Garden Notes, August

Reviewing what it takes to tend to the project of growing something in this world.

In August, remove dead heads from spent flowers, teasing new growth. Teasing new growth, harvest fig, cucumber, pepper. Watch the ants, can the beans, make notes for the next season. Give extra support to limbs heavy with fruit.

This is what you do for a garden in August, unless you are fleeing the blooming fires, unless you are fleeing what will take your life, unless the tending of your tendencies tends in other directions. Still, aren’t we all, always, tending them? Unless we are setting the fires, unless we are taking what others have grown, unless we forget, unless thoroughly spent.

It still seems useful to review what it takes to tend to the project of growing, to review the detailed list of threats that are forever angling to choke out anything that anybody tries to grow, any month of the year. It still seems useful to make note of how there they are anyway, all these gardens and these gardeners, keeping on.

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.

Pigeon Spectrum

Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

You gotta come see this.

What?

These feathers. This artist makes these huge rainbow murals from the colors.

Oh, I love peacocks.

Who doesn’t, but this is about pigeons.

Flying rats!

No, but look close. Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

Where?

Sides of buildings, chimneys, warehouse walls, shipping containers. They started out more muted, but then it was the winter of sirens and another lockdown and everyone inside. That’s when they started getting really bright.

Huh, there’s a legend I heard once, about what the Cottonwood remembers about the pigeons.

Why people started calling them flying rats?

No, why they became the first birds eaten by another bird. It’s a Caddo story, I think.

Hawk get ‘em?

Owl. Legend has it that in the beginning, no bird killed another bird. All they ate was grass and leaves. Great Spirit didn’t like to see anything she made killed by another creature.

But the owl always hunted at night.

Not always. It used to see fine in the daytime. Matter of fact, that’s how it started. Owl laid eyes on a swan and fell hard in love. 

Always the swan. Great white ladybird. They’re mean, though.

So, owl goes every day to see the swan and then he proposes marriage. Swan’s like, “Come down here.” Now, usually owl knows better than to get near any water, but love makes you do crazy things. So, what do you think happens?

Wet feathers.

Yep, he falls in, can’t get out, and there’s a loon in the reeds cracking up, going, “Hah! Fool!” and Owl is humiliated, furious. Thing is, he can’t see the loon. What he sees instead are these two pigeons above him on a cottonwood branch. The pigeons are not paying the owl any mind. They’re lovers. One’s saying to the other, “Who do you love?” just as the raging owl below them is going, “What are you laughing at?” The other pigeon, addressing her love, says, “You, you.”

Uh-oh. I see where this is going.

Yep. Owl goes crazy and attacks her. Her feathers rain down, brush against Great Spirit’s cheek. Spirit wakes up, sees what’s happened, and punishes owl. And that’s why owl can only see at night now. 

Huh.

I know. 

Point being, you gotta see these feathers. 

Let’s go.

The artist is Adele Renault and I came across an article about her “Gutter Paradise” murals in My Modern Met. Here is a link to the article with images.

The story “The Cottonwood Remembers” can be found at When the Storm God Rides, by Florence Stratton, collected by Bessie M. Reid [1936], at sacred-texts.com

Against Forgetting

How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?

Against forgetting, give water to the plant

and notice the light in a stranger’s eye

––and the shadows. 

Notice the work still waiting, against

what would have you close your eyes,

surrendering time, white flag waving

for a moment before it falls like a sheet

over the sleeping body, like a sheet

over the dead.

I’d lose my head, The old women would say, 

If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to

hold the tether to what was less securely 

attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life

if it isn’t attached, by the substance

of a series of tiny actions like clay around

the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise

invisible dreams.

Against forgetting, say to the child unsure

how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand

and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,

extend an invitation to the table, 

to those cast out, disposed of,

dispossessed. This includes the children

before you and the ones made invisible

and the ones you once were.

To say, I see you, Here 

we are and remember.

To notice the little bird in the low branch,

to say its name and listen for its response

to what you have not said. To walk in

the desert, in the dark, with water and

with light.

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.

Monster Mash 3: Forget It!

One of the challenges with a new project is that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing.

I’ve got a new monster lurking around me this week. He’s given me trouble before. I haven’t named him yet. Every time it occurs to me to notice, he goes, “Forget it!”

That’s his thing, forgetting. Not the kind that makes you wonder where you left your keys, but the kind that makes it easy to forget where you were in a new, not-yet-realized project, and what the next step is supposed to be, and why it matters. I think I know why he’s showing up now. One reason is because I am now moving to focus my evening writing time on developing a new manuscript, the outlines of which are not yet fully realized. And the second is because the return to school (full, unmodified schedule of the like that we haven’t seen since early March 2020) means that the pace of expectations and outside-world responsibilities in a given day is about to increase dramatically. My work as a teacher is work that I care about deeply, and it is also true that achieving a balance between these and other responsibilities and a writing life is a constant tension. Already there are team events, extracurriculars, a great deal more meetings and noises and last-minute events and lesson planning and homework help and lots of new things to learn, make, and do–– all of which matter.

And yet, this other thing I am trying to make, which is somehow tied to the very essence of my life, matters also. But the thing about creative work like this that you are putting your energy into something that does not yet exist. It’s an act of radical hope. And this kind of hope is often under attack. 

Some of the challenges with a new project can be that no one’s asking or expecting anything, that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing. As I’ve been noticing this week and feeling a creeping low-grade anxiety about my slippery grasp on this thing I am trying to make. I use the mornings for early pages and usually these posts, and then comes the day, and all the activity that comes with it, and then, by the time afternoon writing hour strikes, I am often sitting at my desk trying to find my way back to something that seemed very urgent and clear when I was in a space of more focused attention.

That’s all I can say about this creature so far. I don’t have a face for him, or a name beyond Forget It. What I am developing now is a plan to deal with him. I am called back to one of my biggest takeaways from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: how it can be helpful to treat the artist-self as a child, in a spirit of play. Sure, I think, but when I’m tired and under stress I tend to also be too tired for play. Thinking of this I am prompted to consider how, as a teacher, I have plenty of experience working with young, usually reluctant and generally insecure writers, who also tend to be tired and under a great deal of stress. I know that reasonable demands paired with consistent structures and gentle encouragement can be most helpful in these situations. As I remember this now, I realize that while I may not have a full grasp on this monster’s anatomy, mannerisms, and preferences, I can grasp how easily he might win if I do not employ thoughtful proactive planning into my afternoon sessions. With this in mind, I begin to develop a plan that employs the best of what I have learned from working with students, who I always expect, even if I saw them one day or a few hours beforehand, will tend to arrive with a certain glazed-over sense of overwhelm and a sense of confusion or disorientation as to what, exactly, we are doing here. Well, I think. When you put it in those terms, we actually do know what to do, when it comes to this “Forget-It” force:

1. Post an agenda. Anticipate that at the end of the average “crazy” day I am going to need a written reminder as to what I am doing, where I left off, and what needs to happen in the day’s session. I would never think of having students begin the day’s work without reminding them back to it, and setting a clear purpose, time and length parameters, and some scaffolding tools and/or examples. I can write this the night before, as with lesson plans, and leave on my desk or desktop to review before I begin.

2. Provide an example when possible. An insecure writer or artist needs models. I can be on the lookout for these. This is something I have not proactively done with myself before, which recently struck me as rather absurd. Only when I was recently challenged to do an imitation exercise, did it occur to me to notice how I had foolishly resisted such practice, which made me realize how often I had been giving myself a challenge that went something like this: spend a lifetime reading what has come before you, and then, in a bold act of self-affirming will (whatever that is), reject it all and reinvent the wheel. Even though I have written about the value of Learning by Imitation, I need to give myself regular reminders that I don’t have to start from scratch. This can seem difficult with some projects, but there is always something that can be used (a prompt, a passage, a model of excellent dialogue, even a mood-setting song or work of art).

3. Set clear parameters. Just as I would with a class, I can be clear with my confused, possibly recalcitrant, and possibly insecure artist-self. As in,“By the end of this period you will have . . .” I will be specific and detailed in these instructions: how long, what’s included, how much time allowed. 

4. If time is a parameter, watch it. In the evening hours, it’s generally unreasonable for me to expect uninterrupted time. I’m a single mom and there will be practice pickups, meals to make, math homework to check, and various other welcome responsibilities that are going to need my attention. I am also going to occasionally remember that there is an urgent email or phone call I never responded to. During hectic times like this it can be useful to use a time-tracker app which I start when the work session starts and pause every time I go off-task. It was eye opening when I first started using it last year. I learned that when it came to the evening hours, three hours of scheduled writing time tended to mean more like ninety minutes on task.  So, I set a time-on-task goal and tended to be more effective.

This monster is especially pernicious, and I can already tell that I will need more than one post to make a plan for dealing with him. My gut tells me that the antidote to this “forget-it” force goes much deeper than task management. Until then, Remember. 

This is the third post in the Monster Mash series. The other two are here: #1: “It’s Nothing!” and #2: “Meet Dr Blob”

From Scratch: Breadcrumbs notes

This space is about showing up as a living, breathing, wondering being: with doubts, griefs, questions, and idiosyncrasies. I post here every morning as a way to move from the dream into the day.

This is where I show up daily to practice ways of looking and being.

I used to think I was alone in feeling so much of everything, all the time, everywhere. Then I learned that the stance of a poet is spinning, and it made more sense. Then I noticed that sometimes creative work can be lonely. I may work on a given manuscript for years. This may necessarily involve significant alone time at the page, but I don’t think anyone should have to feel like they’re practicing in isolation. I may be an extreme introvert, but what sustains me is still a sense of sharing in community. Over time, I learned that there were people all around me, also doing creative work, often also feeling alone.

Like me, they were sometimes afflicted with doubt, paralysis, or general malaise. Considering the forces running counter to creative heart-mind work in this world, at this time, I think these symptoms are to be expected, but not surrendered to, because the world needs more people sharing the fruits of their heart-minds. I wondered, what would it be like if we practiced this publicly? Against the machine, in honor of living here, in remembrance of the dead. And in remembrance of some of out initial best impulses, like play and love.

This space is about showing up as a living, breathing, wondering being: with doubts, griefs, questions, and idiosyncrasies. I post here every morning as a way to move from the dream into the day. If I can’t take some of my dream self with me, I’m not much good at the day. Then I go about the living: loving, teaching, and writing longer works for publication. Facing daily fears, doubts, frustrations, and heartaches. Dreaming into a better world.

Doing this each morning is a way to remind myself and hopefully others, that there is always something new to share. Creative work is a practice, and this is where I practice publicly, as an exercise in my faith in the process. To learn and show: there is always something new. The point is wonder, and discovery. Often what I find are more questions.

What do I write about here?

  • It varies because I start from scratch daily (that’s the point!). I have fifteen minutes to think of an idea, fifteen or so to write, with the idea of getting it linked, imaged and published each morning in one hour or less. I need to keep this limit strict, so as not to encroach on space for other commitments, writing and non-writing. I believe in the benefits of self-imposed constraints with creative practice.
  • Favorite themes involve: “this day in history” meditations, found poetry, “Earthling” meditations (in which my avatar, earthling, confronts some aspect of being in this world), remembrances, and the process of creating.
  • When applicable, I will share the process that led to the day’s post, in the spirit of sharing creative approaches.

I hope that some of what you see here will resonate with you. Even more, I hope that you will grow and create in a spirit of love and generosity. The world needs you.

What They Said While They Were Leaving

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.

Artist Paul Klee, who died on this day in 1940, often invoked a childlike perspective when addressing matters of life and death. I’ve long loved the angels he painted, full of flaws and worries, trapped in human-like, sometimes animalistic forms. This morning I was looking at one of his last works, “Death and Fire” and the timing of this happens to coincide with my review of a book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, by Lisa Smartt. I bought it years ago. Thinking of a character was my official reason, but the interests of a character are always covers for the questions we carry. I pulled it out again today, because I have a character facing death, and I am struck by the inherent playfulness of so many of the last words recorded in Smartt’s accounts, culled from documentation of many hospice patients over time.  There’s a sense of play in the voices of many of the dying, even at the “most serious” moment in life. I am always drawn to those for whom seeming opposites can coexist in the same space: joy and pain; life and death; wonder and heartache.

Death and Fire by Paul Klee, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The following are notes assembled partly from found phrases in the book and online, considering what people say as they are leaving:

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.
One claimed to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, 
then called Bullshit! and left.
One asked for chocolate shavings on her tongue. 
Another, a cigarette. Pancakes with whipped cream.

Then come the metaphors. Listen.
Get ready for the big dance!
Lots of new construction over there!
Magic time: watch me disappear!
See the little duckies now, lining up.
They are setting the table now.

The ones who saw it as a battle went hardest.
Another dreamt of being surrounded by crows. 
It’s a murder! he said, laughing.

Some heard music, exclamations of wonder.
So many people! Can you tell me where the platform is?
Can you get the door for me?
Where do you want me to put these boxes?
Next stop, real hope! Look, they left the ladder.

Some saw butterflies, the number eight, the color green.
Others said nothing, but reached with their arms, up and out,
eloquent as infants in their expressions of need.

Angling

Writers keep tackle boxes of images, memories, metaphors. Bait the hook. Cast into the dim light of early morning, over the blank page. This loud hunger, shhhh. Try the next metaphor. Vary the retrieve. Look and wait.

I recently came upon a  character who is fishing. I don’t do this, so this means it’s time to research some. What test for what catch, what lure, what line, what basic knots? What bait for bonito, how to prepare guitarfish, how to vary the retrieve when catching halibut. Sometimes you want to move slow and steady. Other times it’s crank, crank, twitch. What I find is supposed to be for these characters, but I can’t help sampling some. I’ve always had it, this waiting pose, looking out. 

“Oceanside Pier 4” by Dmitry Lyakhov on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Anglers have their rods and their lines; their lures and their five gallon buckets. Writers keep tackle boxes of images, memories, metaphors. Bait the hook. Cast into the dim light of early morning, over the blank page. This loud hunger, shhhh. Try the next metaphor. Vary the retrieve. Look and wait.

Now I have an excuse to go to the pier, just looking, waiting like the others, but without a line. To watch the angler in the blue jacket, and hold a silent one-way conversation.

What are you bringing up now? Is that mackerel? Maybe you will filet it yourself when you get home. Maybe there’s someone waiting to add it to a bowl with jalapeños, lime, cilantro, oil, as her mother did when she was a girl. And who taught you what line, and what taught you how to wait, and what longings are behind the eyes you cast over the surface now, reflecting back the deep? And who meets you in the silence of your sunset reverie, and what other shores do you remember, and what aches would you rather forget? What makes you limp when you move now, back to the folding chair? Is it simply stiffness of hard work over time, or something else? There are no grays visible beneath your ball cap, and yet your face is etched with deep lines, like a bronze sculpture. Angler, where are the young promises of new life you once held on your knee, raised up, up! — above your head, just to admire? Who laughed back, cooing, and what is it like to remember them at a distance, and what makes them laugh now, do you know? And who holds them now, and are they gentle, and can you bear to ask?