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
I am wired for coming home in the same way it is assumed we are wired for leaving. Any adventure that lures me out is no match for the ties that draw me home again. I come home in the way you’d fall asleep after a day spent in the heat of the sun—before you know it’s happened, before you know you want to. Half the pang of growing up for me was realizing that I’d somehow have to create a sense of home wherever I went, that for all the effort I spent trying to leave, all I would ever want to do is figure out homecomings, ways of returning to the place where I feel the most like me.
Where do you feel safe, and like you belong? Are you homesick for many places, like a hometown and a college town and maybe somewhere entirely different? Is it possible to have roots in multiple places?
The last one: woof.
I spent so much of my childhood wrestling with confusion over where I was supposed to fit in. English parents, California upbringing. Older family, only child. House full of books and in-jokes and accents and cultural references my peers didn’t get. A voice that sounded out of place on family visits to the UK. I wanted so badly to figure out why it was so hard for me to feel a sense of belonging, or why, when I did find a place that seemed to capture the rare scent of home, I couldn’t quite fit in.
It’s a much longer conversation than I have time to dive into now, but that question—the notion of being homesick for many places—just knocked the wind out of me. I stopped wrestling with it quite as much as I got older—partly because I began to grow more comfortable with myself, but also because I started to feel shame around wanting to explore immigration or dual nationality or being a third culture kid when a) my nationality is split between two massively privileged, problematic countries, and b) I’m white.
I know it’s not that binary. I’ve had rich, magical conversations with friends from varied nationalities who have enunciated things I never thought I’d hear another person capture. We’ve found common ground in those moments and it has felt like a form of belonging—of home. But I’m still scared to claim it. The focus at this moment in time (rightly so) is on making space for the intersections of identity that have been elided or repressed by White Supremacist culture to be heard. I don’t feel like I have the right to take up space with my own investigation into why I feel out of place—at least not in public. I know, on some level, I am robbing myself by doing this, but I’m still trying to find my way toward the method that feels both ethically considerate and true.
Anyway, the Stauffer essay. It was very good.
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
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.)
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about about cleverness these last few weeks and how central a thing I think it is in the people I’m drawn to, but also how the term is often used in a slightly perjorative sense. And then of course here comes Ali Smith again just wrecking my shit out of nowhere without a care in the world in the last chapter of There but for the:
“Then she asked Mr. Garth did he really think there wasn’t anything wrong with being cleverest. Top of Mount Cleverest, Mr. Garth said. Brooke laughed. Then Mr. Garth said really slowly:
the fact is, that at the top of any mountain you’ll feel a bit dizzy because of the air up there. Cleverness is great. It’s a really good thing, when you have it. But there’s no point in just having it. You have to know how to use it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it’s not that you’re the cleverest anymore, or are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it’s a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.”
UGH I LOVE THIS WOMAN’S BRAIN.
The landing outside our bedrooms is tiny—barely big enough for one person to stand alongside the single floor vent that’s supposed to heat the entire upstairs. But! There’s enough wall space for two tall pieces of paper, so that’s where Zina and I have kept our reading lists since 2015.
I’ve never really gotten into tracking my reading online, so this practice has served as my visual archive of books devoured. It’s a lovely way to remind myself of when influential authors first appeared in my life, and to lend shape to the years. I used to keep the old ones pinned up in my room for easy access, but my impending move has meant getting rid of a lot of papery ephemera, so here they all are for posterity:
Since I’m trying to keep more of myself on my own site, I figured I’d upload the whole catalogue from 2020 as a blog post. I’ll do a followup with a little more about my absolute favorites, but for now: here’s everything.
|Legend||Rough Guide to Ratings|
|🎭 – Plays|
📝 – Poetry
📖 – Books (Fiction)
📓 – Books (Nonfiction)
💬 – Graphic Novels
|❤︎ = Yes|
❤︎❤︎ = Oh Yes
❤︎❤︎❤︎ = Hell Yes
- 📖 The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern ❤︎
- 📓 All About Love – bell hooks
- 📓 Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino ❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Atomic Habits – James Clear
- 📓 The Way of Zen – Alan Watts
- 💬 Unversed – Ed. Jonathan Hill
- 💬 Uncomfortably Happily – Yeon-Sik Hong
- 💬 The Chancellor and The Citadel – Maria Frantz
- 💬 The Northwest Passage (Vol. 1) – Scott Chantler
- 💬 The Hunting Accident – David L. Carlson & Landis Blair ❤︎
- 💬 Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules – Tony Cliff ❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Deviced – doreen dodgen-magee
- 📝/📓 Letters from Max – Sarah Ruhl & Max Ritvo ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Van Gogh – Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith ❤︎
- 💬 Gaugin: The Other World – Fabrizio Dori
- 📖 The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
- 📓 Madness, Rack, and Honey – Mary Ruefle ❤︎
- 📖 Axiomatic – Maria Turmakin
- 📓 The Crying Book – Heather Christle ❤︎❤︎
- 📖 Looking for Jake – China Miéville
- 🎭 Macbeth – William Shakespeare
- 📖 The Bird King – G. Willow Wilson ❤︎
- 📖 Steel Crow Saga – Paul Krueger
- 📖 On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong ❤︎
- 📓 The Salt Path – Raynor Wynn
- 💬 Displacement – Kiku Hughes
- 📓 Time is a Thing the Body Moves Through – T. Fleischmann
- 📖 The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book – Kate Milford
- 📓 Pleasure Activism – adrienne maree brown ❤︎
- 📖 Tales from 1001 Nights – Trans. Malcolm & Ursula Lyons
- 📖 The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemesin
- 📖 The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea – Maggie Tokuda-Hall
- 📓 Constellations – Sinead Gleeson
- 📖 The Reapers are The Angels – Alden Bell
- 📓 The Weight of Glory – C.S. Lewis
- 📖 Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir
- 📖 You Are the Friction – Ed. Jez Burrows & Anna Hurley
- 💬 The Golden Age – Cyril Pedrosa & Roxanne Moreil ❤︎
- 📖 Flights – Olga Tokarczuk
- 📖 Annabel Scheme and The New Golden Gate – Robin Sloan ❤︎
- 📖 How to Be Both – Ali Smith ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📖 A Burning – Megha Majumdar
- 📖 If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin
- 📖 Blandings Castle – P.G. Wodehouse
- 📖 Summer Lightning – P.G. Wodehouse
- 📖 Heavy Weather – P.G. Wodehouse
- 📓 Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency – Olivia Laing ❤︎❤︎
- 📝 Citizen: An Americal Lyric – Claudia Rankine
- 📖 A Room with A View – E.M. Forster ❤︎
- 📓 Close to the Machine – Ellen Ullman ❤︎
- 📓 The Power of Ritual – Casper ter Kuile
- 📖 Artful – Ali Smith ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📓 Coming to Writing and Other Essays – Hélène Cixous ❤︎
- 📖 Attrib. – Eley Williams ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 💬 Go With The Flow – Lily Williams & Karen Schneemann
- 💬 Knight and Beard (Vol. 1) – Tara Kurtzhals & Sarah Bollinger
- 📓 The Heroine’s Journey – Maureen Murdock
- 📖 Each of Us a Desert – Mark Oshiro ❤︎
- 📖 Self Care – Leigh Stein
- 💬 Syllabus – Lynda Barry ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 💬 Grass – Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
- 📝 Handwriting – Michael Ondaatje
- 📓 Letters from Tove – Tove Jansson ❤︎❤︎❤︎
- 📝/📓 Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties – Trans. John J.L. Mood
- 🎭 The Tempest – William Shakespeare
- 💬 The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui ❤︎
- 📝 Beowulf – Maria Dahvana Headley ❤︎❤︎
- 📝 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- 📖 Piranesi – Susanna Clarke ❤︎❤︎
- 📓 A Reading Life – C.S. Lewis
- 📓 Better than IRL – Ed. Katie West & Jasmine Elliott ❤︎
- 📓 Split – Ed. Katie West & Jasmine Elliott
- 📖 The Waves – Virginia Woolf ❤︎❤︎
What’s the thought you think all your life long? It must be a great one, a solemn one, to make you gaze through the world at it, all your life long. When you have to look aside from it your eyes roll, you bellow in anger, anxious to return to it, steadily to gaze at it, think it all your life long.— To The Bullock Roseroot, an improvisation spoken during the Second Day of the World ceremonies by Kulkunna of Chukulmas
I’ve been making my way, very slowly and over the course of many loans from the Multnomah County Library, through Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable, meandering, pseudo-anthropological record of a fictional future people called the Kesh. I’m not even a third of the way into the thing, but as the above quote from the book suggests, I’m thinking about it all the time.
There are so many things I love about this collection, particularly its place-specific-ness. The Kesh live in a far-future, post-societal-collapse Northern California. Even with the ravages of climate change, they describe the local flora and fauna in a way that taps straight into the landscape of my childhood—what Cassie Marketos calls “our good earth to grow in”. It brings me back to hot, dusty hikes through the Sespe wilderness in grade school, shifting my weight side to side as a leathery naturalist lectured us on different varieties of manzanita. It roots me in a place I think about even when I am not thinking about it.
If we are friends in any capacity, chances are high that I’ve pressed Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” into your hands at one point or another. It explores a hypothetical world where stories are about the things they gather and contain, rather than the bodies they pierce and conquer, and I want to talk about it with everyone. It took me years to bother looking up where it had originally been published, which led me to Always Coming Home. Now that I’m a third of the way into this massive, discursive, lovely collection, it makes perfect sense. Theory in practice.
I like a book that forces me to take my time.
I’m a fast reader, and the first to admit that I can get a little breathless with my consumption. I spin out over ideas, get caught up in the excitement of newness. A book like this resists every opportunity to rush. The chapters and sections are all relatively small, but they loop and meander and digress. They build in layers over hundreds of pages to give an impression rather than a narrative. The experience feels very similar to reading oral traditions of cultures other than my own—an abruptness as one’s expectations of narrative symmetry and pacing are undermined in real time. The lack of them speaks louder than anything; makes me more aware of what I’ve been raised with, and of how things could be different.
Despite their distance from our current world of technology, the Kesh still interface with certain vestiges of present-day culture. These moments are some of my favorite in the book so far.
The City mind thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don’t think that way. In any case, to learn a great deal about those people would be to cry in the ocean; whereas using their bricks in one of our buildings is satisfying to the mind. […] What does it mean to cry in the ocean? Oh, well, you know, to add something where nothing’s needed, or where so much is needed that it’s no use even trying, so you just sit down and cry.
If that isn’t social media in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. The desire to know everything, consume everything, document everything butting up against Marge Piercy’s recognition:
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
When I retweet or double tap on a post by a friend to express my approval, I’m not using their bricks in one of my buildings. But when I write? That’s when we’re in conversation—occupying the same room across space and time, building it together.
This is what Le Guin manages, in this layered, looping collection of stories and ideas: she writes a re-envisioned world into being, and then writes herself—writes all of us who create—into that world. “What do they do,” she asks, “the singers, tale-writers, dancers, painters, shapers, makers?”
They go there with empty hands, into the gap between. They come back with things in their hands. They go silent and come back with words, with tunes. They go into confusion and come back with patterns. […] The ordinary artists use patience, passion, skill, work and returning to work, judgment, proportion, intellect, purpose, indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools, delight, and with these as their way they approach the gap, the hub, approaching in circles, in gyres, like the buzzard, looking down, watching, like the coyote, watching. They look to the center, they turn on the center, they describe the center, though they cannot live there.
It’s the doubled items in this list that I love the most: “work and returning to work,” “delight in tools, delight”. I love that Le Guin understands these as separate, yet interlocking elements. I love that she has thought, so deeply and with so much lenience and also so much slantwise clarity, about the purposes we might serve in remaking the fabric of society.
She was a writer with a thought to think her whole life long. And the beautiful thing about writing is that the thought didn’t end when she did—now I’m thinking it, too.
[I’m going to start cross-posting the weird captain’s log audio updates I’ve been doing on Patreon for the last couple years here on my blog. If you’d like to take a spin through the whole archive, I’ve made a page for every past episode here.]
Okay, so! A Ramble. Typically when I share these on Patreon I try to keep it simple and just throw up a list of links to things I talked about, in case folks want to follow up and read what I’m reading. I still don’t know how to approach the practice here. Ironically, this particular Ramble is about the relative ease of talking compared to writing for me, and how the pressure to “get it right” in text is so much stronger.
I recognize that this is probably diametrically opposed to how a lot of people feel about any kind of public (or semi-public) speaking, but I think by talking, and my best thinking-talking usually happens when I’m addressing people who get it. Sometimes this is specific friends for specific projects, but there’s a reason this practice came into being on Patreon. My Patrons have bought into the weird, non-transactional structure I’ve built for my page, which means they’re probably the people I trust the most with an imperfect, non-linear audio snapshot of whatever I’m thinking about at the time.
On a practical note: I talk so much faster than I write. My guess is that a transcription of each Ramble would feel like an insurmountable slog to read through, but as a 20-minute audio snippet it’s a relatively small ask. You can do other stuff while consuming it, which I know people do because they comment and tell me about it! How lovely to imagine a friend or stranger doing dishes or puttering in the garden while we spend twenty asynchronous minutes together. It’s the best.
Every Ramble also comes paired with a photo I took while recording it. This started because I was too lazy to draw a cover for the first one, but it’s become a really important part of the process. It creates a visual touchstone that reminds me of the season and the weather and the moment when I was thinking these thoughts. Seeing them all together feels like a form of cyclical time travel.
Anyway, here’s today’s:
This Ramble felt like going to therapy on a week where I think nothing in particular’s been going on, but find myself reckoning with the unseen weight of countless stressors from the last three days alone within five minutes of opening my mouth. Except I should replace “stressors” with “stuff I’ve been thinking about while reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” to paint a more accurate picture.
And because I do think it helps, here’s that list of links to things mentioned:
- The Trap
- Oregon Humanities Magazine
- Steve Chapman’s Sound of Silence podcast and also his post “Provocative absence and the power of minus” and also also his 100 Crap Faces book
- Jinjin Sun’s 100 Days of Art History Jinjins (specifically her thoughts on revisiting the first ten paintings she tackled after two years of practice)
- Austin Kleon sharing Marshall McLuhan’s card deck
- Clubhouse, an audio-only social platform
- Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home
- Christina Tran’s writing to whiteness is not writing true
- Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use,” always
- The Right Number (503-673-6267)
So that’s that. These come out roughly every 2-3 weeks, or as the mood strikes. Don’t set your watch by it.
Last week, in a moment of Peak Bellwood Weakness I signed up for an online class/study group called Literature at Sea: A Brief History of Existence. The facilitator shared something in today’s intro call that I can’t believe nobody sent me when it was released back in July. It’s called An Ocean of Books and it looks sort of like this:
This “poetic experiment” was made by Gaël Hugo during his time as an Artist-in-Residence at the Google Arts & Culture Lab. It pulls from the entire Google Books library and uses a bunch of (I’m waving my hands vaguely here) technology to generate a chart of Author Islands whose distance from each other is determined by their relationships on the web.
The site’s a little awkward in places, but I find the whole concept delightful. The weird aesthetic mix of pixelated game art and old nautical chart elements!1 The playful mechanism for revealing keyword searches within a bank of fog! There’s also little factoids beside various islands, like this gem about Maurice Sendak:
Anyway, I spent a lovely afternoon poking around in here, but what it really got me hungry for was a similarly attractive way to organize one’s own library for others to explore. The trouble is that I’m just not moved by reading lists—even ones curated by subject. I’m a visual thinker, and I need to make a big mess and tack a lot of red string to the wall before I can truly understand how all these ideas are contributing to the electric pinball machine.
I don’t want the map to be dictated by an algorithm; I want to play cartographer.
I rediscovered a piece of technology this week that might hold the key, but I’m saving it for now. You’ll just have to wait.
1. Fun pedantic terminology fact: if it’s to do with the ocean, it’s a chart, not a map. Yes, there will be a quiz on this later.↩