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Last week, the lovely Academic, Hopeful tagged me in a meme-type post about folders and photos.  An easy diversion, a good way to kick-start the blog again.  Pick the 10th photo of your first folder of photos and post it.  So here’s Greece, the summer I graduated from high school.  My toes in the lower right-hand corner; a Vodaphone ferry taking off from the port at Parikia on Paros.  I was sunbathing after a breakfast of yogurt, honey, and fresh fruit. I was reading either The Green Hills of Africa or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I was recovering from a nasty cold, wearing a new candy-striped bikini I’d bought in town the day before.  Look at that sky.  That sea. It was the mildest water I’ve ever felt.  It’s easy to fall into this photograph now, in the grey and gloom of an Oxford November.  I wouldn’t want to be seventeen again, abroad on my own for the first time.  Everything felt so intense–the colours, the tastes, everything I did, smelled, felt.  The sunburn and the cool relief of an evening wind.  I was over-saturated in experience.  Still, it was beautiful, and still, on a night like this, only half-past-four and the darkness settling in,  I think I could use a little nap in the sunshine.

Since we’re talking of sunshine, I’m tagging my mom, who writes this beautiful blog from her warm home in California…

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Ghost Stories

We tell ghost stories on the way home.  It’s dark; Port Meadow is black, the river is silver and still.  We have bike lights and a parafin lantern.  A mist covers the ground, as if we’re wading through it.  I can see my breath, feel the tingle of my fingers. 

Earlier we walked the other direction.  It was early afternoon, light, grey, the trees bent over the water.  The dog picked up impractical sticks and we sipped from a small bottle of whiskey.  Amazing how quickly we could be palpably outside the city.  Smelling woodsmoke from narrowboats and surrounded by green and brown; the golden stones of Oxford had dissolved, the spires dissapeared behind a puffy cloud.  My wellies rubbed raw a spot on my foot, the same spot on the same foot that had been rubbed raw so many times before.  We came to a crumbling nunnery; now just a field walled in, the outline of a church.  We ate apples at the pub and drank wine waiting for our lunch. 

Now we tell ghost stories but there’s nothing eerie about this stillness.  The eerie part is re-entering the city, coming suddenly to a well-lit bridge, passing parked cars, pubs, restaurants, cashpoints, closed shops, kebab vans.  It’s crowded, though there aren’t many people out tonight. 

Meanwhile, I’ll get back into blogging, but my time seems to be consumed at the moment by a thousand little things–working, writing, eating, sleeping, cleaning, running, planning.  Strolling along the river.  Stay tuned.

I’m about to be a part of something really cool.  Next month, I’m going to New York with Xander and Ben for a sort of tour 2.0-type thing.  We’re calling it Man (hat on).  There’s even a logo (and the likelihood of t-shirts).  No, I’m not a musician.  My misguided adolescent foray into the world of string instruments is likely as far as I’ll ever go, musically.  But it doesn’t matter.  Because–although there will be music involved (provided mainly by Ben, obviously), this is really a tour about freedom, and doing what you like, and creating things.

We’re playing with this idea of “sustainable creativity”, you see.  It’s about using communities and ideas to sustain yourself, so that you’re able to do what you love doing.  It’s simple, on paper: if you’re a writer, you find a way to write.  If you’re a musician, you find the support you need to play gigs and write songs.  If you’re someone without a clearly defined path, someone who just likes to play with ideas—it means finding a way to do that.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t.  Creative output takes a lot of time, energy, love, and support, not only from the creator, but also from his or her community.  The problem is that many of us are saddled with a lot of extra baggage.  We have bills to pay and debts to pay off.  We have social and professional obligations that rigidly divide our days. Very likely we’re burdened with a “real job”—which we may find intellectually dull and emotionally empty, but necessary nonetheless (I mostly babysit photocopiers and answer telephones grumpily, for instance).

And in an era where time is money, how do you justify spending a few hours every day on your craft?  How do you find a few hours every day?  It’s impossible to underestimate the negative power of financial constraints.  If you constantly spend your time thinking, I should be making money, not fucking around, you quickly become creatively impotent.

So suppose we make things easier for ourselves.  Suppose, to start, we surround ourselves with other, similarly minded, creatively charged people, and become a kind of micro-community based on the idea of mutual inspiration.  This removes a number of barriers, and in their places, provides us with a number of opportunities.  It gives us an automatic audience, a built-in sounding-board, a kind of creativity support group.  It allows for collaborative effort and means that even an ordinary trip to the pub can result in a great idea.  In a way, it combines the social aspect of our lives with the creative aspect, thus gaining us time as well as emotional backing.

Well, that’s good.  That’s a source of motivation and stimulation.  But we’re still stuck with that bland job, those pesky bills, all the worries that get us down.  Even if we have a micro-community of like-minded creatives, we’re still not going anywhere. Not yet.

The next thing to do, then, is to give up the rock star dream.  Forget, for a moment, that you want to be the next superstar of the rock n’ roll, or literary, or art, or whatever world.  And remember why you started singing, or writing, or drawing, or playing with ideas, in the first place.  Innovative solo bass player Steve Lawson writes prolifically, and very well, about this: “I no longer need to pretend to be a rock-star.  The mythology of rock ‘n’ roll is nowhere near as interesting as the reality of creativity.”  And, Steve adds, “The 80s dream of everyone becoming Stadium rock stars has faded, and more and more musicians are looking at fun ways to get to play music in a financially sustainable way.”  And what we’re trying to say is: not just musicians.  Anyone who wants to make anything should be listening to Steve on this point.

It sounds cheesy, but this is an idea about survival and satisfaction, not about making a profit, not about constantly striving, clawing your way up the celebrity hierarchy.  This is an idea about how you can do what you love doing—what you would be doing anyway–and earn enough from it to justify doing it as something more than a hobby.  To earn enough from it to recoup your costs, eat a meal or two.  Eventually, to earn enough from it to pay all those bills, to live comfortably, to buy a new pair of boots (or the male equivalent) when you need to.  But to start, it’s only about getting by.

Luckily, that built-in creative community—even if it’s just a group of two or three people—is the key.  Gone are the days when any artist can continue to cling to the alcoholic outcast myth and hope that her lonely genius will be discovered.  There’s just too much stuff out there for that to be a viable tactic.  There are literally thousands of other musicians writing songs and putting them up on the Internet.  Thousands of other filmmakers uploading clips to YouTube.  Thousands of other writers with blogs.  Thousands of other painters with thousands of canvases stacked up in their basement.  And every single one of them can publicize themselves, advertise themselves, with the click of a button.  Passivity and sheer luck may work for some; but the only way to guarantee a sustainable, creative life is to actively seek one out.

So you start with a tiny community.  A few friends.  Maybe you start at the pub, where ideas can flow unchecked by the ordinariness of daily life.  And you realize that actually, there’s a lot of overlooked potential in the world.  You buy some tickets to New York.  You decide that you’re going to prove this theory by living it.

So we are three people, with different skills and ambitions but a common goal of creating things and doing cool stuff, taking a week off work.  We’re going to pack up our guitars, our laptops, our brains, and head across the Atlantic, where we’re going to do what what love, and what we’re good at, and find a way to survive.  We’re going to stay cheaply (with friends, on couches).  We’re going to earn just enough to recoup our travel expenses, and hopefully have enough left over for a few beers at the end of the day.

There are, of course, one or two things that anybody sensible might want to ask.  Or maybe not.  Anyway, there are some things that I had to ask myself as I wrote this all down:

But isn’t hunger/poverty/whatever a good creative motivator?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (see my post on this here).  But this isn’t about “making it” as an artist, necessarily (though it certainly could be); it’s about literally surviving off your own work.  It’s not about becoming great whilst (or even as a result of) stealing bread and sleeping on the street, but about using whatever greatness you already possess to buy bread, pay your rent, and get by.  It’s simply meant to be proof that you can, if that’s what you want to do.

Okay.  But by making it as much about money as the creative output itself, aren’t you somehow tainting your work?  Aren’t you basically selling out, on a minute scale?

This is really where the word “sustainability” comes in.  This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative-type, so that you can create more.  Ultimately it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money; the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

This is all very theoretical.  What’s the end result?

The end result is whatever you want it to be.  In theory this is a limitless idea.  That’s the beauty of it.  In practice, it may have more limitations than I currently anticipate.  But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to let you know.  In the meantime, please check out the Man (hat on) site, and follow our progress, and be a participant in this crazy idea.

I have a few things to say on this.  Watching BBC Question Time this evening reminded me of some of them.

1. I genuinely do not believe that people are, for the most part, concerned about knowing exactly how many people leave and enter the UK each year, or about putting a cap on that number.  What I do believe they are concerned with is knowing how immigration will impact them directly.  It’s not about what will happen to Britain in general; it’s Will I lose my job?  Will crime in my area increase?  Never mind if these are logical questions.  It doesn’t matter what immigrants look like, where they come from, what their stories are.  All that matters is the local and the personal, and no one seems willing, or able, to address this.  The debate has become so curly that it’s impossible to get past the repetitive rhetoric.  Who has the balls to explain, on an individual level, the impact that immigration actually has?  Who has the balls to suggest once and for all that letting people in may not be the worst thing in the world?

2. The points based system.  Bless it, bless it a million times, because it’s the only way that I would be able to live in this country with the man that I love, with my friends, my job, my ambitions.  But let’s be honest.  It’s not a fair system.  It’s a completely ridiculous scheme to allow people of certain social or financial standing entry into the UK.  The fees for visa applications alone are prohibitive (I’m looking at a £500-700 fee to pay in January–my third such fee in as many years); but applicants also have to be able to prove access to a certain amount of funding.  They have to be educated, or highly skilled, or both.  They have to meet rigid criteria.  Students must be able to show that they can not only pay enormous international fees, but support themselves at the same time.

I’m not saying this system should not be in place.  I think that, for what it is, it’s excellent.  It ensures that graduates of UK universities and highly skilled individuals are able to choose where they want to put their skills to use.  And as a middle-class white American girl, the points based system is my only real hope for forging a life in the UK.  I know I’m lucky.  I have supportive and successful parents who have backed me financially–who have been able to back me financially–over the years.  But it’s still been a struggle, and I know how many people are not, and never will be, that lucky.  So let’s not pretend that the points based system in any way addresses the entire issue.  It’s a start, but by indirectly excluding people based on cost and criteria, it still leaves questions unanswered and voices unheard.

That’s it for now, and yes, I’m biased, terribly biased.  But then again, why not?  If the politicians are too afraid to leave their comfortable, circular world of empty oratory, we’ll all have to speak for ourselves.

A cloud of witnesses.  To whom?  To what?
To the small fire that never leaves the sky.
To the great fire that boils the daily pot.

To all the things we are not remembered by
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not even notice when we die,

Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.

From “A Fanfare for the Makers” by Louis MacNeice

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Disconnected

Yet once it was the busiest haunt,
Whither, as to a common centre, flocked
Strangers, and ships, and merchandise

–From Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I’ve got a cold.  Outside, the world is soggy, and inside, my spirits have been dampened by my own self-pity.  I tried to turn my phone on today and couldn’t.  It appears to be hibernating; no longer interested in being the vehicle for my pathetic communication with the world, no longer interested in alerting me to text messages from 02 and phone calls from the bank, no longer interested in taking snapshots of autumn leaves.  If it does decide never to work again, it will be a shame in more ways than one.  I depend on the device; more than I thought I possibly could.  All my photos from Dublin will be gone; speaking of which, with what will I express my photographic creativity?  How will I wake up in the mornings, now that my alarm clock has gone to sleep itself?

But that’s not the point, really.  The devices we rely on are replaceable (though expensive).  The point is that I’m in self-pity land, sniffling on the couch, feeling a million miles away from everyone else.  There’s a funny thing that happens when I’m ill; suddenly, even as I’m walking past the pub on my way to the shop to buy some soup, I have a sense that I can’t connect with anyone.  There’s a wall, or, more accurately, a screen, a pane of fogged glass.  I can see out into the world but I can’t interact with it, not wholly.  I can smell the warmth and the spilled beer from the pub but I can’t go in.

All of it is self-constructed, of course; none of it is serious.  But here I am, barely through October, already longing again for summer.  I haven’t enjoyed the crispness of the air this year as much as I usually do; I still feel that it should still be August.  This isn’t so much to do with the damp English summers as it is to do with my calender for those precious few warm months.  Being that busy made the time pass too quickly; I still feel as if I’m trying to catch up with myself, with the days and months which marched doggedly on.  I’m connected to everyone, everywhere, all the time; I spend hours on the internet, can email my parents in California or send a message to a friend around the corner in the same amount of time.  But somehow I’ve lost a sense of being connected to myself.  At a certain point today, cycling home–and maybe this was just the cold speaking–I actually had this sense that I was floating along, that my tires weren’t really touching the asphalt.

Mostly, I just need to write, which I haven’t done in too long. And until I do, I’ll probably continue to pump out these anthems to my own frustration, so I hope, for your sake as well as mine, I sort it out soon.

Zombie Comedy

I woke up on Saturday, and I was depressed.  A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her blog from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”The blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”  Which is exactly what happened to me.  Not  a latent, lazy sort of sadness, a seasonal affliction, perhaps, but an active force, something come over you suddenly and without warning, and possessing every atom of your body.

Being in Dublin didn’t help; it made everything worse.  I suppose I came here hoping to claim immunity from trivial worries and the sadness of shorter days; but of course the trouble is always that travel is not escape (Alain de Botton writes brilliantly about this, about “how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind”).  We always hope this when we go somewhere new: either that the unpleasantness and banalities of everyday life won’t follow us, or that we’ll become someone different in the context of a different space.  But travel is not some magical process of transformation.  At best it’s a state of mind, a way of revising our views of the world and ourselves, of exploring and watching; but it’s never the answer to all of our problems, never a method of erasing anxieties, and to a certain extent this will always be a disappointment.

What I forget, in times of minor woe, is that it’s actually freeing to know all this.  I sat in a Dublin café with the man.  I sipped my tea listlessly; I picked at my omelette; I listened to the children at the table next to us, who shouted and screamed and cried and laughed and dropped their toast on the floor and hugged their fathers and smiled at us and ran circles round the entire place.  I told the man I felt unhappy today, but that I didn’t know why–was it to do with my continual battle with my anti-anxiety medication, my desperation at being stuck in a job that a monkey could do, and do better?  Probably not, I concluded.  It was really all about money, which depressed me even more, that such a stupid thing–a philosophical construct–could make me stare so glumly at my empty plate.

It’s not a good city to worry about money in, Dublin.  Things are expensive here.  You can’t even drown your sorrows without taking out a small loan.  And the trouble with me is that once I start worrying, it’s nearly impossible to make me stop.  Even paying the small lunch bill caused a tremor of pain in my mind.

I could easily have wallowed all day.  We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, along the autumnal edges, where leaves were falling most heavily and we could avoid the stink of the pond.  A trio of teenage boys sat playing their guitars; a pregnant woman passed, with flowers in one hand and a man’s arm around her.  Lots of infants ran rampant, with parents trailing behind in helpless pursuit.  A few other lovers held hands.  I felt unoriginal and uninspired; and then I felt the whole world to be unoriginal and uninspired.

We went down Grafton Street, watched a man sculpt a sleeping dog out of sand, listened to Irish bagpipes and Beatles songs.  Past Trinity College and Temple Bar, we crossed the Liffey at O’Connell Street, into the great expanse of boulevard.  Like an abandoned Oxford Street, it sits with its handsome buildings, cheap storefronts, its absurd width and pockets of shoppers.  Gaggles of spotty teenagers in unfortunate clothing (sweatpants and faux-leather jackets, athletic shorts over leopard-print leggings with pop socks and sneakers) chased each other in zig-zags, shouted after one another, spilled their soda, lit cheeky cigarettes.  It was a glorious sun-brightened day and everything looked grey.

We went and sat at a converted church, now a café, bar, restaurant, and nightclub, overlooking an empty concrete square, a few gravestones stacked up on the fringe.  I sipped more tea.  I wanted to wallow–this is the thing.  There’s something delicious about a good wallow, most of us know this, but I was in danger of slipping from healthy wallowing into the realm of desperation.  I played with my spoon.  I said to the man: maybe you should go to the film without me.  I could sit and get some writing done. I could sit and feel sorry for myself.  He said, don’t be ridiculous.  But he said it so convincingly, and probably in a few more words, that I loosened my stranglehold on unhappiness, briefly allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was just a passing phase, and agreed to meet some Dublin friends for the afternoon showing of Zombieland.

I should mention a few things now.  The most important is that I don’t like zombie films.  I don’t like horror films of any kind.  The gorier they are, the more they make me cringe; so although it’s a comedy, and I knew, going in, that it would be funny, the title “Zombieland” didn’t bode well.  Also, I hadn”t been to the cinema in over a year.  I’d forgotten how overwhelming the endless dark corridors, the escalators, the giant bags of popcorn, the bad carpets and the flashing lights are.  I’d forgotten the thrill of anticipation; the movie-theatre smell; the crunching of bags and sipping of soda.  I’d forgotten how much I like to see the previews!  I’d mostly forgotten how huge those big screens really are.  The first few moments of splattering zombies were very, very intense.

Then something strange happened.  I started…what was this feeling?…to enjoy myself.  Really?  Yes.  I laughed at the jokes and started to feel affection (of a certain kind) for the characters.  I forgot how funny I myself was feeling; how unreasonably low, how inexcusably self-indulgent.  I had wanted to sit around like the ghost of some bleak, damned writer; to mope over coffee, to shiver outside in pursuit of quality people-watching, to envy everyone that walked by their freedom and their carefree smiles.  I thought I needed that; but what I actually needed was something else entirely (it always is, isn’t it)–in this case, some good company and a zombie comedy.  We came out into the city; we smiled, we laughed, we ate an impromptu dinner, and the evening turned to night and even if it wasn’t something I couldn’t have done at home (or maybe it was, maybe that’s the point of all this, that the travel state of mind was somehow both responsible for my mood and necessary to lift the cloud), I was grateful for the power of it.