Ramble #28

Some thoughts after a long absence from this practice:

Between the weight of the world and my new role as a full-time caregiver, I’m barely managing to do my own work, which means I have no time for the work around the work—the work about the work. It feels like this second kind of work is what actually brings people to my door. The art is fine, but the thinking and talking ABOUT the art (and the craft, and the business, and the being-human-ness of it all) is what I’ve come to rely on for my livelihood. It also gives me a sense of greater meaning within the landscape of my chosen profession. It helps me feel connected to something bigger.

There’s more commentary and a list of links to things I referenced in this recording over on Patreon, but if you prefer you can just dive in and listen below:

September 3rd, 2021

[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]

The Absence of Poetry

If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just—everyone. Every poet. Just stop.

But of course that’s totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their “wunderjahr.” This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I’m telling them to stop? No, that wouldn’t do.

But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your own shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago, and you think, Have I really looked at this book? Might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting. 

If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.

—Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

The Bag of Theseus

A saturated photo of Lucy on a green hillside on a sunny day. She's lying on the grass reading a book, a small orange backpack on the turf next to her.

The bag in this photo is now old enough to drive.

I got it sometime early in high school, probably from the outdoor shop Riley’s mom managed down in Ventura. I eschewed carrying any kind of purse for years because I like keeping my arms and hands free to scramble about, and this little pack was a dream come true for that purpose. It’s just the right size to hold all my essential belongings: a water bottle, a sketchbook, my pens, snacks, a book, even (these days, when necessary) an iPad.1

It’s been down the Grand Canyon and across the Pacific Ocean, to conventions and signings, through endless TSA checkpoints, and to the Edinburgh hillside in this photo, where I passed a blissful and sunny afternoon in 2007.

But last week I came home to find the front panel shredded open thanks to the escalating Rodent Situation here at Bellwood Towers. I was heartbroken. Patagonia have a repair program where they’ll do their best to fix anything that’s gone wrong with their stuff for free (pretty cool!), but the wait times right now are long, and I couldn’t really imagine being without this thing for months on end. I could patch these little rodent holes myself—they’re not huge, after all—but the truth is, the bag’s seen better days.

The elastic is shot. The zipper pulls all broke off long ago. The inner lining is dingy and stained because I’ve never learned my lesson about which pens can and can’t survive air travel. The waist straps are missing because I cut them off to make a belt for my dad when we’d evacuated from the Thomas Fire and his trousers kept falling down.

And so I thought “What’s the harm in looking?” and opened eBay.

As you might expect for an item released in 2005: not a lot of options. Some from the same line, but inevitably in a larger size, and all of them black. The only similarly small one was $115. From Japan! Excessive. Unreasonable. I gave up.

And then the following morning I checked again. A bag! My bag! The same color (well, the color I guess my bag must’ve been once upon a time, though I’d never think it to look at them side by side), thirty bucks, shipping from Texas. Too good to be true.

I hit the button.

Two small Patagonia backpacks side by side. They're identical, but the one on the left is faded to a light brown with tears across the front. The one on the right is newer-looking, vibrant orange.

When I was working on A Life in Objects (my first 100 Day Project, back in 2016) it became very clear to me that I love long-term belongings. Partly it’s because I grew up in a very thrifty household and the idea of randomly replacing or upgrading things willy-nilly is blasphemy to Bellwood ears. But it’s also because I love the stories that trail behind oft-used and much-loved items. And yet: a huge benefit of that project was giving myself permission to let some of the profiled objects go after feeling like I’d preserved them for posterity in some small way.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I drew this backpack. Oh yeah, here it is: Day 52.

A black and white illustration of a small backpack with written text. It says "Day 52: doing the math, I think I've had this little orange patagonia daypack for more than a decade(!!!). I've never been good at carrying a purse—I want a waterbottle, snacks, a sketchbook, something to read, and a mess of pens with me at all times. I also prefer to keep my hands free. This trusty companion has held all that and more on boats and buses, in forgein countries and throughout the greater Portland area. I love it dearly, like a limb. To be utterly self-sufficient, that's a precious feeling."

I guess my feelings about it haven’t really changed.

Anyway, I’m blogging about a tiny, ancient backpack because I want to give myself permission to take its replacement with me on my next adventure: a flight tomorrow morning, my first since February of 2020. I’m sure I’ll be twitchy and anxious under my double-masked exterior, trusting in two shots of vaccine to carry me across the country and back without incident, but I think there will also be a lot to appreciate. A lot to wonder at. I feel rusty, but renewed by this long break from going anywhere.

Tiny miracles. Old things made new again.

1. Hell, when I first got this bag the iPad hadn’t even been released. I didn’t own a cell phone. Different times.

An Archive of Reckless Touch

What is created in my collection of touch and loss? Philosopher Jean Luc Nancy believed that writing is a form of touching. Through each page readers touch the writer, writers touch readers. As I write my archive I grasp for the ones I love. I pour every word with heat. I’ve always believed scholar of language Athur Quinn when he wrote “Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth.” I savor the warmth or writing while yearning for another. I wrote a memory of holding my mother’s hand in prayer. I wrote the memory with my own hands now with skin thin, pliable, raised light blue veins. My own hands are aging, and I can’t remember when I last held my mother’s hand in mine.

Patricia Fancher

Population: Us

It feels redundant to keep pointing wildly at everyone who’s coming to similar conclusions about the instability of this online ecosystem right now—BUT—every time I find another person doing it I start yelling “YES. YES!” and do want to catalogue them in some way because these conversations are unfolding in many different spaces concurrently. It’s not just cartoonists writing about being cartoonists. It’s dancers and authors and comedians and zinesters and activists and journalists and musicians all pausing to look around and say, collectively, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

I’m thinking about comedian Bo Burnham’s remarkable special Inside. About choreographer and quilter Marlee Grace’s latest newsletter. Jia Tolentino’s “The I in the Internet“. Rain’s documentary The Shopkeeper. Mara’s “Sex, Husbandry, and the Infinite Scroll“. How to Do Nothing. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I could go on.

Robin called the other day and mentioned that I seemed to have stopped blogging, to which I say: it’s a fair cop. I was in Portland being consumed by my newfound ability to be close to other people and then I was moving and for the past ten days I’ve still been moving, but it’s the shitty back-end part of moving that we don’t talk about as much where you have to actually unpack and (in the case of this particular move) jettison decades of childhood ephemera from your tiny bedroom in order to make it a livable space for yourself as an adult.

A POV photo from Lucy's bed. Her laptop is open in the forground with this blog post on it. There are wooden cabinets and a lot of books and orange walls and houseplants. It's cozy and warm.

The last piece of furniture I needed to move in was my bed frame, which I’d decided to stain and refinish because “Imperfect DIY Projects” was in my “More” column for this year. Now that I can sleep in a space with visible floor area and a desk I can actually sit at (though I am, in fact, writing this on the bed), it turns out my brain is far more capable of turning to the digital spaces I’ve been neglecting for the past six weeks. By returning to writing, I’m breathing a habitual sigh of relief—the kind that turns into a stream of words about shit I didn’t know I was even processing in the background of whatever I was busy doing while I was thinking that I’d never write another word ever again.1

So, after all that preamble:

Nicole Brinkley wrote this essay called Did Twitter Break YA? as part of her Misshelved series on Patreon and it’s fucking great. YA isn’t my community, but it’s adjacent to my community. And booksellers (the community Nicole talks about most frequently in her writing) are absolutely within my community. The patterns she describes in this piece—of context collapse and “morally motivated networked harassment” and parasocial relationships and burnout—are patterns I know like the back of my hand.

There are so many nod-inducing moments, but this was the one that really made my blood run cold:

After all, access to authors is the real product—and if an author missteps, they’re just a failed product. There are always more authors to fill that spot on the shelf.

Bluergh. Hurk. Ek. How often have I slipped into thinking of myself as a failed product on a shelf? Certainly every time I’ve stopped posting as often on Patreon, or expressed enthusiasm about doing a drawing challenge and then failed to follow through. Definitely in those moments when I think that if I just had a bit more energy and time I could start making content that would grow my following “in earnest”. When I take two years to send a new installment of my newsletter. When I disappear.

But it’s not just the disappearance. It’s feeling of one’s absence being invisible within the onrushing tide of Other People’s Output. Remember that Drew Austin essay I linked a couple posts ago? He gets into it there, noting that “Every social media feed is an endless parade of these fragmentary identities, disaggregated into units of content and passing by quickly enough to evade the scrutiny that would detect their incompleteness.” The incompleteness being that we are all also doing and contending with other things. We have to be. We’re not just on Twitter 24/7—even people who seem as if they are.

- Well, there's nothing going on, is there? - There is always something going on.

This is the price of trying to succeed within the ecosystem of capitalism, and maybe it’s also why I want to keep sharing here and here alone: I haven’t contaminated this container yet. It gets to sit apart from everything else, just me and my thoughts.2

Earlier in the Pandemic Mara made a rare Instagram appearance, posting a series of text-based stories from her new home in Winthrop, Washington. I transcribed them immediately because, as with most things she writes and shares and speaks about, it sparked something in me that I needed to sit with for a long time.

I have so enjoyed every story and post by you all, dear friends. How does it work when I just observe you, and when to like/comment on what you make here is to feed an algorithm that watches and profits off of our affection? I don’t do it because it feels…violent?…to us. This platform is very hard for me. Thank you for understanding. It pales in comparison to being near you. The simulacrum of closeness feels nauseating. I know we are killing something important in the process of creating connection. I want you to walk through the door, for us to play. You’re all here always.

This is it—the heart of the thing. We chase engagement as if it’s the Holy Grail, and yet to play the game on any level means we’ve already lost. There are so many people I can think of who I’ve finally been able to see and embrace and laugh with over the past month and attempting to get that through social media does pale in comparison. The simulacrum is nauseating.

This handful of broken online platforms can’t be everything.

Past a certain point I don’t want to spend my time cataloguing people’s writing about this—or generating my own—because (and this is the curse of the over-informed over-thinker) I know it all already. I know it in my bones. I may not have the right terminology for it, but I can feel it. I fear I am admiring the problem, thrilling to ever more accurate descriptors that tell me precisely how and why I’m locked in this unfulfilling spiral, rather than taking steps to change my behavior.3

As Tolentino points out, “The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all reward­ing to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”

But Nicole is ready for that.

[…] I do not want to wear the armor of cynicism. I do not want to be trapped in the ouroboros of perfection just because the community I interact with demands it.

So here is what I will say to you, dear reader: You do not have to participate in this cycle.

The system is broken, but the system can be abandoned.

In addressing this head-on, she wins my heart.4 She admits that the piece started out as one thing and then turned into another. She describes the trajectory it might have taken had she chosen to focus solely on the issue of where actual teenage readers sit in the modern YA landscape, and then she recognizes that this is really a conversation about so much more. (I will never stop loving this pattern, wherever I encounter it.)

The Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It School, the Grit School, the Capitalism School—they all urge us to keep producing and grinding and persevering, trusting that clarity will come from more work (even if that work, at its core, is purposeless, unfulfilling, or even actively harmful). With no time to reflect or catch our breath, we feel we have no choice but to trust the systems we’re given, to push and push and push until we “break into” the spaces that are communally regarded as desirable, and then fight like hell to keep that power safe because don’t you know this is a landscape of scarcity? There’s only so much to go around.

When I think about the last year, I don’t think about pushing. I think about waiting.

I had to wait. I had to wait a long, long time. In some ways I’m still waiting.

So when Nicole says:

These days it’s okay to not be sure what Twitter is for. We can stop going there until we figure it out.

It feels like permission.

It makes my soul exhale.

“I don’t feel good when I’m here” is enough of a reason to leave. Even if the places I wish I could stay—or the people I wish I could stay with—sometimes bring me connection and joy and validation and money and, yes, even love. If my gut tells me that I am not, at baseline, nourished the way I need to be: I can walk.

That’s the new rule.

Thank you, Nicole.

1. I’m also kind of glossing over the fact that my obsessive nesting has masked a deeper discomfort with having to face the true emotional cost of this transition. That’s a conversation for another time. But, as my therapist reminded me: this grief is chronic, not acute. Avoidance is a tactic we use to survive ongoing adversity. It’s not inherently evil.

2. Also, just a general side note in relation to all this: how often have I shared something like Nicole’s essay on Twitter or Instagram with the caveat “I’m fully aware of the irony of sharing this here, but…”? I want to stop doing that. If I’m reading something about how fucked it feels to still be on a certain platform and it resonates with me, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN THAT PLATFORM. (I am yelling at myself here because this is a footnote and that’s what they’re for, I think.)

3. Whoops this is the moment I realized that this essay is also about my historical approach to relationships. Surprise!

4. She also reminds me of this stunning essay from adrienne maree brown about disrupting patterns of harm that specifically target Black women within movement work. I’m due a re-read because I haven’t stopped thinking about it for months.

Shakespeare at the End of the World

I keep thinking about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

I’m not usually a post-apocalyptic fiction person, but Erika recommended the book to me several years ago by saying “it’s about art at the end of the world, and the things it can and can’t do to keep us together.” That’s more than enough, it turns out, to get me in the door.

I remember how sickeningly plausible Mandel made it all feel: the Georgia Flu. The collapse of society. The various reactions of America’s citizens—denial, adaptation, fanaticism, reinvention.

But the detail that really stuck with me was that the traveling theatre troupe at the heart of the narrative attempted to stage modern plays from time to time, and instead their audiences—even 20 years after the pandemic—kept demanding Shakespeare.

“People want what was best about the world,” explains a member of the ensemble.

I’ve consumed more Shakespeare in Quarantine than I have in the last ten years. Zina and I read Macbeth aloud to each other over the course of several evenings in the early days. Then we graduated to filmed productions through the National Theatre: Twelfth Night, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra. This week I’m back at it with Hamlet and the Donmar Trilogy: The Tempest today, and (if I play my cards right) Julius Caesar and Henry IV next weekend.

I don’t know that it’s about how good the plays are (though they are very good!) or how poignant it is that Shakespeare wrote and produced so many of them in the midst of plague-induced theatre closures (though he did!). It’s about how long they’ve been around.

I crack open an essay by Hélène Cixous and there she is quoting Van Gogh, who was reading the history plays shortly before his death in 1890:

“But what touches me […] is that the voices of these people, which […] reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing.”

The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, vol. 3, p. 187

I need the weight of history right now—the notion that something, anything has been bringing us together to laugh and cry and consider what it means to be human for more than 500 years.

I guess I’m just hung up on art at the end of the world, and the things it can and can’t do to keep us together.