Sunday, January 29, 2012

In through a doorway

Secret, in mangroves

I feel like winter steals my creativity, my ability to think about new things in new ways. The landscape is as blank as a piece of paper, and that's how my mind feels. Or maybe it's just a lack of focus, an ability to carry an idea to completion, or the soreness in my joints from trying to trek through snow.

I also hate complaining about winter. Then again, I don't believe that I'm really complaining about it, more explaining my ongoing state of mind as I exist in suspended animation, of hibernation.

The picture above, of Secret in the mangroves, came this week. Maybe I feel like I'm as washed up as she is. Or maybe I just acknowledge that this is the time my body is the most in rebellion, the coldest.

I don't know. I'm dreaming, these days, about water, according to Jung a symbol of the subconscious. I dreamed I stood at the water’s edge. My mom had broken an acrobat’s fish tank, and fish and water spilled all around me. In another, I was washing the beautiful girl with water from the sink.

We cracked open another jar of our green-tomato salsa yesterday—two left. Many other jars of piccalilly and mincemeat, but they're not as delicious as the salsa. The three places where we attempted to store vegetables, in lieu of a root cellar, all destroyed the produce that I'd hoped to keep. The unheated front bedroom was still too hot, the broken freezer outside and the bus were both too cold. I roasted frozen cabbage the other day, and while it was edible, it certainly wasn't delicious.

These things depress me, more than they should. I'm working on a story about water, too. About a girl in boarding school, a missionary kid, a swimmer. I spent the last week carving 300 words off of it. A week's worth of work to delete 300 words.

It's almost February, though. And once February rolls around, it'll only be two months until April.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fire is burning me

More winter landscapes. Bored yet?

Sometimes, in winter, I am a wolf maiden. Not on days like today, a January melt, when the temperature zoomed up to 38 degrees and all of the icicles sank off the glass room. But when Shadow and I are roaming over the snow-scape, I can squint and imagine us hunting together 100 years ago, like some cliched truck-stop postcard. I started writing a story the other day about Little Red Riding Hood, not only because everyone seems to be revisiting old fairy tales, but also because those images—wolf, maiden, snow—are so iconic. Icon, as in those things the Russians worship.

I do not live alone, but there are evenings when I tend the fire by myself, when I'm responsible for keeping it lit. When I have to gauge the draft and the damp of the wood. On these nights, when I wander by my cold coiled light, and brushed steel computer, listening to Susana Baca sing, my dog coiled up behind me, and I feel like that. A winter woman and her wolf.

One Halloween, back in Chicago, I dressed up like a gypsy, full-on Mr. Rochester-style. I had all my scarves tied around my high-heeled boots, wrapped around my neck, in my hair. Black eyeshadow up to my eyebrows. I imagine, as she aged, the wolf maiden would have turned herself into something like that fortune-teller. I turn myself into her now. Draping my house with sari fabric and old Oriental rugs. Crocheting brown-striped afghans and consulting with my dog. One sees how the myth of the witch arrives.

But I'm just a girl living in the woods. Heating with wood. Trying not to let the winter drive her crazy. It comes close, some nights. Some nights it's between me and the winter—we're doing battle. It's the agon.

I'm drifting. Is it winter making me drift? I shore these things up against the cold: my daily walks with Shadow. Words. Music. Light and heat and fire.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

With ageless bodies


As far as I'm concerned everything I do here has an element of apology, self-justification. Why do I tap keys and then upload my words into a public journal? Why does anyone do anything? It's one of these questions that people who write for, say the New York Times, don't ask themselves. And why not? Because they have an editor?

I admit, editors are helpful. If I could afford one, I'd have one, too. I like to think of myself, though, as one of those eighteenth-century pamphleteers, blanketing the city of London with cheap reprints of their muck-raking journalism. That's a standard I can live up to.

Or the zines. I never read them—I wasn't cool enough—but I was cool enough to frequent the coffee shops where zines stacked, xerox-copied, by the cash register.

Which brings me, naturally, to plagiarism. Maybe not so naturally. But I've been thinking about Dylan's “Love & Theft,” and how I should really write it “'Love & Theft'”, because it's his only album that has the title itself listed in quotes on the album cover. Why? I have a theory, that I've been meaning to write an essay about for a decade now.

It's the theory that every word on that album, every line, even the title itself, is stolen. The title is taken from an academic treatise on burlesque shows in the nineteenth century. Just a rudimentary search on Google will alert you to how many times he was accused of plagiarism, for the songs from that album. Not from normal sources, either. From out-of-print Japanese novelists. From 60s-era Alcoholics Anonymous literature. From The Great Gatsby.

So what does it mean? Dylan steals words. Or does he? He appropriates words, unabashedly, makes them his own, but is that genuine theft? T.S. Eliot was the one who said: “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

I believe him. I don't plagiarize, but lately I've been stealing sentences, taking them apart, and replacing their nouns and verbs and adjectives with my own. For a writer, it's almost the equivalent of imitating a master's painting. If I break a sentence apart and learn what makes it tick, I can make a better sentence on my own the next time.

Of course, what Bob Dylan's doing goes beyond that. He steals the words, then sets them to music himself. It's like he's giving them that honor, and doing it without apology, as if to say: these words belong to everyone. You may have written them, but now they belong to everyone. They're as much mine as they are yours.

I guess my point is that when it comes to pamphleteers and zines and even the humble blogger among us, what matters less are any rules than creativity itself. Dylan thumbs his nose at auteur theory, instead saying: whatever I do, as long as it works, is right. He's ruthless when it comes to his own art. But I believe he's tells us to be like him. If he can do it, I can too. Be ruthless. Be unforgiving. Let nothing stand in your way.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Everything passes, everything changes

I root for the Baltimore Ravens because they're the only team named after a poet's progeny. Edgar Allan Poe's raven, who quoth nevermore, wore black tights, purple sateen, and flipped himself over in the end zone. It's unfair, I know. I shouldn't be allowed to like a team because they were created by a science-fiction writer who died of alcohol poisoning in a nineteenth-century Baltimore street.

It's the ultimate reward for any writer—a character's designation as the mascot for an entire region? Right? Or is the ultimate reward for a writer to change the way people think at a fundamental level? A la Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud?

I found a copy of Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch by Dai Sijie at the local bookstore for $1.98. The frozen north on the edge of nowhere is where unsuccessful fiction, even by previously bestselling novelists (for Balzac and His Little Chinese Seamstress) goes to be remaindered, but it's a boon to those of us trolling for contemporary novels in print. It's a beautiful hardback edition (making me question, more than ever, how in the world publishers are making a go of it) all about Freud and a Chinese devotee of his dream analysis. How could we have forgotten about Freud?

Darwin and Nietzsche both told us God was dead, at least as we understood him. [As did Galileo before them, but that's another post entirely.] Freud told us that sex was our new god. As it remains in our digital age.

One can argue that Poe, too, changed the face of literature. Changed the way we thought about the supernatural, and it's his heritage that gives us things like, still, Twilight. But having a football team—that's the clincher. Who else can say that? There's no New Bedford Moby Dicks. Or Athens Ulysses. To my knowledge.

Nietzsche said:
“Everyone knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together into a unity so strangely variegated an assortment as he is.”

“What is it that constrains the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself? ...With the great majority it is indolence, inertia.”

“Men are even lazier than they are timid, and fear most of all the inconveniences with which unconditional honesty and nakedness would burden them. Artists alone hate this sluggish promenading in borrowed fashions.”

“They dare to show us man as he is, uniquely himself to the very last movement of his muscles... Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself.”

So maybe that's why we like Poe better than Nietzsche. He's a lot easier to swallow. Especially in purple tights.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bridgewater, Maine

Sitting here at home, in front of the television. It's January, and television consumes too much of my time. I'm watching football tonight, New Orleans versus San Francisco. I'm rooting for Drew Brees and New Orleans, since he beat my Lions last week. But K.'s first cousin once-removed plays for San Francisco's defense, and it's a great game. I love football. I love baseball, and I have a fondness for both motorcycle racing and boxing. At times I wish I had chosen the career of sports writer.

My favorite essays in my early-ought New Yorker subscriptions were those of Roger Angell, their "senior august" sports writer, writing about baseball, primarily. He writes the narrative as a season progresses, which is what interests me about sport. That San Francisco has been a defensive team in a season dominated by offenses interests me.

But it's all a traditional Greek agon, two opponents set on a field against each other. That's all that matters. Just like the timeless duel that exists between batter and pitcher on their respective mounds. Although football is more like a chess game, offense set against defense.

San Francisco is now dancing as they prepare to punt. It's like an episode of Glee. But they look tough. I wouldn't want to face those guys.

Am I live blogging? I guess so. I hate this terminology. I think of these little accumulations of digital data as contemporary midden heaps, through which historians and archeologists will dig through, bare decades from now. And why write them? Because it's better to have a record of them than not. It's better to have written than not to have written.

So I sit and watch football, and tap the keys. I think about the endless agon, how these two coaches are pitting themselves against each other. How these teams are staking their claim in the other's territory. How it's all the same story, the wolf and Red Riding Hood, death and the maiden.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Aroostook County, Maine

The washout beneath ice

I'm back here in the frozen north, the land of cold and restricted internet access. Which means, of course, that I feel the need to reconnect with the universe at large again. It's amazing how distracting the internet is when I'm constantly hooked into it, ending up a barrier to genuine connection. Then when I'm separated from it, I long for it. So it's Wednesday, the day when I trek to Presque Isle for my writer's group, where I'm plodding methodically through the chapters of my book manuscript. Seeing it anew through another group of eyes may excite my enthusiasm to go back for another round of revisions.

I like to stop, while I'm in town, and avail myself of the high-speed internet, but it's funny to me how things that are so common in the south-lands—like going to a coffee shop to drink a mocha and use the internet--here are utterly alien. I've encountered it before. I stop someplace that advertises free wi-fi, and although one would guess that it would be normal for people to stop by with their computers—Starbucks and local coffee shops alike in Chattanooga were packed with people on their iPads and smartphones, working, here everyone looks at me as if I'm a Martian just landed from my space ship. I find it immensely annoying, the constant sidelong glances from staff and customers alike.

Our neighbor, who gathered the mail while I was gone, and collected my Christmas packages from locales as diverse as London and Oregon, said that it was like I was a terrorist. Every other day, a new strange package from a foreign address. So maybe I look like a terrorist here, too. Only someone developing nuclear weapons would sit at the Tim Horton's with a mocha.

It's the culture shock that hits, whenever I land back here in the County. The two inches of ice that coat every outdoor surface don't help. I've been on exactly one walk since I've been back, wearing my mountaineering crampons, while Shadow skidded across the flat sheet of ice like he was skating. I'm supplementing myself with Vitamin D, but winter stretches ahead of me as long and endless as the glassy ice. I'm trying to hold January to myself, giving myself all of the luxury of extra wood, extra clothes, extra layers. It's the waiting inherent in winter, the sense that everything's in deep hibernation. I'm trying to celebrate it, to give myself little bursts of beauty, of sunlight, but I know it's my hard season.

More and more, when I track down the current residence of writers I respect, I discover that they live in the frozen north. Minnesota, Dakota, Wisconsin. If I'd written a bestseller, I'd think about moving to Malibu. But maybe there's something important about this period of coldness, of waiting. I came to the woods to live deliberately. Maybe this is when I can dive deep down inside of myself to find the sap that drives growth into the spring.

Friday, January 06, 2012

See, it all started simple

January always makes me think about heat. How I grew up in Thailand, one of a long line of sun worshipers. My mom and her Greek sisters smeared olive oil on their Mediterranean skin before laying out at the Jersey shore. I loved heat growing up, clung to it—it shimmered on my skin, shivering, equatorial humidity like a wall.

When I got off the plane at the Bangkok airport, heat meant home. When I came to college in Chicago in 1995, that winter was the coldest on record. My mom sent an email to me while I slept that first winter, the first year the computer lab sent emails from continent to continent: “It's beginning to get cold here at night. Down to seventy degrees. We're going to have to break out the quilt.”

Now I live in the northernmost county in the continental United States, in Maine, where we hug the border with New Brunswick. The winter of 2003, in January, the temperature here never reached 0 degrees, even at dead noon. Where I used to live, Bangkok, was once judged the hottest place on earth, if you averaged daytime and nighttime temperatures, winter and summer.

Now, when I chunk another piece of cedar against the back wall of the wood stove, watching the low angle of the sun cutting across the pines, I remember that shimmering heat. When I snowshoe through waist-deep drifts in single digits, I create that heat inside of myself, unzipping my down vest, unwinding my scarf, and realizing that power of the sun that rests inside of myself. I've spent the last month traveling from the place I've chosen as my home. I went to heated yoga classes, allowing the sweat to pour from my body. But only now, after returning, do I realize that the heat I've been looking for has been here all along, inside of my own body.