In this series, I plan on writing about what caught my eye in the course of the past week and the thoughts that it inspired. Call it an information diet, if you will: instead of allowing every bit of knowledge I consume to sink into the bottomless pit of quasi-consciousness that we mortals really are, and have it lay low along with everyone else’s selfies, I want to help it morph into a more mindful, conscious learning habit that could maybe serve as inspiration to others as well. So here we go!
1. Hubert Selby’s afterword to ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’
Selby writes, amongst other equally important things, about his struggle to stay alive, physically; about his lack of academic inclination growing up and his perceived lack of natural talent and how he took up reading while in the hospital and chose to consciously invest his time, once out, in socializing with ‘a few guys’ that had gone to college and ‘had been reading since very young’. He’d listen to them talk about writers and books, make mental notes of the names mentioned and then would get all the books he’d heard about from the library the next day.
To him, reading was a building block of a life-defining career that needed careful construction- and was to be done in tandem with recovering from damning diagnoses, being a father and a partner, and fending for his family. I found myself admiring him for his dedication and obstinacy at getting it done; I imbued the thought of him digesting volumes of information with importance and value.
Yet, when it comes to my own reading, this couldn’t be further from how I feel about it. I feel guilty- that reading is ultimately a ‘passive’ activity, that it leads nowhere, that loving it and feeling accomplished by doing it would, in fact, produce no tangible results. That I’m not learning if I’m not tested, or producing a grade, or applying the knowledge acquired to a task that would generate an immediate income. That I’d be better off working out or doing the dishes.
There are years of third-world conditioning there that come tumbling down and I try to take cover from; there are loud, condemning voices that were once real that I struggle to silence, each time I turn the page and I’m about to excitedly embark upon a new chapter. Whether it’s that of a book or of life outside of it, the noise does not discriminate: it drowns everything that requires silence to unfold.
As I find myself wanting to read more than ever, I also blame myself for it, too. I know it is a most unnatural judgment and could not be further from the truth, but insecurity has its ways of infiltrating every narrative there ever was and forever attempting to corrupt all that will ever be; it stomps on the most valuable of activities, and left unchecked, it reduces these to nothing- or worse, close to nothing. Something that takes time and yields no profit.
It’s no surprise that this is how I feel about my writing, too, a lot of the time. I’m ashamed to admit it, as it feels like I am cheating on someone I love very dearly and without whom I wouldn’t know myself from the next person, because it’s been here, by my side, all along, and the one thing that insisted to stay.
Yes, writing feels very much like a flesh and bone companion, but it also feels like a waste of time- I love it and it’s always there to love me back whenever I allow it to. But because the practice of it doesn’t hurt, not in the slightest- in fact, it makes me feel happier and more accomplished than anything else I’ve ever done- and it’s not done in the service of others, it often doesn’t feel real or important. That sickening feeling keeps me from doing it again, or from doing it with discipline, or with some degree of regularity.
There are quite long stretches of time that I need to let pass before I can feel confident enough to start writing again; and I do so timidly, as if fearing punishment or worse, mockery.
Naturally, there are strong ties there with childhood and adult trauma; I see that clearly now and validate it and I am taking steps to fix it- because it needs to be done. While at it, though, the question remains, how do I keep myself in check long enough to produce a meaningful piece of writing? What do I need to really see and understand in order to keep going?
“I also knew that I was a frustrated teacher, and a frustrated preacher, and had to work very hard to get them, as well as my opinions, out of the work. If there is a message in the work it is in the lives of the people, their story, and how they live it. Who cares what I think about such matters. I/ll leave that to the experts and professionals, they always do a much better job of telling people how to live.”
Selby’s right. I got it. My noise and their noise will always be there. The task at hand, now, is to accept it as I shovel it out of the way.
2. Kupka- Pioneer of Abstract Art
Kupka’s evolution to a purely abstract style is a prime example of distilling one’s work down to its clearest form- a representation of strong beliefs and ideas that becomes most potent in the total absence of recognizable imagery.
If you are struggling to see meaning in your work, have broken down numerous times on the road to Dreamville and applying yourself to your aspirations has worn you out, leaving you unable to see a clear, positive end in sight, then Kupka’s life story will very likely validate that- but it might also help you learn to appreciate yourself when others clearly need more time to catch up with your worth.
Self-taught in the fields of theosophy, Buddhism and spiritualism, Kupka created his own belief system around the revelation of the unseen meaning that lays hidden behind the visual, and he let that drive his art early on. He experimented with different styles, yet steered clear from being associated to any movement in particular. He supported himself by drawing satirical caricatures for magazines and newspapers, an occupation he repeatedly tried to move away from, and relied on the steady income provided by his good friend and industrialist, Jindřich Waldes.
It was the very opposite of smooth sailing, his lifelong dedication to a vision of his art that few saw distinct value in. Kupka relentlessly pursued further training and education while fighting bouts of depression, as he struggled to dedicate himself to a body of pioneering work of the early abstract art movement and Orphism that gained him little recognition until the 1950s, just a few years before his death.
I wholeheartedly recommend you watch this documentary on Arte or read more about Kupka’s life and work. It might help in ways yet unknown.
3. František Kupka, Mme Kupka among Verticals, 1910-1911
An episode of Kupka’s life that stuck with me was the brief time he spent serving as a volunteer in the First World War. Blaise Cendrars described him as a ‘proud soldier, calm, placid, strong’, but too old to be a soldier. In fact, he was twenty-five years older than everyone in his regiment.
When they set out from Paris, marching on foot to the front in Picardy, Kupka’s wife, Eugénie, met him at the La Défense roundabout, near their home. She marched with him, carrying Kupka’s rifle and bag- and would’ve accompanied him all the way, if the colonel hadn’t arrested her and sent her back to Paris, at the end of that first day. Later, Madame Kupka still managed to find her way to the front line and got to spend time with her husband.
Eugénie is an unshakeable presence in her husband’s life- yet I couldn’t help but wonder where she really was in all of it and, more importantly, who. Aside from being his wife, then widow and keeper of his collection, was Eugénie more than simply a muse that kept him going? How complex and wonderful, or none of those things at all, was she?
If this painting suggests anything to me, is that she was not one to be kept behind bars, but rather the force that Kupka needed to do away with them. A multi-dimensional figure in green and purple, with everything else laid flat, yet bold, around her, Eugénie seems to be the last bit of realism before succumbing to total abstraction.
Kupka kept this portrait in his studio for almost 45 years, before selling it to the MoMa shortly before his death. It meant something.
4. This diagram of the journey to self-love:
I first read about self-neutrality in a women’s publication about a year or two ago. The article tried to sell me so many things at once that by the end of its account of a personal journey, I came to associate the weariness of having had to go through another piece of advertising with the concept of self- neutrality itself. No bueno.
It was only when coming across this diagram last week that I revisited the idea and realized how important neutrality is on the path of self-acceptance, love and compassion.
Often, indiscriminate positivity in every aspect of our self-development is in itself framed as a goal that needs to be achieved. As such, it can easily bring about a feeling of shame at not ‘getting there’ over an X amount of time (where X is the shortest number of hours possible dedicated to something that would ideally be achieved on the spot).
Positivity would ask you to look at your achievements- be they physical, emotional or professional- and think they’re great. Outstanding. The best there is. A lot like those of a certain American president. But that’s not easy to do, is it? If we are to be remotely realistic about it, it feels deceiving to tell ourselves everything’s great when we can clearly spot our shortcomings or identify areas that we would like to keep working on. To negate that process through a wholly positive outlook can be very damaging, as it would ultimately hinder our progress.
The alternative? Acknowledgment first, the loveliest of middle ways! I don’t have a great body or a hideous body, I have a body. I don’t have the best judgment, or education or level of intelligence in the world or the worst, I have all of these, period. My career is not fantastic or a downright disaster, it’s a career.
To me, this way of thinking feels incredibly freeing. It doesn’t lower the stakes, but rather highlights what I allowed to be externally imposed upon myself, and what brought on an aftermath of shame and inadequacy that I then had to deal with.
Self-neutrality doesn’t mean I can now stop working on improving all aspects of my existence on this blue-and-green-oasis-floating-about-in-an-eternal-void-whose-only-meaning-seems-to-be-existing-perpetually-through-change-and-stagnation; it’s realizing that the only natural order of things there will ever be is going with that flow, not against it and not any quicker.
Finally, being okay feels okay.
5. These pictures from the IKEA 1988 catalog:
Now, there are a few limiting beliefs that I have been known to harbour over the years, but the fact that events that took place during the year of my birth, whether small or big, determined my trajectory in this life is not one of them. That belief is liberating.
If anything, these pictures are testament to the great sense of style and good taste I naturally exhibit when it comes to interior decorating, which IKEA spread in May of 1988 and I caught like an airborne virus upon exiting the womb- and one that I would spend the rest of my life assembling and hope and pray it won’t wobble around third parties.
I dare anyone to challenge that notion of mine, because that challenge is entirely on them- I, for one, won’t be listening.
6. This summation of my entire existence up to present by Ben Ehrenreich:
“The future we thought was promised to us belongs also to the past”
The quote comes from Ehrenreich’s ‘Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time’, which might teach its readers a thing or two about the end of the world as we know it.
While I haven’t read his book yet, this sentence dug to the core of my feelings of inadequacy and pulled out their source by its hair: I had always imagined I’d live a life of hard work and proportional pay and recognition. That is my problem.
Mine was a vision of adulthood and success created in the boomer advertising department, which I was taught to chase from a very young age, in a world that many of my predecessors have, in fact, brought to its knees and left it up to me and the younger generations to deal with the aftermath of their ill-advised choices. Great.
I honestly bought into the notion of meritocracy and dreaming big very early on. If I worked hard and kept my head in the game, I’d have a successful career by 25, a world-renowned reputation as a life-saving surgeon writer superstar (because I could be anything I wanted), three obedient, genial and highly intelligent children that I birthed without pain, and a relationship that oiled its own wheels; a cheap five-bedroom home similar to that where Kevin McCallister was left to spend Christmas all on his lonesome (except mine would be smack in the heart of Manhattan and paid in full), two cars that ran on thin air that would be driven on empty roads and could be parked wherever I pleased; and, of course, a poreless face, the leanest of physiques, endless energy and the muscle tone to support all my adventures, of which there would be many, most of them in and around the Grand Canyon every weekend or so.
There was no doubt in my mind that my trajectory would be a mid-2000s successful mix of a glorious 50s housewife sans the anti-depressants with the independent, driven, successful career woman of the 90s.
As I was imagining this future and working towards it, I never realized I was drawing on the past and those all-time favorite Hollywood lies to inform my aspirations, while hoping like a fool that I’d create a new world out of them. A world that was possible. Clearly, I believed a promise that was never going to come true.
And that, my friends, was my first mistake.
7. This article that should have been a video but wasn’t:
You might be able to imagine my excitement at reading this headline if yours can match it: oh, the adventures that this bug and I could have gone on together! It, roaming the tall grasses and parting the petals of wildflowers as it soared with its legs outstretched into unknown territories while filming it all, and I, resting at the bottom of the deepest pit I’ve sunk into the couch, looking up from a bag of Doritos and into my phone screen, hopelessly hooked on what could only be the adventures of a lifetime.
That could’ve been us, but BBC was playing.
Till next week!