The community blog on honest places and faces.
I’ve never enjoyed a single place so much as this city.
At night, I notice a dozen new turns I can take on my next walk. Buildings here all sit in friendly juxtaposition. Neighbors are angled toward each other’s bright laundry lines and off-white halos of light coming out of their balconies after sunset.
During the day, I take lefts and rights where I should be taking rights and lefts. I end up at riverbends, picnicking meadows, decorated bridges, unused courtyards, fragrant temples, twisted stairways, quaint cafes, art supply stores, rooftops, old gazebos. I look out my own balcony in disbelief that a view like this could be my own. Sometimes, I pass the brick building front where I kept my first year-long promise to myself.
This Sunday morning, when I finish my run, the air is soft and cool, with trees flowering at full saturation. Their blossoms cover the mossy walkways and a photographer stares at the blooms on the ground with his own eyes, absorbing what his lens can’t. As I cross the cobblestones, a soft dog walks up to me for scratches. His owner stands a ways off at the crosswalk, with his giant newspaper spread out. Also at the crosswalk are two teenagers resting their chins amiably on their dad’s shoulder, and a mother sitting on the curb with her toddler outfitted in an empty backpack bigger than he is. Closer by, a black squirrel checks me out upside down from his tree trunk. Tai chi classes in gazebos and tree clearings lean and wave, pigeon heads bob to the music on my airpods. A leaf blower wanders purposefully around the corners of the park where a mother is trying out her kid’s tiny jump rope. On the public lawn, four year-olds in jerseys squeal with joy as their coach scores on them. I pass an infant speaking in passionate gibberish to his grandmother, and subdue my joy when she responds in the same tongue. On the playground, I spot siblings going down the playground slide together and middle-aged mothers exercising in sync on the public equipment. Every inch of this park is being simultaneously enjoyed.
This is the part of the morning where the restaurants start up and the smell of food starts entering the edges of the park. More and more idling bicycles click passing by, sparrows chat. Scooters come, scooters go in the distance. The library’s glass siding reflects the first light of autumn and everything smells like it was born just after this rain. The moment is filled all at once with the best that every season has to offer. Green has never looked so healthy, jogs have never been so easy. I run my hand along the dewy leaves of a crawler during my stretch. The tree trunks are all black this morning. I can’t remember Sunday ever feeling like this back home. My eyes fill up. I’m already home, aren’t I? What a relief to not be looking for it anymore.
“But yeah,” people confess to me, “I’m not an artist.”
“When will you be?” I ask.
When a bespectacled collector places a red sticker next to your name? When the canvas starts mattering more to you than sleeping and eating regularly? Does every creator have to bleed out their fingers and drown in their tears to arrive at a place worth sharing with others?
Emotional scar tissue isn’t the only currency of honesty in the creative world and rising to fame and financial viability isn’t the only story arc that qualifies you to share your work with a larger audience. At the end of the day, we’re all working from the same colors, lines, shapes, forms, and textures. We start with an empty canvas, putter around, call it done before the second-guessing devils take over. And if you keep coming back no matter how many times the white space has beaten your ego into the dirt, you’ve got just as much right to wear the creator’s nametag as the ones with their names pasted on gallery walls.
We’ve all got more in common with each other than we’re letting on. Perhaps if more of us were calling ourselves the same thing on the outside as what we’ve been calling ourselves on the inside, it would start feeling more like a community than a crowd.
We have never dreamed so grandly. We dig deeply and ask ourselves what it is we want, then once that’s settled, the internet with all its collective imagination reveals there’s room to aim yet higher. Houses, careers, paradises, love stories. All the crazy adventures we have yet to conquer, and all the elaborate trinkets we can take home as proof. Fame, wealth, and freedom come in more colors than ever. It’s a beautiful, winding staircase for anyone to climb if they can believe there’s a landing to make it to at the top.
I laugh derisively at this game, then proceed to participate every single day. Because there they are, whoever “they” is, and here I am. Standing on a step identical to theirs, but inferior nonetheless because, well, more people have stood on mine than theirs.
This mindset creeps in everywhere for me, with the sole aim of sabotage. Artist’s envy, for example, where the depth of their creative identity puts mine in peril. I want that too, I think to myself. Those glorious aha moments that shine through in their work. Each new work that emerges from their studio, their opus magnum. Suddenly, my head is busy and my hands aren’t doing a thing; the exact opposite of how it should be.
I’m a beginner. It’s too early to even be asking for those kinds of discoveries in my creative process. I should just be putting the required hours into the craft, where open-ended projects will allow me to take new turns when there are ideas and to move forward with starting points, not destinations.
In much the same way I enjoy exploring new avenues in my neighborhood, I should enjoy the process of creative experimentation. When I hit dead-ends, they don’t signify failure or inferiority. They are just dead-ends that were already there. Now, I know of them. Sometimes when I wander around the block, I end up taking a completely new route yet accidentally end up in the same dead end. Again, not failure. I found new streets, locations, routes, and how they all related to each other. I also spotted alleyways to explore later. I’m learning firsthand where I do and don’t want to go.
Holding up a map in front of me can roughly indicate the landmarks around me but it doesn’t reveal any of the little side adventures that happen in a city when there’s chemistry between me and the location. None of my happiest accidental discoveries on foot were ever located ahead of time on my maps, and none of my happy artist mistakes were ever paved straight there by an instructor. The wandering is part of the mileage I have to cover, or else I’m only ever going to hang out on the same commercial roads as most artists and creators.
Cohesive series, yes, are clear indicators of more-established artists because they’ve had time to exhaust possibilities and to explore niche projects in depth. If I bash my head against the wall already trying to be at that stage of my art career, I am depriving myself of a lot of diversity in my practice and toolsets to draw upon later. Toolsets that would add dimension to my work. There aren’t shortcuts to self-development. To some extent, I’ve acknowledged that, but still don’t take into account how long I can spend in each miniscule stage of growth. How long someone needs to stay in each of them varies and none of those increments exist completely separate of the others. The comparison game’s just going to get me moving at someone else’s ideal pace.
Perhaps the best way to gauge if I’m getting ahead of myself is how much stretching I’m having to do. Am I learning through movement, or is everything moving past me at 100mph? Are my current priorities in conflict with my intuition? Does rest compete with my personal deadlines? If so, those deadlines were never reasonable to start with.
Lastly, I am learning to ask myself if I’m navigating creative processes out of fear and taking detours around new things I would like to try just because I have no idea how to begin. Curiosity starts that conversation, then fear runs in immediately to finish it. Every step of developing as a creator has already been social and emotional foreign territory, so why would I want to throw technical variables into the mix too? If I didn’t have to stand in front of curators like a piece of ham, I tell myself, I wouldn’t have so many uncomfortable emotions to deal with. If I knew how to wrestle this software into submission, I’d be better able to express that feeling. If my work more clearly conveyed my emotions, those curators would come around. And so on.
It’s a cycle, an optical illusion, no matter how many times I tell myself I’m moving up, out, over, or beyond. That staircase is looped, that dream is flawed. So I’m working on stopping right at the digging stage instead, where I ask myself what it is I want, and letting that sit like a period at the end of a sentence. This is what I want, I decide, no more no less, and the rest of the world has nothing to do with it.
I don’t think the big jump is always to get us where we want to go the fastest. Rather, it’s a beautifully expensive split-second where everything we do and don’t actually want, separates simply into either red or green. The final moment before a permanent decision arrives, neglected details clarify and reprioritize themselves. Sometimes, that means pushing through, and then we’re better for it--sometimes, we know in that instance to go the opposite way and we’re glad for that, too.
In the green, we finish the jump and despite the terror, we are borderless in the freefall. In the red, every fiber of ourselves realizes at the edge what exactly it is we’re supposed to be jumping off of instead. Either way, we know. We meet at this intersection the version of ourselves we choose to become, and we part ways with the versions we would have become instead. We are as much giving as we are receiving, and that moment where sacrifice becomes a verb instead of a noun, the signposts appear. When we learn to listen, they point us straight toward balance.
To me, balance is love and love is simply balance. I think back on moments of growth, rest, strain, movement, change, or exploration, and in the ones with balance, love existed there. Sometimes, internally. Sometimes, externally. Sometimes, both. In the wild, in landscapes. Natural environments where the only thing that exists is balance itself. Loved existed, too, in conversation with others, with myself, and with this body. Sometimes, balance was accidentally enacted from the outside. Sometimes, it was through decisions of my own; intentional self-nurturing that made room for yet more balance. It even existed in most extremes, but less so in those places as time went on.
Most of all, I think it existed where I was least involved; where the extent of my social and emotional resolutions tapered off, and my imagination didn’t interfere with the natural course of things. The places that I’ve often called coincidence, accident, and serendipity---maybe they were just balance intuitively righting itself, and in my shortness of vision, anything that was not of my plan, was of no order at all. The only order that existed was mine; intellectual, heavy, fast, and definitely unbalanced.
Balance understands that nothing is an emergency. It works toward sustainability, not deadlines. We often engage urgent mindsets over matters that are nothing close to life and death but I’ve found that all it takes is one wide-eyed moment at the edge of decisions, to create the honest headspace for sorting out what we want at our core. Always, balance comes back hand in hand with epiphanies from the edge.
I am not only proving myself to others, I am proving myself to myself. I often forget while doing so that love is balance, that recovery takes longer than maintenance does, and that rest is not failure, just as hunger is not a sign of weakness. It’s the body asking for what it needs. Then, it’s me listening and understanding that the body is my best friend.
No other being will ever devote so much attention to mending, nurturing, assisting, or accompanying me. It feels my pain before I do, and often because I choose not to. It earns me my joys, it remembers every one of my setbacks. It houses for me behind closed doors every sight and sound I decided I wasn’t ready for. It knows better than I do what is possible, and what isn’t. What balance is. But it doesn’t force that reality on me. It speaks quietly and when I choose not to listen, it unconditionally takes over at the breaking point, holds no resentment of its own, and works right through the pain I’ve set myself up for.
This body was never holding me back; I just chose to work against it instead of with it. I depersonalized it as a tool, decided it was nothing without me, and didn't consider what I was without it. I made demands, set unfair goals, and blamed pieces of the system for when I fell short, despite them simply being the first external sign of an entire system being used unsustainably.
I never gave credit to the continuous miracles this body performed while I pretended to be superhuman by day and slept on fumes at night. The punished muscles, nicks, sprains, scrapes, strains, burns, bruises, and bones not allowed to fully rest while battling bacteria 24/7. All while I pumped cortisol through my poorly hydrated, poorly fed system. I never stopped going. In terms of distance, maybe I did impressively. I paced myself for a dozen moving finish lines and used the space between races to train instead of celebrating. Somewhere in the mileage, I did prove myself to others but because I never learned how to have a conversation with this body, I failed to prove myself to myself.
I never stopped. I was proud of that. But the body never stopped either.
Old red bled into brown everywhere around me and lantern tassels, incense smoke, and fern fronds swayed to the tempo of the erhus and flutes on the temple intercom. I heard Taiwanese dialects bouncing off all the open space two stories below. On every side, bare beams, ornate eaves, and carved banisters connected praying towers dedicated to different deities. Cicada song came in waves and one gecko announced himself from somewhere behind ceiling tiles. Sometimes, wooden chips indifferently spelled out fates on marble floors.
I was indoors, and I wasn’t. Through two doorways and across a balcony, I made out an uninterrupted square of the green outside, standing even higher than the temple. I lost myself in solitude for an hour and my sweat cooled in the shade. I refrained from leaving the memory as bytes instead of emotion and when I rose from my meditation cushion, the impulse to force this into being an immediately shared moment had subsided into butterflies of disbelief that a year and a half after landing on this island, I could still be using the words “new,” “first,” or “favorite,” when so much of what I fell in love with hadn’t changed any.
When I find shade in this country, it is sleepy and timeless. The sun is warm and wet. Always, the cities and villages offer their own blends of smells that disappear quickly like plum rain showers but feel as old and certain as the buildings I find them in. Daily life has become hyperreal as if color-graded and film-scored into being. It’s the same emotional and physiological impact, but on simple walks to the cornerstore or on train rides out of town.
Loose hours are reality painted. I fall over myself trying to engrain in my memory the truths a crosswalk embodies, impossible conversations between buildings and haze, or moments I hang suspended between strangers I know everything and nothing about. The moments exist in full. They’re weightless, unrushed, accompanied by more friendly detail than my five senses can completely sort out. All at once, smell, taste, sound, touch, and color are more than the sum of their parts. I become speechless, the period at the end of a sentence, processing the magnificence of what a few simple building blocks have created in front of me. Am I alive? I think so, but every time the world meets me where I am, I’m met by another brand of beauty that makes everything before it seem dim in comparison.
I can’t pinpoint the coming or leaving of these moments any more than I can say where home begins and ends. In these sacred spaces, is it the place, the people, or whatever holds them together that removes the friction from the mundane? For the past year and a half, laundry has been prayer, buying soap is profound, and waiting for traffic lights to change is an exercise in oneness. Often the sheer miracle stops me where I am, and I’m laughing because it’s the only thing left to do.
Back when I kept calendars pasted everywhere, I thought that having nothing left to ask for was agony, but I’ve found that in suspended pockets of time it becomes the greatest gift. How could so many truths fit into one moment when only conversations ago, question marks were smothering me into submission? How many more times can fear be cleared from the room, its smoke dissipate, and I realize it’s not a room at all but a panoramic view of what my intuition has been aware of all along?
First, is the pop. From the other end of a gallery space, through a cafe window, or plastered across a brick wall as I round the corner. The composition tells me immediately where to look and it feels good to, even before the subject is apparent. In the lines and in the color, there’s something loose and moving, even when there isn’t.
Second, is the zoom-- my favorite part of the conversation with the art. I’m summoned, and the resolution comes into focus, emerging at walking speed. Two steps ago, my eyes only knew where to move. Two more steps, and shadows start flirting with highlights. Details emerge. Foreground separates from background. I savor the approach for the vague forms I only get to see once before closing the distance.
Here comes the subject, then, and the medium announcing itself. Closer, and the strokes appear. The order and organization. They’re there no matter how fast the work was made. Now, the subject starts interacting with the way the artist has laid down lines, and where they’ve laid them down. It says more than the subject matter itself. Punchy negative spaces, or something left unpolished in the corner, minimalist forms leaning up against sharp detail. My initial reactions start to blend with the artist’s message, then with my impression of the artist as an individual. I draw closer, even, and stay still to absorb the last of the details they’ve offered.
How many minutes pass while I watch foreground and background tug at one another, or all the happy accidents in the composition reinforcing the more intentional lines? Enough of them, I suppose. But here’s where I want more. Sometimes, that’s asking too much. Sometimes, it’s just enough.
The artist has left one last layer to process. The details matter more than one might think. Read past the decoy subject, they’ve hinted. There was something in the gray areas, missed. Or something legible in the unintelligible. A very deliberate placement of color that meant everything, or one bold contradiction hidden out in the open. It’s then that I believe I’ve received closure, enough jigsaw pieces to just barely understand. But right as I walk away, my head finally pieces together the four corners and fills in the rest of the puzzle by itself. That there, is closure.
If community is where humans infuse space with honesty and vulnerability, home is where they find each other. Liann works to capture this metamorphosis of place through mixed media and her writing.