respair: the return of hope after a period of despair
This week, a post on anything but grief feels wrong. We lost the formidable Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week, and Breonna Taylor’s murderers walked free — charged only for the bullets that missed. I am gutted.
Instead of trying to parse my own grief into words, please let me share novelist Jesmyn Ward’s piece On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic. Ward loses her husband, suffers through the pandemic in a grief-fueled depression, sobs and bears witness to racism protests — and does so with lilting grace and courage.
I hear you, Breonna. I hear you, Jesmyn. I hear you, Ruth. We are here. We aren’t going anywhere, except forward.
Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of hearing truly luminous readings from an incredible line-up of California poets: Dana Gioia, Garret Hongo, Robin Coste Lewis, Luis J. Rodriguez, David St. John, and Gail Wronsky. Cartography of Poets, a virtual poetry event presented by Visions and Voices at USC, centered around the ways history and place shape the poetic experience. The idea that writers and their work are shaped by their environments is certainly not groundbreaking — what would Henry David Thoreau be without Walden Pond? — but this event got me thinking about things in a more contemporary, more personal way.
Fires are still raging in the West. California is on fire, breaking records and breaking apart lives. Amidst this landscape, this small reflection by Dana Gioia reminded me of the beauty of our summers:
I can imagine someone who found these fields unbearable, who climbed the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust, cracking the brittle weeds underfoot, wishing a few more trees for shade. An Easterner especially, who would scorn the meagerness of summer, the dry twisted shapes of black elm, scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape August has already drained of green. . . . And yet how gentle it seems to someone raised in a landscape short of rain— the skyline of a hill broken by no more trees than one can count, the grass, the empty sky, the wish for water.
from “CALIFORNIA HILLS IN AUGUST” by DANA GIOIA
We continue to shelter in place, and meanwhile, I am contemplating shelter and place, and the way we inhabit both those spaces. Our shelters — the homes we have been confined to and seek succor in. Our places — the solidarity of New York on 9/11, the orange glow of San Francisco’s skies, the hazy rain of ash in Los Angeles, and the ways we shape and are shaped by them. I think of how we are all nesting, all trying to make our homes work better for us — dining rooms becoming offices, offices becoming playrooms, kitchen tables becoming classrooms — and how beautiful the adaptability of the human spirit really is. The way we keep working, toiling, and finding joy in between.
I put up new lamps this week that I love. Something to bring a small joy in a small way. I think I am puttering, not doing much of import, and yet my friend exclaims over how productive I have been. And I think, well yes, I suppose I have. To shelter and find small joys is no small thing, today, yesterday, or tomorrow. I am here in this place, California sunshine streaming through my windows, and I think, I am lucky. I am of this place, I have shelter, and I am learning to find joy.
I think I might be a little late to the party on the “grandmillenial” design trend, but I am here now — albeit with my own twist. I have always been a fan of mixing styles, and lately, my “old-meets-new” aesthetic is skewing decidedly 18th century, with dashes of Victorian and Belle Époque for good measure. Think less granny, more great great great great granny.
Chinoiserie is not so much actual Chinese style as a European imagining of Chinese decorative style. It originated in the 17th century with a Western fascination with the Far East, and became wildly popular through the 18th century. The fanciful designs featuring plants, birds, fruit, and animals in stunning colorways make for beautiful companions to the glamour of Hollywood regency, or a sumptuous counterpoint to clean mid-century modern furnishings. And I am HERE for it.
I have had a design crush on Theobert Pot for some time, and his sunroom always makes me swoon. The Gucci heron-print wallpaper panels, the paper lantern, the Danish modern elements, that glorious green Togo lounge? Perfection. He has an amazing eye for color and style. More and more lately, other jewel-tone florals have been catching my eye, too, as well as patterned lamp shades and animal-themed lamps. House of Hackney, for example, can do no wrong for me at present. How stunning is this cheetah lamp?! My heart! Also cue the sound of my wallet screaming, but I digress.
So, what’s a girl to do? I’ve scouted around and come up with my own shortlist of items to make my Victorian and chinoiserie dreams come true, at a much lower price point.
I also have a few items I have added to my decor: a had-to-snag-it vintage painting, a lovely tray my mom stitched years ago, and a pair of small reproductions painted on wood (hi, Pinky and Blue Boy!). Emily Henderson says vintage and antique items help give soul to a space, and I couldn’t agree more.
I am planning to custom frame a few wallpaper panels for a chinoiserie feel in our living room, mix in the snake lamp near a 1970s-esque round mirror, and hang that gorgeous heron wallpaper behind my bed. Wish me luck, and yippee for chinoiserie!
Back in February, when I was mulling over my own stress levels and what I wanted my future to look like, Eric Rittenberry’s essay The American Life is Killing You landed in my lap like a call to action.
“The reason you don’t feel alive is because you aren’t alive. You’re merely going through the motions in a fast-paced, consumer-centered culture that has transformed our once beautiful land into an asphalt wasteland strewed with digital billboards, fast food joints, soulless malls, and complete carnage… Your constant craving for objects and status (the American way) has robbed your life of its freedom and creative zest. You live routine and stressed and you’re chained to a sluggish and predictable way of living.”
“Yes!” I thought. This is me. 100 times this. Somehow I had begun throwing money at problems trying to make life more bearable, rather than making any fundamental changes to fix what was making it unbearable. Why hadn’t I seen this before? It seemed so obvious! Was it too obvious?
“You have to unplug from the machine and take back your life and learn to live with less and sit under trees and read the great minds and create art and listen to music and sound your ‘barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.’ Quit doing things you hate to impress the faceless people among us. Decondition yourself from culture, quit suppressing your uniqueness, travel to places that frighten you a bit, learn to embrace silence and solitude a few times a week. And most importantly — you must awaken from your culturally-induced slumber and try to find simple joy among the sacred.”
I was curious this week, though, after 7 months of a pandemic and a racial inequality crisis, how this essay has held up to where we have landed. Looking back at Rittenberry’s advice now, I realize what was irking me under the surface was the inherent privilege of his message. A mandate to learn to live with less and sit under trees is very easy to throw out there, and very, very difficult for the majority of people in this country to even contemplate. I’m not sure the millions of unemployed out there right now are choosing to live with less so much as they are being forced to, and I also don’t think they have much mental bandwidth for the kind of barbaric yawp-ing he suggests. Are a lot of people blindly trying to keep up with the Joneses? Sure! But are a lot more people struggling to keep a roof overhead and meals on the table? Absolutely.
In my case, I left my job this week and have never felt freer. But I realize this is an incredibly privileged position to be in — and it was certainly not without a lot of planning, buckling down, and streamlining our finances down to just what matters. And for me, what matters is my capacity to live in a way that allows me compassion, clarity, and bandwidth to help others. Maybe we can find a way to turn inward and decondition ourselves from endless consumption, so as to free ourselves to be more kind? And maybe instead of admonishing people for their consumerism, we can look at the system that is driving that consumerism, and dismantle it. We are only as strong as our weakest link, and we are all in this together. Self-actualization, to me, is not the end point, but rather a jumping-off point towards giving others the same opportunity. And I really hope we can try.
Stumped on where to start? May I suggest an hour to yourself to decompress, and maybe a donation to the Loveland Foundation? As someone who believes strongly in therapy and mental health, their commitment to opportunity and healing to communities of color, and especially to Black women and girls, is a cause close to my heart.
August means long summer days, a slower pace, warm sunshine — and trying to keep cool. I was inspired to update our small outdoor space, and managed to create a sweet little oasis for us to kick back and relax, sip a cool beverage, and float our cares away.
A couple comfy chairs are great for sipping something cool while enjoying the sunshine. I love the modern shape of these — style without sacrificing comfort.
Our biggest update is this small pool that packs a big punch. This is the deepest inflatable pool I could find at or under 6 feet in diameter, and it is big enough for me to float in on this without touching the edges or the bottom. With my eyes closed, I could be anywhere from Hawaii to Bali.
Our hammock we bought years ago is still going strong, and we love to hang out (wink wink) and relax. This one doesn’t take up much space, and it is sturdy enough to allow two adults to lounge together.
A ceramic stoolor two can be versatile as well as beautiful. These make a ideal spot for your aforementioned cool drink, magazine, or in a pinch, extra seating.
This weekend is my birthday, so just for fun, I thought I’d share some of the home items I’ve had my eye on lately. Our house is an eclectic mix of 19th-century-Paris-apartment-meets-relaxed-California-chic vibes, and here are five things I have or would love to have in our space. We are home these days for work and play, celebration and everyday alike, so we might as well make it a place we love to be.
We have been home SO MUCH in the past several months that a new couch has become a necessity. Our old one is cute but not all that comfortable for the long haul, unfortunately. This beauty, the Maxwell from Interior Define, was customizable in so many ways — fabric, cushion type and fill, size, legs — everything! I can’t wait for it to arrive. And besides their lovely furniture offerings, their customer service staff has been nothing short of amazing.
I ordered this chair from CB2 about a million years ago (you know, back in February), and it finally arrived a couple weeks ago after a pandemic-related delay. It is super comfortable, and I love the look so much! It’s the perfect addition to our mix of dining chairs.
EQ3’s adorable Bingo Bango Bongo stools are all finally in back in stock, and they are on sale to boot! Bingo has had my heart for months, so you’d better believe I ordered it as soon as I could. Indoor or outdoor, stool, side table, plant stand, alone or as a set — these earthenware beauties are super versatile. Decorative AND functional.
This burlwood cabinet in CB2’s newest catalog had me at “hello.” I have zero need for a new cabinet, but if I did, this would be at the top of my list. Curvy edges with that gorgeous texture and the brass accents? Hel-lo. I’ll just lean here and casually sip a cocktail, thankyouverymuch.
Lastly, I am intrigued by this year’s pleated lamp shade trend. These gorgeous shades from Danish shop LeKrazyHorse are beautiful, come in amazing colors, and they offer pretty much any size you might need. New shade = easy way to snazz up whatever lamp you’d like to give a bit more personality. Bonus: this vintage Mads Caprani lamp is AMAZING.
Our next featured maker is Atelier Stella, home of the sweetest ceramics you ever did see. Stella Baggott established her unique ceramics business in 2012, and all her creations are hand built, sculpted and pinched with love. She credits “Cornish, Italian and Swedish potters from the 50’s and 60’s” as influences for her stylish designs, and there is not a single piece that I would not love to bring home!
I was lucky enough to snag a couple of her pieces when she collaborated with West Elm and also Anthropologie a few years back, and their little smiling faces bring me joy every time I catch a glimpse of them in my living space. To me, her pieces mix dreamy neutrals and organic shapes with just the right touch of whimsy. Luckily for all of us, she has begun to ship out her beautiful ceramics again after a brief pandemic hiatus, so shop on her site to your heart’s content. Any of her little works of art will brighten your day.
The vase and candle I have are both sold out, but here are a few of my favorites currently available on her site. Act quickly if you see something you love, as her pieces are made in small batches and change regularly.
I read an excellent piece by Sabrina Ora Mark back in May, and it resonated with me. Her piece, Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over., is a rumination on this bizarre moment we are living in, on motherhood and identity, on self and work and obligation and fulfillment. I’ve been thinking about it often lately, as the pandemic stretches and contorts time and the realities we are facing draw in ever-sharper focus.
“I’ve wanted a job like this for so long, I barely even know why I want it anymore. I look at my hands. I can’t tell if they’re mine.”
If there is anything I think I am gaining from quarantine, it is perspective. I’ve been considering my future, what options I might have, what contentment looks like — and those answers are becoming simpler. I used to think I had found my dream job. And for that self in that time, maybe I had. But now, like Mark, I barely know why I want that job anymore. The days I spend here at home working, one after the other? I no longer feel like those hands are mine. In some ways, they are not. I am just going through the motions. I began thinking that my depression had reduced me to this — a shell devoid of motivation. The couple hours I spent doing my own creative work on a day off recently were a revelation in that regard. I felt more vivid and engaged than I have in a long, long time. There is more to this life than “getting this bread.”
“What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go?“
“I can’t pinpoint what this lesson is exactly. Something about identification and possession. Something about buying time. As I empty the bags and touch the moss, and the leaves, and the twigs, and the berries, and a robin-blue eggshell, I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded.”
I am so lucky to have my health, and a kind, healthy husband, and funny furry pets to keep me entertained and grounded. I want more time for these things that matter. Really matter. Life is too short to waste on miserable, interminable days that are dictated by people without my best interests in mind. I want to carve out time for real engagement, and for the things that remind me that this life has so much capacity for joy and fulfillment. I want to feel as though I have intrinsic worth. I shouldn’t have to earn the right feel alive.
“But also I wanted an office with a number…. I wanted the whole stupid kingdom. “And then what?” says my mother. “And then nothing,” I say as I jump off the very top of a fairy tale that has no place for me. “You’re better off,” says my mother. I look around. I’ve landed where I am.
I like it here.”
In the coming weeks and months, I am hoping to land someplace new. Someplace where my days can be more “mine.” Days when I can stop just existing and start living again. Days when I can enjoy some contentment. I don’t know what that will look like yet, which is scary. Terrifying, really. But I will never know if I don’t make the leap. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, I can fly.
This is becoming a year of wonderful small things. The big things have been overwhelming, to say the least: we are still in the middle of a worsening pandemic, our government continues to make our country a hateful and divisive place, Black Lives Matter is still not considered a universal truth, police brutality is an ongoing issue… there is so much for us to cope with. To remind myself that it is still worthwhile to get out of bed every day, I am trying to remember the small things. This way I will always have something to look forward to, to enjoy, or to revel in. A particularly good lunch. Snuggles with my pups in the morning. The way the light filters into my bedroom on a weekend afternoon as I lay down for a nap. A package out for delivery. It’s these kinds of tiny daily joys that help me keep perspective, and keep me fueled to keep fighting for a better world.
Each time I venture out to Trader Joe’s for much-needed groceries, I buy a bunch of silver dollar eucalyptus leaves. I love having fresh greenery in my home, and it feels like a luxury even though it only costs $4. Plus, they last forever compared to cut flowers!
The new perfume I ordered arrived this week. ‘REPLICA’ Lazy Sunday Morning is a unique scent that somehow perfectly captures the feeling of fresh crisp sheets on a breezy, sunny morning. I sampled this perfume on my last outing with friends before the pandemic really hit, so it carries thoughts of dear friendships as well as idyllic lazy mornings.
Also, I was so happy to receive the Rain + Bow necklace I ordered a few weeks ago. It is weighty and so well made, the packaging was so sweet with it’s little extras, and it is a wonderful daily reminder that I am always in the process of overcoming. Also I am thrilled that a $10 for every necklace sold is donated to Mental Health America.
Be well, stay safe, and don’t forget to wear a mask. We’ll get through this. Little joys are there for us to find, even though it may seem bleak right now.