Art is Where We Open Up (Or: There is Connection in Art and I Am Determined to Find All of It)

Real, deep, true connection is something I avoided for a long time. I wanted to be untouchable, unattached. Independent and stable and fine on my own. I didn’t want to put all my faith in a few people, because I didn’t want to see them leave and watch all that faith follow them out the door. I stayed away from any relationship that felt like it could be more than surface deep, because that felt like the only way to make sure I’d never get hurt, never have to go through all the things I was so afraid of. Rejection and grief and loneliness.

And then I did go through that. Someone who really mattered left, and I felt the pain and the loss, but my faith stuck around, and it’s been with me ever since. I learned, rather quickly, that connection isn’t just something we crave, but something we need, and that life seems hollow if we choose to go without it. If we continually choose comfort over vulnerability, if we continually choose solid ground over taking risks, we lose that potential for connection. And sometimes, even though it’s an attempt to protect ourselves, sticking to what we know hurts more than letting the familiar go for a few seconds just to see what could happen if we let others see us for who we truly are.

In a lot of ways, moving to Leeds for five months has been an exercise in opening myself up all over again. Walking into every situation with my chest pried a little wider than usual, a bit more of my heart on show for everyone to see. It’s terrifying, doing this over and over again every time I’m greeted by someone or something new. But it’s necessary, and it’s been beautiful spending the past eight weeks finding people who reflect parts of myself back to me. I keep reminding myself how wonderful it is to connect with the world around me, and I also keep remembering all the moments when I felt that kind of connection in a really, deep way.

Concerts always feel like connection. Three years I watched Broken Social Scene play a surprise set at WayHome. It was dusk, and the sky was turning purple around the crowd, and the band started playing ‘Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl.’ Everyone began singing along, as if it was second nature, and the entire world seemed to thrum from the force of our voices. There were friends’ arms around my shoulders and a smile on my face and unknown bodies too close to my own, but the moment was perfect, and it’s something I’ll never forget.

There’s The National, who I have seen twice, and who end their sets with ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.’ They play it so slow and soft that you can barely hear the band, but the audience fills in, and everything outside of that moment quiets down, and all that exists is what’s right in front of you. There’s the dance parties I’ve had when members of Local Natives jumped in the crowd. There’s holding onto Florence Welch’s hand, dozens of people swarming her slight figure, all of us singing ‘Raise it Up’ at the top of our lungs. There’s Abby and I spending drives together belting out MUNA and Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift. There’s walking back to my apartment after seeing Wolf Alice, Charlotte and I still in a daze, our voices filling the quiet city as we yelled the lyrics to ‘Beautifully Unconventional.’ Music is a thread that connects so many of my most important experiences.

Then, there are the times when visual art – painting and drawing and sculpting – have been the basis for connection. When I wandered through MoMA and found Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I, a portrait of the artist with a pet monkey, a mirror hung next to it, both pieces featuring the same frame. I remember walking up to it, staring at myself in the mirror and at Frida beside me, marvelling at how close I felt to her presence. Part of her being in me, and part of my being in her. When Laura and I saw Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Works last week, the two of us standing in beams of light and contemplating our place in the world and looking at each other in awe. When I saw Basquiat’s notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum, pages and pages of his internal thoughts spread across gallery walls, taking in his words and wondering if mine will ever be displayed like that, too.

There’s connection in novels and film and clothing. Connection in how I spent most of high school superglued into a pair of black skinny jeans and a band shirt and a flannel and a denim jacket, creating a uniform that would bring me closer to the people I admired and further from the people I didn’t want to be around. Connection in passing around my copy of Just Kids, loaning it to Charlotte and Katie and my mum and wondering what each one of them found in the pages I hold so close to my heart. Connection in Amy and I seeing Call Me By Your Name together three times, sneaking cupcakes into the movie theatre when she and Katie and I celebrated my twenty-first birthday.

 When I stop to think about it, art was the first form of connection I ever truly understood, the first thing I ever revealed my true self for. I’ve formed connections with songs and books and paintings themselves, and all those things have also been in the background when I’ve made real, physical, human connections. Art is the soundtrack to my form of connection, and it’s what I remember when I think about past relationships and stand-out moments and transformative years.

Art feels like the basis for everything. It’s my favourite way to open up to someone, my favourite way to speak to someone’s soul and have them speak to mine. To have someone you admire or care about put on a song they know you love, or play a band they think you’ll like. To drag someone to an art exhibit, even if they’re reluctant, because you know they’ll get something out of it. To swap books and share articles and copy and paste poems and photos and quotes, using all those forms of expression to communicate secrets and meaning. All of that feels special.

I like forming connections with art and over art because it means you’re talking about or contemplating or experiencing something meaningful. You’re not feeding energy into the bad, venting about awful days or tiny annoyances. The connection is based on things you adore or appreciate, and you can tell by the way eyes light up and voices move faster and bodies seem to spring into action, ready to gesticulate and add emphasis when needed.  I want to hear about what people love, what makes them tick, what they’ll take to the grave, and so often art fits itself into all of those boxes.

I’m writing this because I want to push myself to form connections like this more often than I already do. I want to compliment someone’s band tee or comment on the book they’re carrying around. I want to get wrapped up in conversations about what my friends and acquaintances are inspired by. I want to recognize the art that exists in their bones, whether they’re the one making it or simply appreciating it. I don’t want to subsist on conversations that barely skim the surface of what our lives are about. Art is where the walls come down, where the mind opens up, where the heart starts speaking instead of being stopped by the brain. And it’s at that intersection that I want to get to know all the people who I want to keep close to me for a long time.


What I Mean When I Say I Want to Live an Artistic Life

Art is not always about pretty things. It’s about who we were, what happened to us, and how our lives are affected. -Elizabeth Broun

Every night I sit down with a stack of notebooks and a pen. I open them one by one, finding a blank page and pressing the nib of my utensil to the paper, watching as the white becomes filled with scribbles of black ink. My leather bound journal comes first; a place to transcribe my day, to work out my emotions, to put my thoughts into neat lines that will still make sense when I look back on them a decade or two from now. I move onto a book of poetry, one that I’m coming to the end of, the spine worn and the cover creased, almost every page filled with more truth than I could ever wrap my tongue around. I finish with my gratitude journal, a page for every day, stacks of short sentences describing all the things I felt grateful for that day. The time passes quickly, and eventually I’m piling everything into the corner of my desk, reluctantly waiting another twenty-four hours until I can pry them open again.

Sometimes the words come easily, thoughts blooming quickly in front of me like pink peonies in May. Those are the days when my pen feels surgically attached to my heart, the plastic cylinder filled with my own blood. There are other times when writing takes hours, when I can’t find the right syllables, when any kind of productivity seems like a far-off dream. Those are the days when I dance and sing until my skin feels loose and my blood is flowing again and I can finally put my thoughts into sentences. And then there are the best days, the days when my heart is so full of language that the words feel like a ton of bricks stacked neatly inside my chest, pressing firmly against my skin and bones until they’re released. Those are the days that feel like art, the ones that I will chase to the ends of the earth.

While writing is my lifeblood, a part of my identity embedded deep into my bones, it is not the only thing that makes life feel like one giant act of creativity. Those moments and thoughts and actions are built up beneath my skin; living, breathing things that I can hold and examine and put to good use. They are what movies are made about, what pictures are painted of, what books are based on. They are the tiny miracles that make life worth living, and they are what I’m talking about when I say I want to live an artistic life.

When I say I want to live an artistic life, I mean that I want to look at every single second from every angle I possibly can, and I want to pick something beautiful out of each one. I want to wake up with the sun and find patterns in the way the light seeps through my curtains and falls across my bedsheets. I want to move through my yoga practice and find space in the way my body twists and opens itself to the sky. I want to walk home and find peace in the simple ritual, the spring air so heavy against my cheeks that it seems to have a physical presence. I want to do this over and over again, making masterpieces out of the mundane.

When I say I want to live an artistic life, I mean I want to commit every perfect detail of my existence to memory, holding every moment in my hands and pulling them out of my palms when the stories become something that need to be told. I want to remember groups of friends gathered around cups of coffee, the conversations that stretched on for hours. I want to remember ditching plans to drink prosecco on balconies, talking long into the night about our hopes and dreams and fears. I want to remember the times when I was brave enough to say exactly how I felt, taking the risk regardless of what the outcome would be. I want to memorize how it feels to be alive, no matter how many times I grow and transform and have to relearn the sensations.

When I say I want to live an artistic life, I mean I want to surround myself with people who are committed to making their own bodies their biggest project. The musicians who fill the air with songs that sound like heartbeats. The artists who carry bursting sketchbooks around their cities, taking every opportunity to draw out a new idea. The writers who sit in cafes for hours, sipping black coffee and scrawling sentences until the ink in their pen runs out.  I like the people who are unapologetic about their art, who talk about it and live it and own it, because they make me feel like I can do the same.

It’s not enough to put myself into a creative box, to find ways to contort my body so that it fits into the perfect definition of what an artist should be. I don’t want my life to stop at painting or writing or making. I want my artistic urge to seep into the air around me, to follow my being as I move through life. I don’t want to leave it behind or lose it or feel it fade away, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to living as creatively as possible.

Art doesn’t end when you wash remnants of paint from brushes, or when you finally fill the last page in a notebook, or when you walk offstage after a gig. There’s art in watching raindrops slink down a pane of glass, racing one another to the edge of the window. There’s art in connection, in meeting someone new and finding out you love the same books or the same bands. There’s art in opening car windows and turning the music all the way up and singing at the top of your lungs, relishing in the freedom that comes with fresh air and your favourite songs.

Life, even an artistic one, is never going to be perfect. There is always going to be pain and loneliness and betrayal. There are always going to be the wrong people and the wrong jobs and the wrong choices. I’ll still mess up and I’ll still take risks I probably shouldn’t take and I’ll still let my heart talk before my mind even has the chance to catch up. But I want to live an artistic life because I want to take all those things –  the moments when I feel like I’m falling apart, the days when I can’t fully lift my feet off the ground, the hours that seem to disappear in a mess of uncertainty – and I want to turn them into something good.

It’s easy to walk away from art. To close the sketchbook or put away the journal or shove the guitar in a closet until it’s out of tune and collecting dust. It’s easy to look at it from the outside and think it’s futile or unnecessary or frivolous. But when you’re in the thick of it, when it runs through your veins and exists in the marrow of your bones, you can’t get away from it. And if I can’t get away from it, I want it to envelope me until I’m overwhelmed and nearly suffocated.

Art will never be something I can live without. It’s what makes me get out of bed every morning, what makes me spend hours in bookstores, what makes my heart fall into a steady, peaceful beat as soon as I set foot in an art gallery. It’s also what makes me stand in awe at sunsets that make the sky look like it’s on fire, what makes me watch my feet as they press themselves into the sand, what makes my ears perk up when someone I love starts laughing uninhibitedly. Art is my light at the end of the tunnel, my raison d’être, my inner compass. It’s a certainty, a given, and I find it as easily as I find my own breath or pulse. When I focus on it, rather than keeping it in my periphery, everything changes. Colours become brighter, every word starts to sound like poetry, and the very sensation of being alive feels like a gift. And noticing those things are what I mean when I say I want to live an artistic life, and now seems as good a time as any to start doing exactly that.

Album Review: Ex-Directory EP By Spector

I’ve loved Spector for years. They’re a band that knows how to capture the discomfort and confusion and agony of being a young adult, and they do so without sugar-coating or idealizing any of it. Every single one of their tracks expresses emotion in a poignant and intelligent way, all of them with sharp lyrics like Heard he was your rock, does that make me your hard place? and If you weren’t on my mind, I’d have no mind to be on. Bands like Spector are good company to keep when you’re moving through awkward periods of change and growth, and maybe that’s why I’ve held onto their music for so long.

With the release of their newest effort, an EP titled Ex-Directory, Spector is following through with the themes they know and love. Clocking in at just over ten minutes of music, each track is short and to the point. The songs feel like paintings or short films or tableaux, four tiny glimpses into a big, chaotic life. Despite how quickly it’s over, the EP feels full. A quartet of tracks is more than enough for the band to get their point across.   

Ex-Directory’s first track, ‘Untitled in D,’ was released last December. Despite its late release, it became one of my favourite songs of the year. The song takes Spector past teenage angst and onto the verge of real adulthood, discussing the disappointments and setbacks and confusion of growing into a new form of existence.

Following ‘Untitled in D’ is ‘Fine Not Fine,’ which wins the prize of my favourite song from the release. The track is an anthem for those of us growing up and finding our footing in the age of the Internet, drawing inspiration from emotions and thoughts expressed on social media. From the outset, it’s clear that the song is as truthful and intelligent as every other Spector release. Opening with the line And I’ve never been myself, I just follow orders, it’s instantly relevant and relatable. Each verse expresses another conflict, and the chorus is built on a simple but impactful repetition of I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m not fine. 

The EP then moves into ‘Local International,’ a track that seems too smooth to be the vehicle for lyrics about navigating relationships in a world that feels like it’s falling apart. Like every other Spector song, it’s catchy, but it’s also pertinent and hard-hitting. The band has somehow managed to wrap human connection up in words about globalization and capitalism, a combination that seems to project the realities of a life that we’re all trying to adjust to.

‘Wild Guess’ rounds out the collection, leaving listeners on a melancholic but hopeful note. It’s the slowest track on the EP, and the one that feels the most like love. The lyrics are dripping with longing and hesitation, the kind that comes with meeting someone you’d probably like to have around for a while. It’s layered and intricate, and the repeated insistence of Don’t ask me who I’m trying to impress, just take a wild guess is enough to make me swoon.

I like when bands release new music that shows off how much they’re progressing, but also how much integrity and soul they’re retaining, and that’s what Spector has done with Ex-Directory. The tracks are impressive, the lyrics are honest, and the whole thing feels like a refuge for anyone struggling to navigate a world and a life and a body that seems to change with every passing second. The EP is proof that Spector is alive and well, and that maybe we’re all alive and well, too. Finding the life that lives inside your chest is hard, but it’s worth it, and I hope that one day soon we’ll all be standing on rooftops, filling our lungs with air and proclaiming how much we love what and who and where we are.

The One Where Creativity Got Really Hard

For a long time, creativity came really easy to me. My mind goes about a thousand miles a minute, and I’m used to spending my free time painting and writing and taking on DIY projects that pile up on bookshelves. I have stacks of full notebooks that I can’t bear to throw away, a whole cart full of art supplies, and an awful lot of wall-hangings and painted jackets and embroidered patches that I have put blood, sweat, and tears into. I have always defined myself by my creativity. It’s something that makes me feel powerful and expressive and authentic, and I hang onto it with a vice-like grip for fear of losing it.

Despite that grip, though, sometimes creativity fades away. Before coming to England, I had an idealized vision of the artist I’d be while I’m here. In my mind, I was ready to become someone who writes constantly and carries a sketchbook everywhere and sits down in the middle of random locations just because an idea is weighing on me. And that’s not what happened. In a lot of ways, I’m expanding my horizons and inhaling inspiration with every breath, but that doesn’t mean it’s translating into actual work. I’ve spent a couple weeks feeling pretty stuck, like my words are caught in my throat and nothing will ever bring them out into the world and I’ll exist like this forever, never being able to say what I want to say or do what I want to do.

Because I couldn’t just not do anything about losing this integral part of how I self-identify, I became incredibly committed to examining the creative processes of people I admire. I racked up lists of YouTube videos and podcasts and essays and interviews, all of them somehow connected to the topic of artistic expression. I find it helpful to listen to people I’m influenced by speak truthfully about their own creativity, and with every listen or read-through, I pulled myself a little more out of this hole of negativity. My mantra stopped being “I’m never going to feel creative again,” and started being “Creativity is cyclical and it’ll come back to me when it’s ready.” I stopped leaving my notebooks tucked in the furthest corner of my desk, and I started pulling them open and uncapping a pen and writing just to see what would come out. I feel good again, and even though I know that feeling awful about my artistic abilities is inevitable, at least I have tools in my belt that will help me get over it all over again.

Emma Gannon in Conversation with Greta Gerwig

I adore Greta Gerwig. She is a visionary who speaks into the heart of every girl who has ever felt misplaced or misunderstood, who has ever had the courage to dream of something bigger than what they were handed, who has ever believed in themselves enough to get to that place. As a guest on Emma Gannon’s podcast, Gerwig gets real about her creative process, and I found her honesty refreshing and reassuring. She discusses wasting time and being lazy, affirming that bouts of non-work are part of any creative pursuit and that the long-perpetuated myth of artists that don’t stop working and never feel lost is false with a capital F. She talks boring work and allowing yourself to create something mediocre as long as you’re still working hard and seeing it through. Her perspective is one that is not communicated enough, and it is incredibly empowering to know that someone as talented as she is goes through the same things that I do.

Albert Camus, Create Dangerously

Penguin has just released a series of tiny books containing poems and essays and speeches. They’re packaged into tiny robin’s egg blue tomes, and each one only costs a pound. The last time I was in Waterstones, they had a few dozen spread out across a table, and it took everything in me not to buy every single one of them. I let myself pick out Andy Warhol’s Fame, but I was also drawn to Camus’ Create Dangerously. The guy at the counter told me I had chosen some good ones, and I raced back home so I could get stuck between their pages.

Camus has a lot of ideas about art, most of them centred around the fact that every artist has a duty to challenge the world and to speak up for those who can’t. He says that the artist “is the perpetual advocate of the living creature.” He reminds us that “all greatness, after all, is rooted in risk.” He closes with the powerful idea that “each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.” The essay made me look at creativity differently, seeing it as a privilege and a duty rather than something that comes easily to me. It reminded me that art is a conduit for change, a constant risk, but also something that makes life worth living. I need to come back to my creativity over and over and over again, simply because it is my job to do so.

Florence Welch, Monster

About a month ago I read Rookie on Love, the newest collection of work put out by Tavi Gevinson and the team at Rookie Magazine. Ninety-five percent of the draw was the fact that Florence Welch had contributed a piece about creativity, and I knew I needed to own it, whatever it was. The passage is short, a poem with a dozen lines that walks through the monster that is created by our artistic need. Creativity is not a solitary act. We take pieces of ourselves, pieces of others, pieces of experiences, and we use those things to feed our work. And that may seem selfish, but once those moments are shared with us, they become part of who we are.

I think this is especially applicable when it comes to difficult or tender subjects. For a long time I didn’t write about the things that hurt, because I was afraid that the people who hurt me would see it or share it or comment on it. But those are my experiences, and if I want to be authentic, I need to write from reality. One of my favourite quotes is by Anne Lammott, and she says “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Both Welch and Lammott inspire me to be truthful in my art, because that is really the only place we can ever start.

Patti Smith

Patti feels like my compass. Everything I do stems from her and goes back to her, an endless loop of learning and creating and giving back to the woman who gave me so much. She is the source of my intense desire to create something that impacts the world. She is the one who pushes me, over and over again, to believe in who I am and what I can do. She is a voice of change, someone who makes me want to do better and be better, and it is only natural that I turn to her when I feel a lull in my creativity. She has all the answers.

With so many years of artistic experience, it’s not surprising that Smith has a lot to say about creativity. In conversation at the Louisiana Literature Festival in 2012, she shares her firm belief that every one of us has a creative impulse, and every one of us has the right to exercise that impulse. Creativity takes different forms, and some of us feel the need to commit our lives to our artistic practices, but no matter what, we all have the capacity to create. Even when I’m not writing, I can find my artistic self in decorating the space around me, or walking through the world, or making a cup of tea. Existence is an act of creation all on its own.

In another interview, filmed at Cannes Lions in 2011, Smith discusses art as a movement for the people, an act of freedom. We all have the right to participate, to use our voices, to teach ourselves how to play guitar or wield a paintbrush. Creativity is energy, and it exists across the world. It is a practice, something we must work on, something that has to be present in our daily lives if we want it to be of any significant value. Inspiration can be found in anything. Creativity can be sparked by the sea, by a poem, by a film. Our artistic impulses are inextricable from life itself, and it is our job to find them and use them. She ends the clip by saying “Don’t be ashamed, don’t be self-conscious, believe in yourself, and work hard,” which might as well be the golden rule of any act of self-expression.

Finally, Patti’s words are an endless source of comfort and reassurance. Her most recent release, Devotion, is an essay on her own creative process. She discusses how her writing meanders, the long journeys it takes, the ideas and thoughts and inspiration go into it. One of my favourite lines is when she asks: “Why do we write? Of course, the answer writes itself: ‘Because we cannot simply live.’” Creativity makes life worthwhile. It enriches every day. It causes us to notice changes in the colour of the sky, to carry words in our chests until we find the right way to express them, to buy trinkets that we are inexplicably drawn to, only to have them influence a new piece of work. It is simple, daily magic.

What I’ve learned throughout this process of rediscovery is that we could all use a little help. It’s amazing to turn to the people we admire, the ones who have years and years worth of experience, but it’s also good to turn within and see what we can dig up. I’ve taken to physically throwing my phone across the room in order to prevent myself from picking it up whenever something gets hard. I’ve realized that the best way to fix myself is to turn a song up terribly loud and dance until I can feel my blood rushing through me again (If you’re going to do this, I’d recommend ‘Shake It Out’ by Florence + the Machine or ‘I Can’t Quit’ by The Vaccines). I’ve figured out that putting something down on the page, even if it’s awful, is better than leaving it blank. Creativity is cyclical. It changes as I change, and it never looks the same from one day to the next. I’m learning how to ride the waves of it all, to be okay with the highs and the lows. I am physically incapable of letting go of my artistic practice, so I might as well embrace the process and get the heck on with it.

2/12: A February Playlist

If January seemed like it was going to drag on indefinitely into eternity, February went by in the blink of an eye. My first full month in Leeds was packed full of weekend trips to Oxford and Edinburgh, lots of afternoons spent at coffee shops drinking flat whites and inhaling caramel shortbread, yet another viewing of Call Me By Your Name (whoops), and spending time with a lot of new friends who are quickly becoming some of my favourite people. The month seemed to slip between my fingers, and although I am sad to see it go, there is so much good on the horizon, and I cannot wait to step into it all.

February’s playlist took a little while to construct. With weeks dissolving quickly into nothingness, I felt like I didn’t have time to collect a well-rounded list of tracks. I spent the first half of the month listening to the same four songs on loop, occasionally switching them off in favour of The National’s Sleep Well Beast, which I can’t seem to stop playing. Eventually I got up to eleven or twelve songs, and this playlist is one of my favourite ones to date.

With so many road trips over the past four weeks, I turned to some old favourites to keep me company along the journey. ‘Soundcheck’ by Catfish and the Bottlemen is essentially my dream come true, a catchy track about a band guy trying to make a relationship work with a girl he likes. ‘All We Got’ by Chance the Rapper is a rediscovery, something I haven’t really listened to since I saw him in concert last May. The horns in the intro get me every time, and I love how smoothly it starts before going into an all-out celebration of music and life.

Aside from those two, February involved a lot of new discoveries. I’ve already written about ‘Mistake’ by Middle Kids, which is punchy and honest. Another new favourite is ‘Rough Boy,’ one of the stand out tracks from Public Access T.V.’s newest album. It reminds me a lot of The Clash, simple and to the point and fed up with the world around them. I also hopped on the Rex Orange County bandwagon, listening to ‘Loving Is Easy’ as if my life depended on it. The song is effortless and lush, the kind of thing you want to play on repeat on a cold day. Finally, I have to mention Frank Ocean’s version of ‘Moon River’. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a movie that makes my heart feel at home, and his cover of the film’s classic track is spectacular. It feels like magic, and I adore it.

My favourite track from this month is ‘Twentytwo’ by Sunflower Bean. I liked their last album, Human Ceremony, but this newest release is something spectacular, the model for how a band should grow from one album to the next. The track starts off like a hymn, vocals standing like pillars against the beginnings of a glittery melody, before building into verses that tell stories and an oddly placed chorus that feels like a call to arms. The repetition of ‘I do not go quietly/Into the night that calls me’ is empowering, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat for the last few days.

February got me really excited about music. Not all of these songs are brand new, but the artists are relevant and the tracks hold something interesting and captivating that makes me wonder how many ears will listen to them in the years to come. These songs have the potential to carry themselves far into the future, and listening to them has reminded me that my art and my words have that power, too. Creativity is hard and I go through cycles of intense inspiration that are bordered by lags in output that make me feel defeated and unartistic. Despite those things, I keep going, because there are songs and films and books that have been monuments of our culture for decades, and we’ll never have more of them if we all hold back and refuse to give it a shot. In the coming months I hope we all embrace our artistry and have the courage to find ways to show the world our talents. I’m rooting for you.

Art Imitates Life: A Little Life

Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully. –Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

Packing five months of my life into a couple suitcases was a daunting task. I spent a long time distilling who I am into my favourite band shirts and the pair of jeans that I wear as if they’re glued to my body and the notebooks that I carry around at all times. Worse than all that, though, was deciding which books to bring. I have shelves packed with novels and autobiographies, coffee table books and art history texts. I turn to them for companionship and inspiration and encouragement, and the idea of choosing only a few was a hard one to wrap my head around.

When it came down to it, I knew which ones I needed to have with me. I got the Patti Smith box checked off easily – Just Kids and Devotion and a copy of her 1978 poetry anthology titled Babel, which is something I still can’t believe I own. I piled on You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, a book that everyone who wants to live their best life needs to read. I was missing a novel, though, and although I could have brought my favourite Harry Potter book or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or The Secret History, I eventually decided on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

This is not an easy book. It’s over 700 pages long. It’s dense and heavy and it sits inside your stomach once you’ve finished it. The first time I read it, I put it down multiple times because the passages were too heartbreaking and the emotions were too strong. The author has said that she wanted to write a novel like ombré cloth, something that starts out light and is pitch black by the end, and that’s what she did.

I brought A Little Life with me because it feels human. It lives and breathes, the lives of Jude and Willem and JB and Malcom intertwining with your own. The lows are really, really low, and the highs, although somewhat mundane, shine through the darkness like jewels. It puts your own hardships into perspective while simultaneously making you realize the value of the tiny, shimmery moments, even when they’re as normal as making eye contact with your best friend across a crowded room or going out for dinner at the same place with the same group of people every week.

The world that this book lives in seems attached to so many other things, and that’s why I’m writing this. There are no other books like it – and believe me, I’ve searched – but it comes up in art pieces and movies and songs. I like when one form of art bleeds into a million other forms of art, and A Little Life does that beautifully.

Visual Art

What drew me to this book in the first place was the cover. It’s a black and white photo by Peter Hujar, and when you relate it to the novel itself, it displays so much pain, reflecting the content of the book back at the reader.  It reminds me a lot of a photography series by Maud Fernhout called What Real Men Cry Like, which is a really beautiful depiction of boys being vulnerable and transparent about their emotions. Another similar piece is Robert Tait Mackenzie’s Four Masks of Facial Expressions, which are plaster casts depicting violent effort, breathlessness, fatigue, and exhaustion. It’s another work of art that depicts emotion exceptionally, just as the cover of the book does.


This connection may be because the film is fresh in my mind or because I am mildly obsessed with it, but I think Call Me By Your Name mirrors A Little Life in more ways than one. Both show the nuances and breadth of human emotion. Both are about connection and vulnerability and how hard it is to put your guard down. Both are not frivolous, but real, when it comes to describing relationships. It’s the last scene of Call Me By Your Name that reminds me of this book. Elio cries in front of the fireplace for nearly four minutes, letting the dam break and his sadness run through him. It’s glorious, and the parallels that can be drawn between he and Jude are numerous.


The very first song that reminded me of A Little Life was ‘All The Sad Young Men’ by Spector. The band does a really good job of communicating both connection and disconnection, and we see a lot of that in Yanagihara’s masterpiece. I eventually added ‘St. Jude’ by Florence + the Machine to the list. In the novel, Jude is named after the patron saint of lost causes, and that is exactly what Florence sings about in the track. Another notable one is ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ by The National, as Jude spends much of the book distancing himself from others because he believes this will keep them safe. The tracks I’ve included in this playlist are overflowing and emotive and they hold nothing back, much like A Little Life.

Reading this book all over again is proving to be difficult. I pick it up each morning and feel a bit of my heart fall out of my chest and into its pages. I feel for every single character, I understand some of the hardships (though definitely not the biggest ones), and I am so drawn to the lives of these friends that I feel as though I am one of them. Although it’s painful and heart wrenching, it also feels hopeful, and a tiny glimmer of hope is really all that we can ever ask for. That’s what keeps me going.

Side note: I checked my Goodreads page, and I was reading A Little Life at exactly the same time last year as I am this year. Life is cyclical and amazing and I love that my life now is connected to my life then, even in such a small way.

All The Love: A Valentine’s Day Playlist

There are moments that stick out in my mind when I think about the love I’ve seen and heard and experienced. When I saw Patti Smith play in Central Park in September, she looked to the sky each time she played a song for her late husband, and the love and adoration she still has for him was displayed blatantly across her face. My mom and my step-mom and my sister snuck letters into my backpack or handed me cards on the day I left for Leeds, and although I cried reading each one of them, they all made me feel so full. I’m learning that loving myself is rather important, too, and I spend mornings reading and nights journaling and I often find time to fit a yoga practice somewhere in between, because tending to myself means that I can tend better to others. Love is not always romantic, and it is not always extravagant, but it exists and it’s all around and that is perhaps the most reassuring thought there is. Musicians often have the best ways of expressing love, and this playlist collects all my favourite ways that they’ve done so.

The first love song I remember adoring is ‘I Always Knew’ by The Vaccines. It’s not just my favourite love song, it’s my favourite song, period. I love how nostalgic it feels, I love how the rhythm gallops and roars, I love the lyrics and the simultaneous hesitation and urgency. That album, Come of Age, also boasts ‘Lonely World,’ a much slower track with lines like “I feel like I have always known you” that make me swoon every time I listen to it. I had to include both of them here, because I am weak in the knees for The Vaccines, but also because they paint two different portraits of love, and I like the juxtaposition.

I am one hundred percent convinced that Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place’ is the best love song to ever exist. It’s glittery and romantic, the lyrics are enough to make my heart jump out of my chest, and every time I listen to it I imagine David Byrne prancing around a stage in a ridiculous oversized suit. I could pick out a lot of lines that I love – “I come home, she lifted up her wings,” or “Sing into my mouth” or “Never for money, always for love” – but really, the whole thing is magic.

When it comes to love songs, it’s often the lyrics that get me. ‘Cars Not Leaving’ by Gabriel Bruce has the singer professing a sincere but almost comical form of love, insisting that “This car’s not leaving if you’re not in it.” On ‘Dark Side of the Gym,’ The National’s Matt Berninger croons “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while.” Each verse in Wintersleep’s ‘More Than’ provides beautiful imagery of infatuation, but my favourite description is “I read your letter, printed it up, crumpled up the paragraphs so I could fit it in my mouth.” I express myself through the written word, and something about hearing others do the same always feels incredible, especially when it all comes across so beautifully.

It’s difficult to pick out only a few songs to talk about. If I were to discuss all twelve, we’d be here all day, but there are a few more I want to point out. Alvvays crafts an incredible ode to partnership in ‘Forget About Life.’ Spector’s ‘Lately It’s You’ feels like a shot straight to the heart, honest and vulnerable. ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie is, at this point, required listening at any time, but especially at a time when we’re all so focused on love.

I absolutely do not have the authority to be making a Valentine’s Day playlist. I’ve never been in love and I’m not in love now, but I know how it feels to love a city before you’ve even been there, or to love a band so much it hurts, or to love the feeling of sharing space with someone, even if you’re just listening to records or reading books or driving in silence. This playlist is full of romantic love songs, just because I love them, but I think it’s important to recognize the breadth and depth of love, the forms it takes and the ways it presents itself. Love is staying in bed on a rainy Sunday, doing nothing but drinking French press coffee and watching Netflix. Love is texting someone you care about out of the blue, just because you have something to say and you need to get it out of your mouth before you stop yourself. Love is standing next to someone at a concert, saying nothing and everything in the space that exists between you and them and the person onstage. We express love in a multitude of ways, and even the tiniest moments deserve the biggest celebrations. This is my own way of celebrating it all.