The Electric Pinball Machine

I finished Ali Smith’s Artful in bed the other night at 12:42am. I didn’t mean to. I’d told myself I wouldn’t. But I did, because every new page contained something that made me yell—actually yell—in the dark of my room and I’d already blunted my pencil with furious underlining and I couldn’t believe one person could weave so many wonderful threads into a cohesive whole.

This is the deep and abiding pleasure of the thing: to be introduced to new secrets—inducted into them, even—while also catching sight of familiar friends. Sometimes you read a book this rich before you’ve encountered enough of the source material and it just feels overwhelming. Other times the author will quote a phalanx of people you’re already familiar with and it’s…tired. The same quotes from the same famous figures. Nothing new.

But Artful…woof. It hit me just right. Just rich enough, just new enough, just familiar enough, just fucking weird enough to wrap me up in a giddy sense of total intoxication.

You know when you meet someone whose brain operates in way you find totally engrossing and energizing and you just want to spend all your time watching them cram things together into new and impossible forms? It’s like that. The mere fact of their existence grabs you by the shoulders and seems to bellow “If you’re not doing everything in your power to live in this electrifying pinball machine all the time then what are you even DOING WITH YOURSELF?”

Time Travel

This morning I woke up in my childhood bedroom and now I can’t stop thinking about time travel.

In her memoir Yes, Please, Amy Poehler talks about her belief in the phenomenon. Not in the fantastical Marty McFly sense, but in the “I just caught the last line of a song I used to love and suddenly I’m eleven again in the back of a bus driving across Death Valley” sense. Sometimes we seek it out, other times it catches us unawares. The fruit of this practice is a sense of cyclical, mutable perspective.

In this room I am and am not my eleven-year-old self. I see her contextualized through a different side of the prism, sharper from some angles and less accessible from others. The built-in desk I’m sitting at right now, with the mirror in the back and the two squeaky drawers and the carved channel for holding pencils, is a DeLorean in its own right. I remember filling it with childish renditions of animals in colored pencil, pouring my angsty teenage heart out into endless text documents on an iMac G3, coming home from college to stare at the photos taped to every surface.

The entire experience of being home is like this. Every artefact. Every tree. Every item of clothing. The layered richness of memory is so thick that I find it hard to look at or think of anything else. I shed my guise of being a self-made woman and become, instead, a stack of vellum sheets.

Such a reveal and a relief to see that I have roots. That I come from somewhere after all and it’s here.

The Lexicon

I was in high school when I started my first list of unknown words.

It happened because I was tired of acing vocab quizzes in English class without having to study, and that was happening because I was a precocious kid who read a lot of books and seemed unable to stop adding to her already unwieldy (and often socially alienating) internal dictionary.

So I made a list. And I formatted it like the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency homepage, because it was 2005 and that’s what we did back then.

L U C Y B E L L W O O D ’ S DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WORDS PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN heliotrope: n. A small, fragrant plant. aspersion: n. An unfavorable or damaging remark; slander. ornery: adj. Stubborn, ill-tempered. amalgam: n. A combination of diverse elements; mixture. solipsism: n. Philosophy stating that the self is the only reality. asinine: adj. Stupid, silly, foolish. metastasize: intr.v. To spread, especially destructively. sere: adj. Withered, dry. inure: v. The grow accustomed to something unpleasant. redolent: adj. 1. Aromatic. 2. Suggestive, reminiscent. lackadaisical: adj. Lacking spirit, life etc. parvenu: n. Someone who has recently become wealthy but lacks the social culture associated with his/her rank. effigy: n. A crude likeness of a hated thing. bindlestiff: n. A hobo or migrant worker. macadam: n. Paving made of compacted, broken stone covered with asphalt or tar. sanguine: adj. 1. Of the color of blood. 2. Cheerful, optimistic. ghat: n. a broad flight of steps leading down to a river. bedizen: v. To adorn or dress gaudily. sesquipedalian: n. A long word. adj. Given to the use of long words, polysyllabic. tintinnabulation: n. The ringing or sounding of bells. spate: n. A sudden rush or flood. recherché: adj. Refined and elegant to an extreme. fraterist: n. One who is compelled to sub against others in public. abreaction: n. The expression of a previously repressed emotion. coloratura: n. Ornate embellishment in vocal music. lascivious: adj. Lustful, lewd. gormandize: v. To eat greedily, gorge. imago: n. 1. An insect in its fully mature sexual state after metamorphosis. 2. Psych. An idealized image, often of a parent, unconsciously carried into adulthood. lascar: n. An East Indian sailor. lanose: adj. Wooly. ineluctable: adj. Unavoidable. in extremis: adv. At the point of death. In grave or extreme circumstances. lenitive: adj. Capable of easing pain or discomfort. penitence: n. A feeling of remorse or regret. penury: n. Extreme poverty. sang-froid: n. Composure. vociferate: v. To cry out, utter vehemently. virago: n. A strident, domineering woman. virgule: n. The official name of the / syombol. obelus: n. Official name of the ÷ symbol. Used by the Greeks to mark passages of text thought to be pointless or stupid. mimp: n. A kiss. obstreperous: adj. Noisy and unruly. obviate: v. To anticipate and prevent. obloquy: n. Abusive language; Condition of disgrace suffered as a result of abuse or vilification. bordello: n. A house of prostitution. boondoggle: n. Pointless, wasteful work. sui generis: adj. Being unique of its kind. recto: n. The right-hand page of a book. sinecure: n. A position that pays well but requires very little work. sine die: adv. Without a future time or date specified, indefinite. sine qua non: n. An essential element. whilom: adv. (Archaic) At a former time, formerly. dudgeon: n. Sullen, angry or indignant mood. pedant: n. One, especially an unimaginative teacher, who reinforces trivial details of learning. One who makes a show of being scholarly. pecuniary: adj. Relating to money. pedagogy: n. The art, profession etc. of teaching. pedagog, -gogue: n. A teacher. au courant: adj. Informed of current affairs, up-to-date. attitudinize: v. To assume an attitude for effect; posture. attenuate: v. To make or become fine or thin; weaken. troth: n. Good faith, fidelity. joie de vivre: n. Lively enjoyment of life. pro tempore: adj. For the time being. autochthonous: adj. Indigenous, native to a particular place. nomenclature: n. A system of names used in an art or science for classification. ucalegon: n. A neighbor whose house is on fire.
(Clicking on this image will open the list as a much more legible Google Doc, if you’re curious.)

I never did anything so organized as quizzing myself on the entries, but when I rediscovered this artefact it turned out I’d learned almost all the words quite naturally in the course of becoming an adult. (Using them in conversation also seems to put less of a damper on my social life these days. Score one for finding your people.)

Anyway, several years ago I found myself jotting down word after word as I tore through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Her goshawk’s “breast feathers of vermiculated snow” were just the tip of the lexical iceberg. She deployed technical birding terminology and archaic literary expressions with equal and terrific frequency. I hadn’t read anything involving so many new-to-me words in ages.

So I made a new list. Just a messy thing in the notes app on my phone, not modeled after any particular beloved internet comedy website. And, as the books and years rolled by, I kept adding to it.

Eventually some Twitter conversation prompted me to share a selection of choice entries, but I thought it would be even better to catalogue them all on my own site. There’s now a slightly awkward, plugin-fueled version of that very feature here, but you can also subscribe to this RSS feed and it’ll just update your reader every time I add a new word. (The plugin also adds hover-activated definitions when I use catalogued words anywhere on the site, so that’s fun.)

I’ll warn you right now: I copy my definitions willy-nilly from whatever dictionary I have to hand, but I’m starting to get more deliberate about formatting and I do try and cite where I first encountered the word at the end of each entry.

If all goes according to plan, I can look back on this new list in twenty years and wonder how I ever got by without using the word lambrequin in a sentence every other day.

Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy delighting in these new terms as much as I do.

Atom

NB: I originally shared this post on Patreon on July 14th, 2017, just after launching the Kickstarter for 100 Demon Dialogues. I wanted to link to it in an essay I’m working on right now, but I’m also trying to consolidate my writing on my own website, so I’m reposting the whole thing here. This kind of low-key time traveling will probably keep happening.


This is a story about the first time I successfully orchestrated a theatrical cue of my own design.

I was a sophomore in high school, dipping my toes into other areas of the dramatic obsession that had consumed me from an early age. Us technical theatre students were asked to light and score brief monologues performed by members of an acting class. It was my first brush with the luminous cellophane gels that would become my livelihood for the next three years and grant me the financial freedom to travel on my own before college.

My friend Kendall was performing the opening speech from The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. In it, a girl describes learning about the enduring nature of the atom for the first time in her life. I’d built up a multi-hued blue Fresnel background wash and a slow, warm Source 4 from house left, carefully trained on her face and nothing more. Kendall ran through the words, savoring the phrases—a tongue of fire that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun—until she closed with three lines: 

Atom.

Atom.

What a beautiful word.

A gentle beat after that last syllable, Jon Brion’s “Row” came in, one note at a time, while the warm front light dwindled until she was just a silhouette in blue. The lilting piano carried the moment for 15 seconds and then faded into silence. 

We’d rehearsed and tried all the individual elements and fine-tuned the timing, but the first time I got to call the shots and watch as light and sound cascaded into something that heightened the emotional impact of her performance, I burst into silent, happy tears in the booth.

Orchestrating the conclusion of The 100 Day Project and launching my Kickstarter this week pushed those same buttons in ways I never could have anticipated.

When I figured out how I wanted to end the series—and I knew a few weeks in advance—I started to panic. I’d never run a daily webcomic before. The notion of an audience investing in a storyline and hanging on every page was entirely new and utterly intoxicating. I’d largely given myself permission to shoot from the hip for so much of the project. Before, there were no wrong answers. Now, it suddenly felt like I had the potential for failure. 

The last few weeks were grueling—all frantic scripting and logistical production and minutia and a million moving parts (on top of the creative work itself). It’s something that flummoxes me when people ask for advice about how to run a good Kickstarter. All I can think is “Just do everything. Work the hardest you can at absolutely everything. And then somehow, magically, it works.” And I don’t think that’s what people want to hear. “Turn thrice widdershins and sacrifice a goat” is way simpler.

Wednesday rolled around and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I’d stayed up way too late finishing the final entry. Folks had sent me photos of themselves on Twitter to draw into the panel (though they didn’t know it at the time). I’d shot reference out my own front door and fretted over the sketches and then, in a rush, poured it out. The finished project resonated with what I’d pictured in my head. It felt, mercifully, right.

At 9:55 am, I posted the final entry, closed my eyes, and counted to sixty before pushing the launch button on the Kickstarter page, and then I counted to sixty again before triggering the blog posts and the newsletters and the updates and the notifications—all these moving parts I’d carefully structured to help guide a new project into the world.  

And when people flooded in to say “YES” to the ending, and the journey, and the campaign, I discovered that all those neurons were still there, lighting up at the pleasure of seeing a well-timed cue resolve all those moving parts into something more. 

Unselfing, Grief, Birds

I came to Helen Macdonald’s work late—long after H is for Hawk had graced bestseller lists and garnered awards and been subject to breathless recommendations from friends. Somehow these trappings make me less likely to pick something up in the moment, until I get to it years later via my own circuitous means and become a breathless proponent myself.

In this case, those means involved stumbling across a gorgeous edition in the gift shop of the V&A during a trip to London in 2016.

I mean, look at it. It’s perfect.

Vintage Classics edition cover of H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, illustrated with an elegant goshawk on a blue background.

It was also the right size. It fit my palm like a secret, and I carted it out of the museum in triumph.

The next few days were a blur. I downed the book like the titular goshawk, fierce and ravenous. It danced through so many threads of literature and loss and nature, cataloguing the strange places we go when we can’t cope with our own grief and must instead contextualize it within older networks of meaning. I absolutely fell in love with it. It mapped a landscape of parental loss I’d been dreading my whole life and, in doing so, humbled me with gratitude.

I’m probably due a re-read.

Macdonald has a new essay collection out this year called Vesper Flights. I’d tuned into a chat about it between her and Robin Wall Kimmerer (of Braiding Sweetgrass fame) earlier in Quarantine, but hadn’t been able to give it my full attention. The gist I left with, though, was that in addition to being a magnificent writer, Macdonald is also one of those people who feel deeply human when placed in front of an audience—funny and self-effacing and smart and real. It’s something I put a lot of stock in, that little waggle of the antennae that says “Here. Pay attention. These are your people.”

Imagine my delight on Monday when I found I’d forgotten about buying tickets to hear her in conversation with Jeff VanderMeer! Smart move, Past Lucy.

The conversation was wonderful. Macdonald endeared herself to me forever by revealing that while all her childhood friends were pasting rock stars on their bedroom walls, she venerated pictures of kestrels. As someone who scrawled lines from Dryden on her wall as a youth and never understood the appeal of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I relate.

Early in the conversation VanderMeer asked “Do your enthusiasms find you? Or do you find them?” This kind of emergent question feels loud right now. It’s not so much that I’m on the warpath, hunting down a particular line of inquiry, rather that every book I open seems to suddenly be in conversation with everything else I’ve read in a given week. The threads start talking to each other. This is always The Sign.

Macdonald and VanderMeer also explored the dangers of projecting human emotion onto animals, leading Macdonald to refer to the “strange unselfing that happens when you see a wild creature.” What was the last thing that unselfed me? The great horned owls calling to each other in the meadow preserve. The western fence lizards skittering across the drive. The moon, unexpected and sharp, hanging low in the sky.

When an audience member asked if she’d be returning to writing poetry, she paused. Her poetry, she said, had been a sort of lovechild of cryptic crosswords and abstract expressionism (HI WOW HELLO). But she went on to explain that “things are really urgent now” and that essays were where she wanted to focus her energy because they allowed her to speak to the current moment most directly. “Essays,” she said, “are about being puzzled by something and needing to work it out.”

Of course the mediums we chose reflect the times we live in—I feel it in my frustration with the glacial pace of making comics—but it was refreshing to hear someone say it outright. It feels adjacent to how I’ve been approaching Rambles on Patreon. Crafting written updates was taking too long. Talking is swift and personal and correct for what I’m trying to do in that space. But it’s been two years and now I’m beginning to wonder what comes next.

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about how we can balance a sense of wonder at the natural world with the immense losses of climate change. Macdonald was blunt in her response: sometimes wonder simply isn’t accessible. Sometimes we are flattened by grief.

“The banked grief at the back,” she called it, and something cracked open in my chest. This was the backbone of H is for Hawk: “You grieve things because they should be there and they’re not.”

A stand of eucalyptus trees silhouetted against the sky at dusk. There an owl perched on a high branch. A crescent moon above.