Finding hope in the dark, the mountains, and art

Hope in the dark

I’ve been writing and deleting, setting aside and picking up this post over the past few months, choking on rage as I did so. Every time I tried to return to it to make a coherent point about the political state of things there was more violence to account for, more things to make sense of. Tragedy after tragedy, hurt after hurt has been piling on. I spent most of my days feeling reactionary, emotionally frayed and deeply sad. I started to pick fights about things that did not matter.

I tried to craft a deeply angry but intellectually developed piece in response to the sexual violence women face as part of their daily lives after the Brock Turner case. Then in response to the brutal attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. And then after police have took the lives of more Black people (again). And then after ongoing violent attacks by religious extremists all over the world.

Some of my friends on my social media feeds tried to stay positive, saying “Now is the time we can heal, now is the time we can address these injustices,” or, “At least all this ugliness is out in the open and taken more seriously as injustice.” And as communities who care about social justice we march, we cry, we grieve, we raise our voices, we nurture our communities, but the sheer helplessness I felt when seeing these acts of violence occur over and over rubbed like raw heartbreak.

I kept asking myself, “What will really make power budge? What will effect impactful change?” It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself, and my friends, and my teachers, and all those who are smarter and have lived fuller lives than me, for over twenty years.

In my teens and early twenties I had enough of an ego to think that by sheer force of will I could help change the world. I desperately wanted to see a world free of racism, sexism and homophobia, that had shaken off the vestiges of colonialism and imperialism. I still do. Of course I didn’t understand how long change takes, that it’s incremental and part of thousands of small steps. I also didn’t understand how reactionary and fearful those in power (even after I read all those post-colonial studies texts in college) can be and how they will hold on to what little power they have for as long as they can.

Twilight at azule

I was weighed down by my own hopelessness and found that I was practicing hopelessness as a defense against more heartbreak and disappointment. I thought that being hopeless would protect me, not realizing I had the luxury to be hopeless because it gave me a reason to hide behind my privilege as a white, upper middle class person.

And then I read this line, “Activism isn’t reliable. It isn’t fast. It isn’t direct either, most of the time, even though the term direct action is used for that confrontation in the streets, those encounters involving law breaking and civil disobedience.” Oh. Right.

Mountain view

These words were in “Hope in the Dark,” Rebecca Solnit’s book from 2005 (re-released this year). She goes on to make the case for hope as a more radical act than despair to read while I was on a solo trip in the California desert this winter. I didn’t get to it then. I finally started to read in August during a week-long artist’s residency held deep in the mountains of North Carolina. On the suggestion of my friend Elisa I signed up for the CAMP residency, a week long collaborative art and community-oriented project designed for artists who need time, space and to be around those of different disciplines and ideas to create their work.

Azule

This year CAMP was held at Azule, an incredible house designed by a visionary artist named Camille who imagined it as a healing, creative space, with a strong under current of social justice. It was exactly what I needed. After so much heaviness and stress having the time to re-find my own creative focus felt liberating. I spent the week writing, debating, thinking, dying cotton indigo and casting my fingers in plaster, hiking a section of the Appalachian trail, and scrambling barefoot down a steep muddy bank to a swimming hole, eating together meals prepared with local ingredients and a lot of panache and love. And reading.

Indigo dye

I usually read nonfiction with a pencil so I can underline the really good passages, but I failed to keep a pencil with me as I wandered around Azul picking corners on the deck or sagging arm chairs in the living room to flop down and read, so I just dogeared pages with passages that stood out to me.

But I actually set down my book and went in search of a pencil to underline this one, “Writing is lonely, it’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with the readers who may never come to be and who even if they read you will do so weeks, years, decades later. An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you’re gone and never reach your ears, if anyone hears you in the first place.”

Swimmin hole

Solnit illustrates, though her heady mix of history, personal story, and political analysis, that to have hope is a radical act. To keep to a far-sighted vision for change and have the audacity to believe it can happen can take decades or centuries. Or it can take a month, but when when change arrives, radical struggles to achieve it are mostly erased and those in power act like it has always been such. “Thought becomes action becomes the order of things, but no straight road takes you there.”

Trails

As I read I thought about how much the world has changed in the decade since she originally wrote this book (Obama had barely started his Presidential campaign, gay marriage was not legal just being two huge examples) and I started to think about activism and my role in social justice differently. I started to despair less. However, change does feel incremental and slow when injustices like police violence against communities of color and constant sexual violence against women and queer people are right there and so blatant.

I started to realize the power of being around art and artists, those who are critical and make work to disrupt the status quo, the power of being in a place explicitly created to foster discussion, possibility, community and change – in short, hope. I spent so much of my twenties proclaiming “Art is activism!” and trying to use art as a lens for transformation that I lost my own personal connection to it. It getting closer to art, in delving into my own practice and others, I started to connect with the idea of hope, and activism, again.

Eating dinner together

Having hope does not mean that injustice does not make me angry and reconnecting to my activist flame (as opposed to the very critical but very cynical attitude I have carried around lately) does not erase my privilege. In my rage I ask, how do we not give into exhaustion and despair and instead support each other knowing the struggle for justice is long, knowing that we will be discredited by mainstream power, but knowing that is is worth it for a more equitable world? How do we think productively about power and privilege and how we occupy them and act as allies to each other? These questions are rhetorical -we make our lives and a better world by the connections we build with each other while we explore them. We make our lives in trying out different answers. We make our lives knowing we have to be in this together and it’s up to us to figure out how things can be different.

Walking path

Solnit as a writer is always there to guide and remind me. In her words, “Resistance is usually portrayed as duty, but it can be a pleasure, an education, a revelation.”

All Things Glorious and True

Lunchtime creative inspiration / life guidance from @katasharya

“At some point in life you make a decision to be a verb instead of an adjective, and you run with it – especially when you realize what it is you are running towards and not away from. It doesn’t mean you lose your poetic nature, your fanciful imagination or your freedom, but does mean you’re all systems go and anti-autopilot.” – From All Things Glorious and True by Kat Asharya

Back in January I wrote on this blog about aching to boldly “change my life” in 2013 and getting down to the brass tacks to be able to do so by breaking down what I wanted to achieve by setting S.M.A.R.T. goals.

While I was in Chicago as part of my book tour to promote my new book Grow my zine-pal turned writer-pal Kat Asharya handed me her new book, All Things Glorious and True. Sometimes you find the handbook to your life, or the life you are trying to create, when you least expect it. As I read it in sections, and sometimes from back to front, while I was on the road it became exactly that.  The writing is drawn from a now-defunct blog Kat kept for nearly a decade called NOGOODFORME that chronicled her fashion, pop culture, music, film and personal obsessions and transformations.  The book, however, is so much more than a series of selected and edited blog entries.

Reading All Things Glorious and True made me stop to think about this personal transformation I am pushing through my life right now. Every month I meet up with my friend T. and we talk about our goals for the yar and the progress we are making towards them. Every month I’ve found that my goals have shifted slightly, that I have reached a more nuanced understanding of where I am at and where I want to go, and steps I can take to get there.

Kat approached her life transformations in San Francisco, New York City and now in Illinois with panache, open hearted bravery, and the perfect jeans, boots, and leather jacket. Reading her book reminded me that I can and do find strength and guidance in film, the music I love and the clothes that I wear. More importantly, however, it reminded me that when you have a goal to “change your life” the best you can do is to open yourself up wider than you thought possible, to let in courage you didn’t know you had, and to let your heart above all things guide you.  This is extremely difficult for me who, as a Gemini, would rather think about it, write about it, talk about it, and implement it, than actually feel the emotions brought on by those changes (Kat also breaks down Gemini’s personalities very nicely in her Astro Cinema feature where she recommends perfect movies for different astrological signs).

Modeling my Dad's 1956 Langlitz Leathers motorcycle jacket... Now mine!

Modeling my Dad’s 1956 Langlitz Leathers motorcycle jacket… Now mine!

So where am I on my goals? So far 2013 has been a megapacked year. I’ve visited 22 states so far (and counting) to launch and promote Grow. I have gotten a handle on my personal finances – bye bye compulsive shopping and credit card debt! Hello savings account! – but I’m also seeing that changing my life isn’t just about setting goals and timelines. It’s about incremental change. Paying attention to a gut feeling. Having a conversation. Reflecting. And readjusting accordingly. Sometimes I want life to change as boldly and quickly as dying my hair red or taking a weekend trip to Los Angeles, picking out the perfect record, or donning a killer leather jacket (I inherited one this year from my Dad!) but I’m finding that for me, life transformation doesn’t work like that.

Because I’m looking at a total overhaul that prioritizes happiness, health, fulfillment and creativity, I’m finding I need to look intensely inward so I can really understand where I want those goals I set to lead me. Kat’s book shows that the objects, images, ideas, sounds and fashions we hold dear and the meanings we give them can act as powerful guideposts and reminders to support us and help us on our journeys.

Here’s to a transformative second half of 2013! I’ll let you know in December what became of my goals and where they have taken me.

Blogs a la mode

Rock'N'Girl by Stephanie Rousseau, Byglam.fr. Used with permission.

Et hop, mes amies, c’est la rentrée! It’s the time of year when we hunker down, get back to work, and put our flip flops and bathing suits away until next season. It’s not all sad though, because la rentrée also brings cooler weather, crisp days, new fashions, and renewed energy for all of our projects. In that spirit, I wanted to share with you some of my favorite blogs that are sure to provide you with some good fashion tips for fall styles (and all year round) as well as reflections on summer travels, crafts, art and life in general. These are not all the blogs I read, bien sûr que non, but the ones I find myself returning to the most often. As a note, many of these blogs are in French, but they also offer you the option to read in English. Bonne lecture, mes amies!

By Glam  Stephanie is a talented illustrator (she did the drawing that opened this post) and has incredible taste in clothes, shoes and make up. She is perfectly glamorous while understanding that she, and most of her readers, have a budget to respect. Stephanie also documents her travels around Paris, its small streets, shop windows, and sunsets and provides fantastic fashion, design and pop culture commentary.

Cachemire et Soie  Anne-So’s writing reminds of some of the best personal zines I used to read. Lyrical, emotional-yet-spare reflections on travels near and far and some of the quieter moments that make up the fabric of our lives. She takes beautiful photos and a keen eye for detail, plus a great eye for style.

Garance Doré  One of the best known French fashion blogs from a globetrotting photographer and illustrator now living in New York. I love this blog for its street style, inside look at the fashion world, and Garance’s personal reflections.

Dandy Prof  Fashionable life on the tenure track from a newly minted professor negotiating queer sensibilities, sociology and gender studies while wearing a skirt and tie. The Dandy Prof was also my style consultant for many years and prevented me from exiting the apartment looking *too* crazy. I’m really sad she doesn’t live in NYC anymore and I can’t borrow her clothes.

Jesse Anne O Another south Brooklyner who loves thrift stores, vegan cooking and fashion, handmade and vintage clothes. Like me, she shares a riot grrrl past!

Fashion is a Playground  Dreamy photos of a very stylish lady in Parisian and greater-France landscapes, with some travels further afield.

No Good for Me  A fashion mix tape that indulges fashion, beauty, music and pop culture as guilty and necessary pleasures. Also powered by former zinesters!

The Dandy Prof shows off casual academic style

Here are some of my other top blog picks (in no particular order):

Eleonore Bridge

The Cherry Blossom Girl

Deedee

Punky B The Fashion Diary

Play It Like a Girl

Lili Brunette

Slanelle Style

Stop By the Corner

Coco Cerise

Verte Cerise

Kriss

Le Blog de Betty

Fashion for Writers

Money Smart Fashion

What are the blogs you like to look at for fashion and lifestyle inspiration?

The Art of the Novella

Lunchtime literary shopping

Chock it up to good marketing. Before I even knew about the independent publisher Melville House I admired my friend SG’s “I would prefer not to” tote bag. Black, white, literary, emblazoned with the iconic line from Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener. When I started working in DUMBO, Brooklyn I rounded the corner of my building and saw those same totes hanging in the window of a light, airy bookstore. Intrigued, I went in.

Melville House puts out a range of books that are necessary, even if major publishers don’t think that they are. They publish books in translation that are best sellers in other countries, but that most Americans have never heard of.  They publish cultural criticism that’s too political for major publishers. The tote bag advertises a series called the “Art of the Novella,” which strives to bring attention to this often neglected and maligned form of literature.

This August a reader and novella fan proposed a challenge: he would try to read all 42 books in Art of the Novella series in August. In another smart marketing move Melville House invited other readers to do the same (I believe three novellas was the minimum for participation) and to tweet and blog about it.

Excited to participate I walked around the corner from work and picked up some attractive little volumes, all nicely bound with a solid color on the front in matte stock (the contemporary novellas have glossy stock) and nice “french folds” on the inside. You feel classy just carrying one in your bag! I also liked the project because it gave me a chance to try out some classic authors that I’ve heard about, and should have read, but have some how managed to avoid over the course of my reading history. I pictured myself stretched out on the beach, reading a novella, and being literary. Of course, it didn’t work out this way and I had a very busy August with less reading than planned.

August reading #artofthenovella

Here’s what I did read:

A Simple Heart Gustave Flaubert—the story of a simple country maid in search of love who finds companionship (and religious obsession) in a parrot. It’s seen as an early example of Flaubert’s realism. I thought it both empathized with and created a caricature of the hardworking, but ignorant because of her circumstances, rural peasant. Its commentary on the class divide in 19th century France is clear. I understand how ground breaking it may have been on the time to feature such “common people” in literature, but it does come off as a little trite.

The Lemoine Affair Marcel Proust—this novella was originally published serially in a newspaper and the last few sections were published posthumously. In it Proust immitates the styles of different prominent French writers to descibe the political innerworkings, intrigue and fallout caused by a minor scandal where a merchant claimed he could make diamonds out of coal. I suppose if I knew 19th century French literature better I would have found it more amusing.

The Lifted Veil George Eliot—My favorite of the classics that I picked. While I think Eliot’s characterizing the main woman character as shallow and heartless behind an intriguing exterior is a little tired, I like the psychological nature of this story. It really kept me on eggshells and I think it was the only one of my classic selections where I wanted to keep reading to the end, instead of just being motivated to finish because the novella was, well, short.

Lucinella Lore Segal—I don’t know if I was cheating with this one because it’s from the Contemporary Art of the Novella series, but this was by far my favorite. Released in the 1970’s this slim volume lampoons the New York literary scene (and the artist colony Yaddo) with rollicking wit. It is told by a poet and social climber, who may also be talented and is certainly obsessive in the way writers can be, Lucinella.  The tone and voice of this novella reminds me a lot of one of my other favorite narrators: Sally J. Gorce in The Dud Avocado. It also is a reminder of how difficult it was, and remains, to be a sassy, weirdo woman artist or writer in the 60’s and 70’s. And 80’s, and 90’s and today. The book takes a turn towards the weirdly sublime in the end, which would not be how I would write the ending, but I stayed along for the ride and it was fun.

So what’s my takeaway from my month of reading not as many novellas as planned? Mostly that my reading tastes are thoroughly rooted in the “modern” and “post-modern”—basically 1920 and forward. There are plenty of novellas from Melville House’s series in this category, such as The Awakening, Jacob’s Room, and Country of the Pointed Firs (lovely book about Maine!), but I’d already read them! This is not a hard and fast rule, but generally the pre-modern literature (which laid the ground work, I know, I know) of the 19th century feels so stuffy to me, and so staid compared with what came next. It’s kind of like comparing the Barbizon school with Cubism in art history, you know? Oh, did I just loose half my readership with that pretentious reference? Dude, whatever, reading is cool and I can’t wait to check out Melville House’s other releases! And bro, hey, I got a rad tote bag.

My review of Gary Indiana’s “Last Seen Entering the Biltmore” on NYFA Current!

Gary Indiana

There was a New York City that I dreamed of when I was growing up. It was a mixture of Greenwich Village during the Beatnik era and the Lower East Side of the 1980’s. It was full of punks, dreamers,  activists and artists. The dangers that might have been lurking there were more aesthetic than real. Poverty and hunger were stylish accouterments. All who were there possessed the ability to transform the urban environment. While obviously this political, arty urban paradise existed only in my imagination some lived it in all its gritty, dangerous, complicated, hungry reality. Patty Smith lucidly captures it in her recent book Just Kids.  Gary Indiana’s new compilation out from MIT Press, Last Seen Entering the Biltmore, collects his poems, prose, short plays and works of art from the late 70’s to the present, chronicling through his artistic production his time in this environment after he made the decision to “not to do anything he didn’t want to do” and to become a writer. Last Seen Entering the Biltmore captures Indiana’s sense of absurd and also his strong artistic integrity. I wrote a full review for NYFA’s online magazine for artists, NYFA Current, and would be honored if you checked it out here.

Summer Reading: The Night Watch

The Night Watch The Night Watch by Sarah Waters


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found this on the remainder table at St. Marks Books and picked up because I am always searching for a good novel. I know it’s a piece of period fiction, but I really enjoyed this book. I think Sarah Waters captures the mood and atmosphere of London during the Blitz and right after WWII really well. Her characters are engaging and intriguing and I am still thinking about them after finishing the book. Usually I find books that go backwards in time frustrating, but it works for this novel (which starts in 1948 and finishes in 1941) because it turns the reader into a detective, assembling clues about the characters past and leading to some “ah ha!” moments. This is a great read while traveling, and I just happened to be in London while I read it.

View all my reviews.

Unexpected Paris

I’ve been reading a book about travel writing and one thing that the author stresses that is important for travel writers is to be open to the unexpected and be willing to investigate. I felt this advice boded well for me when, thinking I would write some cute piece on “romantic Paris,” I tried to go to the Musee de la Vie Romantique, but it was closed during the installation of their new exhibition. However, I found something even better on the Rue Chaptal, near the museum. There was a small impasse coming off the street and I noticed the sign said “Bibliotheque.” Noting there was a garden, I decided to go in, because I love the gardens and courtyards in Paris hidden behind outer, street facing walls. I was not disappointed in the least. This, comfortable, renovated library with futuristic looking chairs, computers and newspapers available for browsing is snugly located in an 18th century hotel particular. They’ve kept the details like the fireplace, frescoed ceiling and moldings intact, and reading Le Monde in such a salon-like setting felt like a truly unique Paris experiences.