Categories
Miscellany Nature

The mystery of nature’s engineers

When I was younger, my sisters and I would search for “beaver sticks” at the coast. The beach we frequented is split by a creek that runs into the Pacific Ocean. Near the banks of the creek, we’d gather pieces of driftwood with telltale ends chewed to a point, shaped by beaver teeth marks. When I showed Ryan and Maeve some of these sticks on a recent visit, Ryan thought I was pulling his leg.

The thing is, even though I knew that beavers gnawed on those sticks, I still second-guessed my knowledge. I’ve never seen a wild beaver, but I see evidence of them all the time, even in the wetlands near my urban home.

Beavers were here. (Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge)

Beavers are a little mysterious to us. Nocturnal and industrious, they leave plentiful evidence of their work as “nature’s engineers” — the output of which seems to be increasingly convincing scientists that maybe we ought to start learning from beavers how to adapt to changing climates.

As Leila Philip writes in Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, “Beavers are the only animals apart from man that radically transform their environment.”

And the wonder in all of it is that we don’t exactly know why. We don’t know how much they know, or what compels them to make decisions about building lodges and dams. It can even be tough for archaeologists to tell the difference between things that were built by beavers and things that were built by early humans. (Their materials were the same: rocks, mud and wood.)

The older I get, the more I’m embracing the idea of not-knowing. As a lifelong learner, I tend to run on the philosophy that the more knowledge I gather, the better off I am. But life events have humbled that working philosophy. (Being a parent, for one, is a constant exercise in accepting that more information rarely leads to one right answer.)

Ryan and I sometimes refer to Maeve as a “little beaver.” Like most toddlers, she loves to busy herself shuttling books and toys into a fort or dragging blankets and pillows and couch cushions where she wants them. Her rationale is not evident to us, but it’s not supposed to be.

She’s occupied with a sense of discovery, interacting with the world around her as it reveals its many possibilities. Perhaps it’s important that parts of her play-as-work remain unknown to us.

As Alison Gopnik writes in The Gardener and the Carpenter, “Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done.”

Ice cream installation discovered on the living room floor earlier this month.

Categories
Miscellany

Love with its sleeves rolled up

Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, with a trainee at Homeboy Industries

Ryan and I caught a livestream last week of Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, the beloved Jesuit priest and founder of the gang rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries, in conversation with Oregon Humanities.

Boyle strikes me as one of those Jesuits who’s equally Catholic and Buddhist in his grounding. (Or, as a Catholic friend once said when an acquaintance asked him if he was Buddhist, “I wish!”)

He has been doing the daily work of accompanying “homies” and “homegirls” for decades, and what he does seems to be so transformative exactly because he’s not trying to force behavioral change or to measure KPIs or to implement programs to change the nature of gang activity. He simply shows up, over and over, for people who have never had stability in their lives.

He appreciates how his smartphone helps him keep in touch with the vast amount of people who’ve come into his life through his work. He says his relationships are stronger because he can send texts to let people know he’s thinking of them. What would our world look like, he mused, if we practiced micro-affirmations instead of micro-aggressions?

Or in the poet Mary Oliver’s words:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Be astonished.
  3. Tell about it.

His approach at Homeboy Industries, he says, is based on two unwavering principles:

  1. Everyone is unshakably good.
  2. We belong to each other.

His work is a mix of theology, psychotherapy, and companionship. He calls it “love with its sleeves rolled up.”

Former gang members come to Homeboy Industries for 18-month stints (the same timeframe in which an infant forms an attachment bond with primary caregivers, Boyle noted) to work, receive services, and to develop what Boyle calls “a muscular hope and a sturdy kind of resilience.” In short, they learn that they are cherished.

Hence, the name of Boyle’s forthcoming book: Cherished Belonging, which I’m looking forward to reading and giving to others.

The conversation had me thinking of a phrase used by psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy (who also uses the phrase “sturdy,” to describe how parents should act as leaders for their kids — to show empathy while holding firm boundaries).

She encourages parents to embrace the “most generous interpretation” when their children are acting out.

“Choosing the most generous interpretation of your child’s behavior does not mean you are ‘being easy’ on them, but rather you are framing their behavior in a way that will help them build critical emotion regulation skills for their future — and you’re preserving your connection and close relationship along the way,” she writes in her book Good Inside.

Emphasis mine. (And advice worth taking to other relationships, too.)

It feels like in-person human connection can be in short supply these days, or when we encounter other people, especially those in pain, we don’t know how to help. But we don’t build relationships alone.

As Boyle says, “Healing happens in a community. I’ve never healed anyone.”

Categories
Reading

My year in reading, 2023

Pictured above are all of the books I finished in 2023. I know this thanks to a spreadsheet that I use to track what I’ve read since I stopped using Goodreads in 2022. (My timing was apt; the platform’s power over book publishing has only grown more complex and morally troubling since then.)

But back to my reading, which was distracted and sometimes uninspiring in 2023. What can I say? I have a toddler and a growing business and a completist mind that sometimes works to my own disadvantage. Yet as always, I found much to love in books that I read last year. Here are 15 of my favorites:

Nonfiction

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay
What a gorgeous book. This was an incredibly important reading experience that came at the right time in life for me. (A very apt Christmas gift from Ryan.) Gay’s ideas about education and gardening and basketball and skateboarding are all really about community care, which is to say, how we care for each other at our most human.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This is a deeply empathetic and thoroughly reported ethnography about housing in America, particularly low-income housing in Milwaukee, both in a majority-white trailer park and in the Black slums. Nothing has opened my eyes as much to this crucial pillar of basic need that so often falls by the wayside for those on the margins.

Stay True by Hua Hsu
A moving look at late 90s nostalgia, including college fashion and identity, mixtapes, photography, and the comfort of hanging out with people who you don’t really know when you don’t quite know who you’re becoming yet, either.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in An American City by Andrea Elliott
Incredible storytelling about a family struggling against racism and persistent poverty and all the attendant emotional fatigue that comes along with both systemic issues. Dasani’s story is told beautifully and realistically — which is saying something, considering how conditioned we are to hope for a reductive happy ending.

You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews

Stunning, worldview-changing book. I had no idea how much this book would resonate with me – it taught me a lot about community care and mutual aid and why these movements are critical and essential forms of showing up for one another.

Soil: A Black Mother’s Garden by Camille T. Dungy

What a wonderful, complex, self-assured memoir. I loved learning from Dungy about gardening as a way to nurture local species of flora and fauna, and how her hobby intersects with her life as a Black woman, mother, neighbor and teacher.

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

This author beautifully braids stories from the natural world along with those of her own grief and complexity as she cares for her aging parents. Renkl sets a brilliant example in disclosing that she is a passionate but equivocal gardener. (Should humans intervene in wildlife? Should we even be setting out bird feeders?!)

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein

No other book has offered such resoluteness and clarity on the time we’re living in as this one. Funny, heartbreaking, and wickedly smart. I need to reread this book before the next election cycle ends.

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford
I have always loved everything that comedian Maria Bamford has put into the world, and this memoir was no exception. (Listen to the audiobook, please — she’s a prolific voice-over artist and her parents are absolutely her best subject matter.)

Fiction

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
This novel is a lyrical, fascinating mix of folklore, literary fiction, western, and coming-of-age tale. You’ve never read an American origin story quite like it.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Strange and enchanting but ultimately beautiful book about compassion and what it means to trust others.

The Guest by Emma Cline
Sexy, dark, delicious novel that I gobbled up quickly. I endured the suspense (and even enjoyed it) as Cline wove a story that skewers affluence, class, insularity and gender norms.

Land of Milk and Honey by C. Pam Zhang
I didn’t know a dystopia could sound (or taste?) this good, but Zhang’s second novel was a sensuous delight, rich in detail and humanity.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Diving into an Ann Patchett novel for the first time may be the highlight of my reading experience on this earth. This story made me feel understood and cozy and cared for — gentle and hopeful and emotionally savvy in all the right places.

Family Meal by Bryan Washington
This book was such a surprising bright spot. It’s a novel about loss and grief, but also about sex and food and control and desire and family. To me, Washington’s tenderness and growth came through more in this novel than in his previous work.

This line from Washington’s author’s note in Family Meal is my 2024 motto, in reading and beyond: “Care and slowness are two gifts that we deserve, boundless pools we can offer ourselves and those we hold dear.”

Categories
Miscellany

100 things that made my year in 2023

1. Embracing toddler chaos during 8:00 Mass. Taking trips to the book box. Letting Maeve pick out her donut on hospitality days.

2. Family hikes with the kid carrier backpack.

3. Gyoza and greens with chile butter.

4. Burning candles and incense after cleaning the house on Saturdays.

5. Thinking about building my own repertoire of repair.

6. Maeve’s loving devotion to the neighborhood cats, Bowie, Freddie and Ruby.

7. Walking to the neighborhood library branch and visiting the local goats and chickens.

8. Seeing Lauren Groff with Judith at the Schnitz. Learning that she writes her drafts longhand on legal pads and then throws away her previous draft when starting the next one.  

9. A February beach trip. Walking barefoot in the cold sand and getting cozy by the fire. Green winter hikes and old family board games.

10. Joining Jenni Gritters’ ADAPT business coaching group for women with constraints, and then becoming a member of her SUSTAIN group. Building community with other women who run freelance businesses. Tackling business registration paperwork and finally opening business bank accounts.  

11. Cleaning one shelf/cupboard/drawer per day during Lent.

12. Hanging out at playgrounds and encouraging Maeve to brave the slides.

13. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. The photography of Nan Goldin and Peggy Nolan. Learning from artists how to see what is.

14. Buying a humidifier and so many boxes of Kleenex. Losing sleep to sicknesses. Bulking up our medicine cabinet.

15. A quick trip to Key West for a wedding. Tequila sunrises and actual sunsets. Catching up with friends around the pool.

16. Weaning Maeve after 14 months of breastfeeding. Wearing cabbage leaves in my bra for a week. Experiencing a bleak bout of post-weaning depression and then slowly returning to myself — and appreciating my body for all it does for both of us.

17. Early Girl tomatoes from our potted plant on the front porch.

18. Impromptu urgent care visits to ZoomCare and Brave Care.

19. How Maeve stacks stickers on top of each other when she’s making artwork.

20. Drawing cats for Maeve in my morning notebook.

21. Chugging along through John Updike’s Rabbit series as part of The Pulitzer Project.

22. Going to Peninsula Park when the roses were in bloom. Watching Maeve run through the splash pad and crawl through playground tunnels.

23. The afternoon when Ryan and I were taking out the recycling and the trash and Maeve locked herself in the house. Panicking for 45 minutes until the locksmith showed up. Trying to soothe an upset toddler through a closed window.

24. Reading Sandra Boynton books over and over at bedtime.

25. Opening the front door and standing on the stoop to listen to a hard downpour.

26. Maeve starting part-time daycare in March and moving to a full-time schedule in November.

27. Estimated quarterly income tax payments.

28. Going back to the movies. Taking our nephew to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Wonka. Seeing Love Again with Teresa. Wearing pink to see Barbie with Mom and my sisters.

29. Leaving out Maeve’s discarded or leftover snacks for the squirrels and crows.

30. Accidentally bringing the norovirus with us to Kansas City. Taking Ryan to the ER for Zofran and IV fluids. Eating bland chicken and rice instead of barbecue on our spring family visit.

31. Maeve’s enthusiasm for our very limited yardwork tasks. Pulling weeds, picking up cherries, sweeping leaves, overwatering the flowers and tomatoes.

32. Cottage cheese with apples, cinnamon and walnuts for breakfast.

33. Walking to the Sellwood farmers market for summer fruit and focaccia.

34. Playing tourist at the new MCI single-terminal airport. Admiring the art and buying local goodies.

35. Enduring so, so many episodes of Ms. Rachel on YouTube.

36. Kicking off a Wilmes family camp-out with a hibachi dinner in Grandma’s front yard. Going for a chaotic group bike ride. Making giant bubbles on the blacktop. Maeve playing in the bounce house and lounging in the ball pit.

37. A perfect day date in Kansas City: lunch at Baba’s Pantry, Messenger Coffee, shopping at Hammerpress, BLK + BRWN. and Mills Record Co., drinks at Ca Va, dinner at Fox and Pearl.

38. Long text conversations with fellow moms. Sending voice memos instead of calling voicemail inboxes. The monthly Letterloop with my dearest friends.

39. Taking neighborhood walks on toddler time.

40. A little splash of Soda Press Co. syrup in my soda water.

41. Hiking with Ryan amongst wildflowers on Mother’s Day.

42. How Maeve calls pasta with marinara sauce “pizza noodles.”

43. Eating PB&Js on the hiking trail.

44. Crying in therapy.

45. Open play gym mornings at Sellwood Community House.

46. A pizza and ice cream date at Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty.

47. Calling the pediatric triage nurse.

48. Talking to other parents at drop-off and pick-up. Texting with daycare providers. Checking the school app a little too often.

49. You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews.

50. Mourning the general demise of X (fka Twitter). Appreciating the perspective that Cory Doctorow provides.

51. Thinking about opting out of optimization culture.

52. Learning that Maeve was biting other kids at daycare and not being able to do much about it. The way her pediatrician laughed it off and said, “oh, my son did that and now he’s an honor student.”

53. Friends visiting Portland. A zoo date with the Grays and the Whitakers. Casey and her boys dropping in for a visit. Pizza on the patio at Dimo’s with Kris and Jack, and then with the Orjalas.

54. Watching the Danny McBride back catalog after cracking up at the silly antics of The Righteous Gemstones. Becoming an Edi Patterson fangirl. Vice Principals. Eastbound and Down.

55. Trader Joe’s canned Lentil Vegetable Soup.

56. Soaking at Knot Springs and eating lunch at Nicholas on a day date with Ryan.

57. Using the neighborhood theater as a concession stand. Eating popcorn and Sour Patch Kids while watching movies at home.

58. Going for walks to observe a nutria near the local creek and naming them Norm.

59. Maeve calling for us from her crib in the mornings: “Mamadada!”

60. “Multitudes” by Feist. Her Song Exploder episode about making the track “In Lightning.”

61. Ezra Klein’s formula for a good day.

62. Visiting my sister in the hospital after my niece was born and bringing her a bag of Trader Joe’s Popcorn with Herbs & Spices.

63. Taking Maeve grocery shopping, where she picked out shelled edamame — and then actually ate it back at home.

64. Finally getting covid.

65. Getting strep.

66. Getting the flu.

67. Listening to “Animal Freeze Dance” and “Finger Family” and “Hop Little Bunnies” on endless repeat. Learning from Chelsea Kim Long that I can hide kid music from my algorithm.

68. Appreciating the gift (and joy) of making weird art.

69. Baked farro with summer vegetables.

70. Nightly TV time from 7:30-9:30 pm. Season 2 of The Bear. Beef. Jury Duty. Rap Sh!t. Watching the final seasons of The Crown, Sex Education, Reservation Dogs and The Other Two. Abbott Elementary. The Last of Us. Yellowjackets. Couples Therapy. 100 Foot Wave.

71. Amoxicillin and Augmentin for Maeve.

72. Maeve singing nursery rhymes in her sweet, high voice.

73. Showing up every two weeks for Zoom writing group. Reuniting with the guys in December at a suburban restaurant and having no shame as we did a big group hug. Reading genres that I wouldn’t read without the group’s recommendations.

74. Patio dinners at Flying Fish Co. Maeve’s delight in the little plastic shark she chose from their treasure box. Sharing French fries.

75. Maeve learning new words and saying them over and over until we understood. Her pronunciation of spiders (“sibers”) and puzzles (“zupples”).

76. Buying a new bed frame.

77. Vanilla soft-serve cones for Maeve at Dairy Queen and the county fair. Sharing spoonfuls of my scoops from the local ice cream shop. Giving her ice cream one day for dessert and her telling me it was “too cold.”

78. A week at the coast with my in-laws. Going to the Tillamook Creamery and the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Nestucca Bay wildlife refuge. Shopping in Depoe Bay and tidepooling in Pacific City. Building sandcastles and making fires. Splashing around in the surf.

79. Buying art supplies and little gifts at Collage.

80. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett.

81. Teaching Maeve how to lay down so that I could trace her outline in sidewalk chalk. Drawing shapes and animal outlines so that she could color them in.

82. Tension headaches. Laying on the acupressure mat. Insurance-covered deep tissue massages.

83. Pomegranate spritzes.

84. Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album GUTS. Watching her first in-house Tiny Desk Concert and feeling that pure teenage pleasure at being alive and discovering self-expression.

85. Maeve dressed as a black cat for Halloween. Meeting the neighbors while trick-or-treating. Maeve’s love for holiday decorations, which started with “spooky ghosts” and pumpkins in October.

86. Playing records while making dinner.

87. Going to Chicago to celebrate our fourth anniversary in October. Walking 5 or 6 miles every day. Eating out at Frontera Grill. Shopping and drinking so many lattes. Buying books and clothes. Discovering Remedios Varo at the Art Institute of Chicago. Watching The Daytrippers on the Amtrak ride back to Kansas City.

88. Maeve dipping everything (fruit, noodles, potatoes, chicken, eggs) in ketchup.

89. Happy hour dates before daycare pick-up.

90. Coming late to Laufey and Samara Joy. Loving an old soul in a young voice.

91. Buying occasional coffee drinks from Portland Ca Phe on the way home from drop-off.

92. Swimming and bike riding at Sunriver in August. Staying inside during poor air quality days and playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch. A short hike at Lava Lands. Exploring the nature center. Lunch at Timberline Lodge on the drive home.

93. Writing about the books that I didn’t read in 2023.

94. Seeing deer, snakes, woodpeckers and barred owls on our walks in Oaks Bottom.

95. Bringing home cans of Olipop as a grocery-store treat for Ryan.

96. Regulating my nervous system.

97. Listening to the audiobook of Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford, which is read by her and brought me wholehearted joy.

98. Hanging Maeve’s drawings on the fridge. The way that our  9-year-old nephew referred to her scribbles as “abstract art.” My retired friend painting portraits from photos.

99. Attempting to join the congregation of “The Church Of Minding One’s Own Business.”  

100. Exuberant open-armed hugs from Maeve.

You can read all of my lists for past years here.

Categories
Reading

The books I didn’t read this year

I stole this idea (like an artist) from Austin Kleon, who lifted it from John Warner. I love filling up my holds queue at the library and anticipating the books I’ll read next (or the ones I’ll avoid because they’ve gotten too buzzy, as a true contrarian does).

The Japanese have a word for the stack of books you’ve bought but haven’t yet read: tsundoku. I like to think of these purchases as being as important as the books I’ve finished, like little companions strewn around my house (or stacked up in my Libby app) as totems of the reading life as a practice, not a pursuit.

The real exercise may be to see how many of these make it to my best-of-2024 list. Some I’ve already decided to let go, but others I’ve been sitting on until just the right time when I can savor them fully.

Here are 20 books I didn’t read this year, in no particular order:

1. Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
This graphic novel is sitting on my coffee table after I stumbled across it in the “Lucky Day!” new reads section at my library branch. The liminal time after Christmas is a perfect time to mow through books like these, so I’m not yet counting it out for 2023.

2. Sun House by David James Duncan
It’s been three decades since Duncan’s last epic novel, The Brothers K, which I devoured in my youth with utter delight. The Pacific Northwest has few writers who write as wildly and beautifully as Duncan. I’ve been waiting for a vacation or a quiet season when I can tip straight into this 700-page novel and not come up until I’m done.

3. Saving Time by Jenny Odell
No excuses, except for the impression that the library holds in my Libby app ask to be read more loudly than the books on my shelf do. I loved her debut very much, and I’ll read this one soon, too.

4. Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter
What millennial doesn’t love a takedown of late capitalism? Roxane Gay calls this one “the kind of novel that reminds us that the apocalypse is now.”

5. The Comfort of Crows by Margaret Renkl
I bought a copy of this at Unabridged Books when visiting Chicago and haven’t yet read it, although my purchase was heavily influenced by reading Renkl’s Late Migrations on the Amtrak ride in. I think I’ll wait until spring so I can track local flowers blooming as I read about Renkl’s backyard.

6. Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer
I read about this book in so many places that I can’t remember what exactly caused me to pick it up at the library. Then I brought it home, and it sat on my desk for three weeks. I’m still interested in Dederer’s experiment in grappling with whether we can love the art but hate the artist.

7. The Creative Act by Rick Rubin
Another book purchased while traveling and feeling that heady mixture of freedom and creative possibility. I will get to it. Until then, it’s a friendly bookshelf totem.

8. Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
This appeals to me as someone who reads and feels deeply about the magnitude of suffering in this world, yet doesn’t identify as a loud, energetic activist at heart.

9. Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter
I’ve just been batting this one down the Libby list until the timing is right, but: suburban intrigue? complicated female friendship? deep character study? Yes, yes, yes.

10. The Light Room by Kate Zambreno
Despite my intentions to critically engage with any new book about millennial motherhood, I finally came to terms this year with the fact that this practice can sometimes increase my sense of suffering, not ease it.

11. The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
After being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this book made it to many best-of lists this year. Which explains why I’m currently 472nd in line to receive access from my local library.

12. Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Another one that caught my eye after Roxane Gay chose it for her Audacity book club.

13. Contradiction Days by JoAnna Novak
See #10.

14. The Upstairs Delicatessen by Dwight Garner
Garner’s sublime Grub Street Diet drove me straight to this book, but the timing just hasn’t been right yet.

15. Rivermouth by Alejandra Oliva
It can’t be a coincidence that I had the intent to read so many justice-oriented books this year, and yet when they came available to me, I didn’t feel prepared to bear additional stories of suffering.

16. Fat Talk by Virginia Sole-Smith
I was big on this book early in the year, when I was subscribing to Sole-Smith’s Substack (and many other Substacks by white women, which are all well-written, but the pace and tone have become a little too insistent for my brain).

17. Period by Kate Clancy
I’ll always champion women knowing more about their own bodies as a source of agency and power, but for some reason, reading this particular book felt less important the moment it landed in my lap.

18. Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri
As if Lahiri’s successful career as an author of short story collections and novels weren’t enough, now she’s writing in Italian and translating her own work back to English. I’m bumping this one up the list.

19. The Book of (More) Delights by Ross Gay
Ryan spotted this one at Unabridged Books on our Chicago trip, and sometime in 2024, I hope we’ll pick up our practice of reading a delight “essayette” to each other before bed as we did with the original Book of Delights.

20. Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
Makes me wish I had a book club. From one blurb: “Beagin channels everything evil, hot, intimate, and funny about spying on people while secretly hoping to get caught.”

What did you mean to read this year?

Categories
Art

The gift of weird art

Courtney Martin’s drawing of the setting of her first job, the indie movie theater in Colorado Springs. (via Substack)

So much of the internet today is a mere shadow of the open-source, playful place it once was, but I’ve been heartened lately by fellow moms sharing their “weird art” without disclaimers or apologies.

Courtney Martin, (whose Substack newsletter is an excellent source of reflective essays on intentional living, community organizing, and parenthood) just came back from a two-month sabbatical where she embraced “divergent thinking”:

One of the real gifts of my sabbatical was getting off social media, moving my body a lot (swimming and hiking mostly), moving slowly through museums alone, and making a lot of weird art. I find such tremendous pleasure in being able to let my mind wander—cell phone and children somewhere else. I love my children. And I even love my cell phone; it keeps me connected to so many wonderful people and ideas. But my wholeness is dependent on hearing myself think, even and especially when that thinking is non-linear, surprising, and delighted.

I recognized that same delighted silliness in the zines shared by all-around creative person Helen Jane Hearn. She posted 30 zines she created during a 100-day project — all of which are worth checking out, but for those of us approaching (or already of) a certain age, her colonscopy zine is exceptional. I love how she wrote in the caption of her first zine, “Duh HJ, you can totally do [a project] in private and only share the things you want.”

As comedian Maria Bamford says, “It takes tenacity and courage to use a glue gun, and it’s about the easiest thing in the world to criticize stuff. If you sing out your Batman poetry into a largely hostile Barnes and Noble crowd … or if you think of doing a nude clown opera, you write it, you cast it, and you actually fucking do it, that doesn’t show you’re insane as much as it shows the symptoms of being hard-working and a huge success.”

For more on the embrace of a regular creative practice, Wendy MacNaughton’s DrawTogether is revolutionizing art education and community (and is kid- and adult-friendly)!

Categories
Miscellany

The question of a good day

I loved this recent interview with the prolific, relentlessly curious Ezra Klein (in GQ of all places.) I’ve identified with so much of his perspective as a parent of young children, like how parenthood has transformed his idea of adhering to a daily routine:

It’s been a shift, because what I have now are responsibilities—not just responsibilities, relationships—and the more I understand them, the more I realize they can’t effectively be optimized. They are chaotic systems, so to speak—certainly children are. The question is how I’m able to show up in them, and how I’m able to show up in them knowing that I can’t control the day that comes before it. I’ve been forced out of the illusion of control. I’m much more interested in the question of, what can I do to make it likeliest that I can meet the situations I’m in with a better rather than worse version of myself—and a more present rather than a more distracted form of my attention? 

I love this, and I think about it nearly constantly as I juggle creative and professional work and parenthood and rest. Klein’s philosophy reminds me of Oliver Burkeman’s thesis in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals; essentially, that finitude is all we have, and accepting that fact liberates us from trying to accomplish it all in lieu of turning to the next right thing.

Or in Klein’s words, “I’m just much more interested in the question of a good day than a tightly managed day.”

I could have written Klein’s formula for a good day in my own notebook (and I did, copied from the GQ article).

Categories
Miscellany

Opting out of optimization culture

The deeper I wade into my own desires and needs as a mother, business owner, spouse, and human on this planet in 2023, the less interested I find myself in optimizing my decisions. That’s not to say that I’m immune to user reviews when buying practically anything. It’s easy to tumble down a rabbit hole of planning spreadsheets when you set out to buy anything or travel anywhere these days. Some of us even turn our tendency to be a “maximizer” into a core personality trait.

Ryan and I recently bought a new bed frame (yes, one that was probably first marketed to us on Instagram), and before I clicked the purchase button, we had spent weeks sending each other lists of links and scouring websites and sharing Wirecutter listicles until we finally persuaded ourselves that we had enough information to trust our decision.

Despite what I think is my desire for beautiful lamps, a more “charming” home, and the perfect linen shirt, when I dig down beneath what I’m served by being a daily user of the internet, I know what I want. I want the freedom — the liberation — that comes with embracing things as they are, linoleum floors and all. My calling on this earth is not to beautify my home and squeeze maximum efficiency out of my work days and raise my child perfectly. It’s to be present to my life.

My one-year-old demonstrates a very good lesson in not optimizing the kitty sticker book. Her philosophy is generally “exuberance, not perfection.”

As Molly Wizenberg writes about her “Frankenkitchen,” which she has cooked in since the early days of her career as a food writer, “It is a very nice kitchen, which is to say that we can cook everything we want in it.”

In a few years, when our new bed frame has scratches or squeaks slightly or doesn’t quite seem level, I hope that I can remember what it has supported: not a fully-optimized experience to add to ratings spreadsheets and my social media feed, but a life underpinned by love and deep rest and comfort.

Categories
Family Nature

Taking a walk on toddler time

Nothing has taught me as much about slowing down and experiencing the moment like accompanying my toddler on a walk around the block. (And I thought living through the early days of the pandemic was an exercise in presence!)

My knee-jerk reaction is to keep her moving — to make our walk the verb that it’s supposed to be. But Maeve wants to stop and pick up rocks. She wants to point out balls in neighbors’ yards and to touch the tulips. She’s delighted when she can spend several minutes with the cats down the block. She knows when we get to a certain hedge, we’ll probably play a quick game of hide-and-seek.

So I’ve learned to slow down and to let her lead, even when she doesn’t take us anywhere but to a particular flowering rosemary bush to watch the bees do their work for several long minutes.

As Jenny Odell says in Saving Time, “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.”

Categories
Reading

The Pulitzer Project

I’ve been undertaking something I coined The Pulitzer Project for about five years now, in which I read the Pulitzer winner in fiction for every year of my life. There are some real clunkers in the list, and others were already favorites (Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr), but it’s been perhaps most fascinating to read books that I otherwise never would have picked up because of how they’ve aged in the cultural discourse.

I’m currently in the midst of John Updike’s Rabbit series, and it’s a wild, politically incorrect ride. As entertaining and instructive as the books themselves is reading both historical reviews of the novels and more contemporary analyses. As Patricia Lockwood writes:

After Rabbit, Run, the books cease to be interesting primarily for their art but become essential recordings of American life. They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God.

This project has also brought me some beautiful books that I otherwise may not have encountered, like the winner for my birth year (1986), Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

While I’m not always a completist, I suspect that I’ll keep chipping away at this project whenever I fall into a lull in my reading habits. I loved this take on experiencing “every example of a given thing” in a recent issue of Rob Walker’s newsletter The Art of Noticing:

These Every Single X projects tend not to have a time limit — they’re often ongoing and even open-ended.

And, I think crucially, some are almost destined to “fail” (as things close, things open, the world changes). That’s okay. The project/mission/quest is its own reward. (Plus, I love Ryan Lancaster’s extra rule of not going out of the way, which kind of subverts the whole “mission” idea in a really satisfying manner: you can set any parameters you want!)