when more than was lost has been found has been found and having is giving and giving is living- but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing -it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring! –E.E. Cummings
Hi there 🙂
I’ve been painting outside every sunny day in April. I have about a dozen blog post ideas to go with the project, but it’s the middle of April already and I still haven’t written anything. So forget about blog posts. Forget about polished essays. I’m going to write letters instead, so that I might take you along for at least a bit of the ride before it’s all over.
Just a moment ago, I was talking to an elderly friend. In the spring, she tells me, she drives like a drunkard. A lot is different now that she’s older: she’s been having trouble sleeping, the minor crises of daily life overwhelm her so much these days that she hardly has the time to go out walking, but still: it’s hard not to hit the curb when she spots a magnificent magnolia or a yard with a daffodil field.
This is how I want to live my life. That magnetic pull of beauty – it’s a guide, even if I don’t always know where it’s taking me. May it stay with me into old age.
So whenever the sun goes out, I go out too, paintbrush in hand. I’m working as a programmer halftime right now, soon to be fulltime, I’m translating on the side, I’m spending more time with friends than I have in years, I just joined a gym, and still, whenever the sun is out, I steal an hour or two for painting.
It’s crazy, it’s unsustainable, and it’s impractical. I bike 15 minutes uphill to my Mount Auburn Cemetery, my favorite painting location, so some days I only have half an hour left to paint. (Yes, “my.” It was initially a typo, but now I’m claiming it as my own.) I use oil paints: the messiest, most expensive, hardest to set up of the mediums I work in. What can I do? Those are the things I love.
It’s crazy. It’s unsustainable. It’s impractical. So is spring.
I want this letter to be inspiring, but I don’t want you to come away thinking, as I often mistakenly do, that you need to be this exquisitely, excruciatingly energetic all the time.
I basically didn’t do anything this last fall and winter. I only cried, did yoga, and slowly processed the end of an important relationship. (Okay, I also learned to program, but I was very conscious of how much longer that took me than it would have under “ideal conditions.”)
I’m not saying this to make you feel bad for me. It was hard, but it was also a beautiful time. I can’t stress this enough: I love crying. I learned so much this winter. I would never be sprinting through spring if I hadn’t lingered inside winter for as long as it took.
I’m saying this to reiterate: spring is unsustainable. Doing everything, all the time, is no way to live. But I want you to go away with permission to do everything (or nothing!) when it feels like the season to do so. Permission to burst into periodic bloom.
Yesterday I painted a sun-gilded willow behind an exorbitantly pink magnolia. I made the painting sing with a few bold strokes. To capture the glow of light and blossom, I had prepared my canvas with a layer of fluorescent acrylics. After this step, everything came together shockingly quickly; half an hour in, the painting could pass for done.
Spring is always so full of promise. It’s alright now, it says. You survived.
When spring called out to me two Aprils ago, I had just passed my dissertation defense. Last April, after making it through the (what felt like) the worst of the pandemic, I had just gotten my first vaccine dose. And this year is so full of promise I don’t even know where to start.
What are spring’s promises worth? Around the corner from my PhD defense were two years of semi-employment. The vaccine was followed by omicron, followed by the war in Ukraine. Spring never warned me of heartbreak, never mentioned loss.
I ruined that painting. It wasn’t mine yet, it was only a stroke of luck, so I kept going, marking it as my own, until I obliterated its freshness.
What are spring’s promises worth? As little as the privilege to begin again, with joy. As little, and as much, as spring itself.
Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors, the painter’s building blocks. You can mix every other color out of this trio. At least, that’s what they taught me in art class: combine any two primaries, and you get a “secondary” color, which lies between the primaries on the color wheel.
Then I picked up an optics textbook, and my world was turned upside down: the true primary colors are red, green, and blue. You can mix any hue out of these three shades of light. That’s how LCD displays work: by building pixels out of tiny sources of red, green, and blue light.
Why is the painter’s color wheel different? The textbook explained that light and pigments combine in opposite ways. Superimpose a blue and red spotlight, and the resulting light will emit blue and red wavelengths. Light mixes “additively.” By contrast, mixing paints is subtractive. A patch of red pigment is red because it absorbs light of all wavelengths except the red ones. And if you combine red and blue pigment, the mixture will absorb everything that either pigment absorbs. A pigment is a trap for particular wavelengths of light, so the more pigments you put in, the more light you catch and the less can get out.
So the physicist’s color wheel differs from the painter’s because light combines additively, while pigment combines subtractively. Except… this doesn’t make any sense! Yellow and blue paints make green, right? But if paints combine subtractively, yellow and blue should actually make… black. Here’s why.
Blue pigment reflects blue light and absorbs red and green light. If you look at the physicist’s color wheel, you’ll see that red and green light combine to make yellow light:
So blue pigment reflects blue light and absorbs yellow light. Conversely, yellow pigment reflects yellow light and absorbs everything else – i.e. blue light. So blue pigment traps yellow light, yellow pigment traps blue light, and if you put the two traps together, you’ve caught all the light of the rainbow and made black!
And yet… I’ve been painting for years, and I can assure you: at least sometimes, blue and yellow do make green.
But how? Here are three reasons yellow and blue don’t always make black and sometimes make green, even though physics basically works.
1. Real-world pigments are impure.
Your typical tube of blue paint won’t perfectly absorb yellow light. Instead, it will reflect some light in the whole spectrum, and quite a lot of light in the green part of the spectrum in particular. So if you mix a pigment like this with a “cool” yellow – that is, a yellow that also reflects a fair bit in the green range of the spectrum, you’ll get a pigment that reflects quite a lot of green light. It will still be more muted than pure green, but it will be much closer to green than to black.
So your art teacher wasn’t lying to you: yellow and blue sometimes make green. Well, maybe they lied a little bit: you can’t actually make all the colors out of red, yellow, and blue. Certainly not if you only have one tube of each color. You can mix green from a cool blue and cool yellow, and orange from a warm yellow and warm red. But if you use the same tubes of yellow throughout, either your green or your orange are going to look quite a bit like brown.
2. Painters and physicists speak different dialects.
My Polish friends take offense when I call navy blue jeans “blue,” since “navy blue” is a separate Polish word. My partner keeps insisting that my blue shirt is “purple.” By what right was I assuming that my art teacher and the optics textbook meant the same things by “blue”?
In fact, as a painter, I’d call the physicist’s blue a warm blue, almost a purple. If I try mixing a paint of that precise shade of blue with a yellow, I’ll still get green, but a very impure one. So at least some of the disagreement between painters and physicists is terminological.
For the physicist, the true additive primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Compare that to the most influential color wheel in art history, taken from Goethe.
If you forget about the names, Goethe’s color wheel is remarkably close to the physicist’s one. Goethe’s “red” is a cool red that is quite close to what a physicist might call “magenta;” his blue is a cool, almost turquoise cousin of “cyan.” (And his “purple” is basically the physicist’s blue.) Given the limitations of the pigments that were available in Goethe’s day, that’s really the closest you could expect him to get to the “true” subtractive primaries of yellow, magenta, and cyan.
So even if pigments combine subtractively, what the painters call “blue” and “yellow” does often combine to green. And now… time to knock down this whole house of cards. The final reason why yellow and blue don’t always make black (but do sometimes make grey):
3. Pigments don’t always combine subtractively.
What happens if you combine red and white paint? You get pink, right? But that’s not what physics tells us! White paint reflects (more or less) the full spectrum; it doesn’t trap any wavelengths. So (subtractively) mixing in white pigment shouldn’t do anything to red!
Here’s the secret: red and white make pink because most paints don’t actually combine subtractively. Instead, if you mix equal amounts of two perfectly opaque pigments, each ray of light will interact with particles from just one of the pigments. So in an opaque red/white mixture, about half of the light will interact with white pigment particles and be reflected back, and half will interact with red particles and be reflected only in the red spectrum (and absorbed in the green and blue spectrum). And that’s precisely what pink is: light with components in all wavelengths, but with more intensity in the red range.
This is so-called “additive-averaging mixing.” By contrast, if the pigment is transparent, light will pass into the paint mixture and bounce around inside it, interacting (and getting absorbed by) pigments of both colors. This gives our old friend, subtractive mixing. This is how your printer works: by combining thin, transparent layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan. It’s probably not a coincidence that Goethe’s color wheel was made with watercolor paints, which are quite transparent as well. It’s also possible to dilute oil paints and apply them in transparent glazes; if you do that, you can actually become a human printer and paint with a cyan, magenta, yellow palette!
There’s that old joke where a farmer asks a physicist for help increasing milk production. “I have the answer,” responds the physicist, “but it only works for a spherical cow in a vacuum.” Blue and yellow only make pure black when they are such spherical cows: fully transparent pigments which perfectly absorb all wavelengths except those determined by the physicist’s idiosyncratic dialect. Outside of textbook vacuums, blue and yellow make brown, grey, green, and everything in between.
If you’d like to learn how to mix colors in practice, I’m teaching a color-centered beginners’ painting coursestarting July 7th. You can learn more about it and sign up here. (The first session just passed, but please feel free to contact me if you’re interested; I might create a makeup session.) And if you’d like to get my essays in your inbox, you can sign up below.
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In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner got a pigeon to spend 16 straight hours pecking at a sheet of plexiglass, at an average rate of 2.5 pecks per second. What could have caused this frenzy? Was the pigeon held at gunpoint? Threatened with the murder of its family? Attempting to break the pecking record?
No. It pecked because this action was rewarded with food pellets at random intervals.
Skinner kept other pigeons too, in pellet-dispensing containers that would come to be known as “Skinner boxes.” In the second group, pecking produced food at predetermined time intervals. These pigeons would go about their pigeon business until it was feeding time, at which point they would casually peck on the plexiglass. Predictability versus randomness made the difference between sanity and psychosis.
Don’t mock the psychotic pigeons; we are much the same. From the simple slot machine to Facebook’s endless scroll, humans inhabit their own Skinner boxes. I am only a pigeon, so I scroll through 99 blurry photographs and poorly targeted ads just to get to that one video of a cat guarding its owner’s phone.
Without pausing to take the cue, I keep scrolling. I am the endless scroll. I’m a narrowed vision, a crazed emptiness, an engagement metric. I’m a shadow of myself.
I am only a pigeon, waiting for treats at the Facebook feed.
I tried to quit, but Facebook had given me a brain itch. Nothing would scratch it: not yoga, not books, not movies. There’s no jackpot in yoga, no scrolling in a book. Every activity I could think of felt boring; in the evening, it was hard to get myself to do anything.
I could have gritted my teeth and picked up a book, but I wondered if I could make things easier for myself. Was there something like a nicotine patch for the social media itch, a harmless substitute that would take my mind off the craving while I transitioned out of the pigeon’s life?
I decided to build a personalized Skinner box.
I put names of evening activities on strips of paper. Mimicking the variable reinforcement of the feed, I included chores (doing the dishes, responding to emails), wholesome pleasures (reading a book, calling a friend), and dopamine hits (ice cream, cat videos). Instead of rationally deciding how to spend my evening, I would draw an item from the box.
The effect was immediate. Even though I didn’t actually want to do most of the individual tasks, somehow I thrilled at the prospect of randomly drawing from among them. Sometimes, the sense of adventure persisted even if I drew a chore. The very tasks my rational mind struggled to coax me into were magically transformed into treats by the power of the Skinner box.
The next day, I tried simply doing the dishes without the seemingly unnecessary detour of the box. Poof! The adventure was a chore again. Clearly, the box was an indispensable part of the magic. But how did it work? I think it helped me access a different mental space. When I use the box, instead of trying to find the absolute best activity for a given moment, I open myself to possibility. I lean into my adventure-loving, curious side; I harness my inner pigeon.
I had discovered something better than a nicotine patch: a way to joyfully addict myself to the things I actually want to do.
I applied this discovery when working on a series of landscape paintings based on photographs from El Paso, Texas. When I started the project, rationally choosing which photo to work from felt like the evening fiasco all over again: no choice seemed particularly appealing. This time, I knew what to do: it was time for a handcrafted Skinner box.
Using a random number generator, I picked one of my top 130 El Paso photos. It was a dud: an abstract, nearly monochrome closeup of the desert floor after a snowstorm. I tried copying it, but it seemed stupid to aim for a realistic representation of something that didn’t even look like anything to begin with.
Besides, I’m not a monochrome kind of person. So after a few frustrated marks, I started focusing on the brushstrokes instead, transforming the image into an abstract color field. It’s not my absolute favorite painting, but I learned more about paintbrush and color use than I would have from a “better” source photograph.
I reach for the random number generator every morning… and wake excited to paint. By combining the predictability of painting at a fixed time with the addictive power of randomness, I have turned myself into Pavlov’s pigeon, drooling at the regular appearance of the Skinner box.
Come to think of it, I had been harnessing the addictive power of randomness in my art way before I knew about Skinner boxes.
Like the pigeon whose treats come at predetermined intervals, if I know precisely what I want a painting to look like, I lose my interest. To combat this ennui, I build stochastic surprises into my process. I’ll often prepare my canvases with a layer of random colors and textures. Searching for affinities and tensions between underpainting and model, I open myself to happy accidents. I find delicacies at every corner: shades of yellow and pink in the model’s skin which echo the underpainting; a figure 8-shaped silhouette which can be made to dance with swirling brushstrokes.
I don’t like certainty. What propels me is curiosity, a sense of adventure, a hope that the next pellet is just around the corner. When I make things, I try to leave room for such treats. This is why I rarely outline my posts. The first draft of the essay you’re reading was a random collection of anecdotes about, er, randomness. Before draft #2, I had no idea that any anecdote except the first would mention Skinner boxes. Writing gave me the very gift I’m trying to pass on to you: a new mental framework.
Many posts fail to deliver such kernels. As any pigeon knows, this only makes the search more enticing.
As much as it was a revelation, the “Skinner box” framing isn’t perfect. The gaze of the Facebook-scrolling pigeon is frenzied and narrow, focused on a single, distant point. Intent on the upcoming reward, she barely notices the dozens of mediocre posts running through her feed, frantically scrollingscrollingscrolling. Unlike Facebook, creative randomness expands my vision. When I make things, I am excited, sometimes brimming with exuberance — but never out-of-control frantic.
What makes the difference? It’s pretty easy to tell whether a Facebook post is a treat or not — but discovering whether a photograph is good source material for a painting requires attention and exploration. (If you’re inventive enough, anything is good source material.) Instead of treats, the Artist’s Box dispenses puzzles. Crack them the right way, and you’ll unlock the delicious core. That requires constant alertness, and since a treat can appear at any moment, I’m motivated to keep going.
A recent vacation really brought home the power of putting ambiguous treats in your Skinner box.
I love daydreaming about upcoming travel. Wanting my trips to live up to these dreams, I plan… and I plan, and I plan. I make sure I end up in the right place at the right time, seeing the sunset at the Grand Canyon and the sunrise in Zion.
Of course, nothing is ever exactly as planned. During a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, my partner felt some knee pain and needed to stay in the car and rest, so I agreed to substitute a short solo hike for the long and scenic one I had dreamed of.
As I started walking, volcanic rocks loomed against an otherworldly yellow. The blustery landscape suited my sulky mood. By the time I reached the trail’s end — an underwhelming drip of waterfall, seen from above — I had traded disappointment for a sense of adventure. Since I had some time to spare, I decided to go exploring. I crossed over the creek, thrilled by the (minuscule) danger of slipping and plummeting down the waterfall. The view on the other side wasn’t any better, but the sense of adventure was its own reward.
Then I wandered off up another hill, idly searching for a more sweeping vista. There was no view here either. Instead, a museum opened up at my feet. Bowls of volcanic rock served up air bubbles. Tongues of lava seemed to cool before my eyes. Lichens and sulfur rivalled the abstract expressionist’s brush. It was one of the highlights of the week-long vacation.
When I returned to the trail, to my amazement I saw that it had been strewn with equally magnificent stones all along. I never had to go off-trail to see such marvels.
Oh, but I did: off-trail is a state of mind.
The pigeons with predictable feeds wander off to do other things when it’s not feeding time. Similarly, when I plan a hike with a clear treat at the end, my attention wanders before the climax. But if the treat could come at any time — and if, moreover, what counts as a treat is as much a matter of how you look as a matter of where you are, then I will walk through the landscape open-eyed — and gasp.
All of my Skinner boxes eventually stop working. I have enough of a feel for all of the tasks in my evening box that “use the box” now feels almost like its own predictable activity, forcing me to keep adding more items. And sometimes, I opt for the radical act of… rationally deciding how to spend my evening. It’s a little like putting my Skinner box inside another Skinner box — the big box sometimes delivers the small box, and sometimes the instruction “do what you think is best right now.”
Though it needs regular maintenance, the slot machine is a powerful tool. You can’t decide whether or not to become a pigeon; randomness will always be addictive. But you can build better Skinner boxes. You can addict yourself to Twitter — or to creativity. You can engineer a slot machine that will shrink your world — or one that will open it wide, then fill it to the brim with possibility.
You can see more of my paintings on Instagram. And if you’d rather learn about my art (and thoughts) in a less addictive way, sign up below to get my posts delivered to your inbox.
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1) I provoked my partner. 2) He yelled at me. 3) I thanked him.
More precisely, it went something like this.
One Saturday morning, I bring up the topic of possible weekend hikes.
“In an ideal world, today I would — ”
“Is this plan going to involve both days?” my partner Ben interrupts me immediately.
No wonder I dread suggesting weekend activities… he won’t even let me finish a single goddamn sentence!
“I didn’t say anything about plans! I just want permission to dream!” I explode.
This goes on for a bit, in tight and frustrated circles, until Ben suggests that I go and meditate. It’s the last thing I want to do, but I don’t have a choice: we’d both precommitted to disengaging in the middle of arguments.
On my meditation bench, I let myself feel all of my emotions. When I have an angry thought, I turn up the volume. Internally, I say all the meanest things I can come up with.
Ben is such a stick in the mud! Such a lump. I always have to fight him to have any sort of fun. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! We were supposed to be adventure buddies!
I feel constricted, tight, trapped.
He was supposed to expand my world, not narrow it! When did this happen? When had this inspiration, this beautiful altruist who chose his job based on the number of people he could help, become a constraining force?
What would it be like to escape this constraint? I am a blazing fire. I am a storm. I am untamable.
When I finish the meditation, I know that this is bigger than our weekend plans.
“I feel like I’m the keeper of travel and adventure in this relationship,” I start.¹ “Nothing fun ever happens unless I suggest it.
“At the start of our relationship, I thought we were adventure buddies. Like that time my friend had invited me to visit her in China, and I really wanted to go, but it seemed frivolous. And you said “why not? I’ll go with you.” And then that same year we went to Morocco and to Iceland — I wanted to do all those things eventually, but you were the one who said “why not now?” And now I feel like it’s always me who says those things.”
I hesitate, searching for the least hurtful words. “I think I… a part of me… is disappointed in our relationship. Before we met, when I set up my OkCupid profile, I wrote “I love reading — but ‘at home, curled up with a book’ is not my idea of a good time. I’d rather be reading on a train headed someplace new.” I wrote that because I didn’t want to be dating someone whose idea of a good time was sitting curled up with a book. And,” I take a deep breath, “there’s a part of me which is afraid that you are this sort of person.”
Ben lurches to his feet. He looks like he’d just been punched. “Reading a book is not my fucking idea of a good time!” He pounds the table, its rattle the only sound in the icy silence. I have never, ever seen him this angry. “My fucking idea of a good time is improving the world! Reading a book is what I do to recuperate when I’m too exhausted from that.” He strides to the other side of the room, panting.
He’s a storm, a blazing fire.
I say the only words that do justice to what I’m feeling: “Thank you.”
What the hell was that about? In the moment, I don’t need to know anything more than this: I am satisfied. I got exactly what I needed.
Later, I put words to the experience. I got my Ben back. The Ben who sees suffering and injustice as problems someone needs to fix, then asks “Why not now? Why not me?” The Ben who, if he helps in China, will help in Morocco and Iceland too. Who welds ambition and altruism into an inseparable whole. Who will fight for the things he believes in. The Ben who is passionate; the Ben I fell in love with.
That’s what scared me about a lump reading in the corner: a lack of passion. All of that stuff about travel and adventure was never the point.
Of course, on some level I already knew that Ben was passionate about improving the world; I knew that he chose to work on a mobile money service in Africa specifically because of its impact on people’s lives. But his passion manifests during his workday, which I mostly don’t get to experience. Instead, I’d been witnessing his exhaustion afterwards, and a part of me started to believe that the exhausted Ben was the true Ben.
There’s a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and knowing it in an embodied way. Between knowing Ben would fight for his beliefs and seeing him do it.
Between knowing I love him and feeling it.
The tunnels of hatred and contempt always seem to lead to love and admiration. Not just in that argument; again and again, when I let myself experience my negative feelings, I end up feeling love.
Like the time I hate a friend for her fakeness.² She gives a compliment to an acquaintance, then turns around and whispers “I don’t really believe that, but we need to support him.”
When I let myself feel the hatred, I realize that what bothers me isn’t fakeness, but honesty: I also say nice things I don’t believe, but I don’t go around admitting to it. My friend, it turns out, has more integrity than me.
Or the time I allow myself to find a friend unbearably boring. I imagine myself pounding my fists. Energy courses through my body; it feels exhilarating. “He’s pitiful,” I think. “Why did I ever want to be friends with him in the first place?” Then I remember: he’d worked so hard as a student, spending all his time on schoolwork, retaking every test it was possible retake, coming to all the office hours. All this to get what I would get by totally slacking off. Grit. Determination. Resilience. This is why I admire this pitiful person.
How can hatred lead to love? Here’s how I think of it. When I don’t let myself feel hatred and contempt towards my loved ones, I’m boarding up the doors to those feelings. Love can’t reach the places I’ve boarded up, and so it shrinks. (This narrow type of love, born of flinching from people’s flaws and my feelings about them, is sometimes called duty.) But when I open the doors, love floods all.
You know those couples who have everything going for them, then one day wake up and realize that they’re each other’s worst enemies? The ones who never argue, then find themselves in a bitter divorce? Who turn seamlessly from love to hate, with no gradation in between? They’ve always puzzled me, but now I think I understand.
It’s precisely because they didn’t argue that their love turned to hate. A part of them had always hated their spouse, but that was never the problem. The problem was that they never faced that hatred. Afraid to lose their love, they’ve been forcing it into tighter and tighter spaces. Eventually, all that remained was the very hate and contempt they’d been trying to avoid.
Another thing I think I understand now is teenage rebellion. A child loves her parents in a constricted way: she doesn’t see them as full, flawed human beings; she shuts her eyes when she sees something she doesn’t like.
“I hate you, mom!” is cause for celebration; it’s the first step towards mature love.
Periodically visiting your hatred and contempt strengthens your relationships, but that doesn’t mean you should do it — let alone express these feelings — every day. Before our argument, I had been processing my thoughts about Ben’s “lumpiness” for several weeks. If I had expressed them in their raw form earlier, I would have only hurt him. (This is also why disengaging in the middle of an argument is so helpful.) And there will be stretches of time when you or your partner (or friend) won’t have the emotional resources to process your feelings, to crawl through the dark tunnel of hate towards love. If one of you is having a particularly difficult month at work, or if your newborn has been keeping you up all night, it makes perfect sense to store your hurtful feelings in a sealed-off cellar and briefly run on the fuel of duty instead of love. But in large quantities, this is a fuel which corrodes. Eventually, you’ll want to find some space and time to convert it back to love.
You don’t always need to involve your partner (or friend) in this process, but it often helps. How do you do that without causing unnecessary suffering? That’s another thing Ben helped me understand.
Later that Saturday, on a hike on the Florida Trail (Ben’s suggestion), it occurred to me that I had essentially said a bunch of mean things to provoke an angry response out of him. “Thanks for that, again,” I say. “You put up with a lot today, and I think it was basically all for my sake. I’m not sure that you got anything out of it.”
Ben furrows his brow. “I don’t think of it that way. A part of you had been getting in the way of our relationship. We reassured that part, and now it’s no longer in the way. That’s good for the relationship — and what’s good for the relationship is ultimately also good for me.”
When I think of what makes an argument good, this is what I keep returning to. Throughout our quarrel — even when I was saying the meanest things about Ben, even when he was pounding the table — we never completely let go of this overarching sense that we are on the same team. That by fighting for our rights and our autonomy we were also fighting for the relationship. Even our hate had only one purpose: love.
—  I’ve condensed the argument into a near-monologue because I don’t think you, the reader, would get very much out of the details of the actual back and forth — but please remember that what actually happened was a lot messier than this portrayal.
 Some details changed to protect identity. Hatred strengthens relationships if expressed properly, but these descriptions are the opposite of proper expression, so I don’t want anyone to see themselves in them.
I’ve been doing a new type of meditation — “therapy” is an equally good word. There’s really nothing to it (all I do is set a 30-minute timer and sit quietly with myself), but the effects have been profound.
What I mean by “sitting quietly with myself” is that I let my attention go wherever it naturally goes, while trying to maintain awareness that I am sitting here, now, in the background. Whenever I notice that I’ve lost that awareness, or that I’m feeling impatient or distracted, I anchor my attention in the sensations in my body, then let it go wherever it wants again. If something intense, like a pang of anger, comes up, I try to give it space, lightly saying “you’re welcome here” to the experience. I try not to overthink what I’m doing, trusting my gut when something feels important. So if I feel like I need to cry, I just cry, without trying to check whether I’m truly present every second.
This simple practice has uncovered so muchunder the surface of my mind! It’s a bit like snorkeling — until you dive in, the water seems perfectly uniform, but underneath the glories are endless. One of the most interesting “fish” I have found are the emotionally charged memories which spontaneously bubble up to the surface when I am sufficiently calm. Here are a few examples.
I noticed I was stressed about an upcoming social interaction. I let myself fully inhabit that feeling and… Poof!
I am back in third grade, my bully Victoria pushing me down to my hands and knees. Pulling down my pants. Sitting on my back. I am back in third grade, a humiliated horsey.
Here, now, on my meditation bench, I can’t stop crying.
My teacher, Mrs. P, can’t stop apologizing. She gives me a beautiful little bear-shaped stamp. She pampers me for the rest of the day. She has never scolded Victoria this bad.
I love the stamp, but I don’t deserve it. Doesn’t Mrs. P. know that today was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but the culmination of the little cruelties Victoria had been piling on me for months?
The tears come, and come, and come. Had I carried this sadness here all the way from third grade? At the end of the sobbing, there is calm.
2. I am back in Oxford. I see every shade of ochre in the sandstone, every gargoyle. I walk across the lime-green quad to the stately dining hall. The space is as it has always been, not one inch of air misplaced.
The memory is dense with feeling. Intoxicating awe at the privilege of being here, at the sight of every blade of juicy grass and every sandstone curlicue. Around that, something dark and heavy. Nostalgia? No, the feeling seems internal to the memory, something I carried with me often across this quad.
I am inside the dining hall, sitting at the edge of a group of unfamiliar faces in the flickering candlelight of a formal dinner. Inside, the darkness intensifies.
Loneliness. The word comes as if from outside me, but when it lands, my body shudders in recognition.
Oxford had been a dream come true, but my time there was punctuated with periods of despondency. I called it depression; the word “loneliness” never crossed my mind.
I found it hard to make friends with British classmates; most of the people I was closest with had been visiting students who disappeared after one year. Of course I was lonely.
3. I feel lost. The feeling is connected with a sensation in my hips, but every time I try to focus my attention on that area, I bounce off, like there’s something lodged in there causing me to skid. I feel impatient, distracted. A minute goes by without me knowing where I am. “You’re welcome here, lostness,” I remind myself.
I am back in Warsaw. I’m about to start an orienteering exercise for my scouting troop; I need find my way to given point using map and compass. There’s a knot in my stomach; I have no idea what I’m doing, but it feels too late to admit it. Should I be going north? South? I toss a mental coin, grit my teeth, and go.
“Eve?” I hear my mentor’s voice behind me. “You’re going the wrong way. Are you sure you know how orienteering works? Do you want more time to learn and try this another time?”
I should have known this by now. Everyone but me knows how to find their way.
That familiar flash of embarrassment stands for more than just high school scouting. I suddenly realize that a part of me believed that everyone except me already knows how to find their way in life. I had felt not just lost, but terrified of asking for directions.
4. I’m at my first advanced contradance. After the first number, my partner asks: can I give you an advanced-dance tip? “Sure.” It’s easier if you spin in the opposite direction to how you’ve been doing it.
I can barely hold back the tears. I mumble something about needing fresh air and stagger towards the exit. I sit on a park bench and sob; the minutes tick by. Why am I such an overwrought wreck? Why can’t I stop crying? Why can’t I just go back to the dance?
I let myself feel all of that day’s pain and shame. From the comfort of my meditation bench, it suddenly makes sense. It wasn’t just about dancing. The experience had been a concrete manifestation of an existential fear: the fear of waking up on my deathbed to learn I’d been running after all the wrong things. The fear that I had never been as advanced as I thought I was. That I didn’t belong here. That I never belonged; thinking I did was no safeguard.
The fear was exactly this: I had been spinning in the wrong direction all along.
I cry during almost every one of these sessions. That might sound horrible, but these are the cleansing tears of music, of poetry, of safety. Most of all, they are teachers.
The more I’m taken back to the past, the more I understand the present. Of course I’m afraid of meeting new people; a part of me still believes that anyone could turn out to be Victoria. And when I realize that, the fear lessens.
I think of this meditation as mental reshuffling. An experience triggers a memory, which triggers a feeling, which triggers another memory. After I observe this sequence of events, it stops being inevitable. I don’t have to consciously try to stop it — social interactions just no longer send me into a panic; dances naturally stop provoking existential dread.
The more of these friendly tears I let fall, the fewer tears of rage and helplessness I experience off the meditation bench. I no longer need to avoid my feelings; I know I have space for them all.
When Japan opened its borders to trade in the 1850s, inflation, epidemics, riots, murders, executions, and battles ensued. It’s easy to rattle off the sequence of events, tracing chains of political cause and effect, and lose sight of the human dimension of all this carnage. The imagination smooths over the detail, removes individual faces, wipes out the actual blood.
The art of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi puts the blood back in the picture. He was there amidst it all, sketching in the execution grounds and battlefields. His prints zoom in on individual people — beheader as well as beheaded — and condense the spirit of his time. At this scale, his era’s violence attracts as much as it repels, leaving us face-to-face with our own capacity for bloodlust. It’s no wonder he called one of his series Biographies of Valiant Drunken Tigers; the warriors he depicts are as abhorrent in their bloodthirsty battle trance as they are admirable in their bravery. To look at his prints is to mourn the loss of life and to revel in it.
Yoshitoshi was born as Owariya Yonejiro in Edo (now Tokyo) on April 30, 1839. His father was a merchant wealthy enough to buy himself a place in a samurai family register — and hence a samurai title — from a financially struggling clan. Around the age of three, Yoshitoshi left home to live with his uncle; one of Yoshitoshi’s students would later claim that this was because Yoshitoshi disliked the mistress who moved in with his father at the time. At 11, he was apprenticed to printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose studio specialized in depictions of heroic battle scenes.
In Kuniyoshi’s studio, the aspiring artist learned to draw human and animal figures from live models (a rather unusual practice, which Kuniyoshi had adopted from the West), perused his teacher’s art collection (which included Western engravings), and copied his designs, including gruesome prints like Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head. He was building the foundation of his pictorial language. As was customary, he acquired his name as part of his artistic training; Kuniyoshi gave his student the name “Yoshitoshi,” including the character “yoshi” from his own name as a mark of lineage.
Outside the studio, history was happening. In 1853, three years after the start of Yoshitoshi’s apprenticeship, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay and demanded that Japan open its borders to trade with the US. The shogun (military leader) complied with Perry’s demand, and the following years saw massive inflation, epidemics, and riots. As if that wasn’t enough, in the years 1854–1855 Japan was hit by a series of devastating earthquakes.
When the 1855 Edo earthquake hit, Kuniyoshi was returning home from the kabuki theater. He had just watched a performance of the chilling tale of the hag of Adachi Moor, a cannibalistic witch who preyed on visitors to her home, especially pregnant women. By the time he made it home, his students (including the 16-year-old Yoshitoshi) had given him up for dead.
Sometime during the next few months (or perhaps that very night), Kuniyoshi suffered a stroke. Though he lived for another six years, he hardly made any more work after the earthquake…with the notable exception of multiple prints of the Hag of Adachi Moor, whose image seems to have lodged itself into his brain. As we’ll see, his student inherited the fascination.
When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, 21-year-old Yoshitoshi hadn’t had time to establish his own art studio. Meanwhile, unrest was reaching new heights. After the opening of borders, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed, and epidemics swept across the country. Hundreds of thousands died of cholera in 1858, twice as many of measles in 1862. Westerners were blamed for this and anti-Western sentiment soared; rebels began murdering foreigners. The murderers, in turn, faced execution. During these restless years, Yoshitoshi would join the crowds at execution grounds, continuing his teacher’s practice of sketching from life…or, in this case, death. There were many scenes to behold. A samurai plunged the knife into his bowels himself when ordered. Others were hanged or crucified, but good old-fashioned decapitation was favored for its simplicity. Plus, the severed head was a useful deterrent, easily exhibited and paraded around town; 123 severed heads were displayed in Edo between 1862 and 1865.
The fruit of all this observation can be found in the 1866–1867 series 28 Famous Murders with Verse, which Yoshitoshi completed in collaboration with another of Kuniyoshi’s old students, Utagawa Yoshiiku. (Each artist designed 14 of the prints.) The stories depicted in the series draw from history, popular legends, and the kabuki theater.
Fukuoka Mitsugi with Flying Papers, Severed Head, one of the 28 Famous Murders, is based on the true story of the 1796 Aburaya teahouse murder, during which a 27-year-old doctor flew into a jealous rage, murdering three and seriously injuring six. The print captures the instant after the decapitation. Everything about the composition implies the recent struggle: the papers scattered during the altercation haven’t had a chance to descend, the killer’s expression is still frozen in fury. The red pigment mixed with glue spattered across his robe horrifies with its verisimilitude. Look more closely, and it only gets creepier: two of the bloodstains are handprints, left there by the woman whose head lies severed in a puddle of its own blood.
Yoshitoshi was hardly the first Japanese artist to represent violence. Long before it was a print, the story of the raging doctor had been dramatized in a kabuki play. Violent plays like this one were traditionally performed in the summer, to cool the audience with shivers of horror. Gore in woodblock prints was nothing new, either. By the time of the 28 Murders With Verse, the genre of violent art was splitting into subgenres, common enough to have their own special names: chimidoro-e (blood-stained prints), muzan-e (atrocious prints), namakubi (depictions of severed heads).
Yoshitoshi’s prints are gorier than those of his predecessors, but this may be due less to his personality than to temporary lapses in censorship. During the last years of the shogunate, his police force must have had better things to do than chase down unruly artists. (In 1884, the police would start a clampdown on prints depicting blood and violence, which had nominally been forbidden all along.) Perhaps the 28 Murders were simply the result of the shrewd marketing decision to print gore while that was still possible. Given how often woodblock printers turned to violent subject matter, there must have been demand for it; we know that 28 Famous Murders with Verse sold extremely well.
Tradition, demand, and lapses in censorship all conspired to make Yoshitoshi’s art possible, but it was the violence of the final years of the Edo period that turned the possibility into bloodstained reality. The years of the series’ publication saw killings, rebellions, executions, and riots caused by an unprecedentedly bad rice shortage. Yoshitoshi’s art was a mirror held up to its time.
The prints also coincided with the death of both heads of state: the shogun in 1866, the emperor in 1867. When the 14-year-old Meiji succeeded his father as emperor, opponents of the shogunate saw their chance: if the shogun could be deposed, the “restored” emperor could be controlled by his cabinet. So began the Boshin War of 1868–1869.
By May 1868, the shogun had given up Edo (soon to become Tokyo) — but a band of his samurai were too honorable to follow suit. They fought to the death against the emperor’s modernized army at the doomed Battle of Ueno. Yoshitoshi was there too, sketching the fighters, and perhaps even the 83 bodies left to decompose in the summer heat due to an edict that forbade burial.
Yoshitoshi’s Selection of 100 Warriors, printed during the years of the war, represents the violent acts of famous samurai, and features such bloodthirsty work as Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head. The print applied lessons learned in the battlefield, execution ground, and Kuniyoshi’s studio. The debt to Kuniyoshi’s Byôkwansaku Yôyû Gazing at a Severed Head is clear in the hair-clutching and the green kimono (complementary to the red of blood) — but the terrifyingly compelling result is Yoshitoshi’s own. The print traps the eye in a gory loop: from the grimacing mouth of the victim, down the blood trail dripping into Sakuma’s armpit, then back up to the gaping mouth, the gaping neck…The dead and the living are inextricably bound, the winner and loser have almost the same face — two heads like theater masks, differing only in mood.
The image depicted a scene from the 16th-century war between brothers Oda Nobuyuki and Oda Nobunanga; Sakuma Daigaku took the head of Nobuyuki’s general during one of the battles. He doesn’t appear to have drunk his victim’s blood, though his leader Nobunaga did eventually have the skulls of his defeated enemies gilded and turned into sake cups. Perhaps Yoshitoshi combined the two events for dramatic effect. The subject-matter — a war between brothers — echoed the civil war of Yoshitoshi’s own era, while avoiding possible censorship.
Sakuma Daigaku Drinking Blood from a Severed Head is the 20th in a projected Selection of 100 Warriors, but Yoshitoshi would abandon the series by #65. Just as the country was returning to a semblance of peace, the artist would suffer what appeared to be a mental breakdown and fall into a deep depression. During the five years that followed, he had to accept his students’ gifts of rice and pickled vegetables. Once, he burned the floorboards of his home for warmth. To support him, his mistress, Okoto, would sell her possessions and formal clothes. A few years later, she would move back to her hometown, sell herself to a brothel, and send Yoshitoshi the profit.
Yoshitoshi emerged from his five-year hiatus into a changed Japan. Though the pro-imperial samurai had rallied under the slogan “Western technology, Japanese values,” what followed the Meiji Restoration was in fact the dissolution of much that traditional Japan had held dear. Replaced by a conscripted army, the very samurai who had helped overthrow the shogun would soon become obsolete. The same fate was befalling many Edo traditions — including, eventually, woodblock printing, which would be superseded by the Western techniques of lithography and photography.
Yoshitoshi clung to tradition as stubbornly as the samurai fighting at Ueno. He took up time-honored artforms like Noh chanting, abstained from Western technologies like gas lighting, and sang praises to old ways of life in his many historical prints. His work took on a more subdued tone; in addition to near-bloodless warrior prints, he now designed images of beautiful women. His treatment of real women remained appalling, though; around 1878, his second mistress sold her formal clothes and possessions to support him, then contracted herself out to a brothel. Though biographers praise the wife he married in 1884 for her stabilizing influence, Yoshitoshi “did not stop his philandering” after their marriage, Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap noted in their book, Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi, 1839–1892.
And then, in 1885, he produced perhaps his most bloodcurdling design. In The Lonely House on Adachi Moor, a heavily pregnant woman hangs upside down from the ceiling, her round belly flopping helplessly downwards. Below her, the shriveled hag of Adachi Moor readies a knife to slice open the womb. There might not be any blood (by then, censors wouldn’t allow that), but this print is as haunting as any Yoshitoshi produced.
Yoshitoshi’s Lonely House on Adachi Moor — designed on the 30th anniversary of the Edo earthquake — is strongly indebted to Kuniyoshi’s earlier prints. The flaccid-breasted, bony hag is almost the same; her victim even wears the same red skirt. Still, let’s give Yoshitoshi his due: it’s the innovation of hanging the victim upside down that turns his design into the stuff of nightmares.
As with the teacher, so with the student: prints of the hag heralded the beginning of Yoshitoshi’s final years. She reappeared in one of his last masterpieces: The Actor Onoe Kikugoro V as the Hag ofAdachi (1890). The following year, Yoshitoshi invited his friends to meet a group of artists…who turned out to be a figment of his imagination. He spent the next year between several mental health hospitals, then died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 53.
Hoping to extend the artistic pedigree which stretched back behind him in unbroken lines of repeated syllables — Yoshitoshi, Kuniyoshi, Toyokuni, Toyoharu — Yoshitoshi trained more than 200 students and gave 60 of them artist names. None of their work passed the test of time; woodblock printing effectively died with its bloodiest proponent.
Like the subjects of his prints, Yoshitoshi had been a “valiant drunken tiger,” risking his life to view the carnage from up close, battling mental illness, bravely and foolishly pushing his medium forward even as it was becoming obsolete. Like the samurai he admired, he was the last of his kind. He was also, by 21st century consensus, the greatest Japanese artist of his era.
Originally published as “The Artist of Japan’s Bloody Era” in Rabbit Hole Magazine. Reprinted with Rabbit Hole’s permission. All images in the public domain.
Sometimes I think everything is beautiful. Then I come to a place like this, trees glowing orange over cobalt hills, a beauty so blinding I veil my eyes with clichés – and my worldview shatters.
I had a dream, once, of moving to a cottage in the mountains, but I had settled for city life. I told myself I wanted closeness: to cafés, museums, friends. More importantly, Ben liked the city. (Never mind that he shared my dream of mountains, my inner conflict – it was easier to think that he didn’t.)
Besides, everything was beautiful, people as lovely as nature; I wasn’t really giving anything up. I meant it when I said it – patches of pavement, paintings of corpses, busy city squares have all floored me with unexpected glory – but “everything is beautiful” had also been the spell I chanted to protect myself from my own dreams.
It was only when I arrived at the dream, the home with trails leading out the front door, that I let myself feel my yearning. It did make sense to want this, not just weekend drives to the distant mountains, excursions to the highest peaks on the sunniest days, but the daily walk, the grass decked out with pearls after the rain, the leaves turning day by day, the birds I know almost by name.
I walk, climb on. This place, in its silence and solitude, lets me hear my own thoughts. I think about what we give up: happiness, adventure, community; success, safety, solitude.
Ben and I became nomadic just as the days were getting too short and too cold for gathering outside. (We’re in New Hampshire now, but who know’s what’s next? Not knowing is part of the thrill.) The pandemic has removed some of the tradeoffs; the dream of community is slumbering, adventure and solitude can take its place. But afterwards? Once, I would have moved to mountainous seclusion in the blink of an eye, but I have grown to love people, almost despite myself.
Walking through birdsong, I remember the first time I visited New York. Screech! Rush! Honk! No end to agitation; agitation to no end. So that’s what people meant by “energy”? The one place I could never live, I thought. I visited once, twice, thrice, and started to understand, the way you understand a second language, the attraction of cities: the beauty of crowds, faces, people, everyone with a different story, everyone a miracle.
When I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I had those glorious strangers, plus friends I’d known for years. What do I give up when I choose solitude? There is a tension in me: even these hills of gold are empty without the hearth, the heart.
Another vista emerges, horizontal strips in complementary colors: grey-blue and russet grasses, orange trees, blue hills, long thin clouds. Vertical birches frame the view and complete the picture, forming a box, a home for my vision.
I inhale; the air smells like being alive. I see my inner tensions as complementary colors, sources of vibrance.
I grew up between places. Our house in Poland was an anchor, a base, a home – but travel was always my second home. I want to have it all. I dream of a cottage in the mountains; I dream of never settling down; I dream of city friends.
I dream of a single place that is travel and home, community and solitude, mountains and city. Maybe this is what our ancestors had, hunting and gathering through the forests in a band of friends. I had this in high school, for a moment, when my scout troop backpacked through mountains of stillness, sang full-throated at the bonfire at night. I carry a nomad inside me, who doesn’t understand this world of screens and only wants to walk, and walk, and sing.
The mountains are calling and I must go. I heard what John Muir heard, but I stopped my ears. “I must go” – what sort of a reason is that? When you live in society, you do what you can explain.
Our mountain is a ski slope. Near the peak, a narrow, vertiginous ladder goes up to the chairlift. I look up. Folly to climb and folly not to climb.
I choose a place halfway up the ladder, just where delight meets fear, climb there, no further, then descend. My dreams butt heads with dreams; the tensions are what defines me.
What scares me more than a life of inner conflict is a life without it.
I want to stroke Alma’s silky wisp of hair, put ointment on her peeling ankles, kiss the place where a drop of blood has dried on her teeny heel. I keep scrolling. Eloisa stares at me with vacant green eyes, her fists delightfully wrinkled but eerily glossy. I keep scrolling. Red-eyed and deathly pale, Isadora makes my heart stop. Beneath her button nose, the minuscule mouth dribbles blood, sports fangs.
Adopted, the caption reads. Painted and designed by an 11-year-old – under her mother’s supervision – Vampire Isadora was sold at a discount.
At reborns.com, anyone can become a happy parent. With the help of a dropdown menu, you can narrow down the 657 lifelike dolls by price ($100-$5000), ethnicity, gender, eye material (glass, acrylic, polyglass). Select “boo boo,” and the faces scrunch into pouts. Choose “realborn,” and the vampires, chimpanzees, and waxy misproportioned monstrosities all blessedly disappear – replaced by something which, in its own way, is even eerier: dolls made from 3D-printed babies. (Where do the models for the dolls come from? Bountiful Babies, the top supplier of 3D-printed doll parts, is suing dollmaker Stephanie Ortiz for libel over alleged ties to the Kingston Clan, of polygamy and child marriage fame.)
Reborns.com lies deep in the uncanny valley: that terrifying twilight zone whose residents appear almost-but-not-quite human. Is this website a Toys“R”Us or a slave market? Are these dolls babies or playthings, dead or alive? Unable to settle on a characterization, my mind churns; my stomach churns with it.
Not everyone feels that way, though. The community of hyperrealistic doll enthusiasts has been steadily growing since 1989, when Joyce Moreno created the first “reborn” doll. The original process of “reborning” involved stripping store-bought dolls of their paint to give them a more lifelike makeover. These days, most artists use unpainted, purpose-built doll kits instead, but the name has stuck.
There are now tens of thousands reborn artists and collectors worldwide. They chat on specialized forums and buy the dolls on eBay, Etsy, Facebook, even walmart.com.
Rather than being put off by ambiguity, the reborn community appears to thrive on it. A reborn “mother” might find her baby at a convention, displayed next to bags of disembodied, unpainted doll parts. She won’t mind knowing that the womb this doll came from was the oven which helped set the paints.
Or perhaps she had her baby shipped by mail from an online “nursery.” In this case, she might post a carefully choreographed unboxing video on YouTube. Like a mother at a baby shower, she’ll coo over the accessories that come with the purchase: the cardigans, onesies, itty-bitty shoes. Then comes the birth certificate, and finally: the doll itself. Tradition dictates that the feet are unwrapped first, precious toes squeezed while the head and torso remain swaddled in a blanket. Unboxing complete, the new mom might cradle and rock the doll like a real baby, even change its diapers – only to plonk it unceremoniously to the ground, the neck lolling back as if snapped.
Who are the people who collect these dolls? Why do they do it? And with a lifeless baby in the house, how do they sleep at night?
Most (though by no means all) reborn collectors are American or European women. Reborns are mostly white, so many of their collectors (who often refer to dolls of other races as “ethnic”) probably are too. About half have real children. Beyond that, every collector’s story is different.
Shane Pointon’s reborn was modelled on his stillborn son. The father, who burst into tears when receiving the doll from his wife, delights in combing its hair and choosing its outfits. This is the sort of story you’ll find in the tabloids, but Pointon is hardly your typical collector; one reborn artist reports serving a single bereaved customer over seven years. In the minority of cases in which a reborn is based on photos of a real baby, the tragedy prompting the rebirth is usually only this: the prototype had gone on to become an adult, sometimes, the very adult requesting the reborn: more than one son has gifted his mother a reborn version of his baby self.
Many, perhaps most, collectors see themselves as just that: collectors of world-class masterpieces. The artistry really is spectacular; Vermeer would be put to shame by the 30 layers of paint a reborn artist might use to mimic skin over veins. Small touches complete the illusion: individually rooted hairs, heartbeat and voice modules, baby scents.
Some display the dolls in cribs; others arrange their vinyl babies in glass cases. Kellie Eldred prefers to think of the dolls as “huggable works of art.” She cradles her masterpieces to decompress at the end of a long day at work; nothing soothes your nerves quite like the sensation of holding a pellet-weighted doll.
Though literal loss of an infant is uncommon, other losses abound: childlessness, infertility, miscarriage. Lucenda Plancarte, who has stage four endometriosis, picks up her reborns on her sad days, the ones when she can’t help asking “Why am I not a mom today?” I half-expect Plancarte to dissolve into tears on screen as she says this. “Okay, you’re gonna get through this,” she chirps instead. Like so many reborn moms, she has pulled off the trick: dreaming on the verge of her nightmare, finding comfort in a memento of her loss.
“When you go out and push a pram, everybody looks…You feel seen when you’ve got a baby. I can walk down the street now and nobody looks at you, nobody talks to you.”
Christine was the one who cut her grandson Harry’s umbilical cord. She was his primary caretaker for 2.5 years, while his mother battled from cancer. Then the mother recovered, snatched Harry, and immigrated from the UK to New Zealand.
It’s time to take out the stroller; Christine has had Harry reborn.
For 2.5 years, Christine had a purpose, an identity. And just like that, it was snatched away. For other mothers (birth or not), the transition is less abrupt, but who’s to say it shouldn’t hurt too?
I think back to the sons who reborn themselves for their mothers. I’m your baby – the best gift you can have. I first saw it as infantile egoism. Now, I sense a tenderness beneath the strangeness: he understands his mother’s loss. For years, she had tethered herself to his development; nobody checked whether she was dizzied by its speed. He doesn’t see himself as a baby, but a part of her always will. He is finally old enough to understand this.
The next moment, I’m spooked again. What will Harry think when his grandmother shows him his doppelgänger? If you can replace me with a doll,did you ever really love me?
Reborners have a penchant for bluntness. The doll, unlike a real child, won’t grow up, won’t do drugs, won’t move to New Zealand, won’t die of leukemia. This is all said explicitly. “Let’s be honest, children are cutest when they’re newborns. We all want them to stay that way.”
Reborns “don’t give you any trouble,” collector Lachelle Moore sums up. “There’s no college tuition, no dirty diapers…Just the good part of motherhood.” To hear this as a onetime child is to feel, literally, objectified. It’s to become nothing more than the trigger for the secretion of maternal instincts. Whatever happened to loving a child’s interior? To watching and helping a baby become her own person? Is none of that part of what makes motherhood worthwhile?
Reborning shines a blinding light on parenting’s dark side. Our parents did want to hold on to us forever; a part of them did, anyway. And still, they let go. That is love.
When Christine brought “Harry” back home, her husband couldn’t hide his revulsion. “It’s like something out of the mortuary!” he protests. The quiver of Christine’s lip is barely perceptible, but it stings more than the sharpest accusation. For all the sympathy I have come to feel for these collectors, I remain repelled by the reborns themselves. Why must the dolls look so alive – and hence so dead? Why can’t their owners play with ragdolls instead?
It’s tempting to say: to better inhabit their fantasy. But despite all the talk of “adoption,” for all the diapers and doll-strollers, it would be a mistake to accuse reborn collectors of delusion – and not just because they themselves deny that the dolls are real babies.
Do you believe in a movie’s fiction when you watch it? What if you’re engrossed in a gripping scene? These collectors embrace their dolls in a similar way.
When Lucenda Plancarte sits with her dolls, she is also sitting with her infertility. What Shane Pointon, the grieving father, takes out of the wrapping paper is a fantasy child and the reality of his son’s death. When Christine puts her newborn in a stroller, she imagines he is Harry even as she learns to accept that he isn’t.
The very feature of reborns which repels me – their residence at the edge of the uncanny valley – is what allows their owners to move through their grief. The doll is an infant one moment, and just a doll the next; the owner can escape her grief for an instant, then be brought right back.
More than their mindboggling realism, this is what makes reborns art to me. Like the most beautiful tragic play, they connect their audiences to their sealed-off feelings, offer solace, so that, fortified, they can return to reality.
After hours of polishing this article, I look in the mirror and see…a doll. A physical mechanism which will one day fail me; a bone-sack which can kill each dream through infertility, illness, death.
What if I’m wrong? What if the illusion lies in finding these babies creepy, not cute? What if I, not the collectors, am the escapist?
If something out of a mortuary looks cute, then something cute can end up in the mortuary. I can’t bear to face this conclusion – the staggering fragility of babies – so I deny reborns their cuteness.
The uncanny valley exists because our brains abhor ambiguity. We want an impassable boundary between fact and fiction, the human and the inhuman, the living and the dead. Of course, no such boundary exists; we are all sliding towards the uncanniest of valleys: death.
There is no place to dream but at the nightmare’s edge.
“For fifteen minutes, welcome everything in yourself. Invite every new experience, offer it tea, send it love.”
I didn’t have high hopes for this exercise. Don’t I already welcome everything during my daily meditation? Well, it was worth a try; I was having a crappy day anyway.
Almost immediately, I realized that what had seemed a calm mind had actually been composed of a cacophony of voices. Here’s a dramatization.
Crastie: a lovable, tantrum-throwing child responsible for my procrastinatory tendencies
The Auntie Committee: a group of well-meaning but dogmatic matrons who have taken it upon themselves to solve Crastie’s problems.
Crastie: I don’t want to write this blog post! Auntie Vigilante: No time for fretting, you’re behind on your writing already! Auntie Anti: Now, Crastie! Why don’t you brighten up? Auntie Tauntie: How about you do something nice and relaxing, like reading a book? That will cheer you right up! Vigilante: Half an hour with a book in hand, and you’ll be ready to get back to work! Crastie: I don’t wanna! Tauntie: Oh, okay… Then maybe you could do the dishes while listening to podcasts? You always enjoy that! It’s relaxing and productive. As soon as you see that glorious empty sink, everything will be right with the world. Vigilante: Now isn’t that right, Crastie? There’s no end of wholesome activities! You could water the plants in your garden. Or make some iPad sketches – you’ll gain some lovely graphic design skills too! Crastie: I don’t wanna do ANYTHING! Anti: Well, perhaps you’re right. It’s important to Do Nothing every once in a while. Maybe it’s one of those days: a nice hour of meditation, and you’ll be good to go. Vigilante: Or perhaps some gentle yoga? Tauntie: Or maybe a little power nap? You haven’t been sleeping well, poor thing! Go right ahead – a half-hour nap, and then you’ll wake up good and refreshed!
Phew! All this was going on in my head? A Committee of Aunties jabbering a mile a minute, offering a new self-help scheme every ten seconds? No wonder feeling sad turns me into an exhausted insomniac, kept up at night by the chorus in her head…
I had been welcoming everything, including the Aunties, but now I focused my attention on Crastie. What if she – I – really didn’t want to do anything right now? Could I welcome that?
I lie down and close my eyes for a little while. Then Crastie chimes in: what if we played some phone Boggle?
The Aunties are back.
Auntie Anti: Young lady, phone games never did anyone any good! You say it’ll be fifteen minutes, but it’s always a lost afternoon, not a second of it enjoyable. Vigilante: There are a hundred wholesome things you could be doing, and you choose to fritter away your time instead? Crastie: F**k that wholesome s**t!
I always wondered why my procrastination involves excruciatingly boring activities like phone games and scrolling through Facebook. Now I have an epiphany. Crastie chooses her activities precisely because they are unenjoyable. When the Aunties declare an activity Wholesome, they expect it to cheer Crastie up – so if she chooses a Wholesome Activity but continues to mope, they blame her and exhaust her with further solutions. Better to choose something which will probably make her feel worse. When it does, at least she can’t be blamed for doing it wrong.
I try out an experiment. “Sure thing, let’s play Boggle.”
It’s surprisingly fun; I’m better than I’ve ever been at this harmless game. After twenty minutes, Crastie asks me to put down the phone. “Thanks. I think I’ve had enough.”
When the Little Prince asks the Drunkard why he drinks, he explains: “I drink to forget that I drink.” While this sounds circular, it isn’t: what fuels the drinking isn’t the drinking itself but shame. It’s the same mechanism when Crastie and I play phone Boggle or endlessly scroll through Facebook. Yes, those things are made to be addictive, and at some point quitting cold turkey is the only way out. But that’s not the fundamental reason we keep scrolling. The fundamental reason is that as soon as we stop, the Aunties will wag their fingers and lament: “She did it again! All that time down the drain!”
This is why Boggle lost its addictive power as soon as I removed the taboo against it.
I should have known this. When I meditate, I make a point of thanking my subconscious whenever it alerts me that my mind has wandered. Yes, the ultimate aim of meditation is shorter and shorter periods of mind-wandering. But getting mad at myself when I fall short of this aim – negative reinforcement – just doesn’t work. My subconscious has no reason to let me know that it has strayed if it will only get scolded once it does.
I need to treat Crastie the same way: like the Prodigal Son. Unless I give her amnesty for confession, she’ll always choose to forget that she procrastinates.
Last year, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. I was hoping it would help me write my dissertation by strengthening my willpower, but nothing of the sort happened. In fact, after ten days of paying attention to my breath, I started doubting that willpower even existed… If I didn’t want to do something, no plea or threat or appeal to duty could convince me otherwise.
Despite that apparent handicap, the few weeks after the retreat were some of the most productive in my life. I made rapid progress on my dissertation. I woke excited for my research every day. I couldn’t do anything I didn’t want to – but somehow I wanted all the right things.
I was also surprised to find that I still scrolled through Facebook. The big difference was that I noticed the scrolling almost as soon as it happened, and immediately paused and gently asked myself what I needed.
Crastie and I were on friendly terms back then. Whenever she showed up, we’d find that my to-do list had taken me in the wrong direction. I was tired and overworked and needed a break, or my self-imposed deadline had been unreasonable, or I disagreed with my advisor’s suggestion, which I had interpreted as a demand. My procrastination always had a reason.
Getting to know the Aunties has helped me understand a puzzle about depression and anxiety: why is it that every time I find a “cure,” something that reliably dispels dark moods, it stops working?
Because as soon as I know that a method “always works,” the Auntie Committee hijacks it. They create an expectation that the activity will work, which triggers Crastie’s fear of failure. “Do some self-care, and you’ll be good to go!” they chirp. This pushes her right back into the rule-following mindset which was the cause of her unhappiness in the first place.
Crastie isn’t the problem; the Auntie Committee is the problem. They transform love to duty, joy to rule-following. They don’t understand the concept of not doing anything; for them, there is only Doing Nothing.1 For them, there is no such thing as “for its own sake;” no such thing as Being, only Doing.
American culture is run by Auntie Committees. It has transformed self-care into a type of action, another item to check off the to-do list. But self-care is an attitude, not an activity: not yoga, not baking bread, not bubble baths. If it’s run by the Auntie Committee, it isn’t self-care. If it’s done for its own sake, from the heart, with no expectations, it is – even if it’s running a marathon or scrolling through Facebook.
An unhappy child doesn’t need advice. She needs a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a big, unconditional hug.
It isn’t any different when the child is me.
 I suspect they are also the reason my meditative practice keeps degenerating into a baroque litany of rules. (E.g. After every six breaths, check if you’re still paying attention; if you notice sleepy thoughts, breathe more deeply; if you can’t bear to sit still, count to ten before deciding whether to move.”)
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“Would you take a pill which removed your boredom forever?”
I almost said “yes.” Boredom is excruciating. Doing nothing – meditating, sunbathing, kicking down the cobblestones – is lovely. Boredom is an unscratchable itch layered on top of that glorious nothing. Who needs that?
I almost said “yes,” but I know the trickery of thought experiments. I hedged: “yes, if it doesn’t change anything else about my life.”
“Oh, but that’s the point: what do you think it would change?”
Recently, I wanted to paint this gorgeous view:
As usual before starting a landscape, I tallied the things I loved about the view: the depth of the green of the poplars(?), the wildflowers scattered in the foreground, the glow on the lake.
A glorious view, but fifteen minutes later I was yawning. The vista was green on green on green, and trying to differentiate those ten muddy greens from each other made me want to shoot myself.
I paused and reconsidered. What was my aim in painting? Capturing my excitement about the view. Enhancing my appreciation. Riding the edge between representation and paint, playing with my brushstrokes. Loving nature like Joaquin Mir did:
Well, I sure as hell wasn’t heading in that direction. Even if I got the damned greens right, would that take me where I wanted to go? It would lead me to accuracy, to realism – not to the type of art that brought me alive.
I loved the depth of the color of the poplars, but did I love the particularities of their muddy color? I placed a stroke of pure, delicious blue in their shadows. I put purple on the trunks. I made the grass in the foreground emerald green because I love the color, then, seeing the grass pinking slightly as it dried, added a blob of pink in for good measure.
I didn’t know where this would take me; I loved every moment.
There are terrible pictures that have taken time and pain to make, intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material. They frighten the sensitive student for the message they carry is of the pain and boredom of their making.
Robert Henri, “Art Spirit“
When I read this quote, I think not of painting but academic philosophy. How many papers had I read like that – intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material? How many papers like this had I forced myself to read through tears of boredom, since they were on the topic of my dissertation – that great amalgamation of material I thought I had to write?
Henri gave me permission to trust my boredom. What if rather than a sign of insufficient stamina, it was a sign of taste? What if these texts were exactly what they appeared: meticulously researched crap?1
I used to feel guilty for how much “non-philosophy” was on my reading list: how much literature, pop science, education. About how much time I spent painting and writing non-academic essays, or polishing the words in my dissertation to my liking. I found those things so much more interesting than what I was “supposed” to do, but I approached them half-heartedly. Now I realized that it was how Henri had said:
People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half hearted or half ashamed.
Henri’s insight helped me write a better dissertation faster and more joyfully. I started aggressively skimming my bibliography and writing things I would actually enjoy reading. And these parts – faster, better, more joyfully – weren’t in conflict, as I’d thought – they were correlated! Henri says, startlingly:
It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it.
That’s not true for all senses of “easier,” but it points in the right direction. But then why do so many people do boring work? If it’s easier, why is having the will for it hard?
Doing and making what excites you is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You risk judgment. You risk finding out that no one else is excited by what excites you. Straying from the beaten path, half of the time you’ll walk aimlessly through the darkling forest.
Being meticulous is safe. Doing what everyone else is doing is safe. Academia is – yes, safe.
At least, that’s what had brought me to grad school: safety, not excitement. I wanted to look like someone who does what she loves, but I was terrified of stepping outside of the strictures of academia (with its promises of status, perhaps even of stable employment) when my love flowed elsewhere.
Fear – of the “real” world, of judgment, of unemployment – brought me to academia. Boredom was the antidote which helped me escape.
Of course I wouldn’t take the pill from the start of this post. Boredom is a guide. It’s almost a moral compass. It’s what tells me that I have lost my “why.” Removing it would mean crawling patiently in the wrong direction.
People who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long. They don’t notice that they’re ill until it’s too late; they burn, cut, and bite themselves without realizing.
Boredom is a type of pain, and it’s important for similar reasons. Maybe it’s even more important. I’m happy that my hand automatically escapes a hot burner before I even physically feel pain. But I wouldn’t want my boredom replaced by an automatic reflex, even if I ended up doing the same exact things I do now.
My painting – and my life – wouldn’t be mine in the same way if I didn’t actively use my boredom as a guide.
And my landscape? I painted over the patch of red-pink in the foreground three times before I found the right balance between safety and excitement, between getting it “right” and making it alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
 Taste is subjective, so this is all about what I personally find interesting, not what anyone else “should” be interested in.
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