Our Four-Lettered Selves

One of my favorite ways to spend an evening is with two of my favorite girlfriends, Emily and Rachel. For over a year now, we’ve been meeting about once a month for what we’ve deemed “Creative Betterment.”

“Know your own bone,” Thoreau wrote. “Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, gnaw it still.” Of course, the beginning of this powerful piece of wisdom is: “Do what you love.” In order to do what we love—whether we are woodworkers, legal-aid attorneys, emergency room physicians, or novelists—we must first know ourselves as deeply as we are able. ‘Know your own bone.’ This knowledge can be messy […] But it is at the center of our life’s work, this gnawing, this unearthing. There is never an end to it. Our deepest stories—our bones—are our best teachers. Gnaw it still.”
—Dani Shapiro, Still Writing 

We meet up at a little tea house not far from my house, get teapots of our favorite tea, and talk. We talk about what we’ve been working on lately and how things are going. We talk about issues we’re having in our creative pursuits and, usually, between the three of us, come up with creative solutions to our latest conundrums. Sometimes, it’s all high-fives and great-jobs (yes, we have show-and-tell time).

Ladies just need to talk. I know that now—as much as I need to write things out, I also need to talk them out. So our little meetings have been a chance for me to wade in about writing and the challenge of balancing creative work with the rest of life, and how to stay inspired. They were the first to know that I’d decided to write a book a year ago, and sometimes I wonder if I could have actually gotten it finished without our meetings (and their friendship). They’ve kept me sane, focused, accountable—through verbal processing and the cutest little teapots of sweet almond tea.

Last night, we met up again. It was a damp, dreary night—a perfect night for hot tea and staying indoors. I brought a book along to share: Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive. I’d emailed Emily and Rachel earlier in the week to ask them to take a personality test. Since taking the test myself last week and getting my results, I’ve been enamored with everything I could find to read about my personality type.

Why? Well, it’s spooky. I’ve learned things about myself—those rare, objective things that are completely outside of your own arrived-at revelations. It was a glorious dose of insight. And I hoped I could share it, that I wouldn’t be the only one feeling like I’d just gotten a healthy heap of affirmation.

Know Your Own Bone

My personality type (INFP) is prone to pursuits of self-exploration and self-discovery and introspection; it’s good to know that. I also need time to think and derive meaning. I’m an idealist; possibilities interest me more than realities. I struggle with perfectionism and sharing my work publicly—again, true to my INFP nature.

Are four letters enough to represent all the complexities of our inner lives, our preferences, our habits, our hopes and fears?

The most powerful thing I learned—without a doubt—is that I’m an introvert. While we usually think of introversion as the way we are around people versus being alone, introversion is really more about our orientation to the external world. Introversion is explained like this in Gifts Differing: “Minds inwardly directed […] interest and attention being engrossed in inner events. The real world therefore is the inner world of ideas and understanding.”

Thoreau once said, “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” Are four letters enough to represent all the complexities of our inner lives, our preferences, our habits, our hopes and fears?

Probably not, but maybe they’re a start.

 

 

 

Further Resources & Readings

Take the Personality Test
Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type by Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers
Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive by Otto Kroeger and David B. Goldstein
What Type Am I? Discover Who You Really Are by Renee Baron

 

 

The Truth is in the Light

On days like this, I could bottle up all the words I’ve spoken, because they are so few. Only because I went out into public, there are a few handfuls of thanks-yous. Add a hello. A simple question (which tea do you recommend?). A yes. And yet another thank you.

On days like this, I mostly try to listen. The advantage of being in a room full of strangers is knowing they don’t know you, and most likely, they aren’t taking any notes. So you can glance up, or glance over, listening. The more their conversations roll on, the more you know—and usually (hopefully), you’re glad you were eavesdropping. You found some nugget of gold you can spin into words and sentences later. Or maybe even into poems.

Poems, today, happened. They fell out of the sky and I caught a few. Am I a poet? I was for about an hour today, sitting in the tea shop. I listened. And I wrote. I took sips of my tea. I sat at the back of the room, so I could watch. I needed to make sure nothing would get lost. So I took it all in: the ladies sitting in the corner, whispering. The old man wearing a scarf, waiting. The girl in blue with a face from a painting. The woman hunched over the counter, the round shape of her back. The two teenage girls discussing their antidepressants, how the drugs effect their brains. Another girl spelled out her name, explaining the origin: she’d been named after a woman her mom met at church. “That’s beautiful,” was the reply from the girl behind the register.

* * *

I left and drove downtown to the art museum. I took the long route, the slow route, intentionally. I resisted pulling out my phone to load the map. I just wanted to navigate and find it on my own. Would I get lost? Would I have to circle back? Maybe.

I found myself parked directly under a tornado siren at noon on a Saturday in Oklahoma City. I stared up at it in wonder, hardly believing the volume of the noise it made. The sound vibrated my purse against my hip and made a deep, dull ache in my ears and chest. I walked away, as fast as I could, to take shelter from the noise.

The featured exhibition at the museum had the title Intent to Deceive. The room was bustling with people—standing, reading, looking. I decided to be methodical about taking it all in. Usually I wander quickly through the rooms—like taking a huge glutenous gulp of water, rather than small, prudent, savor-it-all sips.

“Driven to a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-to-meager appreciation of my work, I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
–Han van Meegeren,
1945

All of the paintings on the walls were fakes. Frauds. Deceptions. A black and white photo of each artist/conman was printed on huge panels with their stories and the timelines of their demises. Some had gone to prison. Half had committed suicide once they were discovered. All of their stories somehow noted the fact that they couldn’t make it on their own as an artist, so they had resorted to another career—posing as wealthy heirs or art dealers with considerable collections of previously unknown works of art. Some were completely disenchanted with the art world, so they’d retaliated, composing their own moral standards of only selling pieces to expert art collectors, and not people who wouldn’t know any better. One had even fallen into the crime by accident, when a drawing he’d done was mistaken for a Picasso. He was poor and the money he was offered for it was just enough to buy him food for the next few months. So that is how it began.

“In prison, they called me Picasso.”
–John Myatt

As I stood looking at some of the paintings, I got lost in the idea of their histories (thinking: could this be a idea for a novel? How easily someone could fall into this?) The unrecognized genius craving recognition or renown—at any cost?

I was struck silent by their talent. Their technique. Their craftsmanship. One of the men had successfully sold fake Vermeer knockoffs. When I peered into the painting, I marveled at the skill involved—not as single visible brushstroke in the oily, sheer texture of seemingly-antique oils. It was easy to see why you could be fooled. You could be so enthralled by the beauty of the thing, you’d want to believe the authenticity.

These men were inventive, too, in creating recipes for paint and finding antique canvases and paper. They’d learned to stain, crack, dilute. Had they actually had access to any of the originals? Or did they have to paint from memory after standing, like me, in museums, staring?

The stories they told to authenticate the artworks were believable. Some had partners that moved the business along. They’d made fortunes. But they’d all been found out, in the end.

The last room of the exhibit was interactive. The true identity of paintings were behind sliding panels. You had to guess if they were real or fake, then slide the door over to reveal the answer.

Two small paintings were hung vertically, their subject matter exactly the same. I tried to make my guess, formulating my reasons for deciding which one was real. The top one was more washed out and it looked older, so it had to be the real one.

Only after I knew I was wrong did the comparison reveal new clues: it was all in the light. The top one had oversimplified it, glossing over the intricate depiction of the sunlight falling through the branches and onto the figure’s back. In the real one, the light was something only a true artist would have been so honest about, so committed to the hard work of telling the truth.

 

BATHERS by Lionel Walden (1861-1933), 1895, oil on canvas.

In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than standing still.”

—Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness

Expeditions in the Snow

I took a walk out into the snow, alone. I bundled up first, in layers, combing through drawers for insulated leggings and gloves and warm socks. By the time I was ready to go, I was almost unrecognizable in the mirror—no makeup, my hair hidden away under Jacob’s stocking cap and tucked into the neck of my fleece, my shape rounded out with two coats, zipped up tightly.

When was the last time I was really alone with my thoughts—and not engrossed in doing something (writing, reading, scrolling through webpages)? Somehow I knew I was being called out into the rare snowy morning.

I just finished Pico Iyer’s beautiful little book on The Art of Stillness and wondered: when was the last time I was really alone with my thoughts and not engrossed in doing something (writing, reading, scrolling through webpages)? Somehow I knew I was being called out into the rare snowy morning.

Outside, it was still snowing lightly and I met the quiet, empty streets with a pause, deciding on my path. A neighbor was shoveling her driveway, so I decided to head in the opposite direction, avoiding a nod, or an acknowledgment, or the unspoken question of “why, what are you doing out here, all alone?”

It was good to feel the cold air in my lungs and I thought about those swimmers plunging into cold waters (from a podcast on finding the secrets of longevity)—how they seem to live longer, healthier lives. The theory has something to do with the benefits of exposing yourself to short-term, controlled physical stress. Your body responds, repairs, and gets stronger.

I walked south a block, then turned right on the next street. My footprints were the only ones and I looked back over my shoulder a few times, to see the pattern, in a line. It seemed like the whole world was still asleep, or inside keeping warm, with no intention of going outside. Cars were parked, unmoved, in driveways. The proof? There weren’t any tire imprints disturbing the snowfall on the streets.

I thought about how I need to see the way the familiar can be transformed; I have to commit it to memory, if only for comparisons later, in other seasons.

I thought about how I need to see the way the familiar can be transformed; I have to commit it to memory, if only for comparisons later, in other seasons. It was easy to imagine sunny evenings, walking in the golden sunlight, under the heavy shade of the old oak tress that lined the street. I’d be saving this memory for that moment, in the future, when I’d think back to the same snow-packed versions of the same streets.

I only saw two more people—a man walking his dog, halfway down the next block, and another man standing in his garage, smoking a cigarette, letting his car idle. I trudged onward to the park, noting the particular stillness of snow-covered surroundings. It was so quiet.

I passed a tree with nearly thirty birds perched high on the branches. They huddled their heads down into their wings, keeping warm, and their round black outlines were like ornaments on the tree. I kept walking.

I climbed the hill overlooking the park’s field and the sidewalk that circles the perimeter. Standing in the grass, my feet sunk down into the snow, so that the toes of my rain boots were nearly covered. I stood there for a moment, taking it in. Although I could hear the traffic from the interstate in the distance, I had the feeling of finding the world, all alone, rare and untouched.

On the way back, I passed the same tree with the birds still in the branches. I stepped on something—a crack of ice or branch underfoot—and with that, they all flew away in one giant sweeping motion, to another tree on another block.

How do we come to love the places where we live? Why do they become so endeared to us?

How do we come to love the places where we live? Why do they become so endeared to us? Our neighborhood—the perfect square of it, bookended on each side by a park, a school, a church, and a Jewish temple. It was my snowy morning expedition, finding adventure in each footprint in the snow, in each deep breath in and out, through the snowflakes.

What was the thing calling me outside? Perhaps it was the realization of how crucial it is for me to explore. It’s rooted somewhere in my childhood: combing the dark hallways of church after everyone else had gone home, or riding my bicycle down the street from my house to wander the woods. Now, as an adult, it manifests differently: traversing the landscapes within.

Welcome to the new site!

Today is a little sentimental.

A year ago today, I started journaling through the details of my days, and set out on one of the most meaningful journeys of my life. A year later, I have a book to show for it. I’ll never be the same.

Today I’m launching a redesign of my website, so all of my work can finally have a place to call home. I hope to blog more regularly, organize my quote collection, offer some book recommendations and, most of all, share more.

On Expression and Sharing

If we are immersed in the work of finding expression for this life, if we wake up each morning to the possibility of discovery, not only will we have a better shot at getting something worthwhile on the page, we will simply ‘be’ better.
—Dani Shapiro,
Still Writing

Over the past year, I’ve learned some important lessons about myself and my work. The biggest lesson? I have to write. I have to get up every morning or stay up a little later each night to spend some time turning a blinking cursor into sentences and paragraphs.

Writing makes me the best version of myself. While writing is a solitary pursuit, there’s another key ingredient of expression: sharing it. I hope this site will be another way to share more, and with that, to practice a few of my key values: authenticity and vulnerability.

So take a look around the new site, visit the home page (my favorite part!) or send me a tweet.

Check out the home page

Here’s to another year of lessons and growth and doing brave things.

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P.S. Thanks to my dear friend Emily Grober Trotter for my beautiful logo design, which served as inspiration for the rest of the site. She knows me too well.

P.P.S. Yes, there is a GIF library.

journal-joyce-carol-oates

The secret of being a writer: not to expect others to value what you’ve done as you value it. Not to expect anyone else to perceive in it the emotions you have invested in it. Once this is understood, all will be well. Not indifference, not apathy—but self-containment is the result.”

—Joyce Carol Oates

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.

Choosing authenticity means:

  • cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
  • exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
  • nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are enough.”

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.

—Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Vulnerability is the center of difficult emotion, but it’s also the birthplace of every positive emotion that we need in our lives: love, belonging, joy, empathy.
—Brene Brown

All the noise in my brain. I clamp it to the page so it will be still.
—Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.
—Zadie Smith