KTCO: Remembering Paula Riff
My friend Paula Riff passed away recently, after having been ill with cancer for two years. Paula was a wonderful, kind, generous, and enthusiastic person, and a brilliant artist whose work pushed the boundaries of the photographic medium. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with her about that work for the show. In our conversation, Paula and I talked about what photography is to her, why she’s attracted to alternative processes, and how her work is ultimately autobiographical. Then for the second segment, we talked about the value of physical art spaces. In honor of her memory, I’m re-sharing our conversation today.
If you haven't experienced Paula's work before, I'd like to encourage you to do so. In order to see all of the subtle detail, texture, layering, it's really best to see it in person if you can. I'm not sure when or where it will be on walls in the future but if you get the chance, please take it. In the meantime, you can see it on her website at paulariff.com, including her newest series Cut, Paste, Breathe, Repeat, which she worked on right until the end.
Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:
You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.
Thinking About Regret
All weekend and continuing this morning, my Facebook feed has been full of people mourning our friend Paula. Two things are consistent throughout: Paula was an amazing artist, and Paula was a kind, enthusiastic, wonderful person. I have often wondered what people will say about me when I go. If I could choose between people saying I was good at something—art or writing or my job—or saying that I was a kind person, I’d much rather the latter. So many of the people leaving comments on the mourning posts have been saying things like “Her work will live on.” And this is a comfort, to be sure. Paula cared deeply about art, her work deserves to be seen, and I want it to keep being seen. Still, though, I’d rather have her.
I can’t help thinking, too, what a shame it is that so often we don’t say these wonderful things about people while they’re still alive to hear it. I hope Paula knew how loved she was by everyone. I hope people told her what a bright light she was. A little over a year ago I spent an hour talking with her about her work for my show. I certainly complimented her work at the time, and have done many times. But I can’t remember if I ever told her how much it meant to me that she was so nice to me.
By now I have lost what feels like so many people I’ve cared about, and every time I have been struck with regret for what I didn’t say to them while I could. And this keeps happening, even though I keep telling myself not to let it happen again. Perhaps this is just how it goes. Perhaps there’s just no way to say it all. There isn’t time, especially for those of our friends and loved ones who we don’t see often. I mean, it is nice to imagine that kind of openness but there is always more to say, and eventually you’d want to talk about something other than just compliments. After all, it’s mostly those other conversations and interactions that form the foundation of the relationship. And I do think that there is something to be said for the idea that we can know a person’s love and regard through their actions toward us. That in many ways that may be a deeper intimacy. But still, it’s good to hear it out loud, too.
Every time I lose someone, I can’t help but think of every other person I’ve lost, and how though this list feels long already, I know it will only get longer. When I was a teenager I hoped to live a life without regret. I am sure now that if I get to live to an old age, I will have accumulated more regret than I will be able to count. And yet, in a way perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Regret comes from not doing that which you wished to have done. But the wishing comes from a happier place. I couldn’t regret the things I didn’t say to my loved ones if I hadn’t loved them in the first place. New love does not fill in the hole left by a loss, it doesn’t make us forget the pain. And perhaps every new love means a new future regret. But new love does grow us. If loss erases something from the canvas of our soul, new love gives us new space to paint anew.
I don’t know that a post like this needs to end with a call to action but if there is to be one it would just be what I always say: if there’s someone who matters to you, whether for their work or their personality or the way that are in your life, I hope you’ll tell them.
Scattered, vol. 6
- It’s been a hard week.
- We said goodbye to our dog, Cooper, on Monday. Today, I learned that my friend Paula died from cancer.
- It is a strange thing about life that when you have a loss—or even a happy change: a birth, a new relationship, what have you—the world and even your own life just continues on. You still have to buy groceries and wash your clothes, your bills keep arriving and demanding to be paid, your neighbors keep having parties in the middle of a pandemic. It is both frustrating and comforting, by turns and all at once.
- Weirdly, I haven’t been drinking much. In fact, the past year I’ve been drinking a lot less than usual, not because of any effort to cut down but just because I haven’t felt like it. I realized this afternoon that, whether I’m alone or with others, I usually only drink when I’m feeling happy or celebratory or peaceful.
- A lot of my thoughts lately have been starting with “It is a strange thing” or “Weirdly” or “Oddly enough.”
- Last night I had to wipe up a spill under our washing machine and I found some of Cooper’s hair under there. I asked J today how long she thought it would be before there was no trace left of him in our house. “It’s only been four days,” she said.
- I have spent the past several hours scrolling through Facebook, reading the outpouring of grief and memories and praise for Paula. Paula was a brilliant, meticulous, intelligent, and groundbreaking artist. She was also one of the warmest, most enthusiastic, energetic, kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Everyone loved her.
- I took a break from writing this letter to check the mail, and found a sympathy card from our veterinarian. This was very kind of them, but also I had already been crying off and on for most of the afternoon.
- When you lose a loved one, the hole they leave in your life is bigger than their physical size. How does that work, exactly?
- I’ve been to a lot of funerals, starting from when I was eight or nine, I can’t remember exactly when. Up until shortly before I turned 30, I’d been to more funerals than weddings. I don’t know when the next time I’ll go to either one will be.
- Over the week, a lot of friends, family, and coworkers have contacted me with condolences about Cooper, sharing memories of him. I took him to work with me every day for many years, so he got to meet a lot of people. He was here to see each one of our kids come home for the first time. He was always very patient with them. Everyone loved him.
- I told J the other day that having experienced loss before doesn’t make this time around less painful, but it is helpful to know the shape and patterns of my grief. It is useful at least not to be surprised by what I do or don’t feel, and when, and for how long.
- Is it weird that I have spent so much of my life wondering what my own funeral will be like? Is it weird that I have been thinking about what I will say or write about my loved ones if I should outlive them? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s weird that everybody doesn’t think about these things.
- It always feels strange and selfish to turn inward and think about myself when I lose someone. But if death is the end then they don’t know the difference. And if it’s not, I think they must understand. I hope so, anyway.
- If you live long enough, you cannot help but lose people you’ve loved. The thing that is amazing is that as much as is taken from you with every loss, there is always more the next time.
- No matter what you subtract from infinity, the remainder is infinite.
- Is what we are subtracting, and subtracting from, love?
- In fact, there are whole infinities that you can subtract from infinity, and still be left with infinity.
- Oh, I don’t know.
- It’s been a hard week. I hope next week is better.
- For you, too.
#MatteredToMe - February 5, 2021
It’s Friday, so here are a few things that mattered to me recently.
- Lyz Lenz's "I Am Worried We Will Forget" piece from her newsletter, as usual, captured what I've been thinking about lately. Especially this: "Our future is built upon how we perceive the past. And if we are so focused on forgetting the past pain, we'll just replicate it into the future over and over again."
- David Naimon’s recent conversation with Teju Cole on Between the Covers was one of the best interviews I've ever experienced in any medium. A profoundly human discussion of art and writing, what it means to see, what we keep ourselves from looking at, and how to be a person in this world.
- Jay Caspian Kang's recent NYT profile of Steven Yeun was one of the more interesting pieces I've read recently on Asian American-ness, the push and pull of identity, and contending with or against the white gaze.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I'm very tired right now, which is just to say that I will try to get some rest soon and I hope you do as well.
Thank you, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - January 29, 2021
It is Friday, so here are a few things that mattered to me recently.
- This past weekend I watched Princess Mononoke with my son—his first time seeing it and my first time since it first came to US theaters in 1999. It felt different to return to this movie in the current climate of deep division and political violence, and in particular the way that the main character, Ashitaka, refuses to hate anyone, works for peace, but also doesn't treat the two sides of the conflict as equivalent. I was reminded of Ian Danskin's video essay "Lady Eboshi Is Wrong," which does a great job of digging into the nuance the movie's morality.
- The latest episode of Ross Sutherland's podcast Imaginary Advice is called "My Car Plays Tapes," written and read by John Osborne. It's a lovely piece about aging, nostalgia, what we can and can't and should and shouldn't hold onto.
- Esmé Weijun Wang wrote about seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shortly after the 2016 election, about resistance and sacrifice, and about what that election brought out in much of America. I related to it quite a lot.
- Sabrina Orah Mark’s “We Didn’t Have a Chance to Say Goodbye” is about fairy tales and grief and what is lost. It has heartbreak in it, I think, but what is remarkable is the way Orah Mark writes the piece into its own (her own?) redemption.
As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. However you’re feeling right now, it’s okay to feel that way. However things are for you right now, I hope they are better tomorrow.
Thank you, and take care.
All We Can Do
(CW: animal mortality)
There’s no good way to say this. My dog is dying.
On some level, we’ve known this was coming for a while now. I’ve even been saying that it’s coming for a while now. He turned 14 years old in October. It’s been getting harder and harder for him to walk or even stand in some parts of our house, and his energy and mind have been declining for months. This week we got the diagnosis: cancer. We are doing our best to make his last days or weeks comfortable, but it is hard to know that our time left with him is short. Somehow, part of me still thought we had more time.
The kids have each been taking it a bit differently. Our middle child was shocked by the news. Our eldest took it more stoically at first, having expected it, but he cried later that evening. Our youngest goes in and out of paying attention, sometimes sad that he has to go, sometimes looking ahead to getting a new dog. This is all normal and natural given each of their ages, I think. They’ve all known him for their entire lives.
Cooper—that is his name—is the first living thing that I was ever fully responsible for. My family had cats when I was growing up, but although I loved them they were mostly my parents’ responsibility. For fourteen years, J and I have cared for Cooper and loved him, and we’ve done our best. Now we have to be responsible for the end of his life, too.
I knew in the abstract that we would have to make this decision some day, but now it is here and it is even more difficult than I expected. He’s not as strong or fast or steady as he was, and he gets confused or forgetful. But we still see glimpses of his old self each day. He can’t walk very far anymore, but he still wants to go out to smell the fire hydrant and the neighbors’ fences. He still has good days, or at least parts of good days. I want for him to have as many good days as he can. I want for him not to suffer. I worry that we will make the wrong decision, either too early or too late. I already feel terrible guilt over it, and it hasn’t even happened yet. I feel guilty for wanting him to hang on as long as he can. I feel guilty for wanting him to go quickly.
(I’m not looking for advice. I hope that is not ungrateful of me. I appreciate you letting me work through this with you.)
Wednesday night after we got the diagnosis, when I was putting the youngest to bed she said “I don’t want Cooper to go.” I put my hand on her head and stroked her hair. “I know,” I said. “I don’t want him to go either. But all we can do is try to enjoy the time we have with him.”
I’m trying my best.
New KTCO: KTCO Book Club - Tender (with Wm Henry Morris)
On this week's episode, the KTCO Book Club returns with a conversation with writer Wm Henry Morris about Sofia Samatar's 2017 story collection Tender. The stories in this collection range from fairy tale and folklore to dystopian sci-fi to (almost) contemporary realism, but all have in common Samatar’s impeccable prose, attention to detail, and exceptional readership.
Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:
You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page at the KTCO website.
You can purchase paper copies of Tender at your local independent bookstore, or you can purchase a DRM-free ebook version directly from the publisher. You can find links to Wm Henry Morris's work at his website.
#MatteredToMe - January 22, 2021
It’s Friday, so here are a few things that mattered to me recently:
- José Olivarez's “poem where no one is deported” is what the title describes, and it is more. It is, I think, a poem of grace and gratitude in the face of evil, and I am grateful for it.
- At several points over the past few weeks I have found myself too overwhelmed to read or work or listen to podcasts. In those moments, I found Theo Alexander’s minimalist album Animadversions a big help in re-centering myself. It’s not that the music is soothing, exactly, but something about the repetition and the way the songs build grabbed and held me enough to get me through.
- I started listening to the D&D actual-play podcast Dungeons and Daddies recently after seeing Sarah Hollowell tweet about it, and have been really enjoying it. It’s very funny and usually quite vulgar, with occasional moments of earnestness that are surprisingly affecting. It’s been a nice respite, the time I get to spend listening to these adventures.
- Lyz Lenz’s recent newsletter “Trump Is Gone, But the Era of White Grievance Isn’t Over” voiced a lot of what has been on my mind this week.
- Anne Helen Peterson spoke with psychologist Dr. Rachel Kowert about the moral panic over video games, something that may help ease your mind a bit if you have kids and have been stressing over their pandemic screen time.
- Noah Cho and Betty Kim’s comic “Every Flavor a Ghost” is about the tie between food and memory, and what we carry with us as we grow older. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.
- As I mentioned, I’ve been pretty tense the past few days. One thing that has helped me has been reading articles and op-eds that express the same urgency I feel about our political situation. Ezra Klein’s “Democrats, Here’s How to Lose in 2022. And Deserve It” is one. This piece about Charlottesville activists’ message to President Biden is another. I guess I’m just glad to know that people are talking about this.
As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. I hope that this week has brought you some peace and some hope. I’m doing my best to find some for myself, too. Whatever it is you need, I hope you get a piece of it soon.
Thank you, and take care.
Yes, I did cry during the inauguration, which I hadn’t planned on watching. I did watch it, though, and I did cry, in part because of something like relief or catharsis after four years of rallies and marches and meetings with my Congressman and phone calls and text banks and policy research and vote tracking and postcards and, and, and. All of the time and energy and fear and hope I put into trying to make things better over the past four years, or at least trying to slow down the damage being done, all of it came back to me all at once and filled me up until it overflowed out of my eyes. Joe Biden was inaugurated and yes, I cried, and everywhere I looked—which is to say, mostly online—people shared that they, too, were crying and celebrating, finally letting their shoulders come down, their jaws unclench, breathing easily for what felt like the first time. I wanted—want—to join in, to sing along We won! We won! We won! We won! but all I can feel is how upside-down the world is.
I know it’s important to celebrate the wins, even the temporary ones. I have spent the past four years telling people the same. It is surely good and right and sensible to celebrate in this moment, to relax, to revel in hope. We earned it, we did. But I haven’t relaxed, and I can’t celebrate. 400,000 people are dead in the past year of a virus that could have been controlled. And children are still separated from their families, migrants are still imprisoned in camps, police are still gassing protestors, and so, and so, and so. I am pulled not to celebrate but to mourn, not to a festival but to a funeral.
And I am angry, too. I am angry that in his first speech as President, Biden called for unity without saying unity with whom, for what, and at what cost, and who will bear that cost. I am angry that the local newspaper ran an op-ed this week from a rich philanthropist calling for civility and denouncing cancel culture, as though facing criticism for one’s actions is as bad as violent insurrection or virulent infection. I am angry that my senior Senator defended her colleagues’ attempts to undermine and destroy our democracy. I am angry that lying House Republicans are not being ejected from Congress but are apparently walking unchallenged onto the House floor with concealed weapons. I am angry that so many of us are so ready to move on, to forgive, to forget, with no real reckoning, so desperate to “heal” that we will leave our wounds to fester. I am so angry, and I don’t know what to do with it.
Maybe I’m tense and anxious and sad and angry and tired because after all of it, I still love this country. I’ve always loved it, even knowing for my whole life that it didn’t love me back, even knowing all the ways it has never lived up to its promise, all the ways it has failed and been cruel and terrible. Despite everything, this is my home—and look what they have done to my home. I feel like I’m looking at a house that was destroyed by an arsonist who took the time to piss on the ashes before he left, and, yes, it is good and important that he’s gone but there’s still so much to do just to clean up, let alone get started rebuilding. The embers aren’t even done smoldering yet.
(I know, too, that consistent anxiety doesn’t just disappear when the immediate threat passes, and that it often just transfers to something else. I know that however well-reasoned I may think that my worries are, I’m not immune to the ways my brain works.)
But, look, I am trying. I see, too, the acknowledgements that the work isn’t done. I see the organizers rolling up their sleeves, I see the people who are writing clear-eyed analyses of where we are and how to get where we need to be. I’ve been watching the Executive Orders and memoranda roll out, and I saw Schumer say no to McConnell this morning—I know this is in large part due to the work of activists all over the country. I’m trying to take heart from all of that, and to turn toward the opportunity we’ve made. I’ll get there; I think I will.
New KTCO: Kazim Ali
This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with writer Kazim Ali. Kazim’s latest poetry collection, The Voice of Sheila Chandra, uses sound to explode meaning and explore silence and voicelessness, bringing together history, philosophy, spirituality, and personal experience to create something truly profound. In our conversation, Kazim and I discussed the divine in art, what the sound of poetry can embody and enact, and the fundamental oneness of human life. Then for the second segment, we talked about music.
Here are some links where you can listen to the episode:
You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page on the KTCO website.
You can purchase a copy of The Voice of Sheila Chandra directly from the publisher, or at your local bookstore. Kazim's new memoir, Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water, is forthcoming in March 2021 and is now available for pre-order.