On the Night Train, with P.D.

A “Real Talk With Dead Folks” installment featuring French painter Paul Delvaux, who would have been ninety-eight today.

Today is one of those days for Real Talk with Dead Folks, an occasional Breadcrumbs feature. I knew it this morning when I learned it was the birthday of French painter Paul Delvaux, and I spent my coffee silence with his work.

Joyeux anniversaire, Paul Delvaux. You would have been ninety-eight today.

You are known for your nude women, your long shadows, your anxious isolation.

I like your Break of Day, the topless figures gathered in what is either a palace courtyard or its ruins. At first I think they are women, then I see what appear initially to be the finned tails of mermaids. 

But that is mossy bark, not scales, and those are roots, not tails. And then I look closer: the faces, the pose of their hands, their stiff necks. These are not women, exactly, but statues of flesh and trunk. 

I consider the roots, how tight they look, not quite spread and not quite rooted, and so close to one another. It seems impossible for them to make it very long like that, in such arid land. Behind them, a clothed woman is running, the desert floor behind her. 

Mountains congregate in the distance, under sky. 

Elsewhere, Gestapo were making arrests, Stalin was enforcing his Great Purge––mere preludes to the next world war. Your skeletons were often more animated than your fleshy counterparts. 

The home of your childhood was burned during the war years. What became of your beloved trains? Desire and horror met on your platforms. You studied music in the museum room, while skeletons in a glass cabinet appeared to watch.

You knew the anxious city, haunted with skeletons. You called it the climate of silent streets, with shadows of people who can’t be seen.

Mirrors, moon, candles, books: these were your favored elements. Around the nudes and the flute players, your skeletons danced.  Always in your paintings, this sense of waiting: of separation, this terrifying emptiness; this ongoing cycle of arrivals and departures.

It’s the little girl in the dress I am wondering about, the one with her back to the viewer. She is watching the trains by moonlight. What else does she see?

Always in your paintings, there she is: the beautiful but inaccessible muse. You painted her anyway, unable to keep from looking. 

It is for this that I bow to you. The way you saw death everywhere, and still looked for something else. The way you seemed to know your salvation to be just out of reach, while you reached anyway–– seeming to accept, by your actions, some unspoken contract. We all sign it to live here, but most are afraid to read the fine print.  It’s enough sometimes, to live for the unseen, the untouched. I like to think that this is what makes your skeletons move the way they do.

More about Paul Delvaux’s work:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

More Real Talk with Dead Folks

Real Talk With Galileo

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

Here’s to W.G., absurdist O.G.

The Paper Artist

Seeking insight on working with these unwieldy pages, I turn to an artist known for making sculptures of paper.

I was wondering what to do with these blank pages, the ones that need to be written to make these other ones make sense. Developing a manuscript sometimes feels like the messy middle of a construction project, with the piles of debris everywhere, and material under tarp, and the eyesore of scaffolding all you can see, one of those that inevitably leads to someone asking, what is going on here?

It seems like they haven’t been doing much.

Maybe the funding ran out. I forget what it was supposed to be.

Then I learned about the paper artist. He makes these vivid sculptures from the pages.

How does he do it?

Begin with a single fold, he says, and curiosity. The first action causes a transfer of energy. This leads to subsequent folds. I follow to understand, he says, about how the energy moves. If I knew where it would go, he says, I wouldn’t have to do this.

Where do you find it? They ask him.

Everywhere, he says. Music, architecture, Islamic tile patterns, protein misfolding. 

My favorite is this: I have this habit of misunderstanding, he says. It helps me see what is often overlooked. 

Thank you to My Modern Met for publishing the article, Paper Artist Crafts Incredible Three-Dimensional Relief Sculptures Entirely by Hand, featuring the work and words of artist Matt Shlian. I especially appreciate Shlian’s descrition of his process. Phrases from the interview are featured in this post.

Lens on the Littles

How do you discover something new? By looking where no one else is looking, with a new and better lens.

Huh.

What?

It’s Antonie Phillips van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday today.

Wait. Does this mean you’re inviting people over? I’m not up for it tonight. I have––

It’s not like I know him, know him. Besides, he died in 1723. It’s just, you know.

I don’t. Who is this guy?

He’s the father of microbiology. Dutch guy. He lived in the same town as Vermeer. Funny, he didn’t even think of himself as a scientist. He was a draper. He wanted to get a better look at the thread, so he worked on making better magnifying lenses. 

Is he that guy in Vermeer’s Astronomer?

Some say, even though the resemblance is questionable. What’s funny is he didn’t tell anybody about the lenses. Competition was fierce. But then he had a look at pond water, and he saw all these moving creatures.

Wonder of wonders. 

That’s exactly what he said!  So, he tells his friend, who is a scientist, and eventually word gets out and he captures the attention of The Royal Society of London. 

He published his findings?

Eventually, in letters. He had to be talked into this. He was like, I’m not a scientist, I’m a businessman! They’ll laugh at me! I don’t even know the terminology!  But his friend assured him that biologists used mostly made-up words, especially where discoveries were concerned.

Studying biology is like learning a new language.

Okay, he said. I’ll call these little guys animalcules!

That’s the spirit, his friend said.  The term is out of fashion now, but it encompassed lots of little creatures: unicellular algae, small protozoa, tiny invertebrates.

All in the pondwater?

At first. Later he turned his lenses on other findings. He found bacteria living in the human mouth and he the guts of animals. Spermatozoa, too, and the banded pattern of muscle fibers. 

Well, that’s something. 

Isn’t it?! That’s the point! Where everyone else saw nothing, he saw something. His followers called him the first with the power to see.

Well, here’s to you, APL.  I’m still not cooking, but I’ll raise a glass.

Something small, maybe?

Hah! Better get your microscope. With the right lens, it’ll be a feast.

Old Shells, New Forms

Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

On this day in 1883, English poet and critic T.E. Hulme was born.  Considered “the father of imagism” his work influenced the modernists who were seeking new forms across the arts, finding that the old forms, like shells ready to crack, no longer served the honest vision.  At the age of thirty-four, he was killed by a direct hit from a shell during the first World War.

I will not pretend to give an overview of Hulme’s career. In honor of his birthday, I am assembling a verbal collage of phrases from A Lecture on Modern Poetry, an influential paper Hulme delivered at the Poet’s Club in 1908, which was published and widely circulated after his death.  The verses below are mostly collected from Hulme’s text, rearranged as one does with “found poems,” which are one of my favorite forms for listening to unfamiliar texts.

Toward verse, I anticipate criticism. Don’t call it the means by which a soul soared, but a means of expression. I suspect the word soul in discussion, its hocus-pocus like selling medicine in the marketplace.

We are not the Mermaid Club, but a number of modern people. I have no reverence for tradition, and certain impressions to fix. I read for models but found none that fit. Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

For the living, burdened with thought too difficult to express using old names, what possibility is there? The actor has no dead competition, as the poet does. Immortal arts need new techniques with each generation or risk an age of insincerity.

Consider decay of religion: dead carcass, the flies upon it. Here’s what happens when the spirit leaves the form.

After decay, a new form. I wish you to notice: the marvelous fertility, the fluidity of the world, its impermanence. If you prefer the ancients, consider the Greek theory of universe as flux, and how they feared it. The disease that followed? A passion for immortality. You know the rest.

Now we focus on impermanence. Leave the siege of Troy to the ancients. Let’s linger instead within the mind of the child by the drying lake. We cannot escape from the spirit of our times.

It’s a delicate and difficult art. A shell is a very suitable covering for the egg at a certain period, but when the inside character is entirely changed, to become alive, the shell must be broken.

Arts of the Mind

Magic: the art of reframing what appears to be happening.

For the past two months, the pace of things and the hectic, noisy nature of a given day has been, to put it mildly, strenuous. Or, to put it more forcefully, profoundly difficult.  It’s what has me longing for silence, considering life underwater, and imagining journeys to cat island. This and staring at walls and their respective shelves, which is what I was doing this morning while I sipped coffee through bleary eyes, trying to prepare for the day. It was because of this stare that I noticed a gem of a strange book that I had bought along with some other magic books year ago. I had a minor character who was into magic, and although I was able to develop much of what I needed without needing to get bogged down in research, I keep the books on my shelf and turn to them from time to time. Doing so never fails to enlighten me in some unexpected way––which is, after all, what one wants when dealing with anything magical.  The book I noticed this morning is 13 Steps to Mentalism, by the English mentalist Tony Corinda (1930-2010), who is widely considered to be an expert in the field. 

My first question, when opening this volume was, “What is mentalism, exactly?” I had placed it in the family of magic, but I realized that I couldn’t exactly define the term. I quickly learned that Mr. Corinda wasn’t a fan of offering explanations to outsiders, as the book came with no preface, no introductory overview, and a table of contents that a newcomer may find inscrutable. For example, the opening page dives right into techniques for using an apparatus known as the “Swami Gimmick Writer” without any explanation as to what one of these devices actually is, or why someone who practices mentalism would want to know how to use them––or, needless to say, what it is that a mentalist is actually supposed to doing. 

Perhaps the point was to get me to develop my capacity for conjuring hidden meanings. With this challenge in mind, I was inspired to interpret that the device in question, which has some lead in a point like a pencil tip, attached in a subtle manner by a tiny device that fits on the tip of an index finger, is used––I think–– to make surreptitious markings on paper. This can be useful, I imagine, in the event that a participant has just revealed that the number they were thinking was six and you mean to show that the number you anticipated they would be thinking when you pretended to write one earlier was actually also––“Tah-dah! Six!”

So, with slight help from ability to use context clues, and much greater help from Wikipedia, I now understand that mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. Performances may include hypnosis, telepathy, clairvoyance, divination, precognition, psychokinesis, mediumship, mind control, memory feats, deduction, and rapid mathematics.

And who couldn’t use more of this? So, in case you are wondering, I thought I would harvest a few pearls of wisdom regarding these various and related arts, because it is hard to imagine that such a wide range of skills would not be almost universally applicable to anyone in any field. 

This proved harder than I thought, because in Corinda’s own words, “I am not a fan of teaching anything to anybody at any time, except if they are one of us.” Given that teaching is my stated profession, I was moved to appreciate the bald-faced, albeit somewhat pessimistic nature of his honesty. By around page 275 of the volume, in the Chapter “Mediumistic Stunts,” I found a few clues that I am choosing, by exercise of will, to deem immensely useful. Who couldn’t benefit from some mediumistic stunts?  I read on eagerly, thinking as I considered the day ahead: Sign me up, Tony. Sign me up.

Here are some preliminary findings. First, the most important part is the dramatic delivery of speech. The element of surprise is always our friend, and some may be surprised to know what one can get away with in a setting like a séance. Note the importance of word choice. Instead of mind-reading, say Telepathy, or ESP. Rather than sight, refer to Clairvoyance. Instead of hearing, refer to your Clairaudience, and regarding matters of feeling, Clairsentience evokes the ineffable je ne sais quoi that any performer of mental–– um, Events (never, ever call these tricks) ––depends upon.  

These people are not the audience, but The Gathering! Not Ladies and Gentlemen, but Sitters and Friends! Not tools or thingies, but Psychic Appliances with specific names: auragoggles, spirit trumpet, gazing crystal.  Not Ghost, but Spirit; not Assistant, but Guide. The living are On the Earthplane, and the others are Beyond the Veil

To vanish is to Dematerialize, and Apportation is when something is apparently brought into the room my supernatural means.

There’s more to be explained––much more, but after hunting so long for something I could understand, I am going to rest on my laurels here. On days like this, in times like this, when I’m acutely aware of the need for some magic or divine assistance with the details of the day, I am refreshed by the reminder that sometimes what is needed most is the opportunity to reframe a situation through language.

It is not overwhelming, but sensorily and spiritually fertile; not soul-crushing, but soul-strengthening as with an athlete’s weight routine; not desperate, but ready to transform.

One Hundred Days

Celebrating the mystery of daily practice.

Today marks one hundred days of these posts, which started as “this thing I am trying” and evolved into Breadcrumbs, and which are now evolving me.

The project began from an impulse of love and a wish to connect. Someone asked: Why, where do you see yourself? I thought, Dead, eventually. Hopefully not soon, but a person never knows. It mattered not to do so while waiting for someone’s invitation to the table. 

I was working on manuscripts, which is long and lonely work. I am still working on manuscripts, some of which are new since beginning this project. I publish here and there in journals, and this is also slow-going. That’s how these things are. And meanwhile, every morning since I started this experiment, I also publish here. The idea was simple: try this thing and don’t stop.  I could evaluate after a hundred days. 

Evaluating now, I feel mostly gratitude. It never got easier, but it did become more automatic, the practice of––this thing. I don’t have to name it to learn from it. Daily practice teaches what I could not think to learn, including invitations to new questions. Friend, thank you for joining me here. 

The mind offers many reasons to stop and change course. This is what minds do, offer reasons for things. They can be acrobats of distraction. But the still part, the listening part, knows. This is the part I show up here to visit. This is where we meet, at the edge of the deep, still lake we share. Most of what is happening in it, I will never explain. This is the kind of presence I trust. The mystery is always more compelling than any of my own ideas.

Looking back at selections from the archives, I see something moving that is vastly more intelligent than I am, the logic of which I could never have planned. One hundred is a special number, and in this case, only a beginning. I mark this day with this prayer of gratitude. Friend, thank you so much for being here with me. I bow to you with a heart full of wonder. 

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.

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”

For the Love of A Child

This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.

I’d like to celebrate the child today. Whose first impulse, when making a first card for a classmate, upon receiving a first-ever invitation to a school-friend birthday party, was to pull out all the best markers, draw the best hearts and rainbows she could think of, and write “I LOVE YOU” in her best capital letters. This for Joseph G., in kindergarten, and the party was at the McDonald’s in Yonkers, the big one with the yellow slide and the Hamburglar tower with the shiny metal ladder up the middle.

This is for the way that she did not know any better then, but to say to another who had made her laugh over graham crackers and apple juice, I love you.

And for the stoic acceptance with which she nodded silently when informed gently that such expressions, outside of family, would not do. She did as instructed, keeping “I LOVE” and adding an “R” to “YOU” and “PARTY” to the end of the sentence, making it a very strange sentence for someone to write prior to attending the party. I love your party, it said now. That’s better, she heard.

She quietly understood how it was apparently better to seem as though you were confused about delineations between past, present, and future, than prone to flourishing expressions of love. She quietly understood, in that brief edit, how much of herself would have to be muted or cause for shame. Who didn’t even know the half of it, then. Who went to the party and smiled through what could not be expressed, and somehow survived to adulthood.

This is for her, and those like her, shamed out of their best impulses at an early age: to love, to make for others lovingly, and to give these loving gifts away. To share generously from a place of abundance, not fear; play, not decorum; love, not positioning. I want to call her back. I want to relearn what she knew before she knew what was expected.