Food, flowers, friends, writing, and reading

True to prediction, after my off-week(s) I am definitely now in the “on” part of my creative cycle. There’s a tremendous and distracting soreness in my neck and shoulders — I’m not sure physical therapy is improving this, though it’s helping elsewhere — but aside from that, things are really good. I’ve been happy, active, and productive at an unprecedented level; last week I actually spent 20 hours writing (I told you I was tracking time spent). My days feel as full and as satisfying as they did when we were traveling.

A big part of this, as was also the case on our travels, is balancing my introvert and extrovert tendencies. I’ve mentioned before that I am basically an ambivert — someone who’s equally comfortable with both styles of socializing — except that I skew a tiny bit more toward extroversion. What that means is being with people gives me more energy than it drains away, and if I don’t socialize enough, my mood suffers. I started my Meetup group very much for this reason, but even I am amazed by how much happier it makes me. It’s just one event a week, something low-key like having lunch and taking a walk, but attending and organizing the events helps me get out of my head, and that’s apparently exactly what I need. We’ll see if it helps me through the off-weeks as well, but for now, I’m so grateful.

At yesterday’s event we walked around Gamble Garden — to which Belinda introduced me, right before we started traveling — and then settled in the shade for an almost three-hour-long conversation. While we talked, I made this sketch:

Jun 4 - Gamble Garden

Thai cooking class

Another way I’m getting out of the house is by taking a group Thai cooking class, taught by Kasma Loha-unchit, who lives close enough to me to be called a neighbor. I’ve never been much for cooking classes, but I truly enjoyed our first one and am looking forward to the next three. We are properly learning about cooking — selecting ingredients, tasting, smelling — rather than blindly following recipes. This morning I went to a Cambodian grocery to buy ingredients, and as I write this, there’s a green curry simmering on my stove.


Clockwise from top left: baby bananas, cilantro, Thai eggplants, kaffir lime leaves, pea eggplants, sweet basil.

A note on literature

I went into the Learning Ally studio yesterday, and instead of the usual history texts, they’d assigned me a literary anthology. Not only that, but I didn’t have to read any of the “boring” stuff (chapter intros, table of contents, etc). Instead, I had just enough time during my session to narrate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Oh, this was so much fun. While we were in Boston I read my leisurely way through The Scarlet Letter and also visited Hawthorne’s hometown of Salem, and I suppose that’s why I jumped into this story with ease, in spite of the 1835-pretending-to-be-1690s language. I got to do voices for the Devil and other assorted characters, and read lines like “On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him.”

Gilman’s story, on the other hand, I had read a very long time ago but didn’t remember. It’s considered an important feminist text, and I was struck by how modern it felt, both in language and in content:

John is a physician, and PERHAPS—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Would you have guessed this was written in 1892?!

Although the narrator’s grasp of reality vanishes by the end of the first-person story, I felt very much connected — especially after my recent off-weeks — to her despair at feeling trapped, misunderstood, and in dire need of creative work and human contact.

After spending so much time doing my own writing, reading Hawthorne’s and Gilman’s stories — and reading them out loud, at that — felt particularly good. It’s a mark of how well they both wrote, Hawthorne especially, that their words rolled smoothly off my tongue in spite of the centuries that separate us.

Writing a choose-your-own-romance

As for my own writing, the choose-your-own-romance story I’m working on is now at 22,406 words and I’m realizing I’ve barely begun. So far I’ve managed to quash all little internal voices asking, “But where is this going?” and “Who’s going to care about this?”, and am still having a good time — though I’m discovering this is a much bigger undertaking than I’d anticipated. Because of the nature of the format, I’m effectively writing several stories at the same time, since each major fork in the storyline changes the outcome substantially. I do copy and paste, of course, but still, there’s nothing I hate more in a CYO story than nonspecificity — those passages where it’s obvious the author didn’t bother to tailor to the reader’s choice.* I guess this is another lesson in “wherever you go, there you are”; even in a single project, we see my usual tendencies of perfectionism and biting off more than I can chew. Ah well. As long as it’s still fun.

And speaking of fun, I discovered I can embed images in my story, so that adds a whole other dimension. I’ve already drawn illustrations of three of the main characters:


From left to right, these characters are named Jack, Rae, and Jimi — though I’m going to repaint Jimi, because he doesn’t really look like that. To draw them, I referenced stock images as well as friends’ Facebook photos. Indeed, I’m finding I think a lot about my friends while writing; I’ve even thrown a couple of cameos into the story, and plan to include more as I go. I hope no one will mind, as I’m doing it out of love, and not because my imagination can’t come up with its own alternatives!

Steph’s travel blog

Speaking of friends, one who’s made a cameo in the story is Stephanie Yue, whom I met in Boston; we sat for hours talking in Flour bakery, before going back to the apartment to look at my watercolors, and then having dinner with Erik. Steph is now on her own great travel adventure: she’s riding her motor scooter cross-country. I’ve been following her trip posts (which have words, photos, and drawings, as mine did!) and they are making me so happy. Here’s one of my favorites, about eating biscuits in North Carolina, visiting an artist community, and joyriding curving mountain roads at sunset with friends she’s just met. Steph’s photos and stories are lyrical, and they perfectly capture the highs (and sometimes the lows) of traveling.

People have asked whether we miss our nomadic life. Yes. When I read Steph’s posts, or my Thai cooking teacher’s itineraries, or see friends’ Paris, Istanbul, or Tokyo photos on my Facebook feed, part of me wants nothing more than to drop everything and head out into the world once more. But on the other hand, having done that, I know how much work it is; I’ve been backstage, so to speak. I don’t miss the planning (both the trip planning and all the preparations needed before leaving home), and I’m happy to have our own place again, with all our own things, and a community I can count on. In a way I feel that staying home is our “travel” this time around, in the sense of being a new adventure with all the challenges and possibility therein. In fact, in some ways it’s a greater adventure to stay home and still find ways to foster the fresh perspective, newness, connection, and courage that are closer at hand when we travel.

New flower paintings

And on the topic of fresh perspective… I think I said last week that I was getting really tired of flower paintings. I haven’t done one for a little while because I’ve been casting about for some new approach.

Today I went to a flower stall on Piedmont that I’ve always passed, but never visited. I bought a mixed bouquet and took it home to contemplate. Although I’d originally been drawn to the colors of the flowers, I found it was mostly the foliage I wanted to paint, so I decided to draw the flowers out of their vases, crisscrossing over the page.

I meant to take process photos, but I only got as far as this one, and then I forgot. Whoops.


Here’s the finished painting, sitting alongside a little fallen petal that I painted in at the last minute.


I like this almost-geometric arrangement of the organic shapes, but it feels too deliberate, too careful. I want more exuberance in my paintings; while we were out today buying fish (for the green curry) and the flowers, we also stepped into a shop/gallery that had a new exhibit of watercolor landscapes. They were gorgeous, but I felt they didn’t breathe enough; even the trees looked static. It’s a problem with my flower paintings too.

So I got out another sheet of paper, this time the trickier Japanese paper that I don’t really know how to use, and set out to paint bigger, faster, and lighter. This sketch took me 20 minutes, as opposed to the almost 2 hours of the other one.


Which one is better? Beats me, and maybe it doesn’t matter. These are all practice, and practice I am definitely getting!


*Example: You have an option of whether the character will eat soup or ice cream. You choose ice cream, but the resulting text says simply, “You dip your spoon into the bowl and have a taste. Delicious!” Or even worse, you choose whether to speak to Mr Jones or Ms Jones, and the resulting text says, “You talk to them for awhile” and doesn’t further develop your relationship with that character. I hate that kind of thing. What’s the point of having choices if they don’t feel like real choices? But because of my nitpickiness, I now have to write twice as much (e.g., dialogue with both Mr and Ms Jones), and insert all kinds of conditionals as well (i.e., code that will change snippets of text depending on what the reader chose, as in “This is the best soup you’ve ever tasted” versus “Strawberry has always been your favorite flavor”).