Charity Singleton Craig

I am a writer, bringing words to life through essays, stories, blog posts, and books. I have contributed essays to three books, including, "Letters to Me: Conversations with a Younger Self". I also am a content editor at The High Calling and a contributing writer at TweetSpeak Poetry. I co-led Tweetspeak Poetry’s “The Writing Life” workshop with Ann Kroeker. I live with my husband and three step-sons in rural Indiana. You can find me online at charitysingletoncraig.com, on Twitter@charityscraig, and on Facebook.

Tricks Every Boy Can Do

Even though I was finishing up Tricks Every Boy Can Do by Paul Buchanan at the same time my stepson, a senior in high school, received his assignment to read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I nearly missed the parallels of the two brother narratives. Only on reflection did I realize that both stories are about brothers, and both contain one brother who torments the other. Also in both stories, the two brothers fall for the same woman and find themselves in paternity disputes over the child being carried by their mutual lover. Many other similarities run throughout both books.

But if I initially missed the connection, it’s likely because Tricks Every Boy Can Do is as much about the women in Alvie’s and Frankie’s lives as it is about the brothers.

The book begins with Rose, a single mother, exiled in her own Depression-era community, lonely and trying to do right by her two sons. She actually has three children, triplets, but the third, a daughter, died during childbirth. Even though the boys look identical, they are nothing alike, and never will be. Rose knew from an early age that Alvie would always need to be cared for; he’s weaker and more studious. He’s also a worrier, easily tricked and deceived by his brother. Rose knew Frankie, on the other hand—brash and manipulative and strong—would always take care of himself. From the time they were born, this was how Rose treated her sons.

We see this in the opening scene when Rose receives a call from the boys’ school explaining there has been an incident with a broken window. The school secretary phones Rose at work and says it was definitely her son. “‘Are you sure it was Frankie?’ Rose said. Her son, she suspected, had become the default defendant when anything at school was broken or stolen or set on fire or—in one case—coated with Vaseline.” But as it turns out, they haven’t accused Frankie but Alvie. And Rose is incredulous. “Alvie broke a window?” Rose asks. And then again, “Alvie? Alvie Ferrell?” She insists: “It’s Frankie. He’s pretending to be his brother again. Can you just put him on the phone a minute?” But when the secretary tells her that he’s crying and won’t stop, Rose immediately knows it really is Alvie. “I’ll be right there,” she says, and proceeds with the first of several rescues in the book.

The second woman we meet is the ghost of baby Doris, the third triplet. From an early age, Alvie senses her presence in their home. He imagines her growing up alongside him and Frankie, but he rarely mentions to anyone that she’s there. “Her presence—or, perhaps more accurately, her absence—seemed to lurk everywhere; a tingling void in the shape of a growing girl.” The animosity between the two brothers seems to be the primary reason Alvie is so determined to know and feel Doris’s presence in their home. Frankie is so different from Alvie, the two can hardly be in the same room; Doris, however, makes Alvie feel like he’s home.

As they grow older, though, he begins to feel that Doris, even though dead, may actually be outgrowing him. “Baby Doris’s presence began to take on a womanly yaw. Their mother’s gold chains and clip-on earrings would show up in the hearth or fallen into the gap between the radio and wall, or the air might faintly fill with the scent of a ghostly menarche. It was as if she were leaving both boys behind, as Alvie had seen other sisters do, in her journey toward some phantasmal womanhood.” That may be why he he attempts to contact Doris through a self-important “medium”—a neighbor girl named Lydia who is defensive about her occult powers—for which Frankie mocks him to no end. Oddly, Doris does seem to make an appearance, as if even from the grave she is there to stick up for Alvie. Despite his chiding, Frankie seems to understand this, too; somehow all the women in his life prefer Alvie to him.

We are reintroduced to Lydia when Frankie comes home from serving in World War II and Alvie and Lydia are now a couple. Like Rose, Lydia has become Alvie’s protector—as much from Frankie as anything else—and sees Frankie as a loner, looking out only for himself. It’s as if the three pick up where the seance left off: Lydia believing she possesses powers others can’t understand, and Frankie and Alvie even more rivalrous now that Frankie has reentered the picture. The contention between brothers seems to peak shortly after Frankie returns home, and Alvie and Lydia talk with him about their desire to live in Rose’s house once they get married.

“‘So I’m supposed to wander off somewhere so you two can play house?’ Frankie said. ‘You know I have as much right to this house as you do, Alvie.’ He looked at Lydia. ‘And a hell of a lot more than some people.’

“‘You’ll get your share of whatever’s coming to you,’ Alvie said. ‘We’ll buy the place from Rose.’ Alvie slumped a little in his chair, like he was relieved to have accomplished the assignment Lydia had given him.”

Also like Rose, however, what Lydia really wants is for someone to look out for her. This becomes more apparent as Rose develops early onset dementia, likely Alzheimer’s (though that word is not used because of the author’s staunch adherence to the historical setting of the story). Alvie, Lydia, and Frankie begin to work together to take care of her. In the process, the animosity between Lydia and Frankie seems to disappear. Lydia begins to defend Frankie’s decisions to Alvie, they share inside jokes, and eventually they begin having an affair.

Alvie suspects something is going on between his fiancé and brother when Lydia mentions getting some photos from Frankie. The two had to have been together when Alvie wasn’t present. Then, Alvie receives a warning about the affair before he actually discovers it, a warning from his demented mother, who watches Frankie and Lydia leave her nursing home room one day and exclaims, “Love birds. Those two are so sweet on each other.” When Alvie tries to correct her, she insists, “Your sister thinks so, too.” Apparently Doris also communicates with Rose, or at least that’s what Rose says during the fog of one of her episodes.

When Alvie eventually finds out for sure about the affair, Lydia chooses to stay with him rather than Frankie, since the two are now engaged. Because of Lydia’s choice, however, Frankie leaves town and exiles himself from his brother, his mother, and the woman he loves. Both women are heartbroken, though Rose has few clear moments now. And Lydia realizes that her own need to take care of Alvie has kept Frankie from loving and caring for her in his own way. She has chosen Alvie, but Frankie’s absence makes her marriage almost unbearable.

The fourth woman we meet in Tricks Every Boy Can Do is Fat Sadie, an obese bar owner and lounge singer who takes the exiled Frankie in as her bouncer, then bartender, and eventually her caregiver when she discovers she is dying. Fat Sadie is the first woman to let Frankie take care of her, probably because she is the first woman he loves who doesn’t love Alvie more. Their love is platonic, though, and he never stops longing for Lydia. Eventually, Frankie sees his opportunity to go home and fight for the woman he loves, though it could mean leaving behind the successful life he built for himself away from his family.

When Frankie comes back to town, he and Lydia end up back together, but only briefly. An unexpected pregnancy, however, causes Lydia to believe that Frankie, not Alvie, is the father. Alvie, however, knows the truth—that a childhood case of the mumps left Frankie impotent—and decides to fight for his wife.

As with other brother narratives, we expect this story to transform into a tragedy: two brothers fighting it out to the end. In the original brother narrative in the book of Genesis, Cain murders Abel in a fit of rage and jealousy. The envy and rivalry of Steinbeck’s Cal and Aron in East of Eden destroy not only the brothers’ lives, but their parents and all those who encounter them. But that’s not the case for Frankie and Alvie. Before Alvie can restake his claim for his wife, Doris sends him another message. He thinks Doris is leading him back to his wife, and as he’s always done, he lets one of the women in his life tell him what to do. But eventually, Alvie realizes that the decision is Lydia’s, not his. He can’t, or at least shouldn’t try to, force her to come back.

“Lydia had an agonizing choice to make, and in this moment Alvie knew he had the power to make that decision infinitely harder for her and its consequences more painful for everyone.

Or he could give her this: He could simply turn and descend the stairs. He could allow her to sort things out in her own flawed and human way.

Whatever she decided, he and Frankie and Lydia would find their way together; that much Alvie understood. The three of them were bound by blood and history. Their future, whatever it held, was something they’d go through together.

For the first time, Alvie realizes that he doesn’t need Rose or Lydia or even Doris to take care of him. In the end, it is Alvie’s goodness and maturity in letting Lydia go, in taking care of her rather than the other way around, that offer hope in this story. Suddenly, the brotherly competition loses its edge. There’s no more revenge and bitterness. Instead, Alvie accepts his fate and moves forward, even while maintaining his relationship with his brother.

Tricks Every Boy Can Do falls solidly in the tradition of brother narratives, but it stands apart with its decency and humanity. “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” David writes in Psalm 133. For Buchanan’s Alvie and Frankie, it’s a hard-fought but true reality indeed.

 


Tricks Every Boy can Do by Paul Buchanan is published by Harvard Square Editions.

I’m Bored

When summer officially arrived, my three step-sons had been out of school for about five weeks already for their summer break—just long enough for all three of them to have grown bored.

Despite multiple gaming systems, laptops, a Netflix subscription, and a membership to the pool; regardless of the numerous trips to local movie theaters, a week spent volunteering at our church’s Vacation Bible School, and a week of camp for the older two; not to mention two vacations, weekend road trips, and a planned visit to an amusement park, our kids feel dissatisfied, distracted, and disenchanted by their options.

And they aren’t alone.

Most days, despite a never-ending to-do list and nonstop schedule that leaves me nodding off if I even try to sit down to watch an episode of Cedar Cove on Netflix, ennui smolders within me, too. On one particularly boring day, I was reminded of a recent Guardian article I’d read: “Why are we so bored?” “We live in a world of constant entertainment—but is too much stimulation boring?” the author asks.

“Up to half of us are ‘often bored’ at home or at school, while more than two-thirds of us are chronically bored at work. We are bored by paperwork, by the commute and by dull meetings. TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. We spend our weekends at dull parties, watching tedious films or listening to our spouses drone on about their day. Our kids are bored—bored of school, of homework and even of school holidays.

All of this adds up to a big problem, writes Sandi Mann, author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good: “We are overstimulated.” The more we are entertained, the more we want to be entertained. And the more we want to be entertained, the more it takes to entertain us. Our attention spans have shrunk to less than goldfish proportion (8 seconds). And our screen time has burgeoned: we spend an average of six to seven hours in front of our phone, tablet, computer, and TV screens every day. As a writer, my average is more like 8-10 hours.

“Instead of performing varied activities that engage different neural systems (sport, knitting, painting, cooking, etc.) to relieve our tedium, we fall back on the same screen-tapping schema for much of our day,” Mann writes. “The irony is that while our mobile devices should allow us to fill every moment, our means of obtaining that entertainment has become so repetitive and routine that it’s a source of boredom in itself.”

This is where things really get interesting.

According to Andreas Elpidorou, an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, boredom “arises as the result of the perception of a mismatch: a gap between the need for stimulation and its availability. We want something that simply is not there.” Not only is boredom the result of “our awareness of that absence,” it’s also our cue “to pursue a different situation, one that seems more meaningful or interesting, just as a sharp pain motivates us not to put pins into our bodies.”

But when we attempt to satisfy that cue with the same kinds of activities that created the boredom, we lose our appetite for “activities that seem congruent with our wishes” or for what truly will stimulate us, entertain us, or fulfill our desire for meaning.

Elpidorou suggests that the best way to quell the ennui is by responding in a way that initially might feel counterintuitive: by choosing a less stimulating activity. “So, the next time boredom overcomes you, it might be best not to ignore it. It might be best not to cover it up with your smartphone. Boredom might be trying to tell you something.”

In my life, I can think of at least two activities that would likely be a better response to boredom than more screen time. First, sleep. Though I rarely get a good night’s sleep and often complain that the sleep I get is fitful and restless, I continue to ignore the growing body of research suggesting screens are the enemy of melatonin and go ahead and shine the bright blue light of my iPhone directly into my eyes while I’m lying in bed. I check email, I scan Facebook, I watch Netflix. While reading would be the better solution to my nocturnal boredom, and I could do it with a very low lamp beside the bed, “I’m too tired to read,” I tell myself. Too bored might be more like it.

“Bed is boring compared to the internet,” writes Lauren Bravo in a LifeHacker article about a sleep experiment she did. “At first, getting into bed at 10pm doesn’t feel like a treat; it feels like a punishment. I miss my usual evening wind-down activities–a bath, a book, a little light Netflix, and especially my favourite pre-bedtime hobby: dicking around on the internet.” Over the two weeks she forced herself to get to bed earlier, however, Bravo trained herself to relish the quiet time, and better sleep eventually became her habit again.

According to Ariana Huffington, sleep itself can be an antidote for boredom in our lives. In a recent HuffPost article, she talks about the way sleep “allows us, once we return from our night’s journey, to see the world anew, with fresh eyes and a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored.”

This leads to another of life’s appetites that slips away when we are overstimulated: art, which Susan Sontag famously wrote is essentially boring itself. “We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art,” she writes in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

Though I may feign contempt when my teenage stepsons get bored at an art museum, I, too, have a limited attention span for walking through galleries or listening to a symphony. I subscribe to literary journals, but rarely read them cover to cover, in favor of reading a popular novel or even watching more Netflix shows. Art can be, and often is, boring.

But maybe that’s the point, contends Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë writes:

“Works of art, in all their variety, it seems to me, afford us the opportunity for boredom—and they do so when everything in our lives mitigates against boredom. Maybe this is one of art’s gifts? Could it be that the power to bore us to tears is a clue to what art is and why it is so important?

How does art bore us? Noë offers several suggestions: through its lack of a bottom line or “nugget of truth”; through its power to interrupt our normal standards of utility or practicality; through its ability to force us out of our comfort zone. But art also alleviates our boredom if we allow it to do its work in us.

“When it comes to art, and philosophy, there isn’t even anything that rises to the level of an encounter until you experience the fact that it is not the work—not the picture, or play, or dance, or song, or installation—that is opening itself up. But you, yourself, and all of us together.

I want to open myself up to art in that way, which is why I allow for boredom when I engage art in its various forms. For instance, my husband and I are members of the Indianapolis Art Museum in part to support the arts, but mostly for the free admission so that we don’t feel bad about paying full admission price just for an hour or two visit. I also try to spend more time with individual works of art rather than speeding through and “entertaining” myself with the volume and diversity of the many galleries. Also, rather than entertain questions such as “Is that really art?” as I walk through the museum, I try to answer the question “Why is this considered art?”

Other strategies also keep me engaged with art, despite my boredom. I assume a book of essays will take me much longer to read than the latest chick lit book I picked up off the sale table at Barnes & Noble. So I make myself read at least one essay at each sitting before I switch over to the easier material. I listen to classical music, but I do so as a background track to my workday. I could give it more attention by listening to it in the car, but I prefer to sing along to the latest pop songs when I drive. And I try to read a poem a day, sometimes a couple a day, even if I might not understand them all. Keeping art in my life in small doses helps develop my appetite for it. So when I do have the opportunity to attend a gallery tour or an orchestral recital or a lecture on architecture, I am willing to work through the boredom to find meaning and fulfillment.

Interestingly, the more I fight my way through the boredom of art, and sleep, the more energy and creativity and interest I have in the rest of my life. Somehow, the boredom of art makes life less boring.

According to the boys’ school calendar, we’ve got several more weeks of summer boredom to endure. But that also means we’ve got plenty of time to slow down, unplug, and de-stimulate ourselves. In fact, our middle son asked about visiting the art museum again this summer—what a perfectly boring idea.

 

 

 

Featured Image: Ennui, 1914, Walter Sickert (1860–1942)

The Danger of Reading

My family owns a book I will never read.

Actually, we own more than one book that I’ll likely not take time for: my stepson’s copy of Si-cology written by Duck Dynasty star Si Robertson, my husband’s 150 Years of Baseball, and a borrowed copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces I have kept way too long. Those books lie squarely outside my interests, and with so little time and so many books, why bother?

But there’s one book we own that I would probably enjoy but still will never read: John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. Granted, it’s a young adult book. But that didn’t stop me from reading The Hunger Games. My husband read Fault and liked it. He’s actually watched the movie version a couple of times without me. It’s that good, according to him. But I will never read Green’s book or others like it because it is about cancer and someone in the book dies of the disease. For a cancer survivor who came close to dying of the disease myself, reading about people dying of cancer stirs up emotional turmoil.

Apparently this kind of selective reading has become popular among college students who ask to be excused from assigned readings because of the “triggers” contained in some classic literature. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, “At universities around the world, students are claiming that reading books can unsettle them to the point of becoming depressed, traumatised or even suicidal.” In his Aeon essay “Books are Dangerous,” he lists Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), even Ovid’s Metamorphoses as books students have labeled psychically harmful.

Furedi spends most of the rest of his essay enumerating the many ways over the centuries that others have imposed danger labels on literature to keep students, women, the “uneducated,” the religiously pious, and other readers away from the influences of reading. From the Roman philosopher Seneca, “who advised that the ‘reading of many books is a distraction’ that leaves the reader ‘disoriented and weak,’” to The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Soley for their Use and Amusement of 1780 that “warned that novels were ‘the powerful engines with which the seducer attacks the female heart,’” to 20th century Moralisers “who feared the malevolent influence of texts drew the conclusion that censorship served the functional equivalent of quarantine,” reading has a long history of inciting distress in its readers, according to some.

Growing up, my own religious training attempted to motivate us toward a self-imposed “trigger warning” approach to media consumption. For movies and music, the issue lay primarily in the moral arena: sex, nudity, profanity, and violence were to be avoided at all costs, regardless of the merits of the film or composition. But for books, the standard centered more on the ideas they contained. On many occasions, I was presented the metaphor of a counterfeit money expert who is able to identify fake currency not by studying the many different possible knock-offs, but by studying the real thing. In other words, I shouldn’t seek knowledge and truth outside of the texts our religious forbearers had already identified for us. To read books about Islam or atheism or evolution would invite trouble. Reading was dangerous.

Actually, reading is dangerous—possibly in the ways we have been warned about throughout history, where our minds are tainted by new ideas and tempted by knowledge of questionable deeds, but mostly in the ways we are pushed to question and analyze and possibly even reject old notions for new ones. When we read, we change—a dangerous proposition indeed.

“It is precisely because reading catches us unaware and offers an experience that is rarely under our full control that it has played, and continues to play, such an important role in humanity’s search for meaning. That is also why it is so often feared,” Furedi concludes.

But there is another danger in reading, perhaps even a greater danger, that is easily hidden among our preferences and ideologies.

Recently, my husband and I were discussing presidential politics and the primary election season at hand. About one candidate whom neither of us is voting for, we both expressed incredulity over the reasons anyone would make that choice.

“It’s not just that someone would vote for him, but that they aren’t doing any research to find out what he’s really like,” Steve said.

“Well, actually the problem might be that they are doing research but from a biased source,” I suggested, mostly because just the day before, I saw a conversation on Facebook in which two people offered sources to support opposing views about the same issues.

“When everything we read supports what we already know, who can argue with that?” I said.

Dangerous reading indeed. And not just in politics. Of course I’m not advocating only hostile reading, when our books and journals and magazines and newsletters whip us into a frenzy with every perusal. When I read authors who share my opinion and ideologies, I’ve found affirmation and increased understanding. But in hindsight, I also believe that I’ve stunted my own growth when I failed to challenge myself and my opinions by reading broadly and deeply from opposing positions, too.

But reading grows even more treacherous when we limit it not just by subject but by kind, because we have come to believe that our choices are not just morally or ideologically preferable but also intellectually superior. Of course there are many ways to frame these dichotomies. In literature we talk about literary fiction vs. genre fiction. In education, we think of the academy versus vocational training. There are films versus movies. High art versus low art. In “Reverting to Type: A Reader’s Story,” Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University, frames the dichotomy this way: “the guy who talks about ideas” versus “the guy who makes things,” or the Intellectual and the Engineer. In his own reading, Jacobs started out as scientifically curious and increasingly became densely literary. He went from reading for enjoyment to “reading while thinking about what I am going to do with that reading.” When later he came back to both the scientific and science fiction reading of his youth—a reading that differed both in subject and in kind from his own professional reading—what happened surprised him.

“I pursued these matters out of relatively pure enthusiasm, delight in stretching parts of my brain that hadn’t been used much in a few decades. But in devoting so much of my leisure reading to books by scientists, I ended up, quite inadvertently, changing my views about my own profession,” Jacobs writes.

Primarily the change was this:

“Nobody can get a secure grip on this nearly infinite variety of inquiry and vocabulary, but every attempt to read across the boundaries of one’s own preferred practices is a tonic and a stimulant. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time for this kind of reading, but given the multiple rewards, can we afford not to take that time? Often it’s confusing, sometimes it’s clarifying, usually—if you can find the good, clear writers in the various fields—it’s a great deal of fun.

Of course “fun” doesn’t actually preclude danger. Reading of the kind Jacobs suggests is dangerous. But so is the alternative.

Maybe someday when I’ve been cancer-free for five or ten years, I’ll read The Fault in Our Stars. I know I’d like it. But before then, maybe I should pick up Si-Cology or 150 Years of Baseball. It might be fun.

The Art of Memoir

Over the weekend, my husband, Steve, mentioned a radio news segment he heard about my alma mater.

“The Silent Night game?” I asked, referring to Taylor University’s now famous tradition during the last men’s basketball game before winter break.

“Yeah, they had a story on ESPN radio,” he said. “Did you do it when you were a student?”

“It’s where they all dress in pajamas and are quiet until someone scores a point, right?” He nodded. Actually, the crowd dresses up in all kinds of costumes and is quiet until the 10th point is scored by the home team. Then applause and shouting erupt, and at the end of the game, the entire crowd sings “Silent Night.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did that,” I said, trying to remember what I wore and whether I went all four years. “I didn’t go to a lot of sporting events, but I went to some. I’m sure I went to the Silent Night games.”

“Even the president of the college went this year,” he said.

“Back when I was there, Jay Kesler was president, and we would all wear pajamas and go to the dining hall and he would read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” I explained. “Did they mention that in the news story?”

Steve shook his head.

“Maybe I’m confusing the two,” I said, racking my brain again, trying to remember myself in pajamas at a basketball game. “Just a minute…”

I ran to get my iPhone. With a quick Google search, the facts began to transform memory into truth.

“Well, it says here that the tradition has been going for 19 years. I graduated in 1993. Apparently I wasn’t even a student when they started Silent Night,” I told him. I felt like a fraud, though we both just laughed it off. Over the past few years, I have heard so much about the tradition, I had started to believe I participated.

But as a writer, particularly a writer of personal essays and memoir, I was mortified. How easy it is to get the facts wrong, to misremember, and in the process, to create an alternative version of the past, to create a different version of myself—one who went to college basketball games in my pajamas, even.

In her latest book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr talks a lot about truth and memory and self-perception in creative nonfiction. “The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night…So when people ask in challenging tones how I can possibly recall everything I’ve published, I often fess up, Obviously I can’t. But I’ve been able to bullshit myself that I do. By this I mean, I do my best, which is limited by the failures of my so-called mind,” she writes.

Of course, among the more egregious failures of an author’s “so-called mind” is the zeal that leads some authors to intentionally create a less truthy truth. To lie. Karr highlights “fake Holocaust survivor” Binjamin Wilkomirski, the over-the-top addict James Frey, and the “skunk-posting-as-saint” Greg Mortenson as recent perpetrators of this kind of deception.

While bemoaning the fact that even the occasional fabrication creates “a sweeping tendency to deny even the possibility of truth” and “bogs down our collective moral machinery,” Karr describes a worse fate for authors who lie. “Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty,” she writes. “Some memories—often the best and worst—burn inside us for lifetimes, florid, unforgettable, demanding to be set down.”

Perhaps the greater failure of our writerly minds, however, the one more memoirists must face—especially those who are seeking the deepest level of truth—is believing the false perceptions of ourselves that the past and our present memories of the past create. “I often find students in early pages showing themselves exactly opposite from how they actually are,” Karr writes.

Maybe that’s what was happening as I somewhat confidently latched onto past events that didn’t even happen. It had nothing to do with an intentional lie (I didn’t even know I was lying, in fact) and probably much to do with fabricating a false self to present to my sports-enthusiast husband, a self that frequented sporting events and participated in campus traditions when, in fact, I was more often in the library or the newspaper office and usually bypassed the shouty, dress-up activities that many co-eds on campus enjoyed.

This kind of self-deceit may, in the end, be even more harmful to our writing and to our relationship with readers than intentional deceit, Karr contends. “We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is—almost always—a shallow person’s lack of self-knowledge,” she writes.

Getting to the truth of oneself, though, requires more than just a good memory or even the maturity of self-awareness. The quest to truly know oneself, especially on the page, comes down to a battle with pride, the pride that always wants to see oneself as better or smarter or meaner or any other superlative than what reality has given.

“No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle,” Karr writes. “Start trying to bring yourself to the page, and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”

The battle with pride may even result in contradicting one false self with another, making myself out to be more academic and more serious than I really was. Could it be that I skipped most athletic events in college not because I was studying or playing gatekeeper over campus news but instead because I was watching TV in the lounge or exercising on the StairMaster? I struggle to remember.

Karr offers two primary suggestions for memoirists to be both honest and humble.

First, write with carnality, which Karr defines as that which you can perceive with your five senses. “Carnality sits at the root of the show-don’t-tell edict that every writing teacher harps on all the time, because it works,” she writes. Concrete details of a story not only bring the scene and characters to life; they also help us sift through the fog of the past. Karr listed four stories she could tell in order to highlight one element of her childhood. Three of the stories were vague and may have been part of a neighborhood legend. She could recall very specific details about only one of the stories. “Those concrete images made me trust my memory of the whole scene as mine, not just something I heard about,” she said.

That was my own first clue that something was missing about my memories of the Silent Night games. I couldn’t see myself there. I couldn’t remember what I was wearing. I couldn’t even recall who I was sitting with in the bleachers when that 10th point was scored.

The second suggestion for great memoir contradicts the first: focus on the interior life of writer as narrator. “Carnality may determine whether a memoir’s any good,” Karr writes, “but interiority—that kingdom the camera never captures—makes a book rereadable. By rereadable, translate: great. Your connection to most authors usually rests…in how you may identify with them. Mainly, the better memoirist organizes a life story around that aforementioned inner enemy—a psychic struggle against herself that works like a thread or a plot engine.”

Of course, the interior struggle of the narrator fills in the gaps of carnality’s details. Interiority allows the author to fess up that she has always tried to be less herself and more what the people around her want her to be. Acknowledging an internal struggle allows the author to even present sketchy evidence of an event as long as she is honest about it … and willing to admit that perception and truth don’t add up yet.

But coming to terms with the true self, though personally liberating to the writer and emotionally rewarding to the reader, doesn’t make drafting a memoir easy. Turning the awareness of the true self, whoever she ends up to be, into a character on the page can feel like a type of failure of its own.

“Writing the real self seldom seems original enough when you first happen on it,” Karr says. “In fact, usually it growls like a beast and stinks of something rotten. Age and practice help you to rout out vanities after you’ve ruined perfectly good paper setting them down, but you can’t keep them from clotting up early drafts.”

Apparently I’m not the only one with a fuzzy memory about Taylor University’s Silent Night tradition. A 2014 article in the Indianapolis Star tried to trace the tradition back to its founder, and though the silence until the 10th point part did start in 1997, the rest goes back a little further, back to a certain college president in pajamas.

“Silent Night started in the late 1980s with then-Taylor president Jay Kesler, who invited students to his campus residence for cookies and a reading of The Christmas Story. In 1988 he showed up to the pre-exams Friday game in pajamas. In 1989 Taylor students showed up in pajamas too. In 1997 they watched in silence until Taylor scored its 10th point, then erupted,” writes Grey Doyel.

When the reporter attended the Silent Night game in 2014 and ended up talking with Jay Kesler himself, Doyel had a few questions.

Wait – are you that former president? Are you Jay Kesler?

“Sure am,” he says. “And this is the Kesler Center—my tombstone.”

Kesler tells me he started wearing footie pajamas “to restore the idea of a family Christmas, the nostalgia of Christmas. You’re not too big a big-shot for Christmas, just because you’re in college.”

Kesler tells me the 10th-point eruption came from a student. He doesn’t remember the kid’s name. 

“All I know is he said his high school had this tradition where they’d hold newspapers and look disinterested until a predetermined time, when they threw the papers and made noise,” Kesler says. “He wanted to know if we could do something like that here. I said sure.”

Why after 10 points?

“No idea,” Kesler says. “It was arbitrary.”

“Even for the founder, Silent Night is equal parts history, mystery,” Doyel writes.

Maybe I was there, I think. Not for the 10th point cheering, of course, but the pajamas and the story and the singing of “Silent Night.” Maybe I did go to a few basketball games and show up for the happy-clappy traditions, when I wasn’t studying or watching TV.

And maybe writing about that formative time in my life requires something deeper than details, something more than just the facts. It’s about remembering who I was, who I am, even if I’m not always sure myself.

Dinosaurs, Time Travel, and the Importance of Being Where You Are

I blame the dinosaurs.

When I was young, I set my heart on becoming an archaeologist. If I had known better, I would have aspired to paleontologist because the desire sprang from a grade school field trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The dinosaur exhibit near the entrance left a deep impression on me, as did the fieldwork demonstrations where I meticulously brushed away sand and dirt to reveal bits of bone, teeth, and other relics from the past.

Of course those things were all orchestrated to inspire young children like me. If my deep—though temporary—passion for archaeology was any indication, it worked.

What is it about children and dinosaurs?

In his Atlantic essay “The Artists Who Paint Dinosaurs,” Ross Andersen theorizes about the childhood mystique of dinosaurs. Their “size, their ferocity, the number and sharpness of their teeth”—certainly that must be part of it. But there’s more to it than that, Andersen suggests. We have such little information about the dinosaurs, so few bones, really. Whatever we choose to believe about these ancient beasts, most of it is a result of our imaginations.

"Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder 23"; "Six children play on the sculpture "Uncle Beazley," the 25 foot long replica of a triceratops, placed on the Mall in front of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)."

“Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder 23”; “Six children play on the sculpture “Uncle Beazley,” the 25 foot long replica of a triceratops, placed on the Mall in front of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).”

“A dinosaur is a muse, then. To contemplate a dinosaur is to slip from the present, to travel in time, deep into the past, to see the Earth as it was tens, if not hundreds, of millions of years ago, when the continents were nearer, when the forests and oceans teemed with strange plants and creatures. In childhood, the mind is alive to the thrill of that perspective shift.

I imagine the college student who recently made a significant fossil discovery in the New Mexico desert brushed up against that same thrill of digging into the past—probably from the time she was young. Carissa Raymond, now a paleontology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will go down in history for uncovering the teeth of a beaver-like animal that lived 65 million years ago. It was her first fossil-hunting trip.

“I walked over this little hill, and I saw this row of black teeth just sticking up. And I thought, wow, I’m so glad I finally found something. I didn’t know it was something so important,” she told NPR’s Steve Inskeep during an interview for Morning Edition.

Some adults still find digging into the past thrilling too. Especially “paleo artists” who use a little science and a lot of imagination to recreate dinosaurs in their original settings. Andersen writes about one such illustrator, Simon Stålenhag, whose 28 digital paintings reside in Sweden’s Natural History Museum.

“I asked if there was anything I could help with. I told them I didn’t care what it was for. I just wanted to paint dinosaurs,” Stålenhag told Andersen.

Most of us will never find a dinosaur bone or paint a dinosaur in his natural environment, but when pushed, we still crave the mystery and danger only our imaginations can create, like going back in time to face dinosaurs. It’s easier than it sounds actually—time travel. In fact, comedienne Amy Poehler, in her memoir Yes Please, says she travels in time quite often.

“Time moves too slow or too fast. But I know a secret,” she writes. “You can control time. You can stop it or stretch it or loop it around. You can travel back and forth by living in the moment and paying attention.”

For Poehler, time travel happens when we pay attention to the everyday things that happen in our lives and later are given the chance to recall those details again.

Several years ago, a young Poehler and her comedy troupe, the Upright Citizens Brigade, opened a concert for American singer/songwriter Patti Smith in the Netherlands. Poehler recounts how they met again, this time by chance outside the bathroom at a New York restaurant, and was stunned that Smith remembered their first encounter.

“Patti Smith knew who I was. I shook her hand. Suddenly, I was transported back to Amsterdam. Time stretched and bent and I went for a ride. I dare anyone to prove that I didn’t,” Poehler writes.

Of course, it’s the same Patti Smith who only recently released a memoir, M Train. Writer Anwen Crawford says in an October New Yorker article:

“Patti Smith is a person for whom the material world veils—flimsily—a set of more lasting, luminous truths. These are the truths of art, genius, fate; she has no truck with the irony or flippancy endemic to the contemporary perspective. She is an unreconstructed Romantic, which makes reading her books rather like time travel.

Time travel.

When I was a child, I thought a lot about shedding the constraints of “right now” every time I watched the vortex created by the tub drain as I let out the water after my baths. To my little girl imagination, the swirl created there was just like the portal in the waterfall that swept the Marshall family into the world of dinosaurs in my favorite television show, Land of the Lost. Though my size would have made it impossible for me to get sucked down the drain, I wasn’t one to get hung up on impossibilities. For all I knew, there were dinosaurs waiting for me on the other side of that little metal screen.

Eventually, I stopped worrying about the bathtub drain. Land of the Lost was cancelled after three seasons, and as far I know, the Marshall family never made it home. They dropped completely off my radar. I caught up with the dinosaurs again on that school field trip, but it took only the two years of middle school and the self-consciousness of puberty before “right now” became the most important thing. By then I was taking showers. I rarely looked down at the drain anymore.

But now years later, I have found new importance in being present in the now. Too often I am tempted toward the past, but not the one our imagination creates, not the one where dinosaurs live. Rather, I am prone to look at the swirling water in the bathtub and feel like life itself has been wasted, like all my good intentions are going down the drain. But if I am so distracted by those earlier years that I fail to experience what’s going on right in front of me, I’ll get stuck in the past. I’ll miss the portal of my presence and attention that allows me to transcend time in both directions.

Recently, we have seen a new interest in dinosaurs with the return of the Jurassic Park franchise and Walking with the Dinosaurs. We just can’t stop wondering what it would be like to live with these giant reptiles. Whether we go back in time to them or we bring them through time to us through preserved DNA, we just can’t let the dinosaurs go. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Poehler says her own intra-chronological jaunts, however real or not, have taught her a very important life lesson: that she is always just where she needs to be. More than anything, I think that’s what dinosaurs teach us, too. The fact they they—with their size, their ferocity, and the number and sharpness of their teeth—are not here now and I am. Makes me think I am right where I need to be, too.

 

 

*Featured Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute Flickr Archive

The Genus and Species of Writing

 

We moved into our house late enough last fall that I didn’t pay attention to the leaves on the large tree in our backyard. I had appreciated its shade, especially during those warm days of Indian summer, but I didn’t give a thought to its genus or species.

The following May, when the green and orange buds began to bloom, our family was gathered on the patio for a birthday party. “Well, that’s a tulip poplar,” my dad pronounced.

“It’s the state tree, isn’t it?” I asked. I knew those leaves looked familiar.

“Yeah,” he said, finishing a bite of his grilled burger. “It’s the state tree.”

Did it matter what kind of tree provided the morning shade to our backyard and the pollen to our local bees for honey? Maybe not. But knowing what kind of tree it was, knowing that this was our state tree, even, made me feel more rooted to this little plot of land where we find ourselves. Knowing how our tulip poplar fits into the landscape and culture around us helps me fit a little better myself.

As with trees, so with many areas of my life. Categories matter.

When people find out I’m a writer, they have one question. What do I write? They’re unhappy when I don’t have a simple answer. Impatient is the word. Why shouldn’t I be able to tell them?

Part of the problem is that I don’t write just one thing. Occasionally, I write poetry and short stories. I’ve written a play or two in the past. I am a blogger, but I’ve also written a book. So I’m part of the problem, but the rest of the problem is literary genres. They feel either too limiting or too expansive. Take the phrase “creative nonfiction,” the genre I would most closely identify with. Author Scott Russell Sanders explains his own malaise with that term:

“I suppose we do have to use labels, but I don’t find “creative nonfiction” to be an especially useful one, even though I’ve won prizes and taught workshops bearing that title. “Nonfiction” itself is an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat. Sticking “creative” in front of “nonfiction” doesn’t clarify matters much, and it’s pretentious to boot, since it implies that other forms of nonfiction—Plato’s Republic, Ellman’s Joyce, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—are not creative works of intellect and imagination.

For Sanders, and for me, another term works better: essayist. “It’s a term with a venerable tradition, and it preserves Montaigne’s emphasis on essay-ing—on making a trial, an experiment, an effort of understanding,” Sanders says. “Essay” captures the depth of the thinking and breadth of exploration I seek when I write. For others, though, the word brings back academic nightmares. Themes, five paragraphs, thesis statements, proofs, proper citations: most people would rather read anything than an essay. It’s usefulness as a category for non-essayists is clearly in question.

In fact, the usefulness of all genres may be in question. In the recent New York Times Sunday Book Review article “Do Genre Labels Matter Anymore?,” authors Dana Stevens and Leslie Jamison offer two perspectives on the ongoing usefulness of categorizing literary works.

According to Stevens, genre labels have been distorted to the point of outliving their helpfulness. “The role of genre on the cultural marketplace too often seems dictated by trends, either in fashion (zombies are in, vampires are out) or in finance (superhero movies usually do big box office; movies with heroines, super or not, generally don’t),” she wrote. As such, Stevens believes literary works are embraced or dismissed not according to quality or literary merit, but simply by their genre.

Jamison, on the other hand, says that these genre labels are still helpful because they express intent. “Do genre labels matter? Sure they do,” Jamison wrote.

“Not as rigid categorical descriptions but as illuminations of desire. It’s futile and misguided to insist on their absolute boundaries (‘All great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one,’ Walter Benjamin said), but they do offer a set of crude terms we use to articulate hungers for which we haven’t found or wrought a more precise vocabulary …. That wanting is the molten core—for truth or beauty or resonance—and the texts are just the cooling lava formations that form across the crust, the byproducts of craving. There are important differences between fiction and nonfiction—and I believe in the ethical necessity of fact-checking, which viewed rightly can become its own sort of generative formal constraint—but our uninterrogated absolute distinctions leave much middle ground unspoken for.

Assuming genre labels are preserved for now, maybe a better question is whom do they matter to? Publishers certainly like them—even require them—as a way to plan for, market, and sell books. Readers rely on genre labels as a kind of social contract. These labels help them know what to expect. “When I write what we’re calling creative nonfiction, I feel bound by an implicit contract with the reader: I don’t invent episodes, don’t introduce characters who were not actually present, don’t deliberately change circumstances,” writes Sanders. “So when I sit down to write about actual events and places and people, I don’t imagine that I can give a flawless transcript, but I do feel an obligation to be faithful to what I’ve witnessed and what I recall. In writing nonfiction, I feel an obligation to a reality outside the text; in writing fiction, I feel no such obligation.”

As such, writers themselves often must think in terms of genre labels, too. At the very least, genre often plays a role in submission requirements. For instance, writers have to know whether or not they have written a poem in order to submit to a poetry-only journal. Beyond that, genres also provide boundaries for writers. Like Sanders, as an essayist, I don’t make up scenes. My dad was really in the backyard eating a burger. If I invented that scene, it would be fiction.

Not all writers, though, find that their work fits so neatly into categories. Consider the work of Rebecca Solnit. Her book The Faraway Nearby was labeled by her publisher as both Memoir and Anti-Memoir. Another of her books, Wanderlust, covers topics as wide-ranging as anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, and religious studies. And generally, much of her work could be called memoir, journalism, personal essay, travel writing, art critique, nature writing, and more—all at the same time. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is,” she said in an interview with Benjamin Cohen for The Believer,

“but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. People want to call you something, and saying you’re just a writer is not enough. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, but Orwell wrote memoir, fiction, polemics, beautiful essays, reviews, ruminations, and tirades; Sontag wrote mostly essays, a few at length, some dealing with broader ideas and genres, some dealing with politics and ethics—and then there are her novels. I love best the nonfiction of a lot of people celebrated mostly for their fiction, from Virginia Woolf to Jamaica Kincaid.

Which raises several questions: are publishers limiting the scope and quality of writers’ work when they force them into strict categories or refuse to publish what doesn’t fit? Also, are they limiting readers’ experiences with other great writing because it is categorized so narrowly? And does the social contract between writers and readers even extend beyond high level genres like non-fiction and fiction? The lower we go into subgenres, the more debatable the definitions. For instance, young adult is not actually a genre, according to the Literary Genre Wikipedia page. It’s an age category. And graphic novel, likewise, is not a genre. It’s a format. Assuming a western romance young adult graphic novel were written, it would exist as such a categorical Frankenstein that the contract between author and reader would be all but destroyed.

I don’t want to live in a world where books and articles and other forms of writing don’t fit if they don’t fit neatly. And I certainly don’t want to write in such a world, where the limitations I face have less to do with the quality of my work and more to do with the shelf space at Barnes & Noble. But I don’t think that world is going to exist much longer. With an enormous virtual bookstore at our fingertips, with searches by keyword that extend beyond labels printed on the backs of books, with print-on-demand technology no longer dependent on shelf space or floor space, with a growing market for mashup genres like steampunk romance and classic literature zombie fan fiction, maybe there is hope for writers. And for readers, too.

At some point, the publisher’s marketing plans no longer matter. The reader’s journey toward finding the book fades. The writer’s intention transcends vague universal labels, taking its place in the work itself. And the contract between all writers and all readers is narrowed to one writer and one reader.

Ultimately, it’s not the labels that connect us. It’s the words.

I think again of the tree in my backyard. Eventually, I did check out its entire scientific classification (Plantae, Angiosperms, Magnoliids, Magnoliales, Magnoliacaea, Liriodendron tulipifera). Not much of it made sense except for “Magnoliales.” My tulip poplar is related to the magnolia tree.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the category of my tulip poplar that resonated with me the most. It was the personal connections I made with it: the memory of mimeographed coloring sheets filled with tulip poplar leaves in fourth grade, my Dad marveling at its exotic-looking buds, my husband pruning it with long-handled sheers, and the way the air cools when I stand beneath its branches.

Meet Ello.

What began as a private social network for a group of seven artists and developers who wanted a way to connect as friends is now a public benefit corporation boasting millions of followers while still in beta.

Meet Ello. Its founders call it “a revolutionary social network that is transforming how people connect.” Committed to being ad-free and to never collecting or selling user data, Ello was built to be different. Chronology, not algorithms, determine what content you see from the pages you follow, and in true Internet form, you can be whomever you want. Ello doesn’t require you to use your real name or disclose any information about yourself other than an email address that remains private and a user name of your choice.

I recently talked with one of the founding members, Paul Budnitz, who now serves as its chief executive officer. Budnitz also owns and runs Budnitz Bicycles, a luxury bicycle company, and is well known as the founder of Kidrobot, the world’s premier creator of art toys, fashion apparel, and accessories. Budnitz is also an author of several books, exhibits as a photographer and filmmaker, and has founded more than a dozen companies.

The interview has been edited for publication.

 

Charity Singleton Craig: What is your elevator pitch for Ello?

Paul Budnitz: Ello is a revolutionary social network. We’re highly content-oriented, so we are about finding people who create stuff. We’re also ad-free; we value quality and beauty and positivity over advertising, manipulation, and exploitation, which is a lot of what we see in other networks. And we let people be whoever they want to be; you don’t have to use your real name because we don’t track data or any of that kind of stuff.

We are creating a really high-quality place to spend time, and that’s what’s important to us. Ello is a public benefit corporation. Legally we are a company with a mission, and the mission can supersede how we make money. Our mission is that we will never sell ads and never sell data and never sell our company to anyone that would do those two things. A lot of people in Silicon Valley hate us because we spend a lot of time pointing out the contradictions in what they do.

CSC: In the Ello manifesto, you say, “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate—but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.” What was the model for creating Ello? Is there anyone else out there who is doing it right?

PB: We really like Medium because of their focus on long-form content. We think that’s really cool. Besides that, the answer is no, or we would never have gotten to where we are in building this thing.

We like Medium, but we really don’t know their long-term business plan about user data, ownership of things you post, and those kinds of things. I think we are the only social network that has legally [committed] that we won’t do any of that stuff. The thing about advertising and data collection is not really about advertising and data collection because you might not necessarily care whether you see a few ads or whether or not someone’s collecting your data because you can think, “Oh well, I don’t have anything to hide.” That’s actually really true for a lot of people. But I think that a lot of the negativity that you experience on other networks—that feeling that a network is not fun to use—comes actually from what’s beneath the surface.

There are other companies that are doing great things, but not in our space.

CSC: Is there still a private version of Ello that the original users are still involved with?

PB: No. It morphed into what Ello is. All the original users—all the founders, the seven of us—are superactive. What’s interesting is that we’re quite selfishly making this entire company for us to use. Everything we do is geared toward what people like, but it’s also what we like.

CSC: Then how do you scale it? How do you grow Ello without losing the specific culture of Ello that made it so appealing to begin with?

PB: It scales itself. We can’t censor people, so we can’t control what people post, right? We also can’t control some people who come on our network and do things that aren’t super fun or nice. Although we do have rules. So we have a crew of people that keep an eye on people who are doing things they shouldn’t. The reality is it remains super positive. It is so incredibly positive that every time I say this in an interview, I think I’m baiting someone, and I’ll get in trouble for this. But I have somewhere near 300,000 followers on Ello—because I’m just one of the founders. In the history of the company, I’ve probably deleted five comments on my posts that were negative or weird. I’m not talking about people who disagree with what I say but people who are actually doing weird stuff. It’s so bizarre. I keep waiting for some weirdo to come on and do mean stuff, but it doesn’t actually happen.

I know partially one of the reasons why. See, what happens is if you have a social network or a network like ours with a lot of beautiful stuff and then there are ads sort of in between it, there’s this sense that you’ve been violated. Over time there’s this kind of negativity [that builds] because that’s essentially an attempt at manipulation, right? It’s not like something that we’ve asked for. So whether or not you think the ads are fine or good or whatever, they still pop up. I think that that creates an environment over time that just feels wrong. And I think it actually affects how people behave and feel they have a license to behave. Ello is totally self-policing. If the community sees someone doing something really negative, they can report it, and then we take a look. If the person is actually breaking our rules, then we will give them a warning or eventually even shut their account down if they are doing something fairly aggressive. But a lot of times we just ask people to stop doing things, and then they stop.

So it’s working out. It’s an interesting thing. I can’t completely explain it. Except to say if you create a nice place then people like to keep it clean.

CSC: Is there an ideal Ello user?

PB: No. One of the things we like to say is that Ello isn’t for everybody, but everybody is welcome. I’ve had a lot of interviews where people are like, “Facebook has said they want to sign up everybody in the world—is that your mission?” And then our answer is no. It’s not our mission at all. Emphatically not. The deal is that Ello has purposefully a more limited feature set. In fact, we don’t even have a mobile app. Our mobile app comes out  this month. It’s web only right now. And we’ve been pretty slow to release new things because we’ve recognized that every time we create a new feature—let’s say reposting, which we added a month ago or so—it widens the circle of users and the types of people who will be interested in Ello.

We were very cautious that we had enough original content on the site before we put out reposting. When we did put out reposting, a lot of new users came on, and it was really positive. And so as we roll out new features like private messaging and private accounts and loves, which is sort of a bookmarking function, it changes things. Even on Ello right now, we’ve held off on content search because when you add content search, you add micro communities, and micro communities could grow up, and we didn’t want big insular communities early on.

The bottom line is everyone’s welcome on Ello. Ello is highly weighted toward creative people, creative curators, people who are interested in creative people, people who just like discussion—because we have a lot of really great discussion. That’s where Ello is now, but what’s interesting is that as, say, [the feature] “Loves” come out, it becomes a great way to collect stuff that you love. Then when private messaging comes out, it’s a little easier to actually use with your friends. Then when the mobile app comes out, it will probably be ten times the size. So it’s a steady progression. Who Ello is for today and who Ello is in three weeks is going to be different, and it will be different three weeks after that, too.

CSC: What issues, problems, or challenges does Ello address in artistic or curatorial communities? Is there something about Ello that adds to or solves a problem for those kinds of communities that are both creating and curating?

PB: I think it solves two massive problems. The first one is that it’s beautiful and full screen. So if you want to curate things, Ello was built to be browsed full screen with gigantic images and with no ads and no interruptions. It’s one of the reasons there are so many visual artists on Ello; it’s just beautiful. And I don’t think there’s anything else like it. I know there isn’t where you actually have a robust social network combined with the ability to put up beautiful stuff and where you’re not interrupted by ads and lots of clunky stuff.

I’ll actually give you three reasons. The second is that Ello doesn’t own your content, and it has no right to do anything with it. In fact, if you post original content on somewhere like Facebook, they can actually use it in advertisements, and they have and they do. So [on Ello] you have control over what you put up.

But the third one, which I think is actually the biggest one, is that … and you probably know this … if you have a Facebook page that’s not a personal Facebook page … let’s say you’re a business or you’re a blog or you’re a musician or you’re an artist or a small-business owner or a craftsperson … and let’s say you work hard and you get 10,000 or 20,000 or 100,000 followers. Every time you post, only 1 to 2 percent of the people who follow you will see your posts. Unless you pay for ads.

And that’s happening and transitioning on all the big social networks. Whether it’s Tumblr or Pinterest, even Twitter now, it’s starting to change so that you can pay—you’re forced to pay—so that the people who follow you see what you post. That’s the business model. The people who are hurt most by that model are the curators, especially, and the people who create content and small-business people and small creators because they don’t have marketing budgets. Where if you’re a gigantic corporation, it’s much easier to pay for reach than to have to create something interesting so that people will actually want to follow you.

Ello doesn’t have anything like that. If you get 10,000 people on Ello to follow you, which is not terribly hard right now, all 10,000 of those people will see everything that you post. It’s just chronologic; there’s no algorithm. And if I follow you, I will see everything that you post back, so it makes it a really fun place to follow people because nothing’s ever hidden from you, either.

That’s actually the biggest one because on Ello the social network is actually really free, which is not true on the other networks. And the way we are eventually going to begin making money is a business model that is so different and also really in alignment with what users want, especially curators.

CSC: So how will Ello eventually make money?

PB: The way we think of Ello is that we want to always be in alignment with the people who use Ello, the community. Starting in 2016 we’re going to offer services and special features that people can pay for. So one example is social commerce. Let’s say you are an artist and you want to be able to sell your paintings to the people who follow you. You’ll be able to put a For Sale sign on any of your posts so people can click on it and buy it. So that’s in alignment, right? If I’m choosing to follow you and you’re my favorite illustrator, I might want to buy one of your posters. So that’s a really good thing. And that will have a store connected to it. And you’ll be able to search for things. You’ll be able to type in the word “poster” or “bicycle” or anything you want, and you’ll be able to find people who are selling things like that. And then Ello is going to take a very small transaction cut.

The other thing we’re going to do is charge for really advanced features. So if you want to manage multiple accounts simultaneously, that’s something we’d probably charge a dollar or two every time you add an account. So you can have one for your trip to Europe and one for your pet dog and one for your work. And each time you want to set up a new one, we may charge you a couple bucks to do that, which we think is a pretty fair deal. It’s not something that prevents you from using the network; it’s just something that only some people will want.

We polled a lot of people, and we actually think it’s going to be very profitable.

CSC: In your manifesto, you say, “We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.” How specifically does Ello attempt to connect creators and consumers? Does the system fail if there are not both creators and consumers? What happens if the balance between the two shifts?

PB: So, creators need an audience. It’s just something that all of us who make stuff love, right? But it’s not a black and white thing. I’m not only someone who creates things; I’m also someone who often wants to go and consume things, and wants to go find awesome things to look at and people to talk to. So it’s not just one thing or the other. It’s both things at the same time, and because of that, you can have a creative community that works well.

Originally for us, there were seven artists, then there were 100 artists, then there were many more that all talking to each other. You can also have a lot of people on there who are talking to those creative people. And you can just have a lot of people talking. And in my experience, looking at how Ello’s grown, I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t have something interesting about them. Maybe that’s just my faith in people, but it is my experience with people on Ello.

There’s a thing going on on Ello right now called Poetry Friday, and someone started it and there are now thousands of people writing poems—can you believe poems? I just keep watching this, and it’s totally organically happening. And it keeps spreading out, and there are just people writing poems, and some of the poems are brilliant, and some of them, well, I don’t think they’re brilliant, and I haven’t seen anyone be anything but supportive the whole time. So now we’ve got people writing poetry, and I can’t remember anywhere else in the last fifteen years where I’ve seen just regular people writing poems.

CSC: Shihoko Iida said, “Curators should be attentive to what is going on around the world, as art is part of our society and our lives, not something isolated and exclusive. Curators of contemporary art in particular should take responsibility for contextualizing the artists of our time, engaging with society and its various communities.”  How does Ello fit within that framework?

PB: To me, Ello is anything but separate and exclusive. Ello encourages people to discover new things and also forces us—creative people or curators—to respond to people who we may or may not have expected in our “gallery.” You know, I think if you have a physical, land-based gallery, and you placed it on West 22nd Street in New York City, you’re pretty certain who’s going to show up. And the same thing for streets in Milan and everywhere else. But the Internet’s a different place. The nice thing about Ello is who you end up with is the community of people who organically become interested in whatever it is you’ve put up. And that at times is different, really different, than the people you might expect.

We can’t control our audience, and I think it’s a really great thing to lose that control, to be forced to talk to whoever happens to show up.

Iteration

Years ago I enrolled in my first graduate class: an overview of literary criticism by the chairman of the English department. For many of my classmates with B.A.s in English, the course served as a refresher. They already knew about deconstruction and close reading and Marxist interpretations. They understood reader-response criticism, and they could write one-thousand-word critiques of poems.

I, on the other hand, graduated with a mass communications degree. I had worked as a journalist after college. I wrote in inches and structured my articles according to an inverted pyramid. I was putting a single space between sentences before it was cool, and I never restated something after I quoted it. That was a waste of space.

My degree in communications did not prepare me for the work of literary criticism that I was assigned early in the course. In my critique of Joseph Brodsky’s “The Star of the Nativity,” I poured my heart out trying to find my way into the poem, but I didn’t know what I was doing. When my professor handed back my paper with no grade—he wasn’t grading anything until the end of the semester when we would submit a portfolio of all our work—he simply wrote, “This is a wonderful reading of the poem, but you need to start your analysis from here,” directly after my last sentence. He had underlined “start”; he was asking me to start over.

After I spent that night’s class choking back tears, I went home and began again. With a few other notes my professor had written in the margins and the instructions he had given to the class as a whole, I went back into my paper and rewrote it. But not from scratch. The version I turned in next contains traces of the original. Most of the introduction was lifted straight from the first draft. Many of the same words, sentences, and observations are included in both. But the next draft read differently; it was a completely different analysis that elicited a completely different response from my professor: “You’ve done a wonderful job with this poem. You’ve got the central idea of what’s supposed to happen with a critical analysis.”

He also offered more suggestions, and I worked on it at least one more time before submitting my final piece in the portfolio. On that last version, he penned the name of a publication that might be willing to publish it with just a little more work.

Somewhere along the way, I lost the official letter my professor wrote about my coursework, but I still have the handwritten note he included when he handed back my portfolio in class. Even though he said I had “already earned an A,” he made a few more suggestions for improving the work. “Making the changes would make already fine work better,” he wrote. And then he invited me to schedule a meeting to talk about it.

I was happy for the A, of course. What student wouldn’t be? But it was a different A than I had ever earned before. In the past, I had been rewarded for my writing, but rarely for my rewriting, for my work of revision. In the meeting I eventually had with the professor, he said it was my work ethic that actually had earned me the grade, and by that he meant my willingness to go back again and again. Honestly, I think it was the first time I had been given the opportunity.

A recent Quartz article examines what happened during—not just as a result of—the revision process when one author wrote his latest novel using GitHub, a version management and file hosting website normally reserved for writing computer code. Author Gregory Mazurek, whose pen name is Gregory Gershwin, uses GitHub in his day job as a software designer. But when he was looking for a platform for his next book that would easily convert his work into an EPUB version, he realized GitHub would do the trick. Knowing that GitHub also would create a new copy of his novel each time a change was made—a function important to software designers—hadn’t really seemed important at first.

“Once his book, Benjamin Buckingham And The Nightmare’s Nightmare, was finished, Mazurek publicly shared the GitHub project so anyone could see the changes he made to the story along the way,” Mike Murphy explained in the Quartz article. “Mazurek said that he originally hadn’t intended to make the project public, that he had just used GitHub as a way of keeping track of his thoughts and making sure he could access his work from multiple computers. But after he showed the project to his friends, they convinced him that there was artistic value in sharing the changes made along the way, as well as the novel itself.”

Exactly what is the artistic value of iteration, of seeing each version of a manuscript from first draft to desired finished copy?

Some changes to Mazurek’s novel were nothing more than correcting a misspelling or grammatical error; others created a key change in the plot or moved the reader more logically through the setting. The artistry from one version to the next was difficult for me to evaluate. Was the story better in the final version? I think so. The changes Mazurek made seemed to enhance the plot and tighten the language. Though I didn’t read each change, I saw the story grow, develop, and evolve. The movement of the writer’s work, the movement in the writer himself—these were where the magic happened. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of literary magic we rarely get to see.

In her Atlantic essay “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators in the World,” author Megan McArdle suggests that part of the reason some writers struggle to sit down and do the work of writing is because they overvalue the idea that natural talent is all that is needed for great writing. And when they aren’t sure whether they themselves possess such talent, they worry that they will never really be great writers. This creativity-devastating thought cycle, says McArdle, can be traced back to high school and college English classes.

“Think about how a typical English class works,” McArdle writes:

“You read a “great work” by a famous author, discussing what the messages are, and how the author uses language, structure, and imagery to convey them. You memorize particularly pithy quotes to be regurgitated on the exam, and perhaps later on second dates. Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine. When the teacher asks, “What is the author saying here?” no one ever suggests that the answer might be “He didn’t quite know” or “That sentence was part of a key scene in an earlier draft, and he forgot to take it out in revision.

In fact, the iterative process of art in general is a hidden gem waiting for the right technology to reveal its magic. In a Matisse exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art a couple of years ago, among Matisse’s work was a collection of photographs that revealed the various “drafts” of his painting Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude) on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Not only do they  show the progression of the work to the final iconic version, they also show Matisse doing what Matisse is known for: moving from the concrete to the abstract, rearranging toward harmony in his work, experiencing and then capturing the essence of the truth he was trying to communicate.

Finished art inspires us to write and create better; it gives us models of excellence to aim for and achieve. Studying the iterations of finished pieces—seeing errors identified and corrected, observing style choices made and executed, watching content develop and clarify—reminds us that “better” takes work—it’s a process.

Maybe this was why my graduate school professor could tell this aspiring writer that I was already the writer I wanted to be. Not because I was producing perfectly crafted first drafts, but because I had learned the value of revising and was willing to do the work to get there.

The Cathedral of Junk

We parked across the street from 4422 Lareina Drive, wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

“I think I see something,” I announced to my friends, craning my neck to see the enormous sculpture behind the house. A canopy of trees and a privacy fence made seeing the Cathedral of Junk from the street almost impossible. Good thing we had an appointment.

As we approached the house, the “Do not knock, baby sleeping” sign forced us around to the side where we entered the backyard through a chain-link fence. The owner Vince Hannemann,  a small, unassuming man, met us at the gate along with his dog, a part-Australian shepherd named Smoky. My friend slid a $10 bill into Vince’s hand while I reached down to scratch Smoky’s ears. The smell of a campfire hung low in the cool Austin air. It was November, but unseasonably cold.

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After a few simple instructions (“Feel free to climb on it,” “there are stairs in the back,” “take your time”), we walked past the wooden welcome shack, past the warmth of the slow-burning campfire we had smelled earlier, straight into the belly of the Cathedral of Junk, rising three stories from the grass-bare lawn.

The structure, which Hannemann began working on back in 1989 when he did seasonal construction work as his full-time job, was too much to take in all at once. Everywhere, recognizable bits of plastic, metal, rubber, and stone were pieced together with wire and rebar and concrete. A “Welcome to Fabulous *Trash* Vegas, Texas” sign welcomed us as we entered, along with a stone cherub face, a plastic rocking horse, a tin woman, and a knight’s mask and shield.

Vince Hanneman

Vince Hanneman

Though the structure was made entirely of garbage, the carefully assembled cathedral boasted rooms and sitting nooks, staircases and balconies, play areas and patios. As we explored each section, we began to see that this was not a trash heap, nor was it just thrown together. Rather, the refuse of decades was carefully collected, arranged, and repurposed into something new. The Cathedral of Junk felt like a shrine to ephemera, the excesses of our throwaway culture staring us right in the face.

“The very notion of ephemera is curious: objects of little value that weren’t meant to be preserved but whose vulnerability, I imagine, appealed to someone,” writes Nicole Rudick, in her Paris Review Paper Trail.” “Political buttons, business cards, seed packets, and train timetables—scrappy artifacts that otherwise would have been lost to the dustheap.”

While the materials comprising the cathedral are not technically ephemera—the hubcaps and ceramic tiles and metal box springs were created to last a few years, at least—nothing is safe from our changing whims and evolving tastes these days. Since everything is disposable now, everything has become curiously collectible. The difference: stamps and theater tickets and grammar school report cards would eventually—even quickly—disintegrate and disappear if not collected and protected. But the old bicycle tires and rotary telephones and glass bricks so popular in the last century are strangely enduring.

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That was the eeriest part of my tour of the cathedral. Not only had the legions of junk been collected and preserved, but the structure they created was solid and sturdy. I expect with just a little effort, it will be around for my grandchildren and their grandchildren, if they made the trip to Austin.

Hannemann didn’t start out to make a lasting structure in honor of the passing whims of his culture. In fact, he just started by hanging hubcaps along the fence in his backyard. As he had time, he expanded his creation, watching his art grow in the privacy of his own backyard. Eventually, though, when his home became a stop for tour buses and neighbors started to complain, the city got involved. Hannemann and a cadre of volunteers removed four tons of the recyclable junk. Several sections of the sculpture had to be dismantled and reassembled. Restrictions were added: the structure cannot exceed 32 feet in height, and it must remain at least five feet away from the fence. He hired two different engineers to sign off on the safety of the structure.

“And they told me, ‘no more articles in the Wall Street Journal,’” Hanneman recounted during our visit.

He continues to add to the Cathedral of Junk; it’s his full-time job now. He charges $10 per group to visit the cathedral, and people bring or send him junk to add to the collection. And though the structure currently boasts a small slide for children made out of tile, he has plans to build a larger slide for adults.

“Will you have to have the structure re-inspected when you add to it?” I asked.

“The city of Austin has never said that to me,” Hanneman replied. “My attorney said ‘go for it.’”

It seems haphazard, but he has a plan.

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I think of Hanneman’s cathedral now and then as I cart home new clothes and kitchen utensils and books and furniture. We try to buy only what we need and will use, but still, we always seem to be finding a place for or putting away our stuff.

“Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up,” writes author E.B. White in “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street.” He was reflecting on the ephemera and excesses of his own life as he prepared to move from his New York City apartment:

“Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.”

To be fair, we try to get rid of things, too. Our basement serves as a staging area to organize the outgoing stuff: a box for donations, a bin for recyclables. While even this small rotation of our ephemera could produce its own monument to junk, the real problem for us, and for White, is that what comes in is not balanced by what goes out.

“Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in,” White writes.

The result? If we are not careful, the Cathedral of Junk is not just a nice place to visit. It becomes our home, three stories of junk carefully and elaborately assembled within wood and metal and stone.

I don’t know which is worse: buying and discarding an excess of stuff, or buying and keeping the excess. The simple answer, it seems, is just to avoid the excess. And maybe that’s one lesson Hanneman is trying to teach us all. But walking in and among the beauty created from rubbish, I don’t think that’s the only lesson.

I think the unassuming man in Austin would be more likely to caution us to be careful what we build in the first place, because in the end, those things last longer and draw a bigger audience than we would ever expect.

Georgia O’Keeffe: One View

The gray landscape shivered around us as we hurried toward the warmth of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) entrance. The large glass panels of the lobby windows kept the dreary day close at hand as we purchased tickets for the “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life” exhibit and rode quietly up the escalator.

But the warm colors of the exhibit walls and the openness of the sparse display quickly welcomed my husband and me into the sunny Southwest where O’Keeffe found her deepest inspiration. She was one of many artists who fled the crowded cities East of the Mississippi and made their way to the wide open spaces of New Mexico.

Abiquiu, New Mexico

Abiquiu, New Mexico

Ironically, when the artists arrived, many of them huddled together in colonies, seeking and finding for themselves the artistic communities their previous homes had afforded. While O’Keeffe herself chose a more solitary existence, eventually living alone full-time in New Mexico after her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, died, her world became very small in that great open West. Most of her paintings were of the landscapes she saw from her windows and the objects she collected from the landscape surrounding her home.

While the art world seemed to demand more and bigger of O’Keeffe—bigger portfolios, more exhibits, bigger audiences, more exposure, a bigger name for herself—she took the opportunity for more inspiration and bigger vistas to quiet the voracious appetites of others and feed her own imagination. She didn’t need the big name and the big audience. She wanted only the view, the door, the bone, the feather, the flower.

Arnold Newman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

Arnold Newman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

“She became a celebrity in her own time. Her artwork was selling for unheard of prices when she was still a relatively young woman. And being married to Alfred Steiglitz in New York, they were a couple that people recognized on the street. They were literally celebrities in their own time,” explains Debbie Brient, director of museum advancement at Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “Yet she chose to leave one of the greatest cities in the world and a lifestyle of celebrity and come to one of the most remote areas of the country. And I think even today if someone said they were moving to Abiquiu, New Mexico, most people wouldn’t know where that is. And when they found out they would say, ‘Why?’”

The answer becomes clear when you look at O’Keeffe’s work in the exhibit currently on display at the IMA. Her paintings often depict just one object at a time. Her style was to simplify, enlarge, magnify, and remove from the surroundings. “I decided if I could paint that flower in huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty,” she said of her famous Jimson Weed composition. But the result seems quite the opposite. Her paintings are surprisingly small, and her compositions often reveal just how complex, minute, and interconnected things are to themselves, to each other, and to the places where they are found.

Could she have painted this way had she stayed in New York City? No doubt. But the allure of the Southwest beckoned her. O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1916 on her way to Texas. On a return visit in 1929, she became convinced it was a place she wanted to explore and paint. In 1934, O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, that she later purchased. Here is where she found “a new inspiration for her work,” IMA exhibit material explains.

And in the process of moving to this new place, she found what had been missing from her experience as an artist.

“She was fully capable of painting a beautiful portrait of someone that was very realistic. She won prizes for still life that she painted. She could do that but she felt empty when she did it, because she was looking for a way to make her art express what she felt. Not just what she was seeing, but what she felt,” Brient said in a recent interview.

“When you learn about O’Keeffe, so many of her most famous works are landscapes looking out her bedroom window, or from her terrace. She, like many artists, would paint the same scene or object over and over again. And so it’s interesting to see how she progressed until she got it to a point where she left that subject, because she felt she had finally captured it the way she wanted to.”

One such series, in which she painted the same door of her Abiquiu house from various perspectives and in varied light, is part of the IMA exhibit, as is her iconic Yellow Cactus Flower; Jimson Weed, which is part of the IMA’s permanent collection; and Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia, which combines the artist’s favorite still life themes of flowers and animal skulls.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Yellow Cactus, 1929 Oil on canvas, 30 x 42 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Texas Patsy Lucy Griffith Collection, Bequest of Patsy Lucy Griffith. 1998.217. (O’Keeffe 675) © Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Image courtesy International Arts®

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), Yellow Cactus, 1929
Oil on canvas, 30 x 42 in.
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Patsy Lucy Griffith Collection, Bequest of Patsy Lucy Griffith. 1998.217. (O’Keeffe 675)
© Copyright 2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Image courtesy International Arts®

Several other artists that were part of the Southwest Modern movement, including Gustave Baumann, Marsden Hartley, Raymond Jonson, and Victor Higgins also are part of the IMA exhibit which seeks to capture “art’s capacity to document a particular time and place.” Several of the artists’ pieces depicting similar subjects are displayed side by side, revealing similarities and differences of works that attempted to document the same time and same place.

I had encountered O’Keeffe before this exhibit. I had stood before Jimson Weed and marveled at its size and simplicity. I had seen a landscape or two, and I had known of O’Keeffe’s penchant for bones. I had even mocked—lightly, mind you—her straightforward naming conventions, like Red Poppy or Grey Hills.

But it wasn’t until I experienced for myself the extent of the repetition and revision of painting the same few objects over and over again—the bones, the flowers, the mountains, the doors, not just by O’Keeffe, but the entire movement of the American Southwest artists in the early twentieth century—that I understood the collective effect of a long career and close collaboration in not only documenting, but defining a place and time. O’Keeffe’s Southwest grew with her, if only in the minds of those who experienced it through her work.

Just as the Southwest found its way into O’Keeffe’s life and art, so O’Keeffe never left the Southwest again. Not permanently. She died in Santa Fe in 1986. But like the artifacts she collected and captured, her work lives on to tell the story of the place she loved.

A House for Birds

I wanted to make a house for birds.

Actually, I wanted to make artsy birdhouses that would hang sweetly, Pinterest-style, from the tree at the front of our house. Initially, I wasn’t so concerned about the birds.

On Easter Sunday after an egg hunt and a ham lunch, my dad hauled out several birdhouse gourds he had grown the previous summer and dried over the winter. He displayed them proudly, walking us through the simple steps it would take for my sisters and me to make birdhouses ourselves. He would give us the gourds; we just needed to drill holes, paint, tie string, and hang. Simple enough.

“Do you have a large enough drill bit?” he asked. I looked at my husband. We shook our heads.

“Probably not.”

“No problem,” he said. “I’ll drill the holes for you.”

So while the toddlers ate their Easter suckers, my dad emerged with power tools. Eventually, holes the size of quarters hung low on every gourd, and we all marveled at how easy it was.

“Ewwww, what’s inside of it?” someone said. Honestly, it might have been me; I can’t remember.

“Oh, that’s just the seeds and the pulp. You can just stick a screwdriver or something in there and clean it out. Or the birds might like it and use it to nest,” Dad said.

So I brought home two gourds with holes, which could potentially be two little houses for birds hanging in our front tree. It was up to me.

*****

The gourds sat on the workbench in the garage for days, a reminder that I don’t have much time for hobby projects anymore, not since I got married and became a stepmom to three boys. My full-time freelance work fills my days; making meals and making sure the clutter doesn’t take over the house fills my evenings. When the boys aren’t here—about half the time—my husband and I drive to the city for dinners out or schedule activities with friends or just lie idly comatose on the couch, hoping our recent subscription to Netflix will help us rest. Despite our work ethic and spiritual desires and good intentions at parenting, inertia often drives our lives.

While I felt slightly guilty about putting off the birdhouse project, I felt much worse about my 11-year-old stepson’s bookcase, which remained purple and yellow far too long despite my promises for more than a year that the two of us would paint it in his preferred camouflage motif. The patched wall in the hallway also took far too long for me to apply a little touch-up paint. My middle son had accidentally put his heel through the wall at Christmas. Sometime around Easter I finally called the handyman to fix it. I didn’t get around to painting it until after Independence Day.

We lived in a big, beautiful house on the edge of our small city. To the east, we looked out on cornfields. To the north, just outside our dining room window, the green leafy trees made us almost forget there were homes there. A serene golf course occupied several acres just a couple of blocks south—if we measured distance that way. But we lived in the country, so I’d guess it was a quarter mile.

I moved into that house with my husband and sons just after the wedding. Though it was the house he had built with his ex-wife, my husband welcomed me there warmly, giving me every freedom to rearrange furniture and hang pictures on the walls. We bought new living room furniture and a dining room set. I hung curtains in every room. I moved the spatulas to a ceramic pot next to the stove, and we used placemats instead of a tablecloth.

“The house is the stage set for the drama we hope our lives will be or become,” writes Rebecca Solnit, in the essay “Inside Out, or Interior Space (and Interior Decoration)” from her book Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. “And it’s much easier to decorate the set than to control the drama or even find the right actors or even any actors at all.”

I had great hope for our new life together in that house. The stage was set, many actors were gathered, and plenty of drama swirled within and around me.

But most days, I still didn’t feel at home.

*****

It seemed like months, but within a couple of weeks after bringing the birdhouse gourds home, I had gone to the store for yellow spray paint and plastic scrubbers, sanded off the dried flecks of rind, and shaken out the seeds and pulp into the backyard. With help from my youngest stepson, we painted both gourds. It took another day or two for me to drill a hole at the top of each one, tie a piece of twine, and hang them low in the ornamental birch tree just outside my front window. Pinterest-perfect.

A week or two later, I saw my first house wren flitting around the birdhouse. Until that moment, I hadn’t given too much thought about whether birds would make a home there. I called my dad to let him know.

“Did you see two birds?” he asked. “You’ll usually see two together.”

Sure enough, the next day, I saw two wrens busy bringing twigs and leaves to the openings of the gourds. Seeing the birds find their place among our branches seemed like a sign that home could happen there: for them, for me. Home happens when you work to make it so, I thought.

But a few days after that, I saw the cat sitting suspiciously beneath the birch tree, and from then on, the house wrens were gone. I decided to believe the best, that the wrens felt uneasy about the presence of the cat and just moved on. Thankfully, I found no evidence to the contrary. I understood what it was like to try to make a home where I wasn’t comfortable. I’d been attempting the same thing for a year and half. I wished the little birds well.

“Maybe we all dream of being God,” Solnit writes, “the god who breaches dams, moves houses suddenly, erects bridges, decides where forests will be and who will die.” I realize now this was my goal, even if unuttered: to control, to ordain, to order. It started with the birds, but really, it was about more. It was about having our own house.

Solnit continues:

“And we graduate from the dollhouse [or the birdhouse in my case] to our own house if we are lucky, where we assume a role somewhere between God the Creator and the chambermaid, choosing but carrying out more painfully the clean floor, the dinner for six [five in our case], the potted plants, the framed prints.”

We had considered moving for about a year, but each time we came close to deciding, I hedged. Would a new house really provide what I was looking for? I had already uprooted my own life just months before; I had already left everything behind once. Would asking my husband and stepsons to do the same force us all into exile? Would we all be destined to roam like Odysseus, looking for the home that might now exist only in our memories?

In other words, would buying a new house be worth it?

“The execution is difficult,” Solnit concludes. “The dreaming is easy and unending.”

Just a few weeks later, we decided to move.

*****

As we packed our belongings and prepared to settle into our new home across town, I walked around the perimeter of the old house gathering flower pots and garden flags and the decorative stones that were spread around the landscaping. I stopped at the birdhouses. I wanted to take them.

“Did you have any birds in those?” a family friend had asked one day as we hauled out a few pieces of furniture we weren’t moving. Since we were downsizing, we had to distribute several items among family members, the local Goodwill, and the town dump.

“Yes, two house wrens,” I said, “until the day I found the cat sitting there.”

“I think you have to hang them higher,” our friend explained. “At least six feet, I think. That’s what we did with ours, hung them like six feet or higher.”

As I untangled the twine from the branches, I peeked into the birdhouses to see if those two wrens really had made a nest there. Maybe I had imagined them. Not the first one; I hadn’t even expected him. But the two together, the two making a home. Maybe I had wanted them to come so desperately I had imagined them settling down there.

When I looked in one of the gourds, it was empty. Hmmm. Then I looked in the other. Bits of the pulp were there, along with a few tiny sticks and some dried grass. The birds had been there, after all.

I finished removing them from the tree and then packed them away in the storage bin full of garden implements we would be moving.

When spring comes around, I’m hoping to find a place in our new yard to hang the birdhouses, this time at least six feet off the ground. If I’m lucky, maybe a couple of new house wrens will find their way to the gourds and make a home, at least the one that hasn’t been occupied yet.

They’d be comfortable here, I think.

I hope I am, too.

Art for Everyone

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I walked through the dimly lit galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on a docent-led tour with two friends, the docent’s wheelchair-bound mother, and an ASL interpreter even though none among us was deaf. We stopped at a dozen or so pieces, mostly paintings, depicting various Christian saints, and one by one the docent explained the historical context, the artist’s technique, and the symbolic attributes of the composition. We looked at Tiffany stained glass, Romanesque frescoes, Tuscan altarpieces, and various triptychs that once had graced the European cathedrals of centuries past.

Renaissance_gallery_-_Indianapolis_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC00716

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Having been through these same galleries before on my own—and having taken similar tours in the past where some of these exact paintings had been featured—I had become very familiar with the artwork. So, too, with the stories behind several of the pieces. I knew the Angel of the Resurrection Tiffany window had been commissioned by the widow of President Benjamin Harrison. I remembered the painstaking process of removing the frescoes from the Spanish cathedral and shipping them across the Atlantic. I recognized the familiar haloes over the heads of the saints.

I learned a few new things, too. On another tour, I heard a different story of the budding staff held by Joseph in Francisco Rizi’s The Dream of Joseph, and I didn’t recall the symbol of the cross in the halo over Jesus’ head before. But of course, it was right there. I also hadn’t heard of the lurid interest of religious artists in the stories of St. Sebastian, who was stripped down and tied to a post before being riddled with arrows. According to the docent, Renaissance artists particularly liked to depict St. Sebastian because it gave them opportunity to practice painting the naked male form.

For years now, I’ve accepted as common knowledge that early churches were filled with art as a means of biblical literacy among non-reading congregants, among other noble purposes. The tour of the saints also confirmed my theory that church history as well has been carefully preserved in paintings, stained glass, sculpture, and more. But the stories depicted in pigment and stone are not just an illustration of words, and it’s not just the illiterate who learn and worship in the presence of public religious art.

As I walked through the galleries, my heart told me this was my art now. These were my stories to hear and learn and retell. This was my religious history, my Christian worldview, being depicted on canvas or stucco or glass. I didn’t feel that way the first few times I saw these paintings. Their symbolic depictions and dramatic colors unnerved me, distanced me, even, on my early encounters. But time, exposure, knowledge: these helped bring art to life.

But what about those for whom exposure to art, much less religious art, isn’t readily available, or those whose negligible or nonexistent interest in art prevents them from seeking out opportunities to view it? And beyond the history of a single religion, what happens when a city, a nation, or a society loses the stories art tells because its masterpieces are not made public, but instead are tucked away, reserved for only the elite or the interested?

A few weeks earlier, my husband and I were driving home on a different route than usual in a part of town we rarely frequent. Our small, Midwestern city used to be a railway hub; the section with the old roundhouse and track switches is nearly deserted now except for a local trash collection company and a small ice cream factory.

As we turned off the main drag and wove through the aging industrial section, I noticed a billboard that seemed out of place. Is that a Mary Cassatt painting? I wondered. I didn’t have time to snap a photo with my iPhone, but I did notice in the corner a simple URL: ArtEverywhereUS.org. I tucked it away in my mind, hoping to look it up later.

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Art Everywhere billboard featuring the work of Charles Sheeler

When I did finally type the URL into my Chrome browser, I discovered that my city was part of a national campaign to display some of America’s greatest art in public spaces normally reserved for advertising: billboards, bus shelters, subway posters, dioramas in airports, videos in health clubs, trailers in movie theaters and more. Fifty-eight paintings were chosen from five leading art museums in the country and were featured in more than 50,000 digital and static displays. The paintings depicted significant moments in American history and culture and were displayed in locations where Americans would pass by them often in the course of everyday life.

“Throughout the entire month of August, cherished American artworks will be seen by millions of people every day when they are commuting to work, taking the kids to school, hailing a taxi, shopping in a mall, catching a bus or pursuing other routine activities,” the Art Everywhere promotional material said.

Preserving culture through art starts with national art campaigns like this one or with required art appreciation and art history classes taught in public schools, but it’s only really accomplished when the stories told through various media are made available and accessible to people in the course of their everyday lives. Art in churches worked because people went to church regularly. Art in churches would still work for those who go. But placing all types of art in all the other places people go in the course of their regular lives allows people not only to view but to become acquainted with the context, the technique, and the attributes of the artists and their stories. Their art becomes our art, and the stories seem a little more familiar every time we see them.

I quickly fell in love with the Art Everywhere US project, especially with our own copy of Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party right in the middle of one of the most run-down parts of the city. I couldn’t wait to tell others. A few days after my husband and I first saw the billboard, I was driving around with a friend and asked her if she had seen it. She hadn’t, so we drove by.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844 - 1926 ), The Boating Party, 1893/1894, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) “The Boating Party”1893/1894,                           oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection

That very Sunday afternoon driving home from the saints tour at the art museum, I asked the friends I had gone with—an art teacher and her artist daughter—if they had seen the billboard. They hadn’t either. I was surprised. Apparently the campaign had not been well publicized in our area. So with the saints and their haloes still fresh in our minds, we drove to the other side of town, and this time parked and snapped photos.

A few days later in her art class, my friend used The Boating Party as a sample for a writing assignment. One of her students said, “I know that painting—it’s over by Winski’s.” Even if she knew nothing of Mary Cassatt or The National Gallery, she was right.

The Architecture of Hope

My husband and I watch a lot of HGTV. We predict whether homeowners will Love It or List It; we marvel at the amount of work that gets done on Flip or Flop. On one episode of Property Brothers, one of the hosts asked the homeowners with humor, “What do you even call this style?” To be fair, the word “style” itself might have been generous among their son’s sports clutter, the wife’s expansive knickknack collection, and the husband’s beloved man-cave. It reminded me of my own decorative style in the 15 years of apartment living between college and home ownership, a style my dad lovingly coined “early poverty.”

Homeownership changed all of that. The first home I bought for myself on the north side of Indianapolis actually did have a style, a style with an official name: mid-century modern. And though I am certainly no modernista myself, I soon found that the style fit me. But not for the reasons I would have expected.

In  the years after World War II, politicians and world leaders weren’t the only ones looking for a new way to see the world. Architects and designers, influenced by the “organic architecture” of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the German Bauhaus movement, began incorporating features like floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors into residential designs as a way for families to interact with the world from the privacy of their home. No one had smart phones or laptops in those post-war days. Few people even had televisions. But these “windows to the world,” along with open-concept floor plans, hinted at the degree to which people would increasingly conduct themselves vocationally, socially, economically, politically—even spiritually—without ever leaving the house.

According to Dinah Eng in her FrontDoor.com post, “All About Mid-Century Modern Architecture,” these creative home designers “believed the forward-looking style could be a vehicle for social change to create a better society. Characterized by flat planes, large glass windows and open space, these homes — built from 1945 to the 1980s — featured simplicity and an integration with nature, encouraging residents to explore the world in new ways.”

The neighborhoods themselves also were designed for healthful living, the promise of the burgeoning suburbs in the post-war days. While the suburban dream feels more like a nightmare to many young urbanites today, the wide open lots just outside city limits became necessary infrastructure to support the strong horizontal lines of the mid-century designs and an appealing refuge from the cost, decay, and increasing violence of urban life.

My mid-century modern house was built in 1959 in a thriving middle class suburb. Forty-seven years later, I bought it on the cheap in an estate sale, its limestone and brick exterior still pristine despite its age.  Twelve months after that, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer.

For weeks I endured extreme nausea, fatigue, hair loss, and weight loss resulting from cancer treatments that were supposed to heal me. They felt like they were killing me. Each night, as I made my way to the bedroom, it was like a march of death. Would I die in the darkness of that back room, overcome by anxiety and pain?

Eventually, I stopped going to bed at all, passing the nights, and most days, lying on the couch. The floor-to-ceiling windows and the open concept living room and kitchen directly connected me to the outside world of both my front and back yards, just as the designers had envisioned. I watched snow and rain and wind and sun. Birds and squirrels and rabbits were within my view, as well as the mail carrier and utility workers and neighbors speeding along in cars on their way to work or church or the grocery. Light came into the house, turning the flat, white walls orange and pink and green and blue depending on the sky and the sun and the canopy of trees.

During my years in the house, the city caught up with my suburban neighborhood. Many of the other mid-century modern homes up and down the street are on the auction block. Vacant for years, they will likely be razed and converted to apartments or town homes or worse: cheap, prefab neighborhoods. I had to sell my own home last year after moving in with my new husband an hour from the city.

The mid-century designers never expected their post-war homes to be temporary dwellings, replaced cheaply in just a few decades. But they also could not have pictured that the light of those floor-to-ceiling windows and the open-concept floor plan would nurse a woman back to health from cancer. Light shining through the sliding glass gave birth to hope, and the sturdiness of the limestone reminded me again and again that though time changes things—cities grow, neighborhoods fall, bodies age—what remains makes us strong.

photo by:

On Wallace Stegner’s Advice and the Blogosphere

I signed up for a book proposal workshop at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. I’ve been working on an idea for a couple of years now. I thought I was “this close” (fingers pinched closely together) to delivering a little piece of me to agents and editors. The workshop would be a final bit of encouragement.

After the two-hour session, though, I realized I am “this far” (hands stretched widely apart) from not just submitting a proposal but actually writing it. I wasn’t worried about sample chapters, and I’ve been doing research on other books covering the same topics. I even have a short list of potential agents and editors to contact. I’m stuck on the one section of the proposal that I don’t have an answer to. Audience.

I have no idea who I am writing for.

“Your kind of writer has never spoken to a large audience except over a long stretch of time, and I would not advise you to pin too much hope even on posterity,” wrote the great writer of the American West, Wallace Stegner, in a November 1, 1959, Atlantic Monthly essay, “To a Young Writer.”

Stegner wrote the letter responding to a former student, answering the “practical matters” about which the student wrote, and addressing the student’s apparent purpose, “a need for reassurance.”

While Stegner had no trouble affirming to the writer that “you indeed are good,” his greater goal seems to be a warning. To Stegner, pursuing an audience and the rewards of authorship—security, fame, confidence, and so many others—threatens the writing.

“The moment you start consciously writing for an audience you begin wondering if you are saying what the audience wants or expects,” Stegner says. He distinguishes between the solitary reader, who sits alone relishing the words, and an audience, operating en masse and demanding things like “sensationalism, violence, shock, sentiment, sex, or Great Issues.”

A mass audience may eschew writing that doesn’t satisfy its desires, bypassing some work in favor of others. Not the solitary reader: “the peculiar virtue of this audience is that it leaves up to you what should be said,” Stegner writes.

“Except for vaguely imagining him and hoping he is there, ignore [the reader], do not write what you think he would like. Write what you like,” Stegner implores.

“When your book is published you will have a letter from at least one of him, perhaps from as many as twenty or thirty of him. With luck, as other books come on his numbers will grow. But to you he will always be a solitary reader, an ear, not an audience.”

But who is this solitary reader for whom we write? Do we owe him nothing more than being true to ourselves?

At another Festival session, a panel of writers, editors, publishers, and agents talked about the current state of the publishing industry. One of the panel members strongly appealed to the audience to buy books and review the work of other authors for the good of the entire word industry. Another panel member, an editor and poet, suggested that every audience member should subscribe to a literary journal. The other panel members agreed.

Later, an audience member responded by asking whether this type of thinking created a kind of inbred system where writers write only for themselves.

Their answer amounted to a firm maybe. The panel members were resigned to the idea that if writers don’t buy published or printed works, if they don’t commit their own money to books and journals and magazines, how could they expect anyone else to?

I left the session wondering: is that who I write for? Myself? Not just me, in a self-revelatory, self-discovery kind of way, but me over and over again in all the ways that people like me — writers — are in fact just like me?

Later that day, I attended an interview with popular Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans. Responding to a question about audience, she described her readers as her “boss,” a great departure from the earlier session’s question of inbreeding. While she certainly is not employed by the thousands of book buyers who propelled The Year of Biblical Womanhood to the New York Times Best Seller List in November 2012, neither was she pandering to her fan base when she made the comment. She explained that she often crowdsources ideas on her blog or social media pages as she is writing, and in The Year of Biblical Womanhood, she adjusted content based on comments and suggestions.

While these are not “choose your own adventure” books, Evans definitely has gone against Stegner’s advice and is “consciously writing for an audience.” But Stegner’s “young writer” was not a “popular blogger.” We learn in the letter that this serious wordsmith wrote fiction, what we might now label “literary fiction,” not trade paperbacks for the Christian Living section at Barnes and Noble. But in the interview, Evans said she, too, would like to be considered a “literary” writer, though she shrugged off suggestions that she currently is.

If such a writer is being true to herself and her readers, would Stegner protest?

Writers of all genres and subjects seem to wonder “who are we writing for?” And indirectly, what does my audience say about me as a writer?

In a recent Curator interview with Image Journal founder and editor Greg Wolfe, Brett Beasley asks how a journal with lofty literary ambition became sustainable in the marketplace. Are they writing for enough people to remain financially viable?

“We have gone on faith that the artistic languages we speak—and those spoken in the journal—continue to have relevance,” Wolfe said.

“Even when they’re competing in a marketplace with languages that are much more easily spoken and often seem more enjoyable and consumable than long short stories, complicated, multifaceted essays, or layered, nuanced paintings full of allusions and historical references. So, we’ve always braced ourselves for accusations of elitism. But that’s always been the case with high art.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who lob the label of elitism because they themselves feel excluded: genre writers who feel they’ve been banished for writing to too low or too large an audience.

In a 2008 blog post titled “The Literary Ghetto”, horror writer Gary A. Braunbeck tells the story of a book reviewer who seemed surprised that a work of horror fiction was actually “serious” and “literate.”

“I have seen countless instances of others—readers and reviewers alike—who dismiss science fiction, mysteries, and fantasy on the same grounds: that genre fiction is somehow not ‘real’ literature,” Braunbeck writes. “And so writers and readers of genre fiction get shoved off into their own literary ghetto, where ‘discerning’ readers of lit-rah-chure deign not tread.”

The question becomes even more difficult when the audience is not just someone who buys books, but anyone anywhere who may stumble onto a website. Science blogger Emily Anthes, in her PLOS post, “As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?” writes,

“How much are we really sparking a wider discussion about science in society and how much are we just talking to each other? I know that I’m thrilled when science bloggers that I respect notice my work, compliment it, and retweet it. And it’s exciting to watch science bloggers debate the finer points of science with one another. But who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?

In asking who we are writing for, we often come back around to asking why are we writing in the first place. Why would we even want an audience? When it comes to identifying our solitary reader, perhaps why is the better question.

“Why bother to make contact with kindred spirits you never see and may never hear from, who perhaps do not even exist except in your hopes?” Stegner asks the young writer. “Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won’t pay you a living wage for it?”

His answer propels us past the target audience of a book proposal, beyond the accusations of elitism or ghetto writing, even further than the reader as boss.

“You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished,” Stegner writes. “And so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.”

My proposal is tabled for now, and so is the matter of audience. I am content to sit with why? When I find the answer, or even a hint of an answer, I have a feeling the book proposal will follow close behind.

photo by: electricnerve

A Living Essay

Before the sun rose over the fallow field across from our home this morning, I picked up the book I’ve been reading since last June, back when the days were longer and darkness was just a brief period before bedtime. It’s not like me to take so long on one book. And it’s not like I haven’t read dozens of books in the meantime: novels, nonfiction, poetry, how-to. But with this book of essays, it hasn’t been the normal speed-read to the end. I pick it up in the summer mornings. I read one essay or part of one essay in the early darkness of late autumn evenings. I put it down after a quick read at lunch, the sky gray even though it is mid-day. The seasons change, the days lengthen and shorten, and over and over for the past nine months I read from this one book.

I bought the book, Earth Works, when I heard the author, Scott Russell Sanders, speak at a library event in a suburban community near the city where I lived at the time. A friend and I scarfed down dinner and drove through rush-hour traffic to sit among a sparse crowd of senior citizens. Obviously the community didn’t know who had come to visit.

Remembering that evening–the readings, the question and answer session, the visit with the author afterward–I feel the exhilaration again. Sanders, who has written fiction, memoir, even children’s picture books, will always be first and foremost an essayist to me. I first met Sanders at a Wendell Berry reading at Indiana University, where Sanders taught literature for more than three decades. But I came to know him in his essays, in his weighing out of life’s mysteries paragraph by paragraph. His literary give-and-take helped solidify my own love of the form, and I am hard-pressed to write an essay without turning my thoughts to Sanders.

But in the past nine months, it’s not just a matter of getting through the density of Sanders’ most recent essay collection. Without pre-planning or subjecting myself to a stunt, I have been living out his essays one by one.

I read Sanders’ essay “Singular First Person” and find an answer to my own writing insecurity. Often I wonder how many people could be interested in the life of a woman who grew up on a farm, survived cancer, never had children, and married late in life only to become a step-mom to three sons. There couldn’t be many. So why write from “I”?

“I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine,” Sanders said, “but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8).

And so I pass through the door he has opened, and prop open a door of my own.

“The Inheritance of Tools” reminds me of the barn full of wrenches and hammers and tractors I said goodbye to last fall, when my step-dad passed away. Although I didn’t claim the tools, I understand Sanders’ idea of the “double inheritance” that comes with items left behind by a loved one. The volumes of The Old Farmer’s Almanac that sit on my bookshelf, the small notebooks with my step-dad’s handwriting, even his padded vest now hanging in my husband’s closet: they all come “wrapped in a cloud of knowing,” as Sanders describes it (54).

And there’s more, each essay cracking open the door a little wider. The fear that my faith may somehow be destroyed by too much scientific curiosity is bolstered by Sanders’ own claim to have “surrendered” his faith “under the assault of science” (238). My love of Wendell Berry is explained to me in detail through Sanders’ own introduction and appreciation of Berry’s work, what he calls the “confidence, clarity, high aspirations, and moral passion of the voice on the page” (272). My struggle to find my way as a writer is matched by Sanders’ long journey in the same direction, both his stubbornness and the “pleasure of living among words” (150). Even my questions about writing a memoir are not answered in Sanders’ own memoir, but in his essay describing his foray into the genre and his wrangling with truth-telling, where he exhorts writers to “abide by the promise implied in the nonfiction label” (288).

I could go on.

What I will miss the most when I finish this collection is the grounding I have found. Though my life changes and my career shifts, as my family undulates in death and marriage and birth and separation, as the days grow longer, then shorter, then longer again, I find myself increasingly drawn to the earth beneath my feet and to the minutes I inhabit, even as they pass away, to what Sanders calls “Staying Put.” We all have a choice, Sanders says,

“whether to go or stay, whether to move to a situation that is safer, richer, easier, more attractive, or to stick where we are and make what we can of it. If the shine goes off our marriage, our house, our car, do we trade it for a new one? If the fertility leaches out of our soil, the creativity out of our job, the money out of our pocket, do we start over somewhere else? There are voices enough, both inner and outer, urging us to deal with difficulties by pulling up stakes and heading for new territory. I know them well, for they have been calling to me all my days” (115).

Strangely, this essay found me after a major shift in location and situation. I married and moved miles away. My old house sat empty and for sale. My new house felt unfamiliar and uncertain. I wasn’t tied to either place, and I felt adrift. Because of my new commitment, I couldn’t–didn’t want to–stay put in the old place. Yet I didn’t have the vision for what it means to put down roots in a new place. Sanders’ words gave me that vision.

“It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place” (126).

So, as Sanders said, I have a choice to make, but mine isn’t about staying or going. I made that choice when I said “I do.” I have to decide where I will be. I could live stranded between two places, or I could accept that I am here now. It means I have had to let go of old habits, old communities, old work. I have to develop a taste for well water and remember to add salt to the softener; I must learn to navigate the narrow, ice-covered country roads in the winter; I have to welcome the deer and rabbits and squirrels into our lawn as they walk between food sources; and I must quit calling the creek running behind the baseball diamond a “river,” like a city girl.

I have only 47 pages left of the book. Were it a novel, I would have to stop even now and finish. Plots and characters demand resolution. Were it a poem, 47-pages-to-go would have kept me from ever picking it up in the first place. And had it been a self-help manual, I would have long since sought its answers.

But since this is a book of essays, I won’t rush to the end nor will I avoid it. I will allow its questions and answers–Sanders’ own examination of meaning and love and history and ecology–to lead me in my reading as in my living.

And when I am finished, I will leave the door propped open for those who follow behind.

Art Museums vs. Art Fair

Art used to be part of my life.

When I was single, I often visited museums and galleries, special exhibits and art festivals. Recently, though, I married for the first time at age 42 and became a step-mother to three sons. I realized I hadn’t been to a museum or an art gallery since the wedding. In fact, I hadn’t been since we were engaged.

“Would you be interested—or at least willing—to go to the art museum with me on Saturday?” I asked my husband during a particularly rough week. When he agreed, I was relieved. I knew I needed the presence of art in my life. My husband knew it, too. The next day he told me that an arts and crafts fair that I had been to and enjoyed in the past  was also going on in a nearby town on that Saturday.

The only problem was that we didn’t have time to do both.  Would my craving for art be best satisfied at a museum or a fair?

“All of culture . . . is a struggle over how we should imagine our lives,” writes essayist Scott Russell Sanders in “Letter to a Reader.” Would choosing the museum over the fair be the equivalent of saying that Monet imagines life better than the woman who designs jewelry or the soap maker whose offerings at last year’s fair kept me clean for months? I was torn.

I face this dilemma between “high culture” and “low culture” (or pop culture) regularly: should I read Thomas Hardy or my friends’ latest blog posts? Should I eat at the chef-owned R Bistro or the Pita Pit? Should I go to the symphony or listen to the folk singer at a nearby coffee shop?

In a February 2013 Guardian article titled, “High culture versus pop culture: which is best for engaging students?” Andrew Jones, head of religious studies and sociology at a community school in Hertfordshire, discusses the effects of introducing both types of culture to students in educational environments.

While exposure to high culture might help students “develop an appreciation of the finer things in life, such as poetry and classical music,” Jones also says that popular culture feels more relevant to his students, makes the subjects “alive.” Often, he combines both: “My colleagues and I have planned lessons on heaven and hell that mixed clips from Tom and Jerry with Gustave Doré‘s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Furthermore, lessons on suffering include the literature from Elie Wiesel and the paintings of Francisco Goya.”

Maybe I should have tried harder to squeeze in both the museum and the fair? Or is choosing between them, beyond a mere scheduling conflict, really being honest about the nature of art?

In his 2013 commencement speech for New York’s School of Visual Arts, cultural critic and prolific author, Greil Marcus, refuted the notion that high and low art should really be separated.

I’ve always believed that the divisions between high art and low art, between high culture, which really ought to be called “sanctified culture,” and what’s sometimes called popular culture, but really ought to be called “everyday culture” — the culture of anyone’s everyday life, the music I listen to, the movies you see, the advertisements that infuriate us and that sometimes we find so thrilling, so moving — I’ve always believed that these divisions are false. And, as a result of trying to make that argument over the years, I’ve also come to believe that these divisions are permanent — they can be denied, but they can never go away.

One particular temptation for choosing the museum over the arts and crafts fair that Saturday was a special exhibit of Chinese artist and cultural protestor, Ai Weiwei, whose work could leave Beijing while he himself was detained and surveilled on a daily basis. While museums of high culture regularly exhibit his work, I did wonder as we walked throughout the gallery (yes, we chose the museum), what makes his photographs or his sculptures “sanctified,” as it were.

I left the museum that day feeling different than usual. Truly, I had seen life as Ai Weiwei imagined it. But it left me wondering how to imagine my own life. “Beauty” didn’t describe what I had seen. But was it was a revelation. Was that enough to call it art? Marcus says “yes.”

That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for—to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for—by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement—something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth—art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work.

And even as I nod in agreement, I wonder if the opposite would have been true at the art fair? Sure, I would have seen lots of pretty things, some even beautiful. I know; I’ve been to the fair before. But I don’t recall any revelations. Where does that leave the soap maker?

Perhaps this is the urge that Marcus so deeply regrets about the division of high art and low art. When one person or party or nation says you must see “this” as beautiful, or only “that” can provide you with a revelation, Marcus calls it an “urge to fascism,” a dangerous word when applied to people in power. But perhaps still an ugly word when applied to individuals passing judgment over each other’s imaginings of life?

It all comes down to that urge to fascism—maybe a big word to use for art, but I think the right word—it comes down to that urge to fascism to know what’s best for people, to know that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes art into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that, in the end, there is a social explanation for art, which is to say an explanation of what kind of art you should be ashamed of and what kind of art you should be proud of. It’s the reduction of the mystery of art, where it comes from, where it goes…

This issue of shame came back around to us a few weeks later when my husband and I again chose a visit to the art museum, this time bringing our boys along. We wanted them to see Ai Weiwei’s work, to experience the same revelations we had. But those photos and sculptures that had moved us earlier now required justification. “It’s a statement of protest,” I explained to our youngest son who giggled at the photo of Ai holding up his middle finger to the White House. “They gave him a concussion when they were arresting him,” I said about the MRI image of Ai’s own brain. And I felt myself flush when we saw the picture of a naked man suspended from the ceiling in chains.

And we didn’t even risk taking them to the Matisse exhibit a few months later where we knew the Odalisk drawings and paintings would be far more than their young minds could sort through at this stage. Not to mention our own Midwestern adult sensibilities. Fascism? Perhaps. Or maybe just practical parenting. But why, then, do we “protect” the boys from Matisse while regularly exposing them to the advertisements of cable television or the magazine covers in the check out lane at the local Wal-Mart? And what about Robert Indiana’s 8-foot-tall polychrome Numbers made me so proud as I drug the boys through the rain to the outside patio at the museum that day, insisting that they were going to love them? (They did love them, by the way. But maybe only for my benefit? Maybe only because I had insisted?)

High art and low art may indeed forever be separated, and in earnest, many, like the educator, Andrew Jones, will try to bring them back together, to find a happy balance.

My life attempts to inhabit such a union. I find a greater negotiation, however, from Madeleine L’Engle, whose everyday encounters with high art not only reduced their mystique, but made her own creation of low art irresistible. From A Circle of Quiet, she writes:

I wrote poems, too. Looking through some old journals, I came across several. There was one, notable for its arrogance, if nothing else.

We lived on 82nd Street and the Metropolitan Museum was my short cut to Central Park. I wrote:

I go into the museum
and look at all the pictures on the walls.
Instead of feeling my own insignificance
I want to go straight home and paint.

A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else. (L’Engle 147)

So yes, we went to the museum. We even became members that day, my husband and I. It was his idea, actually. And not because we value high culture more than low culture, but because we very much want to be inspired to create our own art to imagine our lives as something more than they currently are.

photo by: Edna Winti

Hold the Chicken

I have chia seeds soaking in almond milk in the refrigerator.

Earlier in the week I tried adding the raw, dry seeds to a smoothie that I quickly slurped down. I had questions about whether they should be eaten whole or ground up. Rather than Google the answer, tonight I posted the question in a private Facebook group of four friends. We all are trying to eat healthy – two of us follow a vegan diet – and within minutes, a friend hooked me up with a recipe for making the nutritious seeds more palatable and beneficial.

Actually, she showed me how to make them into pudding. Who doesn’t like nutritious pudding?

Photo by Maggie Stein.

I’m asking my food questions to a lot of different people these days. For the first 41 years of my life, if I had a question about cooking, my mom was my first choice. She knows how long to bake a chicken or the proper ratio of flour, butter, and milk for turning a roux into gravy. Any question about substitutions – who keeps buttermilk on hand? – or about proportions – how many cups in a quart if I want to cut the recipe in half? – were always answered in a phone call to mom.

Rumor has it, everything my mom knows about cooking she learned from her mom, or her aunts, or her sisters. To this day, she brags on certain foods her sisters make better than she can: Pat makes the best rolls or Sue makes the best chili.
But when I made a drastic change to my diet five months ago, I wasn’t sure who to ask about vegetarian sources of protein or natural sugar substitutes or recipes using kale. Though I’ve found my way with Google and eventually discovered a few other friends who share my habits, I miss the way my mom would start her advice, “Well, the way I do it . . .” and the way I felt more connected to her through food.

It’s not that we don’t still talk about food, my mom and I. We do. Every day. On her way home from work, my mom calls me every day just to check in. I’m often writing or at the gym or out to dinner, but I always try to answer, or at least call back. Since not much happens from one day to the next for us to talk about, we almost always talk about food.

“What are you making for dinner?” she’ll ask. I’ll tell her about a stir fry I’m making or a quinoa salad I’m putting together, reminding her every time what quinoa is. It’s not a grain my step-dad grows on their Indiana farm.

Then I’ll ask her what she’s having, and she’ll tell me about the steaks they are grilling, the chicken salad she whipped up, or the cheesy potato casserole she’s making from a new recipe. It’s all stuff I no longer eat, though I sometimes wish I did. She forgets at first, each day when she’s talking about the food.

Usually about the time she’s describing the cookies or the ice cream or the cake she made with the homemade frosting that they are having for dessert, she remembers. She remembers that I didn’t change my diet to spite anyone. That I still love meat and cheese and bread and ice cream, but that several years ago I began to value food that came from the ground more than food from a box. She also remembers that recently, more than four years after a cancer diagnosis, I have come to believe that the typical, standard American diet that I enjoyed for most of my life might be part of the reason I suffered so.

I don’t like to phrase it that way to people when I talk about my self-prescribed dietary restrictions. The fact that I eat only vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits usually only comes up if I’m eating with other people. While I’m choosing a salad – hold the chicken, cheese, and dressing please – or a plain baked potato, my fellow diners are choosing big meaty sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise or chicken burritos with mounds of sour cream falling out of soft wheat tortillas. It’s awkward and uncomfortable when they overhear me ordering everything on the side. And I feel judgmental eating only plain vegetables while they have cheese dripping down their chins.

But I knew it would be this way. I knew everyone would wonder about where I’m getting my protein, and they would assume I think I’m fat since I no longer eat desserts. I knew that some people would suggest I eat off my diet “just this once” since it’s a special occasion, and I also knew that some people think every meal is a special occasion.

Eating, of all things, seems so individual, what with all of our preferences and intolerances. Fast food marketing capitalizes on this idea of food as a private commodity by offering to make a meal “your way.” Restaurants in general seem like the modern remedy to picky eaters – each person choosing individualized, customized food. One family can eat four different meals for dinner.

But despite our modern confusion, food is not individual, but communal, cultural even. Food choices are not simply a matter of preference. Economics, geography, race, and family all play a part in what I eat, how I eat, even when I eat.
When we sit down at the table together, we share our lives by sharing food. We dip our spoons into the same bowl like we dip our thoughts into the conversation. We appreciate the same effort that brought the food to the table just as we appreciate the same effort that brought us to the table. We let the same flavors tease our palates as we tease each other with our proximity and our humor.

When I visit family or friends these days, I usually take food. When I know we are grilling out, I pack a veggie burger and gluten free bread for myself. If I am taking a salad or a side dish to share, I make sure it has beans or seeds in it so it will fill me up if I can’t eat anything else from the table. I also make exceptions when I can. I typically avoid gluten, soy, and peanuts, but I’m not allergic to them. So, if a dish contains those, I just eat it. I always avoid  meat, eggs, fish, or dairy. But I’m ok to pick out the pieces if I need to do that.

Mostly, I’m learning to respect the baggage that comes with everyone’s food choices. And I think other people are doing the same for me, too.

Recently, I took food to my mom’s for a meal to celebrate my nephew’s visit from out of town. I brought food everyone could eat for dinner, and my mom was providing the dessert. She made a homemade raspberry cobbler from berries my step-dad had picked from a nearby field.

The night before, we chatted on the phone as she was making the dessert, one of my favorites.

“Well, I guess you won’t be able to eat it,” she said, after she mentioned that she also had vanilla ice cream to top it with.

“Could you save off some of the berries for me to eat plain?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, in fact, I had too many, and I was just going to pack them in there. You caught me just in time. I was about to pour them in,” she said.

“Do they have sugar on them?” I asked, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to eat them after all.

“No, they have just been washed,” she said. “Oh good, now you can enjoy the berries, too.”

So that evening, as I ate the plain wild raspberries with a spoon, I barely even noticed the soft warm crust or the slightly melted ice cream in the other bowls.

Well, almost.

What About the Shop Around the Corner?

The hardware store around the corner closed down sometime in the last few weeks, and it’s my fault.

On Sunday, I made a stop for some batteries and saw the sign on the door. But it was dusk, and I didn’t notice the plywood in the windows. I wondered how they could stay in business with such limited hours. Then, I went to the chain pharmacy that shared the same parking lot instead.

I don’t think it was the limited hours that caused the hardware store to close.

Elwood Adams Hardware of Worcester, Massachusetts claims to be the oldest operating hardware store in the United States, having begun business in 1782.

Though it was a franchise, the hardware store was locally owned and kept a few families working and cared for. I don’t know if they offered healthcare benefits or paid vacation time, but it was always a friendly place to be, and on the weekends, they offered free popcorn.

As a homeowner, I regularly found myself making trips to the hardware store. The large home-supply warehouses stocked more items and were located closer to my house. And I occasionally did give in to the urge for cheap mulch or a larger variety of sand paper grades. But though it took longer and cost more, I often drove to the hardware store and bought garbage bags or liquid drain cleaner simply because I wanted to live in a neighborhood that had a local hardware store.

The neighborhood obviously could not sustain the business, though. My favorite coffee shop also packed up, though the owners moved their establishment just down the street. And the pet store that used to be in the same strip mall closed up, too. An armed robbery took place at one of the convenience stores at that corner a few months ago, and last summer, while I was enjoying ice cream at the Baskin- Robbins, I witnessed a petty thievery of the tip jar. The young man working behind the counter chased after the thieves to no avail, but the policeman enjoying his ice cream saved the day.

I don’t want to see the neighborhood end up this way, but my purchases aren’t enough to carry a small business, and if inertia is pulling a neighborhood down, what can one person do?

What should one person do?

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, one in three small business owners are very or moderately worried about going out of business in 2012. With this kind of hesitancy, will small business owners like Mike, the proprietor of my neighborhood hardware store, invest in growing their businesses in a way that deserves my patronage?

When I stopped by the hardware store to look for a Christmas gift back in December, the shelves were sparsely stocked and I ended up shopping at a large retail chain instead. Was this a cause or effect of the eventual demise of the shop?

Nostalgia lends part of the mystique of the local hardware store. I remember two such shops I used to frequent with my dad when I was a young girl. In both cases, the floors were oily, the aisles cluttered, and the aroma somewhat metallic. The bins of nuts and bolts and screws and nails, with their scoops and little plastic bags just like the candy store, opened up to me the possibilities of fixing things and making things. My dad excels in both.

The “buy local” movement also has gathered me up in its swell. The idea of buying things grown and made and distributed by my neighbors feels more sustainable and allows me to maintain my identity as a person rather than just a consumer. When I walked into the hardware store, Mike always recognized me, asked about the last project he helped me with, and practically begged to help me again, even if I was just looking for a simple drain spout.

And I won’t even talk about the importance of small businesses to the health of a neighborhood, giving people options for walking or bicycling to do their errands rather than getting in their car and leaving the neighborhood, taking with them their money.

But the local hardware store also stocked the same items manufactured overseas that I could buy at any of the chain stores, and the markups were even higher. And supposing Mike wanted to buy plungers and garden fertilizer and duplicate keys from a local manufacturer, or even a US manufacturer, he probably couldn’t find one. Or if he could, he himself couldn’t afford to shop local.

I love the idea of locally owned businesses, and as often as I can, I try to shop in stores and eat in restaurants that have the same commitment. My employer is a small, local business, afterall–a fact we emphasize in marketing. The estimates range from 40-80 percent of how many of us in this country work for small employers (those who have fewer than 500 employees).

But I also have to be able to afford the clothes and the food and the household goods I consume, which means you might also find me wandering the aisles of some giant big box store, with a full cart.

I guess I shouldn’t take all the blame for the demise of the local hardware. But I’m praying for Mike and that vacant building. And I’m looking for the next store with the oily floor and metallic smell where I can lay down a little bit of my hard-earned cash from time to time.

Let’s hope they have a popcorn machine.