Thoughts on books, thoughts on myself

Lydia Minotoya’s The Strangeness of Beauty is making me think. I bought this book years ago in Berkeley, and have tried unsuccessfully to read it at least three times. This time I have come to appreciate the book’s mirroring of its narrator’s “I-Story,” a Japanese form which comes at its point slowly and obliquely rather than through forceful action and immediate understanding, as Western novels do.

The narrator is Etsuko Sone, a young widow who completely puts aside her own life in order to care for her dead sister’s daughter. Etsuko is cheery, creative, and spontaneous when left to herself, but in relations with others or with the public she is passive and easily swayed. After all, she has never really had a place in life. She was rejected twice by her birth mother, and left alone in a new country after her husband died. Then, after her sister died, Etsuko devoted herself wholly to caring for her daughter. After she had become comfortable in that role, her brother-in-law requested that she accompany her niece to Japan, where she took up residence in her birth mother’s home, occupying a strange role as neither family nor servant. As time passes, Etsuko is forced out of passivity by the changes going on around her. Her niece is now a teenager and doesn’t need her in the same way; moreover, Japan is about to enter World War II.

In my previous efforts to read this book, I got caught up in the rambling tone and leisurely pace and couldn’t figure out where anything was going. But now I realize these seeming digressions are really the way our lives work. We can’t always tell at the beginning which path we are on; we can only look back afterward and see where our footsteps fell. In this way, Etsuko’s story now engages me even more than more linear narratives, because reading it is like living it with her. Like any good piece of art, Strangeness of Beauty helps me to understand myself by showing me that which is not me, but doing it in such a way that I feel I am the one being exposed. It is this quality that makes me love books so much, but whenever I think of this, I also despair.

If I ever want to create anything, verbal or visual, that is worth remembering, I will have to produce this same dual character of universality and individuality, but I don’t know how to do that. I am so expository. I have spent so many years learning how to say, “I am,” that I don’t know what to say to let you find that out for yourself. It’s the same when I draw, which is why I lean toward comics (also because I like them). Sometimes I look at others’ work and I just feel so incapable, now and ever. I know it’s not true, but I feel it anyway.

Of course, that is my heart speaking. I have my brain to make my heart feel better (and Erik’s brain, which functions more clearly than mine when I’m feeing bad), and my brain has been thinking about how to solve my heart’s problems for many years now. Every so often it has a new idea. Sometimes the idea works for a while, sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and sometimes it works well enough for long enough to propel me into something new. This is my brain’s advice to my heart; at least, this is what’s working right now:

1. You cannot be a twenty-six-year-old failure, unless you are aiming to be a child prodigy or a dancer or a gymnast. So let’s not hear that word anymore.
2. Keep looking at that Twyla Tharp quote you’ve taped on your wall above your desk: “Art is a vast democracy of habit.” You can’t claim to be bad at anything until you’ve really tried, day in and day out, for months or years. Right now you are definitely not at that hardiness of effort yet.
3. You know you are easily discouraged, and you know you have a tendency to see every attempt as having an all-or-nothing outcome. I am your brain, and I tell you these are false impressions.

These remind me that I shouldn’t give up, and this afternoon Erik’s brain chimed in with some practical advice on how to accomplish that:

4. Right now you are trying to do a lot: carry out a part-time job, take art classes, maintain a lovely living environment, be healthy, and create your own work. That is really two full-time jobs right there. So when you get frustrated that you’re not doing enough, there’s a real reason for that.
5. But here is a funny thing: the first of these to go when you’re busy are exercise and your own work; while your greatest stressors are being fat and not creating anything. So you are counteracting your own desires. Focus now on those first, and see what happens to everything else.

I am trying to do a lot, and I do get upset when I can’t do it. I have high expectations for myself, and when I’m trying to do many tough new things at once, it’s impossible for me to live up to those expectations in everything. Then, because I give up easily and am so pessimistic about my own potential, I feel there’s no hope in trying, which brings me still lower.

I decided over Thanksgiving that I want a simple life focused only on what’s most important to me: love, home, health, and art. I knew I would have to work to shape my life into this form, but last week I made a strong effort and it actually made a huge difference in our week. Erik and I had more time together, the apartment is cleaner and less cluttered, and we cooked and ate at home almost every day. I’ve read a lot of good books, which always gets me thinking, and I haven’t spent a lot of money. I really enjoyed it, but, as we noticed today, I didn’t have time for everything, and exercise and my own work were the first to go. Now that I know that, and have Erik’s smart suggestions in mind on how to fix the problem, I feel recharged to try for another week.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]