A few spotty memories: my mother’s Mary Quant stockings, the constellations at sleepover camp, the bikini I once stole from my friend Nancy, my Marimekko bag, the mysterious infestation of ladybugs at our old house, art by Yayoi Kusama (Queen of All Dots who once observed that: “Polka dots can’t stay alone”), two favorite books (“The Dot and the Line” by Norton Juster and “Little Blue and Little Yellow” by Leo Lionni”)…and, of course, the ellipsis (favorite punctuation mark, said to sometimes “inspire a feeling of melancholy or longing.”)
Image: “Bleeds-Dot-Print” by Luli Sanchez.
Sometimes this happens. Sometimes change arrives unannounced. One moment, your life is a predictable place, and the next moment, everything is a wild carnival ride of flux. The midway is a sweet and melancholy place. You’re probably thinking that you’ll never come here, that your child will stay in the kiddie park, riding that adorable merry-go-round, forever. But you know that’s not true.
Our family arrived at the midway a few months ago. I watched my 11-year-old son get loaded into a behemoth called the Instant Rocket of Change. A switch somewhere was thrown, and when he returned, he was a gangly 12-year-old…
Before we arrived at the midway, I had a knack. I knew how to outmanoeuvre night terrors and food aversions, how to arrange playdates and make time for homework, how to kiss the bruise at the moment the bruise happened. Most of all, I knew how to read his mind. Now what? He wasn’t the same son. What was he thinking? Was he experiencing existential emptiness, a yen for anarchism? A sudden love of surrealist painting? What tools would serve me now?
(Excerpted from a short piece I wrote on the flux of parenting for Today’s Parent magazine.)
Congratulations to Isabelle Arsenault on winning the 2012 IBBY Canada Cleaver Picture Book Award for Virginia Wolf!
The jury’s comments on Virginia Wolf:
“An un-precious treatment of depression that never diminishes its poignancy. Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations illuminate the story. She begins with a touch of red and blue here and there. Then the sadness, embodied in blacks and greys that encroach on the page in a messy cloud, surrounds and engulfs Virginia as she becomes a dark shadow of herself. When Virginia starts painting and as the spirit changes, more colours begin to subtly appear as the darkness recedes. Arsenault reminds Virginia and the readers that the world is full of beauty.”
For those days when you’re not above the weather or below it but seemingly more of it, when the clouds seem to have entered you, fogging your thoughts and misting over your heart, and you wish you lived somewhere less seasonally insistent, somewhere with uniformly blue skies. On days such as today, I like to think about clouds I have known and liked.
In art, there are many beloved clouds. For example, there are these ones by James McNeill Whistler (“Violet and Silver, The Deep Sea,” 1893.)
And this one by the Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde (vagrant and beautifully unhinged from the sky.)
And then there is this lovely and weird and extraordinary cloud, which I adore for its incandescent people-gathering-powers. Calgary-based artists Caitlind r.c. Brown & Wayne Garrett constructed it out of 5,000+ Light Bulbs.
And, finally, there are the books: Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell), Little Cloud (Eric Carle), Cloudsplitter (Russell Banks), The Theory of Clouds (Stéphane Audeguy), and The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Gavin Pretor-Pinney).
And the songs: Clouds (Django Reinhardt), Clouds in My Coffee (Carly Simon), Above the Clouds (Paul Weller), and Mighty Clouds of Joy (Al Green).
Because writing means making something (more or less) orderly out of something disorderly. And because writing takes me through tides and currents, as I sift dubious treasure. And because writing at some level involves the giving of form, voice, structure to what novelist Colm Toibin describes as “the stuff that won’t go away”… I have been thinking about flotsam and particularly two artists who have spent some time combing the world’s shorelines for debris.
Brooklyn-based Willis Elkins has spent the past few years scouting trash (toothbrushes, syringes, dentures, Lego blocks, lighters) in an urban kayak. More recently he has been photographing objects pulled from New York City’s waterways in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Mexican-born artist Gabriel Orozco collected thousands of objects from the shores of a natural reserve in Baja California Sur and a playing field in New York. He then assembled them into an installation that feels equal parts ecological critique and poetic taxonomy.
I love how this work shows the controlling artist somehow managing the unruly world. It appeals to my sense of order, even if it’s pitifully cosmetic. It’s somehow reassuring to imagine our befouled world resurrected as art, to see a pretty halo placed on trash, to believe that art can arrange reality into a different picture. Then again maybe it can.
(Images: Willis Elkins’ “Littleneck Bay, Queens, January 10, 2013″; Gabriel Orozco’s “Asterisms,” 2012.)
Spring. Soil. Seeds. Grow.
I am trying to be patient with my own seedling project. It is growing ever so slowly and some days seems so fragile, I think it could be destroyed by the slightest breeze. So I am hiding it from the world until it grows a bit more robust, and I’m enjoying this careful, watchful, private moment.
When I visit schools I always tell the kids: “Don’t be discouraged by small starts. Every book I’ve ever done began with a tiny seed of an idea.” Now I am trying to remember this myself. Don’t be discouraged.…
Water. Love. Quiet. Time. Patience.
(Image: via jasonfulford.com)
To celebrate today’s release of Mr. Flux I would like to introduce you to my youngest son—also known as the child who inspired the story. Mika is a sentry of sameness. He is a child who likes to sit in his exact same chair in his exact same place and eat his exact same food (mostly fruit and vegetables) in his exact same pants (soft jeans that vary only in color). He prefers to have things served in pairs and if not pairs, then in eights. Do not offer him three of anything. He will refuse. On weekends and holidays, he likes to see his friend Theo and play Lego or invent stories about marshmallows. On warm days, he likes to ride his same old bike, which is now too small for him but never-mind, he and the bicycle “are not getting divorced ever.”
If I have made him sound routine and boring I apologize. Like his mother, he can be operatic in his fancies and moods. He has a vibrant imagination and can often be found sitting in his exact same chair drawing comics with his exact same pen or pencil. He can fill books and books this way and it is not unusual for me to open up an important (to me) writing notebook only to find it colonized by important (to him) robots and marshmallow men. Here is his drawing of “Random City”, an apparently inhospitable place.
Sometimes he will bolt out of his chair and rearrange tchotchkes on our shelves or put Mimi’s cat bowl, which sometimes drifts across the floor, back where it belongs. He seems to have an innate sense of Feng Shui and his sense of order is easily insulted. His brother’s appearance, for example, is often unruly and thus an affront to his sensibilities. In many ways, my youngest son resembles Martin who might have similar responses to the following prompts…
Best change: “Winter to Spring.” Scariest change: “Day to Night.” Most changing experience: “When I gave up Huggie (my blanket) and when I stopped eating gluten.” Most wished for change: “I would like to be a bird that doesn’t have any fears.”
Despite his wariness, he constantly surprises me. He may not spin toy rabbits on a turntable or throw hats out the window (as Martin and Mr. Flux do in the story) but his mind is constantly a-flux with new ideas and creations. He may appear outwardly conservative but inwardly he is an anarchic wizard—a living reminder to not judge a book etc. Twyla Tharp once noted: “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box” and I know Mika and Martin would both agree.
So there you are. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Mr. Flux and share it with any Martins (or Mikas) you may know. Matte Stephens and I are both very proud of our collaboration.
I came across this wonderful project the other day. From 2009 to 2012, Portland-artist Alyson Provax tracked time that she felt was wasted, and memorialized each moment on a letterpress card.
I love the way she documents our habits of self-sabotage and distraction in a gentle non-judgmental way.
(4 minutes writing this blog, delaying a manuscript edit…)
On the eve of my marriage, in August 1998, my father gave me a beautiful lacquer box with a black and white photo inside. It showed my father from behind peering out over a lunar landscape. Written on the back were the words:
This is a very historic photo of a time of horror and happiness. In September 1969 I traveled from Hanoi to the border with the South — the first television correspondent to do so. What I saw no one in the West at first believed, countryside bombed so totally that it looked like the craters of the Moon. When I returned to Hanoi (traveling at night to hide from the bombing), I vowed I’d do a television history of Vietnam some day to “repair” the damage. That same day in Hanoi I received wonderful news that forever altered my life: a telegram from Mummy saying you were on your way!
My husband thought it was a lovely but strange wedding gift. On the one hand, there was the photo — black marks of bomb impacts on the ground. On the other hand, there was the refined lacquer container, subtly inlaid with mother of pearl, a reminder of my father’s simple and exquisite taste. Devastation and beauty. Horror and happiness. After years of observing my father, however, I didn’t see it as strange at all. Intense maybe, but not — in the out-of-character sort of way — strange.
In the months and years after our wedding, I kept going back to that box. It seemed, in that manner of certain keepsakes, to offer some basic truth: life is a paradox, a combination of contrasting elements.
Do we not all have a box somewhere? The box that goes by different names — identity, the past, childhood — but which speaks to our emotional inheritance?
(Click here to read the full blog post.)
Image: Garden at Westminster Cathedral, London, created from bomb crater, 1942.
Demons. We all have them. Here are some of mine:
Pride in Efficiency
This may sound strange but I have to remind myself to be bad at what I don’t want to do (i.e. laundry, other people’s work.)
The Myth of Natural Talent
Writing does not come naturally to me. It takes intense effort. If I channelled the same effort into any other field, I might be an epidemiologist or a rocket scientist by now.
Moments of Disenchantment
It’s inevitable for me to experience a kind of bottoming-out as I work on a book. I’m not talking about the big crises of confidence, which may lead a person to ask: Who am I? Why write? Does God exist? I’m referring to the other kind, the smaller crises I have all the time, those moments of negative epiphany when I start putting the story I’ve been carrying around in my head (the scenes that seemed so profound and beautiful) onto the page and I feel heartbroken because it’s so unbelievably terrible.
An acquaintance of mine who wrote a book on screenplay writing calls this “waking up outside the castle.” For me, moments of disenchantment happen several times throughout the course of a project. (My sense of connection to the story may be temporarily lost, my former passion and enthusiasm wanes, the drawbridge lifts…) The hardest thing is to keep going when all what I want to do is press delete and look through the want ads. (If the feeling persists, sometimes I do press delete, but that’s another issue.)
A final demon: Equilibrium
Happiness, disappointment, triumph, defeat, I cannot count the number of times I’ve experienced the whole gamut in a day. The challenge is to embrace disequilibrium, remembering that all of it—the whole tempestuous writing life, with all its fickle crests and troughs—is something chosen and ultimately loved.
(Image: “German Husband and Wife Team Perform a Dramatic Tightrope Cycling Act” by Achille Beltrame.)