Changing focus on the subject here a little today. I’ve started an art practice-based PhD program, officially as of last week, and this week I’ve been trying to be a little more deliberate in how I organize my work (meaning research work and wage work). I was so high coming off last week, then took the weekend off and woke up bright and early on Monday, ready to get to work. I both expected furiously productive hours spent producing things of great value, and also knew that it would not happen like that. Monday, yesterday, and the early part of this morning were spent largely on smashing my cranium in order to fit into the narrow entryway of a dense bit of reading that I feel is absolutely essential to me understanding everything. This was not really working.
This morning, when I realized it was not working, I got up and took a shower because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re stuck, and while showering I thought about something someone had mentioned in one of the session last week, about oblique strategies. (Stay with me.) You can read more about those here, but in short it’s a method for creative work that uses a card deck with random and sometimes mysterious phrases on them that are supposed to get you to think laterally. You shuffle the deck, pick a card, and have to do or think about what’s on the card. It sounds like a tech company workplace strategy, but it’s made specifically for people doing the things I do and so, whatever, I thought I’d give it a try because I found an online version.
I wrote a bunch of them on cards and cut the deck, which bestowed upon me the following words of wisdom: “the most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten.”
Deep. What does it all mean? For me the answer (I thought) came pretty quickly — storytelling. I got interested in the things I write about here because I was first interested in how people tell their life stories, what they emphasize, what they leave out, and why, and how they define their place in the world. That brought me to think about how we see career success, which got me thinking about skills that I had and did not have, and how those skills are deemed useful or not in the world I live in. I was thinking about this, but at the same time I was still thinking about storytelling, which led me to read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller.” This was when I was doing my master’s, and that essay was hugely influential in how I constructed my way of doing research at the time (which I won’t go into now, but I’ll probably write about it another time).
Back to pondering the thing most easily forgotten. I got up and pulled out my research archive from when I did my master’s and started flipping through it. In a plastic sheath somewhere in the middle of the binder there was nothing but a single orange notecard on which I’d written a quote that is now something I recognize as one of those inspirational quotes people put in Pintrest images. It read:
“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” — William Stafford
I know why I wrote down that quote and why it wound up being included in my archive. I identified with it because I felt like that is something I had done (or started doing) in my master’s research. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I don’t really care. However, I realized that although I knew William Stafford was a poet, I had never actually read anything by him. So I did what we all do, read Wikipedia, and then looked for his poems online. I picked the first one that came up, which was “Accountability.” I liked it, and I heard obvious echos of my research interests in it, and so there you go. But then I started thinking about back when I was doing my master’s, what doing my research felt like then. I had been out of school for nearly a decade, those years spent working behind a computer doing not very interesting things, and then suddenly there I was becoming a student again, and an art student no less! Party time! I was working on the side of course, but only part time and with fairly little responsibility (my old boss would not be happy to read that) and therefore I could afford to devote most of my mental energy to my research. And how did it feel? It felt like … I’m only coming up with an image here so let me just describe a mental gif for you, of me leaping into somewhere with my fist raised and a da-da-daaaa! orchestral sound in the background and then immediately leaping from there to somewhere else (da-da-daaaa!). I was on a mission, a mission sent from God, as my Dad says, a line that he stole from the Blues Brothers movie. Only not from God, from the universe really, though I suppose some people’s conception of their higher power is the universe, or math. I had no fear. The degree wasn’t important to me per se, but the space to think was. Did that sound obnoxious? Apologies if it did, but it’s the truth. We had no grades, only qualitative evaulations, and it was a not-quite-independent study program that was encouraging and open to students doing their thing their way (so long as there were explanations to back it up).
And so I had fun. I read and did plenty of things that wound up having nothing to do with what I was doing, but that left me open to finding other things that opened up new ideas for me. What I definitely didn’t do was make the process a labor of pain.
Not to say that my research now is a labor of pain — just that I feel as though I’m struggling to push myself ahead like a donkey cart in the mud, and in that simile I’m not sure if I’m the donkey, the cart, or the person doing the pushing from behind.
Thinking about this, and then going back to “Accountability,” I thought about how I’d used “The Storyteller” as a lens through which to look at my research, to organize it. I’ve done the same with a Henry David Thoreau essay (“Walking”) in a little side research project on walking in my area. With both of those texts, I read them as though they contained a codified message telling me how to structure my research, how to create my methodology, what were possible missing elements that I needed to consider, etc. Or else I just took them literally and did what they said to do, or what they said not to do. That’s what I think I’m going to do with “Accountability,” examine it for suggestions at least for what to do with the rest of the time I’ve blocked out today to do my research.
Going back to my oblique strategies directive, I’ve realized that the most important thing that is most easily forgotten is to have fun when I’m doing my research. (By have fun I mean be excited about it and experiment, don’t feel like I need to slog all the time.) I think I do better work that way, and most of all I enjoy the time I spend working, which is the point.
I’ve got an idea for a tree house. It’s going to take a while to complete it, but I have a while because I’ve decided to grow the tree from seed. That decision came about because I’ve built two tree houses in recent years, both of them in a bit of a deadline rush, feeling stressed to perform and produce. Therefore, I figure that if I set about to build a tree house in a tree that is at the time of this writing (August 9, 2016, early morning) only 15.4 inches high, no one for the next thirty years is going to ask me if I’m done with the tree house yet, and thus I will be free to go about the planning and building of it as leisurely as I please.
I will baptize this tree house the “Leave Me Alone Tree House.” I know already that this is not going to be a very popular name. I feel as though I should be relentlessly big on collaborating, being social, forming alliances and collectives instead of working by myself, removing my name from the authorship of a project, etc. But I do plenty of all of that already, and so in this project I am giving myself two prerogatives that I don’t generally allow in my work: I want to build this tree house all by myself, and I want you to leave me alone in it.
I have memories of needing to be left alone stretching back to the very beginning of my memories, and so we can only assume that this need accompanied me into the world the moment I was born. As a toddler I dabbled in being left alone in my everyday life – for instance, by building mini abodes of boxes and bed sheets inspired by medieval castles, like the one David Macaulay drew in his book Castle, where the outer and inner gates don’t line up and so the enemy is forced to run around inside the castle walls directly in the cross hairs of the royal archers. I always built my castles inside closets, which provided an extra layer of protection because my mother first had to guess which closet to search before getting down to the work of unearthing me from beneath my multilayered construction if she wanted to have a talk. My brother had the much simpler tactic of spontaneously falling asleep whenever he wanted to be alone, but I’ve been a fairly difficult sleeper my whole life so that never worked for me. Small-scale construction projects and hiding generally did.
Later on, in elementary school, I amused myself by drawing detailed architectural plans for my future house, and each new and progressively more outlandish plan had two common denominators with the ones that preceded it: a spiral staircase leading to a tower, and a small atelier detached from the rest of the house in which to practice my various artistic pursuits. Both of these building features say one thing: Leave me alone.
My desire to be left alone on occasion doesn’t mean I’m a misanthrope. Despite what you may be thinking right now as you read this, I am a very social person. My default attitude toward the rest of the human species is a feeling of like or love, depending on the person, with very few exceptions. I love my family and friends in particular. In fact, I might even invite you to the Leave Me Alone Tree House if you ask, although I’m wary that bending the rules this early on could lead very quickly to that private space becoming the headquarters for my friends. Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, for example, ostensibly built so that he could get away from people, was actually a bit of a social hub. (As a side note, Walden was published 162 years ago today. Happy birthday Walden!) In addition to only being about two miles outside of Concord, Mass., Thoreau also had plenty of friends over on a regular basis, reportedly dozens at a time. I’ve never been able to figure that one out, because this is what the cabin (in its reconstructed version) looks like on the inside:
It seems cozy and the winters in Concord do get cold, but it seems like that would be a bit cramped for two dozen people by anyone’s definition. I may consider building a second tree house to accommodate my social circle. But then again, everyone’s probably still going to want into the LMATH because people are like cats in that respect: they always want to get into spaces that clearly say Do Not Enter, like your cat who scratches at the bathroom door while you pee.
Part of my wish to be alone sometimes is because one of my favorite pastimes is to sit or walk quietly with nothing but my thoughts as company, and this can be difficult to do when you’re with other people. It is also seemingly a pastime that is not universally appreciated: a University of Virginia study published in 2014 in the journal Science reported that many of its subjects preferred to self-administer an electric shock rather than be left alone with their thoughts. During a 15-minute period of alone time with nothing to occupy them but their minds, 12 out of 18 male subjects and 6 out of 24 female subjects opted to give themselves mild shocks with the push of a button that had been made available for that purpose. The boredom had gotten to them, and they looked for stimulation anywhere they could get it. I was surprised when I read this. Did these subjects not realize the value of boredom, the value of sitting down on a riverbank and listening for “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience” (says Walter Benjamin)?
Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out. Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. … But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the myterious property of its kind — put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, sent up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.
This is how my thinking will go, alone, in my tree house.
I will of course have neighbors in my tree house, and that’s fine. I don’t believe that the peace that comes from voluntary isolation demands an isolation that is physically far-removed from others. It could just be a door with a lock, like Virginia Woolf said. Or not even that: for instance, I am at this moment alone in my apartment, closed off from the world by a door with a weak lock that could easily be picked. On the other side of our apartments’ adjoining wall there is my neighbor. He’s playing FIFA World Cup for Playstation; I can hear the announcer. And yet, I feel quite isolated. Sometimes I think and write at the dining room table while my husband is noodling around with a project or talking to his sister on the phone. Sometimes I’ll even think and write in full view of a television, and I still somehow manage to feel isolated. I’m not someone who needs to have all my ducks in a row in order to think and write, so my plans for the LMATH should not be read as a complaint that I can’t get anything done with all these people around, nor as an excuse for waiting for the perfect moment to get down to thinking and writing. I can think and write just about anywhere, zone out into my private world no matter where I am. My desire to build a tree house and be left alone in it comes from a lifetime of thinking and writing in the midst of it all and occasionally looking up to see what’s going on and being surprised that I am not in fact in my story world, but rather in my real world. I like my real world quite a lot, but passing from one to the other is jarring, and sometimes annoying. In those moments I feel like a toddler asleep in her car seat who wakes up to find that she’s suddenly at grandma’s house 300 miles away; she likes grandma’s house, but is irritated at having been moved without her consent. Since I can’t inhabit my story world, the next best thing I can do is to inhabit a tree.
One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. In it, a twelve-year-old boy named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo bolts from the family lunch table in the garden and climbs up a tree, declaring with prepubescent anger that he would never again set foot on the ground as long as he lived. He keeps this promise, living out the rest of his days hopping like a squirrel from branch to branch, navigating from one tree to the next all throughout the forests of Italy’s Ligurian Coast. He had plenty of company despite his lifestyle choice. Throughout the book, he runs with a band of child thieves, fights pirates, has love affairs, helps his ground dwelling neighbors with their farming, pens a treatise on political theory (which he never manages to get published, but not for lack of trying), and later on gets involved in local government. Calvino calls a person like this a “solitary who does not avoid people.”
Personally, I don’t care to go to Cosimo’s extreme lengths, though I admire the stubbornness and ingenuity he shows in constructing his alternative existence. For me, though, it would be enough to just have my Leave Me Alone Tree House, secluded in a shady grove of fig trees – fig, because that’s my favorite tree – and have that be my own personal space that I could retreat to as needed.
To date, the LMATH’s blueprints are mere outlines – really more of a wish list than an actual blueprint at this point. I know with certainty, however, that it will feature a rope ladder, trap door, zip line (to where? I haven’t yet decided), a bookshelf in the Cosimo style (“sheltered as best he could from the rain and nibbling mouths”), and a solar powered hot plate so I can heat water for tea and coffee.
1. Fariss Samarrai, “Doing Something is Better Than Doing Nothing for Most People, Study Shows,” UVAToday, 3 July 2014, https://news.virginia.edu/content/doing-something-better-doing-nothing-most-people-study-shows.
2. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/storyteller.pdf.
3. “But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered his books as rather like birds and it saddened him to see them caged or still.” Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees.
I’m in a reading mood this week more so than writing, which is slightly inconvenient because I’ve got an essay deadline on July 30 and another deadline for a project proposal at the end of this week. But I’m not overly worried about getting them done, so for today at least I’m going with the flow.
On my list are some old favorites that I feel a push to reread (again, for the tenth time):
The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov, Walter Benjamin
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Free Time, Theodor Adorno (starting on p. 187)
Some exciting knitting developments: I learned cable knit (a simple version). Socks can wait another day, I feel accomplished enough for the moment.
I also brought along my knitting to this week’s pre-doctoral seminar at CCC, which was on economies of attention. Knitting (and other craft work involving repetitive movements) has positive effects on memory (see here for example) and so I was interested in experiencing what effect knitting would have on my abilities to listen and retain information. This is nothing new — it’s been reported in the mainstream media in the past several years (eg here and here) that knitting is good for your memory. And Walter Benjamin says so, so there must be something there:
storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply what he listens to is impressed on his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.
I went about my knitting experiment in not exactly the right way — Benjamin’s comments about craft have to do with their capacity to bore us with their repetitive motions, and it’s the boredom that readies the mind to listen. What I should have done is arrive very early for the presentations and install myself with my needles and yarn and knit for an hour until I was good and bored and ready to listen to stories. Except we started at 9 a.m., and it takes me nearly an hour to bike to school, and I was not prepared to leave the house at 7 a.m. As it was I got there 15 minutes early, enough time to talk with other students and drink a tea, and so when we all finally got into our seats and I picked up my knitting, I was not at all bored. Plus I’m still a beginner knitter, so even though I was using an extremely simple pattern, it still demanded at least a small amount of concentration. But the lack of boredom was the big issue. Without boredom I found myself in the same state of concentration as always, which is generally good, but I didn’t feel any increase in focus until the third presentation, after I’d been knitting for two straight hours.
A close-up of what I did…
I tried out both of the patterns given on the above link, the first during the first presentation and the second during the second. They’re so close that they’re practically identical but I prefer the second — the one on the top. I’m going to pick up some moss green yarn later this week and make a scarf with it using this stitch for my friend Hannah (green is her color). To pick up some more knitting mileage until it’s time for socks.
A few more thoughts on knitting:
What’s the point of knooking? (I had to look that up — knooking is knitting with a crochet hook)