The Large Bathers

I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

A person much better schooled than I am in the subject of art history recently observed that Cezanne was obviously frightened of women. I thought of his large nudes and my first impulse was disbelief based on the forms he painted; based on The Large Bathers alone, but then I looked again and saw what might have been immediately apparent, had I been less than thoroughly schooled in the superiority of binary notions. As in, an idea that the beautiful and the terrifying live in opposite poles; an idea that an artist’s preoccupation is the familiar and never the unknown; the idea that knowing well somehow cancels the haunting aspect of mystery. 

Schooling in the superiority of one thing over another is a very different thing from being schooled properly in the anatomy of a body of interconnected parts, in which even the poles of a supposed binary are reliant on one another for existence. For example, it is possible (and even likely) to be raised Catholic and read very little of the Bible beyond the red words. But then you look more closely, and you see how he was with the women and with the sick and the dead and you learn much later – by this time, you are actively looking, following a hunch and the wisdom of scholars who have managed not to sever their minds from their hearts–– that the most concise truth in Biblical letters is: Jesus wept. This at the death of Lazarus, when he knew he would raise him–– or perhaps he came to know this in weeping for his friend. You look at this liberator, his patience with the lepers and the new-dead sons, the accused whores left for dead and the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers, and even Pilate himself who had little choice, and you think, here is a capital-M man, in an actual body, bound to be hunted for execution by the forces feeding on obedience of the same lowercase men holding a jagged rib like a shiv at Eve’s naked throat, and the fact that this was obscured so thoroughly hits with all of the imagined weight and pressure of the first nail.

Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers,  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted by jpellgen on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license. 

Then I look at the nudes again, and I see it, the way that naked truth becomes the terror in the night, how most of the time someone claiming to want it is just dropping coins by mouth into a coffer at an expected time, a fee more commonly known as lip service, which might be more aptly described as the words spoken in the name of an embodied mystery which has been bound and gagged prior to the press conference. I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

But Why Bother? In Defense of Nobody’s Heroes

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody.

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody. Considering the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind, best mind” helps to highlight how the point is to keep beginning. The people I find most interesting (both well-recognized and completely unknown) are those who are more interested in what is confusing or new to them than anything they have already done. Life rarely fits any limited ideas of what it should look like, and this is the deep appeal of the misfit creative beings who go on doing their thing, pursuing deep interests and questions: not because anyone is asking, but because there is some life there, and sometimes because no one else is looking for or after it. 

To share from the point of strangeness and isolation, a person may create openings in the walls of strangeness and isolation that prevent us from knowing each other. It is interesting and deeply human, and a deeply loving act of service: the project of creating homes and supportive ecosystems that work with and for ourselves and the lives around us, regardless of who is or isn’t asking, noticing, picking up, or recognizing. 

Frank McCourt was sixty-six when he published Angela’s Ashes. He had spent a career as a teacher. Alma Woodsey Thomas had her first show at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five-year career teaching art in DC public schools. Mary Delany was seventy-two when she invented her own art form, mixed media collage. 

I am currently reading Helen DeWitt’s brilliant novel, The Last Samurai, which she published at the age of forty-three. This may seem relatively young, until you realize how early and earnestly she began. We live in a culture that loves to celebrate the young phenom, the wild breakout success, but I take heart in knowing that DeWitt’s brilliant “debut” was her 50th manuscript.  In each of the preceding forty-nine, she had labored diligently and faithfully toward her art, in hopes that it would be read and recognized. She was right, but she may have been “proven wrong” if she stopped after the first forty-nine “failures.” I doubt these were artistic failures, now that I have read DeWitt’s work, but her singular brilliance and truly groundbreaking aesthetic no doubt made unfamiliar demands on her readers, so it was likely passed over, in favor of more easily accessible and familiar styles.

These heroes are the passionate, sensitive artists who managed to maintain artistic vision and practice while working in other roles. Recognizing and celebrating the life-giving courage of their radical acts can be a healthy antidote to the common tendency to see perceived limitations as impediments to artistic development. I could do my work if only –– fill in the blanks, depending on the mood and obstacles of the moment. But if the goal is protection and preservation of life, then obstacles and moods, while deeply relevant to our being in the world, have no relevance (generally, in professional life) on whether the work gets done or not.

“Pygmy Tarsiers” by Rodney Campbell on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License. *

I am consistently honored, thrilled, and humbled by the power of artists who demonstrate this level of artistic professionalism even as they play working roles as plumbers and dishwashers, house cleaners and repair people; chefs and diaper changers and all-around creative inspirations for managing the way the flow of the substance of any given day can feel like trying to take a sip through a fire hose while trying not to perish from drowning or thirst. 

It’s like that. Not sometimes, not exceptionally; but most of the time, and consistently. I’d rather learn to work with these conditions than cross my fingers and hope for better ones someday. 

*The pygmy tarsier, a nocturnal primate native to Indonesia, was widely believed to have gone extinct in the early 20th century, but then it was accidentally captured (and sadly killed) in a rat trap in the year 2000. Fortunately, since then, several other members of the species have made appearances, and their movements are now being tracked and monitored with great hope, interest, and appreciation for their fragility. One of my favorite species of internet research is searching up newly discovered and rediscovered species. 

For the Birds

“i hope i die
warmed
by the life that i tried
to live”
 –Nikki Giovanni

Image: Regent Honeyeater by Michelle Bartsch on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 License

The regent honeyeaters of Australia have been dealing with a serious problem. It started in the usual way––with their massive disappearances, caused by habitat destruction; but this is a different problem, one left to those remaining. Apparently, there aren’t enough mature birds around to teach the young males to sing. The new guys are doing their best, imitating the songs of other birds and sometimes improvising here and there, but the females of the species are listening for some very specific notes. If she doesn’t hear them, mating season can’t go on as usual. The problem is raising alarms among ornithologists worldwide. One solution is to bring some birds in on a sort of contract basis, like visiting professors. Early trials of this method are promising.
 
Humans have a hard time resisting the impulse toward anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, and most other inclinations toward turning a given fact about the natural world around something applicable to human behavior. As one, I can’t help thinking about all the time we’ve ever wasted teaching anyone anything except with the impulse toward song at the center. Doing or not doing this becomes a matter of species survival. Maintaining protected spaces for development and nourishing of song becomes a matter of fundamental security. Maintaining an ecosystem in order to ensure that an emerging song, when it finally surfaces, will not be drowned in a constant din of noise, becomes a matter of painstaking vigilance, as with the protection of any species of newborn life, anywhere.

In the Weeds: First Lessons in Classification

The opposite of weed is welcome: meaning, someone is asking for or seeking out the thing. Because someone is always seeking out the thing other than what is abundantly here.

“I sing the weed that is not weed: the uprooted,
Thornless shape with a scattering of seed
To the cast wind; whose green and gold are mated
in one bloom, healed to one shaken blood.”

                        –    from David Wagoner’s, “An Anthem for Man”

Dandelion by David Slack on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

The opposite of weed is welcome: meaning, someone is asking for or seeking out the thing. Because someone is always seeking out the thing other than what is abundantly here. As in, there is the prize. Here is the weed.

The weeds are abundantly here, but the prized harvest is elsewhere; there are the treasures, there the celebration. To mean something was to be somewhere Far Away, glimpsed for a moment. Invasive species must have looked like such a harvest, in the moments before anyone figured out what they were.

 I learned about this the first time I ever picked weeds–– I called them flowers, then; I didn’t know any better–– that were abundant in the yard. I was barefoot, bending down, starting with the delicate yellow petals of mustard, bright faces turned up, offering themselves. 

I dropped to my knees at the sight of them, pulled carefully as close to the earth as I could, taking only three ––a round number, my grandmother’s trinity of beginning, now and ever after, and then––farther from the concrete sidewalk, I found the dancing orchard grasses, their wild heads extending like Fourth of July sparklers from their stems. 

I laughed to meet them, and they laughed back, waving in rowdy groups, loitering along the neighbor’s wall, telling raucous jokes and cracking roasts about each other’s untamed manes, each one wilder than the next. 

There was one group, they could not be separated; when I pulled near the base where they were cracking up, they all came up. They appeared to be willing in chorus, to join the lowly mustard, and me. 

There were grasses toward the wildest corner, which were stronger and thicker than the rest. They were very regal and stately, their blades long and wide, slightly furred. I gathered them, too, for balance and symmetry.

I brought them inside, an offering. It is no fun for mothers when they have to break things to their children, like the difference between the world’s leading lenses and their own. 

“Those are weeds,” mine told me, quite matter-of-fact. Still, she graciously accepted, filling a dixie cup with half an inch of water and placing my motley bouquet inside, for display at the kitchen table for the remainder of the afternoon. 

The import of these words rolled as quickly off of me as anything else. It wasn’t until much later, after at least a decade of school, that I considered them again, as the first lesson in something about established orders.

“What are weeds?” I had asked. 

“They are the plants no one wants,” she told me, careful to add that such prejudice did not apply here, where the weeds were proudly displayed, for a whole afternoon, in the water of a dixie cup. 

I had so little practice at the time, with rules for the classification of lives. How some were deemed worthy and others worthy of execution by committee and pesticide. School was coming, and I would have many more opportunities to learn how the living, examined under the lens of the machine, could be sorted and separated into categories of prized and rejected, in ways that could indefinitely keep us from ourselves. 

Now when I think of it, I am grateful to be old enough to have encountered the sort of living that makes me understand the way that opposing truths may breathe side by side, like the unnecessary and the desperately sought; like salvation and discarded; like the thing that you meant to get rid of, and the thing that was saving your blind and desperate life, all along, with the calm of knowing what was once, is now, and ever would be, in this world of never-ending limits of what may. 

Seeking Directions: A Cautionary Tale

Once, studying some recurring questions, I encountered a phrase: Be the hero of your own life.

It took me, as it were, by the locks, tugging my scalp. I couldn’t see what it was that was holding me, and it didn’t provide much in terms of useful transport, but it certainly did a lot of thrashing about up there. I was much older when I finally untangled my hair, which by then was starting to fall out. I think sometimes how the arresting speaker probably meant well. It was hard to tell, as he didn’t speak except in grunts, celebratory yelps, and the bridge progressions of various top-100 Jock Jams. Was this a man? Maybe, but memory does interesting things, so when I think of him now, I see the characteristically furry, vaguely hominid Sasquatch figure of an 80’s B-Movie, and he’s wearing a red T-shirt. The phrase was on the T-shirt. There was a company logo on the back. I couldn’t tell which one.

Correction. He did have a few words; he just didn’t seem to string them together into anything that sounded like a sentence. While we were marching, I could make out something like, “Yes, Success! Yes! Are you . . . ready to rumble?!!!”

He shouted the word “Legacy!” in a similar manner, but with a more elaborate percussive element.

And yet––

The attempt at – (what was that, anyway? making an impression? branding? was it meant to be instructive?) whatever it was, would likely have landed much differently on someone less porous, less susceptible to wonder about where her body ends and the next one began. It might have been recounted fondly as one of those turning point events so popular in American films, as in: “I was just sitting there, or dancing in a circle with no discernible ambition and then––Whammo! Blinded by the light and a sudden potent animal heat, I was moved to the summit!”

Of what? One might ask, but this is often wasted breath. If so inclined, it’s probably best to step back and simply regain what breath can be had, given the prevalence of such attacks by the spirited and hairy successful creatures, lauded throughout the land for their immense strength and variety of name brand merchandise.

You can know them by their talk: by their obsessions with legacies, their playbooks of endgames, their hostility towards doubt in all forms.

For a carrier of other bodies, the points of endings, like the points of beginnings, were equally irrelevant and often not even on the map, if there was one, which started either in the branching alveoli, or the ventricles (Which one? Right, left? Upper or lower? And which came first, arteries or veins?) or in the sound of a mother’s heartbeat, or her own, or her child’s, and if most of this is water, where would I find the source? Do I go back to Eden, the four rivers, or further, to some original droplets of cosmic condensation?

There were good reasons to struggle with the question of beginnings, which naturally impacted the question of focus, and, regarding various inquiries around one’s own life, where exactly it was.

A better suggestion, in my case, might have been, Come here. Look ––for example, at the aspen, to notice the unseen roots. I might have been instructed to sit and listen, in good company, which I did ––and I was, eventually, and there wasn’t a hero among us, only a song in the distance and the waiting, and everything that mattered

––underground.

Aspen Grove – June Lake Loop by paraphulm on Flickr

Memorare

Your remains rest, your remains unfound. You were decorated, wept over; letters said you were tired, found peace of mind, slept with a pistol on your chest.

You fell at Battle of the Bulge, B-17 missing over the Aleutians; survived Omaha Beach, saved wounded, drowned in frozen seas, in training runs over Yuma, in POW camps in Burma. You volunteered after D-Day, 9/11; died at Iwo Jima, on impact, slowly in a trench; underwater, in midair, in the desert; your family searches still. You loved Tennyson, football, ice cream and Clarion Bells before sunset. You sang in the choir, stepped on a landmine, took fire in Kunar Province, in Afghanistan, Camp Sheehan, Fallujah.

The day you went missing, your son was born.

Your remains rest, your remains unfound. You were decorated, wept over; letters said you were tired, found peace of mind, slept with a pistol on your chest. Folded flags met your mothers, fathers, wives, daughters, sons; “Taps” played, then twenty-one guns.

You were in the glee club, physics, wrestling, the relay; long legs remembered, and dimples; a serious side and how you slept in class. You would be an aeronautics technician, a veterinarian, a teacher; practice medicine, take your son to Mt. Whitney, have dinner on the harbor, swim at the pier, return next football season and for Christmas, to hold your daughter for the first time.

You wrote your favorite Wordsworth lines in a textbook, “Grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” We gather among remains, looking for more, as the living do, in silent reflection on the unknown of the All that you gave, marking hallowed ground with what we may not name.

Speaking of the nameless, may we remember them too. No sense being stingy with memory, with grief, with all the lost lives that we are taught to call nothing at all. 

Image: Memorare – Manila 1945 Monument, Sculpted by Peter de Guzman
Photo by Joal Perocillo on flickr

Earthling Applies for Creator Job: A Dramatic Thought Experiment

The hours may vary, as with pay. But the benefits are priceless, and you get to keep giving them away for life.

In the following scene, the boldface words are those spoken by the character “BOSSMAN.”

Hello, world! Here I am! I am nobody! 
Here’s my CV: Creator among fellow creature-creators. 

What? You want me to tell you my greatest weakness? I’m not falling for that one, but I can tell you this: sometimes a body intent on making something is susceptible to debilitating illnesses of spirit. Symptoms can range from low-level listlessness to acute despair.

Has this condition been diagnosed?
Sure, in ways that are generally and specifically wrong. Let’s examine why. In all likelihood, most of us have been afflicted. 

We don’t need to do that.
For many, the symptoms are those we battle daily in various ways, most of which would sound incredibly strange to someone bent on treating the affliction as an individual illness. What are these courses of treatment? They might include staring for a number of silent minutes at the sky, or over the steering wheel in traffic; looking at images of the Hubble Space telescope, or those really close up nature photos where the anthers of a strawberry flower appear as the surface of a hypothetical exoplanet. Some of us have a  fondness for searching up newly discovered species––like the giant Siphonophore Apolemia, discovered in 2020, a 150-foot organism, possibly ancient, which looks like a spiral of silly string floating in the deep––collecting the kinds of facts often called “trivial,” such as how a human heart will sync with the beat of music, and if the blood vessels of the average adult human body were unwound and strung together like a rope, it would wrap around the earth two and a half times, when it might seem to any nonhuman, so-called “objective” observer, that surely once would have been enough. 

Precisely. Anyway, ––
––Anyway, if you look long enough, you might come across this tidbit: how, everything you have two of, you only need one to live, and often (as with limbs, eyes, ears, lips, breasts, testicles) a body can get by without having any of certain common parts. 

That sounds like a wasteful model.
Apparently, we’re made with all these extra bits of ourselves built in. If one fails, the other is ready to support: circulating, filtering, oxygenating, detoxifying, holding, seeing, hearing––and if one never fails, just because. It is customary to ask, “can you lend me a hand?” We say, “Lend me your ear” and “who has a kidney that will match?” We walk into buildings and announce that we are here to give up our blood. We are always making more, and someone is always needing it. 

But what is your bottom line?
Is this a trick question? Have you been looking at my bank account? While you’re at it, let me know if you find that money they tried to charge me for not having enough money.

Well, I––
Anyway, I am clearly unequipped to offer discourse on bottom lines, but I can tell you this. Do you know what else we say? We say: “Can you keep an eye on my child?” My child, my life! In your eye, where I will hold yours when the time comes. We bow our thank yous at the ever-astonishing kindnesses of others. The unexpectedness of what we’ve been taught to disbelieve awes us back to ourselves with such power that it feels like remembering one of those vivid dreams that feels impossibly real.

Are you still talking? Please, just the numbers.   
Okay. Let me stop talking. Do you know any cheers? I do! It’s good for employee morale. Here goes: “One, two, three, four, I’m not measuring myself in code anymore!”

[Irritated cough, for emphasis. A common power move]
The machine would have us believe that we are incomplete cyborgs in beta-testing, whose value as life forms is to be determined by the scores of a consumer panel, as if consumer panels––or, for that matter, any component of the industrial engine––had ever shown any natural (hah!) capacity for recognizing the value of a life (be it of a creature, an area of land, an art form) except as capital for someone’s, as you say, “bottom line.”

Again, just the numbers, please. Do you even know what I mean when I say analytics?
Not really. But trust me, Mister, you can’t count that high. 

Are you still interviewing?
No, I just hired myself. 

[Bossman exits. Earthling sits in cushy chair, spins and bounces excessively. Earthling leans back and forth, back and forth. Takes off shoes, uncomfortable jacket, shirt. Stares through window making sounds that are not words. Eventually, earthling picks up pen, rifles through desk drawers looking for paper, gives up, walks to industrial-grade printer, fumbles with trays, and eventually retrieves a page. Resumes seat, picks up executive pen, writes] 

Dear Earthling,
    Congratulations, you are hired! We are delighted to offer you this job as creator! 
Start now.

Yours truly,
The planet

[Earthling sits back, smiles at page, leans back in chair, puts feet on desk, laughs, “Hah!” This lasts about a minute. Then earthling begins to look sick. There is no one to talk to.]

END SCENE

Let’s analyze this.What exactly is happening with this would-be creator? They have just hit the motherlode! The ultimate boon! 

But they don’t look too well. What is happening here to make this creature so ill?

Ah, it’s the symptoms again. The environmental hazards are getting to them.

The machine would have us believe that there is just barely enough of ourselves to go around: mainly because what is deemed a precious good, is what is rare, and what is abundant (in various forms, including whole populations of humans) is classified as disposable. Life, by nature, is abundant. Once labeled disposable, the algorithmic solution is: exterminate, bulldoze, destroy. The apparent uselessness of many species of earthling is something that the machine gets wrong every time. Still, earthling is breathing the air, and what is in the air gets in the body, in the lungs, and from here: into the blood, the brain, the spirit.

The antidote? Only the company of other life forms deemed useless, and a willingness to commit to protecting them.

What is useless? Plant life growing through concrete sidewalks, the colors of a sunset, the presence of the second of any of our essential parts; laughter, delight, the petting of cats, the slow sipping of hot coffee when a caffeine pill would do;  how dolphins play in waves and dogs bark wildly when they see most other living things. Art except when it’s being bought or sold. Diapered babies, blubbering and cooing, whose have to be carried from one place to the next; diapered adults, whose food must be taken to them, who are fluent in histories the machine would erase. Finger-painting, the colors of a butterfly. Why does a writer have to write a thousand pages to find the idea that the machine would reduce to two hundred and fifty words, why did Rothko create so many versions of “Untitled,” without even bothering to have his painting “look like” anything? 

[Earthling begins to revive. They may have blown the interview, but they really know how to knock it out of the park when it comes to landing the job.]

Because: we are not ideas. We are not projections or statistics. We are bodies, and we are abundantly so. The apparent uselessness (to the mechanical eye) of large portions of our individual and collective bodies, brains, preoccupations, delights, and creations––is indivisible from our nature as earth creatures. 

Any acknowledgement of this simple truth begs the question: how is anyone going to begin to protect any of what is so bluntly called “nature” or “the planet” unless we recognize how its fundamental substance aligns with our own?  

And what if: our fragility to slaughter is precisely in line with an abundance that the machine cannot comprehend? 

It is fiercely life-protecting to favor the wisdom of those who share like reckless fools, who understand what the machine can only deny, because it does not compute: how giving ourselves away is exactly what we were made to do.

The hours may be anything, and the pay is variable. The benefits are priceless, though: and you get to keep them for life, with an unlimited number of co-beneficiaries, for an unspecified and entirely unreasonable amount of time. 

[Earthling is no longer trying to write or speak. What they are doing is very irrational, but if any of their fellow creatures happen to enter the room right now, they will know what they are seeing. It is dance, and it has no value according to the machine’s algorithmic metrics. It is as priceless as the life beholding it, who cannot help but dance along.]

In Light of the Question of What Comes Next

There are dangers to remaining in isolation, however protective and necessary it has been before.

It’s spring 2021, and it’s graduation season at many campuses. In many parts of the world, there is a sense of emerging from a long isolation along with a shared sense of our collective fragility. Questions hang in the air and one of these is “What’s next?”

You have endured the waiting, wrestled with the inevitable demons that emerge in isolation, in a period of study, in axial times. You have put in long hours listening, learning, reading, practicing. You have revisited and revised: hopes, frustrations, longings, and of course, the work itself. I know of no other way to think of it than the Art of Being Here: as a person, protective of life in all forms and concerned about the mechanisms of its destruction. There is a time for the protection of the ecosystem necessary to cultivate a private practice of learning, listening, reading, hoping, longing, wondering and making. And then, it’s graduation season, and it’s warm outside, and you start to notice again what it means when the season shifts, and you realize that there are dangers to remaining in isolation, however protective and necessary it has been before. The danger is that it denies breath to the fundamental human impulse: to offer up. To say, “Here. I made this. Perhaps it can help you, too.” To remember how our making selves are the versions closest to our divine nature, and to offer these up is an act of bowing to the divine nature of others, by carrying one’s tiny flame in shaking hands, into dark spaces: to extend it to the wick of another, in the moments after the storm has blown it out. 

To the writers, artists, thinkers, and children who have given their light in ways that were meaningful and visible to me when I could see no other, I bow to you.