Creating with less

April 18. We’ve had magnetic poetry stuck to the microwave for several years, but I’ve purged piles of magnets the last few times we’ve moved, so the selection of words is very limited—but this restriction has been freeing. And overall, during this period of isolation, I’ve surprisingly found productivity and efficiency with less. Even as I work shorter shifts each day, I seem to focus and get stuff done (and when we get to the other side of this, I will be a big proponent of shorter work weeks). I’m reminded of Emilia’s newborn months, when she slept on my chest in between breastfeeding sessions—all day, all night—and the writer in me came alive in short spurts yet long Instagram captions, often in the middle of the night, in between the moments of my new life as a mother and milk machine. I have not typed furiously like that since, but over the past month as we stay home, I’ve experienced wee moments of creativity from these silly word magnets and other unexpected ways, like Emilia’s coloring books and other random things around our house. I’ve also reached a point where I can now stare at the wall as she falls asleep on my arm and the circular imperfections of wood on our doors look like faces in Dr. Seuss books. So thank you for the little bits of inspiration, Day 41.

Horizontal reading in our digital age

While the ideas in it aren’t really new, I still enjoyed Mairead Small Staid’s essay in the Paris Review on reading in the digital age of distractions.

On the “heightened state brought on by a book”:

This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?

On the horizontal reading (surface skimming) of the internet, which is the opposite of diving into a book:

What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it.

We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul.

Writing anonymously

Read a lovely essay by Stacey D’Erasmo at Literary Hub about the freedom of writing with no byline, no fear, no ego. I love this bit:

Again and again, I found that when students wrote without their names, much that was awkward, dull, strained, and frankly boring fell away. It was like watching people who thought they couldn’t dance dancing beautifully in the dark.

Stealing

I recently found and featured an essay, “Stripped for Parts,” by Courtenay Bluebird at Bluebird Blvd. I really loved this part in particular:

You see, writers tend to steal little things off of people—

a complete set of figured naval buttons on a man’s patched pea coat; a certain way a woman pushes back her bobbed silver hair; a child that can whistle with two fingers like a man.

Writers pocket these moments and pull them out to look at later under a lamp with a notebook. This is fine with me—it’s magpie stealing. It is general and gestural and often sweet.

There’s another kind of stealing that happens, though, where a writer will pick the lock on your life story, touch a couple of wires together, and roll your life down the driveway before you even know your story is gone.

Work of the body

I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

“Some thoughts on learning together”

After googling something garden-related, I discovered the blog of David Walbert. There’s thoughtful writing here on a variety of topics — cooking, woodworking, history, and more. But this bit in particular has really resonated with me, as I’ve never been very good with my hands and making things on my own, and am learning each day while out in my vegetable garden.

Sabbatical

It’ll be my five-year anniversary at my company, Automattic, this fall, and I’m eligible to take a three-month paid sabbatical — a benefit I’m very grateful for. It feels funny to compile a To Do list for time off, but a bit of planning will help me make the most of it.

Here’s a list of things I’ve thought of, so far, that I’d like to do:

  • Go to the gym at whatever time I want, even — or especially — those awkward times like 10 and 11 am.
  • Spend more time one-on-one with my three nephews and niece, who are growing way too fast.
  • Spend time in our soon-to-be garden, which should be planted by mid-summer, pending this still-rainy weather.
  • Cook a lot and try out new recipes, expanding beyond my comfort zone (aka my beloved Le Creuset dutch oven). Start baking.
    – Take a soft pastel class. Or get back into watercolors, which I enjoyed in middle school.
    – Take a surfing lesson — somewhere in California, if possible. (I plan to take a class in Hawaii this summer — this may be a better opportunity.)
    – Do a self-directed silent retreat at a Trappist monastery up north.
    – Attend a yoga and vipassana retreat in Marin County.
    – Continue with my taiko class and practice my form.
    – Restring my violin and take private lessons.

I’ll try to squeeze in visits to New York and Los Angeles to visit close friends and family, but for the most part I want to travel as little as possible — and enjoy being and doing right here at home.

Piercing through the fog

Shared this on Instagram and Facebook last month, when I got another tattoo:

For most of my life, I’ve been drawn to Sutro Tower, which sits atop a hill in San Francisco. While it’s iconic, it’s often overshadowed: not necessarily pretty, and certainly not golden. For me, it has a presence much like the fog, which is ever-present and something I’ve always felt connected to—and in my mind, one could not exist without the other. When the fog rolls in, it covers the city, yet the tips of the tower are often visible, piercing through the haze. Of all the structures that rise into the sky or span across the bay, Sutro Tower is at once a relic, representing what I once loved about San Francisco. And yet, as an antenna tower, it’s also a mark of now, of the future. Continue reading “Piercing through the fog”

Fog

It’s cool today. Looking out of my tiny house’s window, I see fog in the valley.

It meanders. It lingers. I behave the same when I think, when I write.

As I stare at it, the fog takes me places: places unknown, places I’m trying to reach.

The fog is freeing, but overpowering.

We have an interesting relationship, the fog and I. I grew up with it — it’s like a comfort blanket — yet we have grown apart over the years.

I don’t see it as much lately. Perhaps it knows that I’m not writing as much, that I don’t need it right now, that for the time being I’m here and am not drifting.

Sometimes you don’t want to drift.

Other times, you get frustrated because you can’t let go.