A Waffling Muddle

Take an old man’s word; there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror—on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.

— E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

I underlined this passage hard when I read it last year. Muddle. Yes. I know this state well, although I often refer to it as waffling.

Here’s what I notice about waffling: I do it often, and it’s almost always to justify not doing something that I know, deep down, will bring me joy.

  • Quitting social media platforms that no longer make me feel connected to my community
  • Leaving relationships that aren’t fulfilling or functional
  • Starting creative projects that intimidate me
  • Getting in the sea
  • Doing literally anything that I think of as benefitting me and me alone

Solidarity Economy

Of course Mara has already been talking about these questions for years. Of course she posted a link to this report just a couple weeks ago. Of course there’s a huge body of ongoing work unfolding around these questions across every industry at this weird crisis point in history.

A circular diagram with "Solidarity Economy" written in the center. Arranged around it are different categories for Creation, Production, Exchange/Transfer, Consumption/Use, and Surplus Allocation with alternative models to strict capitalism.
(Diagram from the Solidarity Not Charity, commissioned by Grantmakers in the Arts)

Of course!

Nesting and Turning

My working theory is that the silence and the sunshine and the singing are key materials of the nest I am always building, to hold whatever thoughts, feelings, rhythms, and ideas become my poems.

Tara writes a monthly guest column on Nicole‘s blog. Every installment holds several gems, but her latest is particularly gemful. The nest! I adore this metaphor. What are my nest materials? How do I tend to build with them? I don’t know yet, but I have hunches. I want to lay them out and inventory them like a bower bird.

An additional thrill is that Tara and I will be working on something together in the next few months. She’s a spectacular poet (in addition to being a thoughtful and lyrical essayist), and sometime last year she shared a new collection of work with me under the title Low Tide Book. (You can hear me explore her idea of “a low tide of the spirit” in Ramble #20, notably before I got with the program and started pronouncing her name properly. It should be terra, like earth.)

I read the poems and loved them, and then I can’t quite remember what happened next but somehow I got to do my very favorite thing and smush two good people together while yelling “MAKE SOMETHING!”

The other person in this equation was my friend Stefan.

I say “my friend” in that way I do to refer to anyone I know primarily through the internet, and it’s true we’ve never met in person, but I do think of Stefan as a friend.

We connected on Kickstarter in 2012 because we were both running our first projects at the same time.1 He ended up with a copy of True Believer and I ended up with a copy of Cedar Toothpick and then we sort of fell out of touch. I do remember that his campaign didn’t have a video, but rather a delightful audio recording taken in a field. Possibly with some bees. Anyway, I loved his attention to quality in paper stock and his creative focus on the minutiae of the natural world. Cedar Toothpick still has pride of place in my poetry shelf.

When we reconnected via Instagram many years later, he floated the idea of collaborating on something. By that point he’d been branching out into publishing work by other writers under his imprint, Bored Wolves. Somewhere in there was when Tara sent me Low Tide Book, and somewhere shortly after that was the moment I realized they were perfect for each other. She had this manuscript full of contemplative poems crafted in conversation with the natural world, he had a tiny, remote cabin in the Polish highlands and access to a boutique printer. It writes itself, really.

So the long and the short of it is that we’re all making a book! Tara’s already written it, and I’m going to illustrate it, and Stefan’s going to publish it.

The title we decided on was Tell the Turning and it’s going to be on Kickstarter later this year. I’ll be sure to talk about it more before then.

1. The ecosystem was much smaller then, so it was common to just become pals with whoever else showed up in the Discover tab. It was nice.

Kicking Snakes

I sent a couple tweets into the aether yesterday after not putting anything out on Twitter for about a month. Maybe it was because I’d just worked out and endorphins were careening through my central nervous system and my blood sugar was about to crash, but when I hit the button and sent them off my pulse went through the roof. My palms were sweating. It felt like I was having a panic response to something I used to do three, five, ten times a day.

I caught myself wondering: What is wrong with me?

By and large, I’ve been blessed with a kind, curious audience in the decade I’ve spent on Twitter. There’s about 10,800 people following me these days and I still feel like most of my interactions with them are positive.

I realize this makes me an outlier—especially as a woman.

I’ve never had a tweet go monstrously viral, never been dog-piled by a group of bad actors, never been the target of death threats or widespread abuse. Sometimes I wonder if this is because I am not doing anything truly important with my life, because it seems as if all the people I know who have suffered these indignities are engaged in vital work. If I’m not a target, I must not be taking any risks. If I’m not taking any risks, I must not be making a difference.

(Is this toxic martyrdom? Or just a truth about the world we live in? I’m still not sure. I’m certain there are plenty of people who engage in important change-making quietly, behind the scenes, but I’m still questioning the balance in my own life.)

Over the past month, I’ve only heard about Twitter secondhand, and everything I’ve heard has been negative. I’m not reminded of the occasional jokes or moments of connection with friends around the globe. Instead I hear about having one’s attention hijacked by traumatic media. I hear about the misunderstandings, the feuds, and the constant, deafening noise of millions of people clamoring to be heard. It makes me wonder what I have been doing, generating a feed of thoughts there. Am I truly attempting to provide some kind of service? Or am I feeding tokens into a machine in order to keep a tiny, arbitrary bubble of numbers going up?

I’d only logged on because I wanted to respond to a friend’s request for help promoting her latest project. I love helping my friends, and I try to use whatever weird, relatively minimal clout I’ve amassed online for good, but I also felt strangely resistant. I realized I’d cultivated a perverse sense of pride in seeing the days stack up since my last tweet—like I’d be given a challenge coin for every month I stayed clean.

“It’s just one tweet,” my brain reasoned. “It’s not like you’re going back to using the site all day.” But the fact is: I don’t know how to use Twitter by half measures. I need enough time away to get my brain to release its desperate, grasping attachment to all that activity, to the pressure to keep up and stay in the loop.

Thinking about these questions always brings me back to my friend doreen dodgen-magee and her very good book Deviced. She writes:

What happens when we offload our regulation to internet-enabled devices is, basically, a bait and switch. We need soothing, but we substitute stimulation. We need to get calm and centered; instead we gather more data, input, and dazzling digital experiences. This leaves us dependent on stimulation to distract us and make us think we are actually being soothed. On the contrary, being soothed results in calming and working through the feelings related to dysregulation. When we substitute simple distraction and stimulation for this developed ability, we end up amplifying the dysregulation we are already experiencing and rob ourselves of practice in the important work of bringing ourselves back to a regulated state.

Feeling that panic response tear through my body after so many weeks of calm scared me. It made me realize I’d been engaging in an ecosystem that hadn’t wounded me directly, but still came paired with a constant threat of attack. On a platform of that scale and volatility, every passing thought carries within it the potential for mass distribution, misunderstanding, and destruction.

This isn’t what I want in a channel of communion.

My palms don’t sweat when I write things for Patreon. My pulse doesn’t climb when I record a Ramble. I don’t want to crawl out of my own skin when I blog.

In these quieter spaces, sharing doesn’t come attached to the instinctual certainty that I’ve just kicked a furious ball of snakes.

As Michael Harris writes:

Beyond the sharing, the commenting, the constant thumbs-upping, beyond all that distracting gilt, there are stranger things waiting to be loved.

What stranger things am I loving now?

A Donut

On April 16th, 2018, a friend of mine began a 100 Day Project—a collection of self portraits in ink, framed as a meditation on gender.

The tiny illustrations began to pile up: two weeks, 100 days, a year.

They kept drawing.

At 862, they stopped sharing to Instagram, but said they would probably keep going in private. (We love to see it.)

And then, a couple days ago, a text:

A screenshot of a text message which reads "I'm on day 1006 of my little drawings. Quite something."

I asked how they were feeling about the milestone.

A screenshot of an iMessage chat dialogue. The speaker on the left says: Honestly right now my relationship to these drawings is similar to flossing. It’s something I do every day and then I feel virtuous  And I actually like that I’ve managed to make it that much of a habit  They’re not phenomenally interesting but the continuity and the habit is cool. The other speaker replies: Mm I really like that point where it ceases to be about the art itself and shifts to being the behavior around the art. The first speaker says: Yeah that’s an interesting place. And probably where most art actually comes from.

And now I’m laughing thinking about Benoit Blanc and donuts, because this is how I feel at moments like this—screenshotting a perfectly normal text conversation because something about it makes me think “HANG ON”.

Not the art, but the behavior around the art.

A donut! One central piece, and if it reveals itself the fog would lift, the arc would resolve, the slinky become unkinked…

It feels right, at least in relation to my own practice, which is often very much predicated on rules and rituals. (30 Days of Portraits. 100 Demon Dialogues. 1000 words a day.)

These are all projects where the structure of the undertaking supersedes the content. Fixating on the satisfaction of completing another link in the chain allows my less-than-perfect artistic skill to slip past the Watcher at the Gate undetected. Success is defined as adherence to the practice, not excellence in the craft.

The joke, of course, is that they’re one and the same.

The Ritual is the Cab

There’s a paragraph from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit that lodged firmly in my brain when I first read it in college. (I loaned my copy of the book to a friend years ago and it was only recently returned it to me, so this is the first chance I’ve had to go back and reread it in a long, long while.)

A photograph of a page from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit. It reads: I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

THE RITUAL IS THE CAB.

Eh-hem. Anyway. She goes on:

Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.

The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)

This bit at the end! The question of “whether or not I like it” immediately countered with the truth that if this ritual is something I have built that will carry me towards things I have decided are meaningful to me, then it will automatically be the right thing.

But even when the right thing has proved, time and time again, to be rich, pleasurable, surprising, rewarding, and thrilling, I still have a brain that fixates on the times it is not. Sometimes it is infuriating, terrifying, or disappointing (although almost always those feelings come at the start, not during the act itself—or after the finish). I latch onto the negatives, drowning in avoidance, believing I can think my way around them.

Tharp’s model requires a clear-eyed statistician’s view—an assessment of the facts. And the fact is I feel good about the act of creation far more often than I feel bad about it. The ritual becomes a method of tipping over the edge into that inexorable slide—the point where it would be far more work to turn back than it is to go forward. The point where you can’t help yourself.

This is the mantra I need going into my next project, quaking in my boots because it all feels new and beyond my capacity or control:

I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.

Higher Education

I’m a hindsight junky. I’m always flipping through old journals and sketchbooks, trying to find a narrative through-line that I can string up and hang insights on like so much laundry. The weird contemplative timelessness of Quarantine—not to mention the exhaustive self-reflection that tends to accompany a breakup—has only encouraged this behavior. But it’s not recriminatory! I love making sense of my life this way; seeing how the seeds of everything dear to me took root far earlier than I could’ve known.

2016 to 2020: a period bookended by two formative talks. The first wrestling with the paradox of gaining professional recognition faster than my financial situation was improving, the second realizing what I wanted to do with my time once that discrepancy had evened out.

Those four years also held a presidential term of unprecedented dreadfulness, a deeply formative relationship, profound shifts in my creative practice, and the growing realization that the systems underpinning this country are deeply broken. My undergraduate degree also took this amount of time, albeit from 2009-2012, which has had me thinking about the last four years as an education of its own. What do I hold a degree in now?

I asked people this question on Twitter, and the responses were predictably fascinating and funny in equal measure, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the conversation to this venue. And THEN the other day I saw Robin Sloan playing with inline response forms via his newsletter/blog and everything clicked into place. The invitation to contribute creates a bit of interactive magic without the bloat of a comments section—just a quick way to remind the reader that this is a collaborative experiment.1 I thought implementing something like this was out of my technical reach, but it turns out I have a plugin for contact forms already installed, so LET’S TRY:

    (If you’re reading this via RSS, the contact form doesn’t carry over. Beyond my skill to heal, I’m afraid, so just open this post in your browser if you’re dying to play.)

    Maybe I’ll update this post with some of your impressive new diploma titles? But then again, maybe not.

    1. I know I’ve said that I like how private this space feels right now, and this could break that illusion by inviting people to get in touch, but I also really like tiny emails as a form of call and response—and I’m not asking for anyone’s name or email address, so I literally can’t respond.

    Selves

    Tonight I opened Twitter, exhausted from another long day of menial tasks laden with outsized emotional significance because they all have to do with moving, to find this tweet from Beck Tench.1

    The thread that follows? I love it more than words can express.

    This is one of those moments where I wish there was a better way to share these little…presentations? Mini keynotes? What are Twitter threads, really? Especially with Beck’s delightful illustrations, this collection of thoughts cries out for something bespoke like Robin’s scroll-snap essay on newsletters or Other Robin’s tap essay on fish. Twitter doesn’t do it justice—jumbles the order, messes with the pace. The best I can offer is this version on Thread Reader which, y’know? It’s actually all right.

    I appreciate you, Thread Reader. You’re doing a decent job.

    A N Y W A Y:

    I came to wonder if the sharks swimming in the waters aren’t fears or doubts, but rather they are actually selves. And if, in times of stress, it’s those selves we must stay true to.

    Yes.

    1. Do you have those people in your circles who just consistently say and think and share the most lovely, considered, thought-provoking things? Beck is one of those people for me. I love her tweets. And blog posts. And just…her whole deal.

    Authenticity: Interintellect Salon Notes

    A good thing: I’ve started wandering into more and stranger corners of the internet in the past year. Weird legacy sites documenting English heirloom potatoes. Minimalist archives of Japanese woodworking techniques. A blog in the form of a text-based game. So it doesn’t surprise me that much (except it kind of does) to have stumbled onto The Interintellect (often rendered as “ii”) via something Brendan shared in relation to Hyperlink Academy a couple weeks ago.

    I attended my first Salon of theirs this past weekend—a three-hour freeform discussion called “Just Be Yourself: Questioning the Value of Authenticity” facilitated by Linus Lu. Twenty-odd folks called in from around the globe to share perspectives on authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, and selfhood. I didn’t intend to share these notes, but by the time we’d finished talking I thought “What the hell, this could be blog fodder,” so here we are!

    (A note on alt text: the gallery plugin I’m running on this site is behaving abominably, so for now I’ve just linked the alt text for all these images here.)

    As always, I’m increasingly hung up on who has the privilege—time and money, mostly—to engage in these kinds of discussions. High-level overviews of culture and selfhood absolutely get me going, but I also know that I don’t have the bandwidth for them when I’m scrambling to put food on the table or make sure I can pay my rent.

    How can we make more room for folks outside academia and well-paid industries (and the odd self-employed interloper like myself) to interrogate this stuff?