Mari Andrew's 'Inner Sky'
A conversation with the writer and artist about her new book, making art in a pandemic and the power of a personal story.by Gretchen Brown
Writer Mari Andrew's latest book, My Inner Sky, is a memoir, but feels like a manual for getting through the tough stuff. And boy, what a year for it to publish.
"We've been so confronted with collective grief and proximity to suffering no matter where we are," Andrew said.
"And, I'm really motivated by the real conversations that I'm seeing and how young people, especially, are talking about pain and death and really difficult taboo subjects more and more openly."
Things weren't this way when she began working on the book years ago. At the time, she was recovering from a serious illness, feeling exhausted by the pressure to be positive all the time.
It just wasn't possible. And she began wondering, eventually, if it was even worthwhile to always be positive.
Couldn't sadness and hurt be beautiful too?
My Inner Sky is an ode to the transitional periods in our lives. And while her art is bright and colorful, it sits comfortably in feelings of grief and pain, treating them as necessary for growth rather than shameful feelings to brush aside quickly.
Rewire recently spoke with Andrew about the book, making art in a pandemic and the power of a personal story.
What was different about writing this book in your 30s versus your first book in your 20s?
My first book, it's called Am I There Yet? because I felt like there was this place where I was meant to arrive, but I didn't really know what it was. Having the relationship, having the career, having the home, having the friend group, I didn't know which one was going to make me feel like I had my life together. And so I was kind of searching for that and all of the beauty that comes when you're experimenting and you're uncertain and you're searching for what really you value in life.
And then I think in your 30s, it's a different set of challenges. I don't think there's so much focus on, 'Have I made it, am I an adult yet?' as much as feeling like you might just be in such a wildly different place from your friends. I mean, I am still online dating and I have friends who are considering their third child. We're the exact same age. It doesn't feel any more like there's this place to arrive to.
It's not like that anxiety of your 20s, 'If I don't have this I'm not a real adult.' It just feels like, 'Wow, how can I have these really intimate relationships when our priorities are really different? And our lifestyles are really different?' And I've been thinking a lot lately about the antidote to loneliness, and I really think it is community. It's being friends with people who are different from you.
And that can mean people who are in a really different career space, really different relationship space from you. So it's confronting a lot of that and realizing that a lot of it doesn't matter as much as you think it does.
In this book, you write a lot about the in-between stages in life. And it reminded me of what we're dealing with as we wait for the end of the pandemic.
It's interesting that there were so many parallels because what initially inspired this book was this waiting time I had when I was recovering from a serious illness and kind of knowing that I would get back to "normal" or back to full health, but not knowing how long that would take and not knowing what it would look like and, and not knowing what it would even feel like. Because I sort of couldn't remember what it felt like to be healthy.
And during that time, I realized that our society is so built for these beginnings and endings and I mean, we love parameters. We love to know exactly how long something will take and what it will look like. And really these in between times, we're just not built for it. We don't have rituals for it, we don't have a vocabulary for it.
And so, what I learned during that time recovering from illness was I really had to be present to what I was going through and not try to rush into that back to normal place and not try to rush the light at the end of the tunnel, because that was just making me miserable.
And many times during this past year we've had this experience of not knowing how long it will take, not knowing what it will look like. And I've had to say, 'Okay, well, all I have is today.' This is the only day that I know what this is gonna look like, so I need to be present to what's going on here.
I really love your Magical Things I've Seen in NYC series, which you mention in the book and you've posted on Instagram. It does get me thinking about life in a pandemic. There aren't as many chances for spontaneity.
That's been the hardest thing, on a very personal emotional level, of the past year is just no one moves to New York to stay inside. These spontaneous moments were so motivating for me and a way that I felt really attached to my home. They're not just little moments that make my day. It's little moments that really attach me to where I live and make me feel like I have a home and those are pretty basic human desires.
The way I find them is to decide that I'm going to flirt with where I am and fall in love where I am. And even if it's the ugliest block with overflowing garbage, you have to fall a little bit in love with it. You have to fall a little bit in love with people on the subway in order to, to really see them as charming and endearing and very human.
And so the times when I've been able to see those moments this year, were the times when I went out on a walk, and I thought I'm going to sort of flirt with this city, even though it's in this really different state than it ever has been, I'm going to look a little harder. You know, really look at what's going on instead of just taking it at face value. And I think that is how you find magic is to fall in love a little bit with wherever you are.
I will say those little moments are often so individual, and I think the magical things in the past year in New York have been collective. Every night we would go out of our homes and clap at 7 p.m. And I used to go to different neighborhoods and collect the applause scene in each neighborhood. I'd go for like 10 minutes if they were near a hospital and some were out on their fire escapes and some were out in their backyard, that was so magical. And that was more of a like collective communal experience and these little tiny things that I would normally see spontaneously happening.
The way you write about heartache and grief is really beautiful. How do you take care of yourself during that process?
I know that I am a really porous person. Like I just absorb everything. So I've gotten to the point where I have really good boundaries around media that I consume. And I'm really mindful of that. I know that I'm really sensitive to so many things that don't really bother other people. So I just try to be really protective.
I started working at a hospital. I'm a hospital chaplain, so I give emotional and spiritual support to patients. And I feel like all day long, I'm just soaking up what they're giving, I take on what they're going through, which is often really hard. And there's no way to really be optimistic, it's just suffering. You're face to face with suffering. This sounds counter intuitive, but it's almost like the deeper I go into that, the more faith I have in humans and human resilience and the human beauty and human goodness.
And it's really individual interactions that are so meaningful to me, as opposed to like scrolling and scrolling and just seeing all this stuff that I have no way of interacting with, no way of helping, no way of actually having any meaningful way of working with.
I'm curious how you've been able to work through writer's block during the pandemic. Many creatives have found it hard to keep the faucet flowing.
Unlike a lot of people who were doing beautiful work throughout the past year, I didn't have really anything to say. I felt like anything I had to say had already been said more beautifully. I just had really nothing to contribute. So there was a moment where I had to kind of reconcile, maybe this just isn't going to be the year. I'm going to have to feel a lot, but I don't necessarily know what I'm learning. I don't necessarily know what I'm processing yet. I'm just going to be feeling it.
And then maybe later, maybe in five years, I'll have this fully processed and be able to speak on it. But I can give myself that permission, maybe this isn't the year I'm going to make a whole lot of friends. It's maybe not the year I'm going to date a lot. It's not the year that I'm going to see as much as I wanted. It's just, it's just not. And I think there's some freedom in just saying, 'This isn't it.' I think it will come back to me.
You share such personal stories and I've always found them so deeply relatable. I'm wondering what it's like to put your heart out there like that, make your story so public and share yourself in that way.
I've always loved personal memoirs. It's my favorite genre. I've always loved personal essays, travel essays. And I've always loved songwriters who write from really personal experience. And it's always felt intuitive to me that the more specific you make something, the more universal it is, which I've certainly found with my own work, the responses I've had are so lovely to hear.
I think it doesn't feel vulnerable to me because it's such a processed product by the end. It's not my journal, it's not raw, going through the emotions, it's a kind of mythologizing of what happened to me, what it means in kind of the greater scheme of my life and the world and what's going on.
But of course I have to say, there are times when I think, 'Oh, God. I really put it out there.' I don't really care because I know as someone who consumes a lot of personal work from other people, I'm just so grateful when they do it. Creativity as an act of service is really mining your own experiences in order to provide companionship for other people. And I'm so grateful when other people do that. So I hope that that will be helpful to others in some way.
My Inner Sky reads like a memoir, but it also feels in some ways like a self-help book, like I'm learning from it when I'm reading it. What do you hope people will take away when they read it?
I felt so connected to my audience while I was writing it. What I wanted to do was write back to every email and message I've gotten and just affirm people, through my stories, that what they were going through was so valid and so worth going through and worth feeling about.
I think that the throughline of all of that is that all of your feelings belong. I got so many messages throughout the years that were like, 'Why can't I get over this guy? He wasn't even that great.' And then I would want to tell them, 'Because you liked him. Because he mattered to you. Because you felt things for him.'
You know, that's all so valuable. It's your life, it's your emotions. Your feelings are welcome in your life. And none of them are to be banished, none of them are wrong. And so that's what I really wanted to tell people: the things you're going through are all so valid and so universal and all of it belongs. All of it belongs in your life, even the stuff that it seems like no one understands.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.