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Review: Emil Nolde at the National Gallery of Ireland

14 Jul


By Rhea H. Boyden

I am sitting in a Dublin cafe on a date with a man I met on Tinder. He is polite and well-mannered. He asked me out for a coffee so here I am. There is no real chemistry between us and I am sure I will never see him again, but it is pleasant, nonetheless, to meet him for an hour and chat about our lives. He is a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds a degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence. He tells me a bit about his work, which is fascinating. On the table between us lies the book I have with me; the exhibition catalogue of the Emil Nolde exhibit at the National Gallery of Ireland. He asks me about the book. I tell him that one of my passions is reviewing art. He looks at me curiously and asks: ‘How and why do you review art? That must be so difficult. How do you understand the emotions and intention of the artist?’ There is a pause between us. Here is a man who holds an advanced degree from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world and he genuinely does not understand or have a subtle appreciation for the wonderful creative process that is interpreting, analysing and reviewing art.

I have thought a lot about his questions the past few weeks and have been asking myself why and how I review art with the Emil Nolde exhibit as a focus point to aid me in answering these questions. I have been reading and rereading the exhibit catalogue and, because it is summer, and I am feeling a little isolated I have also been on a few more dates with various men in the hopes of finding some intellectual and emotional connection. The dating experiment has failed and so I have given up on it, once again. I have found no connection and so reviewing art becomes even more relevant and significant to me. When one man I was chatting with started being extremely sexually explicit with me I ended the conversation and realised that one of the main reasons I review art is because it presents erotica in a far more enticing and subtle manner. I would rather spend a whole day in a museum spotting subtle hints of erotica than partake in what seems to be the norm these days: brazenly exposing yourself sexually online in an unsolicited manner. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned? I will stick to my principles.


Emil Nolde – Rain over a Marsh -Copyright -Nolde Stiftung Seebuell (NGI)

There is a lot of subtle erotica in the work of German expressionist painter, printer and watercolourist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). In his autobiography ‘Das eigene Leben: Die Zeit der Jugend-(My own life: the time of youth) he describes the following religious/erotic experience that he had as a boy in his windswept Northern German home of Schleswig Holstein: ‘After school was over, work on the farm began. Sometimes, however, I walked alone over the fields, driven by thoughts and indistinct feelings. In a cornfield, unseen by anyone, I lay down, my back flat on the ground, my eyes closed, my arms outstretched, and then I thought: this is just how my saviour Jesus Christ lay down after men and women had taken him down from the cross, and then I turned over, with a vague belief that the whole wide, round, wonderful Earth was my beloved.’

Emil Nolde grew up in religious Northern Germany and practically the only book in his house was the Bible which he read and studied regularly. His paintings bear many religious and spiritual messages and this is another reason I review art: because as an atheist who never attends church, museums and galleries have become the spiritual halls where I find solace and hope, inspiration and joy. Art galleries to me are landscapes of pleasure and reflection. They help me understand my inner emotional landscape and make peace with myself or solve life’s dilemmas. Keith Hartley, curator of the Scottish National Gallery writes the following on Emil Nolde: ‘Creating an art from within lies at the heart of Nolde’s art: whether it comes from an inner spirituality, from deeply felt emotions, from a powerful self-identification with nature or from a self-abandonment to it.’ I see my own life reflected in Nolde’s work. His spectacular painting ‘Large poppies (Red, Red, Red)’ 1942, are an ode to colour and life and, of course, sex. Red flowers are a pretty cliched and not so subtle metaphor for sex and the female genitalia, but in an age when people send unsolicited photos of their genitalia to shocked recipients on online dating platforms, I like to think that the red flower metaphor has, in comparison, regained its position of being a subtle erotic metaphor. The darker flowers in this painting that are hanging low on their stalks remind me of how I hang my head in dismay when I am unable to make sense of some of the perils of modern sexual expression online.


Emil Nolde – Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red) 1942 Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

In their collaborative book ‘Art as Therapy’ Alain de Botton and John Armstrong lay out the potential uses of art in modern society and how we could re curate our museums to better serve human emotional and psychological frailties. They identify and discuss seven functions of art: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. They argue, for instance, that museums are a wonderful place to help us grieve with dignity. Sorrow and mourning are a natural part of life that we all have to deal with. And while I have pondered some of Nolde’s ideas that deal with sex, Botton and Armstrong discuss methods of helping us deal with that other eternally confusing mystery: death. They analyse a large black rectangle sculpture by artist Richard Serra. ‘The sculpture is encouraging a profound engagement with sadness.’ they write. It grants you permission to grieve. I find this comforting, for as I write this essay I am aware of a looming anniversary. My mother died one year ago this week and so naturally I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about death and grief. And while the Nolde exhibit is alive with colour, last summer the National Gallery of Ireland held an exhibit of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer’s work and I went to the exhibit a few weeks after my mother died. It was a much darker exhibit than the Nolde exhibit and I, naturally, was in a pretty dark and confused place in my head and heart. But I drew what solace I could from the exhibition, nonetheless. I recall standing in front of Vermeer’s painting ‘The Astronomer’ and feeling profoundly sad. My mother loved astronomy and I remembered clear starry nights as a child in the States when we would go out stargazing with my mother and she would pull out her glow-in-the-dark star wheel and teach me and my siblings the names of planets and constellations.


Emil Nolde – Light Breaking Through, 1950 – Copyright Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Another reason I review art is because it constantly inspires discussion about politics, the environment and the natural world. Art gives us space to reflect on scientific and environmental discoveries without having to be an expert in scientific fields. Last year I worked as a panel discussion moderator at the Cuirt International Literature Festival in Galway. After hosting my own panel discussion I attended another fascinating panel of environmental writers and they entered into quite a heated debate about how we are still attempting to portray our planet as this wonderful pristine specimen in our well-curated Instagram and Facebook posts. It simply portrays some fantasy of what we wished our planet still looked like. A friend of mine recently posted a photo on Instagram of plastic bottles and bags floating down a river amongst swans and ducks and I liked it and commented saying ‘Thanks for expressing the truth.’ I thought again about this when I read what Emil Nolde had to write about his spectacular paintings of the North Sea: ‘The wide tempestuous sea is still in its original state; it is the same today as it was fifty thousand years ago.’ If Nolde only knew the pitiful state of the oceans today with their shocking level of plastic pollution. Last year President Trump cancelled an Obama era plan on the sale of disposable plastic bottles. I am also writing this essay in the middle of an ongoing and unprecedented heatwave in Ireland. How can art inspire us further to action to battle climate change? Lest we sink into depression at the inaction of our political leaders?

Emil Nolde died decades before witnessing our oceans filling up with plastic, but he did witness the destructive effects of Western Civilisation on native peoples during his trip to the Southern Seas and New Guinea in 1913-14. He took a huge interest in ethnological studies and frequently took trips when in Berlin to the ethnological museum to study, sketch and paint Germany’s exotic new artifacts that were being brought back there from the Southern Seas.


Emil Nolde – Exotic Figures II, 1911 – Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Another piece by Nolde that really struck me was his oil on canvas piece entitled ‘Party’ (1911). He and his wife spent a lot of time in Berlin at cabarets and dances and Nolde was fascinated with colour, dance and music. But in this painting you are made aware that Nolde is merely an observer and not actually participating in the party. Botton and Armstrong talk about the huge importance of art in helping us remember the important and impactful events of our past, so naturally this painting makes me think both of the many years I spent partying in decadent Berlin and then also, when I quit drinking and partying and merely became and still remain a distant observer of the party. I still love music and dancing of course, and I become very excited at any comparison between music and art and the parallels between the two. Nolde writes in his autobiography that ‘Colours vibrating with the sound of silver and bells ringing of bronze’ are what herald ‘passion and love, blood and death.’ Curator Keith Hartley elaborates: ‘The musical analogies that Nolde uses in talking about colour were common parlance by the mid 1930s. Kandinsky made it a central argument in his theoretical writings.’ To enjoy art I simply need to be open and receptive to music, painting, song and dance. But to answer HOW I review art? It takes a lot of reading and searching for connections. And since I quit the decadent party life I spend way more time reading. It is work, but it is enjoyable work because of the spectacularly sophisticated levels that art curation keeps striving for as well as exquisitely and brilliantly written exhibition catalogues that are being published these days to accompany shows all over the world.

Woodcut by Emil Nolde – Prophet – 1912 – copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Nolde was also very talented at woodcuts and carving and he was fiercely proud of his peasant roots. He likened the tools used and the physical labour applied to creating a woodcut to the hard labour and tools used by the peasants. Art History lecturer Christian Weikop writes the following: ‘The sense of primitive authenticity in the hand-printed woodcut, where no two impressions were ever entirely the same, was for Nolde, a way of proclaiming his kinship with old rural artisan and peasant cultures against the standardising technologies of industrialisation.’ It is the abundance of connections and metaphors that spring up constantly in discussing art that make it a joy to review.

I cannot with good conscience, write a review about Emil Nolde without discussing the fact that he supported the National Socialists and wanted to please them with his art. Hitler despised modern art, however and Nolde’s work was deemed ‘degenerate art’ much of it being confiscated by the Nazis and he was subsequently banned from painting but continued working underground. Can we enjoy the wonderful work of artists who support political regimes that are abhorrent and corrupt or is this hypocritical? I am thinking long and hard about the moral implications of this because Nolde was a hugely talented artist and his work continues to be displayed today. Can we forgive him his political sentiments? These are big questions to ponder.


Emil Nolde – Young Couple 1913 – Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

There is a lot to consider but I will conclude this review where I began; pondering relations between men and women. One of Nolde’s much loved works is a lithograph of a young couple which he reproduced 86 times in different colours. It depicts the tension between the sexes. We can draw any conclusion we want from this piece but naturally I think about the relationships I have had to date, how they have ended, and what my hopes are for the future. I will continue my communication of subtle erotica with people I hope understand it. And in the meantime, I think about and review art and I live in hope. Hope, according to de Botton and Armstrong in ‘Art as Therapy’ is something that will never die as long as we keep an open mind and keep engaging with art.

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland Press Office

Featured Image – Emil Nolde – Party (Gesellschaft) 1911 Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Emil Nolde ‘Colour is Life’ will move to the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh where it will be on show from July 14th – October 21st 2018

Melancholic Moments with Murakami

22 May

bridge for murakmai article

by Rhea H. Boyden

In his memoir on running and writing ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ Haruki Murakami writes the following in the first chapter: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ This is a mantra he uses to make the marathons he runs more tolerable, and indeed, enjoyable events.

I read his memoir about a year ago and about two weeks ago, looking for consolation and inspiration, I pulled it off my bookshelf and read it again. That one sentence lifted my spirits immensely: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ This thought has helped me rally my dejected spirits the past few weeks. I have also been rereading Murakami’s novels ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki.’


So why are my spirits low? Well, about a month ago, I was rejected by a man I was seeing who I liked a lot. His rejection of me makes no sense because although I hadn’t known him long, I had truly believed that what we were establishing was very good and that the feelings were mutual. I am hurt, but I am slowly accepting that I have no choice but to let him go. My chosen method for dealing with it and processing it all in order to move forward is to go on a Murakami reading binge and to run, swim and bike as often as possible in between. I have also been writing a lot. I feel too at the moment that I am being forced to bide my time and wait in several other areas of my life. I am waiting for others to make decisions about longer term projects, waiting for certain things to become clear. I am not the most patient person in the world, but right now I have no choice but to let things unfold at the pace life intends for them. I am not in a position to influence how smoothly certain things go at the moment. I can live in a fantasy world about how a love interest or a project that is dear to me may evolve and work out, but my ideal of how these things will work rarely aligns with reality. This is a simple fact of life, one that I sometimes have a hard time accepting. In his memoir Murakami writes the following  to which I very much relate:

‘But in real life things don’t go smoothly. At certain points in our lives, when we really need a clear-cut solution, the person who knocks at our door is, more likely than not, a messenger bearing bad news. It isn’t always the case, but from my experience I’d say the gloomy reports far outnumber the others. The messenger touches his hand to his cap and looks apologetic, but that does nothing to improve the content of the message. It isn’t the messenger’s fault. No good to blame him, no good to grab him by the collar and shake him. The messenger is just conscientiously doing the job his boss assigned him. And this boss? That would be none other than our old friend Reality.’


So yes, I have been rudely forced to accept Reality in the past few weeks and spend time waiting in a Reality I am not entirely pleased with at the moment. I have never been a gardener by nature, but last week after eating a delicious ripe avocado, I went out into my beautiful garden in Dublin and dug a hole. With my bare hands I dug a deep hole in the ground next to the garden wall, under the blooming white and pink clematis. Into the hole I placed the avocado pit and I covered it up again. I will now have to wait patiently and see if it grows. I think of the avocado pit as a literal seed of hope that I can wait for amidst the other aspects of my life that are currently unclear. While I wait, I read. I am reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’ again. Is this the best choice of book when I am feeling rejected, lonely and like my life is in limbo? Probably not. It is full of melancholic and sad descriptions and it would probably cheer me up more to read something light-hearted and comical, but then I would nearly rather feel the emotions more deeply; rather acknowledge them and really make them my own. In this way, perhaps, answers will come to me faster and more will be revealed and resolved. I read sentences such as this aloud to myself from ‘Kafka on the Shore’: ‘That blank silent interval leaves you sad, so terribly sad, like fog from the sea, that blankness wends its way into your heart and remains there a long, long time. Finally it’s a part of you.’ Tears of frustration and loneliness roll down my face and I put the book down and walk over to the window and gaze out at the garden. ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,’ I say aloud to myself. I then lace up my running shoes and head out for a run.


Murakami writes lengthy novels and runs marathons and triathlons. I only bike, run and swim short distances and write essays and articles but still I relate to many aspects of his lifestyle. He says in his memoir that when he is upset by something he runs a little further than he normally would. He says: ‘By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent.’ I have been doing the same these past weeks: running and swimming further than I normally would in order to channel my confusion, exhaust my malaise and find clarity. When I am running, a lot becomes clear to me. Ideas I have been chasing in a maze finally find the exit as I run along the beautiful river, past weeping willows, copper birch trees and sycamores. I spot the Grey Heron in the river as I run and a smile breaks across my face. I am very lucky to have this lovely river walk on my doorstep in Dublin.

Weeping willow - milltown

After my run, I head back to my books. I have filled these books with fluorescent page markers. I hold the page markers in my hand like a security blanket. There is something very comforting about being able to fill books with colourful page markers. It has become such a habit now that I simply can’t read a book without having them close by. I am sure the pages I mark will be relevant at some point in some review. It brings order and harmony to my world. I am a fluorescent page marker addict.

I pick up Murakami’s ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki’ which I read last summer and return to the pages I have marked. I am reminded of the main theme of this story and I realise how me being sad over being rejected by a man I was seeing for a few weeks is nothing compared to the pain of rejection the main character goes through in this story. He was one of a group of five best friends (who he had known for years) and they one day, out of the blue, tell him they want nothing more to do with him and give him zero explanation for this. The opening sentence of the novel is: ‘From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.’ I compare my own feelings to his. I may be a little sad and confused and am being forced to wait for answers but I certainly don’t feel like dying. I love my life and depression is not even the word I would use to describe my current state, but rather a feeling of wistful and melancholic regret that I am sure I will move beyond fairly soon.


When I am feeling a little blue I write. By writing I make sense of the world again. I also read a lot. I get lost in rereading ‘Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki’ and I flick open a page where I not only have a pink page marker, I have also underlined the following sentence: ‘Unspoken feelings were as heavy and lonely as the ancient glacier that had carved out the deep lake.’ I don’t remember why I underlined that sentence because I generally avoid writing in books, but I know that I do not, as a rule, leave my feelings unspoken. I have to express how I feel in order to create order in my emotional life. I may not always get the timely response I would like and the response I do get more often than not ends the Fantasy I had harboured and lands me back in a sometimes unforgiving Reality, but then what other choice do I have? This is who I am and this is my current Reality whether I like it or not. I am looking forward to what the next few months will reveal in my life and I am hopeful for new and exciting revelations. I am also keeping an eye on the corner of the garden to see if the avocado I planted sprouts. If it does, (and I am no gardener) I will take it as a positive omen going forward.

I am an aunt!

8 Mar

It is with great excitement and joy I announce that my first niece Lucy Ellen Boyden was born at 10.43pm on March 3rd, 2015 at Cork University Hospital, Ireland. She is first child of my dear brother Tadhg Boyden and his lovely partner Laura Kinsella. She is named after my mother Ellen Riorden and my grandmother Ellen Boyden. This is a first grandchild for my parents and our whole family are over the moon that the new generation has arrived. I very much look forward to being a devoted aunt. Lucy has already inspired many ideas for stories I can write. Happy days!

Baby LucyRhea and Baby Lucy

Excerpt from Essay to be published in The Juniper Tree Project Book

13 Feb

Birthhouse in the fog

We leave on New Year’s Day and it has been pouring rain all day. The river is roaring and the fields are flooded. When we finally leave to drive, the rain has thankfully eased off. As we drive in the fog over the mountain I ask my brother to stop at the top of the pass which is about 10 miles from our current family home. I tell him I would like to photograph the old farmhouse that our parents lived in in 1975. I was born in the house 40 years ago this July by the light of one candle. My mother was alone and I was born nearly two months premature. There was no electricity and the house is truly in the middle of a bog in the middle of nowhere. The story of my birth is a favourite family story. My brother tells me there is no point in stopping because you can’t see the house in the fog. I tell him it is perfect and I want a photo anyway. I am driving by the house I was born in on New Year’s Day of the year I will turn 40 and I will take a photo of it even if I can’t see it. I have just uprooted my life in Berlin and returned to the country of my birth. The writer in me immediately sees the beauty of metaphor. I can’t see the house I was born in in the fog. I still need time for things to become clear now that I have moved back to Ireland. Maybe the next time we drive by the house it will be a sunny day and more things will be clearer in my life.

Goodbye to Berlin

12 Jul

Rainbow Berlin

by Rhea H. Boyden

Last December a friend of mine offered me a beautiful secondhand pink couch from IKEA, delivered to my door. Did I want it? Yes, please. My old couch had been in my family for at least 15 years. My mother had gotten it secondhand delivered to her apartment in Prenzlauer Berg probably in 1997 or 98. Where it had been before that and how old it actually was is a mystery to me. ‘We need to carry the old couch downstairs and chuck it out’ I announced to my lovely Swedish flatmate. She looked at the couch and then looked at me and said ‘I think we need to tear it into little tiny pieces first. It will make things easier.’ I looked at her and said ‘Ok, but how?’ She showed me how: by upending the couch and pulling off the thousands of staples and layers of cardboard that were holding it together. I was amazed at how shoddy the interior was. Cardboard? How the heck had the thing held up through all the years of my family and friends sitting, jumping and sleeping on it. It had actually been a fairly comfortable couch. ‘It’s definitely an old GDR couch.’ my roommate said.

GDR Couch 

 The old couch-Christmas 2000- with some of my siblings sitting on it

Now six months later, I have decided to leave Berlin after 14 years and am in the thick of preparations to vacate my apartment and move back to Ireland. I certainly can’t stay in Berlin much longer than the lifespan of the cardboard GDR couch, can I? When my flatmate was ripping the couch apart however, I had no such plans to leave. It was only after I got back from my trip to New York after Christmas that the idea started creeping into my subconscience that leaving might, maybe be a good idea. But it was a scary thought and definitely not one that I was comfortable with yet or even decided upon. Berlin is my home. Why go anywhere else? I have a good life here.

donkey bridge lights

In the middle of January I met up with an Australian friend of mine who was visiting. I took him to a bar I like in Prenzlauer Berg called Eselsbrücke. I like it because it has managed, over the years, to retain a vibe I liked about Prenzlauer Berg before it became gentrified, and so going there puts me in a nostalgic mood. We were sitting at the bar and I told him that I was considering moving back to Ireland. He looked at me and casually said: ‘It sounds like you have already made up your mind.’ This scared me because I most definitely had not made up my mind and was very unsure about whether this was a good idea or not. But it proved one thing to me: sometimes others understand things about you sooner than you understand them yourself.

The choice of the bar we were in was also very significant to me making big plans. One main reason to leave Berlin is to begin a new job, learn new skills and start fresh. And as fullfilling as English teaching has been for me, I am ready to quit it and do other things. The bar was called ‘Eselsbrücke’ and the direct translation into English is ‘donkey bridge’. An ‘Eselsbrücke’ in linguistics is a mnemonic or a memory hook: something to help a student commit something to memory by comparing it to something else. I think I have been a fairly good English teacher showing compassion and patience for my many hundreds of students over the years, but the one question that has been asked of me repeatedly by so many German students is this: ‘Gibt es dafür eine Eselsbrücke?’ which means ‘Is there some easy way for me to remember this vocabulary, some memory hook?’ and usually I have no clue how to answer this. I generally just say that I am sorry and they will have to just make the effort and learn the vocabulary without any ‘Eselsbrücke’ to guide them. I really don’t have the heart to tell them the true meaning and origin of the word which is Pons Asinorum in Latin (the bridge of donkeys) which is the name given to Euclid’s fifth proposition in the Elements of geometry. The term comes from the fact that learning the fifth proposition was a bridge to learning all the others that come after it and it was a test to see who was intelligent enough to master it, or who was too stubborn (as is a donkey) and slow to get it. I am afraid I cannot provide a ‘donkey bridge’ for my students. I am a freelance English teacher. The students have to learn the vocabulary themselves and that is where my patience runs out. My suggestion to them: read as much English as possible and then you will get the words in context. I want to push myself over the bridge at this point and learn new things and move onto a new job. I am ready and I am determined to not be stubborn and closed-minded.

Flag vines

A little later in January I was sitting on the beautiful, secondhand pink IKEA couch wrapped in my pink and purple quilt reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. It was minus ten degrees outside and I read how Strayed sometimes froze at night while camping and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington and is the more challenging and lesser known sister trail to the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. ‘Wild’ is a delightful and inspiring memoir and Strayed is a smart and sassy lady. Her story was hugely inspiring to me and really pushed it home to me how a long, long hike spent mainly alone in the wilderness is a great metaphor for life. The uphills and the downhills, the bears and rattlesnakes, the people she meets who feed her, guide her and nourish her. But ultimately, she is alone and she has chosen this. She has sold and given away all her things and she is out on a hike to find herself. I sat on my couch both afraid and inspired. I was warm and snuggly on the couch. I had hot tea, nice snacks, my notebooks. Everything was cozy and comfortable, but I was wracked with indecision. ‘It sounds like you have already made up your mind.’ I couldn’t forget what my Australian friend had said to me at the bar. I had not made up my mind yet but a voice was growing stronger and stronger inside me: ‘You need to leave Berlin and shake things up a bit. It is time.’ I battled with this voice, fought it bitterly, told it it was being irrational and to please just go away and leave me alone. A few days later my Australian friend came back to visit me and as he was sitting next to me on the pink IKEA couch I made up my mind. All at once it was crystal clear: I had to leave Berlin and move back to Ireland. I am sure that his presence aided me in making the decision. It seemed he really had sensed my decision before I had made it. I told him at the time that he was one of my ‘angel people’ as writer Natalie Goldberg likes to call them: people who come into your life and guide you, inspire you and nourish you right at a time when you need them most. In ‘Wild’ Cheryl Strayed also writes of ‘trail angels’: the people who come and camp for the summer right along the Pacific Crest Trail. They are there to greet the hikers who emerge from the woods after weeks alone in the wilderness, who having eaten nothing more than oatmeal, rice and trail mix, are ravenous. Strayed says how she really tried to eat in a civilised manner when one such trail angel put a plate of potato salad, green beans and a big juicy burger in front of her. After she had wolfed down the entire plate of food her host wordlessly placed another burger and another helping of potato salad onto her plate. He knew she needed it and appreciated it fully. He had come into her life when she desperately needed nourishment.

When I read the last sentence of ‘Wild’ I put the book down and thought: ‘Wow! What an incredibly brave woman and what a crazy adventure she had’. I glanced around my living room and looked at all the junk that me, my family and my friends had managed to amass in my apartment over the past decade. ‘Where did all this crap come from?’ I gasped, and I knew what I had to do: start sorting through it all and getting rid of it, and I knew it was going to take awhile. Strayed got rid of all her stuff and went on an adventure and that is what I want to do.

Within a few days I realised that I had not one, but two copies of Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ on my bookshelf. I have two copies but I have only read the book once. I love the book and so I flung open the first page of one of the copies and started reading it again. This is why I knew it would take time for me to say goodbye to Berlin: I have multiple copies of the same book in my library and I won’t be able to get rid of them until I read at least parts of them again. A sentence on the first page of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ conveyed a powerful message to me. Isherwood writes this: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ It occured to me that no matter how much I take my life in Prenzlauer Berg for granted, and no matter how much it has all become daily routine involving me walking down the street with my eyes shut, as is the habit when you have lived somewhere a long time, it is now imperative that I wake up to my surroundings and pay attention to the details. I must, as Isherwood wrote, be a camera with its shutter open, really absorbing the details, taking notes and photographs for my future writings about Berlin, for if I don’t really pay attention now, I will regret it later.

mauer park

middle of street

One afternoon when I finished work early, I consciously took about half an hour to walk from the train station to my apartment. I photographed the buildings and the plants, the skies and the shadows. I walked down the middle of the street to get a new perspective. I stopped and scrutinised things I hadn’t seen before. I tried to really take in my whole street with all my senses open and alive. When I got home, I made a cup of hot peppermint tea and I sat on my balcony and took in the fantastic view. I really do have a great balcony and a great view. I can, just as Isherwood did, observe my neighbours and the activities of the street. It is a colourful and interesting view. The swifts fly and chirp and hunt bugs on a summer evening and the sun reflects back onto me from the windows on the opposite buildings. I can look over the old border and see former West Berlin from my former East Berlin apartment and I can reflect on what that view has meant to so many people over the decades.


‘But you can’t leave Berlin, you ARE Berlin!’ one of my long term American friends in Berlin said in dismay when I announced to him that I was leaving. Yet another said ‘But your place is an institution! Are you SURE you want to leave?’ I have been fielding comments like this for months and as flattering as it is for people to say that ‘I am Berlin’ I am choosing to really listen to the people who have faith in my plan which is slowly taking shape: Find a room and a job in Dublin and move there with about twenty percent of what I currently own and start over. My fear of change is slowly turning into excitement and anticipation. I feel very strongly that radical change is essential for further growth right now, and it seems that as I continue to pull books off my shelf and read excerpts from them before either giving them away or packing them into a box to be shipped to Ireland, that every book is conveying some powerful message to me. In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death I grabbed my copy of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and reread the whole book. Angelou writes: ‘The need for change bulldozed a road down through the centre of my mind.’ I can most certainly relate to this. She also writes: ‘There is a time in every man’s life when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance.’ This adventure through my library is proving inspiring indeed for my upcoming leap into the unknown.

dappled light

I realise now what the problem was last January: I really was cozy and comfortable sitting on the pink IKEA couch wrapped in my pink and purple quilt. In fact, I was way too comfortable. It was the sort of comfort that is stifling and blinding. It is the sort of security that terrifies me. This is not the first time I found myself sitting on a comfortable IKEA couch in Berlin and realised strongly the the comfort and security of it half scared me to death with suffocation and that I simply had to escape and live on the edge again. Exactly five years earlier on a cold January night I was sitting on a more expensive white IKEA couch in the lovely, clutter free living room of my then German boyfriend. He had a great job and was willing to spend a lot of money on me and on him for all sorts of material comforts to make us happy. My English teaching job was merely a hobby in his eyes, one that I would naturally quit once I had his baby. And as much as I am ready to quit English teaching and change careers now, it was an insult to me that he considered my job merely a fun kind of pastime until I get married and become a German housewife. I left that lovely comfortable white couch and I left that boyfriend and returned to my old cardboard GDR couch and continued to support myself alone on my English teaching job which has been my very real career for the past 14 years and not just some fun hobby. I felt alive again, like I had shaken things up and had returned to my life and who I really was. Has the loss of the cardboard GDR couch somehow really been instrumental in me wanting to shake things up yet again? What is it about the comfort of IKEA couches that makes me want to run away, give everything up and start a new adventure?

flower pots

Ernest Hemingway once said that you can only really write about a place when you have left it behind you and have some perspective on it. Some friends of mine say: ‘Oh but won’t you really miss Berlin, you have been here so long?’ and I tell them that of course I will miss Berlin, and there will be nostalgia and I will have moments of regret and uncertainty about the choices I have made, but it has been said over and over that the happiest and most successful people seem to be the ones who listen to and follow that inner voice. It does seem very true that you will always regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do, so I will follow the inner voice as well as the voices of the many writers I admire who provide me with constant wisdom and guidance every time I pull a book off my shelf and look for the guidance. I trust the voice of Ernest Hemingway when he tells me I will write better about Berlin when I am removed from Berlin and have some perspective on it. And so I continue, day by day, to sort through my books: taking them off the shelf, flinging them open and finding solace and guidance in them before deciding whether to put them into a box to ship to Ireland or a box to donate to charity or give to friends. One book that is definitely going into a box to ship home is my Norton Anthology of Poetry, for it is the book that provides me the most comfort when I am overcome with fear or insecurity. Moving is stressful and it is taxing emotionally and physically, but I am reminded in the poetry of W.H. Auden that all will work out and my moments of distress will pass, as time passes:

In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away

And Time will have his fancy

Tomorrow or today

O look, look in the mirror

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless

If I have any distress about leaving Berlin for the unknown, I remind myself that my choice to leave is purely my own and no one is forcing me to do it. I have my support network and I have faith that it will work out. W.H. Auden also had a close friend and mentor, none other than Christopher Isherwood. They set sail for the United States in 1939, on the eve of war, on temporary visas, which was a controversial move. I think of the adventures and trials they must have faced, but knowing that they had their literary muses and writing to keep them going. I will also write my way though my adventure and embrace uncertainty. As for the two copies of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ that I posess? Well, one is going in my hand luggage the day I leave, and the other is going to the flea market.

Rhea Balcony

And so, in my last weeks in Berlin, I continue to do as Isherwood says: ‘be a camera with its shutter open’. My neighbourhood is so familiar and only fails to be interesting to me when my eyes are closed. Last week I took a leisurely walk over to my mother’s old street in Prenzlauer Berg. It was a beautiful, hot day and along the way I stopped at one of my favourite ice cream shops. I usually just say ‘Oh, I will have a scoop of raspberry sherbet please’ because that is my favourite flavour and I order it on autopilot, just as I walk down my street on autopilot. This time, however, I paused and I ordered a flavour I had never sampled before: Waldmeister, which is the German for sweet woodruff. It is the same flavour that they put in the popular Berliner Weisse beer. As I strolled along my mother’s old street to go and stand in front of and photograph the apartment that she and my sisters lived in from 1990 to 2001, a very drunk old German man approached me and said with despair ‘Everything used to be better here, you have no idea how things have changed here, no idea.’ I looked at him and said ‘In fact, I do know how things have changed here, some things are better and some things are worse. I have been here a long time too.’ I stood and chatted to the drunk for a few moments discussing life and change in Prenzlauer Berg. We were bonded, momentarily, by nostalgia. I will never know exactly what he was thinking and what he missed about the past, but I do know where my thoughts were: they were on the time I first walked up the stairs to my mother and sisters’ apartment when I first came to Berlin to visit them in 1991 with my younger brother from our father’s home in Ireland when I was 16.

I said goodbye to the drunk man, wished him a nice day and walked away, not looking back, knowing that this was a final goodbye to my mother’s place. I see no reason to return there again. I would like to honour the rituals of departure: once you have taken your leave from something or someone it is unpleasant to have to do it again. And to the people who say I can always return to Berlin if I am not happy elsewhere, I can only say that is highly unlikely to happen. Why would I come back to a city that I have spent half a year taking my leave from? There are endings and there are new beginnings. With my departure I am very aware that I am closing not only my own sojourn in Berlin, but also that of my family’s: when I leave I am ending nearly a quarter of a century of my family living in Prenzlauer Berg. It will truly be the end of an era.

Donkey bridge Ayse

 Die Brücke by Ayse Domeniconi

When I arrived home, I made a cup of black tea and sat on the pink IKEA couch once more. As I sat there, deep in reverie, my eyes settled on a painting that I have on my wall that is the work of one of my mother’s oldest friends in Berlin who she met nearly a quarter of a century ago. The painting is acrylic with deep shades of blues, reds, black and forest green. It is a rather unreal painting with the colours fading together. In it you can see a bridge with a donkey halfway across it, pulling its load in a cart behind it. Hovering over the bridge and the donkey there is an angel. I suddenly sat bolt upright on the couch in amazement. ‘A donkey, a bridge and an angel? Wow! How crazy is that?’ I was going to give away all my paintings, but suddenly this painting has too much meaning for me. I think I am going to have to splurge and have it shipped back to Ireland. It truly is amazing, this phase of living, as Christopher Isherwood says, like a camera with its shutter open. I wonder if I can continue to live like this as I start the next chapter of my life. It certainly makes all of life more rich, vibrant and whole.

Link to Essay in Multicoolty Mag

3 Jun

Rhea Balcony

Written by Rhea

Editing and Layout by Eve

Photos by Johanna and Euan

Essay about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’

22 Apr

by Rhea H.Boyden


Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1964, Hans Helmut Kornhuber, the chief physician at the department of neurology at Freiburg University, and Lüder Deecke, his doctoral student went for lunch in the beautiful and serene garden of the ‘Gasthaus zum Schwanen’ at the foot of the Schlossberg hill in Freiburg. Their discussion over lunch was about their frustration at worldwide attempts thus far to investigate self-initiated action of the brain and the will. They were inspired, no doubt in part, by the fresh mountain air of the Black Forest to push ahead in their research using the primitive (but most advanced for the time) brain imaging tools at the university. After many test cases and a lot of research, the EEG (electroencephalogram) readings showed that there is an electrical signal in the brain that proves we are going to move a body part even before we want to move it. They had discovered the ‘Readiness potential’ or ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and debates on whether or not we have free will continue to today in all disciplines from neuroscience to psychology and philosophy.

Now I am no scientist and my knowledge of neuroscience is limited. I have read articles about Alzheimer’s in an attempt to grasp a basic understanding of the disease which is rapidly stripping my dear mother of all sense and vitality, and I have read some articles in the past week or so to understand the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ the latest release by Automating which is the solo project of soundscape artist Sasha Margolis from Melbourne, Australia.


                                                Lüder Deecke- Bereitschaftspotential Brain Image Scan

I have listened to the piece several times through with my good headphones relishing in Sasha’s sounds once again, with my eyes closed in meditation dozing into a dream world and seeing where it takes me thereafter in my writing. I have thought long and hard about why he has titled this piece ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and what he intends with this title. I have come to the conclusion that it is a heavy and loaded title that has led my thinking and reading to some dead ends and frustration about what to do with all my notes that I have been frantically scribbling trying to make sense of it all from a neuroscientific perspective.

I have decided, therefore to not dwell too much more on the title and have a look at it from a more poetic and philosophical angle, for therein lies my ability to make sense of it. Here I quote Friedrich Nietzsche to send me in a better direction: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’

Nietzsche spent much of his time in the same stretch of mountains and woods not far from where Kornhuber and Deecke carried out their work, (more than half a century earlier)  and he found the fresh mountain air and peace most conducive to working in. He would take long walks in the woods stopping to take notes before returning to his room to continue working. Quite apart from his many groundbreaking philosophical ideas and writings, Nietzsche took a great interest in the human body.

I believe one reason I have become so frustrated in trying to write this review is because the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ forces me to think I should be writing about the mind, brain and consciousness when what I really want to write about here is the body. Nietzsche believed that what living things sought above all, was to discharge their physical strength. He also believed that knowledge was rooted in the body and that the whole of Western philosophy had a deep misunderstanding of the human body. It is little wonder that Nietzsche took such an interest in the body; he suffered immensely thoughout his life from various ailments, many of which were symptoms of the syphilis he supposedly picked up in a brothel during his student days. It is no coincidence that a large part of his philosophy contends that human suffering is inevitable and indeed, necessary to go though in order to achieve greater goals.


 Photo of Statue of John Henry by Ken Thomas

This idea of Nietzsche’s that living things seek to dispel their energy makes me think of the core of Sasha’s philosophy behind his work and I quote from his website: ‘Sifting through the sonic waste and discarded technology left by the roadside of a world speeding too fast into the future.’ It makes me think of the men who have been replaced time and time again by machines, rendering their bodies and ability to dispel their physical energy useless, in essence, emasculating them. We do have a lot of waste out there, both physical and sonic and I believe it is the duty of everyone to reuse it all in some useful way. If machines have all but replaced our physical work, then what to do with all the machines once they turn to waste but to turn them into art to provide us consolation as we gaze at these post-industrial wastelands. Sasha deals with found sound in his work, but many others work with found objects; turning industrial artifacts that were not intended for artistic purposes into art to make a point, among other things, about waste.

‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions, runs for a little over 20 minutes and it is serious food for thought. To me the opening sounds are entirely industrial and repetitive. It is evocative of a machine turning or a small animal digging, trying desperately to get some job done and then in frustration giving up. I hear an electrical generator trying to start and then failing. This failing is frustrating to the humans who are trying to use this generator perhaps, but the peace they can then enjoy is then ever more appreciated; an appreciation which is then heard in birdsong. Quiet contemplation is to be found in nature and not to the sound of a generator.

The idea of this sound being either an animal or a machine is very exciting to me because there are so many examples in which we can compare an animal or a human to its machine counterpart. One example that immediately springs to mind is the horse. It was largely replaced by the train in the United States as the great railway building projects began there. And as exciting as it was to have all these new railways going across the country, they were built at a great cost in men’s lives.

Construction of Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia commenced in 1870 and the work was treacherous for the many men working on this project. They would have welcomed today’s tunnel drilling equipment (and dynamite). At least one hundred men died digging the tunnel, many of them black men. There is a legend about a certain John Henry who has been immortalised in a ballad performed by many singers including Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. He worked on the railroad and was a ‘steel driving man’ and proud of it. One day however, a salesman came to town boasting that a steam-powered drill could outdrill any of the men. A race began, machine against man and John Henry won, beating the steam drill, but he eventually collapses when his body can take it no longer and dies leaving behind his wife Polly Ann and a baby. There is a constant beating of a drum in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which to me is the steady march of the working man before he collapses. To repeat Nietzsche’s quote: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’ Is this the battle of good and evil between man’s body and the uses and abuses of the machine?


 Photo of Thomas Bayrle Exhibit at Documenta 13 by Erin Reilly

A couple years ago at the Documenta Contemporary art show I was standing with a friend observing an exhibit by German artist Thomas Bayrle. It was a pumping piston, and as we both stared at it she suddenly said: ‘It’s so sexual’. I had to agree with her. Bayrle says that he believes machines are a reflection of the body and he draws inspiration for his artwork from the precision of machines and engineering. Indeed, what can we do but work artistically with all these wasteful things we have created? Bayrle’s was only one of many exhibits at Documenta that provoked commentary on the effect of machines and waste on our bodies and the environment. In our post-industrial society many men have been left unemployed by the subsequent collapse of many of the machines that once sought to replace them. For the first time in history women hold more jobs and more college degrees in the United States than men and the implications of this are serious indeed for those who still believe in and strive for traditional family structure. A whole reshuffling of gender roles continues to happen and many men and women suffer from confusion and anxiety at what role they should play and a general frustration at modern dating rituals and body image. I know that one of my biggest sources of solace is to get lost in reading and writing and collaborating on meaningful projects with others. In doing so I can escape from the fact that I am nearly 39 years old and single, and have not necessarily fullfilled a certain role that a large part of society expects of me by this age. Thankfully I have an open-minded family who let me do whatever I want and are supportive and don’t judge me, but many women, and men too, suffer from not fullfilling certain expectations; especially when it comes to getting married and having children.

Most of the time I enjoy my solitude and only rarely do I get lonely. The constant barrage of city noise, human noise and industrial noise is hard to escape, and I relish it when I can get away from it. There is a lovely part in ‘Bereitschaftpotential’ that seems to me to be the sound of engines being swallowed by birdsong which again says that nature is triumphant over industrial noise. It signals a retreat into nature where we can again listen to our bodies and give them the peace and rejuvenation that they need. For without a healthy body it is very hard to have a healthy and clear mind to produce new poetry, songs and stories. Indeed, there is a burst of birdsong in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which is evidence to me that the willful person or animal has happily found peace again amongst the elements. The piece ends very abruptly leaving you suddenly staring into an abyss of silence which is quite uncomfortable. As much as we humans seek silence, its suddenness and completeness can be disconcerting. Nietzsche also said: ‘if you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’


Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Walter Kaufman 1882 (Princeton Archive)

I have spent considerable time gazing into an abyss and thinking about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and in the final analysis I can say that it has inspired me to think of our bodies, machines, animals, birds, walking in the woods, new creativity and then I think repeatedly about the horse. 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese calendar and it is a great year to gallop ahead into new adventure and take some risk. As I mentioned earlier, it was the horse’s body that was replaced by machines. 2014 is also exactly one hundred years since the outbreak of World War One which showed the disasterous consequences of cavalry warfare mixed with modern machine guns. Again: Bodies against machines! And to conclude it must be pointed out that Nietzsche, in his madness, finally broke down and embraced a horse that had collapsed on the streets of Turin in January 1889 before he then went completely mad and was commited to a sanitorium. There have been various speculations as to what was going through Nietzsche’s mind at the time, but I like to believe the assumption that it was the philosopher who was most skeptical of showing compassion for human suffering finally showing it for himself (he loathed self-pity) and for one of the most beautiful of animals, in a vain hope that both their bodies can have the will to survive against the machines and noise that drive them both mad.

Featured image is artwork by Ieva Arcadia accompanying  ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions (courtesy of Sasha Margolis).

Link to listen to and purchase ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ by Automating on Bandcamp:

Impressions and Lessons from Kierkegaard Exhibit at Haus am Waldsee

13 Oct

Impressions and Lessons from Kierkegaard Exhibit at Haus am Waldsee.

Impressions and Lessons from Kierkegaard Exhibit at Haus am Waldsee

13 Oct


By Rhea H. Boyden

May 5th 2013 marked the 200th birthday of the Danish Philosopher and Theologian Soren Kierkegaard who is known as the father of existentialism. There have been many celebrations around the world to mark the bicentennial, and The Haus am Waldsee which is a museum for contemporary art in the south of Berlin hosted an exhibit that ran all summer with several performances and lectures being hosted by the exhibiting artists in addition to the exhibit. The Haus am Waldsee is on the edge of a lake in a leafy and idyllic area of Zehlendorf and was originally built as a private villa in 1922. In 1946 it was turned into a museum and the first exhibit it hosted was work by the German sculptor and artist Käthe Kollwitz, who was the first woman to be accepted to the Prussian Art Academy.

The exhibit was based on Soren Kierkegaard’s seminal work ‘Either/Or’ that he wrote in Berlin between 1841 and 1843 and was entitled ‘Either/Or-Through the Mirror of Contemporary Art’. In his book, Kierkegaard distinguishes two personalities: the aesthete whose life is ruled by music, seduction, drama, beauty and sensuality; which is essentially the hedonistic life of a dandy, and the ethicist who values marriage, moral responsibility, critical reflection, political commitment and consistency.

Soren Kierkegaard Poster

The fifteen international exhibiting artists were divided into two groups, the first whose art represented the aesthete and the second the ethicist. The primary concern of the book ‘Either/Or’ was in answering the question posed by Aristotle: ‘How should we live?’ Kierkegaard believed that subjective human experience and the search for individual truth and faith were far more important than the objective truths of mathematics and science which he believed failed because they were too detached to really express the human experience.  He was interested in ‘inwardness’, people’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life. He was the inventor of self doubt in its modern form and his work and philosophy is more relevant today than he could have imagined. He believed that each individual had to choose for himself what constituted a life worth living, but that suffering was always going to exist because of regret. One main idea he put forth in ‘Either/Or’ was the question as to whether one should marry or not. His motto was ‘Do it or don’t do it, either way you will regret it.’ The many works in the exhibition especially depict these different major life choices that we must make and stand by. In a world of information overload provided especially by image sculpting in Facebook, it is especially easy to compare our choices to others and to be envious or to believe that the grass is greener. Indeed, how should one live? Get married and have kids, or lead the life of an artist, alone, unmarried, sensual and dreamy? As a 38 year-old single female writer, living alone in modern day Berlin, who sees more and more of my friends settling and getting married, I found the exhibit intriguing and thought provoking.


       Haus Am Waldsee

The biggest provocation of the past week, however, that has finally made me sit down and write this article was a conversation I had with a married father. I had told him that I had gone to the Kierkegaard exhibition and I had been reading a lot about it and that it had inspired me to write an article about it. He just looked at me and said: ‘I have no interest in art at all and find it a waste of time.’ I paused and then asked him why he thought art was a ‘waste of time.’ ‘Well’, he responded, ‘with all the other problems in the world that are far more important and serious why should one waste time with frivolous things like art. Look at the situation in Syria’ he said. ‘But wait’, I said, ‘Don’t you believe that art can help people find meaning and passion in life and and that art can help save people?’ I told him that a friend of mine was currently filming a puppet show to help refugee children in Syria deal with living in conflict regions and did he see no artistic merit in that? ‘I am married and have a family and have no time for art and exhibitions. You have too much time on your hands and spend too much time analyzing and thinking’, he told me. Well. All I can say is that I feel sorry for his children, who apparently won’t be getting any artistic guidance under him.

I found this conversation extremely relevant in discussing my impressions of the Kierkegaard expo, and of course I felt a great sense of pride at not having settled for a mundane bourgeois existence. I felt pride in the choices I have made in my own personal search for the truth and I think Kierkegaard would be proud of me too. Now, I am not implying that all bourgeois existence scorns art and the passion and inspiration that many of us draw from it, but one part of the aesthete section of the exhibit did investigate the question: ‘What place does passion occupy within the context of societal conventions?’ Danish artist Tal R’s exhibit asks this question with a whole room of phallic symbols which is not exactly a subtle metaphor for the existence of sexual fulfillment and passion within a marriage. This part of the exhibit challenges openly how sexually fulfilled one can truly be within a marriage. And of course it provokes the question of bourgeois sexual hypocrisy when one sees how much infidelity and adultery exist which seems to be made easier and more accessible by social media. Facebook, for one, is a huge cause of problems in marriages and relationships. Chats that start out innocently can easily become more emotionally entangled or indeed become full-blown cyber affairs. More and more divorce lawyers these days say that there is one word that keeps coming up in divorce cases and that is: Facebook. (I am not even going to begin talking about pornography on the internet. The problems it causes merits a whole article.)


       Soren Kierkegaard (source: Royal Library of Denmark)

German artist Birgit Brenner, who was also one of the exhibiting aesthetes, deals especially with relations between men and women. Her piece in the exhibit appropriates text from fragments of online chats and Facebook interactions and investigates dramas in cyberspace. She spends two to three hours a day researching, analyzing and reading chats from internet forums and her art pieces deal with ‘accidents on the internet.’

Why would an exhibit about cyberspace be important in a Kierkegaard exhibition? Kierkegaard flourished at a time when mass media was starting to take off and he was a big critic of it as he felt that individuality was impossible when being bombarded by the press. The press made it easy for an individual with no opinion to take on opinions that the journalists fed him and this was in stark contrast to Kierkegaard’s philosophy that each person should strive toward individual truth. Mass media he felt, made people spectators of life and encouraged a herding mentality. Kierkegaard was a contemporary of Karl Marx and their philosophies and views of life could not have differed more. Marx believed that only the objective mattered and that agonizing over individual concerns was unimportant. Kierkegaard disagreed and thought that any reformation that was not fundamentally aware that every single individual needed to be reformed was an illusion. He felt that the spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by communal political and religious illusions. Kierkegaard commenced an attack on the church and felt that Christianity which originally had intended every man to be an individual had been transformed by human meddling into exactly the opposite. He encouraged people to take a ‘leap of faith’ and form a personal relationship to God. He saw that the modern state was secular through and through and a church tied to it was a big mistake.

It has taken me a long time to sit down and write this article because I will admit that I was completely ignorant of Kierkegaard’s philosophy until I went to the exhibit this summer. But the more I read about him the more I like him because I relate to his life choices. Kierkegaard stated that one can really only become an individual by action and decision. Choice is everything and you become who you are based purely on the individual choices you make. I have been accused of being far too subjective in my writing at times and that I should really not talk about myself so much but should be more objective. It may be completely egotistical, but that is impossible for me. I have always taken my own emotions and feelings about something as a starting point for my writing and that is not likely to change. This is how Kierkegaard lived too. He wrote and published nine books about the possibilities of human existence using various pseudonyms, but his starting point was in writing about himself. Initially he had to justify why he had broken off his engagement to the young Regina Olsen, which had caused much scandal, and why he had dedicated himself to the writing life instead. He was faced with two major choices: get married and have an honorable yet modest happiness, or live the life of a writer and be a poet of the spiritual life, an outsider. Kierkegaard decided not to marry as he believed that the unmarried person could venture more in the world of the spirit than the married person.

Regina Olsen


 Regine Olsen painting by Emil Baerentzen

I relate to Kierkegaard because I have made similar choices. I also chose to leave a stable relationship which provided material security and a modest happiness to lead the solitary life of a writer. I knew that the relationship was stifling my individuality and I have not been in a steady relationship since I terminated it 5 years ago. I have dated since, but have chosen the life of a solitary writer. Am I content with this choice? For the most part I am. Naturally, it is hard to see more and more of my friends getting married and having children, but if that was a choice I really wanted to make then I would have made it. I feel at this point the writing life chose me as much as I chose it, so here I am, as always, sitting alone in my Berlin apartment, reading and writing. It’s what I do now and I have embraced this choice even though there are moments of loneliness and doubt. To quote Kierkegaard on writing: ‘I go fishing for a thousand monsters in the depths of my own soul.’ This is what I do too. I am most fulfilled when I look deeply into my soul and ask myself while writing the question posed by Aristotle: How I should live?

To go back to the main idea posed by Kierkegaard in ‘Either/Or’ which is ‘Do it or don’t do it, you will regret it either way.’ Is there any way we can possibly lead a full life and be fulfilled by the choices we make and not have any regrets? Very likely not. I am a big fan of the work of David Foster Wallace and one quote that was posted on the wall in the museum was ‘Hang yourself or don’t hang yourself you will regret it either way.’ Kierkegaard acknowledged that humans lived in a constant state of anguish and despair, and that the preservation of life was a tough one indeed. I can very easily find connections between the work of David Foster Wallace and the philosophy of Kierkegaard. David Foster Wallace hanged himself five years ago which was a tragic loss to the literary world. I would love to know what his thoughts are on modern social media and Facebook interactions. I may not know what he thinks of Facebook, but I have read enough about what he thinks of bourgeois hypocrisy and how he completely makes fun of the herding mentality in our culture, the same herding that Kierkegaard so despised and criticized. In his short story ‘Another Pioneer’ David Foster Wallace demonstrates society’s lack of individuality and herding mentality by telling us a ridiculously funny story of a primitive tribe that lives in the rainforest and worships ‘ Yam Gods’ without question. In the story Foster Wallace writes:

‘Has this villager ever in quiet moments closed his eyes and sat very still and gazed deep inside himself to see whether in his heart of hearts he truly believes in these ill-tempered Yam Gods or whether he’s merely been as it were culturally conditioned from an early age to ape what he has seen his parents and all the other villagers say and do and appear to believe, and whether it has ever occurred to him that perhaps all these others didn’t really truly believe in petulant Yam Gods either but were themselves merely aping what they in turn  saw everyone else behaving as if they believed and so on and so forth, and whether it was possible-just as a thought experiment if nothing else-that everyone in the entire village had at some point seen into their hearts’ hearts and realized that their putative belief  in the Yam Gods was mere mimicry and so felt themselves to be a secret hypocrite and fraud.’


      Image is a very large yam

To me, this is Kierkegaardian through and through. It is critical of religious herding and of bourgeois hypocrisy. David Foster Wallace railed against bourgeois life in his many writings and will always be remembered for his genius and insane sense of humour.

Another piece in the aesthete section of the exhibition was by Belgian artist Tom Hillewaere whose minimalist work exists in the moment and metaphorically shows us the impossibility of mapping out a certain future, try as we may. His piece showed a felt tip pen attached to a balloon with fans aimed at it to make it float around the place randomly while the felt tip pen draws an undetermined path on a raised platform. Ghostly music enhances the melancholy of the exhibit.

Another piece in the aesthete section was by Dutch artist IEPE and the anonymous crew who poured buckets of coloured paint all over Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin Mitte and then filmed it while cars drove through it covering their wheels in paint. This is supposed to celebrate wit, humour, laughter, surprise and spontaneity, but I don’t find it funny at all, I find it annoying and attention seeking. Soiling other peoples’ property in paint for your art project does not really impress me. This is the point where people will say that I am a bourgeois prude and I am too regimented and lack spontaneity and I am one of the stricter ethical people who thinks too much about right and wrong. One of the exhibits in the ethicist part of the exhibit was a film by American Kerry Tribe in which a father is questioning his daughter in depth about ethical questions such as ‘Does your existence depend on your body?’ or ‘Do you move in space or in time?’ It is clear that his 12 year old daughter has been well raised in the art of critical thinking and reflection as she is well able to give thoughtful answers to many deep questions. I likely won’t ever have kids to have such deep talks with, but I have plenty of younger siblings as well as a growing number of younger people who turn to me for guidance in learning English and writing. I have enough people I can mentor and support without having my own children.

Among the other exhibits in the ethicist part was a rotating mechanical shadow play of light that was shaped like a church and was covered in lace. It was a piece by Danish Artist Kirstine Roepsdorf. Roepsdorf was intrigued by Kierkegaard’s criticism of the church’s power, which he thought inhibited rather than nurtured the right relationship to God. There was also an exhibit that dealt with the Breivik massacre in Norway which, from what I gathered, showed the firm commitment that the families of the victims had to their political party, despite the tragedy. I found this to be a bit of an overstatement and quite a controversial thing to have in an exhibition to prove political commitment. I did not spend a lot of time pondering it and I have no further comment on it, as xenophobia is such a large issue that I dare not delve into.

Sitting in the beautiful lakeside garden after the exhibit I had to ask myself where I fit into this ‘Either/Or’ aesthete/ethicist spectrum and I concluded that I actually lie in between. I identify with both. I may not be married and I may not go to church, but I am committed to my writing and to maintaining sobriety after many years of heavy drinking which was a part my hedonistic aesthetic lifestyle. I also value consistency and routine and am not by nature such a spontaneous person. I am very punctual and like order on many levels, but I am also very chaotic, dramatic, sensual and in need of culture enrichment constantly to make my life worth living.

Kierkegaard acknowledged that to truly live the life of the ethicist you have to commit to something and there is a certain tragedy in commitment with the multitude of choices we have today. ‘He is such a commitment phobe!’ you will hear the young woman complaining of the latest guy she is dating. She hopes to marry and is having a hard time getting him to commit. I have moaned about men too, but I also have to acknowledge that I am also a bit of a commitment phobe. I have not committed myself to a steady relationship the past few years and, I suppose, I must admit, it is because I have not really wanted it. I have played more with the idea or fantasy of a relationship with long drawn out involved chats on Facebook with unavailable men who live in other countries. The last section of ‘Either/Or’ is ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ and in it Kierkegaard talks more about how the aesthete enjoys the idea and fantasy of something rather than the actualization of this certain thing. The seducer gains sensuous pleasure not so much from the act of the seduction itself but rather from engineering the possibility of seduction. The aesthete derives pleasure from turning boring, everyday humdrum life into something more interesting or poetic, artistic, or even melodramatic. He is accused then by the ethicist of living in a fantasy world. To this I can most truly relate. Settled or married people have told me many a time that I live in a fantasy world, and I can only concede that they are probably right. Still others have asked me how I can possibly go so long with no alcohol, sex or love life. Well, my writing has been my passion and my various long distance chats have more than sustained me since I quit partying. It is very true that I have been able to stay home every Saturday night for at least 50 weeks in a row and I have been more or less happy. The aesthetic fantasy world of chats and reading and writing has sustained me extremely well. Of course, being a lover of words, it is the eloquent Facebook exchanges with educated and intelligent men that have truly fulfilled me. I have been spoilt for choice and have had it all in Berlin and have experienced the typical anxiety that Kierkegaard warns about in his writings: too much choice leads to anxiety. My night life, heavy drinking, dysfunctional dramatic love affairs, which made a mess of me, were all part of my hedonistic, bohemian life. I regret none of it. Without truly getting it out of my system I would not be able to sit at home happily writing.

Zadie Smith

Photo of Zadie Smith by David Shankbone

I have lived and spoken many voices and many tongues, but I see the beauty in simplifying life and committing and narrowing my choices and experiences down to a few choice pearls as I mature. In her story ‘Speaking in Tongues’ Zadie Smith talks about the different accents she has taken on throughout her life; from cockney to Oxford English to then living in New York. Can one be true to oneself and have many different voices, many different choices or is it duplicitous to lead a many-accented life? This is a good question. I have my Irish accent and my American accent and I speak German. I can choose to wear any language or accent cloak that suits my mood or place. Committing to one of these is impossible for me and has in a sense led to my inability to commit to the solid life of the ethicist. Parts of me yearn to completely belong here, this is why, in part, at least, I attempted to commit to the solid German engineer boyfriend(s) who would have provided the security and status that cement me to German civil life. But the more colourful and aesthetic me balked at this. These many voices are a vice and a virtue and tragedy and a blessing. I am in the middle and I always will be. George Bernard Shaw’s character Eliza Doolittle was also a tragic character stuck in the middle, her voice was too posh for the flower girls and too redolent of the gutter for the ladies in Mrs. Higgins drawing room.

Must one completely commit to belong, or can one lead a mish mash colourful life in the middle and be happy? This is of course, the very reason that Kierkegaard’s philosophy is so hot on his 200th birthday, because so many of us want to truly ‘have it all’ these days even if this leads us to unhappiness. We may want to have it all, but we certainly don’t want to show it all or express it all. Kierkegaard challenged the reader to look for a second face hidden behind the one you see; to really see the truer deeper soul of the person and how he/she feels emotionally and perceives the world. In her story Zadie Smith talks of a Janus-faced duplicity if we do use all our different voices and do not commit to one (Janus being the Roman God with two faces). Tal R’s exhibit of a room full of phallic symbols shows these different faces nicely. The face one shows in honouring a straight up and dutiful life in society, and the deeper, darker, secret passions one has buried deep inside. The person you show yourself to be on your Facebook timeline versus the deeper more in depth chats you have within the safe confines of the lovely rectangular chat box. The box where you tell the person you have come to trust over the months all that moves you deep down; that second face, and those many voices. As Kierkegaard says: ‘Marry or don’t marry, either way you will regret it, hang yourself or don’t hang yourself either way you will regret it’. You have many choices, many voices. It’s up to you to decide. David Foster Wallace reminded us that we get to decide what to worship. This is a big decision. And we get to decide what to show to other people.


David Foster Wallace (Hammer Library L.A. 2006, Creative Commons)

In his short story ‘Good Old Neon’ David Foster Wallace talks at length about being a fraud in life and how there are ‘all the inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices and infinities that you can never show another soul’. This is why, he reminds us that it is good to break down and bare all at times, to speak in tongues to another soul and bear the truth, because you can only keep it all locked up for so long. Outbursts, revolutions and uprisings will always come to the fore. Long involved Facebook chats come to a head and the truth is told. David Foster Wallace speaks of dying as one of these moments when all your voices come out: ‘As though inside you’ he writes ‘is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in old doors.’ Is this dying? Is this the lure of suicide? That everything you always wanted to say and express that was hidden in you gets to come out?

Before I die, (of old age hopefully and with not too much pain) I hope to refine what is true for me and where I fit into this spectrum of either/or aesthete/ethicist. A lot of my heavy drinking came from the typical self-pitying alcoholic stance that is: ‘no one really understands me, I am an outsider, I belong everywhere and nowhere.’ Kierkegaard also felt like this. He said: ‘People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood.’

Now that I am 19 months sober I have left this self-pitying state behind me and have come to see that I can make these many voices and this outsider syndrome work quite well for me. I can write it all down. I can keep on writing it and keep on analyzing it. I can keep on searching for my truth and what best works for me from the multitude of influences that I have been blessed with. I have barely scratched the surface in my search for the truth and I have barely even begun to read Kierkegaard, but I like him a lot so far and I want to continue my study of him. It is a rainy October night in Berlin and I realize I am alone as another winter sets in, but I am determined to keep on searching, and keep on writing and keep myself open to the truth.

Featured images of Haus am Waldsee courtesy Press office at Haus am Waldsee

On Daily Routines and Creativity

28 Jul

By Rhea H. Boyden


Several readers have asked me recently what my daily routines are, and where I get ideas for my articles and essays. I have been mulling these two questions over for weeks, and I have finally decided, on the hottest night of the summer, to sit down and write an article discussing both of these topics.(I can either write this article or lie comatose and miserable in the heat and I have decided to push myself to write despite the discomfort).

I am fascinated with the lives and daily routines of famous writers and I love reading the mundane details of how they map out their days, in the hopes that I can draw some inspiration from it all. In fact, reading something about the daily routines of famous writers is part of my daily routine, and it has been for months. I extract a huge amount of inspiration for my own writing in learning with joy that I, a novice writer, share many of the same routines as famous and accomplished writers.

Firstly, I do not waste any of my day watching television. I do not own a T.V. and I never have. In his memoir ‘On Writing’ Stephen King says that if you want to be a good writer then you must kill your television. I fully agree with him. I spend a lot of my free time reading, and the only videos I really watch are TED talks (inspirational videos of lectures, TED standing for technology, entertainment and design). I really only watch these when I am too exhausted to read, but want to keep the ideas flowing into my brain. Some people would argue that I should watch T.V. in order that I may better critique mainstream culture in my writing. I find it a waste of time, and honestly I am bombarded by enough mainstream culture through the advertising I see on my daily commute and by generally just keeping my eyes open to what is happening in the big city around me.

As most accomplished writers will tell you; if you wish to write well, you must also read a lot. And do I read a lot? Well, I read as much as I can. I also teach full time, so I do not have the leisure time to lie around reading, day in and day out. What I consciously do is try and use everything I have read in my writing. The truth is, when I am reading, I do not always know what of my reading will be useful in my articles and essays. The biggest joy is when something I have read just happens to be useful and fits nicely into a topic I choose to write about. Seeing the relevance of something in a flash of insight surely is the part of the writing process that is most fun.

Arthur Koestler Statue Budapest

Arthur Koestler Statue- Budapest (Creative Commons)

In his book ‘The Act of Creation’, Hungarian-British Journalist and author Arthur Koestler explains his fascinating ‘theory of bisociation’. He says that the creative act is being able to link the unlinkable, and create new ideas out of disparate ones that previously had nothing to do with each other. This is what the creative mind experiences in a rush of insight; the magic of making two or more seemingly disparate ideas fuse with new energy. I know myself that the best moments of writing are when I see connections between seemingly unrelated objects, so I completely relate to Koestler’s theory.

American Art director, designer and author George Lois says that he never actually creates anything, he merely discovers the ideas that simply needed uncovering. He says that you must create a personal microculture in order to discover ideas. You simply need a broad range of interests. He says: ‘If you understand how to think, if you have a background in graphic art, if you are a sports fan and you are literate, if you are interested in politics and you love opera, ballet is ok, too. If you understand people, if you understand language. If you put that all together in about ten minutes, the idea is there.’[sic]. I find Lois hugely inspiring, as he is right, of course. One must foster a whole range of interests to help develop new ideas. He calls all of this ‘the combinatorial nature of creativity’.

So what are my main interests and what topics do I draw my inspiration from? The book I keep in my bed is my huge volume of poetry which is nearly 2,000 pages long. I like to read poetry at night before I drift into dreamland. I usually just browse, but I love making notes and seeing what poetry may be relevant to the more concrete ideas that I am playing with and if any of it will fit into what I am writing or help me get into that magical state of composition. I love reading poetry, but I have never written a classical rhyming poem myself, ever. I have written a lot of prose poetry that is very important for me as a form of emotional release, but it never follows any studied form. I never sit down and say ‘ok, now I am going to write a poem in iambic pentameter or in syncopated rhyming couplets.’ I simply just write what flows out of me in a rush of emotional release. I never plan it, it just happens. That is the beauty of poetry for me. If I have strong feelings for a man, or I am upset about something, or I simply feel a strong pressure behind my eyes it comes out in strange prose poetry generally in third person form. It’s always me, really, but I feel a need to distance myself from it, to make it seem less egotistical. My articles and essays contain the word ‘I’ enough in them, that my prose poetry really never contains the word ‘I’. Generally I just take the form of some forlorn Goddess or subject in a classical painting or a historical figure I have seen and try and see the world through her eyes. I have learned to always keep a notebook and a pen in my bed with me, for it is at night, when I am lying awake obsessing that my best ideas hit me. Various writers have said that their best ideas hit them at night in bed. This seems to be a widespread phenomenon.


David Foster Wallace

(Hammer Musuem, LA, 2006 Creative Commons)

Apart from poetry I read a lot of humourous autobiography by various authors, historical fiction, a range of magazines covering topics on modern cultural commentary, dating, gender relations, art, theatre, food and so forth. I am also pretty much obsessed with the work of American cultural critic David Foster Wallace and I have probably bored my readers to death by consistently quoting him, but I will apologise in advance as I am not about to stop quoting him. I have only scratched the surface of what he has written and I intend to keep on reading him. I love his dark humour, and discerning eye. His impressive command of the English language forces me to spend my time writing down words from his novels, essays and articles and looking them up. Looking up words in the dictionary constitutes part of my daily routine. It may sound boring, but I love looking up words. It brings me great pleasure.

Another topic I have recently taken an ever increasing interest in is climate change and global warming. I am starting to really see and realize that this is seriously the single biggest impending disaster that the human race has to face. It is a tragedy beyond imagination and there is no way to turn the clock back on the gazillions of gigatons of carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere coupled with no political will or power to stop it at all. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about climate change. I try not to let it depress me too much, but it is on my mind. I am writing this essay in the middle of a heatwave. I really don’t like excessively hot weather, but I have to keep on reading and writing. What else am I supposed to do? This is what I do, come floods or hurricanes. I feel powerless and impotent in the whole climate change battle, as do millions of others. I do the little things I can to reduce my carbon footprint. I may not own an energy sucking flat screen T.V., but I still fly a gazillion miles around the globe to visit my family and friends in far flung destinations. My three homes are Ireland, Germany and the U.S. I fly a lot, I always have. It probably isn’t going to change if I want to spend time with the people I love. I don’t own a car. Should I feel good about that?  Does it make any difference?

Back to creativity and routines. Many writers insist that a regular routine is key to creativity. Writer Gretchen Rubin says that if you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly and I fully agree with her. I usually write an article every weekend and read and take my notes during the week between teaching and while commuting. It simply is part of my routine. A lot of my life is quite routine and not amazingly exciting, but I like it like that. I had enough years of madness and Berlin parties that I am now literally in love with my routine of reading and writing. It suits me at this phase of my life. Rubin, who also is a huge proponent of Arthur Koestler’s theory of bisociation, says the following: ‘You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish. Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas. One of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project.’

Several people have asked me why I have not taken a holiday this summer. The truth is, I don’t really need a holiday at the moment. I don’t want to become too far removed from the ideas that I am currently working on. I have been on a roll with writing since I first got published a year ago, and I just stick at it and keep on working, seven days a week. I am sure to burn out and get depressed and experience writer’s block and all those delightful things at some point, but as far as I see it, at the moment I keep the ball rolling by sticking to a pretty rigid routine. I don’t dare stray too far from it.

In her book ‘The Artist’s Way’ American artist and writer -and teacher, playwright, poet, composer, filmmaker, what hasn’t she done?- Julia Cameron talks about the importance of regularly going on an  ‘artist’s date’ to get inspiration. She says it is important, once a week, to go somewhere alone- to an exhibit, a play or a walk in the woods, perhaps, to help you process ideas and gain more. I am fortunate that I write opera, art show and theatre previews for a magazine so I can request press passes to events if I like. Often after seeing a play or a show, for example, I will come home and write a whole article with great enthusiasm. The show provides the missing puzzle piece or the back bone of an article or essay that I am working on. Exhibits too, always inspire me hugely to think about and analyse what is happening in modern culture. I especially like modern art exhibits. I can usually write forever after coming back from an exhibit. It is usually crazy disparate notes or bizarre prose poetry trying to make sense of what I saw, but I always know it will come in useful in some context.

park woods

There is a beautiful park north of Berlin near a company I work at. I work at this company twice a week and so I take the time to go for a twenty minute contemplative walk in this park, alone once a week. As a city dweller I naturally cherish these peaceful stolen moments alone and away from the noise of the city. I always feel wonderfully refreshed when I exit this park. It is one of my special places to exist and an important part of my routine. I also go swimming and running regularly. I get lots of ideas while exercising and it is of course very important to get a good workout when one spends as much time as I do sitting around at home reading and writing.

I sometimes wish that I could teach less and spend more time at home reading and writing, but then I realize that getting up early every weekday morning, walking briskly to the underground, going to work and interacting with my students is an extremely important part of my routine and it has been for well over a decade now. That is what I do first and foremost; I am a freelance English teacher in companies. Writing comes after it. I need the social contact and it is my job. When I do suddenly have 5 days off teaching, such as now in the height of summer, I realize that I really could not just spend my entire time at home writing. I would go mad with loneliness and would likely waste a lot of time obsessing and procrastinating. I need the teaching to get me out and into contact with the world. My students are very dear to me.

Don Delillo

Don deLillo in New York City 2011 (Flickr)

So how much time do I allocate in my daily routine for procrastinating and obsessing? Well, I definitely waste some time with it for sure, but I have tried to change my attitude towards it. I try and view it as a vital part of the whole creative process as indeed many other writers do. In an interview in The Paris Review, writer Don De Lillo said the following: ‘A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.’ I laugh at this because I so heartily relate to it. Even the most productive artists and writers have problems staying focused at times. If we view this squandering of time more as an important incubation time for ideas then we can learn to enjoy our downtime more and not feel guilty for wasting time. If I don’t end up writing my weekly essay or article I feel guilty sometimes, but I then console myself by reminding myself that the ideas are simply not ripe enough yet to use. Good ideas and good articles take time to mature. I have been preparing to write this essay for weeks and feeling guilty about not having written it yet. I try and take it easy on myself though and remind myself that the ideas needed time to sift through my subconscious mind before I was able to sit down and strike. Writer Natalie Goldberg calls this incubation time for ideas ‘composting’. She uses the beautiful metaphor of a bright red tulip shooting out of the rich compost when it is ready, when describing how she had been trying to write a poem about her father’s death, and nothing was working, when suddenly after a few weeks all her ideas fused and a long poem flowed out of her on the subject. She simply was not ready to write the poem before this. It hadn’t matured in her mind enough yet. I really needn’t feel guilty spending a couple weeks mulling an idea over, for as we can see many of the world’s great ideas took years, even decades to formulate. It took Tim Berners Lee a good decade for the full vision of the world wide web to formulate in his mind, and he had no idea that what was he was going to end up creating when he set out to work on it. In a very real sense, we quite often have no idea where we are headed until get there. I feel this with writing all the time. I have some vague vision of what an article will be about, but I never really know what I am going to write about until I sit down to write. It is an act of discovery and in the words of writer Isabel Allende: ‘Writing brings order to the chaos of life.’

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

One big part of my daily routine is a big dose of Facebook. I can’t live without it. I do sign out when I am writing an article, but Facebook is my connection to the world, my way of exchanging ideas with my friends, access to articles and music that inspire me, and  it is a tool for sharing my articles with my readers. Without feedback from my readers, after all, I am nothing. It is thanks to feedback that I had the courage and confidence to attempt to get published and the continuing positive feedback inspires me to keep on writing. I need an audience and I take to heart what people say. I am not so self-assured that I just write for my own sake and give a hoot what readers think. I literally cannot exist without the connection to my readers. It makes life worth living for me. I love answering reader mail and I love discussing my articles with people. British playwright and actor Harold Pinter said in an interview in The Paris Review that he does not care much at all what the audience’s reaction is to his plays, he only cares what he thinks of the actors’ interpretation of his words. I find this very hard to relate to. How can you not care about an audience’s reaction?

In his TED talk on where good ideas come from, writer Steven Johnson says that ‘chance favours the connected mind.’ He goes on to talk about how important connectivity to others is in fostering new ideas. He asks whether all this hyperconnectivity to the internet is actually making it harder for us to concentrate and think deeper thoughts. How many of us sign out of Facebook and all the online magazines that we have open all day and actually read a book? He says that signing out and reading a book is very important, but being connected is equally important. Sure, we are a bit distracted and it takes discipline not to waste too much time online in unproductive ways, but the internet is, in a sense, a modern coffee house where ideas can mingle. He says in the coffee houses of the enlightenment wonderful new ideas were born. The British, he reminds us, replaced the depressant alcohol, (which they drank in great quantities as it was safer than water) with the stimulants tea and coffee and the great ideas of the enlightenment were born. Caffeine is more conducive to creativity. And while many writers write drunk, a great many do not. I have written some crazy stories while drunk, but I have now not taken a sip of alcohol in nearly a year and a half and coffee and black tea are definitely a big part of my daily routine. I am productive and happy because I am one hundred percent sober, of this I am certain. Drinking again would ruin my creative life. And yet, I am glad that I drank and partied for years. It was a great life. I met lots of people, had a lot of fun and really experienced and lived life to the full. If I hadn’t really and truly gotten it out of my system, I doubt I would now be able to spend so much time happily in solitude reading and writing.

We definitely need extreme experiences and to live life to the full to help fuel creativity. Steve Jobs called doing LSD ‘one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.’ He also said that he wished Bill Gates the best, truly he did, but that he thought that he would have benefitted greatly from spending time at an Ashram in India or taking LSD. I happen to agree with him. I am a little suspicious of teetotalers. If you have never drunk at all how have you had any really wild experiences. Most (recovering) alcoholics I have met are fascinating people who have had many wild adventures. My stories would be pretty dull without my decade of really living it up. In the words of writer Anais Nin: ‘something is always born of excess; great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions and great instabilities.’ To me, these feelings are all part of the terror of alcoholism. If a creative person can leave the drugs and alcohol behind them they have the potential to be incredibly prolific. In my daily readings on the lives and daily habits of famous writers, this topic comes up again and again: the day they finally quit drinking and drugging and got down to the real business of writing sober.

I have definitely taken to heart what George Lois advises about building a ‘personal microculture’. I have recently pushed myself to read and take an interest in subjects I hated at school. And while it is too late for me to ever excel at mathematics and science, I can at least try and scratch the surface on some issues to give me a deeper understanding of a whole range of subjects. It all helps my writing in the end. I always lacked confidence in my own abilities, especially in mathematics and science, but also in my ability to write and tell a story that would keep people interested. Now, that I am published and have people who follow my work, however, my confidence in my abilities is rising. And this is all thanks to the connectedness afforded by Facebook. I mentioned earlier that I like to read poetry. I have recently been reading the work of John Keats. Keats is an interesting poet because he too, in the beginning, lacked confidence in his ability and had a lot of self doubt, and yet he produced so much wonderful poetry to such a high standard. He opens his sonnet ‘To Homer’ with the following lines: ‘standing aloof in giant ignorance, of these I hear and of the Cyclades.’ In these lines he is admitting that he could not read Homer’s Greek, but yet he still wants to succeed and write despite this ignorance. To me this is hugely inspiring.

John Keats

John Keats by William Hilton

When I first had the idea for this essay a good friend of mine asked me what this essay was going to be a about and I joked: ‘Oh, I will be exploring what the poetry of John Keats has to do with the second law of thermodynamics.’ Of course, this essay is not about that, but it is a good question to pose. Can I link the unlinkable and find a connection between the two, as Koestler posits? I am sure I can if I think long enough. The link, of course, is that the second law of thermodynamics is the most important law of physics for understanding the passage of time and that I, like Keats, have no real deeper understanding of the laws of physics, but that I won’t let that stop me trying to at least scratch the surface and try and gain more of an understanding of things that have alluded me until now. I have, like Keats, a voracious need for material for writing and yes, I do want to be able to at least see the second law of thermodynamics from a purely poetic standpoint. Because it is poetry and it is beautiful. It deals with the passage and ravages of time, as do many of Keats and other famous poets’ sonnets. That’s the connection. I have managed to write this essay in the blazing heat and my phone has been ringing and various friends have been saying how crazy I am for sitting inside on the hottest day of the year writing an essay. So, it is now time to make an iced coffee and head to the park and rejoin the world. Only by reconnecting will I refuel and get more ideas for writing. It’s a magical journey and I never know where it leads me. But, for now, it all has to stay sweetly within the confines of my daily routines. These routines are good for me, as many a writer concurs.