I was wandering today in the J & J Flea Market, “The Biggest in Georgia,” with a young friend. I love flea markets, because you can get a sense of other people’s lives, both past and present. We passed an old man with a wizened face and a patchy faded blonde beard playing guitar with a young girl sporting a nose ring. She set to those strings with flying fingers singing an old country song I wish I knew. We saw little Hispanic boys clutching a small fuzzy dog, and passed through a market that smelled like Mexico. We saw chickens and game cocks and a duck in a cage. We passed a table with cast iron pans and I told my friend how you can’t beat cast iron for cooking. There were white country folk selling plants, and a large black man covered in tattoos and gold chains and cowboy boots with a sweet expression on his face. There were cheap Chinese designer bags, and tons of books. We found a great booth with ridiculously inexpensive rings and pendants made with Botswana agate, amethysts, garnets and chalcedony sourced from all over the world. My friend was talking about making art and how it will be so cool when you won’t even need anything, you’ll just imagine it and the computer in your brain will make it. Hmm, I said, I don’t know how cool that will be. Why not, she asked? Well, I said, one of the things about art is that the medium, the material, often resists you, and that is why the image in your mind is often different than what comes out on canvas or paper. You have that momentary inspiration, and then in attempting to make the thing—poem or painting, garden—you have to deal with the medium, which is balky and not always easy to work with. Take watercolors, for instance. How many great results happen by accident? You just have to go with it sometimes. Or a plant volunteers in your garden that you didn’t intend, but you find that it works for you. Or you plant something and it just doesn’t want to be there. Or language—part of the fun of writing is that it is a discovery, you don’t always know where a poem will take you. Still, she said, I think it will be cool. Well, there you have it, I thought. Kids today—they’ve grown up with computers, and it is all so natural to them. Then I wondered if our next stage of evolution will be human/robots. Which no doubt she would think is cool. We walked by a booth and I spied a piece of quilt. When I opened it, I saw a beautiful pattern of golds, olives and purples. It was distinctive—the maker had a fine aesthetic sensibility. It was small, a lap robe. I asked the man where he had gotten it. An estate sale, he said, an old black woman in Alabama had made it and he had once had hundreds. I asked him how much, and he said 5 whole dollars. I bought it. Maybe some of her spirit is in the quilt, I said to him; it needs to be appreciated. I looked at it more closely. The stitches were all by hand and as fine as anything I’d ever seen. The cloth was wool. I know that in the Depression old coats were cut up to make quilts; I have an Amish quilt made almost entirely of dark coat fabric. The fabrics were in fine shape, but clearly old. I imagined the woman putting together the quilt from things she had on hand, making do. I imagine her on her hands and knees, laying out the pattern. I imagine her taking the time to make those tiny stitches, maybe after a day of picking cotton. I imagine her satisfaction at the results, after the patience and effort. I looked around the booths, at junky plastic toys and jewelry made in sweatshops and hand carved walking sticks. Most of it wasn’t art, or even craft, but I had a pang of nostalgia for all the humble made things. I am not anxious for a future where we think things into being. I want a world where serendipity can happen, where the medium has to be wrestled into form. I put my quilt in my study, over the back of the futon. I think it is very happy there.
After The Boston Marathon April 17, 2013
Whose war is this?
an ordinary spring day
and my husband comes through
the kitchen door,
“Did you hear what happened
in Boston—at the Marathon?” he asks.
For a moment, the sunshine,
the birdsong, the forsythia in the vase
all stay the same,
before dissolving into black.
I call my sister.
Her daughter and boyfriend,
his family, yes, they are all
accounted for. She was in her
garden, feeding the chickens, and
just found out herself.
“They are shaken, she says,
“in shock, but whole,”
she reports. Lucky,
they were lucky, unlike
Martin Richard, eight.
A neighbor’s homey
“an ordinary little boy,
an imp.” She is crying now,
can’t go on. Later,
the boy’s father, his voice
unsteady, old, thanks
all the people who helped them—
those who prayed for them,
those known and unknown.
His wife and daughter
will survive, he says.
our new art form?
Lucky, they were lucky.
Unlike Krystal Campbell,
Whose mother can barely
speak through her tears
“Krystle Marie, she was
a wonderful person;
she had a heart of gold;
this doesn’t make sense,”
The pain in her voice is
too raw, I squirm, barely
breaking before I hit
the car in front of me,
the one with the vanity
The victims talk of anger
that cannot find a target,
no faces to picture, no
human enemy, no sense.
Who? Who? The
newly legless want to know.
I can barely read the
descriptions of amputations,
of shredded flesh, of limbs
ripped off, of nails embedded in
flesh, and I feel my own flesh
exposed, vulnerable. I don’t
want to feel this
or watch the mayhem, over
and over, and yet I do, I
watch the runners fall,
the blood spill, the man
clawing the air,
the smoke ascending
like a burnt offering. I want
to disregard the now eerily
familiar images, just as I tried
to disregard the images
over there, to not let them in.
Over there is here now.
We are in it now,
Sacrifice March 27, 2013
We watched a wonderful Indie movie the other night, Islander. In the movie, a young man, Eban Crane, make a rash decision which results in a boy’s death and five years in prison. When he returns to the island to win back his wife, who is living with another man, and daughter, Sara, he finds that the small island community regards him as a pariah. He doggedly persists in reclaiming his life as a fisherman and father with the help of a veteran fisherman, Popper. We watch as he learns that his own father, now dead, turned against him. Popper tells a story about how his father, once Popper’s best friend, needed to be the dominate fisherman on the island, even to the point of trespassing on Popper’s territory. When Eban asks what Popper did, he replies that he simply took his traps and moved. Eban asks how he could do that, and Popper replies that it wasn’t worth getting into a fight, and that he and his wife had lived a quiet, happy life. ”You earn your peace by the sacrifices you make,” he says,”and not anything less.”
That line struck me, and I found myself thinking about it all the next day.” Sacrifice” comes from the Latin, “to perform sacred rites.” The dictionary definition is the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable forthe sake of something considered as having a higher or morepressing claim. In the context of the movie, a man had given up dominance and wealth in order to have a peaceful life. When I was growing up, we were admonished to make sacrifices for Lent and to give our irritations and griefs up to God, as a way to give them purpose. By forgoing candy, the idea was we would put God before our bellies, and by consciously giving our sorrows to God we were transforming them. As I’ve grown older, the stakes have grown higher, and it seems that I can be dragged kicking and screaming through suffering, or I can understand that loss can be made sacred by the choice of how to bear it. In our story, Popper could have lived a life of resentment or contention. He may have seemed unnecessarily meek to some. But he made a choice that peace and friendship trumped dominance. Sacrifice implies the idea of conscious choice, of intention. Eban has a choices to make. Nothing can undo the past or the losses he’d endured, but by accepting that and refusing to operate out of a place of victimhood, he can become the father he wishes to be. In the movie, Eben grows from a reactive, angry young man to a more vulnerable man, capable of love.
We tend to think of “sacrifice” as something unpleasant and negative, an atavistic trait of superstitious people. Yet I wonder if the opposite is true.
The Two Conductors February 22, 2013
Now, this was not my aim. In my youthful arrogance I judged her, the mother of three, who’d seen her family through the Depression and WWII, as a dabbler. She painted, she wrote and she was extraordinaryily gifted in music. I would focus on one thing, I thought, and do it well. Not dissipate my energies in all those different disciplines.
However, I find my self in middle-age, a middling chorister in a community choir, an amateur painter, as well as a scribbling woman.
A professional painter friend of mine, with a family, money struggles and all the rest, said to me the other day, ”We have to take in sometimes, we can’t always give out.” I think that is what I’m doing this year, having cleared the space to work on my own healing. I’m playing. Because I don’t have too much ego attachment to painting or singing, I can be (somewhat) humble, have beginners mind. The learning curve is huge, but because I’m not so serious about these activities, I can relax and have fun. There is effort involved, sure, but that is part of the fun. I have to think this loosening up feeds back into the writing and also, subconsciously, I’m taking in strategies of sound and image that will ultimately make me a better writer.
Here’s one experience I’ve had that has made a huge impression. I left one choir because the conductor was so grim and punitive. I only learned to sing in my early forties, and I’ve always been uncertain in my sight reading. I would position myself next to strong singers and lean on them. We were marched through our songs as if in a death march, and there was no time for jokes or talking. Our conductor would be livid when we hit a wrong note, and so I found that, more and more, I was dreading choir practice. I called it my exercise in humility. I would leave each practice feeling defeated. I finally left.
I thought I was done with singing when a friend invited me to her community choir. I was amazed at how friendly they all were, and how relaxed. The spring concert was all Schubert, and I was intimidated by the music, but because there was no audition to get in, I thought I’d give it a try, hide behind some strong singer. I was very surprised at our first practice when the conductor started cracking jokes and everyone laughed. I was even more surprised when he had us sight read and sing, cold, but he said ” you’ll hit wrong notes, don’t worry about it, just get the feel for the music.” He was giving us permission to make mistakes. Wow. I was terrified when he forbade us to sit with our section. We had to read and sing our parts without the comfort of support. I strained to hear other sopranos, but found I had to rely on myself. The first few practices I sweated it out, but by the third time, with new music, the alto next to me turned and said, that sounded good. I felt my confidence surge, and actually enjoyed tackling a new piece. I found out I could sing, given the right conditions. And the right conditions are not fear. This conductor is all about possibility, all about encouragement. I feel myself reaching for higher ground because of that support. He and the group have created a safe space in which to play. Bravo!
I think as writers and facilitators we can keep the idea of the two conductors in mind. We all have the grim conductor, ready to pounce on us for not being good enough. But we also can conjure the happy conductor, who encourages to have fun, to challenge ourselves. We can imagine an inner audience full of competitive, striving choristers, or we can imagine an inner audience of supportive peers who want us to do our best. In our workshops, we can create safe places for people to play, remembering that laughter is indeed, the best medicine.
On my computer I have pasted a quote which has not attribution: “Live as thought you are enough, as if the joy is in the journey, as if life is a happy playground.”
Which is what my grandmother, Sally McCabe, did.
Keep Moving:Thoughts on Journaling and Process February 6, 2013
They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter. I stand accused.
I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art. But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are. I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, he talks about the importance of practice in any art form. I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes. In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward. So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it. I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.
Make a move. This might be my mantra. All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity. I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do. Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.
One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it. People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling. There is no entry for it in most dictionaries. At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis. For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news. I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way. I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly. I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts. I rant. I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down. But because I have no expectations, I feel free. I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.
For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals. I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight. Had I dared think that? Was that really how I felt? What if my family found out? No, better to just leave those monsters be.
But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings. Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are. When we journal, it is much like dreaming. We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational. Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams. Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate. When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited. We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns. But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out. There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost. There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together. Often these become the basis of a story or poem.
While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live. Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying. And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales. At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell. I just came across this: ”No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….” And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy. Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.” The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise. Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.
I look at my painting. I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.
Trapped in the Ice January 22, 2013
I once found an old book at the flea market called “Be Glad You’re Neurotic”. Just the book for me! Written in 1936, it has chapter headings like “You Hate Yourself. No Wonder!” and “Are You Getting the Most out of Your Insomnia and Dreams?” I did not make this up. I prop this old book on my shelf, title out, reminding myself to be glad.
Having a chronic illness is a sure way to intensify a neurosis. I’ve been sick since Christmas, sequestered in the house for the most part, too exhausted to go out. All plans for the future are on hold. I’m waiting for the verdict from the insurance company as to whether, this time, they will approve my treatment. Instead of being able to let go, to read and relax and wait to get better, I go into overdrive, fending off the feeling of impending doom. Will I be able to keep up my walking routine? To sing in the choir? To write steadily? My mind goes into ever more solipsistic rounds, and I become more tense, contracted– unable to heal. I feel guilty for having a lousy immune system. I read a book review about primitive tribes and identify with the sick woman left to die because she is no longer of use. I see her struggling to keep up with the tribe, only to die alone on the road. That’s me, I think, falling farther and farther behind. My mind turns in ever smaller circles, like the little swan trapped in the ice in “The Ugly Duckling.” I can not stay in the present, or take deep breaths. My mind is turning too frantically, even as my body is inert. Intellectually, I know better, but I’m in the grip of something I can’t think away.
This impasse is only broken when a friend calls unexpectedly. Like me, Mari has a chronic illness and has lived with all the difficulties of people not understanding, of insurance companies that are unresponsive, of dreams that have to be let go. I find myself articulating to her half-understood frustrations and fears. All the thoughts and feelings that had festered in the sealed room of my mind come pouring out. Yet, once they are not mine alone, they seem less formidable. I feel myself taking deeper breaths, feel my body loosen. Mari shares practical advice, and more importantly, she exudes a confidence I no longer have that thing will turn out. Holding onto her confidence for me, I can let go of the death grip I have on the outcome of my illness. I feel supported, and humbled. I do not have to be God. I can relax. I am reminded again that I am not alone, and I am invited to experience a feeling of being held and nurtured.
To heal, it seems, we need each other. I can do my yoga practice at home, but doing it in a group seems to be a fuller experience. I have had profound experiences of healing from healing touch, from massage, from the caring physical therapists who have put me back together, from chats with friends, from therapists, from writing groups, from the liturgy. And each time, I feel humbled and grateful, called back to Reality as sacred, freed from my ego’s need to control.
Before Mari’s call, my story about my illness was one of loss and desperation. Yet, as she offered her generous insights, I was able to reframe my story. My feeling of helplessness diminished and my sense of agency grew, even as I was able to let go of controlling the outcome. My story of isolation became a story of hope. In the book, Narrative Medicine: the Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, talks about the importance of community in helping someone re-author their story. “We need the group to re-author our stories. Rarely can re-authoring be done in isolation.”
We need others to help us heal, although not everyone can help you re-author your story, as Naomi Shihab Nye says in this poem:
You Have to Be Careful
You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.
What you say will be washed out with the stones.
You look for a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears
they already know.
Thank you, Mari Braveheart-Dancer, for being those ears.