Stories from my grandfather’s life

Last week, I was privileged to spend two and a half days with my grandparents. A lot of that time was spent in my grandfather’s office, where he opened a leather case containing the files of his life and unpacked stories.

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I now have a pad full of notes, a sampling of his past thoughts to read, and more than five hours of recordings. Something will be written.

Good Reads: Some are born into craziness, others have craziness thrust upon them

This post is part of a series recommending narrative, longform journalism and nonfiction pieces.

The title of this post speaks for itself. Click, read, and be surprised by the stuff that happens in real life.

The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogota by Susan Dominus, The New York Times Magazine

Two sets of fraternal twins — one from the city, one from the country in Colombia — find out they’re each other’s identical twins.

The Wedding Sting by Jeff Maysh, The Atlantic

In the 90s in rural Michigan, a police force decides to bust a local drug ring by having a fake wedding.

A Long Walk’s End by William Browning, SB Nation

When he’s confronted about embezzling thousands of dollars from his employer, James T. Hammes runs away to the Appalachian Trail. And doesn’t get caught until six years later.

And because the main character of this piece is too quirky to not share his story:

The Everlasting Forrest Fenn by Taylor Clark, The California Sunday Magazine

A retired business-minded art dealer spices up life by hiding a 42 pound chest of priceless treasure and self-publishing a book that holds the key to its location. No one’s found it, yet.

Good Reads: Bionic achievements, hitchhiking moms, and rapping Christians

This is part of a semi-weekly series recommending interesting and well-written longform/narrative nonfiction articles.

This week’s picks:

The Dream Kickoff by Danielle Elliot, Grantland

Paralyzed. Not forever but long enough for walking to seem an eternal impossibility. Enter Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist with a passion to bring the paralyzed to their feet using an exoskeleton controlled by their brains. The goal: for one paralytic to kick off the 2014 World Cup. (Spoiler alert: They succeeded.)

(Not) A Runner’s Story: Three Miles A Marathon by Rickey Gates, TrailRunner

A half century ago, Rickey Gates’ mother hitchhiked from New York to Alaska and took second in a race running Mount Marathon. She was one of two runners and said it was fun. Last year, Rickey Gates retraced her steps. The resulting piece is an enjoyable narrative exploring the history of the race and how running is really another form of travel.

Andy Mineo Raps About Christ. Just Don’t Call Him a Christian Rapper. by Corrie Mitchell, Narrative.ly

The origin story of Any Mineo, a rap artist who also happens to be a Christian, and who seeks to meet the unsaved where they are. (If you want an idea of my thoughts on being a Christian artist, this will give you an idea. To quote Mineo: “Hip-hop itself is not evil, it’s just been the way that we’ve decided to use it . . . But that’s why we’re here, to try to shift the culture, to try to change it, to redeem a good art form that God has created and allowed us to use.”)

And if you’re too tired/lazy/impatient to read, check this out:

The Space Between (video) by Drew and Chelsea Mose, Narrative.ly

A short documentary about Maureen Seaberg, an author who has a rare neurological condition called Synesthesia (which I wrote about in high school after reading A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass).

What have you been reading?

What is art anyway?

I have a fear. A gripping fear that I think about late at night when I realize another day has gone by and the only words I’ve pieced together were about someone else’s work. When I curl up in bed, ready to fall asleep so tomorrow will come, but not ready because it means today will end.

This fear isn’t special to me. Others I know have it, too. Writers, poets, wordsmiths. One in particular, a former classmate, Chandler Birch, was so consumed by this fear at one point (or at least the idea of it) that he wrote this blog post, partly as a challenge to others, but I think mainly as a challenge to himself. I read it when he first posted it about a year ago, and since then, his words have haunted me, prodding me in my down time to write if I insist on calling myself a writer. That’s what writers do — whether or not they have assignments.

So what’s my fear? That I’m a poser? That I call myself a writer, but am really just a wannabe, like all the other wannabes who crowd the market and waste agents’ and editors’ time with their worthless queries and pitches of stories and articles they have no idea how to finish — nor have they intent to finish them, unless someone offers the big bucks? Is that what I fear? That I’m a fake? A fake among a multitude of fakes? A so-called wordsmith who just copies everyone else, but never writes anything of her own? A wannabe? A poser? Is that what I’m afraid of?

Yes. That’s exactly it.

It’s a tough world out there, especially for creative types who don’t want to work in marketing (because making people want things they don’t need and can’t afford doesn’t sit right). It’s a tough world especially for artists, because there are so many of us — or so many who call themselves one of us. The arts — dramatic, musical, visual, written — are competitive, and that means in order to “make it” as an artist, we have to cater to the masses, forget ourselves and why we love creating in the first place, and give the people what they want. Because of this, our dictionaries contain flawed definitions of art:

1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria.

In fact, when you search “art” on Dictionary.com, it’s not until you get to the World English Dictionary definitions — after you’ve scrolled past explanations of “art” as a verb (as in “How Great Thou Art”) and well-known figures whose real names were Arthur Garfunkel and James Arthur Monk — that you get a definition anywhere close to the real thing.

1. a. the creation of works of beauty or other special significance
b. ( as modifier ): an art movement
2. the exercise of human skill (as distinguished from nature )
3. imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination
4. a. the products of man’s creative activities; works of art collectively, esp of the visual arts, sometimes also music, drama, dance, and literature
b. arts See also fine art ( as modifier ): an art gallery
5. excellence or aesthetic merit of conception or execution as exemplified by such works

And one of the best:

13. get something down to a fine art; to become highly proficient at something through practice.

These definitions are closer to what good art truly is: it’s beautiful, significant, skillful, creative and excellently executed, requiring a lot of practice. But art is more than nice to look at/read/listen to and hard to accomplish. Real art comes from the heart. It’s an expression of deep importance and meaning coming from deep within the artist. It’s a story with emotional ties to the artist’s past. It’s a song that speaks of the pain the singer endured as she — or others — faced hardship. It’s a sketch, a photo, a painting that communicates the longing the artist has for community, love, acceptance.

Real art, good art is a labor of love. And it’s those who create not out of a financial or contractual obligation, but out of a passion and a need to share their experiences, their trials and tribulations, to show their side of the world’s story — and who do it with creative, excellent, practiced skill — it’s those who are true artists.

And so, I fear that I’m a poser. I haven’t worked on a labor of love in over a year, and I haven’t had any ideas that consume me like those I worked on before.

Last spring, I worked on a book project that told difficult, true, meaningful stories. Before then, I was working on a book for four years whose main character became a real person to me. But since May 2013, I’ve been project-less. No stories to gather or craft together. No words aching to be written. I tried started something new, and it had strong beginnings. But I’d forgotten how much work goes into developing characters from scratch and . . . I stopped.

Are my fears illogical? That last statement suggests not.

But I’ve been aching to write. Nothing specific. No certain story or article. Just words. In some semblance of order, making some degree of sense. And I’ve been following through, mostly. Writing rambling journal entries that hopefully no one will ever read. Reading past work and making changes here and there, because no matter how long it’s been, there’s always something to fix.

Today, I took a look at the book I never finished writing. Read the first few chapters, which I’ve gone over so many times I’m surprised I don’t have them memorized. This has potential, I thought. Maybe I should pick it back up again. And I’m considering it. With all the years I’ve already given that project, it would be nice to finish it. See it to completion, problems fully developed and resolved.

I’m making no promises, but that’s where I’m at. Because I’m a writer — I have to be with how much I think about it, talk about it, read about it, and have done it in the past (not to mention my college degree). And this story . . . it was a labor of love before, and it could be again.

 

On a completely different note:

Beginning this week, my Good Reads posts, recommending longform and narrative nonfiction articles from around the Web, will be published on Fridays. If you read anything you think is worth sharing, feel free to let me know via a comment, tweet, or email.

NYC Week Thirteen: The fight to stay fit

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

It’s a battle I’ve been losing.

Sure, I ran 1.4 miles today in 10:38. Sure, I followed it up with sprints and crunches and pushups. Sure, I got my heart rate up and didn’t feel awful. But I am not where I was three months ago, when I was working on getting to a pull-up, doing weighted squats, deadlifts, going hard for an hour at least three, if not four or five, times a week.

I felt my muscles begin to atrophy months ago, when I was here in the dead of winter with snow piled on the ground and no gym membership or free weights to get me moving indoors. Transition periods are always tough for me; the things I love — music, creative work (i.e. arts and crafts), Bible time, physical activity — typically fall to the wayside, even though doing those things keeps me healthy and functional.

Yesterday, I decided, with the arrival of May and nice weather (even when it’s raining), excuses for not working out are no longer an option. So in the evening (after a pre-afternoon workout with my housemate, choir practice, and grocery shopping), I sat down on my bed with the one permanent marker I brought to the City and a paper bag I’d brought home from work (the only blank paper I currently have). After unfolding the bag and flattening it out, I cut off a piece, brought a desk drawer over to use as a platform, and drew lines across the paper, dividing the space into a graph of the days of the week and the hours of the day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Then, I filled in my known schedule — internship, work, church, choir — and started eyeing empty space for working out.

I realized, in this process, that working out isn’t the only thing I’ve neglected over the past three months: I haven’t made a single thing since I came here. Cutting up that paper bag and writing on it is the closest I’ve gotten to a craft. I’ve saved things — brochures, clippings from newspapers, programs — but I haven’t even attempted a collage, because . . . I don’t have glue.

Arts and crafts are a natural pasttime for me. My family sees potential where others see trash. It’s part of living cheaply, and it’s also just part of who we are. My mom collects postage stamps and uses them for decoupage on homemade boxes. My little brother makes stuffed animals and dolls out of random pieces of fabric. I used to make bags out of hole-y jeans and, just last summer, made an apron out of two pieces of discarded clothing. Scissors, glue, needle, thread — that’s really all that’s necessary for any of this and, yet, I haven’t made a single thing. I haven’t even touched the knitting I brought with me.

And that’s not all: Yesterday, after choir practice, I sat down at the piano to try and play a song I’m singing with another girl for special music. My fingers were stiff and clumsy — nowhere near where they were in January, after finishing a semester of piano lessons that had me playing Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven. I realized: I haven’t played piano since I was at Taylor, and now I feel like a true novice.

Weaker, weaker, weaker . . . that’s how I feel in all of these areas — even writing, unfortunately. The only place I feel stronger is my faith, and that’s because I’ve actually been reading my Bible on a regular basis. But all of these other areas, they’re important, too. They’re part of me as a multi-interest individual who thrives on new experiences, learning, growing. They keep me in tune to the possibilities around me and aware of the potential in random inanimate objects, as well as people. They improve my brain function, rhythm, coordination. And they keep me healthy, confident, and strong.

Looking at my paper bag schedule for this week, I’m realizing it’s not just working out I need to work on. It’s also creativity, piano, and wordsmith-ing.

The battle I’ve been losing isn’t over, yet. There’s still a chance I can turn things around, regain some core strength, pick up the pace, have something to show for these four months other than bitten nails, worn-out jeans, and poor posture. This week — and the rest leading up to May 24 (my college commencement) — that’s the goal. Improvement.

 

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship. Work. Worked out again with TMIRCE. This time, it was their track workout, which I was hoping would be more up my alley. Turned out, they still run the track for distance: we did long intervals adding up to three miles. It killed me.

Squats TMIRCE

(Note: My squat stance is a bit wide, but it was literally the only way my exhausted legs could pull off the motion. That’s how out of shape I am.)

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. Work. Choir. Church.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work.

Saturday: Worked out with my housemate. Choir practice. Grocery shopping. Paper bag scheduling.

NYC Week Eight: Wake-up run, or Running with strangers

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

Can we scrap the rest of this week and just look at today? Because today, I feel alive.

Not that the rest of this week was worthless — it wasn’t. I worked, read the Bible (1 Samuel 1-13), interviewed an FDNY historian, found out I’m still in the running for a yearlong media fellowship, joined the contributor list of a publication I read regularly, and started reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I love so far, by the way). But today . . .

I couldn’t fall asleep last night, because of my excitement for today. I’d decided at the last minute to look into running groups, ended up stumbling upon these guys, and decided — because, why not? — to forego sleeping in, take the bus and train into Manhattan, and run with a group of total strangers.

The result:

  • Walking through the 34th Street station on a quiet Saturday morning and hearing a man play Agnus Dei on the pan flute.
  • Three-plus miles of calf-soring goodness with this group of super friendly strangers.

The Most Informal Running Club, Ever

  • Hearing not one, but two musical groups on the trains (one for each) back to Queens, and reading more of Hunchback than I would have had I stayed home.

There’s something about running (or physical exertion, in general) that wakes me up to life, to the fact that I have it, and makes everything that follows — subway musicians, books, conversations, rain on the roof or the street — seem vibrant, interesting, and unique.

There always seems to be a battle for my attention: to write or to exercise; to string words together, bring others understanding and realization, or to work out, push my physical abilities to the limit. I enjoy and highly value both, so I find myself in a servant-of-two-masters sort of situation, where if I’m regularly doing one, I’m typically not consistent with the other.

This week, I remembered myself as an artist. Through Hunchback and the endless online debates about Noah (I recommend this review), I remembered why I love writing and what it is as a writer that makes me tick. Christian artists are not just called to make art for other Christians, I thought repeatedly, ruminating again on my college professor‘s oft-repeated point that, “A Christian carpenter doesn’t only make churches.”

But as I remembered my inner artist, I neglected my fitness, and every day without running or doing a push-up or jumping jack, I grew increasingly lethargic and unexcited about life.

Alarm goes off. I drag myself out of bed, miss the button several times before successfully shutting off the buzzer. Stare at my phone, the time, trying to calculate. Do I have to get up now? Can’t I have ten more minutes? Try to shake it off. Go to the bathroom; burn a whole ten minutes when it should take me two. Back to my room. What do I have to wear? Shoulders drooping, back curling, whole body sluggish, feeling like a load of lead or bricks or both. Breakfast: eggs and tasteless oatmeal, even if I add peanut butter. To the bus, to the subway. On the train: sleep. I feel myself becoming your stereotypical jaded New Yorker: People are those things that get in your way, step on your toes, and have loud conversations or make-out sessions next to you on the train, when all you want to do is sleep.

Sinking toward grumpiness, nothing is as interesting as my pillow — at least in the morning, when I should be most excited about the day and the potential it holds.

Finding life dull and colorless is detrimental to the writer, especially one who wants to write about exciting and colorful parts of life found in ordinary places. But it makes sense that life seems dull and colorless when it’s being lived that way, the writer has three physical positions and no more: laying down to sleep, standing up to work, sitting down to travel, eat, or write.

I believe our bodies were made for more. Not merely vessels carrying our souls from this existence to eternity, our bodies are part of us, given to enjoy by climbing trees, turning cartwheels, doing push-ups, lunges, burpees. And when their potentials are tapped into, our blood pumps faster, our senses sharpen, and we awaken to the world around us. 

For most people, this means elevated spirits, bigger smiles, and more energy. For the writer, this means noticing more color, uniqueness, and excitement everywhere. For me, it means all of the above, plus bigger laughs, better posture, and stronger confidence which cuts down my awkwardness, makes way for more natural, genuine conversations, and renews my excitement for life and writing.

The whole way back to Queens, I was holding back grins. On the train, when a trio of singers started singing a ragtime tune, I let it break from ear to ear, despite the pinched mouth and wrinkled nose of the man sitting across from me. When a kid threw a fit on the 7 train, I couldn’t help but chuckle, while most others grimaced or stared.

What is life if it is not experienced, appreciated, enjoyed? Not anything to write about, that’s for sure. Every story needs conflict, but if conflict has no meaning or resolution, there’s no story. Even on the pages of the tragic Hunchback, you find shards of joy (one that made me laugh early on: “They had been waiting since morning for three things: noon, the Flemish ambassadors and the play. Noon was the only one to arrive on time.”). And if a writer (that is, I) neglects to experience, appreciate, and enjoy life (that is, exercise), her writing will suffer from lack of life.

Smile Big

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship.

Tuesday: Work. Signed Hunchback out from the library. Talked to my oldest brother over the phone. Got the good news about my media fellowship application status and my addition to a contributor list. Time to go story-hunting.

Wednesday: Internship. Choir practice and church.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Brief phone interview for internship. Work. Decided to run with a group of random strangers.

Saturday: Ran with a group of random strangers. Talked running with a guy at church before choir practice. Got Italian ice and a meal, courtesy of my landlady (who, by the way, is not in her seventies, as previously stated, but in her sixties. Same for her husband, who she refers to as “hubby”). Set up interviews for a piece I’m going to try to pitch. No details, because that would be counting my eggs before they hatch.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

This is another piece I wrote for my internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

“Before you start peppering me with questions, can I pepper you with a couple? I like to know who I’m talking to.”

Those were the first words of Elissa Gore, 62, in her interview last week.

The practically-minded landscape artist has an Ivy league education, an extra bedroom in her New York City residence and, for several years after college, made her living as a medical illustrator.

“I pursued medical illustration as a profession that would support my habit as a painter and a way to use the skills I had,” Elissa said. “I loved the idea of being able to use my skills as a visual communicator to help people.”

Elissa shared her background in art, her thoughts on differences between illustrators and painters, and what she believes to be the most important thing for creators to know about art.

SCA: When did you decide to pursue art?

Elissa: When I was in high school. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. We could take art every day, so I did. I headed in that direction. I have an Ivy league education, but every time I decided I was going to major in philosophy, the next semester I’d spend more time in art studios than anywhere else.

SCA: You’re originally from Philadelphia and now you live in New York City, but you paint landscapes. How does that work?

Elissa: I grew up in a semi-rural part of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born in Philadelphia but I grew up in the country, and I didn’t move to New York until I was 30. I have always spent at least three months out of the year in the country. Now, I am usually in upstate New York, which is why I show in Cooperstown.

SCA: When you’re working on your landscapes, do you work from photographs or memory?

Elissa: I work from everything. I work from observation, as well as photographs, as well as from the studio. . . . During the past five years, my stuff’s been chosen for the Art in Embassies program for the U.S. State Department, so I have paintings overseas in the ambassadors’ residences. I was fortunate enough to have an art gallery in New York with the same person who’s represented me for the past 20 years. I also have been exploring smaller pieces, sometimes in the studio, sometimes outside. . . . In the past three years, I’ve started traveling more to paint directly from observation of the landscape. I’ve been attending plein air events and competitions, mainly on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of where I live.

SCA: What’s plein air?

Elissa: It’s a French term for painting outside from observation. There is a movement in landscape painting to get more people engaged in painting from life. . . . For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching a landscape painting class at the New York Botanical Garden, where we trot around from one location to another in this 300-acre park in the Bronx. So plein air has been a continuous part of my discipline for many years.

Part of [the challenge of plein air events] is not knowing the locale. I’m going to completely novel places, where I have to hit the ground and figure out the topography and where the light might be good. It’s great. It’s kind of like a sport.

I’ve [also] been working on landscape paintings that are transitional to abstraction. Those are the paintings I’m going to be showing in Cooperstown in July in the three-person show. Those paintings are all oil paintings . . . and they’re all invented . . . from my imagination. If you spend a lot of time observing nature and observing the real world, there’s a great library of observation you can draw from.

At times, there’s a cross-over between my different ways of working. There are times when I’m working outside from observation and I’ll get the palette knife and I’ll be much more interpretive about the way I’m working.

SCA: You say that you are especially attracted to landscapes with earth, air, and water. Can you expand on that?

Elissa: Without water the plants all die, and the same thing with life. The paintings become paintings about the environment. I’m not an illustrator of a conservation message, but the concept is this is the natural world and it’s very beautiful. Let’s keep it the way it is.

There are different ways of looking at the world and organizing our perceptions. I like to say there’s a painter’s frame and there’s an illustrator’s frame, and they both use the same stuff . . . elements of design and composition and color theory—all the elements are the same. But with the illustrator’s frame there’s a concept behind the piece of artwork that tells a story. Not necessarily a narrative, but something specific that it needs to convey. So the place you enter in the image might have very specific details that make the place identifiable. In a painter’s frame, the place might be identifiable, but there isn’t a concept or story. What’s much more dominant are the formal elements of composition and design. The point of the image is to put together something that’s expressive of the emotional observations of the person making the art.

At plein air events, painters are there all working at the same time. At the end in the exhibit, I can see the ways that 30 different painters are applying paint or how they compose, the kind of images they choose. Many of the most successful plein air painters are illustrators professionally.

SCA: What’s most important for people to know about art?

Elissa: As an appreciator of art or a creator of art?

SCA: A creator.

Elissa: The most important thing for them to know is how they feel about their subject. Because the expressive content of a work of art is the driver . . . You have to have a motivation to make something and the motivation is how you feel about the subject of your artwork. No matter whether you’re sculpture or performance art, a drawing or a painting, the first thing you have to know is how you feel.

Elissa Gore‘s joint exhibit with Joanna Murphy and Jody Primoff opened on July 1 on the first floor of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell