The Context Coin

Context creation can operate like the creative equivalent of Universal Basic Income. I want to make sure people’s obvious and immediate needs are met so they can tap into what they already know, but have been too stressed, distracted, and scared to access.

Started down this rabbit hole after getting hung up on the phrase “thought of everything,” which is one of those sneaky compliments that can point simultaneously to expressions of tenderness and anxiety. If I’m obsessed with preparing for every eventuality, where’s the room for surprise? For delight? For exchange?

(My word for 2022 is Return, and one of the meanings that I enjoy in it is the aspect of returning a serve, as in a game, as in conversation, as in play.)

It can be a strength. Someone who thinks of everything is likely good at logistics-heavy things like Kickstarter and self-publishing (hello), willing to go the extra mile to ensure that a project meets certain stringent standards (like accessibility), and concerned about the minutiae of how things feel

This crops up any time I unbox an Apple product. Something as small as how the cellophane unfolds from the device (smoothly, beckoningly) has a huge impact on my experience of receiving it. Someone went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the box would be easy to open, that that textures would be pleasing, that the shapes would nest within each other just so.

This is a very capitalistic example, so it makes me uncomfortable to sing its praises, but the meta-experience is still there. What would it be like to have the resources to devote that much energy to how someone feels just upon opening the packaging of a book I’ve sent them?

It’s stuff like this that had me schlepping out to an industrial paper firm back in 2020, staggering away with armloads of samples, printing prototype decks in my living room, fondling card after card and wondering “woodgrain or linen? 200lb or 300lb? Ecru or Natural?” as if there’s a single right choice.

There isn’t.

There’s the trap. 

When Twyla Tharp asks workshop participants to come up with 60 uses for a stool, she notices a consistent pattern:

“[…] the first third of the ideas are obvious; the second third are more interesting; the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity, as later thinking builds on earlier thinking.”

There’s a version of context creation that suggests (maybe even only subconsciously) there is “a right way” to participate. I think it’s the version that relies too much on the anxious side of the “thinking of everything” coin. Tenderness in extremis is anxiety.  

I need to provide the context that keeps people on the stool after they’ve exhausted the obvious possibilities, because with that context comes freedom to explore.

At Wayward, we weren’t told what to make. In fact, we were encouraged to approach the week as a period of time during which we didn’t have to make anything. But we were fed, there was a loose schedule, there were comfortable things to nap on. We were held. And within that container—that tender context—things I didn’t even know I had in me emerged. Seemingly without effort.

I want that, and it shows up once I know when to stop trying to think of everything.

Wisdoms for Self

I’m wrestling with the letter I want to write to introduce my 2020 100 Day Project when I release it later this month. I’m feeling the pressure to get it just right. To say it just so. (Sound familiar? I keep finding different elements of this project to obsess over as a way to avoid sharing it. Go figure. Just share it, Lucy.)

I poked my head into Instagram briefly this morning and found Anis sharing a project that has its roots in a much older project and is now reemerging:

Back in 2014/2015 I was in a place of heavy loss, a place of relearning, rewiring, reforming my self, & began writing down & sharing online these monthly wisdoms/lessons for my self to learn, think on, & try to remember. Have wanted to return to this for years now, & being now in some months of heavy reflection seemed a good time for this returning. Here’s things I put down last month for me to hold & turn over & try to remember.

Here’s one:

12.21 Lessons for Self
(to learn anew &/or to be reminded of to continue learning)
Anis you do not need to straighten every wrinkle. Nor do you
need to respond in a moment. If someone is upset & out of that
anger speaking poorly to you, it is not your job to temper
them-
-if you need time to acknowledge your transgression to
them without theirs to you, step away & come back.
Dont forget Anis, no one gets to tell you how you process your
loss & rowboat your grief.
This means too, don't forget, you don't get to direct how others
process theirs, to expect them to rudder across the lake in the
way you might.
Decisions are not just cerebral in nature. Not all abstracted can
be bent for the brain to weigh, Anis you have to also recognize
that the heart & the body are part of the decision making pro-
cess.
Indecision is an enemy of vulnerability.

This subtitle sings to me.

It’s a funny thing how we all begin turning toward the same subjects at the same times (or have already been turning for several years). Reminders. Permission. Speaking to the self as the self, but at a removal from the self. This is the energy of the thing I’m about to release, too. Seeing it reflected in these words from my brilliant friend fills me with compassion and energy and, okay, a little envy, too. I have to elbow myself in the psychic ribs as if to say “Hey. Cut it out. There’s no race here, ya dingbat.”

On another slide, Anis writes:

I sometimes use vulnerability w/self to avoid vulnerability w/others. I wear my heart, but wearing can be a costume.

This is one of the things that drives me away from sharing such a personal thing in public. I want it to be known (I want to be known), but not in a space where I’ve traditionally used perceived vulnerability to mask real connection.

The greatest pleasure I’ve gotten from this project has been pressing the physical prototype (or the Dropbox folder of images) into the hands of trusted friends, and then talking about it with them. That’s energy I want to preserve moving forward. This connection. This depth.

Even You Leave

80
A PRIMER FOR FORGETTING
THE EMPTY STUDIO. 

Said John Cage to the painter Philip Gus-
ton,
"When you start working, everybody is in your studio-
the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all,
you own ideas--all are there. But as you continue painting,
they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely
alone. Then, if you're lucky, even you leave."

Again, Sarah Manguso:

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.

What does it mean to be a steward of something or someone in decline?

In caregiving or hospice work (and ecological thinking in the era of climate collapse), this is clearly the game, but I catch myself wondering how it translates to making a comic or writing an essay or any other generative act. How is this season of my life a form of cross-training?

Often I think of creation as an additive process—raising a child, building a city, weaving a carrier bag. But what if, rather than moving closer to the realization of a vision, the putting-down-on-paper-ness of it all degrades the original, unthinkable idea? (However I pronounced “Hermione” in my head as an eight-year-old, for example, vanished the moment I listened to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on audiobook.)

I say “degrades” and feel the jolt of negative connotation, but I don’t mean for this to be negative. There are many ways to think about caring for someone with less time left on this earth than I have. Some of them are negative, depressing, dispiriting. Some days I succumb to that helplessness. But there’s a richness to it, too, even if it doesn’t fit the cultural model we’ve inherited for worthwhile heroics. Again, Le Guin: “[…] the Hero does not look well in this bag.” I try to apply the grandiose posturing of meeting an impossible deadline to the work of caregiving and instead I come up against the fact of death again and again and again.

I think there’s still a part of me clinging to the idea that if I could only become [blugh] enough, I could bring my ideas into the world in a visual form that fully encapsulates what’s present in my mind. And yet: 100% of the time, the page I draw does not, cannot, match the one I envisioned when I sat down at the drawing board. And yet and YET: 100% of the time the physical manifestation of that vision eclipses what I’d imagined. Maybe not in the moment, because I’m stubborn and I’ll usually spend a day or two scowling at whatever’s ended up on the page, muttering about how I’m not mad I’m just disappointed, but once I’ve gone away and come back and seen the page contextualized in the greater stream of the narrative, it’s like someone’s shaken the Etch-a-Sketch. Blank slate. The vaguest memory of love.

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.

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.)

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.