Friday, July 30, 2010

Me and the ocean

Catching a ride down on an ATV

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”
--Carl Jung

I’m sitting at my desk, at 12:44 in the morning, listening to the Bravery. The crickets are singing outside, just loud enough to echo the beat of my song. I’m really tired. I spent all day wandering around one of the pieces of land I’ve been looking at for the last several months, praying that I wasn’t finding any poison ivy.

I dragged two friends up there to help me decide if I can deal with the access issues that exist for that piece. It’s a gorgeous spot, but I can’t drive to it. My knee is skinned right now because I fell on the walk back down. The access problems make it remote, in a way that’s delicious to contemplate, but I’m not sure it’s going to be so wonderful if I’m living there.

So we had a picnic at the home site, and talked about Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way. I’ve never mentioned her book out loud here, but she’s been an influence on my thought for years. I first discovered her thanks to a friend in my book group in Chicago, but was always skeptical. How can an artist tell me how to be an artist? How can there be an artist’s “way”? Isn’t that just more of that self-help bull?

And it is. But maybe self-help isn’t such bull after all. More and more I’ve been realizing the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the psychological technique developed in the twentieth century that’s been shown, empirically, to actually work. In one of my early journal entries,where I was struggling to take Cameron seriously, I compared her techniques to those used by Iraq war veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The cognitive-behavioral techniques used by the veterans were twofold. The first were “pen-and-paper” exercises, which parallel the stream-of-consciousness writing Cameron asks her artists to do. The second were exposure techniques, where soldiers are asked to revisit the places—crowded movie theaters, busy malls, highway overpasses--that recall for them the most stressful moments from the war.

The parallel exercise that Cameron recommends for her artists is a two-hour weekly appointment for contact with culture and nature and the self, in solitude. She says, in this task, “you are receiving—opening yourself to insight, inspiration, guidance… [Time is] especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness.” I find it almost impossible. I can spend two hours watching television and not have a second thought, but to actually take two hours for myself feels profligate and sinful.

For a while I was attending the Independent Film series at a movie theater downtown, and even that was brutal. Going to movies alone is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Sitting in the silent dark while credits roll gives me a thrill that reminds me of when I was a child, of that feeling when the whole world was open to me, when everything I had yet to experience was part of the creative unknown. But every week would roll around and I’d convince myself not to go. It costs too much in gas, I’d say. The movie this week sounds awful. I have to do the dishes.

She says: “If you think this sounds stupid or that you will never be able to afford the time, identify that reaction as resistance. You cannot afford not to find time.”

She’s right. More and more I’ve been realizing that we don’t give ourselves permission to do the things that we allow children to do. Why are we so easy on them, and so hard on ourselves? If what we love to do is eat ice-cream sundaes, drive through farmland, camp in the backyard—why can’t we do that for ourselves, instead of waiting to be given permission to do it for someone else?

The other day, on a walk, I passed one of my neighbors, a grandmother crouched beside her sprinkler. She said, ashamed, “I’m not allowed to play in the sprinkler unless my grandson’s here. What will everyone think?” She had to pretend there was something wrong with the sprinkler, that she didn’t know how it worked, so she could crouch beside it and play in the water. Grandmothers aren’t allowed to play in sprinklers.

But they are. We all have a friend who lets herself do the things that we don't give permission to ourselves to do, and you know what? We’re envious. Why can’t we let ourselves do those things? What God wants for us is joy. So why do I feel so much guilt for finding it?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is the club down the street?

Garden is not doing that great this year. A lot of cucumbers, not much else.

Today I encountered this quote, in Harper’s:
“The 750-word weekly film review is a form of journalism. Gathered together, short pieces written over a period of months and years become a chronicle of an individual sensibility.… Read as a book, [a collection of reviews] documents the writer’s attempt to puzzle out the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events.”
It's from an article that analyzes the collected columns of two critics, Manny Farber and James Agee. The article continues by saying if their work “is literature, it’s literature of a particular kind—filled with political asides, topical jokes, and references to fleeting sensations: a cultural stream of consciousness.”

I thought to myself—hey, that’s what I’m doing. Except for the film review part. Although sometimes I do that, too. For those who do what I do, write in the public sphere of the digital age, there always arises a larger question. What exactly am I doing here? What’s the point? It’s the nature of the genre.

It’s nice to know that I have ancestors, and knowing what their role was in the early twentieth century is illustrative. Agee and Farber were writing columns for a weekly magazine, columns that tracked not only the path of American culture, but also their individual thought. Back in the olden days, when everyone read words on paper. That old-fashioned stuff? They make it from trees? Anyway.

Every so often journalism and literature have massive revolutions. The invention of paper was one, the invention of the book another. The burning of the Alexandria library was probably another, when all of the monks hid themselves away to protect books from forces seeking to destroy them. Then there was Gutenberg and his printing press, when the whole thing blew wide open.

Our era is similar to seventeenth-century Europe, when not just books but also disposable magazines and newspapers began to be printed. That’s when pamphleteers—crazy, reckless souls--took it upon themselves to write their ideas down and publish them all by themselves. Dan Bricklin describes them as “booklets consisting of a few printer's sheets, folded in various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages, and sold--the pages stitched together loosely, unbound and uncovered--usually for a shilling or two.”

At each stage of that evolution, it must have felt like words had lost all of their value. When movable type was invented, the amount of pages a person could produce a day multiplied by 1000 times. By some accounts, thousands of pamphleteers were published in London during the heyday of what gave newspapers the nickname “rags.” Pamphlets were little but ‘zines from the eighties. Copied and sold on street corners.

What happened to all the rags? They distinguished themselves. They calcified into the institutions we know today as the Times of London, the Guardian, the New York Post. It’s exactly the same thing that’s happening now. All of us are writing little newspapers on our own, with no division between our computers and our audience.

In some ways, it’s perfect. I can read about whatever I want. If the kind of news I care about is how to raise chickens in Alabama, I can read about that. If I care about buying and cooking squash blossoms in Brooklyn, I can read about that. If I care about what Lindsay Lohan is wearing in jail, I can read about that. But we no longer have any arbiters for our news. We are our own arbiters.

We can argue all day about whether it’s good or bad to have information fed to us by people in control. We can talk, more significantly, about how any of the new writers are going to make a living. But at some point, the blogosphere will also calcify, will become its own institution. The new arbiters will reveal themselves.

My only point is that I’m doing exactly the same thing as Agee and Farber. I’m writing a chronicle not only of my culture but also of my individual sensibility. If I’m lucky, and brave, then what I write could also end up as literature of a particular kind. A cultural stream of consciousness as literature. And I’m okay with that.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Just like a faucet that leaks

Foot shot
Sunset in Wisconsin

It’s another one of those days when I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. Why am I crafting my day into words, explaining to strangers how I occupied my time? I’m grateful for this place, the space that I’ve carve out for myself to create, but I don’t feel like I deserve it. I still feel like a vampire, living off other people’s good graces, their gifts, their leavings.

I am truly grateful for the thing that have been given to me, and I try to accept them in the spirit in which they’re offered, but the nagging voice at the back of my head says: when are you going to start pulling your own weight? Earning your own living? When are you going to give up on these juvenile dreams? When are you going to get a real job? When are you going to come of age?

The whole time I was in California, I drove around in other people’s cars, rather than bothering to rent one myself. I spent more on hotel rooms than anything, but even then I spent most of the time being the guest of others, availing myself of hospitality rather than paying my own way. I drove cross-country with my brother partly as a fun adventure, but mainly as a cost-saving tool—that way I could add wear and tear to his vehicle, not mine, and piggy-back on the fossil fuels he was already burning. Even the hiking trip was just a way to avoid paying for another week of lodging.

Maybe it’s being back here, my adventure for the summer mainly over, and realizing that I still don’t have a place of my own. The land decision hangs over my head. As the stock market dwindles, so does the cash I have to plunk down on acreage. I want a home, but at this point it just feels like another abstract goal to mark down on a list.

The real business of researching, contacting realtors, calling about listings, driving around country roads to find another disappointing piece of dirt, and then starting from scratch again is exhausting and heart-breaking. Worse yet, it takes time away from the writing work that I have put at the top of my list. But can I write with a good conscience until I have a carved out my own space in the world? And how can I carve out my own space until I stop doubting myself, and forge ahead, doing what I believe in?

My California host has a son, a 24-year-old jazz drummer living in New York City, an excellent career choice which I endorse heartily. His story did make me take a step back and wonder to myself which career path is harder: aspiring writer, or aspiring Brooklyn musician? Maybe I should put fashion model, movie star, and astronaut on that list, too. I’d never question the dreams of anyone else. I want my nieces to be able to pursue any ambition they have. But when it’s me, by myself, bashing my head again and again against these same doubts, these same obstacles, it’s tough to not throw it all to the wind.

Here's a link to his band's music: Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. Go help an artist out and spend some cash.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

But I won’t be sticking around


The worst part about the poison oak debacle has been how it’s kept me from the bare skin of summer. Actually, that’s not the worst part at all, but it has been one bad part. I’ve been wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts everywhere, even to yoga class, in 95-degree weather. At least I’m now healed enough to show my arms in public.

I’m one of those people who can’t manage to convince herself that there’s anything wrong with the sun. I know that everyone says it’s bad, it’ll give me cancer, but I don’t believe them. Or I don’t care. I love every inch of it I can get. I want to be in the sun all day, every day. July is my favorite time of year. Every minute of July is a heartbeat of joy. I wish it was July all year.

One of the things I inherited when I came to Chattanooga was a beat-up 1993 convertible in place of my sturdy Maine Subaru. It doesn’t have air conditioning, which is fine by me. Who needs air conditioning when you can take off your roof? So I’m driving back from downtown today, caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the black interior of my little car, the top down, semis roaring on either side, the sun beating down, the humidity oozing, the water in my bottle the temperature of tea… All of the people around me probably pitied me, thinking about how much of a bug under a magnifying glass I am.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking: I am so happy. This is perfect.

All I need is sun, I guess. Vast quantities of it. So I hope my skin heals soon so I can expose vast quantities of it to the sun again. I have December to spend worrying about cancer.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Don’t be sad when it’s time to say good night


As you may know, if anyone has been following along since I left California, I have encountered a fair share of bad luck, thus assembling a backlog of posts and photographs and energy. I may be back to almost normal now, after a week of prednisone. I did fork over the forty bucks for my pictures, thanks to the financial assistance of some kind familial members. I just couldn’t lose them, and it is nice to know that my family believes in me a bit. At $40 for 200 pictures, that’s twenty cents a piece. Would I have taken fewer pictures or more if I had known?

My steroids have been giving me lots of energy, hence my mass quantities of posts and photograph uploads in the last however many days. I also stayed up until four o’clock in the morning yesterday, finally compiling the first draft of the first five chapters of my novel, a goal I’ve had since January. It may not seem that important, but it was a huge thing for me. I’m considering making it a real goal to finish an entire first draft by the end of summer.

The clinic was an interesting experience, a brush with what works and what doesn’t work with health care in our country. I may have mentioned before how my sister’s public health class studied TennCare (Medicaid in Tennessee) as a case study of everything that’s wrong with our medical system. As someone living well below the poverty level, I applied earlier this year for TennCare and was turned down. The reason being? I’m not pregnant. So if I go down to the corner bar and get knocked up, I get health insurance, but if I make responsible birth-control choices, I don't? How does that make any kind of sense?

I spent about five hours over the course of two days in the waiting room, being shuffled from one nurse to the other. My fellow patients were mainly Chicano families and single, teenaged moms—there for pre- and post-natal visits and breastfeeding classes and check-ups and vitamins. I brought the book that I’ve been reading: David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, and I felt vague guilt about whipping it out. I was the only person reading anything in the waiting room, and it made me feel this odd cognitive disconnect. How is it right for me to have spent all of these financial resources on an expensive Christian education, only to avail myself of services destined for the less privileged? Is it wrong for me to feel guilt about using them? How legitimate are my goals, if they leave me floating at the lowest of income levels?

That being said, the County Department of Health did a great job. They couldn’t get me a visit with a doctor, but found a way for me to sneak in under their female wellness program, which gave the nurse practitioner an opportunity to prescribe generic drugs. And now I’m almost better! So the system worked, and worked well, and I am able to pay the fair price asked. It ended up being exactly what I needed when I needed it: access to an educated caregiver and to drugs, at a cost that made sense.

If I had a full-time job and benefits, access to the same level of care would have cost hundreds of dollars. How is that rational? All I needed was a simple consultation and prescription, not countless tests and follow-up visits and reams of staff paid $30 an hour with millions of dollars of malpractice insurance. There has to be a way to figure out how to pay for what we actually get, and not to keep paying into this nebulous system that perpetuates itself without creating anything of real value, not even true health.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

And when I go, don’t you follow

Lake by the ocean

My poison oak itchiness is becoming unbearable. I’m using every pharmaceutical product I can get my hands on: benadryl and caladryl and Ivy-dry and Tecnu and a steroid cream from a previous prescription and hydrocortisone and showers as hot as I can make them switching to as cold as I can make them. Tomorrow morning my goal is to wake up before seven in the morning so I can call and make an appointment with the local county clinic as early as possible. I'm trying not to anticipate the questions, like: what, exactly, were you doing when you spread poison all over your belly and inner thighs and sensitive areas?

The thing is: I was doing nothing. According to the internet, I must have a Class Four Hyperallergy, because that’s my only logical explanation. Unless I peed on the stuff, it must have brushed my clothes and shoes and socks, and spread that way all over everything. I can’t imagine what I would look like if I had actually done anything illicit in a patch of the stuff. I’d be dead now, almost certainly.

I’m back in Chattanooga now, at least, after suffering through the plane flight with massive amounts of Tylenol PM, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pants in the 95-degree weather to shield my helpless limbs from the eyes of onlookers. It’s almost impossible to focus on anything when I’m fending off scratching myself bloody. One part of my brain is always focused on not scratching. Actually, about three parts of my brain.

At least being back here where I’m a formal resident means that I have access to things like the County Department of Health, even if it does put me in the province of the illegal immigrant, which is basically where I rank in the hierarchy of health insurance. I’m praying to God that they’ll give me prednisone, the only thing I know that will give me relief. Yet another brush with the darker side of health care in this country, or more specifically, my choices that always seem to put me into the nether-regions of our system. I’m too distracted to develop any kind of argument, but it does seem wrong to me that this is how we condemn those attempting to live as artists.

Friday, July 09, 2010

No, I’m going down

The boys in Boston

Trying to hold the buildings up

Climbing up the Balance Climb sculpture at the Children's Museum

Afraid to go too close to the edge?

A smile, finally!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Shine on you crazy diamond

California horse trough

My choices have come back to haunt me. What was it that Jean-Paul Sartre said about the hardest part of life not being that we have too few choices, but that we have too many? It’s crazy. At my job, one of the things I do is make people new id cards. I always ask them one simple question—if they want a lanyard or not.

Nine times out of ten, people can’t even make that simple choice, and I never let them off the hook. I make them choose. It just seems so clear to me, as they hem and haw, that most of the time people don’t have any idea what they want. They don’t know how to make a decision even when they’re forced to.

The existentialists believe that our choices are literally infinite. That we can do anything we want to, anything in the universe, at any moment. What makes our lives so brutish is that we’re consistently the ones who limit ourselves. We constrain our lives with structure and routine so that we’re not forced to see that we could re-carpet our entire house on a whim, or drive down to a bar tonight and drink liquor until we fall over, or change our locks and kick our roommate to the curb.

We can do anything we want, whenever we want. It’s just too hard to deal with.

So my choices. This summer has been about doing the things that I want, but these decisions have consequences. For instance: my body now festering with poison oak blisters. I chose to hike, I chose to wander around parts of the National Seashore that were overgrown and wild, and now I’m dealing with the results of that choice.

For instance: my choice to live in Chattanooga instead of Marion. It’s hard now that I’m back up here, and I realize all of the time that has passed, the children that have grown up without me in their lives, the relationships that have been left drifting, like threads in the wind.

The thing is that our choices are all we have. At the end of my life, all I’ll have is the choices that I made. I have a really hard time believing in change, that change is possible for me, for anyone in my life, for anyone at all, really. But change is just small choices, adding up over time—small, daily choices to do something different. Something big, or something small.

“I can change, I swear,” Dylan said. His saddest line, in my opinion. How often do we believe our lovers can change? How often do we believe we can change?

Overblown ramblings of someone itching within an inch of her life. I don’t regret my choice to hike, or to wander. But it was a choice. And now I have to spend the rest of the month dealing with it.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Independence Day

Holy mother of God, is that poison oak right there? How could I not have seen it? What the hell was I thinking? Beautiful picture, though. Was it worth it? No.

At the dining room table today, after spending all night last night on the red-eye from California back to Marion, Massachusetts. Someone’s snoring loudly in the next room, and behind that is the noise of the television, back on after I’ve had a wee break from it, some talk show making fun of a size-twenty woman who smothers people for a living. I hate it. Back into the world of female objectification and life by proxy.

Anthony Bourdain was my choice earlier in the day, and maybe I just succumbed to the lure of cable because of the three hours of sleep I had last night. Even those Travel Channel shows with their excellent writing drive me crazy, though. The shots of the Caribbean? I want to be there, on Secret. Jamaica? I want to be the one buying jerk chicken from a guy on the street corner. I don’t like living vicariously through other people. It’s such a contrast from the actual living I’ve spent the last week doing.

I also need to get my hands on some antihistamine, and stat. I have poison oak pus oozing through my jeans. Awesome, right? When I was dodging all of the poky plants in California, I neglected to remember the other ways that coastal plants have of attacking. Actually, I didn’t forget about the noxious poison oak at all. I remembered very, very clearly from the debacle of the bicycle trip along the coast in 2005. I kept my eyes wide open for it at all times. I even did extensive research before I left, to remind myself of what it looked like. But still, somehow, I must have forgotten, because I am vastly in need of prednisone.

On the plus side, I had a great Fourth, despite my exhaustion, sleeplessness, and uncontrollable itch. My ticket back here was extremely cheap—if you’re looking to fly to California, try the red-eye on a national holiday—and I was able to spend the day in the sun and at a friend’s vast barbecue, complete with mini-sliders, crab puffs, and a giant pallet bonfire. I haven’t been back up to Marion for more than a year, and it’s great to see everyone here, to remember the things that are amazing about New England, things like lobster bisque and authentic chowder made from real quahogs and swimming in the Atlantic in July. Not to mention the land-purchase options.

I have an option up here, potentially, for a free house in Calais, Maine. It’s an old house, from the 1800s, in need of repair, but along the coast. It belongs to a friend of a friend that doesn’t want to pay taxes anymore, and houses in similar condition go for only $10,000 anyway, but on this one I’d only need to pay the closing costs. My main point of doubt is: winter. Can I deal with it again? Is all the seafood and the ocean worth it? I can’t decide.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Better run, run, run, run, run to me

Unnamed field to Sky Camp, California
7.2 miles

Bark of eucalyptus

All I wanted to do all along as I hiked on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails was sit down in the middle of the woods and write, and on this trip I am able to, because I’m hiking less than eight miles a day. It feels so astonishingly easy, like I have all the time in the world to dawdle, to take off my shoes and lounge around streams. Part of me wants to hike twenty miles a day, to keep pushing through, just because of the endorphins, because pushing myself harder makes me feel like what I’m doing is real and will go on forever.

I’m sick and tired of having my emotions tied to things that don’t matter. Things like my photographs. I did get picked up by my dad on Wednesday and spent the day with my family, even going horseback riding with Sophia and then back to the house my parents rented for showers and an amazing lunch of barbecued pork chops and baked potatoes. Definitely helping with my calorie deficit. I also tried to upload my posts and photographs there, and discovered that they had all, every last one, been deleted. I’ve been taking a ton of pictures over the last week, including ones of the wedding, and it felt like a devastating emotional blow.

I know that they’re just pictures, and it shouldn’t matter, but it does. My family was compassionate, but I don’t think they could understand how I felt. The only solution is just to be happier, but it feels like any creative impulse I manage to cherish gets destroyed. I eventually found a piece of software that can recover them, but it costs $40. Are my pictures worth that? Is my creativity?

I’m scraping the bottom of my bank account as it is for this little adventure, taking two months away from my paycheck for the sake of some freedom this summer. It’s hard for me to trust myself when I have such a hard time spending money on the things that are important to me, when I can’t even value financially the things that I know are vital to my survival as an artist. “She’s an artist,” Bob Dylan said. “She don’t look back.” But I can’t help looking over my shoulder.

My emotions, my work, my life are my own and belong to no one else. Only I can take control of them. That’s what makes it so crucial, so dangerous, so frightening. If I fail at what I most want, I have only myself to blame. And maybe defective technology. But even that I can blame on myself—my camera’s been acting up for more than a year now. But how can I take that money and spend it on myself, on these little things that don’t even seem important?

I want to be focusing on nature right now, not on my own confusion. The thing is: nature is a lot less sexy close up. Disgusting yellow slugs, oozing goo, fist-sized, were clustered around my watering hole this morning. Bugs and ticks and spiders and grass that looks beautiful but when I flop down on it fills my clothes and shoes and socks with spikes that dig into me for the rest of the day. Even the sun and the wind. The sun is hot, and the wind is relentless along the coast in the afternoons.

I don’t regret anything. I can’t. The reason I want to continue hiking, continue even thru-hiking, continue adventuring, is because of these challenges. It's like one of those stock-market charts. Ordinary life, the life when I’m wrestling with inanity, is static. The line on my chart hovers near zero. I’d rather have these excruciating, wrenching doubts, these turbulent emotions, these fears, this discomfort, because the highs are so very high. It’s so easy to forget that about the trail. I remember the times when I am able to float up near the stratosphere, and forget about the moments when my body is filled with so much pain that I can't take another step.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

My heart says follow through

Muddy Hollow Road to unnamed field, California
8.4 miles

Favorite moss picture ever