Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 301


Coffee: Organic Dark Roast, Don Pablo’s

The Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres said that ‘a wind of madness is sweeping the globe.’ What with wildfires barely abating in Australia, ice melting at the poles, and dehumanizing rhetoric amplified everywhere from America to Lichstenstein, it’s hard not to agree with him.

And it’s hard, I guess, to know how to respond.

This time last year I was working on a novel. It would have been my second, it was hot and summery like red clay or okra-colored July. I wanted to write something personal so I wrote about family. I wanted to write something relevant so I was writing about North Carolina, my long-time home. But the novel fizzled out.

I’m making a decent living for the first time in my life. More than decent, really, in that I’m able to save, and able to afford those trips to Atlanta, or my ever-increasing hobby of scale-modeling. I’ve got mixed feelings about this living. When I lost my job at the bookstore two years ago to layoffs, I thought long and hard about my strategy for what I would work toward next. I wanted something semi-permanent, that wouldn’t sweep out from under me, that gave me room to grow. So I took what skills I had working with people and making sales and sought out banking. I’m proud of that part, the decision making, and it feels like a kind of hot-flash now looking back on it, all that time typing cover letters and worrying about what would happen next.

But I’m mixed up about the comfort. I’m mixed up because of those mad winds from Guterres, because I’m safe and comfortable while 138 refugees from El Salvador were turned away at the US border only to find their way back to their homes to be speak face to face with the devils that chased them. And selfishly, I’m mixed up because I don’t feel things the way I used to.

In the July of my life, those hot middle years in my 20’s, everything I did or didn’t do seemed to matter. Whether it was walking to the store or switching jobs, my moments were engulfing, because I was scared, because I was uncertain and because I was tired. Even then, my daily needs were being met better than most of the world, but they were only just being met, and that distinction was important, because I felt like a climber who was staunchly hanging on but hadn’t gotten up the ledge yet. This is normal. I’m not the first person to romanticize minor struggles, or the early years disparagingly called ‘finding-yourself.’ There are wealths of industry built to capitalize that self-obsessed hunger, and wealths more, surely, waiting in the wings to meet the particular tastes of a new generation. But just because it’s an old note doesn’t make it less accurate, and I can’t deny looking back sometimes with a longing.

I stopped writing the novel for two reasons: I was busy, in the literal and immediate way that new responsibilities can give you; and I had stopped seeing myself as the center of my own universe. Every story I’d written was first-person. Every narrator was a bit of me. Like I said, I’d set out to tell a personal story, one that was relevant, but with the new luxury of time and the space to look outside my wants and needs, I no longer felt connected to the story I was telling. I had friends and families with lives worth loving, people coming to me with their own needs and stories every day at work. In 2018, I remember standing in line on a brisk mid-morning in November and voting with hundreds of other Americans and thinking: I’m just one part of this.

The great confounding romance of the contemporary moment isn’t between two people, but between every soft, solitary human body and the rest of the world. However much the Nationalists want to crush it, we’re living globally. I can’t see the lines separating me my American brothers tasked with turning away the suffering from our Southern border. And I can’t find space to move away from the encroaching icebergs. And, of course, the final irony is that I only have the privilege of feeling compassion because my own life, my own needs are covered.

I can’t find that space in my heart for the vanity of being a writer. There are too many other structures to hold fast against the roaring winds.

Currently Reading: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

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Tensions were of course high as the last year ended, but we were moving in the right direction in a number of hotspots. We were seeing signs of de-escalation and some measure of progress.
That’s all changed.
I have spoken recently about winds of hope. But today a wind of madness is sweeping the globe.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 175


Coffee:  Americano, Crema Coffee; ironically, there was no crema on the coffee

I went to a show with an old friend. Got there at 9:00, left at 11:00. It was noise music, electronic, and I liked it mostly, but by 11:00 I had a headache and this blog to write so I decided to go. Z told me “At least stay for the next set” His partner told me “This is late for everyone, but come on.

Finally, Z said: “Well, you’ve gotta go when you’ve gotta go.”

I spent this afternoon staying inside trying to write. I finished a short story last week and have been trying to drum up new ideas for an old novel. I couldn’t find the beat. So I sat in the kitchen at noon, sat at my desk at 2:00, then lay on my bedroom floor at 4:00, lights out, curtains closed, seeing nothing. I hoped a couple words would come out of the nothing. They didn’t.

Sometimes I use writing as an excuse not to live my life. Less often, it’s the other way around. Words can be that bad friend you see every weekend only to get into arguments over what to do. You can’t please each other but you can’t pull yourself apart.

Z’s partner talked about the music like she knew it, which she probably did since she’d been in a band. She mentioned later that she’s been working on art projects spun off a hand-loom. It made me wonder how many different relationships a person can have with their art.

Currently Reading: Queen, Suzanne Crain Miller

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In my Paris apartment, when a neighbor drives nails into the wall at an undue hour, I “naturalize” the noise by imagining that I am in my house in Dijon, where I have a garden. And finding everything I hear quite natural, I say to myself: “That’s my woodpecker at work in the acacia tree.” This is my method for obtaining calm when things disturb me.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 87


Coffee: Maxwell House Drip, Office Coffee

I read part of an article about Camille Billops, an artist. I only read part because it’s been that kind of day – partial. I’m don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but what I read left an impression.

Camille Billops was a prominent artist who started her work in the 60’s. She created and advocated for black art through and beyond the civil rights movement. But the point of the article was: at the cusp of her career, she took her four-year-old daughter to a Children’s Home and left her there.

There’s no way to know what someone else is thinking, even if they tell you. We hardly understand ourselves and rarely vocalize the parts we do. But at least publicly, Billops’s choice to give up her daughter was a drive for independence, a rejection of the mandate for motherhood that trapped and continues to trap women, and a choice to give up family in order to freely pursue her art.

It’s the last one that gets me.

I think a lot about balance – work-life, freedom-responsibility, healthy eating-loving chocolate – and in particular about the balance between everything else and art. Because the split really is that big, isn’t it? When you’re in the act of creating something, that’s all you’re doing. It’s all of you – all your life, love, blood and energy. You take people and places that are vividly real and send them through the woodchipper. If your art is going to have power, you have to feed it everything precious in your life for fuel. Billops fed it her daughter. Jury’s out what sorts of things I’m burning for fuel.

I was at the Nasher a few years ago seeing an exhibit on Southern artists. There was a piece, a vivid portrait, abstracted. My friend and guide told me the artist had a sad story. He’d gotten so caught up in his art that he’d withdrawn from his family, gotten depressive, and driven his loved ones away. My friend thought that was awful. I did too, but it made a lot of sense to me.

But maybe it’s all a trick. Maybe that reclusive tendency to sacrifice your friends and family to some myth of ‘genius’ has darker motives. You’ve got to have something in the first place in order to give it up. And if you can give up damn near everything and still survive, that implies you’re living with a modicum of success or comfort backing you. The artistic rejection of the world is always an act of privilege. It’s something that says: “I don’t need you.” You might climb the mountain, but you do so without making room at the summit for anyone else, and with some sense of security that you’ll make it there. The ‘starving artist’ is a myth. No-one has time to both starve and make art.

Anyway, that was all a long and rambling way to say that art and ethics sometimes collide and that’s not easy. Today was also a rambling day.

Currently Reading: NOTHING! Couldn’t get back into Bourdain, no matter how much I tried; will pick a new book soon

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In the nearly 60 years since Camille Billops made the decision to give up her daughter, she has become an internationally recognized artist and filmmaker.

Sasha Bonet, The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter, published in Topic Magazine

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 70


Coffee: Cafe Pajaro, Trader Joe’s Brand; waking up an hour late, I barely even tasted it; baggage check at an airport.

I went to CAM Raleigh, a contemporary art museum. All the art was local.

I’ve got mixed feelings about art museums, or at least about urban art museums in up-and-coming techno capitals like Raleigh. They’re a good thing, an outlet, not a lot of ways to show your art. That said, the art they show tends to talk about (and come from) the communities being pushed out by wealthy, techno-global business and the amenities made to serve them – including, of course, contemporary art museums.

I walked around the museum in the mid afternoon. The artwork ranged from oil paints to mixed media. I liked some pieces, disliked others. Much of the art was chasing something about the black American experience. I can’t comment on whether it caught it because that’s not my experience. Behind me, following about six feet away around the entire museum, a dad and mom and two daughters were talking about the pieces. One of the daughters was saying things like ‘chiaroscuro’ and her dad was saying how smart she is. At a different corner, a five year old was crying because she couldn’t touch the paints.

One good moment: downstairs, in the farthest corner, was an installation by Jasmine Best. Best is from Greensboro, near where I grew up. She’d strung a room from floor to ceiling with a facsimile of a southern, screened-in front porch. The porch was made of quilted fabric, and so was the mosquito net, the chairs, the potted plants, everything was quilt. Nearby, a recording played sounds of windchimes. Nostalgic. I stood there as long as I could, letting the families walk in and out. When I left, I felt like I’d remembered something that hadn’t ever happened to me but was vivid and real all the same.

Currently Reading: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

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Like a mother, a front porch offers protection and tries its best to keep undesired objects out; or more importantly, to keep the child in. But just like a mother there are limits to how much it can actually shield.

Jasmine Best, About her Installation Screened In

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 12


Coffee: Americano, Caribou Coffee; I had a conversation about Caribou Coffee with my coworker. She likes the blonde blends. I tell her I’m stuck on espresso. She describes a calm Sunday morning sipping coffee and pouring juice for her daughter. Sweet and warm. Maybe I’ll try the blonde next time.

2Chainz just dropped his fifth studio album. As such, he’s on an interview tour to promote. I watched his sit-down with The Breakfast Club. He talks about feeling underrated. 2Chainz – multi-millionaire, real estate mogul, syndicated TV personality, worldwide recognizable artist – feels underrated. He feels like people underestimate his art. He might be right. Regardless, that all got me thinking:

How do you define success for yourself?

Six years ago, I was applying to MFA’s at the same time as a close friend. My friend got accepted, I didn’t. I took him out to dinner at a burger joint in Greensboro to celebrate. I told him flat out: “I’m proud for you, but jealous as hell.” We laughed about it, but the envy had gone past green to yellow. I set to writing short stories, ended up with ‘Chessboard and Tequila,’ and submitted it to sixty lit journals until it was published in ‘Prick of the Spindle.’ When I told my friend, he took me out to celebrate. And he told me he was proud for me but terribly jealous.

I read a different article about artists generally. It was in The Atlantic, written by a neuroscientist, and was one of those pieces that pop up every few years trying to link creativity to particular brain activity. It wasn’t terribly successful, but of all the corollaries, the most reliable seemed to be a link between artistic tendency and anxiety. These were people who described great satisfaction in their work but whose brains were constantly wracked with worry. No matter what you create, it won’t match your aspirations.

That’s a negative note to end on, so instead I’ll leave with this: ego’s double-edged – you might build mountains for yourself, but in the same breath you’re building climbing gear to get yourself up them.

Novel Count: 29,630

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami; FINISHED!

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Psychedelic flow, I’m the dope and the antidote.

2Chainz, Money in the Way – Rap or Go to The League

Coffee Log, Year 2, Day 10


Coffee: Sumatra Medium Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

I finally finished reading ‘Killing Commendatore.’ I read the last chapter while rain came down outside. The book rushes to a climax then wraps things up with an extended epilogue. It feels unfinished, but I think it’s supposed to feel that way. The book was about art – why you love it, why you make it, what it does to you.

For a couple months, I was convinced I’d eventually cut the Coffee Log down to a weekly blog. This was last year, September and October. Life was hectic at the time. I was applying for a new job. I was sitting on a stack of lit journal rejections. I was trying to work things out with an old lover so we could still be friends. I was drinking tall drinks in the aftermath of learning that – at least for a while – we couldn’t. And there I was writing one of these every day.

It was exhausting.

It still is.

My big fear was that I wouldn’t ever write anything else. Sometimes I’ll sit down and spit one of these logs out in the time it takes to blow out a nose full of pollen. Other times, they take over an hour. That’s a lot of life on the weekdays, and a lot of mental energy besides. I’ve learned to scrutinize my day-to-day for things to say in a way I never had before. It’s an invaluable skill, but draining.

So what room’s left for a novel in all of that?

It was Halloween that did it for me. Some friends were over. We were watching Over the Garden Wall. The night was dark and spooky and magic despite having to work the next morning. Halfway through the show, I stole off to my computer to write the daily Coffee Log. If you remember, that was a long one. It was a narrative. It was fiction. It was creepy. I wrote it on the spot and when it was done I felt full. I was a bunch of warm tossed towels spinning in a drier. The next day, I started working on my second book.

This has all been a long-winded way of saying that effort has consequences: good and bad. I feel drained. Sharing these stories daily has changed the way I live life. But at the same time, there’s a new effortlessness in sitting down to write.

‘Killing Commendatore’ is also Murakami finding a sort of religion. Nothing specific or labeled, but rather just belief. Learning to live life believing in something without any evidence for or against it. A kind of faith. I think you have to have that to be an artist. I think you have to have that to be much of anything. It’s scary walking a bridge alone. Sometimes you need someone to walk with you – whether that’s God, Science, or a simple Idea.

Novel Count: 29,417

Currently Reading: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami; FINISHED!

Support Relief for Family Suffering at the Border – RAICES DONATION CAMPAIGNFrom the land of red clay, and lottery worship

You can have all the desire and ache inside you want, but what you really need is a concrete starting point.

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore