Check-in this week



I am becoming slightly more involved lately with the Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town and over there every meeting starts with a “check-in”—where we go round the table and talk about our week, days, where we are. I always dread the check-in and never find anything of importance to say. But I am thinking I could do it regularly on the blog. I’m not good with sharing my inner workings, even with the people closest to me, so why not try to do shout it from rooftops in a more public space, right? Right. Here we go. (I’m sure you’re all curious just like me about how long this is going to last.)

This past week has not been one of the easiest and mainly because of the weekend snow storm that we were contemplating. My parents back in Romania have been gardening and basking in the sun for weeks now. But here spring always comes so late, it’s disheartening. Winter never leaves before it sucks out all the will to live we might have had. And thought the pattern repeats every year, I haven’t yet become used to it and don’t know when I will.

I am tired and I hate my winter coat so in spite of the cold this week I haven’t put in on. I have a lighter, unlined coat with only a minimal wool content (it’s 70% rayon and 30% wool). It fits me differently than the model, hitting close to the knee, and besides I have modified the hem a bit with a few darts to give it more of a balloon shape. I am enjoying it a lot. I can’t wait for sunnier days when I can wear my several long wool cardigans with only t-shirts underneath.

I had plans of finishing a New England short story for a particular publication but it proved more difficult than I though and the story just didn’t want to come to life. Although I have been collecting first-witness accounts of insane asylum stories, and that part has been fun.

I have been trying to finish a collection of horror tales called Nightmares, A New Decade of Modern Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow. I picked up the book while walking by the new additions shelf in our town library on the way to the children’s room, like I do all my library picks that are not digital. I’ve been observing how some stories are predictable and yet haunting, while others are highly original but don’t manage to keep my attention or capture my imagination. It’s a very good collection, though, I’d recommend it.

And yes, I am reading stories by men too. I am slowly relaxing my rules regarding reading only women writers, when it comes to genre fiction and non-fiction.

I am also progressing in the Daphne du Maurier biography. Biographies are usually my weakness and I go through them in no time, but this one, well, no so much. I can’t yet put my finger on it. Maybe I really cannot identify with the subject at all, or maybe it doesn’t offer as much depth into her character as I’d like.

But the book that has been slowing me down the most is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I mean, it’s well written but very slow and full of descriptions of this old house which are captivating only up to a point. I feel like the classic prose style adopted for this book is its downfall. It’s been touted as Gothic, but really, I can’t see where that comes in, except for the decrepit house character and a mere suggestion of the supernatural, but that doesn’t do it for me.

I ended our subscription to Acorn TV this month. I was hoping they would have a larger collection of British cozy mysteries and comedy, but most of it is drama, and I have enough of that on other channels. But I watched the whole Agatha Raisin (I always remember it as Agatha Apple) it is an adaptation of the novels of M.C. Beaton, who looks like a very interesting author who started by writing historical romance but ended up highly successful only when she switched to mystery. I’ve also watched a New Zealand based murder series called The Brokenwood Mysteries, which was light and good. The TV show is super fun, Agatha a very quirky character who tries to make light of being a single, middle aged woman trying to make a new home and create new relationships in a closed, somewhat unfriendly community.

Today it’s supposed to be warm and the snow is melting. I am afraid to check the weather prognosis going further. I don’t remember having missed the sun so much any other time. And I bet I forget yearly.

Minimalism on my mind

I must have been sucked in, at one time or another, every single trend that’s haunted the Internet since 2009 (random date, but I have a vague feeling that was when I started my first blog on Blogger—my daughter was then two years old). I’ve done the natural living, the resurgence of handmade (sewing, knitting, etc.), the gluten-free and Paleo diets, and now minimalism. I don’t even know who I am anymore. Is that what Internet does to us: makes us lose any authentic individuality we might have had? Or we do that any way, even without help from social media? Maybe a discussion we can have another time.

All these lifestyle trends have a laudable core philosophy which often appeals to the part of me that is stressed, isolated, insecure, and always overexposed to social media. But when the main message is about resisting blind consumerism and unhealthy lifestyles and finding what’s of real value, I cannot but appreciate. Until it all becomes too rigid, too exclusivist, and I see myself in the people who take it all too seriously. At that point all is left of the good intentions I had started with is nothing but guilt-dictated behaviors. That’s when I usually disengage.

My latest thing is minimalism. I thoroughly enjoyed this article in The Financial Diet, “Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy,” by Chelsea Fagan)—it’s a fun read.

But I do disagree. I mean, not entirely, because no doubt minimalism can be all that (elitist, obnoxious, etc). But it is also something else, to me: a mental exercise that helps reduce anxiety. It suits me, because my brain functions best when free of noise, clutter, and excessive stimulation. It’s not something that I particularly appreciate about myself, since I feel a creative temperament should thrive on an accumulation of diverse stimuli from the environment, people, etc. But maybe that’s just a stereotype too.

My minimalism right now is a large wardrobe filled with monochrome clothes with interesting silhouettes but minimal froufrou. I like minimalist design in everyday objects too, although sometimes that makes them less utilitarian, and that is just stupid (I want buttons on my TV, please, and spelled out menus on my software interfaces! Ugh!).

It’s not like I don’t see the beauty in detail and decoration, but that has been done in the past, and it has been done very well. Maybe minimalism is just an expression of a desire for change. Because, of course, minimalism is not new. It has reached mainstream now, which means that it might actually be toward the end of its life. In art, minimalism as a trend was born at the beginning of the twentieth century. I’ll always think of Constantin Brancusi’s art, today turned into mainstream jewelry by designers like Sophie Buhai, often without as much as a mention of the influence (ex. SB Totem Sculpture, which copies the iconic shape of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column; not to speak of the SB egg pendant vs. Constantin Brancusi’s The Beginning of the World, only one of his many egg-shaped sculptures). Sorry for the little rant, but it has been bugging me for a while.

Minimalism might be attractive to me because it is more cerebral than ornate or realistic art. Literary minimalism is something I aspire to in my work too. (I found this old New York Times article a good introduction to literary minimalism.) I like short sentences, fragmented narratives, scarcity of description. I think unadorned, simple prose can be the most effective and beautiful. But at the same time, not easy to do. Which is fine, since I like projects anyway better than shiny, ready-finished products, and minimalism, with clothes or with words, is nothing if not a really promising project.

On depression, and from there to Karl Marx

It snowed last week, yesterday it snowed again and it will snow once more later this week.As much as we try to hygge our forced stay-in days, it’s not easy.

This winter, until now, hasn’t been too bad, where weather is concerned, but nonetheless it has been a hard one for me. I usually get a good influx of energy and positivity in January, when I start planning for new projects and in general feel like a new blank slate has been afforded to me and like a reset button has been hit and there is a renewed chance for something good to finally happen in the new year. But this time it has been different. January felt heavier than ever.

I turned forty in 2016, and that unexpectedly made a big difference. I still struggle with it. It’s like from 2007 I suddenly took a leap into 2017 it’s like I have now to account for the past ten years, not just the last one. And I don’t have much to show for it.

I could point to many places where I went wrong, where I could have done better, and I do it often, when I am alone and cannot sleep at night, which has been happening more frequently than ever before in my life. I could have written more. Submitted more. Could have had some good publishing credits to my name by now. I could have focused more, worked more, be less self-indulgent. And I end up even more discouraged and unfocused and unable to work or sleep (or alternatively just wanting to sleep all-day-long).

What I know I need to do is figure out what I can do better now. How I can help myself be able to do better.

I generally avoid calling what I feel depression, because I don’t want to equate my run of the mill low spirits with serious clinical depression that really incapacitates people and can (and should) only be managed with medication.

But I found this New York Magazine article, Psychologists Think They Found the Purpose of Depression, interesting, because it talks about the sort of manageable depressive episodes like I’m experiencing and offers something positive to take away from it. Depression is viewed as a time of disengaging with the world in order to focus on the inner self for finding solutions to the very problems that caused the depressive episode. It’s not a bad way of looking at it (neither is it a novel perspective).

I also found interesting the critical comments to the article and in particular the mention of Marx’s theory of alienation. Maybe I should read some Karl Marx one of these days, but I am afraid that in spite of agreeing with many of his views, I really won’t be able to get over his way of expressing them, which may be just antiquated but it sounds very sexist and upsetting, even when he expresses support for equal treatment of women. Here are two such pretty horrifying examples:

A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men. … man is alienated from his species-life means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life. (Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)

Joking aside, great progress was evident in the last Congress of the American “Labour Union” in that among other things, it treated working women with complete equality. While in this respect the English, and still more the gallant French, are burdened with a spirit of narrow-mindedness. Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included). (Marx and Engels Correspondence, 1968)

Eye roll warranted—this is one of those about hygge

1applesSometimes I feel like this is one of the most important lessons I am supposed to be learning: being content with the small things I already have. I am guessing this is true for most of us.

I have been born privileged: healthy, of serviceable intelligence, and of middle class means. From the start there were no limits to the dreams I could dream, which I took for granted.

Life didn’t turn out bad for me; on the contrary. But it didn’t lead where I was thinking it would either. I find myself at this age questioning decisions, abilities, everything, unable to find peace with my life. They call that something, don’t they?

I think there is something in these concepts that are being thrown at us a lot nowadays, of hygge (a Danish feeling of comfort and well-being)  and lagom (Swedish for “adequate” or “just right”).

This New Yorker article titled The Year of Hygge, the Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy gave me a lot of pause for though, because, yes, these nations are reportedly happier than other peoples, in spite of living in environments that are cold and seem adverse to any kind of joyful living. So do they have the answer? Is this it? Should we try to find our happiness in the small things that are plentiful in our days instead of always dreaming big, and often being let down over and over again?

I mean, obviously, not a very American concept, is it? The American culture has been so aggressively individualistic and proud of it that I doubt such ideas will take root here any time soon. Because for this philosophy to work, you must be somewhat community minded. Being content with little means that more of us can partake of the good life. Some of us have to tone down our aspirations in order for all of us to get a chance at dreaming at all. And I am more than fine with that. I think it’s the only ethical way to live.

When we value our lives in financial wealth, we limit ourselves to this world we already have: unhappy, skewed, stressful, violent, intolerant. We choose the path of fear and trembling because of the promise of greater rewards, which logically can only be bestowed upon few, we know too well, but we convince ourselves that we are indeed among those few, because we, each of us, are the special, chosen ones.

We end up despising the small good things that are already within our reach and invalidate their power to make us happy, because we need to stay hungry on the path of fear and trembling. The choices we’ve made as humanity are just mind-boggling, if you look at them with the right attitude.

Of course it is easier to go on and philosophize about how to solve the problems of all humanity instead of dealing with my own state of despondency. I do what I can. Now I’ll try to relax and seep some imaginary herbal tea. Because the actual instant coffee in my cup just doesn’t sound hygge enough—in the hipster and instagrammable understanding of the word. Not that I have a better understanding of it at all, which you must have gleaned by now, and which I’d never let stop me from the enjoyment of writing about it.

My luck with eyeglasses (and how I’ll maybe change it)

1brokenglassesThe worst luck with glasses. I’ve been having it. At least lately. Since I’ve caved and started buying plastic frames. That is only in the past year, when I’ve had two frames break on me already. Ugh!

I used to buy only metal frames, and titanium at that. Never ever before in my life have I had glasses break. I had loose screws, disintegrating nose pads, and chipping paint, most issues easy to deal with (well, not the paint chipping part, that is quite irreparable, but it doesn’t make the glasses unusable).

But of course a victim of trends that I am, I’ve had to have plastic frames, because they seem more stylish. I still cannot stand plastic, why do I want to wear it on my face every day? I really can’t tell you, except that I’m vain and I haven’t been able to track a pair of wearable, affordable, vintage natural-horn frames (but dream big!).

And . . . it works! I just took a small break from the writing of this post to search ebay again for horn frames and what do you think? No, I didn’t find anything there, but Google did direct me to this great-looking company, Penn Avenue Eyewear, which makes buffalo horn frames that are not exorbitant in price! And they all look so good!

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(Note: I edited this post to update the picture of the horn frame so it shows the exact frame that I ended up choosing for myself.)

Hello, baby!

But of course, this realization had to come just after I have already placed an order of new glasses, which I am sorely regretting already. Here they are.

Ray-Ban 4383_f

Not too bad looking, right?

Unfortunately, though, they are of course plastic again (with some metal, for good measure this time). And that is not even their biggest problem. These frames are Ray-Bans, and, as I also just discovered today, Ray-Ban is an American brand owned by an Italian company (!), Luxottica, which, has very unpleasant business practices. As unveiled by this very edifying CBS News exposé linked below, Luxottica dictates eyewear prices in US because it holds something that is very close to a monopoly on the American market. They own stores like Sunglass Hut, the largest sunglasses chain in the world, and LensCrafters, the largest eyewear retailer in North America, and they run Target Optical and Sears Optical; they also own best-selling brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley, and they own the second-largest vision care plan, EyeMed (they kind of dropped the ball there with only the second largest).


I promise that if you watch this video, you will not want to give any of your money to this company anymore.

So obviously, my New Year resolution is that I must buy my glasses from companies like Penn Avenue Eyewear, who not only offer what to me is amazing value (real horn, the dream of dreams!), but they do business in a way that I can appreciate: they donate 10% of every order to charity (the buyer can select from several charity options). I am in no way connected with this company, but I am super excited to have done this research and have found them. I know there are other online eyewear companies that escape the control of Luxottica: Warby Parker is one of them, for example, and Made Eyewear and David Kind seem to follow a similar model. But real horn has my heart. Soon, my lovelies, soon!

P.S. I just wanted to edit this post because I realized I didn’t mention that buying glasses online is not new for me and I am fully comfortable with it. I have bought glasses online from GlassesUSA.com several times in the past years and I’ve been very happy with their service, so at this point I am completely convinced that buying online is the way to go. But, if you want to avoid Luxottica and still buy from store, apparently Walmart and Cosco are not in their network.

Cognitive closure

1cognitive-closureI have recently read an article that was trying to explain the terrifying results of our election with the need, which becomes acute in times of crisis, for cognitive closure: people simply felt they couldn’t process too many details, too much information—they wanted a simple message that they could subscribe to. And didn’t they get it?

But ever since reading that I have been observing how the concept of cognitive closure applies to everything in my daily life. My life has not been in crisis, far from it, but I am an anxious, overly-sensitive type, and a lot of small things feel extreme to me.

For example, I fault my decision to wear only black and white to my need for cognitive closure: I just don’t want to think about matching colors, patterns, etc.

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Writing is of course the main area where I can notice the phenomenon. I cannot work on multiple projects at once. I have a friend (the multi-talented Rachel Fenton) who has a system of working on her novels, poetry, graphics on the same day, depending on her state of mind, time of the day, level of disturbance from children, etc. I envy her so much. My tiny brain cannot hold multiple ideas at the same time and in order to keep myself from burning out I need to focus on only one thing for weeks even.

I think I am trying to find ways in which it is okay, excusable, understandable. Because it is. We can’t be open to everything all the time. Sometimes it’s okay to shut down for self-preservation. But even if it’s okay, the ideal, the ultimate goal is still to open ourselves up, rather than close down. Most progress is achieved that way.

This one is for the white, college-educated women

The results of this election felt as shocking as an alien invasion to me. I cannot contemplate the result and I’m asking myself if I can hide from it forever, if I can avoid looking at any picture that would make it official, if I can stop following the news entirely, if I can pretend after four years that this has been only a bad dream.

In the aftermath, I am just angry and I cannot get over it. I know I should be a better person, I know I should demonstrate hope and optimism and understanding, but I am not ready for that yet. And our world has proven that it does not reward any of these qualities. So for once I’m not in a hurry to get there. I’ll just sit in my anger and my depression for as long as I have to.  Because what is this, people? What has become of our democratic ideals? What has become of us?

And I am addressing this rant not to everyone who voted for the terrible outcome that now we all experience, but only to the women. And not all women. Not the blue collar women from hard hit regions of the country, because they are not my demographic and instead of throwing shame and blame, I am trying to understand that I don’t understand, and that it was something legitimate that moved them to help creating the monster that is our today. And not the black women of all collar colors who voted overwhelmingly (close to 100 percent) the way I thought the entire woman vote should have gone. My problem is with the 49 percent of college educated white women who cast the vote that cannot ever be defended. I blame you for this, white women with a college degree! You should have been staunch defenders of feminist values and you should have voted for the first female president, but instead chose unbridled  patriarchy and accepted the open abuse of yourselves and our sisters and our daughters that your choice represents.

I will never understand. I don’t even want to try. I had thought that feminism had made so many strides in the past few years just to realize that in truth nothing has changed. We are the same we’ve always been: patriarchy’s brainwashed, helpless little girls. Good luck to us. We’re going to need it badly.

De la musique avant toute chose

Of music before everything

(I don’t remember why I had chosen that French verse for my—very rare—music posts, but although pretentious, I still kind of like it. Because Verlaine was right and writing is nothing if not music.)

Anyway, the song I wanted to share today is Karen Elson’s The Ghost Who Walks. Hauntingly beautiful though slightly depressing (but I find all good music depressing, or rather I find only sad music beautiful).

Have a beautiful Sunday!

KAREN ELSON, The Ghost Who Walks

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

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i hope the three (okay, i exaggerate—two) readers of this blog will forgive me for my ongoing obsession with shirley jackson that makes me post continuously only about her. both her life and her writing have been indescribably inspiring to me and i do not want to lose this surge of energy I’ve been experiencing as a result.

i finished the new biography, shirley jackson: a rather haunted life, by ruth franklin. for a while there i thought i wouldn’t be able to go through with it so soon after reading private demons. some of the same correspondence quotes were cited and some of the same significant life events highlighted, but the book was different enough to keep me reading, and i became engrossed very quickly.

it felt like this new biography brought to light a lot of new material. i liked that it focused a bit more on stanley hyman, shirley jackson’s literary critic husband, who had a big influence on her writing, and his own career upheavals felt very relevant. Otherwise, for a second there my feminist radar went up because we shouldn’t be focusing on any man, no matter how important a figure, in the biography of a brilliant woman writer. but i revised my opinion as i kept reading–it was necessary and illuminating.

i appreciated the more nuanced approach to shirley jackson’s private troubles, like the weight struggle and her relationship with her mother, and i felt like the whole book created a very human, very approachable jackson, without taking anything away from the uniqueness of her work. the book is scattered with quotes from publishing industry professionals who are in awe of her writing at the time, which is interesting. it almost seems like there are two camps of critics of shirley jackson: those who cannot think highly enough of her, and those who put her down as a minor writer who never aimed high enough (she wrote for women’s magazines! horror of horrors!).

now i really should be moving on to reading more of her novels and stories. the first will probably be the bird’s nest, a novel about multiple personalities.

p.s. i didn’t use capitalization in this blog post in shirley jackson’s honor—she used to write like this. it feels very wrong and a little freeing.

Private Demons, The Life of Shirley Jackson

jackson-shirley-family1I just finished reading the 1988 Shirley Jackson biography by Judy Oppenheimer and I am in a trance. It happens often when I read biographies: I lose all sense of myself and become that other person in my head. So I am Shirley Jackson right now, ask me anything about witchcraft, I own thousands of books on the topic.

It is rare these adult days of mine that I enjoy a book so much I am sad when it’s over, but it happened with this biography. It creates such an absorbing world that it becomes painful to disconnect from it.

What I particularly connected to were Shirley Jackson’s struggles as a mother who wrote in her spare time, whatever was left. I understood how she often had to prioritize: kids went with hair uncombed for weeks, they were unsupervised most of the time, the house was very messy, and so on. It is interesting that she is seen as a 50s woman who embraced motherhood and homemaking, when she didn’t actually seem to have been too preoccupied with any of it too much. Yes, she raised four children (well, she died quite young, so they were not all completely raised) and she lived in huge mansions where she did most of the housework, but she seemed to have been quite relaxed about what all those responsibilities entailed. And of course she had to be, because otherwise there would never have been time for any writing.

Most disturbing about this book was the need of the author to mention Shirley Jackson’s weight innumerable times. She was fat, grotesque, huge, not the way people expect a writer to look. Ugh! So upsetting! This is not her legacy. Nobody cares. What I mean, of course, is that nobody would care if she were a man. But a woman cannot just be brilliant, she must be good looking at the same time. Disturbing, to say the least.

Even with such a systemic effort to diminish the greatness of her shadow, the Shirley Jackson brought to life by this book is a memorable, awe-inspiring, cult-following worthy figure.

Now I can’t wait for the Ruth Franklin biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,  which will be released by the end of this month. Such perfect timing!