Home -- the Idea of a Stable, Settled Existence -- Is a Fantasy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2016

Once, a therapist asked me what my “inner blocks” were against “becoming the person I really wanted to be”: settled, a homebody. The question was kindhearted, an observation of a yearning that, at the time, gave me pain.

I’d been on the road for months, my suitcase my most intimate companion, and I would cry when I thought of a house, the shelves for books, the dirt of many shoes on the doormat, the well-worn pans.

We buy so much into this philosophy of becoming — that, through effort, we can arrive in ourselves. We take Myers-Briggs tests to pin down our ephemeral natures. We read “The Purpose-Driven Life.” “How to find yourself” is the most-input Google search following the words “how to find …” Read more ...

Students of Art Can Find the Art Gets to Know Them, Too

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 18, 2016

When I was 12, I read a poem by Robert Frost called “To Earthward.” “When I was young … The petal of the rose it was that stung,” he wrote. “Now no joy but lacks salt, that is not dashed with pain and weariness and fault.” Reading it felt like peeping through a keyhole into the dimmer, holier room that would be adult life, a room whose wood was distressed, whose shadows were deep and whose silvers were tarnished, yet glowed; a magical place where salt became sweetness and pain could turn, through alchemy, into love.

Coming into my 20s, I came across it again. Instead of mysterious, it seemed to me bright and beautiful, so sweet I could almost taste it: Its description of youthful happiness, “the swirl and ache from sprays of honeysuckle,” was perfect to that time. And then, 10 years later, again. The poem’s cadences seemed jerkier than I’d remembered them, grittier, defiant.

This is art: a supposedly dead thing, letters on a page or pigment on a canvas, that, miraculously, seems to change its shape as we do. Read more  ...

The Reason We're All Horrible at Taking Good Advice

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 13, 2016

Seven years ago, a beloved friend gave me a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” The short book collects Rilke’s advice to an acquaintance, a 19-year-old would-be artist overwhelmed by self-doubt, artistic confusion and inchoate longings for greatness. Speaking from his own mistakes, Rilke counsels patience with yourself, solitude and listening to your own heart rather than the demands of the market.

I think my friend gave me the book as a gentle way of communicating the same messages to me. I was burdened by the same anxieties as the young poet: that I would never be satisfied with others, that I would never live up to a talent. But although the letters were aimed at me, I didn’t get them at all. There were some beautiful phrases in there, but they didn’t land. I left the book to gather dust at the bottom of that tucked-away bookshelf where you keep books you never intend to read again.

Seven years later, a few days ago, packing to move, I found it again. It was a completely different book; as if it had secretly rewritten itself in the dust and the quiet of the years. Read more ...

How Some of Your Ugliest Feelings Help You Experience Joy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 20, 2016

For the past six years I’ve traveled nearly incessantly: by car all over southern Africa; by plane to South America and the Middle East, through Wyoming by bicycle. Lately, though, every trip has felt harder. There’s the exhaustion of living out of a suitcase, developing rituals to keep track of my things that are so fastidious they’re almost religious, and which, like faith, inevitably fail. The fear of getting sick on the plane. The never knowing what I’m going to eat. The unpacking, which is worse than packing, and the never-fully-unpacking, which is easier but, like sweets on the physique, has a bad long-term effect on the spirit.

And yet, sometimes, the morning I get ready for travel, I feel all that lift. It’s as if the reluctance is a mist that miraculously dissolves, leaving pure eagerness. And I think: Doesn’t this happen so often? Read more ...

The Effect You Have on People Is Profound -- and Unseen

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 11, 2016 

A few weeks ago, I saw a jazz bassist play. I’d seen him before in a different venue, with a different, smaller audience. That crowd sat stony-faced as he coaxed his beats out of the belly of the instrument; he tried laughing and howling and crooning as he played, but we remained unmoved.

This recent night, though, he had younger, looser fans, who screamed as he screamed, playfully batted back his smiles like tennis balls, swiveled and danced between tables. And they brought forth a completely different man.

In front of the dead crowd, the bassist had seemed old, low-energy. His eyes were visibly cloudy with cataracts, his brow sagged, his fingers slowed as the night wore on. Yesterday evening, though, he was 15 years younger, lithe, jumpy, radiating grins.

He seemed like another person entirely, and he was. How thoroughly we are made by the intercourse we have with the people around us! Read more ...