Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lynda Barry & (Bonus!) Gift Guide

My friend sent me Lynda Barry's new book, Syllabus.  I suppose it's disingenuous to call her my friend.  I studied with her in graduate school and have been the recipient of so many books from her throughout the years, my definition of what a book can be has been whacked over the head - in a great way - many times.  It is a testament to her skill as an instructor, her aplomb as a mentor, that she is instilled so cozily in my brain I sometimes forget to credit her the years (and books) she has ahead of me. 

Appropriately enough, Syllabus is a collection of notes from and stories about Barry's years teaching the link between images, imagination, and the physical practice of writing and drawing.  I'm only a little ways in right now but already love it.  By happy accident, my husband recently brought home a different Barry book, One Hundred Demons, and I have (greedily) profited from its beauty as well. 

One Hundred Demons started as a project for, so parts of it can be still be viewed online.  This one is pretty great and gets at both the magical wonder that is the world of newspapers (in its mention of "Hints From Heloise") and at something Barry does particularly well, which is honor her outsider experience in the art world while roasting both her own weirdness and the uptight strictures from which she was excluded.  She's the kind of artist who makes me feel all right in the world, like maybe it's okay if I'm not perfect (of course that's true) and maybe it's just important to treat dogs nicely and eat food every once in awhile and maybe, whenever possible, put pen to paper because that's where love can be found.

Christmas is usually my favorite time of the year but something about travel and Tim's work and chasing a little baby around this year make me feel old.  While Samantha practices crawling, backing little white-socked feet into every corner of the house, I, truthfully, feel a little lost. 

I have always loved Brene Brown's observation that vulnerability is the first thing we look for in another person and the last thing we want to reveal about ourselves but I don't often write about emotions I'm struggling with here (other than those about Jonathan Franzen - but who isn't struggling with him every day of the year?) because I have to figure out my own problems.  Among friends and family members, I'm somewhat notorious for this.  Too Much Input = Unhappy Kara, so it doesn't do any good to air thoughts until I am ready to talk about them.  Generally, when I offer stories here, they are meant as gifts, pre-digested snippets for your happy consumption.  But I can't really hide from the fact that I am not even close to tackling Christmas this year. 

My friend called me Saturday morning and said, "Don't even try to pretend that winter in Michigan is fine because I know it's not.  I just know."  I died laughing because she grew up in Indiana, so she knows all about the Midwest winter, and besides that, she's right.  The grayness is getting to me.  I realized it on a walk last week, arrested by the sight of a glowing nativity scene.  There is a different one in my neighborhood, an old tacky one I still love, where the lamb's nose has rubbed off and Mary's turquoise robe clashes with the red trim of the camel's blanket.  The nativity that caught my eye is in the fancier neighborhood near mine, and I slowed when I saw it, entranced by its white glow in the cold afternoon.  The figures seemed to be floating on their bed of pine needles.  Something about this softness invited me in and I realized then I was starving for beauty.

I am constantly drafting an essay in my head about the importance of symbols in daily life, how an image works on the heart and mind at once, knitting them together in a glossy twine that frees both.  In Syllabus and other books, Lynda Barry tells the story of her teacher in art school who once asked, "What is an image?"  Barry seems to suggest that her whole life as an artist has been spent pursuing - pondering - this question.  I know it's not a new idea, this question of imagery, but I wonder if others have such a strong impulse to defend image.  Also, what is the difference between an image and a symbol?  I am truly interested in letting symbols speak continuously, in layers that unfold over years.

I may be tipping my hand about my religious upbringing here, but I'm really concerned with letting objects speak throughout the day: in written work, in the house, in glowing nativity scenes around the 'hood.  Looking around our house in Colorado, a friend of mine once said something to the effect of: wow, if this stuff were in anyone else's house, it would look crazy!  She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one because I knew exactly what she meant.  I often worry how many crocheted deer samplers I will continue to purchase from thrift stores, how many wooden coasters tooled by shaky Alaskan hands I will fit into my life.  But like with friendship, I don't want to close the door on what calls to me, no matter how much it feels I have.  It's not about materials, it's about voice.  I don't ever want to be so complete that I won't listen to a new voice, some intrusion or interruption in my thoughts helping me loosen my grip, some friendly reminder that life is beautiful, that I am safe, that grace exists. 

So there.  I did not set out to write about nativity scenes and, in fact, spend a lot of energy in my life trying not to talk about stuff like that.  In my childhood, religion was a seriously love-filled affair.  My family went to a beautiful church packed with intelligent, funny people.  The pews were strong and shiny and the women had eyes that sparkled.  The men were strange in their sea of dark blazers but who cared?  There was craft glue in the Sunday school rooms.  The older I get, the more I understand how rare my experience was, how poisoned so many of my peers have felt in the hands of religion.  Or maybe enough people are not talking about how it affected them in the way it was perhaps always meant to: as an offer of sanctity, as a hand of peace.  Perhaps sordid tales will always make better stories.  In Jim Harrison's novella Legends of the Fall, there is a season of respite for the main character whose life is generally in turmoil and it is for this happy season that the writer has little to say.  Happiness sometimes makes a bad story, unless perhaps you are willing to detail how you came to that happiness?

Anyway, here we are.  Friday my baby was eight months old.  I think of this fact rather as Eight! Months! Old! (a la One Hundred Demon's exclamation-laden cover).  I'd like to write that I'm a mess, but I don't know if that is true or if I just want to think of my days as worth a story to tell.  I want to say I'm ready for winter hibernation, for a well of quiet to envelop and gather me in, but I think I also need to just crank the stereo.  Off I go to decide which, piling folk art upon folk art, leaning in to find my own.

To your season, whirring and dark and everything at once,

P.S. A Very Merry Sut Nam Gift Guide

I wanted to do an image-rich guide to my favorite things this year but December ran away with my brain.  If your life is anything like mine, you are 15% done with your holiday shopping and totally fine with that.  If your life isn't anything like mine, I commend you!  That must feel good. 

1) Remember my love for Justin Hocking?  His new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is about Moby Dick, relationship addiction and recovery, and surfing in NYC.  It is beautiful and Hocking sticks the landing of every one of his literary acrobatics.

2) Claire Dederer's memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, has some of the most riveting prose I've encountered in a while, especially around Dederer's Seattle childhood.

3) I came across Dederer by her essay in the birth story anthology Labor Day, which I wrote about here and which I cannot say enough good things about - both for the topics covered and its sampling of all kinds of wonderful writers. 

4) I will never stop recommending Laura Munson's outrageously sane memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season Of Unlikely Happiness.  Munson's husband says he wants a divorce.  She calmly side-steps the blow.  They work through a summer of weirdness and she writes about it in real time.  I felt like I was curled up in her study with her, holding a mug of tea alongside her. 

5) At $12, All Creativelike's "We Are Creators" poster is cheaper than therapy.  I don't know about your sessions but it's probably prettier as well.

6) We should all be subscribing to the prolific, funny Other People podcast, a show that interviews a different author/writer every episode.  This gift could easily become an obsession for people who like to hear about how people arrive at their art.  Speaking of arriving, Amelia's upcoming book, Bon Appetempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with Recipes!)  is available for pre-order, and so is Megan Mayhew Bergman's newest book, Almost Famous Women.

7) Finally why not give the gift of good food?  A CSA, egg, or milk share would be welcome in most homes I know.  Heck, getting biblical here, you could even give part of an animal, an ethically raised pig, chicken, etc.  There's no rule that says you have to wait for a wedding to give a goat!  Buy someone's artisinal cheese and wield that wheel like the bounty it is. 

Finally, be safe, be kind, and treat yourself well!