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March 2011

A Reluctant Reader

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Our family has a strong attachment to print culture. On any given day, you’ll see newspapers spread across the dining room table, puffy magazines by the bathtub, piles of books forming biblio-cities on the floor.

My eldest son, Yoshi, joined the family cult gladly—devouring books by the age of four. But his younger brother, Mika, has been a reluctant reader, to say the least. While the rest of the family reads, Mika would generally rather doodle. He draws constantly, covering recycled manuscript pages with fantastical creatures, lopsided buildings, flying birds…

When he started Grade One, I began to wonder and sometimes worry about this lack of readerly interest. But, then again, it’s not so out of character for Mika to choose the “relaxing” route. Why read (or bicycle or make toast) yourself when others can do it for you? (Mika is perfectly happy to curl up in a snuggly spot while his father reads aloud from The Hobbit.)

But about a month ago, something shifted. I noticed that books were appearing in Mika’s drawings. Open books. Boys with books. Then one night when I went to check on him, I saw that he was lying in bed with a small stack of Yoshi’s comics. He was reading in the dark. How long had Mika been a secret reader?

Mika would still rather draw than read. But if the pictures are good, he’ll crack open a book in a second. He loves looking at graphic novels. Which is why he was overjoyed when we took him to Drawn & Quarterly’s bookstore in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood. With shelves lined with every form of illustrated tome, it’s a Mecca for visual readers—young and old. From the minute we walked in, I could almost see a thought bubble appear above Mika’s head: “Finally, my peeps.”

Thinking of Japan

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Japan has suffered unbearably in the past few days in this terrible cascade of tragedy (earthquake, tsunami, radiation.) Too much has happened. It is hard for me to wade through the continuous stream of images, to experience the constant replay on television, without feeling overwhelmed.

“Pacific Ocean” by Hiroshi Sugimoto

Today I’ve been thinking of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascape photos.
Sugimoto traveled around the world for thirty years, photographing tranquil scenes of the sea and its horizon. These are non-event images and I want to hold them out as a wish for calm and clarity. A memory of a different Pacific Ocean—tranquil and less-toxic.

“Water and air. So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence…Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea. Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.” —Hiroshi Sugimoto, 1994

Water and air…The world has seen too many disastrous happenings over the past decade. Here’s my wish for a (non-nuclear and sustainable) future where we no longer aggravate disaster by taking unacceptable risks.

Finishing Lines

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Why is it so hard to finish a project? Maybe you don’t have this problem. Maybe endings are your forte. Maybe you move in a beautiful trajectory through life and know exactly when you’ve reached your destination.

Not me. I wish I was the sort of writer who knows when to say “it’s a wrap,” who simply slaps her hands together and pops open the bubbly.

Maybe you’re a queasy finisher like me.

There are lots of possible reasons not to let go: perfectionism (a desire to be flawless and, so, undo every past mistake), fear (of disapproval or approval), emptiness (what next?), attachment (to the intimacy of the work before it goes into the world), bafflement (what is the ending anyway?), longing (for the work to be more beautiful, sad, funny, scary, warm, alive than it is), nausea (what Zadie Smith describes as a kind of ill-feeling or skepticism towards the “well-made” object.)

When I work it often feels as if I am chasing a point that is endlessly receding. It’s a yearning and itchy feeling. Maybe letting go is simply a matter of embracing the human, messy and realistically incomplete nature of every endeavor. Maybe it’s our inability to ever be deeply finished that saves us as artists and keeps us going.

Here is a drawing from Micah Lexier’s series “A Minute of My Time.” Each work marks one minute of the artist’s lifetime. Basic rule, make a simple continuous scribble, then stop. No need to ask: what to increase? What to reduce? Should it be bigger, redder, bolder? It is what it is. A nice finishing line. Somewhere in this is a lesson. There will always be other scribbles.

p.s. Señor Chariandy and Señorita Goto, my finish-friends, this is for you. xox

The Gift of a Sick Day

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Yesterday was a sick day for my son Yoshi. After drumming class, he was feeling flushed and tired so when we got home we went upstairs with a pile of library books and flopped onto the bed. The rain was falling and the sky was white as a page and we propped ourselves up with pillows and read together.

I’ve been frantically working on a deadline for the past month and as much as I’ve tried, I haven’t been the most ‘present’ mother lately. I’ve also been fighting a cold, resisting rest, feeling busy-busy, marching (as Virginia Woolf would say) like a soldier “in the army of the upright.”

SO yesterday was a much-called-for reason and reminder to decelerate.

I was thinking today of Virginia Woolf’s beautiful essay “On Being Ill,” and the fact that sick days often point out the ill habits we develop when we are in ‘good health.’ No one wants to be sick but maybe it’s a gift to have our priorities forcibly rearranged (for the better) every now and then. Take sky-gazing:

[Illness allows us] perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky…Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub window gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. — Virginia Woolf

Yoshi and I read a lot of books yesterday that we liked but the one that stayed with me the most, not least because of its subject, was A Sick Day for Amos McGee. The book, written by Philip Stead and illustrated by his wife Erin E. Stead, won the 2011 Caldecott Medal. The illustrations are all hand-done—even the title, no computer!—using a combination of woodblock printing and graphite pencil drawing. I love the loving care that went into this moving and unexpected friendship story.

It’s all about slowing down. Right, Yosh?

Drawing a Tree

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I discovered Bruno Munari’s book Drawing a Tree a few years ago in a museum giftshop. I’ve always been attracted to artists who jump fences and Munari was truly equestrian in this regard. (Ditto: Isamu Noguchi—another favourite of mine.)

Munari passed away in 1998 at the age of 91. He worked in painting, sculpture, film, industrial design, graphics. He did his share of writing (including some poetry) and was also known for his research on games, childhood and creativity.

There is something about Munari that always makes me smile. Maybe it’s my geeky love of old textbooks. Maybe it’s just the simple, beautiful way he puts things. For example: “When drawing a tree, always remember that every branch is more slender than the one that came before. Also note that the trunk splits into two branches, then those branches split in two, then those in two, and so on, and so on, until you have a full tree, be it straight, squiggly, curved up, curved down, or bent sideways by the wind.”

My sons did these tree drawings this afternoon. They didn’t quite follow Munari’s instructions but they drew from an actual cherry tree outside our house. (The first day of March and there are tiny buds…)