What You’ve Been Missing

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I missed my two aunts, my grandmother, my childhood home, the rushing sound of water cascading down the brass rain chain, the floorboards in the kitchen under which my Obachan used to ferment homemade pickles, the shoji doors repaired with sakura paper patches. All things I took for granted. This was my first trip back to Tokyo in a decade and so much of what I knew and counted on was no longer there. It was also the first trip for my younger son so I saw things through his beginner eyes, things I might not have noticed before either because it was all too familiar or because I was looking for something else.

Also spring in Japan is lysergic. I’ve always visited in summer or winter. So that was new too.

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The cherry tree in this photo is 500 years old (!) We saw it during a short visit to Nikko. I was fascinated by the timber props used to support the branches. All that effort to support a tree that might have otherwise fallen naturally. I thought this might be a rare and uncommon intervention for a revered tree then I began to notice a range of tree propping techniques throughout Tokyo. Gingko trees. Pine trees. Everyday trees on everyday streets. Props used to assist a weak limb or trunk or to help a young tree grow to maturity. Care for the infirm or un-firm. Why had I never noticed these wood supports before? I was moved by the loving effort.

It’s good to be dehabituated. I woke up this morning thinking about a woodsy walk I once took with a mycologist who gently instructed me to look down instead of up. “You think you know this place,” she said. “But just look at what you’ve been missing.”

Pleasure

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I walked through the city. I walked past garbage bins and the bones of last year’s flowers. I courted oak trees.

My ears opened, and opened again.

I walked to the lake where I sat for a while watching an episode of gulls.

A man on the boardwalk wore a well-cut coat and walked with his hands clasped behind his back, each step weighted like a stamp. An old woman fed the pigeons little cakes until they were pleasured and fat.

It was so cold my breath became a picture.

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The songs closed over me; I disappeared.

A windy power and beautiful incantatory spell travels through this album. The unison voices and open endings. The ancient-modern corral of chant, spoken word, room sound, rushing footsteps, tough guitar, living world timbre, and doo-wop sway. I followed Feist’s voice on the trajectory of the swerve, streaking toward the sky, touching outer space, crossing dimensions.

At some point, the air warmed and I dissolved.

Everything was vapor.

I had escaped the momentum of the clock. Listening had become truancy. I realized I might not graduate from my day.

Pleasure is wild and elemental, a little heartsore, a little hungry. It sails between meticulous songcraft and abstract composition. It is full of sudden colours and tiny angles and luxurious canopies of sound.

I’ve listened to this album a dozen times now: on a stalled streetcar at rush hour; alone in a crowd of trees; sitting at the kitchen table with my freshly shampooed son; late at night at the peak of a house, writing this. The lush force, the sense of delicate inner workings, have stayed with me—gratifying and emboldening. I needed this.

Sometimes life is gridlock. And then a song pulls you outward, gives you a way toward walking. Some songs move out of black holes and into the sun.

Write Here

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The following is reposted from the 4th Estate blog to coincide with the UK release of Birds Art Life (Death)

A few years ago, I became an air writer. I was not bereft of ideas. I was simply unable to commit any of them to paper. Instead, I wrote paragraphs in my head. This may have been interesting in a conceptual John Cage sort of way, but it was more than a little frustrating.

There were reasons for this stoppage. My father had recently suffered two strokes, and even when the pressures of emergency care subsided into a quieter form of durational care, I found myself in a permanent state of vigil and anxiety. I had grown so accustomed to being interrupted by emergency calls and hospital news, I began interrupting myself whenever I sat down to work.

Unable to write in any sustained fashion, my desk had become a place of grim wriggling.

There are many things to hamper creativity. We know something of the effects on the mind of living in a sped-up digital culture, of having our attention minced and sautéed by news and social media, but there is also the effect on the mind of receiving bad news, of simply being spread too thin. Sometimes we cannot edit out the distractions because the distractions are actually pressing and essential and maybe it is our project in life is to be decent and loving humans as much as good writers. This is hardly news. As Virginia Woolf noted in A Room of One’s Own, the books we write are “not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

I know of very few writers or artists who can claim the privilege of ideal writing conditions. A perfect writing day comes around so rarely. Our days are the really just the sum of the time we “waste” meaninglessly and or “give away” meaningfully.

Eventually I decided to leave the solitude of my own room. I began taking ‘bird walks’ with a local musician (as I recount in my book).

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I also began walking to local cafes to write in the company of others. The ambient din quieted the noise in my brain. On warm days my favorite café opened its door to house sparrows. They would hop about my feet as I worked.

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I am back to working at home. I write in a tiny area at the peak of our Victorian house. (If you want to know why, listen to “Little Room” by The White Stripes and/or read my chapter on “Smallness”.) There is just enough room in my attic office for a long desk. My cats are usually underfoot. My desk is cluttered with pencils, photos, bird objects and, right now, a cover design for a picture book I did with the wonderful Barcelona-based illustrator Júlia Sardà. The best thing about my attic nook is that all the windows on our top floor are single paned so I am always accompanied by the sound of birds calling from the trees.

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Dedicated to JB

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Today is the U.S. pub date for my new book Birds Art Life. It is also one day since we lost John Berger, who died at the age of 90 at his home near Paris.

These two events are incommensurable but somewhat linked in my mind because John Berger was my lodestar. This photo of him sits above my desk.

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I started reading Berger when I was an Art History student and discovered Ways of Seeing. I have since read almost everything he has written. Berger modelled a liberated style that allowed for curiosity, digression, political engagement, dirt, physical labor, fresh air, and all the things we usually blot out as writers. His book Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos is a tiny work of huge hearted genius. I’d say Berger sowed the courage and permission I needed to write my own ‘unclassifiable book’— a book about stepping outside of cages, noticing the wayside, making art, finding friends, caring for family, and because I was led to these matters during a year spent birding, a book about the lure, the grip, the magic of birds.

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“If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen,” Berger wrote. To which I would add: “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listened to the listener.” I miss him already. But his words and influence remain, everywhere. He will always be my paragon of hospitality, rogue & revolutionary thinking, and worldly kindness.

 

“What will we do with our fear?”

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I don’t want to pin this all on fear. I don’t want to see (or portray) fear as an all-enveloping miasma that swaddles voters in a cartoon fog, stripping away any possibility of clarity or agency. But fear is certainly a factor. (So are: white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, climate denial, austerity, growing debt, precarity, and quotidian self-interest; all bolstered, bounded and bundled up with—ta da!—fear.)

So, today, as I try to metabolize the results of last night’s election, as my mind ricochets about the room, as I attempt to lower my shoulders from their now-alarmingly raised position, I find myself reflecting on FEAR. Specifically, I find myself returning to a passage from Eula Biss’s book On Immunity:

“What has been done to us seems to be, among other things, that we have been made fearful. What will we do with our fear? This strikes me as a central question of both citizenship and motherhood.”

I won’t get into the intricacies of Biss’s stunning and meandering exploration (I recommend you read it yourself) but what stays with me today is Biss’s call to examine the political nature of fear. How does fear cleave and shrink our collective imaginations?  In the face of monstrous scaremongering, how do we countervail? Can we (those of relative power and privilege) avoid the urge to withdraw? Can we fend off the urge to indulge in our own fear impulses, e.g. fortressing ourselves and our kin from the threats and horror of the world—a survivalist approach that can be marshaled to rationalize THE MOST privileged and anti-communal actions?  Can we heed the need for communal care and responsibility—cultivating a more generative and generous survivalism? How on earth (in these unevenly threatening times) do we frame our interactions with the world?

“What will we do with our fear?”

I don’t have the answer. But I do have a good picture book. It’s called The Moomins and The Great Flood. It was originally published in Finland in 1945 by Tove Jansson and I think it offers one possible scenario—or, even, a revolutionary retort to fear. Briefly: the Moomins are refugees from human civilization and their father Moominpappa has disappeared. Loaded with fear and worry, Moominmamma and Moomintroll set off to look for him.

The Moomins and the Great Flood

The family bond that unites the Moomin pair is intensely loving, but it is also open-ended. Disparate creatures, estranged from the world and brought together by the devastation of a great flood, are welcomed into the fold. Sniff joins the family. Tulippa finds a home in a lighthouse, guiding other lost creatures to safety. The Hemulens and Hattifatteners are also represented as kindred spirits in the Moomin world.

Given the tumultuous setting, I was not surprised to learn that the idea for the Moomins came to Tove Jansson during World War II. “It was the winter of war, in 1939,” she writes in the books’ introduction, “my work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures. Perhaps it was understandable that I suddenly felt an urge to write down something that was to begin with ‘Once upon a time’. What followed had to be a fairytale – that was inevitable – but I excused myself by avoiding princes, princesses and small children.”

In other words, the Moomins—creatures forced to flee their homes—were born of Jansson’s anxiety and distress at the state of the world (a world, not incidentally, in the grip of racial hatred and far-right populism.) What feels significant to me today is how she found solace and hope in imagining a multifarious community. What feels emboldening is the idea that art can be a way forward through despair. The Moomins and the Great Flood may be a story about a terrible disaster but it is also a story about the formation of an extended family where misfits and orphans are always welcome, where “making kin and making kind,” in the sense Donna Haraway has proposed, can “stretch the imagination and can change the story.”

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In a climate of fear and grief, when a sense of safety feels most precarious, Tove Jansson shows that there are moments of refuge to be found in generosity, in the willingness to make homes and open them to those who need them—i.e. those most targeted, those most vulnerable. This is the sort of anti-isolationist message Rebecca Solnit shared on her Facebook page last night when she spoke of the need to pitch “a large tent.”

If there is a ‘take-away’ from the Moomin stories it is that closed system thinking cannot help us. Rather than retreat into a private world of grief or flummoxed passivity, we need to find ways of treating our  vulnerability as an open window. Faced with ecological disasters, brutal wars, and the threat of destruction looming over the future of their world, the Moomins practice an insistent openness. We must too.

I’m heartened by all the positive, action-focused messaging on social media today. I know the picture book world is abuzz with good thoughts about the role of children’s books in cultivating a kinder, more compassionate world-to-come. (Solnit: “Half the five-year-olds in the USA are nonwhite; the future they make will be beautiful; we just have to hold onto what matters until they take the wheel and steer us onto a better road.”)

I have great faith in my community of co-creators. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of art to reenvision the possible. To conceive of the world “as if it were other than it is,” Amitav Ghosh reminds us, is the great project of fiction. It is also the great project of reaching toward a common world (one with proper shelter, healthcare, food security, education, and climate stabilization for all!) As writers we have the opportunity to fashion new scenarios and fresh pathways. We have the power to to enter the dark woods of a reimagined community, a community that constantly tests and reconfigures the range of ‘us’.

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I’m going to keep the Moomins close at hand. I want to surround myself with stories (and movements) that model interdependence; that nurture human and non-human diversity; that foster a sense of welfare beyond biological kinship and self-interest.

“What will we do with our fear?” Where will we go? How will we enact our hope? We’re implicated in this mess differently, but we can choose to be in it, fighting and flourishing, together.

The Door was Open: Thoughts on Diversity and Hospitality

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The reality of book making is that you write something and release it into the world never knowing how it will land. If you’re fortunate, your book may attract a few readers and, if you’re truly fortunate, those readers may feel roused and delighted by what you’ve done, and even budged from former ways of looking at the world. In the best of all scenarios, your book will gather luster and layers of connotation as it travels.

I welcome all readings and readers.

Yesterday, on a blustery autumn morning, I had the experience of presenting my work to a warm group of teacher-librarians alongside several other children’s authors and illustrators. We were there at the invitation of Eleanor LaFave, splendid owner of the children’s bookstore Mabel’s Fables in Toronto. Unbeknownst to me the theme of the gathering was “inclusivity and diversity” and so I was very interested that Eleanor chose to introduce my new book The Liszts as “the story of a family of list-makers who are one day met with a visitor who is not on anyone’s list,” adding emphatically: “This is a story of diversity.’

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Now I am loathe to shoehorn my work into the diversity box for any sales or marketing purpose but I have to say I was elated—ELATED—that Eleanor got the book, I mean really understood the gist of the narrative on this level. And I say this not because I want people to read the story and extract some grand old “inclusion message” but because to have The Liszts included in a conversation that was heading in a fairly linear and literal “diversity” direction felt like an unexpected moment of swerve and expansion.

How to care for the strange stranger, how to welcome the unknown, how to broaden the boundaries of home and family—these are deep challenges. This morning I was reminded of this fact while reading a short essay by Teju Cole. It was about the incendiary use of language in a New York Times article (discussing the dismantling of a “squalid” and “festering” refugee camp in Calais, France.) Cole encapsulated his frustration with the NYT’s reportorial frame with the following question: “how do you stop telling the story of migration as though the travelers are a problem rather than humans caught in dire straits and deserving, like us, of every kindness?”

Framing matters. Unfriendliness and unwelcome are perpetrated on various scales, and embedded in our language, with varying consequences. What kind of problem is a visitor? What kind of possibility?

Over ten years ago, my great literary love, Ali Smith, wrote a novel titled The Accidental, which, like The Liszts, pivots around this essential question: What do you do when the person who is from the outside (i.e. a new arrival or a newly arrived situation) turns up at your door? As Smith asks: “Do you let that person in or not? And what if, as in all the fables and myths, that person is the gods? Or what if that person steals everything from you? Or both? We have to remember hospitality. We have to remember what it’s like to be humans, to be strangers in the world and be welcomed in.”

Ali Smith creates stories that open onto the unruly and unforeseen and I love her for it. She is a truly hospitable artist and by this I mean she is someone who does not start from a position of scarcity and meagreness—taking a kind of Noah’s Ark (or Post-Brexit) approach to the ‘problem’ of inclusion, where in order to survive (or avoid criticism, or ‘be on board’) we will include “two of this and two of that,” ticking boxes as we go. Smith approaches her storytelling, and indeed the vast complicated and suffering world, with a spirit of persistent and abundant welcome that proclaims, “Let’s throw the doors open and see what and who the heck arrives.”

On the subject of hospitality, I want to thank readers who have come to my (sometimes strange) books with open minds and welcoming hearts. Thank you!

And, finally, a toast of welcome to future visitors who may mess up my house, turn my stuff upside down, and (with any luck) keep a sense of surprise and communal hope aloft.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-11-43-52-amAll images by Júlia Sardà from The Liszts. Published by Tundra Books (North America), Andersen Press (UK), La Pastèque (French) 2016.

“Tolerance is the opposite of hospitality.” —Jacques Derrida

Flock Formation

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Rumpus: Where would you put your book in a bookstore? Aside from prominently displayed? Fiction? Poetry? If you could make up a category for your book to sit in, what would it be? “Families comforted by a bird” is one that comes to mind…

Max Porter: I accept that my book is an act of aggression against those categories. I hope if it’s shelved in poetry it hops, late at night, into fiction. I hope it can be spotted in many sections. Or is carried around the bookstore in the bookseller’s pocket like a troublesome pet. For a long time it was in the “Death and Bereavement” category on Amazon and I was acutely worried about people mistaking it for a self-help book. It might not help.

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A very relatable conversation with Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers. How to speak of a book that embraces hybridity and blends form? In a rigidly categorical market, how to present the non-categorical? As someone who is about to publish her own “families comforted by a birdbook, I also had a good laugh.

 

(Photos: “Non-conformist” by Jean Fraipont, 2011.)

Wish Trees

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There are wish trees all over the world. There is a wish tree in Scotland that carries wishes for the environment. If you visit Turkey, you might see a mulberry tree covered in white ribbon wishes. In Japan, people write wishes on small pieces of colored paper during the summer Tanabata festival and hang them on bamboo trees. In Hong Kong, there are two ancient banyan trees that attract wish makers from all over the world during the Lunar New Year.

Some wish trees are very old and sturdy. Others are young and can barely support the weight of all the hopes and dreams tied to their branches. From a distance, the wishes look like beautiful blossoms.

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If there is a nice tree in your garden or in a nearby park, you might make it your Wish Tree. You could write your wish on a small piece of paper and tie it to a branch, watch it blow in the wind, and wait to see what the future brings. You could even hang a sign on the tree that says “Make a Wish” and invite your friends and neighbors to join you.

What You Will Need:

A tree with low branches.

String or Ribbon.

Decorative paper strips or paper shapes.

Hole punch.

Permanent markers.

A community of wish makers.

(Image: Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree in Hong Kong.)

 

Go! Go! Go!

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With a magical wave of her Bolex, Marie Menken (1905-1970) takes us from morning to nightfall through a comically sped-up day. As a city portrait of busyness and informational onslaught, the film is timely and familiar. But to me, its more eternal theme is collectivity – all the ways we come together (or sabotage coming together) in the name of going places, self-improving, goal-chasing, social climbing, creating and cavorting. I love the joyful invitation to notice what and who is swirling around you – that kaleidoscope of people going, going, going, as if being a human among humans could be a graceful thing.

(Text I wrote for the “Outsiders: American Photography and Film” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. March 11 – May 27, 2016.)