"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Friday, October 30, 2015

Letter to October #30

Dear October,
      I've been thinking a lot about advice lately. I think I have this notion that someday, the right piece of advice will come along at just the right moment, and when I hear it everything will change. I'll admit: I'm a bit of a self help junkie. I've probably read the same recycled advice over and over again in various forms, from the mouths of hundreds of different people. What makes me think that any one notion can be the catalyst for turning my life around? From a young age we are fed these stories of lightbulb moments, and life-changing realizations, but do those moments really exist, or do we only hear that "life-changing advice" at the moment when, consciously or not, we have somehow already decided to make a change? Can an idea really push us to act on something?
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of ideas. There's nothing I love more than having an idea I thought I understood presented to me in a new way. I sometimes wonder if the same old advice I've read hundreds of times actually sticks with me, but today I stumbled across an old e-mail I'd written, where I gave this advice to a friend: "Everything counts, no matter how badly it turns out, no matter how long you waited to start, no matter what perfect picture you have of it in your head, and how far from it the reality turned out to be." I let myself get defeated over little things, and yet all along I was somehow carrying this idea around, that the results don't have to be perfect, on time, or even complete to be valuable, especially when it's only yourself you're accountable to. (Obviously, I don't want to cut myself too much slack when it comes to creative habits and projects, but I often let little failures get in the way of the big picture.) I feel like this speaks to the slipperiness of ideas, and it makes me wonder what else I've forgotten, and how much of my own advice I don't actually put into action.


Song of the Day: Skin by BOY

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Letter to October #29

Dear October,
      Today I wrote a letter to a girl who lives on the other side of the globe. Our lives could not be more seemingly disconnected, and yet we both like art and podcasts and it turns out she has killer taste in music. Even though it was technically the internet that made being pen pals possible, I still think the real hero here is words on paper. There's a care that goes into a hand-written letter that just can't be translated into a text message. There's a gravity that comes with knowing that a small cluster of paper traveled thousands of miles to appear, like magic, in your mailbox. While waiting two weeks for a response isn't ideal, it makes the slow, ongoing conversation that much more special.
       In this world of lightning fast connection, I think we can learn a lot from letters. In a world of over-sharing, they ask us to curate, choosing only the most meaningful aspects of our lives to share with others. They ask us to reflect and to question, and most of all, to appreciate. Sometimes I wait months for a response to one of my letters. Occasionally I find myself feeling annoyed at the delay, wondering what's taking them so long to reply. The minute I see a letter in my mailbox, though, any annoyance I felt dissipates like smoke. The only emotion I have room for is joy.  Even the best text messages I've received haven't been able to rival that feeling. Write someone a letter. It's good for your soul.


Song of the Day: Next Year by Two Door Cinema Club

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Letter to October #28

Dear October,
       I've always struggled with habits. The deceptively simple act of doing something day in and day out is difficult for my flighty mind to latch on to. As I've mentioned before, I love the idea of routine. I love the simplicity of it. I crave morning tea and contemplative walks and a protected time and space for my writing. I could give you lots of excuses for why I stopped writing to you, October. I could tell you that I've been meaning to write for the past week, but every time I open my computer I feel guilty for all the days I've missed, which for some reason makes me want to write even less. I've learned that relaying excuses rarely fixes the problem. The only remedy is showing up, which is what I'm attempting to do. A little late.

I suppose a bit of catching up is in order. October, you've been both cruel and wonderful. The past couple of weeks has played off of my insecurities. For a few days, I felt completely worthless for no real reason besides disappointment in something I was putting too much of my identity into. I've been stressed beyond belief, but also humbler, more grateful, and more determined. Thanks in part to a lovely visit from my boyfriend, I'm back on stable ground. That doesn't mean things are quite where I want them to be, though. Far from it. I feel disorganized, restless, and just as scared as ever. I'm trying to be braver, to push myself in areas that I've been holding back in. I want to write more, make new friends, find some sort of community. I've been toying with a new project, standing at the edge of everything I'm comfortable with creatively, and considering diving in.

Meanwhile you've been cooling down, October, releasing some of your warmth to November's icy fingers, and today you were downright frigid. In true Iowa fashion, the wind almost nocked me off of my feet coming out of my dorm. I've decided to take it as a sign. Not a sign that things will be miraculously better. Not a sign that I'll finally stop procrastinating and write a novel/short story collection/cookbook. Just a sign of change. A sign of commitment, even the flimsiest sort. I'm starting  with a renewed resolution to post a sentence a day on the Tumblr I stared with my friend. The original goal was for me to post my favorite sentence from whatever I'd written that day, and for her to post a page from her sketchbook. Our performance at these tasks has been sporadic at best, but I'm still proud of it. I'm not promising perfection - in fact I know I'll probably fail at some point. But what I'm going to attempt to avoid is a not posting anything because I feel guilty for falling behind. Progress is progress, even if it's a little late.


Song of the Day: When the Nights Get Long by Jukebox the Ghost

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Letter to October #12

Dear October,
       Today you were blustery and bright. I was restless and a little stressed. We keep our window open and the wind knocks the papers off my desk. It's a little strange, coming back to an empty room with papers flung about as if someone had tossed them into the air. My life feels a little like that right now. Scattered by unseen forces, and I'm scrambling to pick up the pieces. The strange thing is, there's beauty in the mess, and beauty in stooping over again and again to collect the parts of my life that matter to me. Every day I rearrange them on my desk, I stack them in piles, finish some things, throw other things away. I try to weigh them down with something, but then the wind comes back and they scatter again.
It smells like fall now, and I don't mean that it smells like the maple syrup from the Quaker Oats factory (though sometimes it smells like that, too). So October, you're magic, and I just have to remember to breathe it all in.


ps. I just watched Frances Ha on Netflix, and I recommend it to every twenty-something who's ever dreamed of becoming an artist, who's ever dealt with loneliness, who's ever felt like they were floating and couldn't find their bearings. Just the right amount of realism and whimsy.

Song of the Day: Two Birds by Rachel Sermanni

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Letter to October #11

Dear October,
      Today, my mind is on other things. It's difficult to reflect every day, to try to cull what you've learned in the past 24 hours. Today my thoughts are filled with everything I have to do tomorrow and the day after that. I got to talk to my best friend today, which was lovely, of course. I went on a rushed, mad dash through an art museum because we got there right before closing time. I thought a lot about what I needed to get done, and didn't get very much of it actually finished. I have some good things on the horizon, October, it's just a matter of figuring how to get all this other stuff out of the way so I can enjoy it when it comes. I await the day when I can write one of these letters an proudly proclaim that I was productive, that I managed to get things done while still having time for fun things. Who knows, maybe that day will be tomorrow. But right now, I'm playing catch up for all the things I was blissfully unaware of yesterday. So it goes.


Song of the Day: Ballad of Oregon by River City Extension

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Letter to October #10

Dear October,
       Sometimes I have these seemingly unremarkable days, where I learn a new song on my mandolin, or read a book for several hours, or just chill. Most of the time I regret this at the end of the day. I chastise myself for hardly leaving my dorm room, for not talking to more people, for not doing something "productive." But tonight this feeling of gratitude washed over me. For a few, fleeting moments, everything I experienced today felt like a miracle. I can type in the name of practically any song into Google and find the chords to it. If I don't remember how to play a chord on the mandolin I can find a diagram for it. There's a stack of books in my room that I can keep for up to six weeks, for free. When I get tired of reading, I go onto Youtube. I watch Jen Campbell, a writer and bookseller, talk about the project she's doing where she is writing 100 poems in 48 hours to raise money for a charity called The Book Bus. I am amazed at the scope of information that is available to us with just a single click, twenty-four hours a day. I am amazed that such a simple, quiet day can make me feel this way. Not every day has to be amazing. Not every day has to be exciting or new or even interesting. There's something to be said for stillness and quiet appreciation. It sounds cliche, and it's actually a lot harder than it sounds. To be grateful, you have to give up your preconceived notions, the complaints you cling to, fall back on. Being grateful is, like anything worthwhile, an act of courage.
So anyway, here I am. Computer on my lap, blankets around me, listening to my favorite evening playlist. There are a lot of directions this day could have gone. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.


Song of the Day: Early Morning Riser by The Weepies (This song just makes me happy)

Letter to October #9

Dear October,
       Some questions:

1. Why does watching five episodes of television in a row make me feel worn out? Isn't it supposed to *not* require thought and effort?
2. Why do we avoid the things we most want?
3. How did pumpkin spice take over the world?
4. How do YOU feel about pumpkin spice, October? It seems like you'd be the definitive authority on the matter.
5. What makes language demand to be read aloud? I'm reading How to be Both by Ali Smith, and I find myself mouthing the words under my breath. It's like a compulsion- her words just flow. 
6. If I spend all of my time and energy consuming other people's creative work, what time is left over for me to do my own?
7. Is there a threshold for consuming other people's work? Is there a point where we just raise our hands and call "Enough!"? Maybe there is merit in consuming less so that we can listen to our own voices for a little while.
8. Is the internet making us kinder?
9. Why are we obsessed with kid geniuses and child prodigies? Why does being talented faster have any more merit than achieving incredible things at 90 years old?
10. How the heck did it get to be midnight already?

Lots of things happening in my brain today.


Song of the day: Keep Your Head Up by Ben Howard

Bonus material!
Some of the things that lead me to these questions:
1. This fantastic interview with Fran Lebowitz on the Bullseye podcast
2. The most recent episode of Radiolab (not directly related to the above questions, but listen to it and it will make you question your reality. Also it's just a really good story)
3. This entire pumpkin spice tag on The Consumerist
4. The first 80 pages of How to be Both  by Ali Smith (That's how far I've gotten; can't comment on the rest of it yet :))

Friday, October 9, 2015

Letters to October #7 + 8

I'll stop taking cliche sky pictures when the sky stops being beautiful

Dear October,
      (This one is extra long and rambly because I missed yesterday!) When I was little I thought adulthood involved two things: routines and coffee shops. Now that I'm 20 years old (verging on 21 oh my god), let's take a closer look at these, shall we?

As a kid I was obsessed with routines. I made up elaborate daily schedules for my toys. I had a tiny plastic bear that I imagined practiced his electric guitar at 5am every morning, much to the consternation of his neighbors. I distinctly remember excitedly suggesting that my parents alternate the days on which they read me bedtime stories. My mom would read to me on one day, then the next day would be my dad's turn, etc. Upon hearing my innovative and time-saving idea, my parents smiled and said something like, "It's more interesting if we mix things up a bit." Part of my love of routines stemmed from the fact that I thought that's what adulthood was like. Adulthood meant structuring your day any way you liked, and that to me meant doing the same thing at the same time every day. It wasn't the monotony that attracted me (shocking, I know); it was the simplicity. I loved the idea of living a simple life, full of simple pleasures. Enjoying breakfast in a light-filled kitchen. Taking long walks with my dog through the forest that I imagined surrounding my little cottage. I would be a regular at a diner where I would eat pie every afternoon.
So. How does my strange little fantasy hold up? While I still value the idea of routines, and try, futilely, to cobble together some kind of relaxing morning routine, my picture of an ideal life has changed drastically. Now, I value change and movement just as much as I value time management. I want to travel. I want to experience new things, live in several different cities, and most of all, I no longer crave the so called "simplicity" of rigorously structured days. Maybe when I'm retired and living in the idyllic town of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, or some hamlet in the wild hills of Ireland, I will be ready to embrace my childlike longing for sameness. I must admit, eating pie every afternoon doesn't sound bad at all.

Coffee Shops
If there's one thing that came to my young mind when I pondered the mysteries of adulthood, it was coffee shops. Coffee shops, in no uncertain terms, symbolized freedom. I imagined my adult self meeting up with my adult best friend at a coffee shop in New York City (don't ask me how this relates to my vision of simplicity and the cottage in the woods), where we would have wild creative notions and sketch award-winning ideas onto napkins. I thought adults spent the majority of their time in coffee shops. I thought that this was how most people got work done. And all of this boundless creativity was fueled by a marvelous black drink that I hadn't quite developed a taste for yet. (Though I started drinking coffee much earlier than most kids).
Today, coffee shops still hold a special kind of magic. The most ordinary of days can be made interesting by a good conversation in a coffee shop. It seemed fitting that the first place I drove to without my mom in the passenger seat after I'd gotten my licensee was my local coffee shop. Even for a fleeting moment, my vision of adulthood was a little bit true. Now, I'm fascinated by the societal and creative context of coffee shops: how we use them, what role they play in society, and why they've inspired so many great minds. While I know that adulthood (and independence) doesn't consist solely of afternoons spent in coffee shops, I think my younger self would be happy to know that a visit the coffee shop across the street from campus weekly (lets be real: several times a week). It's nice to know I've lived up to my younger self's expectations, even in the tiniest way possible.

These are my jumbled thoughts on adulthood. In addition to pondering my past self and her unrealistic (and frankly bizarre) expectations, I finished reading the fabulous Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge and started reading How to Be Both by Ali Smith. It's giving me a lot to think about, and I absolutely adore being immersed in words. That's one thing that's never changed.


Song of the day: Clay and Cast Iron by Darlingside (from their new album!)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Letter to October #6

Dear October,
      I've been thinking a lot about the difference between the person we are when we're alone and the person we are when we are when we're around other people. If we're lucky, the difference isn't very noticeable, maybe only to ourselves. But more often then not, I find myself shifting ever so slightly to better fit the space that the person I'm with occupies. The essentials of my personality are always there, but the nuances are different. I do this without even thinking about it. I think we all do.
Lately I've been seeing the word "authentic" thrown around on social media and in real life. It's one of those words that is practically meaningless when it's used alone. You can only be authentic in relation to something that's fake. There's no one true way to be authentic, because authenticity is something that, by definition, just exists, free from all outside influence. To be honest, I'm not sure true authenticity exists, at least not in people. People can be genuine. They can have good intentions, and a strong moral compass, and a unique personality. But true authenticity? What does that even mean? How do we dig into the core of our being to find it? And if we stuck to it, how many people would we alienate in the process?
To me, being genuine is the act of reaching for authenticity. It's a word that, while still context specific, is much easier for me to wrap my head around. To be genuine is to know yourself and present as much of yourself to the world as you can. Genuineness allows for mistakes and variation, while, authenticity feels fixed, as if your personality were a gemstone that could be examined under a magnifying glass.
At this point I could probably wax poetic about the impossibility of two very similar words having completely different connotations in my head. I find it amazing that I can even articulate the differences, however clumsily. But it's getting late, October, so I'll leave you with a question instead. I wonder how you act around the other months- if you ever put flowers in your hair to impress May, or paint the leaves with frost to get on December's good side. I wonder if you are jealous of July's swagger, or March's temper, or September's mildness. I wonder if you ever lie on your back in the grass and stare up at the sky and search for your authentic self. I wonder, for the millionth time, if you can see your own beauty.


Song of the Day: Featherstone by The Paper Kites

Monday, October 5, 2015

Letter to October #5

Dear October,
       Here are some thoughts I've had today:

1. Red velvet cake and cream cheese icing is always a good idea
2. How come I always have more homework than I think I do? Is there a psychological reason for that?
3. Some songs make me feel full to bursting and some make me feel this strange, hollow ache for faraway places. I think there's value in both feelings.
4. Does every plant have a specific smell, or just things like grass and pine trees?

That's all I've got for you today, October. (No photo because I forgot! Sorry!)


Song of the day: Honey Jars by Bryan John Appleby

Letter to October #4

Dear October,
      I  write to you with a weird mix of emotions. On the one hand today was a great day. It was the perfect mix of quiet, solitary activities and time spent in the company of friends. I got to read the book I raved about in my last letter, and I got to go out for donuts (a food I've been craving since the end of summer) and hang out with a bunch of wonderful people. Days like these always leave me feeling a little bittersweet though. I think it's melancholy for other days that weren't as good, the ones where I was stressed out or lazy or caught in an endless Youtube spiral. And I realize that the less-than-stellar days outnumber the great ones. That's not to say the other days are bad, or even that I didn't enjoy them while they were happening. They just pale in comparison.
Being the idealist that I am, this dissatisfaction usually leads to a feeling of clarity and determination. Tomorrow I will start with a clean slate. I'll make sure my great days outnumber my mediocre ones. But change, inevitably, is a stubborn, fickle beast. Our bodies give way again and again to the path of least resistance. Besides, how do I turn a vague feeling of restlessness into lasting change?
There's a piece of advice from Jad Abumrad (host of the Radiolab podcast), where he says, "Continue to reinvent. Keep things moving and changing and always a little bit out of reach." One could argue that that's how 20-somethings feel all the time - everything is just a little bit out of reach - but I think it goes deeper than that. Jad isn't just saying "follow your dreams" or "keep moving forward." He's saying that we have to fight what's comfortable. We have to push ourselves to break from the path of least resistance. If I can master this, I think maybe that melancholy that washes over me at the end of a really great day will go quiet. That's my working hypothesis, anyway.
This is all too easy to write about from my bed on a Sunday night. That's usually when my mind formulates plans that tomorrow's body won't act on. But it's worth it, I think, to appreciate the good days and the mediocre days for what they are. Because as Annie Dillard wisely said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."


Song of the day: When I Grow Up by First Aid Kit (Original by Fever Ray)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Letter to October #3

Dear October,
       Today I feel completely, irrevocably under the spell of a book. Even as I take a break to write this, I can feel its presence next to me, willing me to pick it up and disappear into the story again. The book is Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge, and in the 200 pages that I've read so far, I can safely say that it has reminded me why I love reading. More specifically, it brought me back to the reading experiences that seemed so much more common when I was a child, where a story sucks you in so completely that during the time that you are reading it your life takes on strange new characteristics. You notice new things. You find yourself thinking about the characters as if they were friends with which you have frequent, urgent correspondence. They tell you tales of their adventures while you worry and fret over them, waiting for the next moment when you can sit down and hear about the newest development in their lives.
Today I spent the afternoon with street urchins and con men, in snow white carriages dappled with pearls, on barges and floating coffee houses. The world of Fly by Night is one of numerous deities, guilds, societies, and a lore all of its own. It's complicated and occasionally confusing, but I was so entranced that this hardly bothered me. As the warmth of the blankets lulled me into sleep, the world of the book shifted, ghostlike, into my dreams. I woke up from my nap slightly disoriented, unsure when exactly I'd stopped reading.
Before this book, I'd been in a bit of a reading slump. I moved mindlessly from book to book, finding pockets of enjoyment here and there, but failing to find a story I could truly immerse myself in. I had gotten so caught up in the language and pace of adult books that I was taken completely by surprise by the smooth magic of children's literature. How easy it was to get completely wrapped up in the world! How easy to fall in love with the characters! Why isn't every reading experience like this one? Why do I put up with anything less? Of course, I am also of the belief that reading experiences should be varied, and that you should expand your horizons and read out of your comfort zone. I believe that all books can teach you something: at worst, about your likes and dislikes, your capacity for boredom, and at best, about your passions and your vulnerabilities; a good book exposes the cracks in your world view.
People are always talking about the transformative power of books, but you don't truly understand this until you experience it, again and again. Stories can warp time. They can re-wire thought processes. They can consume and they can dispel. I had forgotten. I was happy, October, to be reminded.


Song of the Day: Harry's Wondrous World by John Williams

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Letter to October #2

Dear October,
       It is 2am and this morning (I suppose I should say yesterday morning) feels far away. I went to my only class for the day, and then spent a couple hours with my mandolin. I'm trying to learn, but it's far too easy to get stuck playing the only six chords I know rather than trying to learn new songs. Still, the instrument is starting to feel comfortable in my hands. Every time I pick it up I find it slightly easier to get the sound I want. Baby steps, as they say.

In the evening, my friends and I made a late-night trip to IHOP. We sat in plastic booths and drank coffee and hot chocolate and ate stacks of pancakes in the warm yellow light. On the drive home we sang along loudly to classical music under a gigantic moon. As per usual, we watched a quirky movie on Netflix and laughed until we cried.

That was my day, October. My only regret: I didn't get a picture of my blueberry pancakes.


Song of the Day: Clementine by Sarah Jaffe

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Letter to October #1

Dear October,
       I'm trying to fall back in love with you, with Autumn. To be quite honest, I just don't feel like watching the world slip slowly into rust-colored decay this year. Summer still looms large in my memory. I'm haunted by luxuriously long evenings and blistering afternoons. I'm not ready to give up iced coffee mornings and orange sherbet clouds and the way the sun turns newly mowed lawns into a sea of impossible green. Life at school is a lot quieter this year, mainly because my friends are a bit more scattered, and while I feel more in control of my studies, I feel less in control of my social life. Isn't that so like life? As soon as one peice falls into place, another unravels. That's not to say I'm unhappy, October. Restless is a better word.

At times like these, I do two things. First, I turn towards the things that always bring me comfort. I just put a bunch of books on hold at the library. They're mostly middle grade books, full of childlike wonder and magic. One is the sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, a book that is the equivalent of being dropped in an autumn-themed Alice in Wonderland. The next thing I do is take a few, tiny steps out of my comfort zone. September kept whispering adventure in my ear, and most of the time I ignored her. I don't know what you have in store for me October, but don't worry. I'm not going to do the same to you.


Song of the Day: A Proper Polish Welcome by Torres (Couldn't pass up this beautiful, nighttime, outdoor serenade)