and supportive. My state supports safe and legal access to reproductive care. I have been working as a lighting designer to save money after school. We all pitch in to pay for the procedure.

I throw up on the way to the clinic, unable to tell if it’s morning sickness or self-recrimination that drives me to hang my head out the car door and gag into the dirt. I think I am a monstrosity. A pariah. Even growing up in a progressive hippie town, my inherited societal commentator tells me I have made an unconscionable mistake, and now the only way to deal with it is an unconscionable choice that will haunt me forever.

Except it does not. Not in the way I think.

The staff are kind and gentle. The procedure goes smoothly. I keep tensing, waiting for guilt and remorse to follow the physical discomfort, but they do not come. After the sickening anxiety of the previous ten days, the whole experience grants me a sense of relief that doesn’t add up to what I’ve been told I should feel. The abortion is not the thing that damns me; it is the thing that absolves me. I have been given a chance to be more intentional — to carry my own dreams a little longer before choosing whether I will make them a scaffold for another human being.

I find hormonal birth control that works for my body. I go on to travel the world and graduate from college and build a career that nourishes me in so many ways. As I get older, I don’t avoid talking about the abortion per se, but it doesn’t come up very often in conversation.

Somewhere along the line I realize that I’m not discussing it because it feels unjustifiable. My life was not at risk. It would have been hard, but it would not have been impossible. I struggle with the belief that I was less worthy of access to this choice because there were no extenuating circumstances.

The discourse continues to escalate. People write op-eds. They launch hashtags. They share stories. They take to the streets. At every turn I consider joining the chorus, but I have seen that anyone wanting to make their own decisions about their body has to defend their right to do so in front of an angry mob, so I keep my mouth shut because “I didn’t want to” and “I wasn’t ready” do not feel like good enough reasons.

In 2017 I pass a man at the Women’s March in Honolulu holding a “Her Body, Her Choice” sign and break down sobbing. I realize some part of me still believes I do not deserve the life I’ve lived as a result of that procedure.

That same year, the Guttmacher Institute releases a study citing that one in four women will have had an abortion by the age of 45.

One in four.

I could have used this information back in 2007, trapped in that bell jar of shame. I could have known I was normal. It would not have killed me to carry that child, but it wasn’t the right time.

The conversations we’re having right now, however challenging and painful, are bridging the islands where we sit, isolated and hurt, thinking we are alone. Progress is not always a tidal wave of unified testimony. Sometimes it is quieter work, unlearning these messages in the deeper parts of ourselves — coming into the understanding of what is true for each of us, individually.

It would not have killed me to talk about this sooner, but it wasn’t the right time.

I think I’m ready now.

Come again, be again

1.

Jez and I talked about bonsai trees a lot tonight. He’d gone to the Pacific Bonsai Museum. We talked about creative work that becomes a conversation between a craftsperson and a living being—a conversation that will outlast its originator. A conversation across multiple generations.

The oldest tree he saw dated from 1850.

2.

Lives stop, but life keeps going. Flesh begets flesh.

Great cathedrals were built by generations of stonemasons to whom the architect was a man who might once have greeted their grandfathers’ grandfathers. How agreeable, then, to believe in God.

To set stones on stones not for the architect but for eternity.

The Latin epitaph in one seventeenth-century cathedral translates: Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.

The words are carved in a disk of black marble set beneath the center of the dome. The disk was placed there by the architect’s son.

It’s easy to imagine the great man, but try to imagine the son who knows his father’s cathedral will be loved longer than the flesh of his flesh.

Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

3.

I’m in a cathedral. My dad is in the cathedral. Our friends and neighbors—we’re all in the cathedral, eighteen-foot tall and wool-woven. Ostensibly we’re saints, but anyone from town would look around and just see people they knew. She lost her house in the Thomas Fire. He passed away last Christmas from pneumonia. This is the real record.

A panel from John Nava's communion of the saints tapestry from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. A group of pious-looking figures all face to the right, hands clasped in prayer, wearing a variety of garments. In their midst in a young girl with blonde hair.

I posed for the portrait in 1998. Before Y2K, but after the release of Spiceworld. When we saw the Cathedral open its doors in 2002, I was 13 and felt so worldly compared to the child self hung high on the yellowed walls.

September 4th 2002

The truth is: she’ll outlast me.

I haven’t been back to the Cathedral since, but I think about it all the time.

Maybe I’ll go.

5.

The Seed Jar.

6.

It was by this making of comparisons to analyse her feelings that Taryn returned from her period of healing to who she was, what mattered to her, and what was inescapable. Her troubles had pressed on her for weeks, not just ill health caused by the demon but the Muleskinner’s slow approach and what she thought she owed him—or worried he’d think she owed him. And there were other failings: how she took her former husband’s generosity for granted, and how little kindness she seemed able to show to her father. The rest of it—her book, the festivals, her agent’s and publisher’s expectations—receded. But what had taken the place of the pressures wasn’t Taryn’s own tranquillity; it was the land itself, the Sidh, promising always to be there, always to be the same. Promising also that it would be the same Taryn who stepped out with sound knees and clear eyes from this blue lake, or stone hearth, or apple shade. Come again, be again—that was its promise, a sense of permanence Taryn hadn’t felt since she was under ten years old and only able to imagine that she would always stay at Princes Gate with her grandparents, always find the same old Monopoly set, quoits, croquet hoops and mallets, the familiar punt, the cats—only a little indifferent whenever she arrived—but all as it should be, the same, permanent. The Sidh was turning Taryn into a child again, a child who knew everything sustaining would last. It gave her back that knowledge beyond faith—what the faithful meant when they said ‘faith’.

Elizabeth Knox, The Absolute Book

7.

I got a card at the Ojai Library last week. Walked into this building for the first time since I was a child and breathed the particular scent of spines and plastic and dust. Things were different, of course. Fewer shelves in the children’s section, no more chunky CRT monitors blinking green on black, keyboards shrouded in that satisfyingly tacky plastic skin. Keys you really had to punch to pull up the author of your choosing.

When I went looking for the books I remember devouring as a young reader, I found the same phalanx of Nancy Drew titles intact.

The Moomin novels, though, the ones I really wanted to see again, they were gone.

Visual Dispatch #6

A photograph of two bits of paper. The first has "How do you want to feel?" written across the top with a list of adjectives below. They include connected, fulfilled, stable, lauded, validated, helpful, effective, accomplished, calm, grounded, proud, challenged. Below that are phrases like "Survival without worry" and "Creating empathy in others". The page on the right lists five categories "Financial, Emotional, Internal, External, and Visible".

I was emptying out my backpack this morning and a bunch of bits of paper fell out of a hidden sleeve. There were postcards from my trip to Hawai‘i in 2017, thumbnails from the comic about Federated Learning I made for Google in 2019, and a couple scraps of paper containing (I’m fairly sure) notes for this talk on success—also from 2019.

I wish I could remember where the lines in quotation marks came from. Maybe they were responses from the participants at that workshop? Maybe they came up before I even gave the talk? Either way, it reminded me how much I’d poured into those two presentations (the other was about money, surprising no one), and how glad I am to have recorded them.

I’m stuffed up with a head cold this week and feeling very sorry for myself, so this video window into a me who was, well, with it feels really validating. So much has changed and twisted and refined in the past two years. I feel smaller in some ways—like the circles of influence I previously occupied have shrunk considerably—but also deeper. In the five spheres of success above, I feel as if I’ve traded Visible, External, Financial, and possibly even Internal success for something deeply Emotional. And I’m still trying to let the dust settle on that decision and learn how to make peace with it.

The lesson remains: these questions are never truly answered. Not really. Not if I’m doing it right.

Eavesliking

Sometimes, when I haven’t been on Twitter in a while, I go look at my friends’ Likes instead of drinking from the timeline firehose. It feels slightly creepy (sorry, Robin), but often yields real gems outside the wind tunnel of my own circles. Sometimes it’s a whole new person to follow, sometimes it’s just a phrase. Today it was this:

our ever-present mutual responsibilities are more visible when we’re at sea […] seafaring makes obvious something that is always true.

(Charlie Loyd)

Hear that? It’s the exhaust-spitting, bolt-rattling din of my brain firing up and gnawing on a new idea.

Grrhhrnnguuuhughgrrnnumnn.

Inflation/Deflation

Lily Williams wrote an absolute banger of a post about inflation, arts education, and fair wages for freelancers this week.

If we take the average woman artist’s 1980 income of $24,153 dollars and plug it into the US Inflation Calculator, we learn that in today’s 2021 money that would be $81,073.47.

Funnily enough, when I sat down in 2018 to try and figure out what I really needed to be earning to maintain my quality of life at the time, the number I settled on was $72,000 a year. (This process deserves a whole blog post of its own, because it also dovetails with adopting Whiteboard Accounting and was fascinating and only possible thanks to having started keeping an actual budget the year before. DATA! It’s life-changing.)

Anyway, jumping back to my post from yesterday: if I were charging my standard freelance hourly rate for my work on this graphic novel, I’d likely earn somewhere around $78,750 for a year’s work. This feels bang on target with what Lily is talking about! Bingo! Amazing! Inflation adjustment accomplished!

But that’s not the reality.

[…] when we compare that $81,073 to what the 2020 Census numbers are for artists... we find that the average income in 2020 was only $52,340. Meaning, yes, artists income hasn’t adjusted for inflation since the 1980s. In fact, artist’s income is less than $30,000 more than what it was in 1980, which is about $30,000 under what it should be if it had adjusted for inflation properly over the last 41 years.

Am I surprised? No. No I’m not.

So what do we do with the information that artists are underpaid and that their income has not adjusted for inflation since the 1980s? We strike back in the ways that we are able. Freelancers are less likely to make a strike because of the individual nature of freelance work, unlike more organized fields in art like creatives in the film industry, who have the IATSE Guild information and network to help organize strikes. So, from an empowered standpoint knowing we deserve more… what we do is charge more and we do not settle for less.

Hell yeah.