Spring is like a perhaps hand

I am writing something slow and cathartic at the moment, to be posted in a few days. Here is spring break, and among other things, I am watching Agnès Varda films (I really adore those opening title cards in Cléo from 5 to 7) and visiting the museum on campus. Also, I made an (unorthodox) playlist for… the IliadAs Lilian says, it’s “peak nerd,” and unfortunately, I can’t disagree.

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 to music, but to life: the unmistakeable 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).










the new year

some favorite things experienced in 2017, this god-forsaken year:

  • films: Thelma, Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Tampopo (1987), Still Walking (2009)
  • albums: Melodrama (Lorde), Turn Out the Lights (Julien Baker), async (Ryuichi Sakamoto), Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Beatrice Rana), DAMN. (Kendrick Lamar)
  • books: Autobiography of Red (Anne Carson), To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf), Paradise Lost (John Milton), The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (Michael Ondaatje)

and for 2018:

  • the first day of the week! a full moon! new projects! new places!
  • honestly, this new year feels like a fresh start in so many ways, and i’m very excited.
  • i’ve also been thinking of what it means to remember, and if remembering is any different than taking a past experience and re-experiencing it in the present. there’s an apt quote that my friend showed me, from Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter: 

“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.

But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remember now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”

happy new year, friends. wishing all the best.

Trying to write is harder than writing

tips for writing when stuck in a rut, whether it be an essay, the next great american novel, a poem, a letter, an email, or any form of words assembled together, really:

  • read your favorite authors and writers. circle your favorite sentences, phrases, words. write them down in your journal, copy entire passages by hand and feel someone else’s words rush through you like blood.
  • discard your bumfuck of a first draft and rewrite the goddamn thing. clean slate, no strings attached. kill your darlings, if you have nothing else to do.
  • walk outside and write outside. take a notebook and pen / pencil, and scribble away at every single thing that is happening: the sounds (or absence of sound), the sights, the smells, the sensations, even the tight grip of your fingers against the writing implement, the skin against plastic, the palm against paper.
  • sit on the grass, if you’re not allergic.
  • write about the small things, like the bugs and the breeze, or write about the grand things, like the sky and the sun.
  • listen to music. turn on the radio and listen to whatever fizzles into focus.
  • listen to your favorite album(s) of the year.
  • watch a movie. note the way the characters talk: is it formal? casual? is there a distinct accent, slang, derivative form of speech? old-timey? do people skip around their words? do they say what they mean to say? do they talk with their mouths or their bodies? too much or too little?
  • find a poem. there are mountains and cascades of them everywhere. find one single line that you would keep close to your heart.
  • read some of your old essays and writing projects. remember that you wrote these and struggled to write them, too.
  • find a photograph, portrait, or painting that you love, and write about everything that isn’t depicted.
  • make lists. grocery lists, book lists, travel lists. lists of essay topics and key words. write a list of the things you’re too afraid to experience in life but are curious about nonetheless. (great entry points into character writing).
  • write a list of the things that make you angry.
  • afterwards, pair that with a list of the things that make you happy.
  • look for patterns in the everyday. timestamp cards. traffic data. police reports. advertisement mail. sailing terminology. cooking recipes. old proverbs recited by old people. then look for the breaking of those patterns.

(these are, of course, merely notes to myself, disguised as offbeat writing advice. i can’t attest to how these tips might help anyone else, but they’ve all worked for me at some point, desperate or otherwise).