Sending out messages of hope

My grandmother was a remarkable woman, and her home was full of remarkable things that she’d accumulated during her many trips visiting far off lands. In my mind’s eye, I can still see many of the items laid out with care in her house: on the mantle, the bookshelves, and various end tables. One fascinating and beautiful object was a handheld Tibetan prayer wheel. It had a cylinder of metal worked with intricate patterns, which was mounted on a wooden handle such that the cylinder could spin. It had a little chain with a bead attached to the cylinder, so that when you spun the cylinder, it would make the little beaded chain click and clack. My grandmother explained that there were prayers written inside the cylinder, and that when you spun the wheel, these prayers were released into the universe, over and over again. I would think about this, as I spun the wheel, and listened to the clickety clack of the bead. I would imagine the prayers flying out from the wheel and out into the world.

I thought of this object, as I wrote postcard after postcard in the last few months. Writing the cards was meditative and soothing to me, channeling my energy into the messages. I felt a little like writing the messages was a bit of a prayer released into the universe. Little wishes that our democracy will stay strong, and that our future will be one of hope. I would repeat these mantras to myself, as my pens scratched out messages on card after card. I sent these messages off into the universe (as well as off into the US postal service).

Tonight, on the eve of another momentous US election, there isn’t much more work I can do. So I will continue to send off more wishes that our democracy will hold strong, and that people will show up across the country to make their voices heard.

planning the day

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
― E.B. White

I stumbled across this quote a few years ago during a visit to my mother. It was posted somewhere in her community art room, and I read it in passing. But the words followed me out, and prompted me to both look them up again, and revisit them regularly in my thoughts. E.B. White’s words nicely encapsulate so much of my inner conflict. For example, my struggles with figuring out what to post here, and on a larger scale, what to do with my life.

I find great joy in the little details in the world around me. I can get lost in the sparkle of ice on a branch or a fence, or the unexpected grace of shadows on a stairway. I often attempt to capture the beauty in photos, with varying degrees of success. I am a collector of images, and it pleases me to sort and categorize them, and share them here. A group of leaves here, an assortment of doors there, a selection of silhouettes yonder. Hell, I’ve even posted photos of storm drains and the peeling paint on dumpsters. I find beauty and comfort in seeing patterns, and putting them together.

Beyond that, the world offers a multitude of sources of enjoyment for me. I love food, I love to make things with my hands. I love art. I love music. I love reading and watching movies. I love humor and playing with words. I love the structure and richness of the world’s languages. I love doing scientific research, and finding the beauty in patterns. And I really, really love to travel. I love to spend time with my family and friends, and I love to spend time by myself doing things that I love, or thinking about doing things that I love. There is enough passion in me for so much beauty, so much wonder for the world’s amazing variety and order, that I could fill a hundred blogs (and I mean blogs, not just posts) if only I had the time to do so.

On the other hand, there is so much ugliness in the world that I can’t ignore. News reports of police shootings. Stories of the plight of refugees. Data reflecting the threats to our planet’s equilibrium through climate change. Systemic racism and misogyny and homophobia and xenophobia and so many other biases. Horrific acts perpetrated by governments and individual acting on their behalf, in blindness to the systemic biases in the system and the damage they inflict. Horrific acts being perpetrated by individuals, often growing out of the collective illness of our society. There is so much societal injustice that needs to be addressed, and I regularly feel the call to address it. How can I sit back and write silly posts about pants when there are people literally dying in the street? What good are my sets of colorful leaf photos to a world in which hundreds of thousands of displaced people want nothing more right now than food, shelter and safety for their families? If I’m going to be writing or posting, shouldn’t I be putting my energy into addressing the injustices of the world?

Further, frankly, writing about difficult topics is…difficult. While I have ventured into social justice topics in my writing, such forays take a lot out of me. I want to be able back my claims with data and sources. Moreover, I want to choose my words with care, lest I inadvertently do harm to the very cause which I am hoping to contribute to. I worry about provoking backlash, both from those who disagree with me, and from those who largely agree with me but find fault with my words or understanding. I am flawed and learning and growing, and I am prone to mistakes.

It has been this tension within me, the pull to share posts reflecting my enjoyment of the world against the pull to lend my voice to improving the world, that largely kept me from posting or doing anything creative at all for many months. I wanted to post light things, felt like I should post heavy things, and in the end generally posted nothing.

I have come around the realization that I really want to do both things, and that I can do both. They may not be equal in measure, but I am giving myself permission to express myself creatively and also, at least occasionally, write about topics that I consider deeply important. I can feed both of the desires, and both can help me to grow, and grow stronger.
This essay is my first entry in #52essays2017, a project to write and post an essay each week this year. To read more about the project, visit Vanessa Martir’s Blog.

writing goals for 2017

I’ve never been a big one for resolutions¹, but this year I find myself full of resolve. I have a number of goals: personal, professional and political. Among my personal goals are  revamping this space, and getting back to posting regularly every month. I don’t think I can swing daily posting, but I should be able to manage once or twice a week. I would also like to get back to writing, for fun and personal growth. To that end, I have signed on to a rather daunting project: I will be writing and sharing a new essay every week for the year. I’ve nearly run out of week this week, but I plan to post my first essay tomorrow.

The damaged “2017” of an ice sculpture in Boston, from New Year’s Day. A number of artists produce and display ice sculptures around Boston on New Year’s Eve. This year, the next day was quite warm, and the ice sculptures were a little worse for wear. But still cool. (No pun intended.) In any case, I thought it fitting to post this damaged, day-late view of the new year, since I am so often running late and a little bit rough around the edges. 

¹ At least not one for posting resolutions before I have achieved them. But I am still rather amused by my retrospective resolutions of 2006, posted in my 2nd month of blogging.

all part of the process (writing about my writing)

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a writer. As a voracious reader, and avid lover of books, it seemed obvious to me that I would one day write a novel. I can’t really say at what point this dream faded, but I would be surprised if I ever got down to writing a novel. I don’t have a driving need to do so. I might some day explore writing shorter works, such as a children’s picture book. (I do love picture books.) Or perhaps something even shorter, like a greeting card. (I don’t much like greeting cards.) What I have discovered is that I do enjoy putting together words, and this blog is the place where I most like to put them together.

My friend Sarah, who currently posts at Splitting Infinitives, is a phenomenal writer, and I don’t say that lightly. I was therefore enormously flattered that she asked me to participate in a meme to explore the writing process.¹ Sarah’s way of putting words together gives me great pleasure, and the content of her writing regularly makes me think. I very much enjoyed reading her reflections on her own writing process.

In any case, she passed along these 4 questions, and I have put a bit of time into answering them.

1) What are you working on?
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
3) Why do you write what you do?
4) How does your writing process work?

What I am working on is a lot of academic writing. My goal is to finish my degree requirements, as well as submit papers to journals and conferences. The big thing, of course, is the dissertation, though I am not officially working on that yet. I have a few more loose ends to tie up, after which I will assemble previously constructed chunks of my research and stitch them together with a few yet-to-be completed chunks of research, then infuse this mass with my sweat, tears and lifeblood. Finally, I will run large currents of electricity through the resulting body of work in hopes that it will take on life. (And that it won’t get driven out of town by villagers bearing torches and pitchforks.)

As for the personal writing, I wouldn’t say that I am actually working on anything. Actually, that’s sort of the point. It is not work. What writing I do is for the pleasure of it.

I don’t really know what my genre is. Much as I love to categorize things, I hate to feel categorized myself. At least not into a single category. This blog in particular is a means for me to express the various aspects of my life and personality, and allows me to present myself as more than just “mother,” or “grad student,” or “feminist.” I am all of these thing and more. I explore many topics, and many forms. Perhaps my genre is “eclectic personal blogging.”

I sometimes wonder if my mind works differently than other people’s. I am constantly collecting things: facts, images, words, themes, ideas. At some point, something will trigger an idea, and my mind races to fit all the related bits with it, and display (or sometimes build) a pattern.

For example, I take a lot of photos of things in my environment. Sometimes it’s pretty leaves and flowers, but also cracks in the sidewalk and water drops on the windshield, or frozen puddles. Hydrants I pass on the street…rusty dumpsters…brick walls. Shadows, reflections, signs, clouds. Sometimes I will take a picture and it will remind me of a picture I took once before, even years previously, and I will group the photos together. Sometimes I will then seek out additional images to fill out the pattern. (I have this strange but compelling compulsion to collect things in group of at least 3. More is fine, but 2 somehow seems like only the suggestion of a pattern’s beginning.)

I don’t always feel the need to share patterns when I find and build them. Sometimes I file things away for future use. My iPhoto library contains a hive of folders with related sets. I have also been adding tags and metadata to the photos for years so that if I want to, for example, find photos that I like that prominently feature shadows or gates (or shadows of gates), I can find them. The keywords are not infinite, but somehow express my personal lexicon of imagery.

Sometimes I am similarly compelled to make a list. For a long time, I would post my Themed Things Thursday lists with great regularity. The chosen themes would sometimes relate to a nearby holiday or date, or just be inspired by a pattern I’d noticed. (Separate and distinctive things I have known or observed with some sort of feature in common: blue people or stories with peaches or fight scenes in subways.) Once my mind has caught the beginnings of a pattern, it will nag at me until I have sifted through my memories and my knowledge for things on the theme. Often, I will just jot down the skeleton of the list and be done with it. I currently have saved (in the drafts of my Mail application, to be specific) 48 partial ThThTh lists, in varying stages of completion. If I feel compelled to see the list through to a post, then things take longer. I will do some web searches, mostly to find iconic images, and I might poke around Wikipedia to flesh out a theme. Mostly, though, I don’t post those lists any more. They take a lot of time for formatting and fact checking and finding and sourcing images, and the returns on this time investment are not significantly greater than the satisfaction I get just from jotting down the list.

The process for other creative posts is sometimes similar, whether it’s for another list-form post, or one in more of an essay form, or even the occasional poem. I like to play with words and idioms, and come up with expressions that are relating to specific words. (Case in point: pants.) Sometimes I will share a set of pictures that work together to tell a story.

Along with these collections of related words or images, I will write things as the mood strikes. I write posts that help me see humor when my life otherwise seems overwhelming. (My last American Hovel Magazine post was written when I was feeling crushed by the chaos in my life and depressed by the lack of progress in my degree. I wanted to just sit in the fetal position. Writing about the mess in a way that made me laugh helped me keep going.) Other times I write stories because I want to preserve memories (of my travels, my childhood, my children). Sometimes I just want to work through my thoughts on current events.

Above all, I love to run with themes. I find my blogging the most satisfying when the themes are ongoing or recurring. It allows me to feel like I am creating something of complex and interweaving patterns: a bizarre tapestry of puns and photos and lists and pants. For this reason, my blog may be confusing to those who happen upon it. They will see a given post, and think that it somehow represents “what I write about.” But it will often be just a single thread that forms part of a bigger picture, tangled though it may be. (In case it is not clear, I also like to play with metaphors.)

I do all of my actual writing on my laptop, as well as the photo editing and sorting, while sitting in the dent I have worn in my couch cushions. The creative process, though, happens all the time. My eyes and ears are always alert for new patterns. My thoughts wander to things I want to write about while I am going about other mundane business. I might be stuck in traffic and coming up with cooking metaphors, or cooking dinner and coming up with a list of driving metaphors. I might be doing laundry and mentally making a list of shark movies. (Or doing laundry and making a list of laundry songs.)

Many posts never make it into writing, others have never proceeded past the draft stage. I try to edit well, but I am a slow editor, and sometimes I sacrifice editing in order to post. I aim to keep my posts short in words, and try to rarely exceed 500 words if I want other people to read my words.² Sometimes I will post longer things, but I accept that these are mostly written for me. It’s gravy if someone else takes the time to read what I’ve written.³

Next week, Stacie is going to take up the baton to explore her writing process. Stacie is an amazing writer, and like Sarah, has a way of putting together words that makes me want to savor them. Her writing at her blog If you want kin, you must plant kin, too, always gets me thinking. (It’s funny to realize that I actually somewhat group Stacie and Sarah together as writers whose stories, some fiction and some short memoir, have reminded me of Rumer Godden, one of my all-time favorite authors.) Stacie has been branching out into writing and drawing comics as memoir form. She has shared a few episodes of Adventures in Racism on her blog, and they are sharply witty and thought-provoking. This summer, she will further develop this project at a workshop on graphic novels. (Please check out her Indiegogo campaign to help get her out to the workshop, which is across the country from her.)

I’m afraid I have to break the rules of this meme, which asks for us to find 2 people to pass the meme onto. I am only offering up one writer for next week. (I also had trouble limiting my bio of her to one sentence. I suppose I could have done so, with an egregiously long sentence…) If anyone reading this would like to explore and share their own creative processes for blogging (or other writing), please do! I will gladly link to you and sing your praises. (Though I may not actually sing.)

¹ Secretly, I think it is because I scored points for always gushing over how much I love her writing.
² The 500-word limit is based on the maximum length of abstracts for many academic conferences. This seems to be one of the ways that being an academic seeps through my writing. Footnotes are another
³ This post is one of those excessivley long ones. I apologize for the length of this post, as I did not hvae time to make it shorter.


Waffle aftermath.

Life has been busy the last few days, full of lots of good things, but leaving me without much time to write much of substance here. In my commitment to posting daily this month, it feels a bit like I’ve been dropping crumbs.¹ I have several posts that are brewing in my head, but not yet ready.² One post that will be coming up soon is thanks to my friend Sarah, who has picked me as one to carry on a meme about the writing process. I entreat you to follow these crumbs to her blog³ and sample her words. Her writing is expertly prepared, rich with buttery layers, and baked to a golden perfection.⁴ If you are like me, you will find her blog to be at once satisfying and leaving you wanting more.⁵

¹ Or scraps and the occasional shard. I admit that I do enjoy the sequence.
² Though with my crumb metaphor, a baking metaphor would be a better one. The dough of several posts is rising in my head? Um…I don’t think so. My brain doesn’t like the sound of that at all.
³ And by that, I mean, click the link.
⁴ I totally just made myself want a croissant.
⁵ She also said some nice things about me.
⁶ This post has a very high footnote to sentence ratio. This footnote doesn’t go with anything, really. I just felt like it.