Week 41. Boredom

I read in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel The Lola Quartet that people surround themselves with crumbling things—houses, cities, relationships—and call them beautiful and loved, because crumbling things offer escape routes.

Once, someone asked me if I ever feel safe, and I’d never thought about it, never thought of “safe” as something it were possible to feel. I feel bored often, if bored means stuck or a kind of restless, turning-on-itself comfort. To me, that is a distasteful safety.

My escape route as a child and teen was my basketball hoop in the dark. I created whole worlds in my head, new stories, bold paths and choices that could be abolished as quickly as they were made. I could inhabit everywhere as I shot baskets. My dog trying to steal the ball, barn owls, toads I rescued from my cats, moths like ash.

I remember the first time I realized people were supposed to choose only one life, a day or week repeated with little variation. I feel scared now that I’ve accepted this, boredom as simulacrum of safety.

Not all escape routes are bad. Science, in practice, and medicine especially, escapes from the horrific boredom of overarching narrative (once it eschews overarching narrative). It sees enough crumble in the absolutes. Once you get down to individual experience, to the practice of care, it’s all crumble, all girls with basketballs and injured toads creating new worlds in the dark.

Medium: ink, Sharpie

These words are like a virus. I hope by writing them down I don’t infect anyone else. I told them to a friend in college and ten years later she tells me, they still haunt her.

The words of a first grade teacher chased me through high school, to Italy, a college major in science, remote wilderness, graduate school burnout. They are likely the fire that keeps me writing through child rearing and busy jobs.

“A bored person is a boring person.”

I’ve never wanted to be boring, or worse to disappoint. I move through life in gulps, bug eyed and wanting to lick, hold, examine everything: galaxies, earthquakes, plant chemicals.

But I dont sleep. I am 36, mother of two. I have a serious day job, and yet, I can’t manage my participation with every second of the day to let my body relax at night. I track my heart rate to try and hold myself accountable, to see that anxiety, non stop meetings, vacations, petting dogs, that these are reflected in the parasympathetic system of my body.

I went to a meeting on Monday and was bored. I let myself be bored. My heart rate sank like it was laying down in a feather bed. The thought drifted by that perhaps the key to rest would be permission to be bored.

Medium – Pen, Fit Bit Charge data.


Week 40. Tradition

Old Roman soothsaying held that the gods left a mark on the liver when the spirit was snatched from it, that the left side of the body (the sinistra) was hostile, the right friendly. Doctors still tend to work from the right side. The sciences are so much about finding one’s place in a trajectory (beautiful, awful) of error.

All I offer is research, information. Does it mean anything? Does it add to a lineage? I used the word mortality—the language of my profession, the traditions I’ve taken on—about someone I love, and I caught myself. Though, actually, I didn’t catch myself. I didn’t have any feelings at all, only thinking I should feel guilty.

How you adhere to, or rebel against, a tradition illuminates a map to what you’ve lost.

Words form maps, create distance, which is not coldness, not a sub-level of humanity, but simply the space between two points, a way of getting from here to there. I never loved the traditions of my culture, my church, my profession, until I lost the people who’d been safeguarding them as I went my own way. I never understood lineage until it became a set of ghosts I wanted back.

There’s a tradition of wet cupping—slicing open the skin and cupping to suck out the blood, usually in a sauna—among some Finnish people where I’m from. It’s mocked sometimes as archaic, unscientific. But it’s easy to see why it could be desired, a forced loss of self that heals through connection.

Materials: Ink, gouache, wax paper (and I could feel the influence of a ton of liquid eyeliner tutorials)

Even after death his house is opened up Wednesday nights. The tradition borrowed from a college professor of his in the 1930s. We ate cheese and crackers and drank beer in his living room, a projector set up just to the left of the front door. We sat on brown corduroy couches and metal folding chairs.

We packed out our trash because no one knew what else to do with it. When I realized he burned his trash, I kept my mouth shut. What do you say to a ninety year old man, a member of the academy of science who keeps a fire going like it is the eternal flame of a temple?

I often volunteered for the task of shopping, the luxury of tasting and spending as a graduate student was obscene. I liked to buy nutty dry cheeses, bries that melted when cut into, anything with ash layers in it.

We gathered, geologist, limnologist, botanist, anthropologist, mathematicians – anyone interested in reconstructing earth history: the die off of the chestnut trees 3000 years ago, Lake Agassiz draining 8200 years ago, the cold snap 12000 years ago that stopped the retreat of the ice sheets, anything about mammoths or collapses of human civilizations. We squeezed into his living room like it was a theatre, leaving our crumbs on the floor and the energy of questions and debate in the air.

Without flavor and texture and sound to place an idea in our memory, what form does knowledge have? Even objective science needs grit to gain traction.

Medium: Label maker

Week 39. Infinity

I dont think of myself as a perfectionist: I shave my legs at random so they are never smooth all at once, just in strips; I wear the same red pants on weekends; I hang wool socks up as if time were equivalent to a washing machine; when I can, I wear Birkenstocks with suits.

But yet, for my field collections, my laboratory measurements, calculations of error propagation I focus every ember of spirit as if it were a ritual connecting me directly to god. It is only with work that my animal instinct of competition kicks in, a vibrating anxiety for perfection. I drove 8500 miles to hike, swim, and collect water and mud from 100 lakes in the Rocky Mountains. I ran from beaker to masher to digester in the laboratory to process samples, then slept on the floor running them through a mass spec.

The jingle that plays as an ear worm, arrives like Tinkerbell to save me, is the mathematical concept of approaching infinity but never arriving. Limits, edges, what is good enough. The aim is always perfection, but that isnt a place on a map.

Medium: Needle and thread, sharpie, water color

In my first university math class, my leather-miniskirted professor told us that calculus was the closest we could ever come to touching infinity. She said it was like robbing a museum in a movie, dangling by wires through a skylight, unable to contact the ground without disaster.

I’d rather come very close than touch. I’d rather be on the outside, watching.

I had a dream once that I was sitting with God and watching the Big Bang. The air was both calm and windy; everything was so flat. God was the shooting star emoji  – my favorite, though I can see why people would prefer the red balloon, the tulip bouquet, the snowcone.

The infinity symbol is a mathematical rose: connecting, continuing, converging, petals looping from a single point and returning. It doesn’t exist until you assemble it in your mind, and then it lasts forever.

Where eternity (time without end) is nightmarish, infinity has a sweetness to it. Space without end, or the potential to climb and add and unfold, to fling outward and become something wholly new. The way Patroclus says of his love Achilles, “I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”

Materials: Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen (super-fine, sanguine), colored pencil

Patroclus’ quote is from Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles

Week 38. Lexicon

There has been so much plague research out lately: tracing the bacterium back, giving it name and lineage, connecting the centuries into family. I look at medieval death records and am fascinated by their lexicon: kingsevil, the rising of the lights. I’ve diagnosed myself with a chronic case of “the frights.”

“The rising of the lights,” or croup, is my favorite phrase, the lights being lungs, catarrh of the throat experienced not as a dripping down, but as a rising up – how it truly feels. It sounds like being overtaken by spirits, which is sometimes how illness want to feel, with increasing loss. A visitation, agonizing, desired. People swallowed shot to keep the lights down.

West Nile Virus first appeared in the US as a noticing of dead birds. It must have looked like omen, untrustworthy and inescapable. I’ve never found the line between omen and epidemiology, between sign and sign. When HIV first appeared, it was called “gay-related immune deficiency,” or, simply “gay disease.” Being a part of public health feels like it’s about both saving lives and being a war criminal. I have to hold both legacies in mind to move forward, to help and atone. I have to do this, but I still don’t know how.

In looking for insomnia cures, I found people using the svefnþorn (sleep thorn) rune. Runic languages have been diluted until they are simple and heart-warming and helpful. The svefnþorn is a weapon! For putting your enemies to sleep. But – cure and weapon, medicine and poison. I know from listening to pharmacists that sometimes the body only listens to a bit of poison, enough of an omen to set things right.

Materials: gouache and a dead bird in the alley

I tried learning by force, listing words on one side of the page in Italian, the other in English. Conversation from the street floated up to my window. I practiced writing the same words over and over. Eventually the seeds took root, but it was only with the playfulness of talking in a bar, getting to know the family I worked for, running errands. Five years later, I went back, the words at first gummy then loosening. I added farm vocabulary: mucca, cinghiale, biologico.

A lexicon of italian, some dialect, some from textbooks, some learned translating the newspaper word-for-word.

I ran into a painter from Milan last month in the North Woods of the Midwest, on an island, the middle of nowhere. We spoke of Elena Ferrante, the evolution of feminism, his home town of Palermo where I had once been. I was fast and silly, just as I always am. Later, I played back the conversation and realized I had been flying in a time machine of past, present, future, and also mixing he, I, they, subjects.  Words without syntax, but with the long pom-pom needles of white pine all around and the sun off Lake Superior, it didnt matter. Somehow just throwing words up into the air was enough to start a game of catch. 

Medium – Ink and colored pencil.

Note –  I’m self conscious that some of my postcards are not sciencey enough. I read a lot about the science of grammar this week, but in the end I wrote what came to me. I see the science fibers in my writing, but they are more part of the fabric than the print.

Week 37. Northern lights

I grew up in a wooded area in northern Minnesota at the southern tip of the Iron Range. Our well water turned my hair coppery, and I tracked seasons by the dark sky: Orion on his back, standing and aiming, falling forward.

My dog stared at the aurora when they appeared in the southwest, the way my dog now stares at heat lightning, dead to everything but the flashes at the horizon. Messages from his world, maybe. The aurora dog looked like he was listening, and, even now, when I read the word “aurora,” I heard the northern lights. A low whining magnetic hum. Though this, like many of people’s felt experiences with atmospheric phenomena, is as impossible as the Norse belief that the aurora was light reflected off the Valkyries’ breastplates. Which is to say, perhaps there’s still hope.

The North American iron formations – and consequent magnetic anomalies like the one made the Biwabik formation near my home – helped to form the Earth’s magnetosphere, molecules jittering away after they’d fallen from some dead star’s heart. Now we only talk of solar storms and atmospheric gas, forgetting the many pulsing ancestors under our feet. How many of their voices might we hear without realizing it?

Materials: India ink, watercolor. I have never been able to draw a dog! But…one time, there was an aurora dog named Murphy with a fantastic tail and very pointy ears, and he was the best dog there ever was.

When I went to Alaska in college I fell in love, Alaska was a second skin. I called my Dad from a phone booth to tell him I had found my place. I found it!  He told me the winters were bad.  I got a summer job the next year where you could hitchhike 300 miles to town with truckers. But then a city job with benefits called.

We slept out at night to watch the lights that summer, waking up to find ourselves way down the slope. It was a 1980s roller rink light show. In the sensory deprivation of an ice sheet I could conjure up the electronic keyboard music playing along to the collisions between electrons flying off the sun with Earth’s atmosphere. Oxygen and nitrogen, what we breathe, colliding with energy and emitting light.

Oxygen emits green or red light and nitrogen emits more blue to purple light. These colors are at the limits of the wavelengths we see, making it easier to capture with a camera – the way you take a suspicious person’s picture and if they dont show up you know they are a ghost.

Materials: Marker, watercolor, salt, masking tape, Aurora forecast

Week 36. Seasons

These small points of return: crickets in the third week of July, grass spiders and a strange fatigue in the last part of August. Shadows on the lampposts, changing light and new illusions. When you see someone all the time, you only notice them age and change in day-to-day increments. Which is to say, not really at all. Which is to say, in a felt, fleshy way. Habit or habitual face returned to after distance or time is a shock, or a scrabbling to retrieve what was left and lost.

I’m shy of anecdote, especially when lives can be ruined so easily by half-truths and permutations of grey and blurry fact. Shy of righteousness, contempt, romanticism, the digital sneer. Anecdote isn’t evidence, but there are spaces where it must be: the Mayo Clinic’s forums for girls with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome  (POTS) and women who have had spontaneous coronary artery dissections (SCADs). They share stories because the research hasn’t been done. Databases where clinicians can list observations – psychosis, hives – long after trials have determined a drug’s safety.

I spend so much time online. When I go outside, everything is the same and rapidly changing. It makes me sad and lonely like lavender sky in winter; I cultivate it. Everyone here is so nice.

Fall: a tilting, shortening of light, preparation for frost. But also: the big, shy spiders with pedipalps like catchers’ mitts, burned wind, the veil starting to thin until All Souls’ rends it completely if it ever existed, bull with the angry orange eye falling to the hunter now rising in the east.

Materials: gouache

It’s the uneven character of light outdoors.

Inside; bedrooms, malls, office spaces, the overhead lights take away perspective, depth, and the significance of shadows.

I saw in the Grand Canyon how whole mountain opened and closed as if on hinges over the course of the day. The pine trees on the peninsulas in Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior appear as dollhouse miniatures in the day and collapse into the silhouettes of hills at night.

Twenty-three point four degrees is the tilt of Earth’s axis. Another word for it, obliquity. Obliquity is what drives the seasons, the angle at which we pass by the sun. This angle changes over time moderated by the moon (preventing violent changes), oscillating on a 41,000 year cycle. This cycle appears in ocean sediment cores and ice records of Earth’s climate. Everything has its season, but imagine those seasons aren’t constant.

How much time would you like to spend outdoors? I have this dream of spending a year living only outside. Sleeping under the stars once the bugs die off in fall, an igloo once it snows, a tent in summer. I would come to the city to visit and drink coffee on patios, camp out in yards.

Materials: Micron pens.

Week 35. Pollinators

We ate sitting cross legged on the floor, the lentils on a metal plate and the fresh bread handed out from giant wicker baskets.  We were in long rows; 40,000 people pass through on a normal day, 100,000 on a holiday. I had spent the morning circumnavigating the Golden Temple and being pulled into photos with Sikh family groups of 20 or more. The temple sits in the middle of a pool of water. It’s in northern India, near the Pakistan border and has been there since before India and Pakistan were designated as such.

Part of a pilgrimage is the faith that while you seek, food and shelter present themselves.  The Camino De Santiago, The Kumano Kudo, trails we make up and find ourselves. A friend biked across America collecting jokes and camping in people’s yards.  I went on a date with a boy in college who had hitchhiked home and bivouacked in elementary school yards. 

Monarchs migrate up and down the Americas, traveling 50 – 100 miles a day. They use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, they rely on certain ecosystems. The larvae only eat milkweed, they winter in the Oyamel forests of Mexico. Pilgrims with faith. 

Interstate 35 runs from Duluth, Minnesota to Texas along a monarch path – or it is the path that the government can regulate.  The transect of states have agreed to grow butterfly friendly plants alongside the racing cars and trucks.

For a pilgrimage, part is what is provided by safe spaces, part is faith or what we imagine. Isn’t our greatest fear that faith is nothing but imagination?

Materials: Milkweed from by the Mississippi River and Golden matte medium

When I’m used to the same environment, living in it, walking through it, over time, I start to notice small responses. After rainfall: communities of mushrooms, a transformer blown and never replaced, striated mud, false widows (S grossa – my favorite) suspended blind and upside down.

I like to look at the mushrooms, their gills, color, presence of annulus or volva. They’re so connected to rot that I think many people find them distasteful; they’re symbols of the world seeping, liquescing, going under.

Fungi watch and wait in their way, form a vast communicative web beneath the soil’s surface, and when they emerge, offer nourishment to the pollinators that girds their immunity to toxins, furthers life and decay at once.

It’s all in the form, the response: mushrooms on rotting wood for bees so they can withstand all that’s against them. I once heard a pharmacist say that medicine is just enough poison to coax the body into doing what it ought.

At night, the white and sweetly smelling flowers shaped like sherry glasses bloom. Many, like the starkly white mushroom Amanita bisporigera (or destroying angel), are poisonous, though their scents, intended to draw bats and moths in the dark of night and poor vision, are said to be aphrodisiacs. I love that sometimes we forget what we are.

Materials: Pigma Micron .01 black and watered-down gouache

Week 34. Under the microscope

Over the course of our courtship, engagement, pregnant with our first child, the first year of sleepless baby care, Steven and I each studied ancient global phenomenon through the eye piece of microscopes. Him, mountain building and earthquakes. Me, ice sheets and the migration of ecosystems.

We didn’t go on vacation, we didn’t watch the progress of bills through the legislature, we didn’t plan for retirement or worry about lack of finances to plan for.

Under a microscope I oriented myself on a grid of North, South, East, West. The forest of eight thousand years ago, pollen of oak, pine, fir. I looked through the scope and my hand drew on paper as if it were reaching through a portal from one world to another. Five hundred years later: pollen of grasses, ragweed, sagebrush – an open prairie that corresponded with drought.

I pulled out my scope this morning, touched it like I would a lover. I introduced it to the boys like it was an old friend. I felt the urge to dive in, leave off.  But what we had to look at was bits of our neighborhood: oak leaf, dirt, kale, onion skin.  I could see without looking the cell walls, reaching vein structures. As if once you see, you cannot forget the level of detail in each bit of life.

Materials: Silver metallic sharpie, pencil, Micron 01, grass pollen grain from my lab notes.

My childhood microscope was red with a rubber base that could be removed. The slides it came with fixed protozoa, springtails, fungi, pollen at their centers, but in the spring, there was swamp water, and once, my dad cut his thumb open onto a bare slide so I’d have something interesting to look at.

Knowing the world is composed of layers each more bizarre than the last, unseen but also open to gaze, is some kind of savior. Conjuring the integrity offered by cells and calling out their parts – dark planets: lamina propria, zona pellucida, corona radiata.

I’ve been reading about geophagy (eating dirt). It can be a cultural and/or desired practice, often used to gird a tender stomach.

I ate dirt once at El Santuario de Chimayó, a Catholic shrine in the Sangre de Cristos. The tierra bendita – holy dirt- fills a well in the floor and is replenished with soil from mountaints. Pocito bendito then perhaps. I got horribly ill, whether from helminth or amoeba I don’t know. I’m still amazed that microscopic beings can take you over, render you a constellation of battling organisms.

Gerald Callahan, in a report for Emerging Infectious Diseases, writes that the dirt at Chimayó is in fact sacred, just like that sitting under floorboards and in gardens and graveyards the world over.

Materials: Pigma Micron .005 and .01 and gouache.

“Eating Dirt” by Gerald Callahan in Emerging Infectious Diseases

Week 33. Reading the landscape

I’ve been listening to Invisibilia a lot. I heard one about a man, Jim Verhagen, a non-nature-y guy who becomes obsessed with wildlife on North Beach, New Jersey. He has neglected his family to pursue an obsession with the birds and now has a cult blog following. He reads the behavior of the birds, their interactions. It’s not that he finds nature peaceful, it’s frenzied and stressful, and it is this that he finds comfort in. Seeing stressed birds makes him feel that this is the normal state of living. He has found an ecosystem that reflects his own chaotic interior. I find it comforting that he finds this comforting.

I read the landscape in fossil dirt, fossil seeds, fossil plants, fossil teeth. I read ancient landscapes that are no more. I read for ghosts, for ancient catastrophe. It is this puzzle that drew me in.

I equally like the idea of finding peace or chaos in the landscape and melting into it. But that is not what I find. Instead I lose myself so that I’m not a character. And it is this disappearance I find soothing. My escape from ego.

Materials: Cotton wood seeds collected along the Mississippi River in June, elmers glue, Krylon  Matte Finish spray.

When I was 15, I wanted to be a forensic scientist like my dad’s cousin, who won an award for solving a massacre with then-new DNA technology (saliva on a chicken bone).

Forensics meant that you could know a thing’s past, trajectory, and reason for being just by looking at the signs it left. It meant that all landscapes are layered, and you could never disappear.

Re-creation, antidote to boredom: constant destruction and re-building. Friction ridges, or dermal papillae, in areas where dermal tissue enters epidermis, ridges that merge worlds, a structure that begets, or is, a language, a way of communicating across what might be a fictional border. Whorl, arch, loop. Chance impression on glass or steel.

It’s said that the more full circles in a fingerprint, the more past lives you’ve lived. A bird dies on the sidewalk, and soon, the pattern of its decomposition resembles a bird in flight, medieval herald, though it died huddled and small.

It’s hard to separate superstition from pattern, beauty. From the fact that everything is surprising, secretive and never truly itself. From languages that disappear and emerge, changed, without warning.

Materials: Pigma Micron pen .01 (black) and watercolors.

Week 32. Ancestry

I recently got over an ear infection I’ve had for six months. Ever since I had meningitis, I’ve had weird and capricious ears, but I’m happy (and a little consistently startled) to be able now to hear.

I’ve been thinking about acoustics, and ghosts, because everything turns into a ghost story for me lately. I’ve been clutching at ancestry even though there’s nothing there. Once you lose the people who gave you your long and bumpy nose, you begin to love your nose excessively.

This past winter, I walked so much, up and down St. Paul’s hills. I thought of my grandma, who I missed, how she was so small when she died, how my legs were strong and butter-thighed. I started to compile my library of snow sounds, all the conversations between frozen earth and feet.

Because my ear was so inflamed, I could hear my pulse – vessel against eardrum – like a dog’s panting. It only became less maddening to hear it described as “snowshoes through deep snow,” and I remembered how I felt closest to my ancestors, how I would talk to them, when walking through the woods in winter.

Snow, like anything porous, absorbs sound, and when it’s falling, and the earth is warmer than air, diverts sound into the atmosphere where it becomes ghost sound. And then there’s the styrofoam sound as your boots grind apart ice matrix in very cold, dense snow.

Ghosts and snow have something in common: they create a silence that’s somehow perceptible, a held breath or the sense of a question.

Materials: Faber Castell Pitt artist pen in sanguine, sizes fine and super fine. The image is of a deconstructed snowshoe.

My grandpa was a traveling salesman in Canada, going as far north as Inuvik by the Beaufort Sea. On the Queen Charlotte Islands he made friends with a Haida carver, and though he died before I was born I saw the stacks of storage bags filling my Grandma’s second bathroom shower stall. It was a hiding place no thief would ever think to go and the argillite carvings safely made it to a museum where I eventually saw them in 2000.

Sicily is littered with ancient bones. The Greeks found cyclops’ skulls with big holes in the middle of the forehead. Cyclops crafted Zeus’ thunderbolts, they ate Odysseus’ men. Bones to story, from one generation to another. This is our wealth. 

I’m mapping letters of my grandfather’s. The letterhead is the best part:

Vanderhoof Hotel

Hot and Cold Water Bath, Inside Toilet

Sample Room

I want to follow this map. The handwriting is the most intimate contact I will ever have with him.  This is my wealth, a collection of thin letters from which I can build the skeleton of any mythological creature. A series of towns where I can put flesh onto bone by seeing the way the mountains cut the sky.

The cyclops’ skulls were dwarf elephants, the giant hole where the trunk comes out of the bone.

Materials: Pigma Micron 05, Sharpie, pencil