The ties that bind us

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Another book I've been carrying with me during my travels -- and reading slowly to make it last -- is Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hooper.

The subject of these essays is family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books and their authors, objects, food, and (most poignantly for me) the fellow members of a care circle surrounding a friend with cancer. Although Hopper's own upbringing was unusual (her parents were "religious hippies" in a cultish Evangelical sect), the underlying dynamics of the familial and social ties she examines are nonetheless relatable as hell. Plus, it's a beautifully written book, and even the lightest of essays (a discourse on binge-watching the old American television show Cheers, for example) is made luminous by the the author's clarity, honestly, and unfailing compassion for the ways we both support and fail each other as we move through life.

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In the opening essay, "Lean On," Hooper takes issue with America's cultural adulation of the Solitary Hero (Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideal self-reliant man,  Joan Didion's ideal self-sufficient woman) and articulates the value of leaning on others, and letting others lean on us. In response to Didion's assertion that the solitary self is the authentic self, she writes:

"My scepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don't see why the person I am when I'm rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they will still be part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I'm bossy and my friends know I'm kind, and when I'm alone I'm neither, but really I am both. My identity is not an independent state.

"I cannot imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love's neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgements past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you'd read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you."

(You can read the full piece online here.)

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An essay about Hopper's complicated relationship with her brother starts with this delicious opening:

"There is a form of intimacy that consists of being harangued by someone in a bathrobe. A brother. He might be standing and pacing and you might be lying down on a couch under an afghan. He is exasperating in a way that tends towards escalating energy, and he intermittently throws off or emits sparks, like a grindstone, like a rasp, like a pronged plug in proximity to a faulty socket. The stakes are high for him. He suspects that your way of thinking is suspect. You suspect he may be right. You further suspect it is not just your way of thinking that he finds dubious but the person you have turned out to be.

"You find yourself arranged together this way -- pacing, bathrobe; reclining, afghan -- because you share a home. In other words, you share a domestic space in which seriousness does not depend on dignified dress or ordinary standards of civility. In this home, certain protective coverings (shirts and pants) can be dispensed with, while other kinds of protective coverings (afghans) can be piled on or, in particularly tense moments, pulled over one's face and supine body like a shroud of surrender. But it is never really surrender: just a way to collect yourself and breathe warm condensation breaths under the wool while presenting an implacable surface to the man who is talking. You are biding your time until it is your turn to speak.

"And you will inevitably speak. You will always have your say. You are arranged this way, after all, because you are brother and sister, tumbled together since childhood like agates in a rock polisher, generating your own conversational grit since you first had enough shared language to talk."

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Hopper writes about the complex nature of friendships (a subject deeply under-represented in our literature) better than just about anyone. The essay on her brother ("Oh Octopus") also reflects on the family bonds we make with friends:

"Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of the legendary queer saga Tales of the City, calls families found in adulthood 'logical.' 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.' I understand what he means. At the same time, in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic. A term I sometimes use instead is 'invented family,' because it implies the work of creation. It is family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then, all families are invented, even biological ones. A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from surviving documents; a collection of dissonant or harmonizing stories. Perhaps the best phrase for my purpose is 'found family.' It evokes something of the feeling of lost or cast-out sheep who find themselves once again in the safe fold.

"What I love about found family is that it can accomodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospitals visits of any other family -- all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quality time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason,  a found family can know and love you for who you are -- not for who you once were, or who you never were."

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If the passages quoted above don't make your heart beat a little fast (someone is finally writing about this!), then Hard to Love may not be the book for you. But if they do, seek out a copy post haste. It's quietly extraordinary.

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Words: The passages above are from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas, edited by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Writing and reading outdoors this morning, with the hound close by.


Living and working in place

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One of the books I carried with me during my travels over the last few weeks was How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in northern California (the center of the American tech industry). I read it slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought -- and now that I've finished, I recommend Odell's book for anyone engaged in the deep, slow work of making art in the shallow, fast world that Silicon Valley is busy creating. 

Here's a passage from the book's introduction that will give you a taste of what's inside:

"We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations -- and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In the endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

"Given how poorly art survives in a system that values only the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetric, or less-than-obvious. Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables."

How to Do Nothing

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Odell writes that her book is "a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy": to social media, apps, and other technological tools that are increasing co-opting our time, our focus, and our lives.

"A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as an ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to everyone lucky enough to be alive."

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Odell is not suggesting that we banish the Internet from our lives altogether. Nor does she endorse the notion that merely taking periodic "offline Retreats" (which is one of my own practices) is an adequate means of addressing the myriad ways the attention economy is re-shaping societal norms. When "doing something," in a hyper-capitalist culture, means "doing something productive" (ie, making money) -- as opposed to the things we do in the private parts of our lives that cannot or should not be marketized -- then re-framing the idea of what "productivity" means is a radical act.

"The fact that the 'nothing' that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1.) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the 'dropping out' of the 1960s; 2.) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3.) a movement downwards into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiousity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it's worth asking: What would 'back to the land' mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could 'augmented reality' simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do so?"

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Later in the Introduction she notes:

"The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive. My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose the rerouting and deepening one's attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

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"I am not anti-technology. After all, there are forms of technology -- from tools that let us observe the natural world to decentralized, noncommercial social networks -- that might situation us more fully in the present. Rather, I'm opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and the way we think about our onlines selves and the places where we actually live."

It's a fascinating book, yet not a prescriptive one. Each of us must determine for ourselves how phones and apps and Twitter and Facebook can best be used (or not used) in our lives. But what Odell has done -- for this reader, at least -- is to reframe the debate on the subject: widening its context and acknowledging its complexity. I'm still thinking about the questions she poses...and already my relationship to the attention economy is changing.

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Words: The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared inTin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Working by the leat on a bright spring morning.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Into the forest

Today's music comes from brothers and sisters, and starts with a journey to the wildwood....

Above: "This Forest" by The Rheingans Sisters (Anna & Rowan Rheingans), from the Peak District of Derbyshire. The song appears on their lovely album, Bright Field (2018). The video is by Harriet Holman Penney.

Below: "Goose & Common" by The Askew Sisters (Hazel & Emily Askew), who are based in London. The song refers to the mass enclosure of Common land throughout Britain from the 17th century onward. It's from their fine new album, Enclosures (2019), examining the relationship between in people and land in various ways.

Above: "The Lowlands of Holland" performed by Ye Vagabonds (brothers Brían & Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), from Dublin, Ireland. The ballad appeared on their debut album, Ye Vagabonds (2017); this version was filmed at the Celtic Colours International Festival on Cape Breton Island in March.

Below: "Sing My Sister Down" performed by The Henry Girls (sisters Karen, Lorna & Joleen McLaughlin), from Donegal, Ireland. The song was filmed at Lily's Bar in Malin, Co. Donegal, earlier this year.

Above: "Mexico" by The Staves (sisters Jessica, Camilla & Emily Staveley-Taylor), from Hertfordshire. The song appeared on their first album, Dead & Born & Grown (2011).

Below: "Mount the Air" by the The Unthanks (sisters Rachel & Becky Unthank and their band), from Northumberland. The song appeared on their fifth album, Mount the Air (2015), and performed at the British Folk Awards 2016...with some clog dancing too.

One more to end with:

"We All Need More Kindness in This World" by We Banjos 3 (brothers David & Martin Howley, Enda & Fergal Scahill), from Galway, Ireland. The song appeared on their first album, Roots of the Banjo Tree (2012). This performancd was filmed for BBC Radio Ulster in 2013.

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A quiet day in the studio

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From an interview with Anthony Doerr (author of All the Light We Cannot See, etc.):

"Life is wonderful and strange, and it’s also absolutely mundane and tiresome. It’s hilarious and it’s deadening. It’s a big, screwed-up morass of beauty and change and fear and all our lives we oscillate between awe and tedium. I think stories are the place to explore that inherent weirdness; that movement from the fantastic to the prosaic that is life."

The writing/editing side of the studio

Desktop

In the the studio

Words: The passage by Anthony Doerr is from an interview in Ways Revue. The poem in the picture captions is from The American Academy of Poets Poem-a Day, June 21, 2017. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The small, cozy cabin where I work on a green hillside at the edge of the moor...and its resident hound.