I was dressed up for something else, so I decided to film a little clip of me reading from the first chapter of Keep Going: “Every day is Groundhog Day.”
Here is a photo of Mike Wilson, a carpenter from South Austin, installing the house we had built for Coconut the Owl last month. Mr. Wilson used to build owl boxes for his carpentry clients, but now he makes them to fill his days in retirement. His phone is full of photos of owls from the back yards of happy customers. “I’m not making a fortune,” he told me, “but I’m making a fortune in friends.”
Mr. Wilson has built over 800 (!!!) owl boxes for folks all over. He builds two a day and installs two a day. We got box #833. He told me he wants to get well past a thousand. “I just want to keep going,” he said.
The boxes are custom-built with reclaimed wood for smaller Eastern Screech Owls like Coconut, mainly to help protect them from bigger predators, like the Great-horned Owl, but also to encourage them to stick around and have babies.
We had a house built for Coconut today!
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) January 28, 2021
Mr. Wilson said his quickest box installation to owl inhabitant time was 14 hours, but it took Coconut a little longer… or so we thought.
A downright gorgeous day in Austin, Texas. Coconut is hiding in the bamboo again — the squirrels are in a frenzy, ripping up the tree cruft for their nests — but here’s a video of her from yesterday ? ? #coconuttheowl pic.twitter.com/QMTaOo7MQX
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 3, 2021
Here’s a video of her still in the palm tree, chilling in the sunshine on February 3rd.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 7, 2021
And here’s a video of “her” four days later, on Superb Owl Sunday, except she was looking a little skinny and angry.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 11, 2021
Three days later, on February 10th, she’s looking like herself again, but still not in her house.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 13, 2021
And then, two days ago, before our big winter storm, Coconut was looking really mean and miserable. We were getting really worried about her. Why didn’t she go sit in her box?
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 14, 2021
And then, yesterday… a miracle! Coconut was in her house, looking radiant! I immediately texted Mr. Wilson some photos.
Mr. Wilson was quick to point out that it seems we’ve been looking at two different owls — Coconut, and what appears to be her MATE. Yes, in a perfect Valentine’s Day twist, what appeared to be Coconut in a sad, miserable state, was probably just… well, her husband, basically.
UPDATE (2/20/21): Several people have written to me noting that screech owls puff up when they’re happy and “go skinny” and weird when they’re trying to blend in with the tree. Well, dear readers, I am happy to inform you that we have visual confirmation that there are, indeed, two owls living in the box!
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) February 15, 2021
PS. If you live in the Austin area (he does not ship!) and you want Mr. Wilson to build you an owl box, email me and I’ll give you his number.
It’s the first February 2nd since our family’s lockdown began, and the “Every day is Groundhog Day” chapter of Keep Going, while truer than ever, isn’t quite as funny as it used to be.
The thing I’m trying to remind myself: that chapter is the oldest material in the book! I first delivered the material in a talk in 2015 and a blog post in 2017. The movie itself is 28 years old. A good parable doesn’t age, it just gets truer with time. (Just remember: it’s a comedy.)
Since many of us really have been reliving the same day over and over again, for almost a year now, what new wisdom is there to be gleaned? I’m not sure there is any, to be honest. What was true before the pandemic is truer now. What was awful before the pandemic is more awful. What was beautiful is more beautiful. Etc. (Just remember: it’s a comedy.)
What I know is that there is no finish line. Even when the pandemic lifts, if we’re lucky, we’ll still be here, trying to figure out what to do with our lives, trying to figure out what’s next. All we will get is more days to fill. The problem of how to fill them will not go away.
What I missed in the book is how much novelty we crave in our lives. Something — anything! — new. Something we’ve never seen or experienced before. A new book. A new show to watch. A new hobby. Seeking out these things and savoring them and celebrating them when we come across them.
I love in the movie how eventually Phil pours himself into his hobbies: playing the piano, ice sculpting, reading French poetry. To find things to do just for the sake of doing them, to discover practicing for practice’s sake, to find things it feels good to suck just a little less at each day… that’s the kind of stuff that makes life good. (Not to mention: exploring on foot, random acts of kindness, making gifts, and, of course, screaming into the void once in a while.)
Art, no matter how badly we do it, will always be here for us when we need meaning for our days.
Happy Groundhog Day, y’all. I’ll see you tomorrow.
I have exactly one thing to thank our outgoing president for: my diary habit.
I have always kept notebooks, but starting in January 2017, I started keeping an old-fashioned, bonafide diary. 3+ pages every morning, no matter what. (Before anybody asks me what brand of notebooks I use, just shop here.) I realized early on in this administration, I was going to need a good place to have bad ideas, a place not Twitter, to shout into the void.
My diary habit led to starting to blog daily again in October 2017, and by February 2018, I had the “How To Keep Going” talk written. That talk led to Keep Going the book, which came out in 2019. So, I guess I could thank the ex-president for the end of the trilogy, too, considering I wrote it as an answer to the question, “What if we have to live through a second term?” (I did not anticipate that “second term” would be swapped out for “global pandemic.”)
I forgot, somehow, that the original ending of the talk was: “Spend time on something that will outlast them.” This was based on the Leonard Woolf “Planting Iris” story I wrapped the talk with:
For the book we went with the more — positive? — line, “Plant your garden,” which was a better container for thinking about seasonal time. I still like that original line, but I would change it now to: “Spend time on something that will outlast
“This” is whatever the this is in the phrase, “this, too, shall pass.”
What seeds are you planting now that will flower long after this pandemic, this administration… maybe even this life?
I’m hopeful and I’m happy, today, but I still have the same mission:
Stay alive, get weird, and plant your seeds.
“The pandemic is a marathon without a finish line.” In an article about what teleoanticipation (“teleo,” from the Greek, meaning end, goal, or purpose) can teach us about these COVID days, Alex Hutchinson writes:
It turns out that, if you ask yourself “Can I keep going?” rather than “Can I make it to the finish?” you’re far more likely to answer in the affirmative.
There’s a crazy marathon called Big Dog’s Outdoor Ultra, which is a four-mile loop that runners run until everyone else drops out. In a piece called, fittingly, “A Loop Eternal,” one of the champions, Guillaume Calmettes, said it was actually easier for him to run than a normal marathon:
“Because there is no predefined finish, you cannot think in terms of ‘how many miles do I have left before this thing is all over’, so in fact, I found it very easy mentally. I just had to think about the next loop. The next loop, always the next loop, it’s very easy thinking. You’re never overwhelmed by what you have left to run, because you simply don’t know what you have left to run.”
It’s a little spooky how much this squares with what I wrote in Keep Going about the creative life:
The creative life is not linear. It’s not a straight line from point A to point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person.
Forget about the finish line. Do this loop. Then do another. Keep going.
I did so much flying for book tour last year — I think I took 50 flights? — that I don’t really miss flying at all, but I do miss Airplane Mode! Here’s how Rob Walker put it in his most recent newsletter:
I love the feeling of being so out of pocket that I may as well read a novel, or make notes about some long-shot future project, or fully focus on an episode of Snap Judgment, or whatever — basically do anything besides work that somebody else wants me to do. To borrow from a prompt in the book, plane trips are a great venue for “an appointment with myself.” […] I’m working on how to recreate this, and any answer will vary by the rules wherever you are. But consider blocking out a few hours of virtual “airplane mode” time — for you and you alone.
Rob also linked to this this NYTimes piece on rituals athletes use to stay grounded:
Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers said rituals are a support system for the mind. His 90-minute ritual before an N.B.A. game is full of activities that families can try at home, like yoga, stretching and listening to mellow, atmospheric music by the band Hammock.
“I named the playlist ‘Airplane Mode’ because it’s a way for me to just shut off,” he said. Families might want to create their own airplane mode ritual on weekend mornings where they play songs they’ve chosen together and do their favorite exercises or yoga poses.
I like that idea. Here’s what I wrote in Keep Going:
You don’t need to be on a plane to practice airplane mode: Pop in some cheap earplugs and switch your phone or tablet to airplane mode, and you can transform any mundane commute or stretch of captive time into an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and your work.
Less doomscrolling! More airplane mode!
A bit of fun with Keep Going and yesterday’s New York Times. (Several people told me they thought this was real at first glance.)
“A lot of bad art is going to come out of this nightmare — including my own — and that’s okay.”
In Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art, he wrote:
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.
A fine message! But I’d also make a plug for something else: when the going gets rough, make bad art, too.
Don’t listen to people who remind you that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague— we’re living in King Lear!
When 9/11 and Katrina hit and she lost a bunch of her close friends, Lynda Barry got really depressed, and all she could do is doodle:
I found myself compelled, like this weird, shameful compulsion to draw cute animals. That was all I could stand to draw. You know, just cry and draw cute animals…dancing dogs with crowns on, you know? And, like, really friendly ducks. But I found this monkey, this meditating monkey, and I found that once – when I drew that monkey, it’s not that it fixed the problem. But it did shift it a little bit, or provide me some kind of relief. And that’s when I started to think, maybe that’s what images do, because I believe in all my – with all my heart they have an absolute biological function…
You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO… Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT.
“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.
(And when that doesn’t work, sit on the damned couch and watch some stupid television until you pass out.)
I’ve taped this picture of David Hockney back up in the studio. (Underneath these excellent bumper stickers.) It had a prominent spot on my bulletin board when I was writing Keep Going, and Hockney was one of the key figures I was thinking about when I wrote the book. (In the article the photo was clipped from, Hockney said, “I’ll go on until I fall over.” A motto worth stealing.)
And so, it’s been great comfort to me to find out he’s still out there painting, in quarantine up in Normandy, sending “fresh flowers” from his iPad to friends, reminding us “they can’t cancel the spring,” even urging us to do our own drawing:
I would suggest people could draw at this time… Question everything…. I would suggest they really look hard at something and think about what they are really seeing…. We need art, and I do think it can relieve stress. What is stress? It’s worrying about something in the future. Art is now.
Hell yes. Go on until you fall over.
Hard to believe, but Keep Going came out one year ago today. Thank you to everyone who has helped the book find its way into the world. (I’m sorry it remains so relevant!)