Accessorize Accordingly

“Remember who you are. Accessorize accordingly.” –Justine Musk

I love this quotation from the fabulous Justine Musk. It sounds like fashion advice, but of course it’s more than that. It’s life advice.

The first part says, remember who you are. Not discover who you are, but remember . . . because you are that already. You may have forgotten it (have you forgotten it? I bet you have, even if only a little.) I forget who I am sometimes. I think, I’m a teacher and a mother. Which is true, but those are not who I am: they are what I do. I teach, I have a daughter. But who am I when I am not teaching, when I am not with my daughter? And at other times I think, I am tired, or I am lonely, or I’m in the dark. But those, again, are not who I am. They are temporary states.

So who am I, at my essence, in my core? I am a storyteller. I am a sorceress whose magic is words. I am those things even when I am a teacher, or mother, or tired, or lonely . . . You get the point. What are you at all times and everywhere? That is what you are. All the other things are only partial, or only temporary. What you want to remember, and keep remembering, is the core.

And then, accessorize accordingly. We usually think of accessories as small, almost trivial things: jewelry, perhaps a purse or hat. But we know, or at least those of us who care about such things know, that accessories make the outfit. And of course the word has a use outside of fashion: you can be an accessory to a crime. An accessory is something that helps, or supplements, something else. So who are you, and what will help you be that, stay that, remember that?

I think material things are very important. We ourselves are material, made up of the same elements that make our world. And the material affects us: whether we live in a beautiful place, whether we can wear comfortable clothes, whether we have access to healthy food. I think the phrase “accessorize accordingly” means decorate your life, choose the material elements of your life, in a way that reflects and reminds you of who you are.

So, you know, if you’re a sorceress . . . dress like a sorceress. This is me dressed to teach class, but I call this outfit “Sorceress in Disguise.” If you have the eyes to see it, you’ll see who I really am.

Fairy Tale Skirt

So, who are you? Remember, and then make your material life reflect who you are, deeply and essentially. Dress as who you are, furnish your home for yourself (not someone else’s idea of you). I think that has two important effects: first, it keeps you from having too many material things, because although the material is important, we overdo it, don’t we? It’s because we don’t know who we are, and try to be different selves by buying them. But that never works. And it helps you remember. You can stand in front of a class talking about grammar, but underneath you will know: I am a sorceress in disguise, a storyteller whose words are magic . . .

Crossing Thresholds

I redesigned my website.  Did you notice?

Well, not redesigned exactly, but changed the images, changed some of the organization. I’m also updating the pages.

I suppose it’s because I feel as though I’ve crossed yet another threshold. And now I seem to have arrived somewhere, although I’m not sure where yet. It feels stable, it feels secure, although after the last few years, I don’t quite trust security. After all, we’re on a planet hurtling through space, orbiting around a sun that is itself hurtling through space. Solid ground is an illusion.

But at the moment, the illusion feels rather nice, and I think I’ll believe in it for a while . . .

I spent this summer traveling: in June I went to Budapest, in July I went to Readercon and then to teach at the Stonecoast MFA Program residency. In August, I went to Los Angeles and San Francisco. At some point, I moved into a new apartment, and it sat furnished but undecorated for most of the summer while I crossed over the Atlantic and said hello to the Pacific. I love traveling, and I love living out of a suitcase. But it feels nice to be in my own apartment, which is already almost decorated. It feels nice to have my own furniture, and my clothes in the closet. It feels nice to know where all the dishes are.

We have a tendency to think that whatever we’re living through at the moment will continue forever: if we’re in crisis, we think we’ll always be in crisis. If we’re in a period of stability, we think the floor is solid and will never start shaking and cracking under us. But life isn’t like that, is it? It has its tides, just as the sea does. It’s a continual process of crossing thresholds and entering new rooms. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert said something recently that has stuck with me: she said, we are told to find balance in life, but finding balance means that most of the time, we’re off balance. We only ever achieve balance once in a while. That perfect equilibrium is always elusive, always dependent on our leaning first one way, then the other.

And honestly, we have to lean, because that’s the only way to dance. I think, here, of a ballerina: she maintains the illusion of balance, that perfect en pointe, but she’s only ever balanced for a little while. Otherwise, she’s always in motion, always leaping and turning. As we are. As is this entire planet, spinning through space.

I don’t know where I am yet, but so far I like it here. It feels as though there’s a lot of work for me to do, and of course not enough time to do it in, because when is there ever? But for now, there’s a floor under my feet, and a soft bed, and food in the refrigerator. I’m going to put pictures up on the walls, and paint the cabinets. I’m going to see what work I can do that is worthwhile. Because in the end, that’s what matters. I’m sure there will be more thresholds in my future, more leaping through space. But for now, this feels nice. I think I’ll stay . . .

Cattails 3

The new images on my website are photographs I took at a nature conservancy near Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a wetland, and when I visited, the lotuses were blooming — acres of them. They were like sunshine on the water, under a cloudy sky . . . And the photo above is of me among the cattails. I’m not short, I assure you. But the cattails were very tall.

Being Hypersensitive

Recently, I tried a new face cream. Big mistake. Within three days of starting to use it, I had a red rash across my face. I’d been so careful, too: I’d read all the ingredients, and nothing looked irritating. But there was the rash, red and itchy. I could mostly hide it with foundation. It went away in a few days, and my face looks normal now, but lesson learned. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m hypersensitive.

I didn’t understand that when I was young, which made life more difficult than it probably should have been. But when I was doing my PhD, I came across Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person, and later I read Sharon Heller’s Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, and in both I recognized aspects of myself.

What does it mean when I say that I’m hypersensitive? It means that when I buy creams and cosmetics, I look for those that say “for sensitive skin,” because I tend to react badly to certain chemicals. Like, Red Rash Zone. But I can’t go without face cream either, because I burn easily, and even the wind will make my skin red and itchy. I need to protect it. And natural products are often even worse than what I can buy in an average drugstore — Mother Nature, much as I love her, is a treasure house of irritants and allergens. I don’t react as badly as some people I know: I can wear perfume just fine, although strong smells bother me. As do loud noises. And violence.

Because hypersensitivity manifests itself in all sorts of ways: it means, I think, that you have fewer layers of protection from the world than most people. You are more vulnerable to it. This can be a strength: you notice things that other people don’t. If we were in a room, I would probably intuit your emotions, perhaps even what you’re thinking. I would know from the expression on your face, the way you’re holding yourself. But it’s also a weakness. Things that other people find energizing might exhaust you, if you’re hypersensitive. I find theme parks mildly horrifying.

Because I’m missing some of those barriers, I have to build them myself. Some of them are physical: my apartment, which is a sort of refuge from the world, beautiful and soothing. It has thick walls, and soft carpets, and light that filters in through large windows. Books and art and music. Even my face cream is a sort of barrier. But most of them, and the most important ones, are internal. I have to be able to, emotionally and mentally, find a peaceful center within myself, so I can live in a magnificent city, and teach at one of the best universities in the world. So I can interact with sixty students, being there for them without feeling as though I’m losing myself.

I don’t quite know how I build those internal barriers. I didn’t have them as a child, which made childhood incredibly difficult. Imagine if you’re a child, sensing the world so deeply, alive to beauty, but also every criticism. You live intensely — I still do, and I don’t want to lose that intensity of perception. It took a long time to build them, and some of them are unconscious now. (One of them is kindness, and another of them is politeness, and if you don’t know how kindness and politeness can be barriers, then pay attention the next time someone is being kind and polite. Pay close attention to how you’re being shut out.) But I know that those barriers are necessary . . . And I’ve once again learned my lesson about face cream!

Rose 10

Travel Lessons

Once again, this summer, I’m recovering from jet lag. I’ve done a lot of traveling . . .

This time, I traveled with my daughter to Los Angeles and San Francisco to visit family. Travel is always a disruption, no matter how good you are at it, and I pride myself on being pretty good. I can sleep in airports if I need to . . . But it’s also always worth it, and I particularly wanted to travel with my daughter, so we could learn together the sorts of things that travel teaches you.

I wanted to go out there in part to see an old friend of mine: the Pacific Ocean. Years ago, during a particularly tumultuous period in my life, I had gone out to Los Angeles to take care of my grandmother, who was living in a house by the beach. Every day, I would walk down to the ocean, and we would have a talk, the ocean and I. It’s a very soothing sort of ocean, more so than the Atlantic, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it’s larger, and calmer, and seems older. It’s a very sensible ocean, and puts your problems into perspective.

So of course the first thing I did when I woke up, my first morning in Los Angeles, was go down to see the Pacific.

Dora at Pacific 2


The sensation of salt water on your feet never gets old, does it? And then, of course, I introduced my daughter to an ocean she had never met before: Ophelia, meet the Pacific Ocean. Pacific, meet my daughter Ophelia. They both bowed politely . . .

So what sorts of lessons can one learn from traveling, anyway?

1. Changing your location can change your perspective.

Being on a different coast, beside a different ocean, can change the way you see the world or your own life, your self. I don’t know who said “Wherever you go, there you are,” but it’s not quite true: the self there may not be the same as the self here. Traveling places changes us. The self is not such a solid, constant, reliable thing that it’s unchanged by location, distance.

I think that’s a wonderful thing, really. If we can see things differently and anew, that means we can change. And we can change our circumstances as well. We are not stuck in one place. Travel involves a kind of optimism: going someplace will be worthwhile, perhaps because it will be interesting or beautiful, perhaps simply because it will be different.

In Los Angeles, we went to the Getty Villa, which has a collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. My daughter had read the Rick Riordan books, so she knew all the old gods and goddesses, both by their Greek and Roman names. It was lovely to see a ten-year-old wandering around a museum where she felt completely at home, although she did ask me at one point, somewhat exasperated, if we would ever get to the end of the naked people. No, I told her, because the Greeks and Romans thought the human body was beautiful. Which was met with a typical ten-year-old eye-roll.

The nice thing about the Getty is that the villa is built like a Roman house, with inner courtyards. It’s lovely to wander around under a blue sky, in the cool coastal air.

Getty 1

Getty 2

2. You must see what you can, when you can see it. In other words, carpe diem, because you’re only passing through.

We weren’t in Los Angeles for that long, so we had to decide what we wanted to see. The Getty Villa of course, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which has a wonderful collection of dinosaur fossils. I wish we could have gone to the Huntington Botanical Gardens, but there simply wasn’t time. And then we were on to San Francisco, where we went to an exhibit of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences and had tea at the Japanese Garden. The skulls were for Ophelia, the tea and garden were for me.

Garden 3

Garden 12

Again, there simply wasn’t enough time to see everything we wanted to in San Francisco. But we did the most important things, which were spend time with my brother, who introduced Ophelia to Speed Racer, and get a sense for one of the great cities of the world. I hope we can go back . . .

Life is like traveling, of course. (You knew this was a metaphor, right?) You’re passing through, and you don’t know how long you’re going to be here, so see what you can while you have the time. And do what you can, which brings me to the third lesson:

3. Experiences are more important than things.

There’s something refreshing about living out of a suitcase. You realize how little you actually need . . . We traveled with one suitcase between us, with our clothes and toiletries, and a carry-on bag each for our laptops, books, whatever we would need on planes. Whatever we could not replace or do without. Don’t get me wrong, I love my closet full of clothes, but I know that I don’t need them. And although I would not give up my pretty china, I can live very well, comfortably and even elegantly, with a mug, bowl, and plate, as I did for a month in Hungary.

Doing is more important than having. In California, we walked on the beach, watching the sandpipers running back and forth. We ate inordinate amounts of ice cream. We ate crickets. (No, really, we ate crickets. They were sold in packets at the Natural History Museum, and Ophelia wanted to try them, and then of course I had to try as well. Because I couldn’t let her be the only one to eat crickets, could I? I would never live that down.) Back in Los Angeles after our trip to San Francisco, we got henna tattoos to commemorate our trip: a butterfly for me, a dragon for her. Our last day in Los Angeles, we wrote our names on the sand, knowing they would disappear, as the henna tattoos will in a couple of weeks (although right now they are still there, brown designs on our arms.)

It’s the things we do that we remember the most.

Henna Tattoos

Name on Sand 2

4. It’s good to come home.

Home isn’t a place you have. It’s a place you make. It’s good to make a home, and then travel away from it, and then come back to it. I write this sitting at the desk in my bedroom, which still needs work: shelves I need to buy and refinish, bed curtains that need to be put up. I moved into this apartment two months ago, and I’m not done decorating. But already it’s starting to feel like home, like a place I can wrap around myself on winter nights. It’s bright and cozy, and it makes me happy to be back.

So my advice to all you travelers, because you are all travelers, on this planet that is itself traveling through space, is: create a home, and then travel away from it so you can change and return, change and return. That’s what the waves do, and that’s what we have to do, because all life moves in cycles, and so should we. As though we were dancing . . .

Staying Healthy

Let’s be honest: writing is not particularly good for you, physically. It involves a lot of mental work, but a limited range of physical motions: you can end up sitting in front of a computer for five hours at a stretch. At some point during those five hours, you will get incredibly hungry, and you will eat something, anything, because you need the energy to keep going. Writing is energy-intensive work. So there you are in front of the computer with a bowl of . . . something (in my case, Trader Joe’s raw trail mix, but that’s because I’m trying very hard, and very consciously, to stay healthy). At the end of those five hours, you come to, almost as though you were waking up or coming out of a coma. And you’re not entirely sure what year it is, much less what day. That’s how deeply you can disappear into a story. At that point, you may realize that it’s long past midnight, and you’ve just pushed yourself, and pushed yourself, because the writing was so compelling that you didn’t want to stop. And guess what? You’re going to be a wreck the next day.

I thought I would write a post on saying healthy for writers, because it’s something I’m working on myself. I mean this very seriously: in order to write well, you must stay healthy. I’ve seen writers develop terrible back and shoulder problems that prevented them from writing. I’m in physical therapy myself: I go once a week. I have a foam roller. (For my back. I roll on it. Not joking.) I’ve gotten into periods where I haven’t taken very good care of myself, staying up until all hours, not exercising, which inevitably leads to eating badly. And my writing has suffered. I write best, and most efficiently, when I’m healthy. So now I have a sticky over my desk. It’s actually a drawing of a pyramid, and it looks like this:

Staying Healthy Pyramid

(I know, I’m not an artist. Someone should make a graphic of this, I think.)

It reminds me of the four things that are essential to staying healthy. I’ll talk about them a bit below.

1. Sleep

Sleep is the absolute essential, the base of the pyramid on which everything else rests. When I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t have the energy to exercise and I end up eating more than usual, and differently than usual — as in, a lot more chocolate. You see, chocolate has sugar and caffeine, and both of those things keep me going. When I haven’t had enough sleep, my body says, “Lady, I need energy from somewhere. And you’re going to give it to me, or I’m going to collapse right here, in the middle of the street or classroom.” If you don’t get enough sleep and you end up eating badly, that’s not you eating badly — that’s you giving your body what it needs, which is energy. You just happen to be giving it to your body in the wrong way, a way that is ultimately inefficient.

I used to think that sleep was a waste of time, and that’s why I didn’t get enough — I had a lot to do, and no time to waste. Then I read a scientific study that said the brain is just as active while sleep as it is while awake. So what is it doing? Scientists aren’t entirely sure, but the brain seems to sort through and consolidate knowledge while sleep. Whatever it’s doing, it’s important stuff, and you’re going to be a better writer when your brain is working well. To work well, it needs enough sleep. So now sleep is on my to-do list. It’s one more of those things, like brushing my teeth, that I know I need to do in a day. Whatever it’s doing to my brain, I think it makes me a better writer.

2. Exercise

I’ve written about exercise before, in a blog post on forming habits. So you may know that I exercise every day, for about twenty minutes, in a routine that includes pilates, yoga, and stretching. It doesn’t require any special clothes or equipment. I do it barefoot, in pajamas, in my living room. First thing. For me, it’s a necessity because if I don’t, my back problems get worse. But I think if you’re writing for any length of time, intensely, you have to exercise regularly or you’ll develop serious physical problems. We know, now, that sedentary jobs and lifestyles are dangerous to your health, and writing is the ultimate sedentary job. I’m lucky that my non-writing life involves a lot of movement: I live in a city, so I walk or take public transportation everywhere. I teach, which means that at least while I’m teaching, I’m always on my feet — although meeting with students and grading papers both involve sitting. But I try to be as active as I can, and to take breaks when I write — stretch, change my position, walk around for a bit.

For me, twenty minutes a day, every day, is a minimum. And I know that if I don’t, I’ll start having physical problems . . . Back pain is a pretty good motivator, for exercise!

3. Diet

By diet, I mean the food you eat every day — your ordinary, everyday diet. I find that diet affects my health as much as exercise — specifically in terms of energy. If I eat badly, I don’t have the energy to do the things I want to do — the teaching, the writing, even the staying in touch with people. I need to eat frequently enough (every couple of hours, for me), and I need to eat the right things: whole grains (whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, oatmeal), lean protein (meat, cheese and other dairy products), vegetables (lots of these!), and fruit. Usually I try to get whole grains and lean protein at every meal, and then as many veggies as often as I can. And some treats: nuts and dried fruit, dark chocolate, Whole Foods fudge bars. And sometimes, total blow-out treats, like chocolate cake! But not that often . . . (You need the blow-out treats. See “self-care” below.) And I do watch my calories, but the most important thing is to eat real, healthy foods often enough that you’re never really hungry. Because if you are, you’ll head straight for the chocolate.

And I have a trick for the writing munchies. I’ve made a rule for myself, which is that I don’t eat in front of the computer. This is ostensibly because it’s not good for the computer, but really it’s not good for me. I trick myself by drinking flavored fizzy water while writing. This feels to my body as though it’s getting something, but really it’s getting water — which is good, because it means I’m also drinking water, which is another thing I forget to do. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to convince my body that it’s getting anything with plain old tap water, I suppose because it has no flavor — it would be so much cheaper! But if I have a long writing day ahead of me, I stock up on fizzy water, usually raspberry and lime flavored. I know, it’s silly, but there it is . . .

The thing is, we’re all different, with different bodies, and we need different things: you need to find out for yourself how much sleep you need, how much and what type of exercise, how much and what type of food. Experiment. Figure out what makes you feel healthy, what gives you energy. What makes you feel your absolute best. What works for me may not work for you. But I can guarantee that you’ll need to pay attention to sleep, exercise, and diet. And that if you do, the writing will go better and easier.

4. Self-Care

The last item on the list is self-care. I’ve tried all sorts of different words for this category, and can’t find one that really encompasses what I mean. What I really mean is “Being Nice to Yourself,” but that’s cumbersome, isn’t it? I mean taking care of yourself, however you like to be taken care of. My favorites are taking bubble baths, buying myself flowers, meditating. Going to see beautiful things, like art museum exhibits or ballets.  And making sure that each week, I get in a blow-out treat, with lots of fats and sugars. Usually cake. But it has to be absolutely delicious, and I have to enjoy every bit of it — that’s the rule.

I tend to forget things if I’m not reminded of them, especially things like taking care of myself. So it’s useful to have the Staying Healthy pyramid up on my wall, where I can see it. And then I can ask myself what I’ve done for myself that day, whether I’ve remembered to treat myself well. Because, obviously, there’s one person I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life, and that’s me. If I don’t treat myself well, I’m going to suffer the consequences. And honestly, it’s going to be harder for me to treat anyone else well either, because I’ll be moody, and vaguely angry, and just generally out of sorts with the world. I need to be physically healthy to be psychologically healthy, too.

But really what I’m focusing on here is the writing. I need to be healthy to write well and efficiently. Which is why, since it’s almost 11 p.m., I’m going to sleep . . .

Urban Dora

(This is me being thoroughly urban, running around the city on an ordinary day. And feeling very healthy . . .)