About Melissa

Melissa Olson Meeks lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, Chris, and their dog, Olive Olson Meeks. She practices yoga, guitar, and the study of film, literature, visual art, and design.

Yardscape

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The beauty of being done with the dissertation and jobless is that for now I can get up and write whatever I want. Untethered, I gravitate toward poetry. I’ll share my latest.

A writing teacher of mine once wisely said that if you have to explain a poem, it’s probably not a good one. I agree, but I’m making no promises, and this is a blog not an anthology (which generally has a lot of annotation too) so I’ll just tell you it’s about one of Junie’s everyday adventures.

I’m sure other parents can empathize with my impulse to control the world around her so that it’s safe and secure. All the while, she seems to seek out the most precarious scenarios. Watching her in wonder, I both treasure her curiosity and fear its unexpected consequences. I spend many of my days marveling at her tenacity and trying to decide when to move her before it may be too late and when its ok to let her fall. As a parent I struggle to surrender her to the rest of the world, even though I see how often it nurtures her inquisitive spirit in ways I cannot fully fathom myself. When I look closely I can see that she is being cared for by an entire universe, and I am only a small part of it.

Yardscape

I’ve planted pears and primrose.
The plumbago blooms like
frost along the masoned front
porch. Pots full of aromatic basil,
lemon, rosemary, and catmint line
the back patio. But my daughter
walks me passed them all
to the wild grass and thistle
in our adjacent lot.

I scour for poison ivy where she
plunks down to wave at the colors
she sees, purple and peach, and
to greet a lady bug that sleeps on
a blade dipping up and down
in the breeze. Dimpled fists grasp
at swollen seedpods, please
don’t take a bite!, and short legs
stomp through grasses that
make the backs of my knees burn.

I point out butterflies – flit, flit -
She points out bees – go, bee, go -
then laughs at the yellow flower
face that grins back, while I look
up at clouds and see rain that will
sweep in. At night I’ll rock her to sleep
with a song about the thunder. How it
tells its little raincloud goodnight – crash,
blast, boom. Her eyelids close
in silence, and she drifts off in
a storm that whispers her its music.

 

Near Sunset, Facing Southeast

Near Dusk

 

Today I am finally able to scoff at the “All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide” newsletter in my inbox. A big, fat checkmark and a command to delete is all the attention I need to give that one. But I still open it.

I love this type of literature that psychologize the process of writing, completing a long project, and getting yourself to the degree. They will often propose that you conduct an intriguing personal alchemy. They show you that you can trick your mind into greater productivity and avoid procrastination by being mindful of what it is that you really desire out of your project. Also, of course, there is the importance of maintaining the “other” non-dissertation parts of your life.

For many ABDers these other parts are simple necessities, like sleep, food, exercise, phone calls to friends on the outside. I gave myself a lot more leverage than that — which I can admit now because I am no longer ABD. My outside included travel, time with family, long lunches with my husband, walks, marathon training, moving and settling into a new home, and gardening. But mostly I spent my time caring for my little daughter from her early stay in my belly through her first year of life. With all of that going on, my dissertation was a lot more “on the outside,” than the rest of my life, which was always happening right now and usually right in my lap.

Sometimes I struggled and felt guilty about that, as though I should have been burning the midnight oil at my desk. I had to ask myself if I was selling myself, my advisors, and my fellowship coordinators short by doing anything else. But of all the lessons that I’ve learned about writing maybe the most important was that for me to do the job and do it well, it had to exist alongside my world and not be the whole of it.

I’m sure not everyone is like me in this respect, but for as much as I can get drawn into a specific question and spend hours of research, reading and writing where I ponder multiple answers, I like to have my hand in several pots at once. That way when I hit a breaking point (or a burnout) in one area, I can step right into something else and usually come back with a clearer head for insight.

So what do I step off into now that my degree is finished?

My greatest joys in graduate school were tied to that time I spent with my writing, spinning out a line of thought into a whole that could change the way something, a piece of art, a book, a film, had originally appeared to me, or articulating some kind of ambivalence that I sensed pulsing beneath its surface. And isn’t that the same thing that drives my creative writing?

I also liked the practice of dissertating: getting up early in the morning, every morning, sitting with my creative self, and getting lost in the work before my “real” day with Junie started. I’ll keep doing that, just like I keep going out for fresh air and movement everyday even though I’m not running any marathons this year.

But no matter what thing I “do” next, I know it will only be one thing — not everything that defines my life and how I spend the short course of hours I’m given each day.

Is it normal to feel like the dissertation is sucking the life out of you?

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I don’t want to be unfair. I realize that the dissertation gives me a great deal of pleasure, interest, and fulfillment that I would definitely miss if I didn’t have the hours that I do tucked over my laptop with the synonym finder on my left and cup of coffee on my right. But I’m starting to really resent the fact that I feel like every moment not filled with Juniper had better be filled with dissertating – or else!!

The result is that I don’t take time for myself. I don’t take time for other kinds of writing and creative work that I really do enjoy. I don’t recharge and I seem to get increasingly frazzled, irritable, and the cloud of free-floating anxiety above my head starts to darken and to sink down, down, down. . .

You know what I’m talking about. These huge projects that are always there, always begging you for more time, always taking a mile when you give an inch. Far more needy than any 6-month-old could ever be! When you’re finished, you fantasize, you can return to all the things that you’ve let slide over the last week, month, year(s!). And the dissertation becomes, not a helpful training exercise, but a big, fat roadblock and you just want to scream: Get out of the WAY!

When things are good, I find a way to keep my work in perspective, to make headway toward other life goals at the same time that I set aside time to write. Every morning I’m up, I’m at the desk, but I walk away and don’t feel bad. And yet somehow it seems that this dissertation won’t be satisfied until I’ve given up sleep, given up blogging, given up running, cooking, mothering to birth it into existence.

Pesky dissertation. How do you keep yours in check?

What is your favorite building?

by @MelissaOMeeksOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I came across this question in Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families – the idea being that part of being happy in a family is to create a space for joy to grow. Being aware of buildings that have affected you (positively) is supposed to give you clues as to what kind of building you’ll most easily be able to transform into a home.

Chris and I are house-hunting so this seems to me to be a worthwhile exercise!

My short list includes:
my grandparents’ split-level home in suburban Iowa,
the Opera House in Paris,
the castle ruin at Königstein am Taunus,
St. Stephen’s Church in Mainz,
Berlin’s Neue Museum,
and the townhouse that Chris and I shared next to Forest Park in St. Louis.

Clearly, for all of my interest in critical theory, I’m a Romantic at heart. These are places that I’ve felt most loved or that made me feel connected to the past. Nearly all of the more public spaces include some mixing of historic and contemporary elements. I fall easily for buildings that reveal their history with both preservation and adaptation.

Chagall Fenster

photo by Nietnagel

More surprising to me is two of these spaces (the Opera House and St. Stephen’s) feature large works by Marc Chagall. Now that I think about it, Chagall must have been one of the first artists that I ever became aware of — thanks to a good elementary school art teacher! — but even though he’s a contemporary of many of the avant-garde artists that I write about, I’ve never ‘worked on’ Chagall.

But his colors  – it’s impossible for me to stand in the wash of blue beneath those cathedral windows and not feel that I’m about to float up into the sky like one of his curved ghosts. Kant discounted color as being too visceral, and thus too pleasurable, to be truly beautiful, but I say, bring on the vibrating heartstrings!

chagall

That’s probably why I also love Rothko. In a totally non-intellectual way, I feel like I can fall into his paintings. Standing in front of one long enough I see the colors start to move in a slow bleed between one and the other. I can never decide if the effect is more calming or exciting.

No wonder that Chris and I painted the wall in our first living room bright red. With any luck in a few months’ time you’ll find me painting our doors yellow, blue, and red, and building little shrines to loved ones to our new refrigerator door. I’m hoping for a spot that we can mark with signs of our own history and our own connections to the world around us — a cumulative effort that Juniper can take part in by drawing on our walls and helping us plant trees in the front yard.

Do you have a favorite place, artist, or architect that has shaped how you have made your own home?

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Earth Day!

images and text by @MelissaOMeekssv flower 4

Hey, remember that time when you were little and chasing lightening bugs in your grandmother’s backyard at dusk? The grass was cool under your bare feet, but the air was still thick and heavy from the hot summer day. Pulses of yellow up rose up from the ground toward the purple outlines of trees against the sky. You reached up higher, higher, and grasped one of these little lights between your cupped palms. Then you slowly cracked open your pudgy fingers and peered down at the tiny creature tickling its way across your lifeline before he lifted off in a brilliant little shot of green.

Remember when you were walking the beach? The sand was rushing and swirling against your ankles leaving little bits of foam and brine on your calves. Beneath you the earth seemed to be breathing with the rhythmic in and out of the waves on the shore. At home, at your desk, you might think that the ocean is the most cliched of metaphors, the most tired of symbols, but there, at the water’s edge you felt something resembling hope and faith rising up in your chest and understood completely why so many poets and painters have tried to capture its power.

Remember the electricity in your first kiss? The satisfaction of the best meal you ever ate? The smiles on everyone’s faces on the first warm day after this unusually long winter?

All these moments — the substance of your body, the breath in your lungs, the energy streaming from your heart — were brought to you by our beautiful, bountiful earth.

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I’ve never gotten that into Earth Day, but, maybe because I dreamed about watching Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life last night, I’ll be looking around at the planet with a little more awareness today.

I want to take Junie for an afternoon walk and marvel at how hot it’s getting here already. It’s supposed to get up to 90 today! I love to watch her eyes following the sunlight filtering through the trees and hear her breath catch when the breeze picks up. How exciting it must be to experience the world for the first time.

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I’m also really thrilled about my slow change-over to homemade cleaning products. Thanks to all the tips I got from facebook friends and Ford and O’Brien’s Homemade Cleaners, I’m on my way! I’ve been amazed at how simple and cheap these cleaners are to make. My favorite is the all-purpose solution of white distilled vinegar and water (1:1) mixed with lemon essential oil — so that the vinegar smell isn’t quite so strong. It’s definitely worth trying out!

Are you going to celebrate Earth Day this weekend? I’d love to hear what you have planned.

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How Austin has made me crunchier…

no motorized vehicles

When Chris and I arrived in Austin last August it felt like we were entering the plot line of some feel-good romantic comedy. As though we had just been taken in by some ex-hippy aunt to work on her organic farm while finding our feet — it was only a matter of time before we would fall in love with the handsome single dad at the weekend produce stand and watch eternal happiness ensue.

I mean this in a figurative sense, of course. But seriously we are kind of enamored. There’s a laid-back quality to the city, like a happy dive bar or a t-shirt that is super soft from years of washing. The people, who are increasingly, overwhelmingly transplants (sorry natives) are incredibly friendly and we’ve felt enveloped in the warmth of the place all through the winter. (A remarkably harsh one in Austin terms, but after Berlin and years growing up in the midwest, we barely noticed).

In December I gave birth here and felt myself casting out roots for my little growing family, reaching down into the soil and the history of this place and hoping to watch our lives flourish. Now the place is dotted with vibrant wildflowers all along the sides of the interstates — glowing, as Conor Oberst says ‘like a wall of new tvs.” It’s difficult to be unhappy here.

olive in flowersStill, no place is perfect. That interstate is full of traffic most times of the day, despite the city’s commitment to green living. And my inquiries into Texas’s history have revealed a legacy violent enough to make your heart sink with shame. Just read Philipp Meyer’s recent well-researched novel The Son, or Fehrenbach’s history of texas Lone Star and you’ll know what I mean.

On the other hand, the civil rights summit hosted in Austin last week reminds me that the human story is capable of changing directions.

Being in this ‘wild’ west has made me more aware of the world that we are helping to create now. And acknowledging that my little baby will inherit that world has made me more open to adapting our lifestyle to make it more sustainable. I’m grateful to be in Austin, where it seems that the opportunities for doing so are particularly great.

It’s not just about the city’s support for local businesses, or its ban on plastic grocery bags, or the commitment to sustainable gardening practices encouraged at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center down the road from our house. There is a creative energy here that makes me feel like the world is still becoming. . . what?

olive explorerSo, yes, I’ve gotten a little crunchier since being here. I wash out every recyclable and am making my own eco-friendly cleaning products. I’ve cut way back on eating meat again — not a very Texas thing to do! They are small changes, but I hope they mean something.

Has your community inspired you to change your lifestyle? How do you maintain the commitment to ‘creative’ living in your own city?

Creativity as Practice: honing a craft can mean letting go of expectations

Studio by John Lambert Pearson

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. ― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

With every chapter that I write in this dissertation, I am conducting a second area of research. I am constantly evaluating and refining my own creative process. In the past year have identified how many hours I can write reliably per day without burning out (4-6), what times of day are best for working (mornings), what outlets I need during the rest of my day in order to feel energized during working hours (exercise, eating, time connecting with friends and family). I have learned to watch myself power through my own doubts and fears about completing a chapter, have learned to work my way through an argument allowing it to transform into something unexpected, and to trust that, as I write, the insights that I can only intuit at the beginning of a project will eventually find their shape by the conclusion.

I’ve noticed that I sometimes enjoy the process of honing my craft more than I do the finished product.

In part, that’s because I rarely, if ever, meet my own expectations for a project, perfectionist that I am. But recognizing how much I enjoy the process of creating something allows me to let go of the inevitable mistakes I make along the way — critical for getting around writer’s block and getting down to the business of actually working!

Lily Percy’s post this morning for my favorite npr program On Being, reminded me of how often times great accomplishments require us to let go of expectations of greatness. She advocates striving for curiosity instead of success — following our own impulses to learn new things, play new instruments, essentially to live creative lives — without attaching ourselves too fervently to the outcomes of our work.

We too often give up projects because we fear that we lack the talent to create the masterpieces we see around us, but in doing so we not only form barriers that inhibit our innate urge for personal growth, we also detach ourselves from the joy of pursuing our various goals.

I’ve found that my hobbies are the perfect place to remind myself of the joy of sustained practice for its own sake. I wrote about how running informs my writing last year, but artistic endeavors are especially good for supporting the creative mind.

What hobbies and interests do you have an interest in pursuing for their own sake? How do they inform your work and enrich your life?

The end of the world: reflections on the last year

me at the ocean

“This then is life,/Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions/How curious! how real!/Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.”

– Walt Whitman

One year ago it was Easter week and Chris and I were vacationing in southern Spain. I remember waking up there on my thirtieth birthday and looking out over the Strait of Gibraltar toward Africa in the distance. I watched the sky turned from purple to pink and finally blue.

People had lived in this area since antiquity and yet it seemed lush and wild, able to withstand the force of thousands of years of human inhabitation without notice or complaint. The rocky cliffs registered our presence with ruins that were already half subsumed. We were only a few of so many waves that would simply rise and fall in an endless pulsing rhythm on the shore.

It was once thought that this spot marked the end of the world, that passing through the strait would lead a traveler off the edge of the earth and into mythical realms, to Purgatory or Atlantis. And in some sense, for me, it was a jumping off point. I felt a swell there in my chest compelling me to live to finally let go of fears and anxieties that I had about work and the future and to simply let myself be.

Now at 31 I can look back over the year and recognize the creative energy that took root that morning at the edge of the world. Since then, I have moved three times, from Berlin to St. Louis to Austin, written two chapters of my fledgling dissertation, and, the biggest jump of all, I had a daughter who is transforming me into someone quite unexpectedly real, the mother I once doubted I could be.

You have probably had similar moments when the world seemed to suddenly offer you support and insight. When and where did they occur for you?

How Kracauer speaks to my concerns (and hopes) about technology

Human destinies quietly interlink and everywhere dead earthly things mix silently in. — Siegfried Kracauer

Siegfriedkracauer

If you’re like me you often find yourself lamenting the inevitable distractions provided by your smart phone, or wondering if texts and tweets are beginning to erode our ability to form real-life connections. When I heard about that baby-bouncer with the slot for an ipad, I wanted to take all monitors out of our house and fill my living room with wooden blocks for my three month old to play with. But that didn’t stop me from letting her watch youtube clips of musical nursery rhymes on my iphone. We watched together and I sang along with her. Predictably, she loved it. An all-or-nothing approach to technology isn’t really viable, and I’m pretty sure for most of us it’s not preferable either.

Even though I often belly-ache about the way technology is changing society, I actually think this is a lazy way to react to its influence. My dissertation research on early 20th century visual culture constantly reminds me that these anxieties about technology have a long history and, let’s face it, they’re getting kind of old.

I’m not suggesting that the dangers technology presents are not real, but we need to stop believing that technology has the upper hand in our relationship to it. We are the ones with all of the creative power here. We determine how to use these new tools. We shape how they are made and decide how they alter our experiences.

Art and design can serve to remind us that technology is the product of our own creative genius.

I was reminded of this when revisiting German theories on the death of Expressionism. I came across a (fairly) recently translated article by critical theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) called “A Turn in Art’s Destiny” from 1920. I love this guy because although he’s critical of many aspects of modern society, you can often find little nuggets of idealistic hope in his writing. (Adorno wrote him off for this thinking, but oh well). These moments of desperate optimism are more compelling to me that the wealth of cynical criticism that abounds among his contemporaries.

Kracauer argues that the abstraction of Expressionism has taken artists too far away from the real world, and that what is needed are artists who are willing to work with the physical world around them. Doing so allows us to shape our own destinies. He writes that “Art sets no boundaries for the creative will and because of this it can provide that fulfillment that our mortal existence is likely long to withhold from us still.”

At its best, art allows us to imagine and experiment in alternate futures. It can serve as a model for how we take control of our own technological present. (Anthony Dunne’s new book on design and fiction also explores this great creative potential.) Most importantly, however, I think we need to acknowledge that we all have a hand in this endeavor. As active users of our new techno-infused reality we should take every opportunity to understand and alter it toward the best ‘destiny’ we can imagine.

What new art pieces or technological objects inspire you to create and change your surroundings? your habits? your life?

my ultimate metaphor

Everyone warned us that January in Berlin would be dark, cold, and wet — and indeed, it was so. But because I’m making a sincere effort not to complain about the weather, I’ll say that the last month had its definite good points. Chris and I both tucked in behind our laptops and got a lot of work done. From time to time we even braved the elements and got out a bit. The highlights for me were:

  1. a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Der müde Tod at the Berliner Dom
  2. a private tour of artist Jeanne Mammen’s studio in the Ku’damm
  3. my long and winding runs through the city

These images are from my most recent long run passed the East Side Gallery to Treptower Park. I couldn’t run with the big camera, so you’ve got iphone shots that I tinkered using instagram.

To explain: a week or so ago, I was feeling pretty cooped up and somewhat unjustifiably frustrated that I didn’t knock out my first chapter in four weeks of writing. It’s true that it was unrealistic to think I would work that fast, but still, part of me was hoping…

At any rate, in my world there’s only one cure for such late-winter/writing malaise.

I googled some training plans and summer marathons in Europe and now I’m signed up to run 26.2 miles through the Thüringer Wald in early June! Regardless whether or not I end up making it through my training, or I decide to drop down to a half, or feel I’d rather hang out in Berlin that weekend just because, having some structure to my runs as a result of my new goal has been amazing.

         

I feel like a brave explorer dashing through the streets and parks, and when I come home exhausted and pink from the cold I feel a warm glow of accomplishment in my chest. Lacing up my sneakers in the mornings, I give myself a physical reminder that long-term goals are met through a daily practice that builds over time, that the best performance requires intermediate days of rest, and that the experience of working toward a goal is much more valuable than meeting it.

Now, back to my draft.