Blog

Supermarket Library

Classics are in the frozen foods. Not by the pizza, though.

Apparently, the public library in Carmel, Indiana is undergoing major renovations until 2022. In the meantime, the collections have been relocated to an abandoned grocery store. 

Remember where you used to find the Pork ‘N Beans? We got Louis L’Amour there now. You can find most of your westerns there. Zane Gray, Larry McMurtry––

How about Cormac McCarthy?

He’s a crossover. Gonna be on the endcap right there, with the tortillas.

I’m looking for Jane Eyre.

End of the cookie aisle, with the Sausalitos and the Chessman.

Right. How about The Thorn Birds?

A little further down, same aisle. By the wafers.

My aunt only wants books like The Notebook. Where are those?

You know the Oreo section?

How could I miss it? There’s, like, twenty new kinds I never heard of!

How about Dr. Zhivago?

Mmmmm. That’s a tough one. Lemme check. Oh, it’s over at the end of thirteen, you know where all those individual protein bars are?

Ohhhhhhhh, of Course! I can’t believe I didn’t think to look there.

Don QuixoteWar and Peace?

Classics are in the frozen foods. Not by the pizza, though.

Vegetables?

Right.

Contemporary poets?

Produce.

Graphic novels?

Candy.

Sci-fi?

Cereal.

Huh, why there?

Do you even remember the cereal aisle? What else would it be?

Travel.

Hah! Where do you think?

Not ethnic foods. Tell me it’s not still called that.

Bingo!

World religions?

Bread.

Dramatic works?

Dairy.

Experimental?

Baking supplies.

Children’s? 

Check stands.

Reference books?

Those are available for pickup. You can order online. 

How about young adult?

Snacks.

Diet and exercise?

Energy drinks.

That’s a whole aisle?

It is for the people who keep buying those books.

Biographies?

Deli.

Can I still get a sandwich over there? I’m hungry.

No, but Jack’s still behind the counter. He’ll write you a letter to order. Custom with stamps, address, everything. 

Can he do emails? I have a list I’ve been meaning to return, but more keep coming.

Try the café. 

The article that inspired this post is here

Counting Losses

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Mondays are hard, with all these losses piled up against all these lingering expectations, and the sleep still in the eyes. Something is missing. Check the listings.

Why does it matter to name it? Will that bring it back? All you can do with a name is add it to a list.

That is something. Look here. Someone has arrived at their location in Lakeside with their boat still attached to the trailer, only to discover that somewhere along the way, the sail has flown out.

Meanwhile, just across town, a shepherd has fled the yard on the same day that Dozer, a best friend without a collar or a chip was taken from the motel parking lot. This near midnight, Friday night.

There are at least three new orange tabbies out there today. Plus, two huskies and a fifteen-year-old pug. 

No, that’s not it. Something else. Look somewhere else. 

Shall I tell you about the massacre of children, the holy war, the thousands dead or homeless? Or would you like to hear about what’s happening with the weather? The fires have––

Stop, no. I can’t.

On this day in 1960, a man dropped from a balloon over New Mexico, and during his fall achieved the highest speed by a human without an aircraft.

What sort of challenge is this? Who falls fastest? People will make anything into a contest.

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Let’s take a break from this line of thought. Tell me about a birth.

On this day in 1920, Charles Bukowski was born. Check this out. He wrote, “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.”

The hope is exquisite here. As if to indicate that the act of cherishing was an antidote to loss. 

It is, in a way. Because at least you are holding it well. At least there is something there, until the moment when the floor gives out, or the hurricane strikes, or the top blows off the mountain that gave us shade in the late afternoon, raining ash on our city of light.

Here’s something else. I think you may like this one, another thing Bukowski said.

All the impossible losses, accumulating over all our cities of light, all these missing best friends and the sails gone to our boats, what is a body to do?

No, listen. I think you will like this.

What?

He said this, too. “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning, and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside, remembering all the times you felt that way.”

Do we have coffee?

It’s brewing. It’s almost done. Just wait.

***

More in this series:

Beasts of Burden

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids?

There’s the pulled thread that unravels the sweater, the drop that spills the drink, tiny as a tear, long held.

That’s the thing with tears. Once they start––

There’s the camel that wins “Best in Show” despite a backache, whose keeper, in celebration, announces, “Watch this!” and adds one more thing, so light it seems impossible that any beast accustomed to carrying so much would feel it.

I heard they aren’t very smart. That they have to be led to food. That they––

Of course. You can’t make a creature a beast of burden if you are distracted by its intelligence. The keepers need to believe that they have it all figured out. The keepers need to believe that the camel is fulfilled in their service, that they would be just wandering around, lost and starving, without them. 

I heard they have three sets of eyelids.

And two rows of lashes. They can even close their nostrils against the sand.

Legend has it, they were acquired as spoils of conquest.

Or as gifts, to demonstrate wealth, as such creatures often are. Poets called them the ships of the desert.

Bodies repurposed as vessels, ambitious men could use them, whenever they meant to traverse land they were not prepared to walk. Arriving safely, they would claim victory, tell stories of the journey, and feel magnanimous for leading the ignorant beasts to food.

Then they’d eat them, right?

The carriers had tough meat, but they produced good milk. Better to eat the young.

I heard the mothers will mourn.

Yes, but the keepers, assuming stupidity, will stuff the skin of a slaughtered youth with straw and place it before the mother. She will smell her young. Then they find another small one. She will give the other small one her milk. If the other small one dies, both mothers will mourn. 

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids? They are as large as half my face!

Don’t tell me she didn’t see. Don’t tell me she didn’t understand that if she could close them against the sandstorm that would blind her she didn’t know to do the same thing when she sniffed the stuffed body before her. Don’t tell me a creature whose role is bearing what others can’t carry will suddenly stop, as if it just occurred to them that doing so was an option.

Not even to die? What about the last straw?

You ever see one die, except when slaughtered? You don’t, you just find the bones. 

What happens, then?

The heart breaks, then the body, and finally the back gives out.   

Then what?

They keep walking. If they can shut their eyes against looking, they can stop their legs from stopping, even into death. 

They keep walking?

They keep walking and they turn into ghosts.

I’ve heard stories.

No one ever sees the body give out.

These ghost camels, they walk at night, still with the packs on their backs. One day someone finds the bones.

Then what?

 What do people ever do with bones? 

Decorate? Grind them into powder, make glue?

Exactly. To hold things together. To strengthen the body.

Medicine, also?

Strengthening, healing, you name it. They use the bones against the breaking, and keep on.

What the Dog Had to Say

About Us Returning to Wherever it Was We Were Going All Day

You don’t have to do this, he told us. There are ways to go missing. I will place the phone in that spot where I hide my bones. It will be safe and so will you. 

We can leave suggestions explaining our absence. That we were thinking of playing a game where we hike through a blizzard with minimal supplies, or through the desert with minimal water. We can suggest that you were testing a theory that you could get all you need from cacti. We can leave visible clues about our plans to to fly over the Bermuda Triangle, and perhaps to various remote islands and mountain towns, accessible only via small planes, and leave notes about the rock-bottom rates we found for flights with independent contractors who used only first names and required a ten-page waiver. We can mail copies of the waiver to those places where you go.  

We can go for our walks at night. You can wear your glasses and your hat and that thing over your face. You can carry a cane, put a vest on me. I’ll pretend I’m your guide.

Let me. I won’t even bark if they come to the door. Let’s hide together instead. We can go under the table and wait until they leave. We can keep them away.

Here is my head, take it. And my paw. Here, let me expose for you my softest flesh. Here I am on my back, is this enough?! I have been waiting for you, take it! You can, you can! You can stay. I will wait. Watch me. 

Strong Magic

 If you start with reason, forget it. 

I need strong magic today.

Here’s a reference. Remember the primary goal.

An experience of mystery.

Now consider this. Most people hate bad magic, but a few also hate the good stuff. Why is this?

They feel fooled when the trick works. 

That’s why you want to make it a partnership, not a challenge. Then it’s a win-win.

What about a puzzle? 

Most people hate puzzles. They’re only for the mind. Without a solution, there’s no satisfaction.

But with magic, on the other hand ––

With magic, there’s satisfaction in not solving. There’s comfort in the illusion of mystery.

Has magic lost its hold?

Hah! No, this is the age of magical thinking. 

But there’s all these beefed-up intellects guarding the gates.

Sure, but people are willing to believe anything on an emotional level. You just have to  get past the gates.

How?

You present something that seems impossible. The intellect wants to explain it. When it can’t, it gets baffled. Then you’re in.  If you start with reason, forget it. 

What about a story?

A magic trick tells a story, but the story isn’t the goal. The goal is to create a sensation. 

To what end?

The point is clarity. You start with confusion, just to get the guard at the gates of the intellect spinning enough to drop his weapons. Then you’re in.

Then they will follow?

Then they want to follow. They want you to bring them home.

The reference in question today is Darwin Ortiz’s Strong Magic, which I purchased a few years ago with a magician character in mind. One of the benefits of writing fiction is having an excuse to immerse oneself in seemingly impractical lines of research which invariably lead to useful insights beyond the character in question. (Related post: Card Tricks and Other Joys of Research)

Cohesion

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees.

You can survive a shark attack by hitting back, a giant octopus by pulling away. Do not go limp. Try somersaults and aim for the surface. If lobsters escape in the kitchen, it’s okay. You can retrieve them. Use a pot lid to herd and wear oven mitts. Grab from behind. 

There are methods, you know, for discouraging an attack by mountain lion. Hold your ground. Do not run. Do not crouch or turn.  If wearing a jacket, open it out to appear larger than you are. 

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees. If there are piranhas in the river, you can cross at night.

You can avoid sinking in quicksand if you carry a stout pole. You can smother a grease fire with baking soda.

You can land a hang glider in a wind shear, survive a riptide, drive in a blizzard, find water on a desert island. 

Name another disaster. I bet there’s a way. But what do you do when it doesn’t come? How do you survive the space between calamities? What do you do with the sudden shattering behind the next breath when the laughing child before you, so suffused in the laughter of the moment, claps his hands to announce, “Again!”

*Ideas for this list were culled from The Complete Worst-Case Survival Handbook, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. Chronicle Books, 1999.

Man and Nature

As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness.

On this day in 1956, Jackson Pollock died. He was forty-four. This morning, I’m reflecting on his legacy.

I am nature, he said, challenging ideas of Man. They said, of his work, it filled out space, going on and on, with no beginning and no end. The drip paintings are what people remember most, his whole-body dance with color on canvas.

Critics divided into camps, either praising the immediacy of the “action paintings” or categorically dismissing what appeared at first to be a random composition. I was sympathetic to both camps until I stood in LACMA before one of these paintings (No. 15, 1950, oil on Masonite) and it wasn’t even a large one. As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness. From where I stood, at an intimate conversational distance, the intricacy, balance and depth of the composition was immediately clear in ways that it hadn’t been in any of the photographs I’d seen in books. 

Before he was known as The Artist, he was expelled from two high schools. Before he was widely known, he married Lee Krasner. She introduced him to principles of modernism, and also to those responsible for his career as we know it. She meant to define her own work as separate from his, but most struggled to see the distinction, except as the othered Pollock. The idea, I suppose, was that she had sprung somehow from his rib, this man who had claimed to be nature. Extending the logic, they called her only nurture, even though she was a serious artist herself.

As nature, who did he admire?  The sand painters he loved, and the muralists. His favorite was Orozco’s Prometheus, the muscular embodiment of the liberator who saw man’s terrestrial plodding and envisioned a shift in being, stealing fire from Olympus to offer the earthbound. It changed them. They could cook, gather around, watch the smoke rise, and from this came wonder and religion, science and art, song––and yes, dance. For this, he was sentenced for life, in accordance with customs regarding the official treatment of visionaries–– those forces of nature who, by virtue of knowing how to look, defy the smug authority of the keepers of knowledge, the armed guards at the borders between us.

Curating Questions

The museum is a whole. If one part defies its philosophy, the integrity of the whole is compromised.

I was working out a problem in a story last night, and it led me to wonder about museums. I have a character who is making one on a small scale, as people do. We collect, we preserve, we save, we arrange, we project, frame, curate, acquire. How and why? Reasons vary. Wondering about her motives led me to consider museum philosophy. 

Museum: a place where something is preserved. It’s different from a gallery, where works may be brought in for a certain period and taken away again.

An institution may be designed to trigger art or manage those who presume to create it. In this way, it serves as the interface between creation and exhibition.

Possible functions of a museum include: to preserve, to celebrate, to provoke, and to expand or constrain the boundaries of a concept, idea, or form. The function must be established and revisited regularly, especially with regards to how the space and the people in it support or detract from the intended function.

The museum is a whole. If one part defies its philosophy, the integrity of the whole is compromised. If the architecture of the museum space is compromised, you cannot give attention to the art.

In developing a philosophy the central question to consider is, What is this for? A space of entertainment? A showcase? A place to inform without judgement, or to voice social criticism? Is the goal to foster self and community awareness or to uplift?

There is also the possibility of museum as monument. In this case, the emphasis is placed on the exterior of the building, which may leave those in charge of content with limited resources, so that they have to keep seeking out borrowed works for a limited amount of time. 

It all comes down to certain questions for founders, developers, and leaders of any institution: What do you want, and how much? What can you spend, and where will your resources go? One might extrapolate from this an consider similar essential questions for every artist, innovator, and educator. No museum without a clear institutional philosophy can answer these questions with any degree of consistency. 

I am not on any board or decision-making panel of any museum, but I find these questions interesting and useful beyond my initial goal, which had to do with a character.  I suppose it fits with my developing awareness that the role of any artist is also curation (“The Artist and the Curator”). By extension, any curator is naturally connected to the museum; the museum connected to specific philosophies and value systems, and these connected to ideas about being in the world.  At every level, fulfillment of a vision necessitates a clarity of purpose. Are all the parts of this organization (including myself) working toward this purpose? If not, what can be changed or rethought?

Notes and found phrases for these reflections were gathered from the article, “The Museum as Concept and Philosophy”posted at Raussmüller Insights.

In Loving Attention

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day.

It’s easy and expected to underestimate the value of giving our full attention generously and with love. So many forces in the world can work to divide us from ourselves and each other. Plenty profit from engineering more advanced ways to do just that. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a habit of looking where we are expected to look. Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard to do the opposite, and look with intention. Most of us just need regular reminders, that this is one of the most valuable acts we can do. 

Considering this at the start of a very full week, I am remembering how moved I was when I discovered the work of artist Marina Abramović through a video about her 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist is Present. Here’s a description of this installation:

“The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”

Rebecca Taylor at smart history.org describing Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present.”

Abramović speaks about her work with trust, vulnerability, and connection in her 2010 TED talk:

Poet John Clare has written, “Poets love nature and themselves are love.” These lines can be powerful reminder for an artist in any medium. These words remind me back to back to deliberate absorption, which is very different than being absorbed into the pull of endless tasks and distractions. 

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day. The work of a generous artist, offering presence and attention, never fails to remind me back to this. As Greg Boyle, one of my favorite artists of the heart has observed, “We are here to return ourselves to one another.”

So today, my focus is on returning. Not once, but over and over again. The beauty of intentional attention is that its rewards are immediately apparent. We have only to try giving it, to be reminded back to why it matters. We have only to offer ourselves fully, to be returned.

Widening the Lens into New Dreams: Revisiting the Flying Man

I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing.

I want to return to the flying man story that’s recently prompted me to revisit it for deeper understanding. The full version appears in yesterday’s post, but here’s a brief summary:

Man escapes fire, sits by river bank, unseeing. Woman of the river finds his wings beneath the silt of the riverbed. He enters the water, pulls them out, sets the wings on land to dry, and falls asleep. Waking, he tries on the wings and walks to a cliff above the river. He looks at the water. The woman of the river sees him, and he starts to re-dream all that is to come. She releases the breath she’s been holding, it catches his wings, and he flies.

This story has been living in me for some time, and this and other stories of flying men have returned to me this week: Icarus, fitted with the wings his father built him, escaping the labyrinth, only to fly too close to the sun and his death. Toni Morrison’s exquisite Song of Solomon, “O Sugarman done fly away / Sugarman done gone / Sugarman cut across the sky / Sugarman gone home.” In Morrison’s work, there are several men preoccupied with flight, and the women are support systems for them, via song and inspiration. I had not realized until recently how deeply these myths were embedded in me until recently. I’ve been working on some new material, and the image of the flying man returns. It brought me to revisit a story that arose organically from a brief freewriting session, summarized above, and presented in longer form in yesterday’s post. 

I was deeply affected, in my late teens, when I first encountered the mythical heartbreak of the fallen Icarus, and I have long been aware of a certain longing for flight that is a noticeable facet of our current psyche, especially in men. This longing to me seemed like a very particular response to a very diffuse and complex system that works to limit, imprison, and kill.

I suppose some of the draw, in my case, is also gendered. We learn the expectations of established roles before we learn to question them. They’re embedded in the dominant systems and stories of the moment. I realized yesterday that there was more to this flying man story than I had previously mentioned.

The shift has to do with the lens, which in this tale, focuses on a moment that begins when the man enters the vicinity of the river and ends when he flies over it. In allowing him to fly, the woman has fulfilled her purpose as prescribed by traditional norms. Additionally, because he has flown, her own attentions are freed from being consumed by the day-to-day details of his terrestrial care.  In this way it is both affirming and freeing. It makes sense that I would have become preoccupied with this myth during decades when I was preoccupied with a calling to heal that felt sometimes at odds with the space I needed to generate the energy to sustain my own life. Naturally, I was influenced by extant mythologies in the dominant stories around me, in which the ideal feminine is often tied to a sacrificial figure.  By this logic, her work is fulfilled when he flies. 

However, we tend to see through a glass darkly, and I missed a larger message, one which carries within it seeds for new understandings. It has to do with who this woman is before and after this. Even though she is called the “woman of the river” I somehow saw her waiting on the banks. Here’s the point I missed. She didn’t live at the water’s edge, but only came up there to look from time to time. She lived in the water, moving between the river and the sea. Her world is invisible from the perspective of the man, and the original story, as I read/told it, was viewed through his lens. The dominance of male lenses in storytelling is so omnipresent that it tends to be invisible, even to female storytellers. 

The stories that we tell ourselves allow us to slide through and around those places that we most need relief from. They can be a temporary salve as well as a key to a locked door. As Ben Okri writes in A Time for New Dreams, “We are constantly becoming, constantly coming into being.” In their stunning work, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, philosopher Timothy Morton stresses the necessity of deliberate dreaming as the way for our species to imagine restorative ways forward. Dreaming into new ways of being is very different from “finding solutions” from a locus of established norms. And yet, as Morton puts it, real solutions to today’s crises can only come into being with the deep, immersive visioning that we associate with dreaming, not boardroom-oriented crisis management task forces. 

I consider the implications of this new understanding of the woman and her relationship to the flying man. I am still moved by the badly burned men always arriving at the water’s edge, and yet I am having a better sense that the capacity to heal comes from living in a place separate from the land of fire that keeps burning and imprisoning them, from which they might fly.  She lives in the river. Seeing this, I can better and more deeply understand the importance of returning to the water. There is plenty of work to do on land, but to do it, she must emerge from the river and return to it, again and again. In her story, the moments on land are brief. This is significant. In order to listen and respond most effectively and honestly to the real and immediate needs of a given day, I need to be continually immersed in the aqueous otherworld. 

I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing. I marvel how one of the preliminary understandings drawing me to this deeper knowing was a pull I had a few days earlier, to remember the manatee, this other former land-dweller who lives in the water, this curious, non-competitive species, now endangered. They feed on abundance, these manatees, consuming a quarter of their weight a day in sea grass which are naturally plentiful in the rivers where she lives. When the natural abundance of these grasses is choked by the machinations of greed, she suffers. What is good for her is good for all of us, because we also suffer by this machine. 

Saving ourselves is not separate from saving others, human and non-human; is not separate from nurturing art, laughter, wonder, and joy. Returning to the depths of the dream worlds that allow us to see this is not separate from relief from the fires that burn us, is not separate from the need to fly.