The Field

Here is a story that takes place in a dream.

Her eyes were deep at war. Charcoal with a glint of bronze.

“Just a bit further… just a mile, or less.”

She walked clear through the field, over to where a thicket of shadowy green trees covered the cool ground. There was sparse undergrowth, and a jumble of moss-covered rocks bordered a small spring that pooled into a clean pond. This was the place where she had liked to rest and stretch herself across the ground, watching the birds and insects and small animals that rustled and scampered and chirped about. She had liked to face the sky and look up through the moving greenness overhead and count the insects flitting in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops. Somehow, she had liked the movement of the little creatures in this place more than the movement of the rest of the world. Everything was intense with life and vibration, a patch of life’s wonders condensed into less than a few square feet.

The memories came like a wind’s stroke against her cheek. She recalled the smell of grass during dry spells. The gossiping trees and the old thin roots underfoot. Rich earth, thick with weeds and crumbly soil pressed under her weight with every step.

Now, she rested beneath a thick elm, and lifted her dark gaze to a red and black bird that had just come to the grove. It twittered on a thin branch, hopped back and forth, and cocked its head. She tried to whistle at it, but her whistle came out too airy, and the bird fluttered away.

It eventually came to her that something else was moving through the field.

She picked herself up from the base of the tree.

Calmly, she turned about and faced the little side path that cut off at right angles through the field. The moon was absent, and no wind stirred the sifted earth. The path dipped slightly where feet had trod and packed the soil beneath into a firm layer. She took a few steps, and the crumbled dirt spurted up in front of her boots.

She plodded along, dragging a scuffed trail behind her. A little bit ahead she saw the expanse and she breathed deeply.

“Just a bit further.”

Something moved in the grass.

“It’s you, isn’t it.”

There was no response, but she didn’t mind, and she continued to walk into the emptiness with the weight of her thoughts swaying like an ocean lullaby.



There is no good place or time to write about loss, but it is one of those necessary things to write about. Inevitably, the emotional heft of it grows unbearable, and so words become a (temporary) repository for that heaviness.

I feel guilty writing about my grandfather. What is it to mourn someone you did not know very well? To want to grieve? When I think of him, I think of a few blurred memories, a bicycle, and sheets of drawings. Mostly, it is a blank wall with spots of paint peeling. I spent summers at my grandparent’s apartment in Beijing, most of which I cannot remember. There are videos and pictures from those days; if I close my eyes and breathe slow enough, I can catch strains of movement, all marked with impressions of a buoyant childhood.

What I remember of his death, years ago, is when after he died, my parents flew to China for the funeral and left my sister and I at home, because school was in session. We were only vaguely aware of what it meant to lose someone. I remember when my parents returned, my mother showed me pictures of the ceremony on her phone. She spoke of it in a very calm and dignified manner. I don’t recall my father speaking much of the whole ordeal, if at all. And I remember—I remember a part of me pressing painfully inside, as if struggling to burst out. Where were the tears? Where was the mourning, the anger, the sorrow? 

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
(Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

Perhaps it was too gradual of a death to feel any type of shock. Perhaps we were waiting for it. All the signs were there. Was I more attuned to this Western notion of lament, hearkening back to funeral rites and wailing laments and faces crumpled into hands? Of youth lost to time, of life too grand to equal death?

(Hands, hands. Thinking about them lately, especially after watching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. The wringing of hands, the creases and the corners, the fingers tugging at edges of shirts and fixing collars, wiping noses. A hand reaching to clasp the back of one’s neck. To grasp a shoulder and hold it gently. To pull a human body close to you and to feel beautifully vulnerable. I don’t remember my grandfather’s hands but I think they were the hands of a painter).

“We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.”
(Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary)

Grief works its effects in different ways for different people, and I suppose that it is a slower process for me, and that I have only been able to cope with it gradually, laboriously. But in a perverse and perhaps ugly way, grief is also a solace. How upsetting it must be to live a life not worth grieving over once it’s gone. Even more heartbreaking is that millions, billions of people die in this exact way, because it is too painful to care. Unremembered and forgotten—like in that one book of The Iliad, the one everyone usually skips over, the one with all the family names and places people are from—the fact that we forget the sheer scale of that war. No matter if it was real or not. The fact that Homer only had space to tell a handful of stories of this select group of heroes, and the fact that thousands of histories are swept away in the whirlwind of the epic. (Alice Oswald has an answer to this called Memorial. It is poem that retells the Iliad from the perspective of its two-hundred-some minor characters, briefly mentioned or otherwise).

Death is an obsession in a lot of “canonical” Western literature. An attempt to prepare for the unfathomable. I read poem after poem on the subject of loss, and I read these Greek tragedies that shouldn’t feel cathartic but they do. It is like partaking in this tradition of learning how to cope. Much in the sense of a tradition, it is both individual and communal.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

I wasn’t close enough to my grandfather to have his death break me. For that, I am both devastated and grateful.

Back home, in my room, there is a watercolor painting of a forest. It is by my grandfather. Someday, when I move into a place of my own, that painting will be the first piece of art that I hang up on my walls. I imagine it being across from a window, so that light will catch the glass behind its frame, and only by shadowing it will I be able to see the painting without reflection. Someday, I will look at that painting on a fine autumn evening, and I will think, all these years, this has been in my life. It always was and will be.

Haley Heynderickx: I Need to Start a Garden

The thoughts in this review are my own. The album was released today, and I couldn’t wait to write about it, so apologies in advance if some parts aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. I might revise this at some point, but for now, here are my impressions.

Haley Heynderickx’s debut full-length album, I Need to Start a Garden, is one of the most captivating things I’ve listened to in a long while. I first heard “Oom Sha La La” on Spotify and was whisked away by the attentive energy in the song, the way it leapt from simmering confession to cathartic release. Upon listening to the entire album today, I was struck first by the lush instrumentation and rich blend of sounds—“Show You a Body” has magical moments of this where a shimmer of strings, chimes, and piano fills the silent spaces between Heynderickx’s sparse guitar-strumming and deeply inflective voice.

The arrangements, though, are cherries on top of the icing on top of the cake: the real home-hitter is the sparkling humility and affection that saturates the album. (Even though Heynderickx has described her music as “doom folk,” I think it’s never without a tinge of hope or redemption). And I must say, the cohesiveness of these songs is immensely satisfying. Often, and lately, musicians tend to disregard the form of the (LP) album as an opportunity to tell a specific, intimate story, instead using it simply as a means to assemble a handful of loosely related singles. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter, it seems that there’s so much more to be gained from inviting the listener along on a coherent, tightly woven journey.

There are garden references sprinkled throughout the album, as suggested by the title. But the album isn’t just about plants and bugs and dirt, though it harnesses that type of imagery for its metaphors—it’s about the cyclical passage of nature that intersects with our linear experience of time. It’s about love and self-love. One may think back to a well-known garden story, Adam and Eve, and draw a few striking connections: the garden is an old tale, one of the first human tales, yet it is deconstructed and reborn with every passing generation. Growth and decay are inseparable in gardens. In “Show You a Body,” Heynderickx sings with her folk-laden voice, “I am humbled by breaking down.” It is only by confronting this inevitable process that one can understand what it means to live.

With discovery comes a sense of loss, but sometimes loss is the first step toward empowerment. “Worth It” is perhaps the most uncertain song on the album, but also the most daring. When Heynderickx sings, “maybe I’ve been selfish all along,” there is a moment of doubt and resignation. But the song builds and builds, and midway, she is daring you to plop her into a box, literal or metaphorical, because no matter how small the space, she will take root anyway. By the end of the song, she concludes, over and over, as if willing herself to believe: “Maybe I, maybe I’ve been worth it.”

“The Bug Collector” is a delightful favorite of the album. It’s subtle and has a soft humor about it. The guitar accompaniment has a witty clarity to its sound, and the trombone warms your heart. It’s such an inane thing to be afraid of bugs, those little fuckers (re: the lyrics), but my god, if someone caught bugs for me, I’d swoon. “And I try my best / To prove that nothing’s out to get you.” That’s like, love right there.

A similar type of fondness is present in “Jo,” which has some of the most tender lyrics in the album: “And you tended your garden / Like heaven and hell / And you built the birds’ houses / To see if it helped at all.” Heynderickx’s voice shines in this one—it’s dynamic, haunting, desperate, and intimate. Here, the garden imagery blooms into bountiful potential, acting as refuge “like honeycomb / holding the bee in the folds.”

But again, the love that tends to I Need to Start a Garden isn’t limited to relationships with other people—it’s also about allowing oneself the space to dream and be a little reckless“Untitled God Song” plays with imagination, rethinking God as a mother-like figure with “thick hips and big lips.” It’s an introspective, meandering piece that traverses great distances, from those tiny details to unmistakable grandeur: “When you’re drunk near a sunset, look straight in her eyes / She’s the quick glimpse of heaven, / forgetting her headlights are on.” The instruments, a blend of percussion, trombone, and electric guitar, swell into a brief moment of symphonic harmonies, and the effect is kind of breathtaking.

Following this, we arrive at “Oom Sha La La,” the surprising and charming crest of the album. From the lofty, giddy headspace of reimagining God, Heynderickx slips back into a world where milk turns sour and olives get old. While there’s something humorously tragic about the line, “The brink of my existence is essentially a comedy,” there’s also, in a perverse way, an admission of self-acceptance. After Heynderickx sheds her singing voice and belts, “I NEED TO START A GARDEN,” the beat that follows is colored with shock and satisfaction. As listeners, we witness a rare occurrence not only in music, but in life: the revelation of growing into oneself.

The album begins with “No Face,” which is a gorgeous lament on the space between people and the “bridge between worlds” that haunts relationships, no matter how small or brief. It ends with “Drinking Song,” a soft chantey (not in form, but in spirit) tinged with apocalyptic hope. By the last verse, that impenetrable space between people has been reduced: “Yet everyone is singing along, / The good and the bad and the gone.” It’s a soft-spoken conclusion that you don’t want to end, at least not for a little while longer.

There’s a video of Heynderickx performing at Paste Studio, and in it, she spontaneously invites people to sing along to the chorus of “Oom Sha La La.” In between verses, she says, “Luckily the whole point of this song is to be embarrassed, and to see how much you can get away with being embarrassed.” Similarly, if you’ve never done it before, starting a garden is a clunky and awkward process. Once you accept the initial disappointment and potential for failure, though, you are gifted with the opportunity to make something beautiful, and to share that beauty with others.

In many ways, I Need to Start a Garden is a strange album, filled with strange characters and even stranger landscapes. Heynderickx’s quiet triumph, then, is in making these songs familiar to us, and imbuing them with enough sincerity and grace to make it seem as though we’ve known them, in our hearts, all along.

On Winter

There’s a beauty to snow when it isn’t whipping your face and rattling your limbs to pieces. On particular winter mornings, when the wind’s faded to a slow exhale, snow falls gently. It piles upon benches and branches in neat formation and creates these white, blanketed fields across campus. Sometimes, when a spot of sun cleaves through the clouds, the snow scatters into that beam of light and transforms into diamond dust.

Poetry has been a warm companion of late. There’s a short and sweet poem by Linda Gregg that goes like this,

I would like to decorate this silence,
but my house grows only cleaner
and more plain. The glass chimes I hung
over the register ring a little
when the heat goes on.
I waited too long to drink my tea.
It was not hot. It was only warm.

and it perfectly illustrates that subtle, soft-spoken effect of winter. The way it spreads silence over people, the way it dims motion, the way it leaves the air crisp and breathless. The way warmth dissipates like a swirl of breath vapor.

I found myself listening to the entirety of Lorde’s discography last night, earbuds stuffed into my head, splayed out in bed with the blankets mussed up and the pillow crumpled against the wall. I was remembering how, years ago, I heard “Tennis Court” on the radio and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people praised her music. It makes me laugh. How much of youth is spent denying that you’ll grow up with certain tastes and aspirations, only to find that you end up slipping toward those directions, anyway.

Caught in a midwest winter, listening through Melodrama and Pure Heroine while snow drifts outside in the dark. Now that’s something I never imagined to be a part of my life.

Suburban Diptychs

It’s strange to be back home after spending time in a city like New York. I’ve been trying to understand what suburbia is, really—aside from manicured lawns and well-kept landscaping—and I want to know if these residential bubbles are any less compelling than bustling cities or charming villages. There’s a weird type of atmosphere that pervades suburban neighborhoods. It’s hushed and withdrawn, yet tinted with a subtle desire to be more than it is. The rituals, the patterns, the familiarity of life: everything is in pursuit of being nice and average, but there are often moments when the facade falls through.

I’ve been wandering around local spots and trying to capture a glimpse of the oddities (and beauties) of suburbia. Here are some photos. Everything was shot at a 50mm focal length with Fujifilm Superia and Kodak Portra. Overexposed at half box-speed (200 ISO).