410: Drawing/Child (Joe Kessler)

                A few weeks ago I read Kessler’s The Gull Yettin, a graphic novel told with no words and sometimes dreamlike scenes that drift and fracture through each other. There’s something in the art style—the bold bright lines, the simple figures—that for me evokes childhood. Like a child drawing their family, drawing the house they come from, or the house that is their imagined home. It reminds me of an interview I heard a long time ago with cartoonist Charles Schultz—I think he said (in explaining some of the themes in his comic, Peanuts) that it seems like most people stop feeling the questions and hurts and confusions they had as a child, but that all those things, for him, never went away. I wonder if all those feelings for most of us never go away, and we just get better at not talking about them. Or maybe worse at hearing what they’re saying to us.
                I’m back in California, a little ways from where I born. A little ways from where I learned to swim, where I laid awake, too scared of nightmares to fall asleep, where I got lost in stories my parents read me while I played with twigs and pinecones, where I watched an escaped parakeet way up in an oak’s branches and wondered for the first time about pets and cages, trees and open skies. I think that’s why Kessler’s The Gull Yetin sticks with me. I love the kind of art that lets us keep drawing and finding and caring with/for the children there are in everyone we love. Ourselves, I hope, included.

409: Drawing Ourselves “Alive” (Tillie Walden)

                “The message of the comic doesn’t really feel right anymore (I need people) but I appreciate the positivity.” -Tillie Walden introducing “Alive,” a comic she drew years earlier, in Alone in Space: A Collection

                “Alive” tells the story of a young woman, alone in a spaceship, whose job is to repair complicated machinery. And she loves that life. As Walden playfully acknowledges how that expertise and isolation were once alluring, and aren’t any more (“I need people”), I’m struck by how making a way of life (through art) can also mean making a “way” that you later realize is not your way. How drawing a path can also be discovering the way you will not walk.
                Sometimes, for me, that’s been dangerous. I get enamored of how I said something, how I described it—if I could draw that path, then of course I should walk it, right? Walden teaches me again here: I love her soft kindness, her “appreciation,” in dealing with the past self who wrote this comic. Instead of getting worked up about the difference between the way of life she imagined then, and the one she imagines for herself now, she notices the differences while leaving gentle room for a was, an is, and growth between them. That’s something I want to practice. For example, when I was young—eleven, maybe—I dealt with some of my loneliness by pretending I wanted to be an outsider (I’d just read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, after all!). Silly, you could say. Counterproductive, absolutely. But also an attempt to understand and find balance, an attempt in its own strange way to connect, and I appreciate the care that was in my loneliness, the attempt to imagine my way into a being that felt closer. I appreciate drawing the paths: the ones I hope to walk, the ones I don’t.

408: “The Inner Lives of Animals” (Talia Lakshmi Kolluri)

                “But the inner lives of animals are such a mystery to me, which has made me feel that my understanding of the world is incomplete.” -Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, Author’s Note for What We Fed to the Manticore

                Each story in Kolluri’s collection is narrated by a different animal—a vulture, a wolf, a whale, a pigeon, and more. As I read through these stories (and lay in bed, thinking about them; and watched a neighbor’s cat, thinking about them more; and walked at the park watching two robins, thinking about the birds that flew above my head and through Kolluri’s stories) I was interested in the “inner lives” of these different characters, but I find myself even more interested in what we might call the ‘outer world’ of each story. When I look at a broken tree trunk and see woodgrain like the wood of my floor, when I see something like lumber, I’m seeing the forest differently than the robins do. The patterns of my “inner life” are sloshing out to paint a picture of what here is. A wolf, a whale, a pigeon—what world might they see around them?
                I spend a lot of time thinking about these ‘different’ spaces that sit on top of each other: what “my counter” is to me, as I wipe it down, and that surface is to the fly who lands on the far end. What, to me, is the green area behind my apartment—a firepit, a nice place to gather with friends—and what is that space to the crabapples growing there? And as we all share it, the robins and the trees and the grass and the flies and me, what is it now?

407: “The Farther I Ran” (Deb JJ Lee)

“The farther I ran…
…the more I wanted him to catch up to me.”
                -Deb JJ Lee, In Limbo

                Lee has me thinking about the things I do that I want to go awry — the plans I make that I want to come undone. When I think back through my life, watching for this kind of experience, I find fever memories from eleven or so. I would get sick and hallucinate, wild burning dreams more vibrant than I knew how to deal with. Then I’d argue that being alive didn’t mean anything. Couldn’t mean anything. I remember arguing that so loudly, wanting so much for my mom (usually the one who stayed up with me) to somehow ‘prove’ me wrong. 
                In Limbo centers on a fraught relationship between Lee and her mother. In this scene, following an awful interaction with her mom, she’s running from her dad. He doesn’t catch her. Instead Lee meets with a friend, who eventually drives her back home. And heavy as this all is — intense (and heartbreaking) as In Limbo sometimes is — I don’t think this is a sad book. Or a sad thought. As a kid I didn’t know how to deal with these moments when I was “trying to do something” that I also wanted so much to fail—when I was running, hoping to be caught. Maybe I still don’t. But Lee helps me think about the tension of those moments. Those buildings I make that I want to have broken, like when I purposefully made a sandcastle down near the waves at low tide and then tried so hard to build a moat and a wall to protect it. Even as it had to collapse.
                In Limbo ends with Lee and her mom falling asleep together. Gentle. Close. Which doesn’t erase the hurt that has come before. Instead of thinking that, as a child, I should’ve learned to stop running when I wanted to be caught, stop arguing when I wanted to be wrong, I’m sitting here thinking about making space for the running and the catching up. The outpouring of feverish words and my own mother’s open silence, wider and fuller than any answer. Sometimes these are the ebbs and flows of our hearts, aren’t they? Our connections. Which doesn’t mean stop making, but does mean that there’s something wonderful in the making, and something wonderful in the waves that come in and wash my sandcastle all away. 

406: “The Queer Art of Failure” (Jack Halberstam)

                “This is a story of art without markets, drama without a script, narrative without progress. The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”
                -Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

                I finished another draft of my novel (ninth, by some measures, or twenty-third, depending; I can’t really separate the rewriting into drafts) in April, 2022. And again in late October. Then I lay in bed, thinking over a section I wanted to rewrite, and finished again in mid November. (My partner was very patient with me. I’d tell them, “I finished!” and they’d be all excited for me. It wasn’t until after the third or fourth time that they asked, a few hours later “You’ve said that before, right?”).  I “finished” again in December, though really there was a section I wanted to pick back up. In January I started back on page one, and I’m walking my way through the whole manuscript again. These characters, they trick and inspire me. The questions they’re asking are questions I’m still asking, and I learn a lot from how they’re trying to support each other. Though just now I haven’t worked on it in a week or more.
                I’ve given up on this novel a number of times. And come back. I’ve failed again and again to make this story what I thought it would be—and stumbled closer to what it is. During my MFA, when I felt I had to push through and finish the book for good and always, the words started making me sick. I couldn’t keep walking with these characters until I realized I would rather fail to finish a draft than write a draft that didn’t feel messy and loving and complete.  Embracing that messiness, that mix of cans and can’ts, of identities and relationships—that’s what this book project has always been.
                So I love Halberstam’s reminder. Where am I failing today, what am I losing? And by failing, what else can I make, how else can I love, what else can I be?

405: “Far” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

“If we refuse the notion of away,
could we relearn the truth of far?”
                -Ursula Le Guin, from “Distance”

                My family, away at the edge of the Pacific, where I grew up watching driftwood bob in the waves, feels far off from tonight. The child I was in tidepools feels far off. The friends I’ve made in different places — Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh; Amherst in Massachusetts; a cafe in St. Petersburg, Russia — feel far off. My grandparents feel far off. Earlier this week my mother sent us a picture of her mother, a teenager surrounded by friends in 1946. I tilt my head, trying to recognize her. To meet her eyes. Far off in place, far off in time, far off in world.
                I think I often practice a kind of holding, a hug that’s looking for closeness. Tonight, with all this far, I’m sitting with distances. The “truth of far,” spreading out beyond what I can see, what I can feel. Some of my friends will move away next month, and who knows when I’ll see them again. Many of my friends I haven’t seen in too long. And here far inland from the tidepools of the pacific and across rivers and plains from Amherst and across an ocean from Rishi Valley, I feel a closeness and also a depth. Like drinking from a spring: water up from aquifers so far below, water maybe from a rain that fell somewhere sometime, a far that takes my breath away and gives it back like a breeze passing.

404: Reading Aloud Together (Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

                “And your name is medicine over my skin. And our kinship is the kind of salve that heals whole oceans.” -Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

                Today my friend Leo and I met in Carle Park. Breezes and blue flowers. Bright sky and warm shadows. We’re both creative writers, and since we’ve taken creative writing courses in higher ed, we’re used to a kind of feedback where I print pages, perhaps one copy for the professor, perhaps sixteen for all the other students, and then a week later I get back pages with little ink notes about what I’ve written. Today, instead, Leo and I sat in the dirt and the grass and read work out loud.
                I like written feedback. I’ve learned so much from friends and mentors who’ve written words around my words. But as the breeze made branches sway and flowers bounce, I liked reading aloud together even more. Reading is an invitation to be “here” together. Seeing—the visual act of reading and being read, of presenting and being interpreted—feels interwoven for me with all kinds of power narratives. We choose where to look and when to close our eyes. Voices wrap around me in a more sensual way, like spring breezes, a touch-way like shadows and sun. Reading Leo’s writing out loud— or hearing Leo read mine—is a chance to live inside that moment of sharing. Instead of commenting, responding, we root into sound, finding ourselves and each other in the soil of our voices.

403: “Meant For Publication” (Oscar Wilde)

                “[My diary] is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.” -Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

                My friend John Moist runs UIUC’s GradLIFE podcast. Lots of my students are interested in podcasts, so I invited John to visit a class. We talked about podcasts, microphones, sound equalization. Along the way we talked about art and capitalism. John’s a musician and a podcast nerd (though not, I would argue, a podcast bro), but he didn’t try to start his own podcast. He was fortunate enough to get hired making a podcast that someone else wanted. Our class ended by reflecting on that as one example of art interacting with capitalism, of “an artist” finding a way to make “a living.”
                 Conversations don’t stop when the metaphorical bell rings. John and I walked back toward our next meetings together, and along the way he told me about a friend of his who’s been asking, “Why don’t you try to make it as a musician? That’s what you do all the time.” John isn’t trying to “make it as a musician” because that’s what he does all the time. As capitalism and a hustle culture tries to claw its way into everything, John’s building walls around music, around soundscapes and wandering into them with his friends who are not his employers (or his “listeners,” a different relationship capitalism might suggest). We ended up talking about creating different spaces, not just “here’s where I make money” and “here’s where I turn the sound up for me,” but all sorts of spaces. Next week I’m starting a tabletop game, which will be a space for a specific community in Urbana-Champaign. Sometimes I paint with some friends — another space for another community. My creative writing training taught me that more viewers was always better, that (as John joked) “eyeballs = worth,” but I want to luxuriate in all these nested spaces, in the moments I step into them and out of them, in the very different things they’re trying to do.

402: “Fell From His Hand” (Emma Trevayne)

“The green orchid fell from his hand and splashed a moment later.”
                -Emma Trevayne, Spindrift and the Orchid

                I really liked Spindrift. It was fun, fast, sweet, and filled with lots of snacking. It was also the first novel I read at my niece’s recommendation, which is delightful, and I’m looking forward to many more.  And as I read (spoiler alert) I started thinking about how Spindrift follows a common path. There’s a powerful object that corrupts people. It has to be destroyed. Our main character is almost corrupted, but then decides to let this object go. Have you seen that story somewhere?
                Lately I’ve been thinking about the ‘scale’ or ‘focus’ of our answers. For me, Spindrift and stories like it (I can’t help naming Lord of the Rings) are dealing with materialism and capitalism and physical greed. There is something dangerous (the story says) in how we want to claim things, control things, own things that give us power. At the same time, the stories I’m thinking of understand and resolve this danger in a fairly specific way. They end with the magic-thing being thrown away. I start imagining how else such stories might look for a resolution. For example, what if the people in them moved past greed, past this mad need for the thing, and the resolution wasn’t somehow ‘removing temptation’ (by getting rid of the object) but a changing worldview (in which the object was not imbued as a kind of magical source of meaning)? It would be a different story. It would take up our capitalist materialism, and suggest a different response. Maybe now that I’m writing this I’ll see this other story everywhere, but the destroy-it story, the its-too-dangerous-to-go-on-existing story, seems more common in the American spaces I move through.
                As we ask these questions, what other ‘scales’ or ‘focuses’ could we take up?

401: “Rather Than Seek the Antidote” (Jasbir Puar)

                “Ultimately, [Achille Mbembe] seeks to destabilize the opposition between stability and chaos […] to allow for what might issue forth from it, what it might produce, rather than seek the antidote that would suppress it.” -Jasbir Puar in the preface to Terrorist Assemblages 

                Reading Puar, I’m curious about what grows where, which roots in what soil lifting what leaves and blossoms and fruit. Even more, I’m interested in the soil where I tend to think nothing grows, or at least nothing “worthwhile.”
                “Nothing good happens after 2 am,” a friend told me back in college.
                “I don’t have good ideas while watching Netflix,” another friend told me.
                “I need to stop being lazy,” I tell myself a lot.
                Of course, lots of things do happen after two am (I remember some lovely long conversations beneath the stars). A lot happens when I watch Netflix: sometimes it’s thinking and sometimes it’s an attempt at not-thinking, an attempt to “turn off my brain,” and all of that is fascinating. A few weeks ago my partner and I stretched out in the grass, feeling the warmth of almost-spring, and there’s plenty of lovely things that grow in exactly the space I call my “lazy.” 
                When I stop trying to end it or ameliorate it, and start listening to it, attending to it, what comes from “chaos”? Or to put it another way, where are my weeds, my shoots and stems that somehow keep sprouting up, and what happens if I care for them?