Putting My House In Order

My house is a mess.

It doesn’t look that messy. Books are on the shelves, where they should be. Pillows are on the beds or sofas or armchairs. I can move around in it with relative ease. If a visitor came, I would not be ashamed to have her sitting in my living room or office. There are clean teacups in the cupboard. I could make her a cup of tea.

The mess is different. It’s contained in neatly stacked folders, a pile of them, with receipts for taxes. In neatly stacked piles of books for various projects. Neatly stacked binders in which I organize my writing — but I’m behind, and things have not been organized for a while. A long while. It’s a kind of mental messiness, in which I know where all the projects are, and all the things I need for the projects, but there are so many of them . . . The tops of the shelves are covered with these piles. And because there is always a new project, always something to do, the old projects don’t get filed away. And I am always afraid of missing something, losing something.

So I need to put my house in order, because it’s an extension of my brain, and I need to put my brain in order. It feels exactly like my office, filled with things I need to remember, stacked in various places. It feels as though I’m always managing those mental stacks, and that effort is exhausting. I try to externalize it as much as I can — of course I have a to-do list, or rather a to-do notebook. But it’s still there in my head, creating stress and worry.

I’ve been stressed and worried a lot lately. It’s the beginning of the semester, so there is so much administrative work to be done. Tasks that used to be easy, like sending in a copy of my CV at the beginning of the semester, have been made a hundred times harder by putting them on the computer — now I need to upload everything from my CV into a program, figure out where my strange and sometimes uncategorizable projects fit into an academic template. I need to file for reimbursements, again on the computer. Request funding for conference travel. And then, of course there are all the tasks associated with actually teaching . . .

In my writing life there is also work to be done — I have a whole book to proof this week, among other projects. There are so many people I should get back to, so many things I should do. All smaller things that are not actually my writing — things like interviews, reviews. It’s difficult finding time to actually write.

Sitting here, thinking about it all, I feel a sense of helplessness, of being overwhelmed. I don’t know where to begin, except by going down my to-do list, item by item. But I think this is going to take more. It’s going to take a kind of spring cleaning that is not about dirt, but about mess: assessing, evaluating, organizing.

I’ve found that when the inner is not working, you have to work on the outer. That’s why I need to put my house in order. And now that I think about it, it’s not even the whole house — just my office, which contains all the work I do, and therefore all the mess I make as I do it. It contains all the files, the binders, the books I’m currently using for research. It contains all the teaching material, all the printouts. All the bills and receipts. I’m going to start with one corner and slowly make my way around the room — corner by corner, step by step, straightening out both my office and my life. It’s going to take a while . . .

But in order to do my best work, I need a sort of peace and quietness of the soul. I need to have an uncluttered mind. And this is one way to get there.

(The image is A Favorite Author by Poul Friis Nybo.)

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Discovering Women Artists

I love discovering women artists I did not know about. It’s a little sad that the discovery so often seems to be online. I have spent a lifetime in museums, and I’ve seen so few women artists represented . . . The occasional Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo. It’s as though women only started painting at a particular period in time, which isn’t at all accurate . . . there were professional women artists in the medieval period.

But this narrative, that women artists were few and far between, dominated my childhood. For me, as for many other women, reading Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Angel in the House” was transformative, because it gave us a reason why our female predecessors were missing — like the hypothetical Shakespeare’s sister, they had not been given the opportunity and support to develop their talents. The alternative narrative, the one that had been implicit in the cultural cannon I grew up with, was that women simply did not have the mental capacity for that sort of genius. Oh sure, maybe a few women here and there . . . but they were exceptions. I was probably not that sort of exception.

But Woolf wasn’t quite right either . . . Yes, women had lacked opportunities and support. Barred from life drawing classes, they had painted what they could. But the women were there. They were painting, drawing, sculpting, making pottery. We know, because their work exists — artists like Angelica Kauffman, Rosa Bonheur, and Sarah Bernhardt (who was known almost as much for her sculpture as her acting) were not only good, but prolific. So where had their works gone? Often, into private collections. Sometimes, their works had been bought by museums and still languished in storage rooms, not part of the main narrative of art. In the interest of creating and curating that narrative, which moved with seemingly irrefutable logic from movement to movement, museums had left out whatever branched from that main narrative, whatever existed on a byway — anything that disturbed the logical flow from, say, romanticism to impressionism to symbolism to expressionism . . .

Women often painted in those branches and byways. They painted flowers, or interiors, or genre paintings that were considered technically masterful, but perhaps not truly “innovative” . . . They were, perhaps, painting on porcelain. Or fans. Or perhaps they were doing what might be classified as “crafts,” although when male artists designed wall hangings or decorated rooms, those were still considered art . . . Women were often recognized as good technicians. They were rarely considered geniuses.

I’m actually not interested in arguing that they were, because I think the genius narrative of art impoverishes it. If we are to worship geniuses, and to argue about who is and is not a genius, we will have very little art to look at. Instead, I want to look at art as a tree with many branches, where each twig, each leaf, may be interesting in itself. Or a road with many byways branching off it, where those small paths may lead to the most interesting places. In fact, the art we look at least may be the most interesting, and the “lower” arts — illustration, pottery, embroidery — may teach us more than the most famous Picasso. I will confess: my eyes have grown tired of Picasso. I want to see delicate botanical paintings. They speak more to me, and to this particular cultural moment, than another blue harlequin. (This is not at all to discount Picasso, whom I admire even though I do not love, simply for painting so damn much that every major museum I’ve ever been to has its Picasso, proudly displayed.)

But the paintings I love to look at are the ones I’ve never seen before, the ones I can’t find in museums. They are often featured online by sites such as Female Artists in History. What I see there is like an eye wash for dusty eyes — every new image clears my sight, and I think, Oh, you can do that. You can see a room in that way, with sunlight flooding through a window shaded on either side by green curtains. You can paint onions and chrysanthemums. You can even paint female models with no reference to a male viewer, either inside or outside the canvas. Women were painting in ancient China, and Renaissance Italy, and Australia during the World Wars. Women were and are painting all the time, all over the world.

This is important to me because it gives me permission, a permission I did not quite have growing up, to create the way I want to. In those little branches and byways, even though I may not be a genius, even though I’m just off on some side road, some offshoot, doing my own thing, hoping it will be good. If the world is and was filled with women creating art, then I don’t need to be exceptional. I can just be, and do.

The following paintings are all by Blanche Hoschedé Monet, the daughter of Alice Hoschedé, Claude Monet’s second wife. Her father was Ernest Hoschedé, who was one of Monet’s first patrons. The family relationship was, shall we say, complicated. Blanche actually grew up in the Monet household, with her mother and siblings, as well as Monet, his wife Camille, and their two sons. After the deaths of Camille and Ernest, Alice married Monet. Blanche later married Monet’s and Camille’s son Jean. She was the only one of the children interested in painting, and Monet’s only student, as well as his assistant. After the deaths of Alice and Jean, she took over running Giverny and helped Monet with his work. It’s clear from her paintings how deeply she was influenced by him and impressionism, but to me, her work has a sensibility of its own, a different approach — softer, less influenced by a sense of balance and proportion inherited from the academic painters. It feels more spontaneous. To me, it’s a little more modern. And the colors are beautiful.

What do you think, should I write some poems about these paintings? I’m feeling inspired . . .

Bois Tailler En Automne (Effet d’Hiver) by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

Primevères by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

Le Jardin de Monet à Giverny by Blanche Hoschedé Monet.

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Morning in Budapest

This morning, I woke up in Budapest.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I’ve been waking up in Budapest for almost a week now, since I arrived on a Swiss Air/Helvetica flight from Zurich. My luggage, probably tempted by the thought of snow-capped mountains and chocolate, decided to stay in Zurich for an extra day. It arrived the next morning, looking a bit tired. But then, I was looking a bit tired as well. December was not an easy month. I had final papers and portfolios to grade, then preparations for Christmas, all while fighting a sinus infection. (The sinus infection won, at least for the month of December. It finally moved on at the end of the year. I’m sure it had other parties to attend.)

It was dark when I woke up. Upstairs from me lives a woman who knew my grandmother. She does not leave her apartment much anymore, and I think she is a little deaf, because her television is rather loud. I can hear it through the ceiling. She turns it on when she wakes up at 4 a.m., so I often wake up then as well. I can hear the news, the morning shows. On Sundays, I can hear the music of the Mass. Several times, I’ve met her on the stairs and helped her carry up her groceries, but last summer I did not see her at all. I know she remembers me — I’m Dóra, who used to live here so long ago, as a child. Kata’s daughter, Ilona’s granddaughter.

There is something strange about coming back to the apartment where I lived when I was five years old. I remember just a little of what it looked like then. Much the same, actually, because this place desperately needs to be renovated. The heating system is new, the bathtub is new, the stove is still the one my grandmother cooked on. I’m pretty sure my grandfather was the last person who painted these walls. But this apartment feels like home as well — in fact, it’s the only place that feels like home, because my life has been spend in a succession of houses and apartments, every one of which was temporary. The apartment I live in now, in Boston, is temporary — I’m not even sure how much longer I can afford it.

So this is the closest I get to home — here, in this apartment, looking out the windows at the Nemzeti Múzeum, which has a lovely new playground. I would have loved it, as a child. When I was a little girl, it was not so well taken care of — the trees and bushes were overgrown, the gravel used as a parking lot. I saw my very last Trabant parked there, several years ago. But that’s been renovated too — it’s trim and pretty now, with new trees and flowers that will bloom this summer. Even in January, when nothing is blooming, I love to look out the window at the winding gravel paths, the park benches, the nineteenth-century-style lamps. The light is so beautiful here, shining on the beige stone of the museum. The sky is so blue. I think that light gives me a sort of mental clarity that I don’t have in Boston.

There is no real point to this post, nothing that I’m trying to say — it’s just a love letter, really. To this apartment, to Budapest, to the light.

It was so early, but I did not think I could get back to sleep, and anyway, the news of the day was coming through my ceiling. So I got up and made myself breakfast — muesli, orange juice, tea. I sat in the living room and ate it at the table where my grandmother used to sew or sketch, where she put rétes or pogácsa when she had guests, on white doilies she had crocheted herself. This is the only place in the world I feel that connection with my ancestry, even though my family did not come from here. My grandparents moved here during World War II, when they could no longer stay in Battonya, which is a town in southeastern Hungary, currently population about 6000. I wonder what it felt like coming to Budapest, whose population even then must have been well over a million.

When I’m here, it’s as though my head clears. It’s the only place I can really get away from the worries and obligations of my ordinary life. It’s as though the perpetual clouds of Boston cloud my mind as well — low gray clouds always filled with rain, so that I can’t go anywhere without an umbrella. I may not live here, but this is nevertheless my city, the one I can rest in, think in, hopefully write in.

It’s a new year. It’s time to begin some new stories . . .

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When I Used to Make Things

I remember when I used to make things.

It wasn’t that long ago, really, although it feels as though it’s been a million years. I grew up making things. My grandmother taught me how, and then I taught myself. When I was a child, I learned to crochet, embroider, knit. I learned how to make macramé and papier-mâché. Some things I learned in summer camp. Some things I learned in art class, in my elementary school. Some things I just figured out, like how to make my own paper dolls, and the dresses for them. Once I took an old shelf and turned it into an elaborate dollhouse — or at least it was elaborate in my mind, because it was filled with stories. I made clothespin dolls to live in it: a family, in which the father was a vampire, the mother a witch. The grandmother was a mummy, whom they called grandmummy. There were two girls, one angelic, one devilish, and a little boy named bat, as well as an assortment of servants. Their clothes were partly painted on, partly crocheted. I papered the walls with fancy paper, made furniture. I would have liked to live in that house myself . . .

At various times I have knitted scarves, hats, and sweaters. In law school, desperately unhappy, I made an entire 1820s dress by hand, sewing every cartridge pleat, from an old pattern. Once, for a present, I traced my daughter’s hands on a pillow and embroidered the outlines, then asked her to write her name (she had just learned to write it), and embroidered the letters just as she had written them. I have made countless Christmas ornaments and children’s toys. I have painted in watercolors and oils, refinished furniture, sewn decorative pillows . . . But all this feels very long ago, when I used to make things. Now I’m so busy that I no longer have time — it feels faster to buy the things I need. Faster, but it gives me less pleasure, and I don’t have the same affection for the things I buy as for the things I used to make. I still have all the things my grandmother made when she was alive, acres of lace and embroidery, a portfolio filled with sketches and paintings. I still have her hand-written recipes. Someday, I will try to translate them from Hungarian.

Somehow, I don’t think it’s just busyness, which is why I’m writing this blog post. I think many of us are getting out of the habit of making things. Not all of us — I have friends who post photos of the scarves they’ve knitted, the cakes they’ve baked (because that’s a kind of making too, and yes, I used to bake, once). And of course I have friends who are professional artists, who are always making things, with a kind of joy I envy even though I know those paintings and sculptures will be for sale, that their making is part of their livelihood. I think it was easier to make things before we were all online, all the time. When there was still silence, and even boredom. When, sometimes, there was nothing to do but make. Nowadays, we have to create a space for ourselves — not just a physical space, but a mental space. We have to create the silence.

Over Christmas, I made something. It was only a little thing: I found some laser-cut snowflakes, and I thought, these would make good ornaments for the tree. So I painted them (my daughter helped), first with an acrylic paint, and then with a glossy spray paint to give them a little shine. It was very little effort, and took almost no skill, but it gave me a particular sense of satisfaction to hang them on the tree.

Somehow, I need to find more time to make things, physical tangible things, whether I’m sketching or stitching or looping yard together. I live so much in the intangible — online, in words, even in teaching, which is about the passing on of ideas. If that’s a kind of making, it’s entirely mental. Sometimes I forget that I live in the world. But making things reminds me that I am embodied — a made thing myself, continually being remade by physical and psychological forces. I am stitched together, knit together, flesh and bone. It’s easy to forget . . .

So that’s my resolution for this year, or at least one of them: to make things. And to make time in my life for making. I wish you, not just a wonderful new year, but the space to make and be made, to become — whatever beautiful thing you want to be.

These were my snowflakes, painted:

And here was one hung on the tree:

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Death of a Writing Teacher

His name was Tony, and he had been a mentor of mine since I had joined the Writing Program as a full-time faculty member. My promotion packets, both times I applied for promotion, were based on his, and both times they succeeded. He had written me gracious letters of recommendation. He was unfailingly courteous and kind, supportive, a model teacher. He was also a writer, and had written an award-winning collection of short stories.

Shortly before he died, about a year ago, he sent me an email about some departmental business, adding at the end a personal note about the novel he intended to write. That summer, he said, he would finally have time to start it, to really work on it intensively. That summer, he would get to the project he had wanted to work on for so long time. A few weeks later he was dead.

I still have the email, somewhere in my email queue. I’m sure that someday, the university’s email program will delete it automatically. I don’t want to delete it or look at it; it’s like a ghost, haunting my emails. If I delete it, I will erase a memory of the man. If I look at it, I will be reminded of how easily any of us can be here and then gone. It has become a memento mori. It’s enough for me to remember that it’s there, one of the final things he wrote.

I went to his funeral and then the memorial service afterward. It had been sudden, a heart attack — once he entered the hospital, he did not come out. Everyone was feeling both grief and shock. Someone, another faculty member, mentioned to me that he had been talking about his novel, of the things he was going to do that summer. He was at least a decade older than me, but not old in any sense. He had a beautiful wife. I remember her standing in front of the church, incredulous and devastated.

What hit me so hard, then — so hard that I’ve been meaning to write something like this for the past year, and have not been able to — was the unfinished work he intended to do, all his hopes for the future. I thought, suddenly, of all the books I want to write, all the things I plan to create. And I thought, then — I’d better get on it. There is no time, there is no time. There’s never enough time. We always die with our work unfinished.

We have a little while here, so little, less than a tortoise or elephant. And in that time, we can create things that are hopefully worthwhile. So ever since, I’ve been pushing myself, sometimes probably too hard. And sometimes I’ve been tired and sad, because all the things I want to do will never get done, and there are so many other obligations — like, you know, the work that pays my rent.

But it seems to me that there are only two truly important things to do in this world: love the people around you, and create your art. Now, with wildfires raging and seas rising, I would add: try to save the world just a little bit, if you can.

I’m haunted by the memory of a friend and mentor, by an email I don’t have the courage to look at again. And I’m trying to do the work that I feel was given to me, while there’s still time.

(The image is Poppies and Italian Mignonette by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.)

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Loving the Work

Recently, I wrote the following:

The one thing you can always count on in life is your work. If you’ve found true, good work to do, it will always be there for you. If you put it aside for a while, it will wait. You may not make money at it, but you will feel that you’ve done something worthwhile.

I posted it on Twitter, and it seemed to resonate with people, so I thought I would write more about it here.

I’m trying to remember, now, why I wrote it. It was on a day that I felt like an author, but not a writer . . . I felt as though I was doing the things authors do (planning for appearances, looking over contracts), rather than the things writers do (writing). I enjoy being an author more or less, sometimes more, sometimes less. But I love being a writer. I love being in that space where it’s just me and the pen and the paper, or me and the document on my laptop, and we’re making words together. That sense of flow, of losing myself, is a feeling I want and need, a feeling I miss when I’m not writing. And it’s a sense that comes from writing, not authoring.

There’s a page on Facebook that I’ve been following for a while. It’s called Vincent Van Gogh, and it’s just quotations from the artist, paired with his paintings. There are many bad things about social media, and some good ones: pages and groups that promote art are some of the good things. I’ve seen so much art online that I would not have seen otherwise, and I would probably never have read through the collected letters and diaries of Van Gogh, but there they are, streaming by me like small bright sparks in my Newsfeed. What you see more than anything else, in Van Gogh’s words, is his love for the work.

On July 31, 1888, he wrote to his sister Willemien, “Anyway the work, when it progresses, helps a lot. I find it mightily beautiful here in summer, the green is very deep and lush, the air thin and amazingly clear.” I’m not sure where he was, I think in the French countryside. What was his work helping with? Probably his mental health. There are quotations from his brother Theo as well, and they are always worried, solicitous. Vincent wasn’t doing well, was never doing very well, and the work helped. It stabilized him, gave his life meaning. Notice him noticing: the depth of the colors, the translucent quality of the air. He was never not an artist. It’s very hard, actually, never not being an artist. Hard on the head, the heart, the life. The work helps.

On August 3, 1888, he wrote to his brother Theo, “There’s no better or shorter way to improve my work than to do figures. Also, I always feel confidence when doing portraits, knowing that the work is much more serious — that’s perhaps not the word — but rather is the thing that enables me to cultivate what’s best and most serious in me.” He was deliberate about the work, wanted to be better, but in his own way — better at understanding, better at representing what he saw. The work itself was the thing, rather than the sale of the work (although he would very much have liked to sell his paintings). But the vision he had of what the work could be, that came first. As did his sense, I think, of the work he could do, the work that was his to do.

I don’t know if I can express clearly enough, as clearly as the air of the French countryside, what I mean about the work itself. Vincent has already expressed it so much more clearly, probably because he was speaking out of necessity, compulsion — out of his direct experience that day. Whereas I am thinking and remembering, which is never as strong. What I’m trying to say is:

The work itself is the important thing. When I’m writing, that sense of flow I have, that timelessness, that disappearing act in which my self goes away and I become an instrument of the story, a way through which the story is written — that is the point.

The work itself is more important than the things surrounding it, like sales figures or publicity campaigns. I try to do the work as best I can, I try to find its shape, the way it wants to go. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I mostly succeed, when I fail utterly the work goes back into the clay bin of my mind, to be reformed into something else. But I’m satisfied or not with a particular work not because people read and like it, although yes, I’m always happy when they do. But because I was able to achieve what the work wanted to be — I wrote the poem or story as it was meant to be written, which I usually only discover in the process of writing it.

The work is what I work at, meaning that I’m trying to be a good writer, a good artist. Not popular, not trendy, not on brand. I’m trying to write the things that are in me to write, and the things out in the world that resonate with it, as grasses and trees and postmasters resonated with Vincent. In a letter to Gauguin, he described a painting of his as “Nothing more than ears of wheat, green-blue stalks, long, ribbon-like leaves, under a sheen of green and pink; ears of wheat, yellowing slightly, with an edge made pale pink by the dusty manner of flowering.” He wanted to capture those ears of wheat, to study them, participate in them, become them in a sense by painting them so precisely. I think artists are in love with the art itself, with technique and color and line. Just as writers are in love with sound, with the juxtaposition and euphony or cacophony of words. Sometimes when I write a sentence, it’s really about writing that sentence, about putting those particular words together, and I feel as though I have succeeded or failed depending on whether that particular sentence works. As Vincent’s does, even in translation.

And the work leads me somewhere deeper, clearer. It makes me more serious, if that’s the word (I’m not sure it is). It makes me, perhaps, more aware — of the world around me, of the world within myself. The work itself is what teaches me, not just as a writer but as the person I am. I perceive the world though the work — it teaches me to see more clearly, like a pair of glasses that I put on to improve my eyesight.

It’s very hard for an artist to articulate her relationship to her own work. That’s what I’ve tried to do here, and not very well either.

On August 4, 1889, his brother Theo wrote to Vincent, “I found it so strange to have received no letter from you that I telegraphed to find out if you were well. Dr. Peyron answered me in a letter that you’ve been ill for a few days but that it’s already a little better. My poor fellow, how I wish I knew what to do to get these nightmares to stop.” The work didn’t do that, of course. But Vincent continued the work anyway. It’s not a cure, it can’t be. But it gives you a world to go into, it gives you a thing to do that justifies, at least to you, if you’re doing it well, your own existence. Why was I put on this earth? At least in part to do the work.

And the work, finally, connects you to the larger world around you, the world of beauty and meaning. Vincent was in London when he wrote, “I walk here as much as I can, but I’m very busy. It’s absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city). . . . The chestnut trees are magnificent. If one truly loves nature one finds beauty everywhere.” His own work as an artist allowed him to find and see that beauty, and to see it more deeply as he painted it.

For an artist, a good artist, I believe that art is not solipsism but a connection to the world, a way of connecting the inner world to the outer. At least, that is what I feel as a writer, when I’m doing good work, which is not always . . . but the effort, the task, that is for always. As long as I’m alive, the work continues.

(The image is The White Orchard by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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Reevaluating Your Values

There’s nothing quite like burnout to make you reevaluate your values. Depression can do it, but depression is a more passive state, I’ve found. Depression makes you sad. Burnout makes you angry. It makes you blazing mad, like a hot fire — furious at the world because it keeps asking and asking, and you’re running out of time and attention and energy to give. So of course, after realizing that I was burned out (see my post from last week), I started to reevaluate what was truly important to me, what I wanted out of life.

One of the wonderful things about becoming known as a writer is that you’re invited places — to read, to teach, to present. I was getting a lot of these invitations, and I was accepting a lot of them. At one point I realized that I was doing several events each month, which is a lot if you factor in that I was also teaching full-time, so the only free time I had was on weekends. And I was traveling to an event at least once a month, usually out of state, which meant at least a two-day commitment: one day to get there, one day to return. Although more usually it was three days, to go, appear, and return. And you’re invited to write things, essays and stories and poems, which can be wonderful, but it also means you have to practice saying no a lot, because you simply can’t do everything. At least, that’s what I eventually learned: you have to exercise your NO muscle. (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or following me on social media, you’ll know that I have a daughter. Traveling so much was also taking away time I could be spending with her.)

So how did I start to reevaluate my values? To be honest, it started with the totally practical realization that I was spending more money traveling to events than I would probably ever make from them. Most of the time, when you’ve invited, it’s your responsibility to pay for travel and accommodations. At most you’re offered free membership, which means you don’t have to pay to attend the event . . . although sometimes, as for the big science fiction and fantasy conventions, you do in fact have to pay even when you’re part of programming. This is so accepted in the science fiction and fantasy world that I mention it here because many readers — most readers, really — are not part of that world. It’s also part of the world of academic conferences, but that world operates on a different funding system — universities pay for professors to attend conferences as part of their professional development. If I go to an academic conference, I can request funding. Not so for conventions, literary festivals, etc. Many readers don’t realize that when writers attend these sorts of events, they are paying to go — often quite a lot. And yes, those expenses are deductible against writing income, but that just means your taxable income is lower. It doesn’t mean you’re recouping the money.

My realization was that although I loved meeting readers and other writers, and inevitably got something valuable out of these events, I also lost something — time, energy, and of course money I could have spent elsewhere. The big conventions, like the World Fantasy Convention and the World Science Fiction Convention, can cost more than a thousand dollars to attend, if you have to travel far. I don’t know about you, but a thousand dollars is a lot of money to me. Like, a LOT of money. And I can think of many different ways I could use that money, including leaving it in the bank, where I could look at it sitting in my savings account and enjoy the sense of peace and contentment that comes with having emergency savings. (I was a graduate student for many years, so I know very well what it’s like to have no savings at all . . .) What was truly worth doing? Where could I spend my money and energy most wisely? Those were the sorts of questions I started asking myself.

And then, there was the issue of time. I have a limited amount of time in this world (so do you, but we won’t go into that — let’s just accept it as a given and move on). What would I like to spend that time doing? What do I really enjoy doing? I had to start thinking about that . . .

Well, I know that I enjoy writing, because I’ve done it all my life, at least as long as I can remember. And I do it whether or not anyone reads it, whether or not anyone pays me for it. Actually, while I love being paid for my writing (see savings, above), the writing I love doing most is the kind no one pays me for, like writing in a journal or posting poetry for free online. I do it for the sheer joy of it. I like writing more than I like being an author. And I know that I enjoy teaching, because even now, in summer, in Budapest, I have the textbook I’ll be teaching from this fall, and I’ve been reading the essays I want to teach . . . they’re all on fairy tales, and I’m so looking forward to exploring those stories again with students. And I love traveling, but the kind of traveling I love has nothing to do with expensive hotels, or fancy restaurants, or seeing tourist sights. My best memories of visiting Cornwall, last summer, were buying a cheese and chutney sandwich at Tesco and eating it in a beautiful old park under the trees (until a dog ran up to me and stole the other half from my paper bag), or walking in the ocean over the causeway to St. Michael’s mount, with waves lapping at my bare feet, or even doing laundry in a laundromat in Penzance, using pound coins. (No, I didn’t see any pirates. Only witches — I had my fortune told at a witch festival, and that was also one of the unexpected highlights.)

What I really love doing are the ordinary things. Waking up and having breakfast. Reading a good book. Walking through parks and gardens. Going to the sea, or a lake, or a river. I don’t know why water always makes me feel better, but it does. I like how rocks and shells look, all different. I love wildflowers, especially in meadows. Trees make me happy in all sorts of ways: the sound of wind in treetops, the crunch of dry leaves in the fall. So do a beautiful pair of earrings or a comfortable, flattering dress. A worn pair of Keds. A long, deep sleep makes me very happy. Halloween. Cats. Mushrooms.

What makes me unhappy? Hotels, when they become not a special treat but a way of life. Most airports. Large cities where I can’t see the sky. Our political system right now, which is an almost endless parade of greed and cruelty, tempered only by stupidity. The relentlessness of social media, which I as a writer am supposed to be on. (Yes, there are lovely people as well as lovely things on social media — I try to maximize them.) Yesterday, I spent several hours walking through an IKEA on the outskirts of Budapest, and in a way it was useful — I was able to identify some furniture I needed. But it seemed to me, in that cavernous labyrinth of fold-out sofas and bathroom fixtures, that human beings aren’t meant to live like that. They’re not meant to live in echoing, windowless caverns of consumer goods where one begins to think, not in a good way, about the myth of the Minotaur and long for Ariadne. I will admit that I got a little lost around the cafeteria, and started to wonder if I would ever get out, or stop smelling meatballs.

What do I actually value? That was the question that kept me pondering and wondering and reevaluating. What do I value in my life as a writer and teacher? What do I value in my life as a human person? How do I want to spend my time, and also my money, which is essentially a paper symbol of my time, since I get it by spending my time working? I’m still in the process of answering this question, but if I spend less time being an author and more being a writer, if I focus on the things that really matter to me, if I avoid IKEA unless I absolutely need to descend into those cavernous depths marked Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, you’ll know why. I’ve got one life, and I want to live it fully.

Writing these blog posts is part of reevaluating my values, because this is the sort of writing I like best, just me to you, and you can read it or not as you wish. And you don’t have to give me anything for it, just your attention for a little while — I do it for the joy of talking to you, of telling you what is on my mind. And it’s a relief to me, to get out all these thoughts that occupy my head, about how we are living and how we should live. If I can figure out how to live well, and I can write about that . . . well, that might provide some sort of service. Because aren’t we all trying to do that, each in our own way?

(This is one of my favorite views in the world, from the window of the apartment in Budapest where my grandparents lived, and where I lived as a child until we left the country. Of all the homes I’ve had in my life, it’s the only one I can still return to. This view is one of the things I value.)

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