The thief of joy

3 May 2016 by Ingrid

 

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It’s a fine line between inspiration and envy. I walk it daily on Instagram, Pinterest, and all the rest. One second I’m seeing a matcha-chia pudding recipe I can’t wait to try or a painting technique I want to experiment with, and the next I’m looking at someone’s gorgeous skylit studio and feeling a wash of self-pity over my little kitchen counter setup. At its best, social media appeals to my curiosity, my daring, my sensualist seeker. The part of me that leads the way to new joys and discoveries. At its worst, it whispers to my ambition, my competitive nature, feeding my fear that I’m not, nor will I ever be, good enough. It whispers me right into inertia.

Did I say “at its worst”? What I should’ve said is “at my worst”. Because what’s on those channels is just stuff. Whatever the agenda of the sharer, by the time it gets to me, it’s just words and images. And I find if I can stay in the joy of it, without comparing it to my life, then it’s a welcome respite from all the other black-and-white channels of communication in my life. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said good old TR, and I’m always grateful for the reminder.

It strikes me that we have the word schadenfreude (inherited from the German language) to describe joy in someone’s misfortune, but we don’t have a word in common use for joy in someone’s success. Why does language so often emphasize the negative over the positive? The sanskrit word mudita might come close to what we need. I’ve seen it defined as “reveling in the joy of another”. It takes a certain bravery to embrace mudita, I think. Or at least an awareness that joy is not finite, and that one person’s good fortune does not drain the fortune pool, leaving less for the rest of us. I think our scarcity-wired brains have trouble with this. They’re secretly very good at math, specifically subtraction. They are very good at the zero-sum game.

Yet they are also vulnerable to the sheer beauty of things, and this is for me the best way of out the comparison trap. To wit: the friend who left her paint palette in the rain overnight and came outside to find a rainbow. The friend whose new dog looks exactly, adorably like the emoji of a dog. Even the friend who is always on the beach. Because pictures of ocean waves and palm trees can be a 1-second vacation, if you let them.

How’s your inspiration/envy balance when it comes to social media? Do you have any tricks for staying on the positive side of the line?

{aesthetic of joy} Crystals

28 April 2016 by Ingrid

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stone / print / chair / necklace / studs

For as long as I can remember, my favorite room in the Museum of Natural History has been the Hall of Gems. Not the great hall of dinosaur skeletons, imposing and airy, the favorite zone of most children. Not the dioramas either, with their vibrantly painted landscapes, nor the vast tranquil coolness of the Hall of Ocean Life. But the comparatively inert gallery of rocks and minerals.

The hall is dark, quiet. In my memory it is lined with black velvet, though in reality it’s more like a charcoal grey carpet. The softness and muted sounds contrast with the stones themselves, the meteorites, moon rocks, and micas with their impenetrable surfaces and sharp edges. It was the crystals in particular that enchanted. Each one placed just so, each one lit to highlight its unique properties: sparkly, iridescent, glassy, swirly, faceted, fluorescent.

It’s been years since my last visit, but even in looking at the pictures, I feel a buoyant, almost giddy sense of delight. I’ve often wondered why crystals seem to evoke such passion. There are metaphysical explanations to be sure. Claims about unseen healing forces abound, and searching the internet will produce many a diagram that, like a horoscope, reveals the properties of each stone. (This book, in which crystals are whos and not whats, I present as Exhibit A.) As yet science has produced no supporting evidence, yet many ancient cultures believed in the power of crystals, and they only seem to be rising in popularity these days.

Skeptics of the powers of crystals point jubilantly to a study done in 2001 led by Dr. Christopher French at Goldsmith’s College in London, where 80 volunteers were given a crystal to hold while meditating. Participants reported such salutary effects as more balanced emotions, increased energy levels, relaxation of the forehead, and improved sense of wellbeing. And in fact, only six of the eighty volunteers failed to experience some element of altered state. Yet to the delight of the skeptics, instead of a real crystal, half of the volunteers were unknowingly holding a plastic fake. “Placebo effect!” the doubters proclaim with conviction.

Yet increasingly the evidence for placebo effects is real and compelling. (If you’re interested in this, Jo Marchant’s The Cure and Ellen Langer’s Counter-Clockwise are both excellent, up-to-date resources on the subject.) What intrigues me here is that with crystals, it’s highly possible that the placebo effect is as much a demonstration of the power of aesthetics as it is of the power of thought. The plastic crystal evidently looked and felt real to the participants of the London study. Perhaps it looked colorful and felt energizing, or perhaps it felt silky and looked soothing: to the people who believe only in chemical reactions, those sensorial qualities are inconsequential. But we know that the color of a pill can influence the drug’s efficacy (blue pills, for example, a color often associated with calm, correlate to sleeping pills and relaxants) — even in conventional medicine, aesthetics matter.

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sculpture / candy / soaps / crayons

What if the source of crystals’ purported healing power is really aesthetic, rather than vibrational? I don’t have any data to suggest it is, but certainly it’s worth exploring. Color and translucency are rare attributes in nature, rarer still in the non-living world. Crystals capture and scatter light like few things, save mirrors and water. In fact, crystals are the most orderly of inanimate objects. Their atoms form neat, symmetrical lattices. So perhaps their elegant formations, their color and gloss attract some primal part of us that is attuned to signs of life, perhaps even stoking our impressions that they are animate in some ineffable way. Because what else in nature is that vibrant and yet not alive?

So while I tend to live my life in the land of the empirically verifiable, I also appreciate that some mystery keeps us humble, curious, on our toes. Crystal healing might be tinged with pseudoscience, but crystals themselves are just beautiful rocks, which seems as pleasant as anything else to surround yourself with, whatever their effects.

Just after new year’s, A. and I went to a retreat called Lumeria in the Maui upcountry. All around the garden, giant crystals had been placed among the bromeliads and agaves. I fell madly in love with an enormous amethyst set on a cement podium at the entrance to the lodge. It was the kind of irrational feeling where I caught myself, guiltily, in the middle of a daydream about how I might possibly smuggle such a thing in my suitcase. I didn’t exactly feel vibrations, but I liked its vibe.

Artists: Gemma Smith, Rebecca Chaperon, Eva Fly, Melissa Joy Manning.
Products: Sweet Saba candies, Kikkerland crayons, Pelle handcut soaps, The Heiress Atelier jewelry.

{aesthetic of joy} is an ongoing series that examines different aesthetic elements and explores why they bring us joy. To see previous posts in the series, click here

{AoJ loves} Flying Tiger

25 April 2016 by Ingrid

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One morning late last week I was wandering through the Flatiron feeling jet lagged and allergic and because of these two things, more than a little bit sorry for myself. And then I walked by the Flying Tiger store, and it was like a cool, pollen-free breeze. I couldn’t help but wander in.

Flying Tiger is a Danish chain that’s a bit like if IKEA and Michael’s craft store had a really fun baby. There’s stationery, party supplies, kitchen goods, craft materials (including a wall of glitter!), and small accessories that are hard to categorize: everything from socks to earbuds to multicolored cotton balls. Items feature bright colors and whimsical prints, and merchandise changes frequently so there’s always something new when you go in. Often there’s a seasonal theme — like the strawberries, above — that carries across a wide range of merchandise in the store. It’s always random, often over-the-top, but it’s one of the few stores that feels like a treasure hunt every time I go in.

And here is the too-good-to-be-true part: the prices are extremely affordable. So affordable, in fact, that nothing on this page costs more than $5. (Really!) I’m not 100% sure about the quality of items, but given many items are disposable, it doesn’t seem like a huge dealbreaker. They’re like a little seasoning: joyful versions of everyday basics, delightful in small doses and helpful for perking up an otherwise dull desktop, kitchen counter, or backyard picnic. 

 

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Now for the bad news: Flying Tiger unfortunately doesn’t sell online yet, so you have to visit one of their locations (or get a friend in New York, Copenhagen, or Reykjavik to send you things). The upside, though, is that they’re rapidly expanding (both New York stores have opened within the last year) and there should be more stores stateside soon! (Readers in Europe and Japan: there are 605 stores across your region so you’re probably within a stone’s throw of one, if you don’t shop there already!)

Visit: Flying Tiger, 920 Broadway, New York, NY or 1282 Third Avenue, New York, NY

PS: As a reminder, I have never done sponsored content and this is no exception. My opinions on this and other stores and products is strictly my own, and this post was neither solicited nor compensated. If you find it here, it’s because it brings me joy, and I want to share it with you :)

The joy of Prince

22 April 2016 by Ingrid

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I got up this morning with another post in mind, but sitting down at my desk, all I want to do is listen to Prince music. I think Prince might be the first musical artist I was ever really aware of. My mom loved the song “Raspberry Beret” and would crank it in the car when it was on the radio, and we’d dance around her bedroom to it in the house.

She wore a
Raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second hand store
Raspberry beret
And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more

I was five. I didn’t really get the song but the chorus was easy and catchy and I was able to picture the hat that he was singing about, and it seemed pretty to me. That was the thing about Prince’s music — like any really good writing, it was visual. Colorful.

Raspberry beret.

Purple rain.

An ocean of violets in bloom.

Little red corvette. 

You could see the music. You still can, fortunately, which is the great thing about artists: they leave you something when they go.

Not all artists do it with such joy, though. Prince seemed to delight in life and music, whether it was composing with the muppets, playing pingpong with Jimmy Fallon, or just getting dressed to perform. He reveled in sensations, unabashedly embracing the rich textures (velvet, satin, sparkle, paisley, polka dots) that most of us relegate to trims and edges. That’s something to celebrate, simply because so few people are able… to silence the censors, the critics, and even our own judgmental voices and just wear purple head-to-toe one day if it feels good. Prince did what felt good, and he made us feel good too.

Perhaps some measure of the joy in a life is how remembered when it’s over. Last night’s Brooklyn block party hosted by Spike Lee and the many like it around the world are telling. It must have been a joyful life if the only way that feels right to mourn it is dancing.

There are many tributes around the web today, but if you just feel like listening to some Prince classics, IHeartRadio has a feed running today.

Zakka: the Japanese joy of everyday things

14 April 2016 by Ingrid

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While in Tokyo I learned a new word, one that I think readers of this blog would enjoy. The Japanese word zakka is sometimes translated into English as “miscellaneous goods,” but this is like describing caviar as fish eggs: true, but kind of misses the point. Zakka does describe everyday things, but it’s not about ordinary junk. It’s about mundane things that have been elevated or carefully selected to improve one’s lifestyle. Currently, there’s an exhibit called Zakka: Goods and Things at the museum 21_21 Design Sight (worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo no matter what happens to be showing) that explores the evolution of zakka in Japanese culture. The exhibit’s curator, Naoto Fukosawa, a designer for Muij (a store that seems to be built on the very idea of zakka) defines the word as “things that accompany our everyday lifestyle spaces and provide an element of decoration.”

It’s hard to say exactly what is and isn’t zakka — it seems to be an almost entirely gray area. In fact, the word comes from the root zatsu, which means “things that cannot be categorized” or “things mixed together with great variety.” The key element is that zakka provide a decorative value in addition to a functional one. Paraphrasing a description I read in one article: a plastic ashtray wouldn’t be considered zakka, but a plastic ashtray from Paris with a Pernod logo sourced from a market might be. Handcrafts can be zakka, as can packaging, such as a beautiful bottle for hand soap, or cigar box that is saved and used to store photos. But antiques aren’t always zakka, especially if they’re expensive. Stationery, cooking utensils, and toys can all be zakka. Even very humble things, like these plastic gelato spoons, can be zakka.

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The definition of zakka may be amorphous, but the underlying idea is simple, and is a shared philosophy of this blog: if you make good choices about the objects you surround yourself with, they will pay you back with joy. Naoto Fukosawa expresses it beautifully on the copy for the exhibit:

Through acts and experiences of searching for, selecting, buying, using, decorating, mixing and matching zakka, we rediscover the inherent allure of these miscellaneous things, and they in turn bring joy to our lives.

Not all zakka will be joyful objects, but the word presumes some emotional engagement in the process of acquiring them. Lacking a word for this in English, we also lack a framework for thinking about the pleasure of well-crafted, colorful, or otherwise joyful everyday objects. Our primary ways of categorizing objects are based on utility and cost — necessities vs. luxuries — which tends to shift the measure of value from joy to commerce.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that we attach a negative stigma to the act of investing in objects that bring us joy. Because we lack a word for household items that are more meaningful than “stuff,” yet not “luxuries,” we make their pursuit seem frivolous or wasteful, rather than a natural and even integral part of making a home and a life. At the same time, this framework also suggests that we need lots of money to make a home that’s joyful. I often see vibrant, tasteful homes furnished at very low cost, and on the flip side, many expensive homes that are filled with joyless objects. Yet often we fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t afford the things that will make our homes feel good.

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What the exhibit made me realize is that there’s a hole in our language when it comes to everyday objects, and that this linguistic hole is actually a conceptual vacuum. One of the reasons Marie Kondo’s notion of “sparking joy” feels so foreign in the West is that we simply don’t think of our things in this kind of emotional way. But doing so unlocks really lovely possibilities for allowing the objects in our midst to become a joyful part of our lives, rather than just stuff. I think it also invites us to take better care of the things we have. Perhaps we need new language to help us, or perhaps we can simply borrow what exists. For my part, I’m happily welcoming zakka into my lexicon.

If you speak another language, I’d be curious to know: are there words you use for the relationships between people and things that don’t translate into English?

Visit: Zakka: Goods and Things is on view until June 5, 2016, at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo

The joy of missing out: Travel edition

11 April 2016 by Ingrid

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Several years ago I did a post on an idea called the joy of missing out, or JOMO, for short. (Not my coinage but it’s a nice one!) The idea is a spin on the popular term FOMO (that’s fear of missing out), a sensation that skyrocketed after the advent of social media, when we’re constantly exposed to everyone else’s fun (or their artfully cropped and styled impressions of fun) flooding our feeds. JOMO happens when you let go of all that and acknowledge that while there is probably always something fantastically interesting or wonderful going on elsewhere, you’re happy right where you are. As I’ve been exploring Tokyo this week, it occurred to me that JOMO deserves a special place in the heart of the traveler.

You see, I’m what you might call an active traveler. I like to see stuff — a lot of stuff, and I usually arrive at a destination with a pages-long list of shops, markets, restaurants, hikes, galleries, and what-have-you, culled from friends and around the web. I also like to walk, often picking a destination 30 or 40 minutes away and wandering my way there through side streets and alleys. I feel like these in-between spaces are where the weird and wonderful stuff lurks, if you’re paying attention and have your senses “peeled”. I believe you see (and hear and smell!) things that way that you never would have from the back seat of a taxi.

But this mode of travel has its downsides. (Sore feet, for starters.) I have a tendency to push just a bit too far. The relentless pursuit of “one more stop” can wear out my travel companions and honestly, me too. And I can get a little dogged about things. I hate eating at tourist traps and will often wander for way too long trying to find a restaurant I’m happy with, which leads to that terribly unpleasant cranky state known in our house as hangry.

This trip was no exception. One night after a day that featured a long walk through three different neighborhoods, two pilgrimages to shops on opposite ends of the city recommended by friends, a museum exhibit, and a stop at a hedgehog cafe (only in Tokyo could that be a real day), I found myself wandering around looking for dinner. I was in Aoyama, a neighborhood I’ve been to more than a few times before, but I didn’t have a particular destination and I was in an unusually picky mood. I passed dozens of restaurants, but nothing seemed to fit the idea I had in mind for what I wanted: cozy, authentic, not-too-loud, good food, good for writing. I passed place after place that looked fine, but just not special. To stop felt like settling; walking on meant the possibility of finding a wonderful gem, an unexpected delight. I felt myself start to grow hungry, then tired. My phone died. And at some point I saw a clock and realized I’d been on this increasingly less-leisurely dinner expedition for an hour. I knew I had to compromise. I doubled back to a place I’d seen a block or so back, and made my way into a bright but generic-looking wine bar. And as I settled into a bar stool, I felt it: a sharp spasm in my back that knocked the wind out of me.

I took a breath and tried to move. It was agonizing at first but eventually (and after a glass of sake) the pain started to subside and I was able to move normally. But it jolted me. Between the curiosity (good) and the fear of missing out on things (not-so-good) I had completely forgotten to take care of myself. And the result was definitely not joyful.

The next day, a Saturday, I woke up determined to take it slow. I had a long, quiet breakfast and instead of scribbling every single observation in my notebook, I just watched the people walking by in the street. I passed by a florist and on a whim I bought a couple of anemones, then walked to the nearest cafe with outdoor seating and sketched in the sunshine. I didn’t make any pilgrimages anywhere, and the only “destination” I had all day was dinner with an old friend. Basically, I did the kinds of things I’d do on a particularly nice Saturday at home. I just did them in Japan. I’m sure I missed out on things, but this is Tokyo! No sane human could see it all in a lifetime, much less a couple of weeks. Ironically, by doing less, I felt more joy than I did when I was rushing around, checking things off my list. I felt a part of the life of the city, I was in its rhythm rather than outside of it.

A traveler’s FOMO is a different thing from the regular kind, to be sure. It’s the sense of being in a special place, far away from home, and not wanting to waste the precious time that you have. When I get mad about having to eat a substandard meal, it’s because I’m aware that I only have a limited number of meals in Japan, and I know there’s good food out there, I just don’t know how to find it. And when I’m rushing around to check out all the places people told me I just have to see, it’s because I don’t know when I’ll get to come back to this spot on the other side of the planet, and I want to be sure I’ve appreciated it. It’s almost a kind of gratitude — feeling so lucky to get to experience something new that you want to really do it all justice.

But what I was reminded of this trip is that it’s also important to just be in a place. To take time to stop and smell the roses (or draw them, as the case may be). Because that is a vital way of experiencing a place, and a joyful way of using your precious time. Next time you travel, I hope you take just one day — or if you don’t have a day, even just an hour — to do nothing special. Have a coffee, read a magazine, eat a sandwich. Don’t take photos. Pass on the museum, skip your reservations, and ditch your list. And for just a little while, feel the joy of being the traveler who is missing out.

A Tokyo apartment complex designed to reverse aging

7 April 2016 by Ingrid

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Do you think an apartment can reverse aging?

The Reversible Destiny Lofts in Mitaka is one of the few existing projects by the artist Arakawa and his partner, poet Madeline Gins. The pair believed that architecture is an extension of the body, and could therefore stimulate the immune system and promote wellness and healing. At the literal extreme, their philosophy was that architecture could help defeat death.

I’ve been curious about Arakawa and Gins since I read this piece years ago about their creation Bioscleave House on Long Island. So, being in Tokyo researching joy, I had to see if I could visit. I was delighted when I found out I could spend the night!

The layout is broken into three small rooms clustered around a central kitchen space. One room is a bedroom, with a simple Japanese futon on the floor for sleeping. Another is a bathroom, with a tubelike shower in the middle. And the third room is simply a hollowed-out sphere painted bright yellow inside.

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Color is probably the first thing you notice when you arrive at the Reversible Destiny site. Despite the fact that it was chilly and I was tired from a long day, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it: the colorful cylinders and color blocked window frames were just so exuberant in the gray landscape of 7-11s and chain shops. It continues inside, with color on nearly every surface. Momoyo Homma, the Director of the Architectural Body Research Foundation, told me that there are fourteen colors in the color palette, chosen by Arakawa himself. Second to the color, you might notice the floor, which slopes up and down throughout the apartment and is covered with sculpted bumps. This definitely took some getting used to, and as I moved around the apartment, I was constantly adjusting my balance. There are also numerous fixtures hanging from the ceiling, some of which you can hang from (and get a good stretch in the process).

In so many ways, big and small, the apartment disrupted my equilibrium, and challenged my ideas of what a home should feel like. And I think this was what Arakawa and Gins intended. By stimulating and destabilizing our senses, their hope was to wake us up to our bodies. In a way, their goal was to use architecture to promote a kind of mindfulness, and also a bodyfulness too, a word that if it doesn’t exist, probably should.

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My Reversible Destiny apartment came with instructions, but not the boring ones about how to work the wifi and where to put the trash,  like you might find in a typical Airbnb. Arakawa and Gins’s directions included the exhortation, “Every month move through your loft as a different animal (snake, deer, tortoise, elephant, giraffe, penguin, etc.).” And, “Invent at least ten ways to use the shaped volumes whose colors suffuse the atmosphere to heal whatever you need to have healed in you.”

I slept extremely well, which I was mildly surprised by, and when I woke up I found it was quite fun (if a little awkward) to bounce around the apartment making breakfast and tea. Am I younger from a night spent in the lofts? I don’t know about that. But on getting back to my regular old hotel room this evening, I expected to find it dull and a little sad by comparison. In fact it wasn’t that way at all. What popped out at me first on entering was the deep burgundy of the chairs by the window, and how the sunlight popped the color, which I can’t say I’d noticed at all in the three nights prior. If anything, I’m aware of how interesting this quotidian environment is to me than it was just a day before. Which may not be measurable in extra years of life or fewer gray hairs, but it’s quite a gift, nonetheless.

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Five of the Reversible Destiny Lofts are occupied by full-time residents, but two are available for short stays, if you’re heading to Japan and want to experience it for yourself. You can find more details on their website.

Awesome Blossoms

5 April 2016 by Ingrid

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Isn’t it wonderful when you time an adventure just right? When you happen to put yourself in the path of a fleeting thing at just the moment it floats past you? So it is with me and the cherry blossoms.

It’s been such a warm winter and early spring that I thought they might peak before I could get here. But one glimpse of the trees on the walk between the Shibuya station and my hotel that first night, and I could see they were at their fluffy apex, in the ironic way of being laden with something lighter than air. Yet, it’s a fragile perfection. Last night strong winds denuded branches, as petal-snow whipped around me. A too-warm day can make the petals just let go altogether, my translator Fujiko told me today. As if the tree is impatient to get on with summer things.

So, forgive me if I show more than tell today. It’s hard to be inside when everyone keeps telling you how these blossom-filled days are numbered. But I hope these photos give you a sense of the dizzying, dreamy haze Tokyo is in right now, and maybe a pick-me-up if spring is slow in coming where you live. More soon!

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My new thing: Aesthetics of Despair

1 April 2016 by Ingrid

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I’m not sure when it happened, exactly. I just stopped feeling the joy. I mean, it’s been nearly seven years writing this blog — I guess you’d have to figure this day would come eventually. How much joy can there really be in the world? It was bound to run out at some point.

It took me by surprise at first, to discover I had such an interest in dark, sad things. I just can’t believe I never realized how intriguing a color grey is until now. The other day I stared at a pile of old rags in an alley for nearly an hour. Their forlorn beauty was just mesmerizing to me. And yesterday I found myself reading the story of the world’s loneliest whale, just to see if it could make me cry again. (It did.)

I can’t ignore this passion anymore. I can’t wait to share with you all of the wonderfully derelict and depressing things I’ve discovered. Like these beautiful photographs by Fabien Fourcard from his series Hors Saison / Off Season, which showcase abandoned vacation destinations. It’s like you can see the joy that was there, and see how it’s just drained away: the bleached melon hues, the empty awnings, the lovely texture of a bare parking lot. A team of designers is hard at work right now revamping the design of the site, but in the meantime, here are few posts you can look forward to in the future:

  • Bunker Chic: Tips to make any home feel like it’s underground
  • Dress to Depress: A new series on sad sacks and unflattering forms
  • 50 Shades of Grey: Desaturated color palettes for dark moods
  • In the Trenches: A travel guide to the deepest, darkest places on Earth
  • Paint it Black: A vibrant town gets a solemn makeover

I know it’s a bit of a change, but I hope you’ll stick with me through it. Once you see what I have to share with you, I think you’re going to be delighted by how wonderfully melancholic it all is.

Have a great weekend, friends, and oh yeah: HAPPY APRIL FOOL’S DAY! See you back here on Monday with joy, of course :)

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Images: Fabien Fourcard (and what’s not an April Fool’s joke is that I do think these are beautiful!)

PS: Particular apologies to email subscribers, who I realize will be getting this on April 2nd. Hope I didn’t throw you for too much of a loop, thanks for humoring me, dear friends!

A rainy Georgia weekend + resetting the senses

29 March 2016 by Ingrid

Aesthetics of Joy Georgia forest

This weekend we visited friends on an island off the coast of Georgia. The island is mostly wildlife refuge, and between rainstorms (and sometimes during them) we set off on bikes to explore the marshy wilds. We cruised down a wide stretch of beach, where sand was packed hard enough to ride on. It was a wonderful new feeling, to be riding away from cars and people, with only jellyfish and sea stars and sand dollars for company. 

On our next ride we turned into the forest, shaded by giant trees slung with tangles of Spanish moss. In the wet Southern springtime, green felt more like a verb than a noun. Plants were greening all around us: ferns, cycads, vines. Algae greened surfaces of lagoons and fallen branches. Moss greened everything else. 

Our tires swished through muddy puddles. The rain picked up and we debated going back but it was warm rain, soft on the skin, the kind those “facial mists” they sell in French drugstores try to replicate. Why run from free natural skincare? We pedaled on. All of a sudden there was a break in the trees and through the aperture we saw flashes of white. About a dozen egrets, some feeding, some hovering in the muddy shoals. “A shower of white fire!” Mary Oliver once said of a similar scene. We stopped. All my senses switched on. I was aware of the quiet, the only sound the soft “pth” of the rain on the soil. It was a depth of silence unfamiliar to my ears, like landing in a foreign country and being surrounded by a new language. My eyes softened, soaking in the scene rather than straining to take it in. 

I am coming to understand my senses are like pores: they open and close like stomata on the surface of a leaf. Immersed in the constant noise of the city—the mechanical sounds, the chatter, the crowding and clowning, the buildings and outfits, the smells and stenches, the art, the faces, the luxury and poverty, the endless availability of craveable delights—my senses do the only sensible thing: they close the porthole a little, they turn down the volume. This is a survival mechanism—it must be. A way for the brain to survive at sustained levels of sensation that never would’ve occurred in the wild. 

Perhaps taste and touch are not so vulnerable to this. But think about it: if you are breathing, you are smelling. You can hold your nose closed only so long before it becomes impractical. Your sense of hearing never turns off either. At least the eyes blink closed during sleep, but the ears are always open. And the eyes, our dominant sense, always eagerly scanning. It is thrilling, but also exhausting to sift through all these inputs. Not just consciously, thought it can be that. But unconsciously, where most of the work is done, the sorting and coding of safe/unsafe, threat/opportunity, delight/disappointment. 

On trading the city for the woods, I find for the first 24 hours I feel very little. I am almost numb. Intellectually I know I am surrounded by beauty, but the relative paucity of sensation can be deadening. It takes awhile for the sense-pores to open back up. I don’t panic anymore, because when they do, it’s a revelation. My vision becomes fractal: I notice things at smaller and smaller scales. On a walk to the dock, I see the scrambling of hundreds of tiny fiddler crabs. In the scrubby brush lining the path, I see sea beans growing wild. I notice the shapes of the leaves, the oyster shells ground into the sandy path, the red-flared mushrooms among the pine needles. The layers of things. Ferns on top of mosses on top of lichens on top of trees so old they remember the day your great-grandfather was born. 

The thing is, the senses are how the joy gets in. So when we become desensitized by all the stimuli around us, when the pores close, it takes more to trip those joy receptors. I worry sometimes that the unrelenting sensations of city life are not only stressing out our systems; they’re decreasing the likelihood we’ll even notice joy when it crosses our path. Fortunately, I don’t think it takes long to recalibrate. I’m learning that the senses are elastic. Like pupils, when the glare of a bright light is reduced, they gently dilate. 

After the bike ride there was an Easter egg hunt for the kids, lunch, a nap. A crab trap was set, with bones from the last night’s fried chicken dinner. There was more rain, and staring out the window at the rain. There was no wifi, but there was conversation and there were oysters. And at night there was sleep. Deep sleep in a dark room, with dreams scored only by the chirping of frogs. 

Aesthetics of Joy Georgia bike

Aesthetics of Joy Georgia beach2

Aesthetics of Joy Georgia beach3

Aesthetics of Joy Georgia walk

Aesthetics of Joy Georgia oysters

Thanks to KW and SH for a beautiful weekend.