Saturday browsing

How to be a successful writer and mom? Apparently the secret is to have only one kid. I’m not sure that I buy this yet, but it seems to have worked for my four parents.

Or, Joyce Carol Oates writes, you can always just have sex with a publisher.

But success, at working or being a mom or both, is always a blessing that can be taken away by illness. How do people define success during and after illness?

Perhaps the best thing to do is have no ambitions at all

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Reading Alexander McQueen with my kid

I find beauty in the grotesque. Like most artists I have to force people to look at things.

– Alexander McQueen

Yesterday I was lucky enough to get the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty from the library. (We have an awesome system in Orange County where you can order books online and have them delivered to your door for free.) The book is tall and heavy. No wonder coffee table books are meant for the coffee table, they’re almost impossible to prop up on one’s tummy in bed!

My kid and I did our valiant best, however, and we lay next to each other and paged through the book.

I’ve always loved fashion. When I was in high school, I’d forge notes from my father to get me out of gym class, and head across the street to the University of Hawaii library. I’d sit in the fashion magazine section and pour through carefully preserved copies of old Vogue. I learned so much from those hours, about Yves St. Laurent and Pucci and Halston and and a host of designers from the 40s – 80s. All of this is still in the back of my head, as it is for so many secret guilty fashion-o-philes, ready to emerge at the drop of a chapeau.

The book posited that McQueen’s clothing was not ephemeral, that the designs were based on radical theories of art. The full-page photos were interspersed by the words of McQueen, and I admit that Alba and I skipped the wordier introduction and conclusion.

She read the quotations to me, stumbling over a word or two.

“What does ‘Atelier’ mean? And ‘Givenchy’?”

“An ‘atelier’ is a fashion workshop where a bunch of people work on the designs of a master designer, so that they can learn and branch out into their own work. Your grandmother Rene worked in the Bergdorf Goodman atelier in the 1930s, learning to cut and sew so that she could make her own art. Givenchy is the name of an old and famous French fashion house where McQueen worked in the atelier.”

“Oh.”

Alba often made me pause, pointing at a picture and giving her considered opinion.

“I want to wear that one,” she said, thoughtfully staring at an irridescent one based on the dream that humans will someday be forced by environmental conditions to return to the sea.

“It costs as much as our mortgage downpayment, child,” I said.

“OK, now THAT is overpriced,” she said.

“But it’s artwork, so it’s more than just something to wear.”

And then, a little later, “Mama, I don’t think I’ll ever be wearing that one!”

Alba pointed to an item that revealed much more than it hid. It’s true — for us bourgeoisie folk, ‘clothing’ is the functional stuff that we put on to get through our day. Works of art for the body are out of our means and morality, and I’d get stuck in prison if I allowed my child to go to school with her tush hanging out. And so it goes, the divide between art and function. I think we’ll have to let couture remain art, inaccessible to our world except as inspiration. (Sad, right?)

The book was full of beauty and philosophy. I really loved McQueen’s interest in clothing as an artform that evokes strong emotion. He wanted people to vomit from his clothing or fall madly in love with it, but not be bored.

The clothing that made me FEEL the most were based on ancient Eastern designs — shoes like Chinese slippers, headpieces reminiscent of historic Japan, silk-embroidered fabric. I’m glad that his words were there to guide me, because my first reaction was, “HEY! That’s not your culture!” In the words of McQueen: “I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions came through in my work. Fashion can be really racist. Looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. That’s mundane and its old hat. Lets break down some barriers.”

Okay, sold.

Joss Whedon made me think today

I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”

– Joss Whedon, 2013 commencement address to Wesleyan

1982

I adored Joss Whedon’s commencement address, especially the way that he framed it by death. Right now, this year, and perhaps every year since I had a child and got cancer, I’ve been feeling that my body frames my ambition.

Two weeks ago my mom sent over some boxes that she’d carefully kept from my teen years. I opened them up and it felt like giving me the gift of myself, or of a forgotten self. I saw a person full of energy and curiosity. It’s been nice to remember, nice to look at the photographs of a girl in the middle of a welter of new experiences and see who she was. Even my old fantasy novels felt comfortable to my hand, it felt like home to pick them up and see all the worlds I lived inside of books, as much a part of my childhood as actually living.

It was strange to think about all the changes that have happened to me since.

2013

Having a child was an enormous change to my body. It made me realize that bodies have a lot more in common with compost heaps than with angels. Having cancer compounded this. After a reasonably invulnerable time in my 20s and 30s, cancer made me realize how much energy humans have to spend making sure their bodies are working right. It’s a little ridiculous to think about the sheer amount of self-absorption that this forces me to have (thank god insurance finally proved useful), but it’s also a good reality check. In this moment between my 30s and the rest of my life, it’s good to know that I’m already broken in to the inevitable.

Turning 40 feels like a fresh start, but one touched by the knowledge that Joss shares. I’m realizing that ambitions are something that might not ever be achieved, that accomplishment is often delayed until it becomes impossible, that the body in middle age cannot handle the dreams of the young. What’s left? A good fucking sense of humor.

So once you get here, halfway through (if you’re lucky), facing age — what then? For most of my 20s I did not pick up the strands of family and place woven around me. I took it all very lightly, and moved lightly through the world. At age 40, these bonds seem as necessary as they once were unnecessary.

Happy Memorial Day to those that are gone.

But Joss’s words helped me think through a lot of this, a lot of the feelings of being constrained by the body, by reality, by: “The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have.”

I’ve lived a huge contradiction, and I am the result of it. I don’t have the luxury of having chosen a clean path, and I’ve wasted a fair bit of time doing shit-all (it was fun!), but in the process perhaps I picked up the bits of a dream-rich but people-starved childhood and wove in love and friendships, and healed myself a great deal. Have I actually achieved anything? Who knows.

Maybe that was all necessary too, part of becoming this person with cancer, with a child, with a family, with a job, with a garden.

Herb garden likes the rain!

Or perhaps, as Joss says, nobody is ever meant to find peace, but will always be struggling with the ache inside of themselves as they come to terms with everything that “I” means, or as Joss says:

This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.

Yeah.

That terrible moment

screenshot

Mandi of the blog Making Nice in the Midwest

A blogger whom I’ve been reading for a while just found out that she has cancer. Her tumor-removal surgery turned into something worse, and now she’s in the middle of discovering the extent of it. Mandi wrote a paragraph that struck me so deeply that I had to post it here:

On Monday, while everyone else was playing April Fool’s jokes on each other, I was staring at my grandma laying in her casket and contemplating how to tell my family I have cancer as we all gathered together after Grandma’s unexpected death. I just wanted someone to shout ‘April Fools!’ and for Grandma to sit up in her coffin and for me to not have cancer any more. (Source)

Cancer changes everything. It nailed my awareness to the present rather than the future or past, and threw every second of my life into the sharpest relief, to the extent that even grocery shopping felt epic. I imagine that Mandi’s mind is spinning right now. How long, how far, how much pain, what next, and will I have to give up what I love? All of those questions crowded into my mind too, and for a while it was like living in a humid climate of sadness.

At the same time, I found that cancer inspired a lot of mental housekeeping. What am I living for? I need to do it, and enjoy the hell out of it, as much as I can. I need to reconnect to the people that I love, and make an effort to stay in touch. I need to maximize the joy, however I can.

I’m not sure what life is about, and never have been, but surely if it’s about anything, it’s about living in a spirit of love and joy. I wish that on you, Ms. Mandi, with all my heart.

Hurry up and wait

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Today is a waiting day. It feels like everything that I want to do is at home (and perhaps by “everything” I actually mean “packing”), but my physical body still appears to be at work. At lunch, my mind restlessly roamed everywhere. Below are the fruits of my websurfing, and above is some music to listen to while you click through. This video is from my favorite band, Panter, and is the first single from their upcoming album.

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Surfing around CNN, I became transfixed by their coverage of African matters. One of the articles was about a South African mixed-race comic named Trevor Noah. I admire how he turned being mixed-race (in one of the world’s most dangerous places to be mixed-race) into comedy. Excerpt:

Noah’s mixed-race heritage defines his routine. Race and ethnicity are leading themes in his standup, echoing his life while growing up in a Soweto township during the apartheid years and being labeled mixed race.

“In the streets my father couldn’t walk with us — he would walk on the other side of the road and wave at me — like a creepy pedophile,” he tells the Soho Theater crowd. “And my mom could walk with me but every time the police went by she would drop me — I felt like a bag of weed.”

After that heavy fare, I turned to Tokyo Fashion News to cheer me up. They’re awesome as always. Below are a few of my favorite photos from today’s browse.

After that, I surfed over to Oh Joy! from Nubbytwiglet’s Thursday Links (which are very nicely curated). Oh Joy! quickly became one of my new favorite sites. It’s about a mom and her adorable family who are living in LA. Adopt me please! I want to eat all your food!  I especially want to go eat at Feed when I visit LA next, after reading about it on this site.

Mmmm, quinoa with squash and a poached egg. I ordered that from my home chef!

Near the end of lunch, I surfed over to the former Sassy and Elle editor Christina Kelly’s blog. In this post, she speaks plainly about her choice to be a stay-at-home-mom, which she posits is neither feminist nor anti-feminist, but just a thing she did because she was burnt out and had the opportunity. I feel her. It’s a tricky situation and difficult to write about.

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I’ll end this browsing list with another video! Swedish makeup artist Psychosandra made a cool one about how to create an awesomely Dali-esque eye-lip thing!

Now back to waiting to go pack.