Last night, I finished The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, recommended to me by a very smart friend whose suggestions have never let me down. The book follows an elderly grandmother and a very young granddaughter as they spend their summer on a remote and nearly deserted Scandinavian island. Classified as a novel, it reads more like a collection of very short stories about death, fear, loneliness and friendship. But that makes it sound much more serious than it is. In fact, The Summer Book is just like its eponymous season–full of light and warmth, calmly meditative, marked by the occasional storm and stretching idly with a sense of expansion and vastness despite its relatively short length (the summer, never long enough, the book, 171 pages).
Jansson, author of the internationally celebrated children’s comic book series about the Moomins, is known for her dry, witty humour and her pragmatic and frank perspective on topics that might suffer under sentiment in a less-skilled author’s hands. The book made me genuinely laugh out loud a number of times, always due to the interactions between the granddaughter Sophia and Grandmother. Sophia is curious, dissatisfied and rude and Grandmother is haughty, practical and wise. The two fight often and meanly, while it’s clear that they love and need each other more than anything else (Sophia’s mother’s death is mentioned only once and her father is seen rarely and always working).
My favourite part of the book comes in one of the final stories, when Sophia, on a day trip with Grandmother to the beach, is bored to tears and wishes for a great storm to come and entertain her. Of course, the great storm comes, and it’s one of the worst the island has ever seen. Miraculously, no one dies, but the squall causes significant damage to homes and boats. Highly distraught, Sophia wails to her grandmother that she deserves divine punishment for having prayed for the storm and bringing this wrath upon her family and community. The grandmother tries to console her, unsuccessfully, until she, with a profound and gentle grace, tells Sophia that it was in fact she herself, the grandmother, who’d prayed for the storm first.
“When did you pray?” asked Sophia suspiciously.
“But then why,” Sophia burst out sternly, “why did you take along so little food and not enough clothes? Didn’t you trust Him?”
“Yes, of course…But maybe I thought it would be exciting to try and get along without…”
Sophia sighed. “Yes,” she said. “That’s just like you. Did you take your medicine?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Good. Then you can go to sleep and stop worrying about all the trouble you’ve caused. I won’t tell anyone.”
“That’s nice of you,” Grandmother said.
January 7th, 2019
Speaking of portals.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (which destroyed most of the city), England sent thousands of books across the pond to replace the ones they’d assumed the fire had burned. But Chicago hadn’t established a library yet, and donations kept pouring in; eventually, the Chicago Public Library was created. Designed in 1897 by firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in the neoclassical / Italian Renaissance style, it is one of the most ornately beautiful libraries I have ever seen. But it is no longer a library. Now it is the Chicago Cultural Center, and it acts as a reception venue for political figures as well as a gallery for free art exhibitions. One still passes through the Romanesque portal off Washington Street to enter it though, as they would have one hundred and thirty years ago, in search of books.
What drew me to the Chicago Cultural Center last month was the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome, constructed by JA Holzer for the company of Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is thirty-eight feet in diameter, spans more than 1000 square feet and is comprised of 30,000 individual panes of Favrile glass carved in the shape of fish scales. When I walked into its spacious hall, two men sat playing a grand piano and a cello while visitors listened, read books, or pointed their cameras skyward at the breathtaking dome. The walls are made of Carrara marble and inlaid with thousands of more pieces of Favrile glass, stone, gold leaf and mother of pearl. Designed at the peak of the Symbolist art movement, the hall is suffused with representations of meaning, culminating in the dome’s oculus, ringed with the twelve signs of the zodiac. I stayed in the hall for a long time. Black elevator shafts remain in the corners, where books used to arrive from different sections of the library. This was the waiting room where people picked up the books they had requested.
On the next floor, I took in an impressive art exhibit titled Tuned Mass. The mammoth suspended sculpture you see below is by Susan Giles, and it embodied something wordless that I could not and cannot quite articulate about the sublime beauty of the building and the history of it. How people had sat in that room and waited for their books. “In the Center There Were Librarians” hangs from the ceiling and is made of laser-cut honeycomb cardboard and gallons of glue. The shape and form of the piece come from Giles’s digital captures and 3-D scanning of the gestures people made as they spoke to her about the architecture and design of this historic place.
Her sculpture is the movement someone made with their hand as they spoke the words, “A large reference corral, literally like a counter, went around the center, and in the center, there were librarians.” Whoever said this was speaking of a different room in the same building, not the room with the dome (where the people had waited for their books) but the room with the counter and the librarians. Maybe it was the room that housed this very sculpture, I do not know. Regardless, I felt the movement of the gesture and the architecture in the sculpture when I stood in this room, and I feel it now when I look at these images. The physical movement of remembering history connects me to the place.
January 4th, 2019
Speaking of death.
Every January since my mother died, there comes a day when I remember: “It is January and this is Vancouver, which means the flowers will start blooming at any moment.” The snowdrop is usually the first one I see, spilling suddenly over the edges of gardens onto sidewalks, their white heads hanging like disconsolate handmaids.
Galanthus nivalis is an ancient cultivar famously prescribed by Hermes to Odysseus to block the effects of Circe’s sorcery on him and his men during their year-long layover on Aeaea. Today, it is used by naturopaths to treat mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer’s, a disease that struck my mother very early, at the age of fifty-eight. And very recent studies show that a derivative of the snowdrop can increase the frequency of lucid dreaming. This little plant gives so much hope to those trying to control and manipulate their minds.
Last night, a student talked to me about her lucid dreaming, and how it always scares her, despite knowing she was asleep, which had no effect on the tall man standing in the dark corner of her bedroom. An art project she made had helped her explore the lucid dream from the safety of awakeness and light. Her project was inspired in part by Lee Bontecou’s sculptures, which my student sees as portals that one can choose to enter, on their own accord, to experience another realm.
A snowdrop in my backyard, January 30th 2018
Untitled by Lee Bontecou, 1960
January 3rd, 2019
Upon a recommendation from my favourite Instagram storyteller and businesswoman Aminatou Sow, I recently subscribed to We Croak, an app that pings you with five quotes per day on the subject of death and dying. It was designed in the spirit of the Bhutanese practice of contemplating death five times daily in order to cultivate happiness.
My favourite quote so far comes from Dōgen, a 13th century Japanese Buddhist priest who said the following: “In death, there is nothing but death.”
I read it over and over, and it brings me comfort. “In death, there is nothing but death.” The writing is clean, to the point, unsentimental. Reminds me of a pitch by Don Draper.
October 12th, 2018
In my September 19th blog post, I wrote the following: “No one in the public saw (Hilma af Klint’s) private work until the mid 1960s, and it is only now gaining international recognition as being the first examples of non-objective painting in Western art, having preceded Kandinsky’s by at least four years.” Today, this is a headline about her work in Artsy Magazine:
I love Hilma af Klint’s work and am happy it is getting widespread recognition but come on, let’s me a bit more careful with our headlines. She did not “invent” abstract art! Abstract non-objective art has existed outside Western (aka: white people) art for thousands of years, the oldest example of it being from 73,000 years ago in Africa.
Yesterday, I was listening to Keep It, a podcast hosted by Ira Madison III, Kara Brown and Louis Virtel. It’s “a show about pop culture, politics and what happens when they smack into each other at alarming speed,” (like when Donald Trump becomes president, or Taylor Swift announces she’s a Democrat).
About Swift’s first foray into public politics, Kara Brown, a writer who covers pop culture, race, and television, had this to say: “I think that’s what you’re seeing with a lot of mostly white people now where they did not feel the urgency two years ago. They didn’t feel like the world was about to fucking end, which is how I felt when Donald Trump was elected. And they weren’t terrified. And they weren’t worried about what he was going to do. And now that they see what he’s been doing, now they’re scared. And now they’re reacting…(Swift) wasn’t transgender and realizing that all of her fucking rights were going to be taken away. She wasn’t an immigrant and realizing that, holy shit, this president hates me. She wasn’t a Black male who’s like, wow, are they going to keep making it really easy to gun us down in the street? And for me it’s a little sad that you have to see things get really bad in order for that empathy chip to kick in. You sort of hope that it’s just functioning properly by living as a human in the world and interacting with others.”
My friend _____ (who for context is not white) told me something interesting about empathy once. He told me that he doesn’t believe empathy is the answer to addressing racism and other prejudices, because one cannot experience empathy unless they themselves have experienced the suffering. Instead, we have to have a clear and consistent ethical code that doesn’t require empathy, a set of principles we live by that kicks into gear when we witness discrimination. An example of one of these principles would be to use your public platform to lift up those who face more barriers than you do.
Swift had no such code. She knowingly courted white supremacist support of her music, which I can only assume she did because she wanted those dollar bills. This week, she made her first public statement about transphobia, homophobia and racism: “I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent.” I hope she continues to use her platform to encourage her fans to vote against bigotry. We’ll see.
Kara Brown goes on to say it’s a bit too little too late; if Swift had done this two years ago before the presidential election, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
October 10th, 2018
Last night, in the tub with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, I finished Keith Maillard’s latest novel Twin Studies, a sprawling and multifaceted story about the traumas and triumphs of three sets of twins who are brought together through strange and enthralling circumstances.
At times difficult to read, due to its visceral and thorough depiction of grief, there were moments in this novel of depression–and the lengths one goes to to hide or ignore or find relief from depression–that were so sharply accurate I had to pause and allow the emotion to work its way through me before continuing. The characters, and how they love each other, made me yearn for my own family, and threw into relief my fears about losing the people whom I consider a part of who I am.
The story begins with a set of intriguing emails that introduces the novel’s leitmotif–an academic study of the biology and psychology of twins–and in a way ends with its antithesis, a more spiritual and artistic approach to defining family. In between is the stuff Maillard is known for: difficult conversations and tense situations that circle around each character’s struggle with identity, gender, loss and how to keep looking forward.
October 9th, 2018
Over the past couple weeks, three very privilegedpeople in America (cis, straight, white, monied women) have shared (or re-shared) stories of abuse or their support for victims of abuse.
Even though cis straight white monied women are the least likely of all women to be abused, the media and public pay the most attention to their stories because of transphobia, homophobia, white supremacy and privilege. Often, the men they accuse are famous or powerful or both.
Many people have questions about why privileged white women share their stories of abuse, abuse that maybe was less physically violent than others, abuse that we perceive as not having broken them because there they stand, relatively thriving, with varying amounts of money and status. Shouldn’t they be taking that time and energy to protect those more in danger than them? If the most serious impact of the abuse is that now the victim needs two front doors on her home instead of one, is this the abuse we should be paying attention to? Also, don’t we know the earth is melting? What seems more urgent?
Today, about her own story, Busy Philipps wrote on an Instagram caption, “It’s a story that I have been telling for years. James apologized. I accepted. And I still get to tell it because it fucking happened to me.” There’s the implication of privilege–“I still get to tell it.” Others don’t.
I’ve been thinking about this tweet by Sidrah Ahmad a lot since I first saw it. Be a traitor to the patriarchy; push the bricks of the wall from where you are.
October 5th, 2018
Here is a portrait of a young Georgia O’Keeffe wearing gingham, painted by American artist Hilda Belcher in 1907.
October 4th, 2018
I read andrea bennett’s Hazlitt essay The In-Between Space a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it and thinking about my own gender expression. The visual style traits I connect most strongly to my gender are my long hair and my long dresses. In general, I dress in a style that might be called ‘modest’ in the fashion industry simply because most of my skin is covered up. The word ‘modest’ has a strange moral connotation to it, and always reminds me of when Mayim Bialik wrote that poorly-timed and poorly-worded op-ed for the New York Times urging women to stop being naive about how we sexualize our own bodies in service of the patriarchy, which literally has nothing to do with men who sexually assault women.
A few years ago, my partner’s mom (who is also my friend) called me a “Gibson Girl!” one morning when I came out of my bedroom in a floral housecoat and my hair piled on top of my head in a loose bun.
“What’s a Gibson Girl?!” I asked.
“Oh those girls from the early 1900s with the long hair piled up on their head in the voluminous pompadours,” she said. I could picture what she meant, and I filed it away as the name of the hairstyle, not thinking to wonder where it came from.
Then, a few months later, a student wrote about the Gibson Girls as part of her art project and I learned that it was not just a hairstyle but in fact was a whole fictionalized example of a woman, an ‘ideal woman,’ of how she should dress and behave and wear her hair and look. She was “created” by American graphic designer Charles Dana Gibson, who was “inspired” by his wife onto whom he projected this Gibson Girl’s aspirational figure.
People say now he created the Gibson Girl as an early form of opposition to the spectre of the New Woman, though Man Gibson seemed less frightened by the fact that women were reading more books and organizing politically and more frightened by the fact that they were cutting their hair short and hiding their figures.
My friend was right, I do have this long hair that I sometimes pile up on top of my head. And, I do…love myself a long-sleeved dress. But it certainly isn’t to comply to a male’s standard of appearance. Unless a male is going to appraise my mind or my sharp sense of style first, I’d actually prefer he not look at me at all!
A Gibson Girl, who looks to be directing/scolding some men who are holding an upside-down tree. Maybe she’s telling them to turn the tree right-side up before they plant it. From Wikipedia commons.