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How to Remember the Sky is Blue Beneath the Clouds

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I’m “on the road,” visiting St. Louis and (perhaps) other destinations later on. St. Louis is a given and I’m here now, the Arch in viewing distance. Things are greener, with actual leaves and blossoms on trees. It’s warmer down here and when I walk around here, I feel looser-limbed, savoring the sky and sun and air.

A walk is more of an amble in this new place, and there’s a lot to explore. I’ve been to a Japanese restaurant where they lit a sushi roll on fire. I sat underneath a blooming cherry tree. I went to the City Museum and saw some phenomenal art fashioned out of the detritus of urban blight, making something unique and provocative out of ugliness…and I went down a 10-story slide. (Which was AWESOME and something I recommend everyone do!) I sat by a fire and felt sweetened and mellowed by good conversation. I’m surrounded by positive people and interesting ideas. I love just being in motion under a new piece of sky, and life is renewing and expanding in the best ways. (I’ll write a longer post about St. Louis itself next week — this is a genuinely fascinating, historically rich city!)

Traveling more is a new recent priority for me — I realized it had become one of those things that I put on the sidelines while I developed other parts of my life, but now I want that energy of physically embodied change and exploration in my life. My eyes want to see new things; my feet want to walk in new directions, and funnily enough, the beautiful Fates have pulled some lovely people in my life who share this sense of adventure. (Much gratitude, Fates!) A lot of change has been happening in my life — and so many recent efforts and changes in my life have been in reaction to events and decisions I have no control over. (I feel like lots of people I know had really rocky beginnings in 2014 — breakups, job losses, deaths, etc.)

The one silver lining of so much tumult in life is that it gives you an opportunity to look hard at your life, to examine the things you’ve been avoiding or not seeing and decide to make changes. And for me, one of those things is realizing how certain decisions and commitments in my life had not been in alignment with who I wanted to be or what I wanted in my life. And even if life was a little scary and unpredictable, I now had a lot of space and opportunity to do something.

I ain’t gonna lie: some changes weren’t fun and weren’t things I would’ve chosen for myself. They involved loss, the death of certain dreams and hopes and loves, and uncertainty. I lost love and security, and there was a lot of hurt, sadness and anger. But I have to also be honest and say that it…wasn’t as horrible as I would’ve thought. Seriously! Some parts of my life fell apart around me, but in terms of myself, I was okay. And that was because I had already been doing a lot of things to keep myself moving forward in life, irrespective of what life was throwing at me to begin with.

A long time ago, my dad once said to me that emotions and feelings were like clouds, but behind them the sky was always blue. Sometimes we forget the sky is blue, he said, because we mistake clouds for sky and think they will never pass, but they do. I still felt grief and sorrow for what had happened but I also remembered the sky was blue, and that made all the difference — and helped the clouds pass through faster.

I know that’s “fortune cookie talk,” as I said when I was a kid to my dad, so I’ll try to be a little more specific. If you’ve been reading my personal blog for awhile, you know I’m (somewhat dorkily) very conscious about what I want to learn and grow into and challenge myself with. Sometimes it’s a to-do list, sometimes it’s just an intention to bring a quality or feeling into my life. But those always boil down to specific things and practices: basic things like eating really well, mindfulness practices like yoga or meditation, spending time in nature, creative endeavors like writing novels or just fun things like riding rollercoasters or horses or having hijinks and all kinds of fun. What they all do is help me remember the sky is blue underneath the roiling turmoil of life.

All those things, too, are also proactive. I used to hate hearing that word because the only people who said it were my parents and business nerds. But now I see why: being proactive means creating your momentum instead of reacting to your life. It means knowing what you want to have and feel in your life instead of just letting whatever happen to you, and taking those small yet specific steps and actions to create that. You don’t need to do a lot, but you do need to choose something meaningful and compelling to you. I’m a real nerd — I have a big list I keep on my phone of these things, and it has everything from “really, really listen to my nieces and nephews when they tell me stories” to “do shoulderstand yoga poses before I go to bed at night” to “get a massage” to “visit my favorite perfume counter” to “go bowling with my mom and dad” to “write an amazing story that will be a good companion to beautiful souls.” And I keep adding to that list, because there’s really no limit, though it does take thought, self-knowledge and the commitment to actually do these things. Your own list may be different: it may be sourcing rare spices all around the world, climbing a mountain, writing a song. But I’m sure they all make you feel expansive and connected to whatever great and beautiful spirit animates you, which is the point.

Don’t get me wrong: none of this insulates you from negative emotions. You will not be protected from the peccadilloes of life: breakups, illness, financial problems, losses, deaths, as well as the emotional fallout from them all. It won’t keep you safe from the downs of life, from getting your heart broken, from grappling with fears of inadequacy and uncertainty — though sometimes I think we have a subconscious expectation that it will. We do those little proactive steps to connect ourselves to a bigger dream and our best selves — to keep you in touch with the blue sky beneath it all.

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Soul + Wisdom on April 12th, 2014 | No Comments »

Reading Roundup: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things

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I don’t do enough reading reports/book reviews as you’d think. Sometimes I’m reading a book because I’m “digging,” i.e. reading the book to extract material to use in a particular project. And so my literary analysis lens is turned off. But some books — like The Luminaries and The Signature of All Things — I read for whimsy, curiosity and pure pleasure, and are compelling enough for me to sit down and outline my response to them in some way. I actually enjoyed both, and thought they made for interesting companions — though clearly I loved one over the other. But if you’re looking for quasi 19th-century literature, this is your entry…

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

If there’s ever one literary stunt I’d be inclined to, it would be reading all the Booker Prize winners ever. I’m not sure why — maybe because I’ve inadvertently read a lot of Booker Prize winners and enjoyed many of them. Maybe it’s an extension of my latent Anglophilia, I don’t know. It just seems like a “thing” I’d do. I’m inclined to look at a book, go “Hey, this was shortlisted for the Booker prize,” and see that as an imprimatur for some kind of quality or taste level.

But for the like of me, I cannot see why The Luminaries won this year’s Booker Prize (especially over Jhumpa Lahiri!) Not that it is a bad book by any means — it is a highly admirable novel, with a complex, narrative structure where intertwined stories fold up and nestle against one another. All of them concern a man’s death, a hoard of treasure and a whore that seems to have inherited it all in some way or another. And the milieu is fascinating — a 1800s mining town in New Zealand — and there’s definitely some beautiful prose. And I am always in favor of authors essentially aping the feel of classic 19th-century novels, with more formal, constructed prose and a certain formality in the structure. (Indeed, with a strong emphasis on structure!) If written in the actual 19th century, The Luminaries would be a kind of adventure yarn you’d read from someone like Jack London, Herman Melville or the like. But it’s written in the 2000s, which means it lacks the buoyancy, verve and genuine bawdy spirit of a true yarn. The narrative and writing is way too controlled to rollick and roll, and the result feels strangely undramatic and much more internal than you’d expect.

That sense of interiority, though, doesn’t quite form a bridge to developing an attachment to the story or characters in general. Call me old-fashioned, but I could not fully invest emotionally in any of the novel’s broad cast of characters or the relationships between them. Maybe it’s the result of the novel’s somewhat fussy, complicated structure and broad cast of characters? I was interested enough to want to know what happened and why, which propelled me to finish the book — kind of an accomplishment, especially since I’ve vowed not to finish books out of a sense of obligation anymore. But after I finished this 800-plus-pager, I shut the covers and felt just a pale shadow of poignancy, which faded into the everyday business of the usual day.

I felt oddly disappointed in my own reaction. But when I thought about it again, I finally put my finger on what the act of reading books means to me now, and why The Luminaries failed to fulfill it. As I get older, I have somewhat returned to the old relationship I once had with books and novels and stories — I like to feel as if they are companions in my life. I don’t expect to “relate” to them or even “like” them, but I want to feel as if we’ve taken a journey together, or had a conversation that in some small way altered my way of seeing, understanding and feeling, if only for some time. And though it concerns journeys and discoveries, I did not feel that journey or sense of uncovering a new land or idea with Catton’s novel. That made me a little sad, to have spent so much time with it and to feel so little resonance at the end. The Luminaries is a bit like a monument — you can look up and admire it and understand its importance and accomplishment on a cerebral level, but it doesn’t quite feel as if you’ve lived through or with it, and in that strange way, ultimately disappoints.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I read Eat, Pray, Love like everyone on the planet who ever had to buy a book at an airport bookstore because their freaking e-reader ran out of power on an unexpectedly long layover. (Okay, maybe that was just me?) We all know what it is about, right? Middle-aged lady in the middle of a midlife crisis and divorce travels the world, finds her center and then finds true love amid exotic locales.

I don’t begrudge anyone their personal journey towards love and enlightenment, but I sort of found the “voice” of the book annoying, a bit like being trapped on a long flight next to an overly chatty lady who was trying her hardest to be super-interesting and deep and wanted you to like her really, really badly. Which is sort of odd, because in the interviews I’ve read and seen with Liz Gilbert — including her great TED talk — she seems like a lovely, smart, amiable person that I’d love to chat with. But chalk it up to one of the strange mysteries of life: I read Eat, Pray, Love, enjoyed it in several moments and just sort of had to take a break from it a lot because I felt so bombarded.

I was wary of reading her next book, Committed, but the subject of coming to terms with matrimony interested me enough to pick it up. I don’t think it was as personally compelling or alive as Eat, Pray, Love was, but I did come away feeling a kind of a respect for Gilbert’s flinty, feminist intellect. The woman clearly did her research and analysis, and the decision she made at the end was compelling.

With the surprising reaction I had towards Committed, I had hope for Gilbert’s newest book, The Signature of All Things. For one thing, it is a novel, and her personal “voice” of her memoirs would not be an obstacle. And it centers around botanists, which I have a strange affection for. And it is also a bit of an impersonation of a 19th century novel, which as you read earlier I am ALL for, since all my favorite books are basically from the 1800s. (Is this a bit like when all those bands in the early 2000s sounded like Gang of Four? Like a nostalgia for an old sound, combined with a longing for new material?) And I’m writing here to tell you: I unabashedly, passionately loved The Signature of All Things. I sometimes hate when people use this word, but it was fabulous.

It’s basically the life story of a central character, Alma Whitaker, born in 1800 in Philadelphia to a wealthy, self-made English tycoon and a stern, flinty Dutch mother. Alma is “homely,” ungainly and awkward, but she is also radiantly curious and brilliant, and devotes her considerable intellectual powers to the study of botany, then one of the few “polite” sciences women were allowed to access. She’s also a child of her historical period, and her life and development mirror the changing status of women, the rise of science and the general age of discovery in the world.

Alma has her struggles: she grows up with a distant, icy yet beautiful adopted sister, falls in unrequited love, falls in love with someone who seems to reciprocates and then has her heart terribly broken. But the real arc is of a woman deeply engaged with the world, one whose intellectual, sensual and emotional journey propels her to greater communion with the world, with a universe larger and more expansive than she can even comprehend. In this respect, the novel is deeply feminist — it respects the role that vocation and livelihood plays in the lives of women. It is also unabashedly earthy, sensuous and emotionally rich. It manages to combine the sharp intelligence Gilbert displays in her interviews with the same expansive heart and emotional generosity that made Eat, Pray, Love so resonant with so many — and yet completely avoids the sentimentality and schmaltz that made the Eat, Pray, Love movie so annoying. And it’s often stunningly, beautifully written, combining the beautiful formality and rigor of typical 19th century prose with modern sensibilities and frankness, especially towards bodies, sexuality and appetites of the flesh.

The Signature of All Things is not perfect — there are points in the plot that pretty much strain incredulity, as they say. But Alma is a character who feels very much alive, so vital and rich and vivid. I reached the end of the book and felt devastated in the best way: devastated that the book was done and I would no longer spend any time with Alma anymore, devastated that Alma wasn’t real, devastated and shattered to feel as if I’d lived the whole of a lifetime in one reading. Honestly, I shut the book when I was done and just cried. Alma’s trajectory offers such a rich, important lesson: that deep, passionate curiosity and study of the world, and the role it plays in self-determination and sovereignty, is reward in and of itself, enough to balance the disappointments of love and compromises of life. Signature isn’t perfect, but it’s storytelling at its most alchemical — and pretty much the reason why I read books in the first place.

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Art + Culture on April 3rd, 2014 | No Comments »

“The bees are flying. They taste the spring.”

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The title of this post is the last line in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Wintering.” It’s a rather dark poem, but the last line for me is always hopeful and optimistic — though, of course, it’s shadowed by Plath’s own biography and tragic end.

Still, let’s go with it. After a rather long, dark, dismal wintering, the hive of life is coming back to life. Around here the snow has finally melted in my driveway, and I can see…dirty concrete! After months of pure snow and ice, I’ll take what I can get. I finally got to drag out my pots of plants and mucked around, repotting and replanting, ready to see if my silly little gardening experiments turn out okay this time.

The days are longer, of course, and the sunlight itself seems stronger every day. The first relatively non-freezing day — a rather balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, whoo hoo! — I went for a walk by our local river, braving blustery winds that blew the hair elastic off of my French braid. Large broken-up sheets of ice floated on the river, which had little waves cresting because of the winds. Not a cloud in the sky, though, and everyone else on the path — hardcore runners, birdwatchers, others like me who just wanted to get outside for a bit — smiled and said hello at one another. I think we were all just happy to be out and about.

I’ve been riding more lately, trying to get back to the weekly schedule I had before. I worried I would lose whatever skill I’d built up painstakingly over the past year, but in a strange way, I feel more in control and powerful than ever. My seat feels secure, solid, like nothing can shake it. I can’t help but think that’s related to everything happening in my life earlier this year which can be summed up as just “AARGH TUMULT.” I take such real pleasure in the calm and focus of a good ride, as well as the unspoken yet deep-feeling connection with the horse I’m on. I’m looking forward to more rides in the spring. I’m thinking of going back to English riding, but I will be content just to canter lots and feel the wind in my hair.

Spots of optimism are popping up: new opportunities, new stories waiting to be told, new phrases waiting to be placed into poems, new spring dresses to be worn, new perfumes to try, new events to look forward to and new friends to make. I’ve temporarily started up NOGOODFORME again — time to freshen up a key part of my work portfolio — and it’s fun to use that serious-frivolity slumber party part of my brain again. There’s just a nice gush of creative energy happening in my life now, coinciding with a deepening of love and support. My novel is so close to being finished. Of course, that’s just the beginning of a whole other process, but it feels good to wrap up such a huge endeavor.

Yes, I’d say Sylvia had it right: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” I only wish she had stayed around to see the spring herself. But you and I are here, and I hope the new season unfurls for you in such a lovely, gentle way.

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Pieces of Life on March 30th, 2014 | No Comments »

On Private Agonies

I’ve been thinking a bit about the recent suicide of fashion designer L’Wren Scott, which has been in the news a lot lately. I wasn’t super-knowledgeable about her designs — though I heard her dresses were immaculately cut — and while I remembered she was a stylist at a time when being a stylist was a “thing,” I didn’t know much about her outside of her work and her famous Rolling Stone boyfriend. She was one of those “fashion sphinxes” in my mind immaculate, glamorous in a very intimidating, dramatic way, a bit rarefied and remote. Though by all media accounts she was a lovely person, she had a smooth, shiny surface. The surface, obviously, covered a lot of pain and suffering, and though I didn’t know her, my heart goes out to her loved ones and family.

Suicide has not often touched my life on a personal level. When I have heard about it in my life, it has usually been a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, that kind of thing. Except for once. It was someone that I knew very briefly, one of those early 20s/NYC friendships where someone might orbit within your circle for an enchanted half-season and then drift out of it, lost to a thicket of projects, relationships, dates, road trips, career changes and just life. I will call her Emily, though that isn’t her real name. She was the ex-girlfriend of my roommate. They were still friends, and one day she stopped by to see him at the duplex apartment where I lived.

I remember when I met Emily, she turned to me and gave me such a huge, genuine smile, one that lit up her huge blue eyes. It was 1997 or so, and I was new to NYC and getting used to the fake smiles, the way people scan you up and down discreetly or sort of just half-grin and stare over your head, looking for someone else more important to talk to. But Emily’s smile was warm and welcoming, and she looked you straight in the eye. She wore all black, kind of early 90s Daria-tomboy, and a baseball cap worn backwards, which on her looked very, very cool. She was pale and blond — a white-blonde, her hair long and straight and fine. She looked like she could be the slightly sporty-Goth tomboy member of the Breeders. You could tell immediately she was intelligent from the way she listened and spoke; you could tell she was kind because she immediately offered you whatever drink or gum or food she had in her hands. We got along instantly.

I was just 21, 22, and I was looking for mentors, or at least big-sister types that could give me a model of how to get through my new city with a certain verve and aplomb. I had a career mentor, a dark, exotic, beautiful woman who hired me on my first film jobs. But Emily was my fun, creative big sister, someone to play and have fun with, at least for a little while.

Though we met initially in the foyer of my apartment, our friendship really developed over the phone. She would call to talk to her ex, getting his advice and counsel, and I would answer the phone — this was the age well before cell phones, an era of answering machines and landlines and cordless phones. We would always end up talking for 15-20 minutes before she asked for my roommate. She would always ask how I was doing, what I was up to: she was genuinely interested, and had a friendly, easy way of offering advice without being busy or a know-it-all.

And she told me what she was up to: she worked as a film programmer, but her dream was to play music. She had gone through some difficult breakups, I think. I loved talking to her, so of course I was excited when she finally said, “We should hang out! Let’s go to the East Village and get dinner next week!” Honestly, I was so excited, more excited to hang out with Emily than I was to go out with any of the guys I was dating at the time.

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Posted by Kat Asharya in Soul + Wisdom on March 21st, 2014 | No Comments »

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