letter three: dustsceawung
memory, time and space, art.
Is there a class you remember vividly from your elementary school years? Middle school? Or junior high? What do you call it where you are, that awkward cluster of years between childhood and teenhood, where everyone’s bodies are different and everything feels as meaningless as it is intense? At that age, I think, you don’t know yet what you will when you become a teenager — that none of it matters in the long run, for better or for worse, that there will be very little of those years you’ll have left with you unless you had the foresight to carefully document what meant something to you back then. As a teen, or at least for me when I was a teen, there had been this awareness of oh, god, I am having a terrible, terrible time being a teen, but there was something that felt almost universal in that terrible-ness, something shared over multiple decades and generations who also had a terrible time as a teenager. I mean, there’s a whole genre dedicated to a multitude of coming-of-age tropes familiar to us in the Hollywood canon, arguably pioneered by John Hughes (pause for facial contortions at having to type out his name) and handed down over the years to as far as A24 darlings like Greta Gerwig and Mike Mills. Those teenage years feel, for me as an adult, more concretely drawn by way of retained memories and experiences, better held onto because they are more shared, more colored-in through the things that are distributed amongst our various individual teenhoods. By comparison, the year or two just before — sitting exactly on that cusp, the dip right before the downwards slide to an emotional precipice that I’ll argue we’ll never quite reach again that same way for the rest of our lives — seems to be duller, more vague, more a precursor to the worst than anything necessarily bad or good by itself. Do you know what I mean? Or is it just that I moved to a new country in that exact period, jumping from Grade 6 to Grade 8, and there is a phantom sensation there where I am imagining the things I thought I lost to the nature of those years but might really have just lost to, you know, the typical blurriness of moving from one home to a will-be-home? Should I stop talking about my experience as something universal? I should, shouldn’t I?
Regardless of the precise why, though, I really don’t have much of who I was between the ages of eleven to maybe fourteen, and that’s only if I want to be generous. More truthfully, it feels like I woke up as this tadpole variant of my current self at fifteen, and it is that version, removed from whatever it was before then, that eventually grew into who I am now in my twenties. People always say that one day they just woke up with consciousness as a toddler, but to me that consciousness only goes so far back as the age of fifteen, if that. Do you remember more of your pre-teen years than I remember of mine? If so, what color are they to you? My brother and I, back when we were younger and still better, used to play each other songs and discuss what color they felt like, and lately I’ve noticed that I subconsciously do the same with some of my memories: varying shades of blue come up a lot throughouts my teenage years, sepia is almost always for my grandparents, and every now and then, there’s a corn-yellow memory, or an old joke resurfacing that somehow feels vaguely teddy bear brown. Yet in all of these cases, that vagueness is a staple; I only know I have these memories because I have retained the emotion attached to the color attached to the memory like choreography passively embedded into my limbs. Sometimes, what remains of something is more indicative of having had that something than anything else, and I find that this is truest with my older memories; none of them are vivid, but they are emotionally distinct in a way that cannot be fabricated or misremembered.
Except, strangely, for my Grade 8 art classroom, although it’s really more scene-memory than anything smaller. Where my other memories from those years are more a collection of sensations — concrete, laughter, anger, embarrassment, metal, paper, crayon, church incense, ash, plastic, first snow, first hail, first fireplace — there exists somewhere in that vague fold an incredibly clear picture of that one classroom. The clusters of creaking seats pushed under metal desks, the windows that were left open even in the winter, the neat cups stuffed with nicely tied clumps of pens and markers, the constant noise of scribbling pencils and crinkling paper. My art teacher was on maternity leave for the first month of the school year, and her return was prefaced for me by the way my classmates talked of her reputation as someone to be feared, but when she did arrive alongside my first autumn in Canada, she ran our art class with military precision that, while at odds with our assignments, I found more comforting than scary. Maybe because it was closer to what I was used to at home, with a grandfather who was sent to army camp and raised me accordingly, and at my previous school, where the nuns considered it a bad thing if any of us stood out, but I appreciated even something as small as only being allowed to stand from my desk if no one else is, or being required to put my paint in one specific corner of my desk, the brushes in another, the water cups in the middle. Looking back, nothing was more indicative of my many years as an active Girl Scout in a Catholic private school than just how much I loved that strict art teacher of mine, but it truly is with immense fondness that I now think of her and that tidy, spacious classroom. Out of the three areas of art offered to me throughout my school years — visual arts, music, drama — I was really only ever inclined towards painting, charcoal, and once, sculpture, and I lamented the fact that all of these are far messier ordeals than sketch-drawing or playing an instrument or acting. But this didn’t matter in that classroom, because I knew there would be order everywhere I looked, that no one would bump into me when I go to clean my brushes, that no one might accidentally knock over the water cups that are on the perfect middle of my desk, that we were all forbidden to talk as we worked and so it would be calmly, peacefully quiet as I worked on my poor replica of a Renoir vase. No social anxiety to be prompted there at all, not even a fear of making bad art; it was just me, my brush, the cold wind slightly rattling the rolls of paper by the window, and the quiet sounds of everyone else, talented artist or not, having no choice but to be consumed by nothing but their work lest they want two hours of boredom. When I think of a time I was truly, genuinely happy in those years, I think of that class and that class alone, and if I hadn’t stopped doing art shortly after that year, it would be a wonderful thing to try and paint that classroom, if only to prove to another person how vivid that classroom still is to me to this day, and how precious that is to me for its rarity. I want to say, look, this was my art classroom in Grade 8 and have something to show for it that’s more than a feeling I struggle to describe.
But the reason I was even thinking so hard about that room, enough to realize how perfectly crisp an image it still had for me, is something I owe in large part to my visit to the art museum last week. On record, I went to see an exhibit showcasing Picasso’s art from his Blue and Rose Periods, but I just wanted an excuse to go downtown and visit the museum, which was one of my most frequent haunts in high school and also the last real place I visited before the whole world went on lockdown. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, or to connect emotionally with anything at all; even before I watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which dedicates a section to picking Picasso’s personal life apart, I can essentially boil down how I feel about his art to, “I know close to nothing about art techniques, and so whatever makes you impressive to trained artists goes over my head and I get to focus on the fact that not a single one of your pieces has made me feel anything but strikingly empty.” So when I left the exhibit with this sticky sensation inside me, as if the antipathy Picasso had gotten out of me had somehow been a violation of a sort even though I predicted just as much, I was eager to leave and was not at all expecting to pause on the way back to the main lobby, just one square space away from the Picasso: Painting the Blue Period exhibit, and come face to face with the entrance to Matthew Wong: Blue View.
My friend — I wish, wish, wish I could bottle up the emotions I was feeling at the Matthew Wong exhibit and send it to you by post. I can’t even attempt to give it justice because I know I won’t. There’s no possible way I can. There’s a kind of wonderstruck where you feel your body slow down, where you are suddenly so aware of the little parts that make your body work the way it does, the blood in your veins and the pulse in your neck and even the follicles that send goosebumps down your skin — and I’ve felt that, too, with Hablik’s massive though critically maligned Starry Sky, which gave me my very first Cameron Frye moment and remains to this day the painting that changed my relationship with art forever, and I felt it again in the exact second I took a random turn into a street in Rome, caught my first glimpse of the Colosseum, and understood even without coming closer just yet what Tony Hoagland meant when he wrote that “there are moments when history passes you so close you can smell its breath, you can reach your hand out and touch it on its flank.” Something that strikes you so anew that somehow you end up right back on the other side, to the Old English word dustsceawung, which pertains to a consideration of the dust left behind, of what has been lost, of the things that time has proven to be transient. But it wasn’t like that, with Matthew Wong’s paintings. It was pure, sudden stillness, like an aftershock that has shattered your eardrums, where you can’t even hear the ringing in them or the insistent boom-boom-boom of your heartbeat. It was like being held afloat, like becoming bodiless at somebody else’s snap, something in you quieting so, so, so suddenly that not even emotion or bodily sensation can catch up in time to interpret that quiet for you. And then you breathe out because you have to and that brings you back to your body, still light as air yet with this unbelievable urge to cry stuck in your throat. Do you see? Do you understand why I can’t possibly describe it? I think now that all I ask of a celestial painting is that it makes me feel like a child who knows nothing about the universe. I want that wonder, that sudden realization that I am alive in a world that is full of billions of equally alive people, and yet none of that matters because look at the goddamn sky.
And to expand on that, I also think the reason I was left so off-kilter by an interaction like that one was that it compacted my entire life into one split second, where time became so irrelevant because everything was happening all at once, and suddenly, I was looking at this one painting for the first time at the exact same moment that I was in that Grade 8 art class, a decade ago, pausing my work on a lopsided flower to look up at a cheap poster of a starry sky in the back of the room. I still remembered what that poster said at the bottom, in a sterile, all-caps Arial-adjacent font, and I have been repeating it to myself since for a laugh: Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.
Now, Wikipedia tells me that the author of this quote, Norman Vincent Peale, was criticized by church figures and psychiatric professionals for his work. Something about revolutionizing positive thinking — I don’t know. I’ve already stopped reading. I don’t want to take advice from a good friend of Richard Nixon’s, least of all a minister who probably would have encouraged some church-involved form of toxic positivity as a solution to depression. But there is a point to be taken from the quote, and I have been ruminating on it since this week began, if only to use it to examine my relationship to my own art, to the things it makes me feel, to even the reason why I write what I do at all. Earlier this year, I finished my longest story yet, at more than one hundred thousand words, and I love it so dearly, that world and those characters and their love, that it stung a little a few days ago when I read someone calling it “simplistic,” that there wasn’t enough depth in it to really make them feel much. I don’t think they meant it badly, or at least not badly enough, simply a statement of a fact, certainly not meant as a criticism, and I don’t want to read too much into a stranger’s intentions and really should not have stumbled upon that conversation at all — but it stung just the same, held up to how I felt after that Matthew Wong painting. It’s like — It’s a reminder, you know? A reminder that I still have a long way to go, because I really did think I did alright with that story, that I imbued it with all the love and thought and nuance I possibly could, and yet. It always takes just one, too, doesn’t it? Just one statement like that, not even a bad one at all, to counteract all the love you feel and all the love you might receive otherwise. I’m not proud of it, and I am embarrassed to be so affected by it at all, but maybe it was a necessary jolt as I move further into this month and have to confront my writing more fully, more directly.
It is scary, you know, having to believe in your own work. Having to stand by it, to commit to having faith in it, to have to look it in the eye and see all its flaws and shortcomings and say, I am going to love you anyway. Because I have to. Because it’s just you and me right now and if we’re going to make it out there, we have to at least have each other. And I thought I was doing better, that I have worked hard to get to a point where I love my work deeply enough to be untouched by those that don’t — but now that I have found myself wrong in that, I am, I admit, feeling a bit lost. Because what was I thinking, loving my work? I had a reason, didn’t I, for not liking all the stories before? For being so wary about giving my writing too much credit where it might turn out not to be due? Wasn’t it precisely for this reason? So that I wouldn’t feel this way when things like this happen? Did I not make a personality out of self-deprecation because it was the only way I knew how to protect myself from criticism I felt was inevitable? What happened to that? When did I let myself slack off from being my own worst, perfectionist voyeur? Was that not meant to be protection? Was it not meant to ensure that I will always, always, always be attentive to the parts of myself and my work that have so much to still improve?
And in a way, I feel sorry towards my story, too, that I can’t even stand up against my own thoughts and say, No. No, no. I don’t care what they say. I love this story and that’s enough. Because — Is it? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Is it enough to write something that’s beautiful to only you? I want it to be. Yet I really don’t know.
There’s a line somewhere in Bo Burnham’s most recent Netflix special where he says that the reason a lot of his comedy is so self-deprecating is because it’s a means to direct criticism at himself before anyone else can levy it at him, and that was typical Bo, to admit that and make a performance out of it, because as soon as you film it, record it, present something a certain way, even the most honest vulnerability already has that veneer of performance and therefore a distance. This is, after all, the same man that ended his last tour with a song that contains the lines, Come and watch the skinny kid with the / steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts / to give you what he cannot give himself. I still don’t know what that thing is — the thing that Bo cannot give himself. Is it happiness? The luxury of laughter? Is it security, the trust that an audience must implicitly have in a performer? But I wonder how much of it is really self-preservation, on my and Bo Burnham’s parts, for us to dedicate a portion of our relationship with our art to the criticism we are constantly bracing ourselves for.
Because I also think about an interview with the idol Miyawaki Sakura, where she says, “I thought I had to be humble. I thought that self-growth would stop when you gained confidence. I thought it was bad to have confidence in yourself.” At the time that I watched this, days after she returned to Japan following a brief stint as part of one of the most successful K-pop groups to come out of this recent trend of trainee survival shows, I figured, Yeah, that makes sense. You have something to be confident about. You should be confident. I agreed with her implication, that self-growth and confidence cannot exist side by side, that confidence directly and completely precludes self-growth — but then I listened to her speak again, and this time, I latched onto how she says that she thought self-growth would stop after she gained confidence, meaning that she must now know for certain that this is wrong, that it was a postulation by her that had been proven as an inadequate theory. Still, it’s not like I didn’t know this; in the back of my mind, I know there must be something at the heart of my writing abilities that is worth loving, but knowing this, or wanting to believe this, doesn’t mean I have to love it. Like Bo Burnham’s comedy occasionally touches upon, maybe what I’m really doing is performing the self-hatred to myself because I’ve always thought it was better to hate my art and be wrong rather than love it and be just as proven wrong. In one of those two options lies a deeper, more sinister hurt, though in all honesty, if I really think about it, I can’t tell you which one it is.
Yet I am also the same person who once referred to “loving” and “writing” as synonyms, because truly, at the end of the day, the only way I know how to love something is to write about it, write for it, and even at my most repressed, to write around it. And maybe, too, the reason I felt like I could love that one story from earlier this year, the one that magically managed to go beyond one hundred thousand words, is that it exemplified this very thing: love as something you have to leap into headfirst, no matter the pain that might await you, because something is bound to be worthwhile when dealing with something you feel that intensely about. The kindest thing a friend has ever told me, after all, is, “I love you so much that I would live for you.” They said this after months of us casually throwing around things like, god, I would die for this dog or if this woman asked me to, I’ll jump in front of a car for her, and the sentiment wasn’t lost on either of us, who traded around mental health programs and hotlines in our messages the same way we did Tik Toks we found funny, and it remains with me now, how intense that was an admission. I hate my life and it won’t matter if it ended right now — but for you, I want to live. Not because you saved me, not because either of us are responsible for each other, but because you remind me there is a version of a life out there that I still want to try living. And since then, it’s how I’ve preferred to think of love, in whatever form: as something more akin to hope, something that allows you to wish and want and envision a version of yourself that is worthy of an emotion you know is pure and good because you feel it yourself.
And so why am I so insistent on ignoring this same philosophy when it comes to loving my own art? Self-protection, sure, but when has that ever been a factor in the act of creation? Writing is all I’ve ever known to love, and I think the reason I allowed myself to fall headfirst into loving that one story, no matter its flaws, was because I wanted to do it for once. Because it felt so damn good to finish writing that thing and realize that I love it — love it because I was never once truly afraid as I wrote it, love it because not once did I listen to my hesitation about any part of the story, love it because I leapt for that love, and love it because I want to live for this. For that feeling in my chest when I love something I have created, ballooning without ever popping because the universe is a massive, massive place with billions upon billions of possibilities, and somehow I have ended up in a world where I get to make art and consume paintings like Matthew Wong’s — and not just that, but I have ended up with the capability to love it, to feel wonder for it, to feel the presence of every other person at every other point in history who has felt this exact same way and thought this exact same thing.
And yes, I’m hurt and it stings like hell to feel criticized, but that’s a sign of openness, too, isn’t it? Of course it hurts to love something. Of course the flap in your heart that you make so your love can reach another thing, another person, leaves an opening for other things, other people to reach you. Of course it’s much harder to be confident about yourself than it is to give in, to stand your ground and trust yourself. But how much does that really have to do with growth, at the end of the day? How much does it really matter, to love something and be wrong? Does being wrong once make me incapable of loving another thing after? Do I only get one shot at this whole thing? Of course not. I’ve written around ten novel-length stories in my life and it was only the tenth that I was ready to love. There will be more, and I will get better at everything from this whole situation. I must. I have to. Because we always talk about embracing failure when it comes but more rarely about embracing all the definitions of success there are, and because if you think about it, it’s not really, really the wrong things you do that make you grow, but the right things you do after. Wrong choices aren’t some miracle seeds that will prompt your evolution; plenty of people say they’ve learned their lesson and still choose wrong after wrong after wrong. But eventually a lot of them get it right, and that’s the one that matters, and it’s the one you only get to because, to quote that silly little peeling poster from years ago, you shot for the moon, bounced off it, and landed right where you needed to be among the stars.
Supposedly. I don’t know. What I’m really trying to say is that I am a coward, and I know it, and I know that it jeopardizes my relationship with my own writing. I am a coward because fear is stopping me from being the best version of myself I might be able to be. I am a coward because I have so many questions and more questions about those questions, and never the right answer to any of them. I am a coward because I still cower, I still recoil, I still flinch. And — well. There’s honesty in this, too, in the reaction. Though is it enough? Does honest love make it good, worthwhile love, when I know for a fact that feeling love does not often equal acting out this love? As always, I don’t know.
But I am thankful to you, my friend, because here, with you, my honesty means something. It goes somewhere. I have questions I don’t have answers to, a phenomenon that, as a rule, writing fiction discourages. A clean arc is an answered arc. Character development means tidy movement from one place to another. But between you and me, there is this page, and there’s order here, too, in the things we don’t do, in the things only corporealized by way of vague, incomplete imprints. Like a sky full of stars that could very well no longer exist yet immortalized from memory in millions of paintings. Like standing in the ruins of something that once had a life of its own and imagining for yourself the ability to grasp something as intangible as time and history. Like walking out of a disappointing exhibit and somehow stumbling into a life-altering one. Like that calm, neat, beautiful art classroom. A place, an existence, that asks nothing of you in return.
I hope this letter finds well. I’ll see you again in two weeks, alright? Take care, and if you’re somewhere darker and colder than the rest of the world, physically or metaphorically, pour yourself a cup of tea for me and bundle up.
Your huckleberry friend,