Posts Tagged ‘Julia Cameron’

Julia Roberts. Julia Child. Julia Cameron. A writer friend with whom I’ve recently reconnected. My yoga instructor, for a few months on Saturday mornings. And the name of my ex-husband’s new partner – indeed, the only name I knew her by, for a long time.

It’s not an uncommon name, Julia – especially here in the U.S., over the past century or so. I can think of other actresses (Stiles, Ormond, Louis-Dreyfus) and I’m sure I’ve met other women with that name, over the course of my life. For months after my marriage fell apart, the name hit me in the chest every time I heard it, whether or not it was referring to the woman whose last name I still didn’t know. (I didn’t ask for a lot of details; I figured – still figure – that for me it’s better not to know too much.)

I wondered, at the time: will I hate this name for the rest of my life? Would it make my heart clench every time I heard it? The name Julie, so similar but different, inspires nothing but warm feelings in me: since high school I’ve had at least one friend named Julie, women of courage and grace and great kindness, one or two of whom are still in my life. But I knew I didn’t want to recoil from every person I met named Julia. It’s a small detail of divorce I didn’t expect, this quiet reckoning with and reclaiming of a name that took something from me.

The reclaiming has been gradual, and it’s still in progress: it began with those Saturday morning yoga classes, a dark-haired nurse named Julia standing at the front desk, greeting all of us with a smile, learning my name. She moved to Florida a month or two ago, and I never told her – couldn’t figure out how to tell her – about this role she played in my life. In addition to sun salutations and child’s poses and deep warrior lunges, she brought a pleasant association with a name that had brought me sadness and grief.

Julia is also the name of a childhood friend’s daughter. Born a preemie, she’s now preschool age, spunky and slight, always on the go, if her mom’s Facebook photos are any indication. I haven’t met this wee Julia in person yet, but she and her brothers light up my feed when they appear, as does the joy of their parents and grandparents. We were all once afraid she might not make it this far, and now I think her folks worry more about keeping up – a joyous problem to have.

There’s no neat and tidy conclusion to this process, no total redemption (at least not yet) of this name and its difficult part in my story. But I’m learning to layer the good memories on top of the hard ones, not to hide them but to remind myself it all exists; it all belongs. These women I know, or have met, or whose work has influenced me, are part of the story of that name in my life, as much as the woman whose invisible presence hurt me so much. Tiny Julia; writer-from-Maine Julia; yoga instructor Julia; the redheaded actress whose cackling laugh I adore. The chef played so fabulously by Meryl Streep in a movie I love. And the writing teacher whose books have shaped my life so powerfully – thanks, in part, to that same ex-husband, whose presence in my life will never wholly disappear.

They all are part of the story of this name. I’m grateful that now, most days, it is a story of joy – even if the pain still stings once in a while.


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west village window nyc pink olive

A few weeks ago, the hubs had a three-day work training that took place over a weekend. We had just moved, and our new apartment was a wilderness of boxes. Rather than spend the weekend alone, digging out, I did the logical thing: I hopped a train to New York City.

I love New York at any time of year, and I’d been there by myself once before, on a dreamy solo trip last fall. This time, I booked a room in the West Village, where I’d spent a little time but never stayed. And although the city (and I) sweltered in a heat wave all weekend, it was fantastic.

larchmont front door west village nyc

I stayed at the Larchmont Hotel on West 11th, which I heard about on Joanna’s blog (and later from Anne). The rooms are tiny, but clean and comfortable, with a certain spare charm. (Plus: air-conditioning!) And it’s super affordable.

Although I’ve done a fair bit of traveling on my own, it somehow still feels like a radical act: leaving my regular life for a few days of pure, solitary pleasure. For three days, I ate and wandered and did exactly what I wanted.

bryant park nyc nypl view

I bought a last-minute ticket to Matilda on Friday night. I ate my lunch in Bryant Park (above) nearly every day. I popped into the New York Public Library‘s main branch, also above, to see the exhibit on my favorite rapping Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and to say hello to Pooh and his friends.

I went to five bookstores. I went with my college friend Mary Kate to see our friend Jeremy act and sing in his New York theatrical debut. I walked and walked and walked. (And drank quarts of hibiscus iced tea, to counteract the stifling heat.)

hibiscus iced tea journal

“New York meant much more than New York,” Julia Cameron writes in The Sound of Paper. “It meant sophistication, taste, freedom and accomplishment.” New York means all those things to me, and it also means a chance to explore neighborhoods and streets I find endlessly fascinating.

I have some New York favorites now: the bookish glories of the Strand; the elegant and charming Upper West Side; the twisting streets of the Village, packed with boutiques and restaurants galore. I love a ramble through the urban wildness of Central Park, and I love popping into the nearest library branch. (This time, the Jefferson Market Library was just around the corner.)

jefferson market library tower nypl nyc

I love the way New York is always surprising, teeming with life and change, thrumming with ambition and hustle. And I love the pockets of quiet and peace, the carefully tended flower boxes, the occasional empty street. New York is all possibility, and I love stepping into its current for a few days, becoming a part of the bustle and verve.

More NYC photos and stories to come.

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my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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tulip magnolia buds blooms

Spring is still struggling to tug itself forward. So am I. Outside my writing window, it is drizzling, and my mood matches the atmosphere—dribs and drabs of depression, a light misting of malaise. What’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with spring: I am not all here yet. Some part of me is still caught in yesterday’s winter, and that chill grip on my ankle will not let go.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

“Everything right now feels tentative, uncertain, transitional,” Lindsey wrote recently on her blog, and I felt a quiet thump of recognition when I read those words. Yes.

After a winter that did not overpower us like last year’s, I think we were all expecting an early spring. But the weather in New England – whatever else it may be – is rarely predictable.

A couple of late snowstorms (six inches of snow in early April!) and attendant cold snaps have pulled us up short, reminded us that winter isn’t quite gone yet. The evenings are longer, the light sharper and more golden, but the air still carries a bite. On most days, I’m still wearing my winter uniform of black leggings, ankle boots, green wool coat. I have been yearning for a vacation to somewhere warm, but that wasn’t in the cards this year.

During these breezy, capricious spring days, I have also been in transition at work (again): adjusting to the rhythm of a new office, six floors above the ground in Harvard Square. New colleagues, new duties and dynamics, a slight shift in work hours, a different angle on the neighborhood and the university I love so well.

I have struggled to be “all here” in this season, to live in my new-for-now reality instead of missing the one I left, or worrying over the lack of permanence. Meanwhile, various other uncertainties, large and small, keep knocking me off balance.

“We are always swept this way and that,” Jessica Fechtor writes in her gorgeous memoir, Stir, which I read last week. “We create the life we want to live, yes. Then, in return, that life creates us. We follow the tides; we have no choice. We splash about beneath the brightest of moons, then the darkest of skies, tug hard from the surface on anchors that refuse to budge, and then, if we are very brave, dive deep.”

Some seasons, as Lindsey noted in her post, feel particularly off-kilter, uncertain. And yet this is the way life is, though we don’t always realize it. We spend our days in the liminal spaces, moving from change to change. We follow the tides, as Fechtor says: sometimes floating and splashing on the surface, sometimes diving deep. I know that all these things are true, and yet I am always searching for anchors, a safe place to rest, a still point or two in a turning world.

I find it hard sometimes to look for the beauty in transition: it’s much easier to appreciate budding trees and unfurling tulips than it is to make sense of deep personal struggles. But the in-between places are where our lives take shape, and there is – I know – lots of joy to be found there.

“My job, and I do not always like it, is to imitate the season unfurling outside my window,” Julia Cameron writes in the essay quoted above. As I walk through this slow and lovely spring, I am trying to emulate the trees and flowers: to pay attention to the light, and (as Julia concludes) “to push on through the gray into greater blossoming.”

early tulips public garden boston spring

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journals bon voyage red stars

When we are unable to work, we can work at the work of getting ready to work. Writers can lay in supplies of paper and enticing pens, notepads that plead, “Please write on me.” Painters can prepare their canvases, clean their brushes, neaten their studio space. Potters can acquire a new lump of cool clay and clear the table spare where they will knead and shape it. Gentle things can be done.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I’ve written before about how Julia’s words – especially in this book – are touchstones for me. She writes honestly about the frustrations and fears of the creative life, but is always nudging herself and her readers gently forward: Easy does it, but do it.

Write a few pages by hand, she says. Slip in an “artist date” on your lunch break. Pick up a few books that inspire you. And then there’s the advice above: so small and simple that it’s easy to overlook. But on these long winter afternoons, it is saving my life.

Some days I am able to move quickly and efficiently through projects, crossing tasks off my to-do list. (I love those days.) Sometimes I have a deadline prodding me along, or a colleague who needs something from me. That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I know I need to do something – send an email, draft a piece, tackle a nagging task – but I can’t make myself get started. This is where Julia comes in.

I like the phrase “the work of getting ready to work.” For me, that sometimes looks like buying nice pens or vivid, lovely journals (see above). But more often, it’s an even smaller step: Creating a Word document. Starting an email. Making a list. Figuring out what a task actually entails, breaking it down into manageable steps, and then tackling the first one.

Sometimes, the very fact of that waiting Word doc or email draft or to-do list is a scaffold I can climb on, materials in hand, and start to build something good and true. It may be only a stark outline, but it’s often enough to nudge me forward, toward the real work. (Bonus: these things also mitigate the terror of the blank page or screen.)

How do you nudge yourself to get ready to work?

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strawberry book breakfast


For me, living in New York is a tricky balancing act. Daily, I must leave the cage of my apartment and venture out into the city. Then, I must get in, out of the city, back to my apartment nest. The cage/nest contradiction is a constant one. It goes with the urban terrain. The enchantment of New York is its big dreams. The reality of New York is its small living spaces.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I remembered Julia’s words last week, on a warm, sunny evening when all I wanted to do was stay home. I felt a wee bit guilty about this impulse – because, for a good chunk of the year here in New England, going outside in the evenings isn’t really an option.

In the winters – especially one as long and brutal as this past one – we long for the days of open windows, long walks and afternoons at the beach. By the time spring comes, we are restless, aching to get out and stretch our legs. And once summer comes, we embrace the warmer weather with reckless abandon.

charles river view boston sailboat

I’ve spent at least a dozen evenings down on the Charles River lately, paddling in a kayak (from which I took the photo above) or walking along the Esplanade. I love a stroll through the Public Garden, and I adore an hour spent hanging out in Harvard Yard. Over the long 4th of July weekend, the hubs and I spent an afternoon at the beach, went to a Red Sox game, and threw the Frisbee on Boston Common with a friend.

But in the summer, as in all seasons, sometimes it feels good to come inside, back to the apartment that has been home base for nearly five years (!) now. With its twinkle lights, overflowing bookshelves, cozy living room and the dining table I’ve had since college, it is my nest, the place where I can relax.

The hubs and I love to explore Boston and take occasional jaunts elsewhere (like our recent one to Maine), but we also need time at home, to read and cook dinner, putter around and watch Modern Family, to sprawl barefoot in the living room and exhale.

Do you see the nest/cage contradiction in your own life? Especially if you live in a city, I’d be interested to hear your experiences.

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Last night, after dinner with Happy (a lovely and completely unexpected gift), I spent hours alone in my flat…reading, writing and just soaking in solitude. As has often been the case this semester, the evening included a Julia Cameron exercise. In her chapter titled “Catalysts,” she pays tribute to the people who have inspired her writing over the years:

Another word for “muse” is “fuse lighter.” Some people simply provoke us into art. We respond to their interest and enthusiasm as to a welcome challenge. Such people are invaluable. It is not that we would not make art without them, but we might make less art, or art of a lesser caliber.

Cameron then challenges the reader to list five “fuse lighters” (though I rather prefer the image of a candle lighter) that they have known ,and the projects they have sparked or jump-started. I confess I listed eight or so, and went on and on about them. As all artists – and human beings – know, having a network of loving, creative, enthusiastic support is truly invaluable.

Here are the first five who sprang up, some with the creative projects they’ve helped engender:

1. Jon, my fabulous best friend, inspired a poetry kick in ninth grade which continues in some form to this day. Somewhere I still have the sheet of “inspercations” we scribbled down together, which generated dozens of poems – and he waded through yards of them. He has been the touchpoint and first reader for many of my ideas through the years, and continues to encourage and support me. He never has wanted to be my critic, but he’ll be my idea man any day.

2. Geoff Walker, my brilliant, enigmatic English teacher from senior year at MHS, is also a musician, a poet, a bit of a mystic and one of the greatest hearts I’ve ever known. He always believed I was something wonderful, and thanks to him, I have grown more into who I truly am. He has given me books, poems, music, letters, encouragement and so much other inspiration, and when I am very sad or very happy I think of his oft-used phrase, “There’s always more.” Yes, there is, Walker…much, much more.

3. Cole most recently inspired “Infamy,” with his song about Pearl Harbor, and before that helped inspire “In the Presence of a Hero” and “Of Swing Dance and Style” (both published on Radiantmag.com this summer). His music (and Ed and Jenni’s) is also a muse for me. I can’t help but pick up a pen every time I hear them play…even if I just jot down lines from the songs they sing.

4. Bethany, my sweet roommate, knows all about the search for the right word, and has an excellent ear. We love stories and poetry, and we speak the same language. We trade books and anecdotes and even sentences to see if they sound right. She loves my stuff, but she also loves me enough to give criticism where it’s due.

5. Oxford is not a person, but a very real presence in my life, and quite a muse. It has inspired my entire life for the last three years…poems, stories, essays, recollections, faith and the way I live. It has changed me and shaped me. I will live there some day…I will…and I will keep going back to it my whole life.

6. (I know, I know, I said five, but whatever.) Jeremiah has helped sustain me and cheer me on through the last three roller-coaster years. He has lit candles of faith and love and grace for me, and kept them burning when I didn’t see how it was possible. And, of course, he is absolutely so much fun. 🙂

The common thread on this list is not simply that these folks love me, though that’s certainly true (and I love them too). It is that all of them have inspired me to live, and so to become more of an artist. Julia comments elsewhere, “In order to make art, we must first have an artful life,” and these people (plus many others) have helped inspire me to live more fully, more artfully. To stay up talking half the night; to lindy hop to jivin’ saxophone music or savor a slow, graceful twirl; to walk windy streets for hours alone and find parts of myself that I didn’t know were there all along. To read, and sing, and travel, and laugh, and cry. To simply live – and thus to become more fully me. My life is more artful because of these muses. And for that I am deeply, deeply grateful.

Who are the candle lighters in your life?

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Another writing exercise from Julia Cameron, this one called “Soldiering Through.” (Though it could just as aptly be titled “Crushing Your Inner Perfectionist.”)

Number 1 to 10 and finish this sentence as quickly as possible:

“If my ego would allow it, I’d try…”

1. Becoming fluent in French.
2. Taking up ballet.
3. Learning yoga.
4. Writing more poetry.
5. Playing the piano (well).
6. Learning to play guitar.
7. Moving overseas.
8. Going to graduate school.
9. Writing the extensive story of our time in Oxford.
10. Knitting a sweater or cape.

What is your inner perfectionist keeping YOU from? And does anyone have ideas on how to combat these blasted inner fiends?

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From Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper, from an essay aptly entitled “Trust”:

“Many times, when we are in doubt of our creative trajectory, it is because we are lacking in trust. We do not trust that a peaceful unfolding awaits our appetites. We are afraid to reach for what we want, afraid that as we reach, what we hunger for will be snatched from us. We believe in a capricious and withholding God.

“…When we trust ourselves, we become both more humble and more daring. When we trust ourselves, we move surely. There is no unnecessary strain in our grasp as we reach out to meet life. There is no snatching at people and events, trying to force them to give us what we think we want. We beomce what we are meant to be. It is that simple. We become what we are, and we do it by being who we are, not who we strive to be.

“We are right-sized. We are who and what we are meant to be. All that we need, all that we require, is coming toward us. We need only meet life, not combat it. We need only encounter each day’s questions, not raise a fist at the heavens over the questions of tomorrow.”

I am trying very hard to believe this. One day, only one day, at a time…

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