Musings on life, travel, design,
family, art, and other stuff.

The Sense of Wonder

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”

—Rachel Carson

During my freshman year of college, I started visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on a more regular basis. I loved finding new hikes, and being out in nature provided a space for reflection and solitude. I spent hours upon hours hiking all of the trails, identifying trees, looking for foxes. After a year or two of visiting, my enjoyment of nature began to fade—maybe I was preoccupied with school or other life happenings, but I started visiting less. When quarantine began this spring, it provided a pause, so I decided to pick-up wildflower and bird identification again—primarily as a way to rest and occupy my mind from the anxiety of everything going on.

Over the last three months of searching for birds and flowers though, I feel that God has given me an entirely new joy for the natural world. There is so much beauty that he is making during the summertime in Ohio. Living near a lake provides direct access to plants and wildlife that would normally take more time and effort to get to: the purple martins (some of which migrate as far as Sao Paulo, Brazil for the winter) and tree swallows as they chirp and swoop over the water lilies and pickerelweed on the edge of the lake; swimming beavers; the call of a red-winged blackbird; the flight of a great blue heron over the water. There are other wildflowers I typically don’t notice on my commutes, too: bird’s foot trefoil, chicory, day lilies, sweet clover, queen anne’s lace, red clover, or wild parsnip.

I recently listened to an audio version of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder about introducing children to nature. Her thesis is that being in nature ought to be fun, and full of wonder, and that in turn this would lead children to want to learn about it—rather than going into nature with children to “teach” them. She says that “it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” As a new parent it’s a profound essay, and one that I will surely return to often. At the same time I was also reading Liturgy of the the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. In a chapter about savoring daily moments of beauty, she quotes G.K. Chesterton on the child-like wonder of God:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

As each flower blooms, I imagine God intricately making each one with care and craftsmanship with a deep sense of joy. I hope that I will learn how to more deeply appreciate these things as if a child. It is a deep privilege to “bear witness,” as Marcia Bonta calls it, to this beauty, and to approach nature as if knowing nothing about it—with a sense of wonder at the hands of a good maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, the use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19: 2–4).

Summer Blooms

I have been using the Audubon Wildflower Guide (Eastern Region) from the library to identify most of these. I am still trying to decide whether or not to get this or the Peterson guide as my own. Against popular opinion and as a newbie, I am partial to the color photos in the Audubon guide, and like the size and 2-part organization. In the past, I’ve found it difficult to use illustrated wildflower guides since I need more detail to accurately identify as a beginner. Either way, it has been a joy finding all of these blooms.

Garden Update

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.”

—Rudyard Kipling

Earlier this spring I spent some time digging up more of our backyard to use the leftover pea gravel from creating our patio last summer. At the beginning of spring I always feel energized and ready to work outside. With the pandemic beginning early in the spring here, there was also a sense of national camaraderie around victory gardening, although I can't say that was really my intent. But there is a sense of stewardship that comes along with composting, growing our own food, attracting pollinators with wildflowers, and creating a wonderful space for spending time in outside of our home.

I decided to build two raised beds, and filled the bottom with compost and then covered that with a mix of topsoil and raised bed mix. I also installed a rain barrel with a gutter diverter, but have mostly used that for watering flowers in our front yard. Katey and I decided to grow tomatoes, zucchini, musk melon, broccoli, romaine lettuce, and some herbs: basil, sage, parsley, and sweet mint. We also cut out a section for a midwestern wildflower mix so we could cut flowers to put inside all summer.

On Repeat

I’ve been making quarterly playlists for about two years now, and find that each one is always a sort of reflection of—or a net for catching—the ups and downs of each season of life. It’s always interesting to look back and see how much my tastes have changed, or how replaying a certain song conjures up memories of a certain dinner at home, driving somewhere, or a feeling felt. I often don’t take time to actually reflect on these things or mark them, so I thought this would be a good place to start. Here are some songs I’ve had on repeat so far this year.

Please Won't Please by Helado Negro

“Lifelong history shows/That brown won’t go/Brown just glows.”

Helado Negro is the project of Robert Carlos Lange, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants who often explores issues of family, identity, and personal history in an intimate and powerful way. The album title itself draws on Jamaica Kincaid's story ”Girl,” a series of instructions and ideals from an immigrant mother to her daughter. Lange's previous albums are much more electronic and eclectic, but This is How You Smile is much more soft and personal. One of my favorite things about Lange's live performances are the Tinsel Mammals created by his wife Kristi Sword.

 

Don't Look Back by Jackson C. Frank

“You can read all about justice / In a million books and more / But there aren’t words to bring back Evers / Nor pay the price that he stood for”

This song by Jackson C Frank is a politically charged piece recounting the civil rights movement and the murder of Medgar Evers, and American Civil Rights Activist who was shot in front of his own home after returning from an NAACP meeting.

This week we've watched as protests unfold over injustice, police brutality, and the continued fight for civil rights for black and brown people in America. My heart aches for the entire situation. I've been reflecting recently on how much political turmoil was going on during the 1960s, and how this moment in time feels so similarly in upheaval—like returning boomerang—even though it's not quite the same.

 

Nihilist Kite Flyer by Loving

“Asking myself / When I just might / When I just might be found / When I just might see clearly”

Loving is a Canadian folk-pop trio who released their debut LP If I am Only My Thoughts this year. I love the honest song-writing here, and how they highlight this desire to have meaning, to be able to see clearly. The lyrics feel almost psalmic or biblical in thought—the thoughts of someone who is lost and desires to be found.

 

Sacred Sands by Allah-Lahs

My guilty pleasure is listening to surf-rock inspired music like The Ventures, The Beach Boys, or Dick Dale. Allah-Lahs is a garage-rock, surf-rock inspired quartet from LA who released this instrumental track back in 2012. I've really enjoyed some of their newer tracks on Mexican Summer as well, but this song in particular just feels like it's supposed to be in a Bruce Brown film—and this makes sense, since ”three of the four members met while working at one of the country's great record stores, Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard, where they spent countless hours studying up on the vintage sounds that compose their affectingly melancholy self-titled debut,” as noted in a Pitchfork review.

 

Breeze by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Var Har Du Varit by Dungen

Picking up off of the surf theme, these are my two favorite tracks from the recently released soundtrack to Self Discovery for Social Survial, a collaborative film between Pilgrim Surf Supply and Mexican Summer. To create the film, both musicians and surfers traveled together and the music was created in response to the surfing–a sort of homage to the birth of the surf-film genre in the 1950s.

 

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) by Emile Mosseri, Daniel Herskedal, Joe Talbot, and Michael Marshall

I recently watched The Last Black Man in San Francisco directed by Joe Talbot. It's a really beautiful movie about home, belonging, and place. The score to the film is composed by Emile Mosseri, and is beautiful on its own, but fits the cinematography perfectly. This is a cover of the original 1967 song by Scott McKenzie.

Spring Blooms

Being at home more has made spring feel slower than normal. With the extra time, I have taken up walking more often with the hopes of going for at least an hour per day, or for 10,000 steps if I'm feeling ambitious. If you're wondering where that number comes from, it's a funny story. Even after taking longer walks for two or three weeks, I find that there is a quiet, restful, and observant aspect to them that is refreshing to me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And I feel more strongly about recommending walks the more I take them. I love this quote from Henry David Thoreau:

“No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.”

While I don't know if I'm a true walker by Thoreau's definition, I've really enjoyed taking them in the mornings, during lunch breaks, or in the evenings—and have begun noticing the spring blooms that I often miss around our neighborhood during this season. The street we live on is semi-rural, and borders a lake that eventually makes its way into the Cuyahoga River, so it teems with native wildflowers much more than in town. Walking and observing these is such a special and ephemeral moment of the year. Hoping to do another post later with some summer blooms.

 

Quarantine + Emptiness

We’ve been living under a quarantine for a little over 2 months now, and it’s had me thinking a lot about stillness, idleness, and pause. When I first heard of the possibility of a lockdown in any sense, my first thought was: “but what will we do? How will things just… stop?” I think in one way or another, this has to feel the same way for the rest of the globe, too. Each day of the news is filled with empty streets, airports, coffeeshops, and train stations. Everyone is stuck at home—some alone, some with loved ones—in some amount of idleness. Many have lost jobs and are not able to work. Others are asked to work from home and, maybe like me, are feeling tired and and unmotivated. Either way, our country is facing a large moment of stillness, of pause: economically, socially, culturally. I think there’s so much we can learn here.

In the world of design, one of the most common terms we throw around almost aimlessly is negative space. It’s the space in between objects, foreground and background, which allows our eye to move around. Massimo Vignelli has even pointed out that the letterforms we design with have black space and white space—and that often we focus on the black imprint of the letterforms, when really it is the whitespace around each letterform which gives shape to those letterforms. Similarly to music, it’s the space between the notes which defines the succession and emotion of the song. Robert Poynton, in his book Do/Pause: You Are Not a To Do List relates negative space to the way we use time, the way we pause. Our society is used to hurrying, and to productivity. I find it to be such a strong idol in my own life, an I think this is because it is so acceptable to work hard and to be proud of it—especially in the midwest! I know that in my own work, I often become sucked into the idea of completing tasks—of getting to the next thing. And not only at work, but at home. Whether it’s things to do around the house, or how I spend time with Katey and Arlo. But Poynton asks an important question:

“…our children can easily become just a stream of endless tasks: feeding, dressing, getting them to school or football practice or dance class, doing homework, bedtime story and so on. In the midst of all that, do we allow ourselves time to actually be with them, to enjoy them? …In general, we don’t pay much attention or give importance to the spaces in between all the tasks.”

Certainly amongst this quarantine, thinking about this space between is one of those things which I feel blessed to have found out. These moments of space, whether cooking, reading with Arlo before bedtime, or taking a short walk can be smaller pauses within this larger pause of quarantine—breaking up space and allowing for pockets of rest and reflection. My own heart is learning how to enjoy this new slowed down pace. But Poynton takes a nuanced approach to exploring the idea of pause, and clarifies that the idea that we must choose between fast and slow is a bogus choice, and while doing so we can miss the many possibilities of understanding how pause relates to our cultures and habits, or how it can be used as a tool. I highly recommend the book. There’s so much here that’d I’d love to write about, but it’d be better for you to just read it.

Kenya HARA, in his book White explores a similar concept of emptiness. Yet in the prologue he clarifies: “This is not a book about color.” Instead, White is an exploration of HARA’s own culture, an attempt “to find the source of a Japanese aesthetic that produces simplicity and subtlety through the concept of white.” In many cases a blank, white page in a book denotes the concept of emptiness. It is not filled with anything—not even a page number. But HARA points out that emptiness doesn’t mean “nothingness” or “energy-less”, “rather, in many cases, it indicates a condition, or kaizen, which will likely be filled with content in the future.” He provides another example:

“A creative mind, in short, does not see an empty bowl as valueless, but perceives it existing in a transitional state, waiting for the content which will eventually fill it; and this creative perspective instills power in the emptiness.”

How do we see this quarantine? Is it a negative state? A gap that takes place inside of our “normal” course of life? Is it capable of being filled in a meaningful way, like an empty bowl to fill with fruit? In my own life, I find that want to fill the bowl quickly because I’m afraid of it being empty—that I might then be forced to see the inside of it. So I fill it with gardening, writing, yard work, house projects, or watching movies with Katey. And while these are certainly valuable things in their own right, I feel challenged to take a step back to consider how these moments of pause can be carried with me no matter the circumstance. I think these examples of pause and emptiness from Poynton and HARA are important not only because they reveal the reality of these concepts in our country’s current state, but because they reveal the beautiful potential of this time to be filled in a meaningful way.

Formats: Mixtapes + Playlists

As a graphic designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about formats. Not only of file formats, but of mediums—the possibilities and limitations of them, or their contextual uses. In Statement and Counter-Statement by the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset, the trio comments on how a standard LP can only contain 45 minutes of music, acting as a creative limitation in a very physical manner–leading to the classic discussion around the relationship between form and content: “This is also what we consider to be one of modernism’s most defining characteristics: this state of being permanently aware of the way in which our material environment shapes us, and how we, in return, can shape our own material environment.” I love this idea of our physical world acting as a constraint, and I’m really interested in how certain formats have shaped us—and how we can consider shaping them in new ways.

For the last few months, I’ve been working on a pop-up exhibition project called Armed with Our Voices with the Kent State University’s May 4 Visitors Center and Wick Poetry Center about the May 4, 1970 tragedy. The exhibition features memorials to the four killed that day, specifically archival and personal artifacts that are now on display or tucked away in the University’s Special Collections and Archives.

One object which has stuck with me throughout the project is a handwritten playlist written by Jeffery Miller on the Chambers’ Brothers “People Get Ready” 45rpm vinyl. Miller hosted a radio show called “Short Mort,” and often utilized his personal collection. This object, now in a display case, is so personal—and now deeply painful to view. Ben Ratliff has said that “we build an autobiography and a self-image with music.” I think this is why there is pain in listening to the songs written on Miller’s 45. But it got me thinking about how playlists have changed as a format: from something very intimate, tangible, and crafted, to something more public, ordinary, and thrown together.

The playlist was really born out of the mixtape, which grew to popularity in the late 70s and into the 80s as cassettes grew in popularity. When people used to make mixtapes—a compilation of music recorded to a cassette tape—they could only be drawn from personal collections of things someone already owned—things which existed as a part of the physical world. They became a special type of communication from one person to another, often codified through track listings, or customized with personalized cover art.

In contrast, contemporary playlists have become streamable, and our access to music has grown significantly into a global digital library. They are still very personal, though not as popularly exchanged. Playlists often become symbolic of a particular season of life, or are made up of music that has a certain aesthetic flow or coherence. I’ve heard people mourn the loss of mixtapes in the age of streaming, and I wonder if this is because they lack the vulnerable aspects of knowing an LP or a tape inside-out. Spending money on music, or keeping it in your bedroom for that matter, makes the exchange of mixtapes a special sort of gift. In “PCs killed the mix-tape star,” Joel Keller writes: “The process of making a mix tape gave people a connection with music that the electronic version simply can't replace. Because it is so easy to drag and click a mix into existence, the sense of satisfaction with making what many feel is a work of art gets diminished.”

Mixtapes and playlists require active listening both from the creator and the listener. They require full attention since they are a special combination of genres or styles, or since they might be codified by the maker in some way. This active listening has perhaps become a lost art after the evolution of The Walkman, which made music private and portable, thus removing it from rooms where the only available entertainment was a record player or reel-to-reel player. Listening to music as a primary activity has now transitioned to serve as a background for cooking, riding the subway, working, and the like.

At first, I was thinking of how much we’ve lost because of this change in format from personal cassette to streamable playlist. But I was refreshed as I started reading Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff. He asks an important question in an age where algorithms instead of people often determine the formations of our playlists: “How are we going to listen better than we are being listened to? […] There is a possibility that hearing so much music without specifically asking for it develops in the listener a fresh kind of aural perception, an ability to size up a song and contextualize it in a new and personal way, rather than immediately rejecting it based on an external idea of genre or style.” In other words, now that we have such a vast library of music to listen to—from other civilizations past and present, from around the world—how can we deepen our musical vocabulary? How can we utilize the tools at hand to expand the format of the playlist—keeping that same sense of craft that physical mixtapes once required? Can we make them more personal in new ways? How might this determine the ways we share them with the people we love? More importantly, how can playlists make us better listeners?

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