On YouTube this week I shared my Ten Books I will be reading this Winter and Spring, along with various reading habits I’ve picked up over the years. I’m trying to make a habit of a corresponding blog post for these video offerings, for those who would prefer to read rather than watch. See below for all of the things I mentioned in the video!
I thought I might check in today and share with you the books I plan on reading over the next few months. If you caught my post over on Instagram, you may have noticed a stack of ten or so books that I shared, in the last week or so. Most of the titles included in that post are the ones I will be mentioning today, although I did make a few swaps for a book or two that I would prefer to read sooner rather than later.
A few people asked me if I was really reading all ten of them at once and the answer is yes! Sort of! Maybe. I didn’t begin each book on the same day, and I am not reading from all of them every day, but I am at least a chapter into each book on this list and some of them I have already finished.
This juggling several books at once is a habit I picked up while I was spending weekends caring for my grandmother before she died. When she was sleeping–which was most of the time–there wasn’t much that I could do for her, so I ended up bringing various projects and books with me to pass the time. Of course, more often than not, I found myself scrolling on my phone, which, while not only being pretty unproductive, I can also find looking at too much social media to be awfully detrimental. So I promised myself that after I spent half an hour reading a chapter from various books, usually a combination of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels, then I would allow myself a quick few minutes looking at my phone.
I found this very helpful with not only curtailing my screen time and making the day go a bit faster, I was also making headway with my TBR stacks and even getting into those books which had been sitting on my shelves and gathering dust for the longest time! And it’s a habit that I practice to this very day; when I set aside a portion of time for reading, unless it’s some sort of really riveting mystery or horror novel that I am compelled to read straight through, I typically do read a few chapters from a stack of 4-5 books. I find that keeps your mind constantly engaged and thinking and making connections, and as a writer, it’s the discovering and digging into those connections (which usually adds additional titles to your stack) which I find so fascinating and really, just an eternal source of inspiration.
It’s difficult to say what these strange slice-of-life snippets are about, the characters are often fearful of something nameless, or if their dread and paranoia does appear to focus on something concrete, whatever that is, it probably won’t make any sense. I would suggest these ominous visions are best experienced in the lull of liminal hours for people keen on terse tales of unease and unidentifiable weirdness.
Strangers is an exploration of the world and our relationship with nature through a series of essays linking the environmental, the political, the folkloric and the historical. It felt like a deeply necessary, urgent read for all human people anywhere along their their journey, who wish to experience life and living in a profoundly intimate and compassionate way. There is one particular essay about a cockroach that I highly recommend. And that is a sentence I never could have foreseen myself typing out.
HABIT NO.2 This second habit that relates to my reading is that I always keep a notebook and a pen nearby when I’m engrossed in a book. Whether it’s to jot down an unfamiliar word or turn of phrase, to capture a phrase or sentiment that particularly ensnared my heart or set my imagination alight, or make notes on this, that or the other interesting tidbit or topic for further research, I have found my booknotes absolutely essential to deepening my experience of and engagement a story while I’m reading it. Equally as important, I revisit the thoughts and words I’ve recorded there for inspiration in my own writing when I am working on various projects.
I was reminded of having rented from Blockbuster (!!) and watched Perfect Blue many many years ago when I recently spied it on someone’s goodreads list and realized that the film I had seen was either originally based on a book, or that there was a book adaptation of the film. Intrigued, I found a copy online and probably paid too much for it, because it is not easily available. For those unfamiliar, the basic premise is that there is a cute Japanese pop idol, Mima who is working to transform her image to something a little more mature and risque, and this does not sit well with an obsessed fan who desperately wants her to remain “pure” and thinks he has a plan to save her soul. After finishing the book I immediately had to rewatch the movie because aside from the very basic plot I just gave you, they are handled so differently. The movie (directed by Satoshi Kon, who also did the fantastically bizarre Paprika) was a surreal psychological thriller in which there are actually several characters who are experiencing unraveling mental states or are losing/have lost their grip on reality. It’s not just got an eerie vibe, it’s downright sinister feeling in certain scenes. The book itself is much more straight-forward in terms of being a stalker/slasher story. If you like twisty and thinky and strange, go for the movie. If you like twisted and gruesome served straight up, then go for the book.
Though I am not very far into this book by essayist, social critic, and culture buff Sady Doyle, I can tell you two things. A history and examination of the patriarchal and misogynistic fear of “monstrous” women, covering everything from literature and cinema to mythology, religion, history and current events through the lens of a brilliant –and funny!– writer is right up my alley and two, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has created an incredible collection of scents inspired by this book and the monstrous feminine archetypes which perpetually recur in storytelling. They are all really incredibly interesting fragrances and they are still available for purchase.
HABIT NO.3 So, I was at one time what you might consider an absolute and utter monster, and I used to dog-ear my books to mark my page! But no more! I have become a major bookmark enthusiast and I have an entire box on my shelf devoted to them. As I’ve mentioned in previous videos, I am a passionate art collector, and when any of my favorite artists releases a version of their work in a bookmark format, I will always grab one. Aside from that, I recycle the postcards and notecards and greeting cards sent from friends and use them to mark my place in a book as well. I’ve got quite a surplus at this point and whenever I gift a book I always slip one of these tiny pieces of art in the pages to accompany it. Oh! And if you have an instax camera, those snaps make great little gifts.
An idea that’s become a way of life for me (though it’s been a long journey in becoming so) is that there are potential portals to magic that permeate every instant of our lives if we slow down, take notice of them, and actively choose to think of them as such. Our everyday routines are more than just rote habit, they can truly be sacred rituals, full of pleasure and meaning. In Making Magic, Briana Saussy speaks directly to this belief and writes of how magic is found at the very roots of our experience. Magic doesn’t have to be this arcane, abstract thing– belongs to everyone, and it is a part of everyone’s actual lineage. Filled with exercises, hands-on work, and guided journaling, it helps us to remember and reimagine how to engage with the extraordinary in your everyday life.
I originally learned of this author on an episode of the Faculty of Horror podcast in which hosts Andrea Subasatti and Alex West were the 2007 Steven King adaptation movie, The Mist. Which I don’t know about you, but that’s a bleak masterpiece and it’s probably one of my top ten favorite films of all time. I’ve not read any of Mark Fisher’s works, nor had I heard of him before this podcast, but I believe he was an academic, a theorist and philosopher, who often wrote on dark and difficult subjects, and I am sad to learn is no longer with us, as he passed in 2017. The Weird and the Eerie offers discussion of the literary styles that one might describe as ‘weird’ or ‘eerie’ and which can be found in forms of fantastic fiction. I am not very far along into it and I have a suspicion that this is going to be one of those difficult reads that is even more of a struggle to discuss (especially if you are someone, like me, who is lacking in an academic background), but for purposes of clarification and because I found it interesting, here’s something I read in an article about Fisher’s differentiation of these two terms: “…..the weird should be understood as that ‘which does not belong’, most commonly finding expression in ‘the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together’ (10–11). The eerie, on the other hand, indicates a different type of affect – one that is not so much about the terrifying intrusion of something that does not belong, but more often with a frightening absence where one would expect a presence.” (Source)
If you have read this wondrously knowledgeable scholar, historian, and second-generation witch’s previous offerings,Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, and Cat Call: Reclaiming the Feral Feminine, then no doubt you were over the moon to learn of her most recent title, Witch Hunt. A hybrid travel guide and memoir which at points dips into the realms of historical fiction, Witch Hunt reflects research gleaned from travels to seven countries, forty-five cities, towns, and villages. Through her intrepid adventures across Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom Sollee explores the fraught and fascinating history of these haunting figures from the past and uncovers how the archetype of the witch has been rehabilitated as a symbol of power.
HABIT NO.4 I don’t think we can talk about cozying up with a book–or at least I can’t anyway–without the very important discussion of what snacks accompany your stories. When I was young I used to pilfer oyster crackers or saltines from the kitchen cupboard and stuff them under my pillow to nibble on when I was rereading Harriet the Spy for the umpteenth time. When I was old enough to buy my own snacks I would pour a combination of various snack sized baggies of cheetos and doritos and funyuns into a bowl and munch on what my sisters called a “Sarah Special,” while I read Stephen King, and sure, mock all you like, but to this very day I maintain it’s a delightful treat!
As an adult who is more concerned with appearances than I was as a teenager, I’m too embarrassed to be seen shopping for things that coat your fingers in orange dust, so instead I make a big batch of popcorn, drizzle it in butter, and sprinkle it with salt, nutritional yeast and nori for a savory, salty, crunch snack that is only slightly less embarrassing and if you saw how much of it I can put away in one sitting you’d see what I mean by this.
Editor Emily X.R. Pan shares in the book’s introduction that Foreshadow is an ode to the short story, and that what makes this medium of story-telling so remarkable, is how the author must sharpen the experience of a story, condense it into something powerful. They must take all of the things that make a good novel and compress it into a neat little package. She further reveals that when we “tell the blank page a story…. it will tell you who you are.” and that “always, there is something of the author preserved like a fossil in amber –you can see it so much more clearly because the story is sliced so thin.” If this sounds like the editors of this collection are excited at the opportunity to celebrate unique young adult short stories and showcase underrepresented voices in the genre, and if that is getting you excited too, I think that excitement pays off in the luminous and fantastical stories they’ve chosen to include. What makes this book even more special is that after each offering the editors take a closer look at the techniques employed in the story, highlighting different aspects of the craft, and in addition to that, there are writing prompts and interviews with the authors about their processes and inspiration.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet – To Science” the poet’s laments the dangers of scientific development and its negative implications for poetry and creativity. Illingsworth, an expert at the forefront of the intersections of science and poetry disagrees with these sentiments, noting that the more we find out about science, the more we realize what a beautiful and incredible world we live in. With this book and its accounts of six groundbreaking scientists who also write poetry, he is attempting to determine whether these disciplines are complementary, whether scientists who embrace poetry were also increasing their understanding of the world, expanding their language and thereby their capacity to communicate their science to others.
For those who are unfamiliar with this individual, Hildegard Von Bingen was a 12th century mystic, scientist, composer, herbalist and inventor of one of the earliest known constructed languages by a woman. Educated from the age of eight at a Benedictine monastery at and later becoming an Abbess, Hildegard experienced prophetic visions since childhood and spent many years writing the visionary works. She is a truly fascinating human in many respects but I’ll be honest here– I am a few pages into this into this “mutant fiction of speculative mysticism” wherein the works of Hildegard von Bingen have been reimagined in a novel format and I have got no clue as to what the heck is going on. So I am going to cheat and read to you the back of the book. I’m also going to link to a very interesting interview with Lemmey if you’re interested in reading more about this author’s “collaboration” with Hildegard von Bingen.
“In this story of survival and miracles, Hildegard encounters love, both queer and divine, and great peril. As the visionary healer travels through the unfamiliar landscape following a great cataclysm, she discovers the mythic quantum energy of viriditas in the natural world around her. Her journey becomes one of return, to the sacred truth of her own being.”
I am going to further cheat by sharing with you what I messaged a friend, shortly after beginning this book: “I am reading this and getting spectacularly excited and emotional and I don’t know why because I don’t understand any of it! But it’s like my little cells and atoms are all crowding together and jumping over each other in a frenzy, shouting I KNOW THIS I KNOW THIS! I feel them bubbling and boiling in my blood because I bet they DO know something and my brain just hasn’t figured it out yet!”
HABIT NO.5 I suppose this last habit is more of a compulsion, really. When I finish a book, I IMMEDIATELY have to begin a new one. No waiting! I get antsy and irritable and weird if I don’t have my next read lined up and ready to go after the final page of the previous book has turned.
So what are you reading now and over these next few chilly winter months? What are your reading habits–good, bad, weird or otherwise?
A gathering of death-related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From heart-rending to gut-splitting (sometimes you gotta laugh, you know?) from informative to insightful to sometimes just downright weird and creepy, here’s a snippet of recent items that have been reported on or journaled about with regard to death, dying, and matters of mortality.
I have written poetry for most of my life, but I don’t always share it. I used to actually attend and participate in poetry readings in my twenties, if you can believe that! Since that time I’ve gotten more shy and squirrelly and self-conscious and I can’t imagine doing that now, but if I can’t share my efforts on my blog, then what is this space even for?
This first one is something that I actually had submitted somewhere, but I don’t think they are going to use it, so oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The second one is just something I’ve been thinking about for years and years–it’s actually something that happened at a poetry reading!
Something about the moon but it is always my mother
This moon how it drips and pools and you— these many years gone.
Will I weep when the looking glass dims and your reflection clouds and a moon is just a moon and mourning is only night mist soaking the pads of cat feet and there are no more mirrors on the cusp of a night in autumn when on the morning your photograph has finally begun to fade.
Untitled; a sandwich; my heart
I recall an old woman, on stage, a local poet’s society meeting. A line she spoke aloud aloud from her recent writings, an ode to her husband. Her beloved’s face likened to a smear of yellow mustard trimming a sandwich she’d eaten in a deli in Brooklyn long before I was born.
Long before I knew there were places like Brooklyn and a world of sandwiches. Long before I knew how good a sandwich could be in a space where you felt safe with someone you loved.
I recall the kiss he gave her after our gathering dispersed– in the strip mall parking lot, under the sodium lamps. A tender thing. Lingering. Soft. In the grainy warmth of those yellow lights, he did look a bit mustardy.
And I envied the many sandwiches between them.
I should have been embarrassed by my hungry gaze but could not look away, and as he held her wobbling elbow slowly searching for their parking spot. I wondered then, at the heat in my face, and who might one day sigh and smile and describe my cheeks in terms of cured meat and blushing salami.
“Christian Dior was passionate about the divinatory arts and signs of destiny. His autobiography is punctuated with often fateful encounters with visionary personalities: “It will be extraordinary. Your house will revolutionize fashion!” he recalled of a prophecy come true.”
“Tarot cards are among the keys to accessing the magical realm, to explore the unknown while fearlessly looking deep inside oneself. Maria Grazia Chiuri immediately felt a connection with these imaginary worlds and this visual language whose symbolic lexicon is rich in complex and fascinating characters. In uncertain times marked by a palpable desire to reconnect with the world’s soul, Maria Grazia Chiuri wished to explore, through the spring-summer 2021 haute couture collection, the mysterious and pluralistic beauty of the tarot in a series of dresses featuring virtuoso constructions; manifest proof that couture remains the ultimate territory of experimentation and possibility.”
“Fascinated by Italo Calvino’s novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Maria Grazia Chiuri chose to design her collection using the wonderful Visconti-Sforza tarot cards for exceptional creations symbolizing the major arcana. A tale celebrating the magical beauty of the divinatory arts.”
“A clairvoyant asks to draw a card in a deck designed as a catalogue of possibilities, a cryptic dictionary of the world. The High Priestess, the Empress, Justice and the Fool, are notably sublimated through excellence of savoir-faire celebrating the art of weaving: lace is inlaid with hand-painted embellishments, golden velvet is enlivened with the signs of the zodiac and precious jacquards are sprinkled with stars, while a cape in multicolored feathers showcases 3D volumes.”
“A series of extraordinary evening gowns features abstract constructions, some with veritable bas-relief openwork bodices punctuated with illustrations by Pietro Ruffo. In this spirit, the Roman artist created a singular deck of cards in which characters disclose the graphic energy of the symbols.”
1. A marvelous sourdough loaf with loads of encouragement and everything bagel seasoning suggestions from @clockedoutandcookin on Instagram. Original recipe from the foodbod blog. I had made a few loaves of sourdough earlier in the summer, and at the time I thought it was a really tedious, stupid, shitty process and that maybe it just wasn’t for me. But something finally clicked yesterday as I was folding the dough for the umpteenth time, and I realized that every time I approached the bowl, I was actually looking forward to working with it, to gathering portions and pulling it up and over itself, with feeling the texture gradually change from shaggy and sticky to bouncy and bubbly. That was an unexpected revelation. Isn’t it great when you realize you’re not too stuck in your ways to change your mind about something?
We were a frozen pizza and Hamburger Helper household mosts night while I was growing up, and we definitely never had any type of formal Sunday dinner, so as an adult, I guess I get a kick out of doing something a little fancy on Sunday nights. And while I suppose it could be argued that stew isn’t exactly haute cuisine, it sure beats Digiorno’s.
3. And lastly, chocolate chip cookies made with a hefty dollop of sourdough starter discard. Although this made for some really freaking incredible raw cookie dough, it resulted in very… fluffy cookies. Which, if this is your thing, then you might really enjoy these lil puffers. But I don’t love cookies and I especially don’t love cakey cookies, so eh. Not a fan of this version. They can’t all be winners!
From the time I was old enough to have a job, I have always worked weekends. As a teenager, starting out as bottom-bun girl and working my way up to cashier at Checkers (yes, that was my first job!); working both as a staffing manager AND a weekend caregiver for a home-care company in my twenties; working two jobs for nearly a decade in my thirties, full time in an office during the day, and part-time in a health food shop in evenings and on weekends. When I moved back to FL, my weekends were *almost* free there for a few months, but I quickly realized my elderly grandparents were not doing so well, and so my Saturdays and Sundays again became consumed doing all of the things for them that I did not have time to do during the workweek. All the while, every second, every breath in between, writing, writing, and writing some more. Scribbling for various venues, and for my own blog, which I’ve had in various incarnations for the past twenty years. And though I enjoy writing (mostly, ha!) this too, is work.
All of this is on my mind today. Someone recently remarked to me, in an off-hand yet weirdly skeptical-bordering-on-suspicious sort of way, “why would you spend all weekend cooking? That’s so much WORK.!” No, friends. I know work. And I have spent a great many weekends working. Most weekends of my adult life! But, for me, cooking is never, ever work*. Days spent hovering over simmering soups and yeasty bubbling bread dough, chopping, mixing stirring, sprinkling, concocting something delicious and heart-warming and filled with love, these are sacred acts of the most joyful magic. This is time well spent –best spent!– and I cannot think of a better way to spend my Sunday.
*I sometimes feel a little weird and not…self-conscious, exactly….but I begin feeling some kind of strange, shy, sheepish way when I share my excitement about how much I love cooking. I understand that not everyone enjoys cooking, or even gives a fig about it. I personally know some of these people (and I might even be related to them.) And I worry I might be coming across as self-congratulatory, like LOOK AT HOW GREAT I AM AT THIS THING THAT YOU CAN’T DO/DON’T LIKE TO DO. And that’s not my intent! But I guess I am always worried, all the time, about inadvertently making someone feel lesser-than. And so I downplay or diminish or sometimes completely secret away the things that I love or find important or…that I’m good at. And that really sucks.
But it is okay that I like something you don’t, that I do something you don’t! There are plenty of things that other people like to do that I can’t be bothered with in the slightest. There are all kinds of people in the world obsessing about all kinds of stuff, and the way I feel passionate about making soup is maybe how someone else feels super jazzed about whittling spoons or hula hooping or playing the accordion. And what a wonderful world it is, full of all of us, enthusiastically just doing our things. And anyway, people who like to cook have got to have people to cook for, so I think it all works out.
Next up in this very informal series of interviews with the contemporary artists whose work I was generously allowed to include in The Art of the Occult is Gina Litherland.
Active in the visual arts since the mid-1970s, exploring photography, performance, drawing, and painting, Gina Litherland studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her paintings, drawings, and articles have been published worldwide in journals and periodicals. Her essay on the connections between creative activity and the natural world, “Imagination & Wilderness,” appears in Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas Press).
Enthralled with folktales, myths, and literature since childhood, these themes have served as an important source of inspiration in her work. Children’s games, old theater forms such as puppetry and opera, traditional British folk ballads, divination, superstitions, the human/animal boundary, and the natural world wherein the mundane commingles with the magical to coalesce into the richly detailed visions, fables, and dreams on her canvas.
I am so pleased to share with you my recent interview with this generous-hearted, delightful artist, wherein we chat about tea and divination, fairytales and curious women, and the endless and fantastical inspiration to be found in nature
In “Tea Leaf Reading”, the painting that you kindly allowed inclusion of in The Art of the Occult, we are treated to the divinatory dramatics of a session of tasseomancy wherein two figures contemplate the portents in a teacup, while various animals look on in interest, or flit overhead, perhaps in alarm! Can you tell us about your own interest in/history with/or practice of various divinatory techniques and rituals? And while we’re spilling the tea, what’s your favorite brew to have on hand–either while working on your art, or just relaxing with a cuppa?
My interest in divination started when I was in high school and bought my first tarot deck. I went to our local bookstore in Gary, a tiny place called “The Book Nook” and bought the Swiss Tarot, the only one they carried. If you’re familiar with that deck it’s an old design and many of the images have a dark, foreboding quality. I really like it, but the Devil card in that deck is absolutely terrifying. I dabbled with it a bit, got a little spooked by it, and put it aside. I hadn’t really studied the Tarot, I was just fooling around with it.
Some years later I picked up my first I Ching, which interested me greatly and I’ve used that consistently over the years. I also began studying the Tarot more deeply and occasionally did readings for other people. The images intrigued me. I was also very interested in astrology and studied that, and did charts for people. I got a reading around that time from an astrologer who told me that art would be the central focus of my life and that it was imperative that I use my creativity. I already sort of knew this, but at the time it was a great encouragement to me. She also said that my painting would take the place of the tarot for me. That was interesting, because I never fully connected with the imagery of any of the tarot decks that I found. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to create my own. I started one about 5 years ago and I’m hoping to finish it in another 5 years or so. I want to do all 78 cards so the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana are illustrated and that’s a lot of work! Beyond that I think all sorts of divination methods are interesting, like palmistry, bird augury, tea leaf reading, etc.
My favorite tea? I drink tea all day and I love black tea, green tea, mint tea, and there’s also a tangerine/orange tea with rose hips that I drink every day. I have lemon balm growing completely out of control in back of the house, and I can pick it fresh in the summer and blend it with mint. It’s wonderful, especially when it’s fresh like that. Lemon balm is excellent for lifting the spirits, too, and Nicholas Culpepper wrote that it made the mind “happy and bright!”
I’ve seen mention of a handful of your favorite artists–Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Hilma af Klint, and Vali Myers, to name a few. Can you tell me what it is about these artist’s work or vision that speaks to you so profoundly? Is there a common thread that you find particularly compelling?
Leonora Carrington’s work has an airy luminosity to it, and references to Celtic mythology and magic which fascinate me. Remedios Varo’s work is also magical and hermetic. Both of these artists obviously studied early Renaissance painting, something I’m also inspired by, and used it in a very personal way. Vali’s work feels very Intimate, like looking in someone’s diary. Hilma af Klint’s work has an elegant, glowing balance. What they all share is working from their inner vision and being wholly committed to it. That is always the kind of work that interests me.
You speak of how in every myth and folktale, there is a pivotal scene in which an encounter occurs, pushing the hero/heroine into an unknown world in which they have to learn to navigate. What are some of your most beloved fairy tales, mythic stories, poems, or parables, in which such a shift occurs? Can you speak to how you may have interpreted that scene or characters through the strokes of your paintbrush?
One of my favorites is Little Red Riding Hood. It’s so basic and perfect and the image of the little girl facing the wolf is an iconographic image that’s understood universally. It’s also what I call one of the “anti-curiosity stories”, the warning being “don’t stray from the path”. Like Bluebeard’s bride being warned not to open that one door, or Pandora being told not to open the box, it’s the old warning to women not to be curious. They are all basic rehashings of Eve in the garden speaking to the serpent and eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. I find it all fascinating. The encounter leads to a revelation of some sort, maybe terrible, maybe wonderful. Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast are also two of my favorite fairy tales because they involve a human female encountering an animal.
A recurring theme in my work is penetrating the wall that separates humans from other animals. Part of what the myth of the Garden of Eden is about to me is that our fall occurred when we recognized that we were different from animals, we felt the shame of being naked. That’s when we lost paradise and why we have this longing to repair the rift between humanity and nature, but we struggle against it, too. We want to be superior and we’re not.
When I depict these scenes I’m showing them through a lens of female experience. A woman or girl is having this moment of discovery that will lead her to some new understanding. This discovery is sensory, imaginative, and psychic. It is not interested in control but in learning from the encounter.
…And as we often see ourselves in the stories we are most drawn to, I am curious as to how much of yourself do you see emerging forth on the canvas as you share these stories through your personal lens and the medium of your art?
From the time I started reading these stories when I was little, I related them to my own experience completely. I loved the thought of Little Red Riding Hood bravely straying from that path in the woods, in the way that I loved to explore the wooded areas near the house I grew up in. It felt mysterious and dangerous. And now, when I’m painting these scenes the situations still feel fresh to me, that feeling of awe and discovery that I feel when I’m walking through the woods or when I’m painting.
I did a painting called The Unknown Room that shows a woman about to open a door with a key. I had a dream that I was at the door of my old house from my childhood. The door in the dream looked just like the one in the painting, like a weathered, medieval door with a wonderful texture. When I opened it, I entered a beautiful room of glass filled with glittering bottles. That moment at the door, when I was deciding to go in, reminded me of the Bluebeard story. When Bluebeard warns his wife not to open that door, and then she does as soon as he leaves, that moment at the door is the most suspenseful in all of literature! She opens it and sees all of the murdered wives that came before her, the most ghastly sight. The discovery, as horrid as it was, saved her life. The discovery can be wonderful or horrific. Often these encounter stories have multiple levels of meaning for me, the original meaning layered with my own experience. The fact that they take a long time for me to paint, usually a few months, gives me lots of time to think about the meaning.
I see the term “Midwest surrealism” used in many descriptions of your work; though I suppose I could conjure for myself some imagery of what that might mean, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it for folks who may not be familiar.
There was a group of wonderful artists working in Wisconsin and Chicago, starting in the 1940s, who were strongly influenced by the European Surrealists. Some of them were Gertrude Abercrombie, Sylvia Fein, Marshall Glasier, Dudley Huppler, Karl Priebe, Julia Thecla, and John Wilde. If you looked at their work and compared it to the European Surrealists, there’s nothing particularly Midwestern about it. It’s a category created by art historians and critics because they like to label things. If you are an artist and stay in the Midwest, the tag of regionalism always follows you around. I personally love the Midwest and feel fiercely loyal to my Midwestern roots, so it’s fine with me.
Ok, so I don’t want to embarrass you, but on Facebook you shared a drawing you had created when you were four years old and it was so much fun to see that colorful little relic from your formative years! Obviously a great deal has changed and evolved over time since that artistic offering from toddler-you… but maybe not everything…! To my eye, you seem to work in a very similar color palette today! Those deep, rich, beautifully earthy shades can still be seen to great effect in your current work (I actually see so many of them in Tea Leaf Reading!) Can you speak to the use of color in your work?
That’s funny, because I recently found that early drawing that I did and one of the reasons I posted it was that I did really think that it was unmistakably my work. I think your observation about the colors is great. What I noticed was that I made sure each hand had five fingers, the clothes were kind of detailed and fancy, and I still love that sort of detail. One of the things I love about drawing and painting is that the personal stamp is so unavoidable. That brain-to-hand communication, the kind of line a person uses, for example, are as unique and personal as a fingerprint or a signature. I love the pure tactility of painting. And yes, I do gravitate toward earth colors and jewel tones. I also like to layer color, which oil paint does so beautifully, and use glazes so one color shows through another.
You sometimes use a “decalcomania” technique by stamping various colors onto the panel and letting the textural forms suggest images, through which a narrative forms. You have noted that this can be a very satisfying way to work, and often the most revelatory– with a world emerging out of nowhere. In this time of isolation and COVID, we haven’t been seeing much of the world at all over the course of the past year. I’d love to live vicariously through the worlds you are creating! Can you tell us please about the worlds you’ve been most excited to have seen revealed to you on your canvas of late?
When the pandemic first hit, honestly, I was stunned. I spent a lot of time staring out the window and watching the birds at the feeders. I kept a notebook and mostly drew funny cartoons of myself having no energy and watching the busy, industrious little birds and squirrels outside. Then I started thinking about one of my favorite writers, Shirley Jackson, and her book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s been one of my favorite books for a long time. One day, my husband, Hal, said to me, “I would have chosen different library books if I knew this was going to happen.” It reminded me of an almost identical line at the beginning of Castle that comes from Merricat about their own library books, chosen right before she and her sister, Constance, completely sequester themselves from the world. I decided this would be a good time to pay tribute to that novel.
So I did my Portrait of Mary Katherine Blackwood, for Shirley Jackson. Merricat stands in the middle of a wooded area with her cat, Jonas, neatly folded into her arms safely tucked into her own feral, magical world. Around this time I also did a cooking painting, with two women making a big harvest stew with a variety of animals assisting them in the kitchen. I’ve become obsessed with cooking during the pandemic, and enjoy figuring out what to cook next. Now I’m working on a painting of harpies and another one of a woman standing in an incandescent garden at night. These two paintings were just begun very recently and I think they both radiate a kind of eerie light in the darkness. Now that we’re coming into 2021, I’m trying to be hopeful in the midst of all of the chaos of the world.
Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to create? Any rituals or practices?
I always start my day by feeding the birds and squirrels. After breakfast, I have a cup of coffee or tea, then I light some incense, and put some music on before I begin. I do this without fail every morning.
You have an essay in the collection Surrealist Women, titled “Imagination and Wilderness” stating that “The imagination is a wilderness — liberating, ecstatic, waiting to grow and fly and howl.” I’m still trying to track down a copy of the book because it sounds absolutely marvelous! And my own imagination is set wonderfully alight/aflight by your words in this vein as I consider this impact of the natural world on the human psyche and creativity. Can you tell us a bit more about that statement and perhaps also about the influence of the natural world upon your own work?
One of the ideas that I was trying to get across in that essay is that our psyches need wild spaces and wild life in very deep complex ways. Nature is endlessly creative and fantastic. It’s an imaginative entity in itself, and everybody needs it, not just the animals that live in these spaces. Nothing stimulates the imagination like sitting in nature, looking at the way a bird’s nest is made, or the intricate symmetry of flowers.
I was also thinking about the similarity between taking a walk in the woods, looking at the forest floor, noticing little things like plant debris, lichen, small animals hiding here and there; the similarity between that and painting, dabbing paint on a panel and seeing forms, having textures suggest other forms, the associations that come into the mind if you can be receptive to these suggestions. Nature is constantly creating and extinguishing life forms in the same way that unconscious thoughts rise and vanish in our minds. Being receptive to passing unconscious thoughts are what the surrealists meant by pure psychic automatism.
Civilization has treated nature like a commodity, and by doing this, we’re not only creating a very unhealthy environment, we’re killing off a part of our minds and turning ourselves into automatons. Human beings are much too arrogant and lacking in respect for wilderness. If you turn to wilderness with an attitude of receptivity and respect, if always gives something precious back to you. I love the myth of the Norns, the three women who took care of the tree, Yggdrasil, from the Poetic Edda. Yggdrasil was the tree of the world, the center of the universe, and the Norns were three wise women that nurtured the tree, watered it, and tended it. I find that incredibly beautiful, the idea that just tending to a tree and nurturing it can have an effect on the universe. I think it’s true.
The one thing all human beings have in common is the fact that one day, our life will end in death. What does death mean to you? How does it make you feel? I recently had a unique opportunity to engage quite personally with these sometimes scary, often uncomfortable, typically taboo questions and examine my own history and understanding of them, as well.
I’ve experienced more death than I care to think about in the past several years. Three close family members–my mother and both of my maternal grandparents–passed one after the other in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Through these experiences, I thought I had a handle on the different aspects of death, the ins and outs, the befores and afters.
I learned how to care for a dying loved one, loved ones both cooperative and cognizant–and loved ones who were not-so-much. I learned how to navigate the complicated business of living wills and regular old wills and estate planning, and in the unfortunate case of my mother, no wills or planning at all. I learned how to grieve the loss of a pair of loving and generous grandparents, as well as the difficult relationship with my mother. I believed that through these intimate familial encounters with grief and loss, I had become familiar with death, and in doing so, faced some of my own innate fears.
As it turned out, this wasn’t the case at all. At the end of everything, once I had time to breathe again, it struck me all at once. I’d come to terms with the death of almost everyone important to me because I’d had to face the actual reality of their deaths, but now that the dust had settled and the metaphorical dirt had been shoveled over their graves (it wasn’t, though, they were all cremated) this left me with an awful lot of time to contemplate my own mortality. This shouldn’t be a problem, right? I’d cozied up to the dead and dying plenty of times by now–I was perfectly prepared to confront the idea of my own death, wasn’t I? It wasn’t until I had only myself to think about and plan for that I understood how limited my knowledge about death really was, and how tenuous my ideas regarding the afterlife were once I began to more closely examine them.
These realizations were unexpectedly paralyzing. The raising of these questions broke me and bruised me in ways that I never could have anticipated…and I found comfort and catharsis in an equally unexpected way.
Death Awareness Coach Claudia Crobatia’s Get Ahead of Death Course is a series of 31 videos, divided into 7 modules which encourages people to explore their own relationship with mortality and tackles many of these questions. Guiding us through the subject matter with grace and compassion, Claudia provides us tools to get more comfortable with the idea of death and reduce some of this death anxiety– along with helping us integrate the new perspectives we gain during the course and turning them into practical actions. What does death mean to you? What are your fears regarding the idea of death and how can you transform them? How have your own experiences with death in the past shaped how you feel about it, and do these ideas still make sense to you today?
Through these conversations Claudia stresses that each person’s death is as individual as each person’s life, and invites us, in the safe haven of these gentle videos and corresponding lessons, to prepare personal death plans, to create bucket lists for living our best lives, exercises for envisioning and mourning our own death, as well as being guided through your own death in a special death meditation.
This course is a way of connecting with your own mortality. It is not a cure for fear or pain, nor is it intended to be. But it provides the tools to explore those fears, to reflect on painful instances of grief and loss and make these feelings easier to bear. Before embarking on this Get Ahead of Death Course I didn’t even know what questions I had in order to seek answers; now it’s possible I have more questions than I know what to do with! And it is the awareness of these profound questions–and the seeking of answers– that I believe to be of key importance in living more authentically and fully. Now I have resources and tools to better address these questions and understand the answers I may find as I move forward through this one life I have, in the time I have left to me.
I am a sloppy knitter. I’ll be the first to admit that. I don’t measure things and I don’t knit gauge swatches, because eh, I can’t be bothered. I knit for fun and also for therapy and while I get that grabbing your ruler and counting your stitches per inch are foundational steps and have myriad benefits for both your finished garment and your overall knitting practice, they are…decidedly not fun. They feel too much like math homework. Which is the opposite of therapeutic for me! This DEATH BEFORE SWATCHING is a stance I have stubbornly stuck to for years, and I don’t know why I dig my heels in about it, but I suspect it’s because I failed Algebra II in tenth grade and took it again in summer school–and failed again–and so maybe I am scared?
Sometimes I get lucky! Through absolutely no measuring or swatching at all, I made not one, but two really lovely sweaters last year that fit me perfectly! Well, let’s say 85-90% perfectly! But mostly this cavalier attitude regarding whether or not I actually have enough yarn to finish a project or am I playing a wooly game of chicken, or am I knitting too tightly or too loosely with this weight yarn and this size needles, it comes back to bite me. More times than not I actually do not have enough yarn, and half of the time I wind up knitting an elephantine kaftan when I was meant to be knitting a regular-sized sweater.
It was just such a sweater that I unraveled over the holidays. I had been knitting it for the greater part of a year, but as I began working on the sleeves, it finally occurred to me to try it on. It was massive. Much, much too big. And short of starting over, there was nothing I could do to fix it. That sucked.
So. I ripped it apart and knit up a hat. Which is…also slightly too big. Whatever! There were no lessons learned here.
…and here’s the rest of that sweater. Reincarnated as the beginnings of a rustic shawl! And if this shawl is a bit oversized, I think that’s fine.
I have only just recently learned of the pleasures to be had in mid-afternoon bath-time reading. It is the most marvelous, most delicious thing.
This past weekend, I drew myself a bath and did a little photoshoot of the tub, the books I planned on indulging in while the water grew cold and my toes pruned up, and arranged all of the related accessories, to include my beautiful new bath tray from Peg & Awl. Full disclosure: I am actually taking a product photography course over on SkillShare, and I just wanted to try out some of the concepts and techniques that the instructor was sharing! You can laugh if you like, I guess it is a little silly; I don’t have any professional reason to be learning these things, but I thought it might be nice to figure out a few ways to make the pictures I take of my food and my knitting a little bit nicer.
…which doesn’t really explain why I was taking pictures of my bathroom, but I was pretty excited and I had to start somewhere, right?
I mean, come on, people! If you don’t like baths or books—that’s on you, man. Don’t make it my problem.
As it turned out, I didn’t end up reading either of these books in this particular bathtub session. I grabbed something else instead…. but I am very much looking forward to reading them both, and I have a sneaking suspicion that many of you will be interested in them, too: Unknown Language, which I believe is a sort of fictional narrative attempting to convey Hildegard von Bingen’s expansive impact, and A sonnet to science: Scientists and their poetry
Also: if you’re curious about the geode planter sitting above the soap dish, it came from Tal & Bert! And the bath salts I was using didn’t really turn my water this acid green shade. It was more like “I did an accidental pee” yellow. So you can imagine why I tweaked the colors!
As 2020 ended, reading and books were the glue that held my fragile, frazzled human seams together, binding me back into myself, and keeping me from crumbling into a brittle, bitter heap of dust.
In our Stacked feature at Haute Macabre this week, I review some of these titles that, good, meh, or otherwise, kept me together as we entered 2021.
Typically at the end of the year, I compile a list of all the books I’ve read and share it here on the blog, but eh, that sounds like a lot of work for a year that was so stupid. If you’re curious, though, you can see them all over on my Goodreads books read in 2020.
What books did you thoroughly enjoy in 2020? What titles, in particular, got you through that spectacular dumpster fire of a hell year? And what have you got in your TBR stack for 2021? (There’s a lot of exciting horror in this fantastic Tor roundup, if you need some ideas!)