QUINTESSENCE

Fast and Slow

September 18, 2014

Tags: art and creation, patterns, solitude, intention, finding joy

North Sea at Sunset

There are times to work rapidly and times to go slowly. In the beginning one sets a fast pace, blocking it in, pushing the paint or clay around - large forms, areas of color. Later on in the work, one makes subtle refinement - details, smaller forms - the pace slows down and a meditative state takes over.

When all parts of the work start coming together, a renewed excitement is generated and builds until the harmony and balance of what you have been trying to accomplish work. You feel like a conductor bringing the full sound of an orchestra to its grand finale. You have reached the peak experience toward which all artists work. It is at these times you can see me back dancing, clogging, discoing, and Indian tribal dancing around my studio.

- "Art & Soul: Notes on Creating," Audrey Flack

I woke up with Scotland on my mind. The English and Scottish threads of my family heritage have always been happiest entwined, and so I personally hope these two countries stay united. But change is always difficult, and its value impossible to discern from that hundred foot balcony safe above the tumultuous zone. "Both feet in," my Dad used to say, right before he tossed us in the water to practice our swimming. He had something there. Nothing is worth a bean, half-assed. Right or wrong, what we commit to should at the very least have our whole-hearted engagement. Arm-chair quarterbacking the play can be saved for later. For now, are we in or not? Is what we are doing THIS VERY MOMENT receiving our full attention and effort?

This question relates to what Audrey Flack has to say about creating, in that life change - personal change - is akin to creative work of any kind: it comes fast and slow. There may initially be a pile on of ideas, a surge of wants and dissatisfactions, an itch to move on. We study the ground, and then build new framing. Slow, we layer thoughts in; translate our ideas into elements. Energy compounds. Integration. The momentum in our undertaking physically redefines the shape of our lives. Shift happens.

I am contemplating a large change in my own life: committing to an undertaking I am unable to really evaluate properly beforehand. I only sense this new direction needs to be explored; and even so, I may not accomplish what I set out to do. How does that make me feel? Wracked by doubt. Nervous as hell.

In the midlife years the rush of all that is passing - the essential zeroing out that is expiring time - reaches the level of continuous white background noise. In this noise floats a quiet question: Is this moment, this action, this decision, the right choice among all the possibilities for this one life I have to lead? When we are young we are growing, our real challenges yet to unfold. In the middle years - in the prime of adult capability and prowess and courage - what we let go, choose not to do, has as significant a weight in our happiness and fulfillment as what we do choose. We feel the truth: Now is when the most can and may be accomplished; and when a thing is let go, it will not circle by again. Poised on the edge of the diving board we curl and bend deep and then push off, rocket high into the air to execute - what? Choose, choose.

I've had some laughs at myself lately, making my way with all the sideways, suspicious scoot of a tidal crab into this sea of change. We forget that until our last breath, life is an adventure. Somewhere along the way we wobble into our ruts, dig ourselves in deeper, and eventually roll to a stop. Yet to begin is as simple as possessing the courage to want to. Whether we are speaking of Scotland and what may be an uncertain future, my writer's life the next few years, or any one of us, tomorrow, placing our hand on the doorknob of any door we both dread and need to open - be brave. Begin. Be slow. Let the harmony and balance of what you are endeavoring to create come gently, intentionally together. Let it be crazy. Open to the dance.

When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics...and one by one, if you're really painting, they walk out. And if you're really painting, you walk out."
- Philip Guston

Autumn Strikes A Bell

September 10, 2014

Tags: intention, art and creation, nature, presence, finding joy


VARIATION ON A THEME BY RILKE
[The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem I, Stanza I]
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.

Time to revisit this beautiful poem by Denise Levertov. Autumn is my favorite season: afternoons of long golden light, the warmth of the earth slow to rise, seeking to linger. The sun bright and scraped of heat, days clear and crisp at the edges. September skies can be so hard a blue your gaze deflects, skitters away. White nimbus clouds pile into low banks of gray on their stately southern march.

This is a time of preparation, renewal, focus. The field mouse scurries to gather seeds, the squirrels are stuffing nuts in holes all about the yard. Overhead the geese are on wing and the small singing birds dart about building fat reserves, their songs set aside. Nature offers its harvest bounty and the creatures of the earth gather it in. Do we not also feel this gathering of energies, the tingle of change in our bones?

Levertov's poem so clearly speaks of wholeness, aliveness, presence. Easing from the months of warm summer into bleak winter signals something to our souls. We know this as the Monarch butterflies know now is the time to begin their journey to Mexico. We stretch. We shake off summer somnolence and look to the future. The new school year turns childhood forward a year, our days of rest and play behind us. We gather and tend and set aside. What is there yet to do? What is there that must be done? Autumn signals an accounting and an assessment, a refresh of goals and plans for our tomorrows yet to come.

Autumn strikes a bell that all may hear. If we listen, we hear the reverberations within ourselves. Gather the ripe September apples and take a bite of the tart goodness. What does the sound of your whole self ringing sing to you?

Summer's End

September 2, 2014

Tags: nature, patterns, art and creation, solitude, intention, finding joy

Moonlight, Priest Lake, Idaho

POEM: JUST AS THE CALENDAR BEGAN TO SAY SUMMER
by Mary Oliver

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the weeds,
and spent all summer forgetting what I'd been taught -

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn't a penny in the
bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.


So here I am. Down from the mountains, down from the blue lake, seated once again at my desk in my study of wood and dog-eared books, baskets and pottery and black and white photographs of wild and beautiful places. I am of the two places; and of two minds about where I belong. Needless to say the contrast between each place enhances the beauties of the other. They beckon when missed.

I learned much on my digital-free retreat. A cup of tea on the deck first thing in the morning as a gold sunrise steams mist off the lake is about as close to heaven as this girl can get. Or perhaps that last tumbler of scotch, underneath the maypole dance of twilight bats as stars debut in the indigo night. And how well one sleeps after fourteen days straight of mountain hikes and simple meals! How perfect to wile away an afternoon on the edge of the dock, legs dangling in cool water as the sun heats your back, a book open on your lap, gazing on distant islands.

I learned that disconnecting from all things digital is as jittery a process as breaking away from caffeine. Online business, friendships, news, happenings...these are real and important, and yet not and not at all. I was hungry to know, and out of the loop, feelings that sit like an itch in the brain. In my two weeks offline, the world spun neither better nor worse for my absence.The cohorts of the Today Show and CNN held up daytime civilization as always, as Atlas must have done, unthanked and unseen. Publishing seemed to bring out more good books and still bemoan the end of print. Celebrities had pictures become public that maybe shouldn't have been pictures to begin with and the rage goes on about "the cloud" and secrets and idiocy and ignorance and meanness. Democracy got beat up pretty bad in my absence however, especially the right to a free and open press. Weeds took over my back yard, but then that was always their master plan. It took two books (Provence 1970 by Luke Barr, and the incandescent All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr) and the poetry of Campbell McGrath to free myself from tech anxiety. This real-time feed we imbibe daily, all urgency and immediacy and shock packaged as "Breaking News,""Breaking Update." An endless media headline crawl of tragedy and scandal.

I learned that intending to be digital-free and being given NO CHOICE about it is a quite different power struggle for the ego. Near the Canadian border it was quite a hike out to find a bar of cell reception: wifi the random echo of a fishing lodge. Initially my frustration yielded to hard surrender, which finally softened to acceptance. A funny thing began to occur - conversation. In pleasant pockets around comfortable silences. Balance in the mind's inner ear. Conversation with strangers opened up as real news, big news, found its way into boat-side conversations and shared newspapers, headlines two days old. The world could be perceived with sense and clarity. Not only was unimportant hype and hyperbole scrubbed out of the day, but real nuggets of importance stood out and meant something. Information that could be taken in and thought about, perhaps resolved - truly absorbed.

I'm no idealist. We live in a wired world and that's a one-way avenue in our technological evolution. There is no "back to Eden" pulpit beside the backpack I left hanging in the garage. But I do feel stepping back gives needed perspective, and for me, that was useful. I could see at a glance after two weeks disconnected the ways in which I waste my time with social media and google tourism and Twitter chat. But I also sifted the real and important relationships from the chat, value the abundance of knowledge at my fingertips, have proof the paper book is not dead (and vastly more lake friendly than its electronic doppleganger), and yes, "Dots" on the iPad is no better or worse than a bus station hand of solitaire. We choose our ways to work, our ways to play, our connections, our solitude. What two weeks in the mountains taught me was the difference between habit and choice. And that, is a good thing.

Wednesday Morning, Mid August

August 13, 2014

Tags: nature, art and creation, solitude, loss, finding joy, family

First Star - Priest Lake
Good morning, friends.

I'm heading up to the lake on Saturday for two weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how much I need this break from the world. A chance to regroup, rethink, recharge, reassess, recommit. I have promised myself to limit connections by internet: to take each day and absorb it as an experience, not some work data subset. Promised myself not to think about what to do with what comes my way, or how to share it, or why it should matter to anyone but me. I've come off a year of serious work and inner goal-setting and it's time to revisit those points. Do they still matter? Did I complete the work?

I find, looking back on old journals, that I knew myself better back then, back before the era of insta-share. I really understood the days, years, and moments were mine - my life, mine to learn from. Now there is this contemporary tendency to let experience - our personal contact with living - slide right through us into the greater pool of human busyness. What makes for great reading for others (these bits we share are, after all, stories), is in truth the giving of ourselves away without letting anything stick.

I plan to let things stick the next two weeks. To read the books I have stacked and set aside for a windfall of time. To read the poetry that I love that needs to sit awhile to seep into my soul. I will hike the forests and forage for huckleberries and sleep in the sun on an old wood dock rolling gently on the wake of passing boaters. I will use these days to talk to the ones I love without agenda, in an abundance of time. In the cool mornings take my coffee down to the shore and sit, silent as loons rise and wing across the water. Watch bats at twilight skim over the lake as the first star rises over the rose and lavender Selkirk Mountains. Beach fire nights with a mellow single malt, cosy in an old school sweatshirt, open to the thoughts that rise from within as sparks rise towards the sky and then leave us, or perhaps sink deeper into the fabric of who we are.

Of late the world has reminded me of the fragility of human resilience and the momentum of the tragic. Misfortune and hatred mow down the innocent as well as the brave. I wish for all of you a break from the world. However and wherever you may find it. Yes, the world will need us back, to proffer our small lights and carry on. But for now, seek peace. See you back here soon.

In closing, a post written last year at the lake -
August 26, 2013

MONDAY MORNING, LATE SUMMER
On the fence
in the sunlight,
beach towels.

No wind.

The apricots have ripened
and been picked.
The blackberries have ripened
and been picked.


- Robert Hass, from the poem "Cuttings"

The opening of the chest, the heart chakra - deep breathing and calm rhythms - profoundly affects the mind as well as the body. When we step out of the box, the stress-filled, demanding, unrelenting responsibilities of the 24/7, the break from routine can begin the restoration of the soul. An observer of fifty decades of living, I know the wide empty stretches on life's blue highways are far and few between in this unsettled 21st century. It's no news we live in a plugged-in, high demand, ever-changing, constantly stimulating world. Irregular dry spells, down time, wayside adventures, lags in scheduling - all have disappeared. We are "on" and plugged-in every moment of the day: pinged by messages, expanding lists of to-dos, global information, and social media even when we sleep.

Peace, walking in the silence of tall cedars. Peace, lulled to sleep by waves that lap slowly against the shore. Listen to the creak of wind in the trees. Bird call in the quiet dawn.

Thoreau was a relentless champion of "disconnect and rediscover" for the health of the human soul, and frankly, so am I. I found it interesting to observe my family traveling to our rustic cabin on the lake shore with all four smart phones, two laptops, three iPads, two iPods and one Shuffle. The first day making the long trek down the trail to the nearest wifi center for internet signal, until eventually, mournfully, the acceptance there would never be more than one half-bar of cell service off the lake. At last letting the devices sit in their cases, untouched.

Withdrawal from the digital world is both painful and amusing - catching ourselves automatically engaged in that pointless click to check email, Twitter, FB. The urge to connect releasing, slowly releasing its grip, replaced by long naps, the dulcet jazz of acoustic guitar on the porch, long conversations by wine and candlelight at the picnic table. Time to delve into not just a chapter, but an entire book; board games and cards accompanied by a crackling fire.

We learned the nurturing quality of quiet. The sweet richness of intimate conversation. Walking the mountains. Taking in the whole of life.

We disappear to the cabin every year, coming from wherever we are in the four corners of the world, from whatever education, work, or travel schedules occupy us, ready to find our way back to ourselves. To recharge in the power of tranquility, the open spaces of daydreams, sunny contentment, the deep night and undisturbed sleep. We reconnect not just within, but together. And when the last spider is slapped with a sandal and tossed out the door, when the last delicious huckleberry has made its way to a pancake drizzled in maple syrup, the last pot of camp coffee poured to the dregs - well, then we pack up our beach chairs and book bags and return to the world.

Halfway down the road to civilization the electronics buried in our duffles simultaneously ping, buzzing, downloading in a hive of fury and we have to laugh. The world. It doesn't wait, and it doesn't matter.

Of Pensive Mood

August 6, 2014

Tags: art and creation, nature, presence, solitude, finding joy

I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD
by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


A summer of dis-ease. In a series of weeks in which the communities of humanity have groaned and nearly broken under war and plague, where children die in the violence of intolerance and hatred, when entire families fall stricken with death that sweeps the earth like fire, and fires themselves sweep the lands without mercy, I weep. Honestly, is this all we have to show for ourselves? Have we learned and mastered so little of what it means to thrive, to survive?

What of centuries of shaman song, of fishing and planting, weavers and poets? Of unspeakably beautiful marble temples, the stones cut over years of labor, the ancient mythological gods gathering dust under soft museum lights? The impotence of human history taunts me. The impermanence of its wisest voices, the reverends and warrior kings. Has nothing lasting and eternally good accrued from the very minds that gave us geometry, boats to sail the roughest seas, literacy, print, the science of planets, phonographs, power plants, fine wines, and rising GNP? What of Beethoven's symphonies, quantum leaps in technology, breakthrough medical science, the pioneer, the immigrant, prairie schools and anonymous, selfless charity? Genius abounds in the cultures of civilization; enlightenment not so much. Can we not imprint on our hearts ways to coexist, to care for and comfort one another?

This week I find solace in the innocent world itself. In the unexplained and miraculous existence of nature's beauty, unadorned and without commerce, unchained and given to all. William Wordsworth finds me even as he describes himself, "in vacant or in pensive mood." His poem a reminder that no matter what we may do, what ravages of disease or war may come, some part of us yet "dances with the daffodils."

Objects of Mystery

July 30, 2014

Tags: art and creation, nature, intention, presence, pattern, finding joy

Prow of a Viking Ship, Norway
THE NOTEBOOK
by Mary Oliver

"Six a.m. -
the small, pond turtle
lifts its head
into the air
like a green toe.
What it sees
is the whole world
swirling back from darkness:
a red sun
rising over the water,
over the pines,
and the wind lifting,
and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies
opening their happy bodies.
The turtle
doesn't have a word for any of it -
the silky water
or the enormous blue morning,
or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore
I'm so busy
scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him
paddle away
through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me:
how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies
are a faint flamingo inside
their white hearts,
and there is still time
to let the last roses of the sunrise
float down
into my uplifted eyes."


I have been looking through old journals lately. On a mission to muck out my files, sort through my book shelves. Determined to pluck out unwanted books and notes, scribbles of ideas that never sparked any real writing... A surprising thing struck me in rereading a period of journals from around 1998-2001 - the mixture of notes, fragments of creative idea, the pen and pencil sketches. I was taken aback by the staleness of writing out of its own present context. The implacable boundaries time places on meaning. As Mary Oliver writes, "how much can the right word do?"

Instead I was drawn to the sketches I had made in the margins of my journals. Drawings of strangers in coffee shops, interesting hands, a peculiar face in a workshop. Some drawings were profiles, for example there were several of my daughter's cello teacher, and his centuries-old cello; all of them dashed off in ink on college-rule paper during a lesson. These sketches triggered a kind of memory muscle for me. Looking at a cello sketch, I remember sitting uncomfortably on the low sofa, the confines of the tiny practice room, the dim light from the drawn venetian blinds, the rustle of sheet music on the music stand, even the curious plastic wrap this old Jewish Russian refugee, who had once played in Leningrad with Rostropovich, had layered around the neck of his beautiful instrument to protect the wood from the sweat of his hands and forearms.

There was no "right word" I had used in my notebook to describe these scenes or events; instead I had made a drawing imbued with shape, mood, unusual detail. I was seeing the thing or person before me, and seeing completely; translating everything imperfectly but somehow accurate to its essence. All too often as writers we glance, and then look away to think. Looking for le mot juste, the perfect word; and in doing so, step away from the experience, and perhaps abandon our own innate presence in the moment.

Mary Oliver's turtle sees the morning rise around him, registers the universe with simple awareness. The poet knows her thoughts about this exchange are somehow stealing her from her own experience. She notes this distance, this distraction, and returns her thoughts to observing, to awareness without translation. A meditation on essence not story.

As I work my way through these old writings, I find myself keeping the pages with sketches and half-lines of poems; the penciled scenes from travels with my husband and children. All of us were keepers of travel notebooks then. We stayed in place; taking all the generous, unhurried time required to sketch something of what we saw. I was reminded of this pleasure on a recent trip to Scandinavia. There was a gentleman with our group, a painting conservator from a major museum, who did not dash off frenzied smartphone shots of ancient ruins and excavated pottery. He stepped aside as we hiked, opened his sketch book and freehanded a perspective, employing a few strong lines and shading to capture the heart of the object, the mood of the light. And then he moved on. His notebook of sketches a sensual, visual encounter with objects of mystery: the passage of time expressed in fallen stones, abandoned boats on the sand, whalebone, a rune obscured by moss. Looking over his shoulder I remembered my own experience of each of these places and objects. Our careless camera pictures offered neatly neutral two-dimensional replicas; these thoughtful sketches were experiences.

My first husband Ken, who was a black and white photographer, used to say that the reason a photographer lifts a camera is not in order to preserve what he sees, or to interpret the object his lens is focused on. The photographer photographs to see. The photographer does not step outside the experience to think through how to describe it; he steps into it and lets it speak for itself. The photographer encounters the material world as it is, shaped only by his own aesthetic, the light, and perhaps the accidental intrusion of the equipment or the development environment. There are zero expectations, only unexpressed truths. Through the lens, camera steady in his hand, the photographer addresses those elements he knows to be frank, honest. Only later in the darkroom, in its chemical bath, does the image knit itself whole. And so I think it is that these sketch notebooks carry more meaning for me than just my written notes. I am not stepping away from the experience to more meaningfully capture it in sentences and story; I am stepping into it to imprint what is there on paper, as it is.

But like our poet, who has made a poem of her observations on the failures of observation and still managed to convey what essence is lost in translation, the notebooks I will keep will most definitely offer stories. Creative writing may be impressionist, subjective, symbolic, abstract - all these things. Narratives knotted together by insight and imagination. But first comes simply being present.

Postcard of Marvels

July 24, 2014

Tags: art and creation, love, intention, presence, patterns, finding joy

Cottage, Faroe Islands, North Sea.
ORIENT
by Billy Collins

You are turning me
like someone turning a globe in her hand,
and yes, I have another side
like a China no one,
not even me, has ever seen.

So describe to me what's there,
say what you are looking at
and I will close my eyes
so I can see it too,
the oxcarts and all the lively flags.

I love the sound of your voice
like a little saxophone
telling me what I could never know
unless I dug a hole all the way down
through the core of my self.


Why do we read poetry? Because a poem tells us something about ourselves or the world that we sense to be true but have not found or known to express. A poem is a gift of language. Someone hands us a poem to read, and as the words settle into our brains and senses, the poetry transforms our understanding. New language. Language that carries the odors and tastes of tinny regret, shining cities, old earth, briny sea, hot love, or wet winds. Poetry gives us a way to speak about the world beyond the limitations of our native tongue.

This small poem ORIENT by Billy Collins is both a nugget of insight and a love note. I appreciate the way Billy Collins spins the word "orient" in his poem, a double entendre. He speaks of mysterious Asia, from where he stands a distant land, and yet the meaning delves inward, invoking the distances traveled toward deeper self-knowledge, "down through the core of my self." This poem offers an appreciation of the other - for that fresh truth, that unknown knowledge of the self found in the eyes of our familiars. His friend, lover perhaps, turns him like "a globe in her hand," examining the hidden side, the shadowed side. Digging straight through to China as we used to say as kids, hand-shovels churning the beach in search of treasure.

All too frequently we undervalue what we cannot see, dismiss aspects of ourselves reflected in the observations of others. And we sometimes undervalue those who know us this well; those who see us intimately, honestly. We possess strange mysteries within us, as Collins imagines - foreign lands, stranger times, exotic ways. Those who love us know these secret festivals. Those who love us best celebrate our mystery, "telling me what I could never know." For it will always and forever be true that each of us sees the world and our selves from inside the room, looking out on what is not us, while our beloved "other" observes us from beyond those limits, watches us from the street, peeking in our windows. We are voyeurs to one another always, and this is both why and how we love. We color in our private invisible and faraway lands from the brightly-colored postcards and humorous travel notes our lovers post on their journeys beside us, hearing ourselves in their words, "voice like a little saxophone."

It's a good day to tell someone you are close to, Thank you for the way you see me. And maybe an opportunity to send a postcard of marvels of your own.

On This Day, Catcher

July 16, 2014

Tags: art and creation, intention, the moderns

Published sixty-two years ago today, July 16, 1951, J.D. Salinger penned a novel about a rebellious teenage boy dismissed from prep school, drifting through Manhattan. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is today a 20th-century classic, a story that has been translated into nearly every major languages. As a personal fan of Salinger, and to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye," I offer a small tribute with a few of my favorite "Catcher" quotes.

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
- Holden Caulfield reflecting on his favorite authors, among them Isak Dinesen and Thomas Hardy. Interesting, in that as an author, Salinger was a famous recluse.

"Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right – I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game."
– Holden's response to his headmaster's remark, "life is a game." A telling glimpse of the raw, blunt yet witty rebelliousness Holden displays to the given "rules of life." Young readers readily connect with the novel's undercurrents of teenage angst.

"A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I'm going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It's such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you're going to do till you do it?"
– Holden speaks his piece as a patient in the sanitarium he alludes to at the end of the novel and from which he relates his story as he contemplates a return to school the following term.

"The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
– Holden Caulfield's former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, cites the poet and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Steckel in a late night discussion with Holden - words at odds with Holden's rebellious distrust, his idea of becoming a "catcher in the rye," symbolically saving children from the evils of adulthood by showing the virtues and freedoms of nonconformity.

CATCHER IN THE RYE subtly explores complex issues of identity, belonging, connection, and alienation. In the process of unburdening himself of his story, Holden Caulfield discovers the contradictions and surprises of his own experience. Thrown out of one world and not yet mature enough for the other, Holden crashes over the boundaries of teen and adult society, rejecting structure, misinterpreting freedoms, discovering things are not as he assumed. His taste of "unfettered life" plummets Holden into dizzying paradoxical misadventures. He is curious and baffled by the inconsistencies in what moves him, what he misinterprets about school and adult behavior, by the complexities of meshing his insecurities with his ambitions. By the end of "Catcher," Holden doesn't want to continue with his tale as he discovers he misses two of his former classmates, Stradlater and Ackley. He even misses the pimp Maurice, who hit him. He warns the reader that telling others about personal experiences will lead to missing the people who shared them.

This anniversary of "The Catcher in the Rye" marks a perfect time to pick up Joanna Rakoff's "My Salinger Year," reviewed last month on this blog. And if like the young Joanna of her memoir, you aren't familiar with the books of J. D. Salinger, check them out. See where the stories take you. Happy anniversary, "Catcher."

Pure Anthropology

July 9, 2014

Tags: art and creation, presence, intention, patterns

Viking settlement ruins, Skara Brae, Orkney Island

Mesa Verde, Colorado
Life is point on a journey, it seems generally agreed. Between the apriorities howl strong winds. Yet the traveler, once in a long while, comes to a place he is sure, without a doubt in his mind, never having seen it before, is the one he was seeking. He enters. At first everything inside is so saturated with strangeness it is hard to breathe - but look now: already it is drying in from the edges like rainwater in the March wind and he will in fact never be able to recover that blankness in which he saw it first, the surgery of first look. That moment of pure anthropology.

- "The Anthropology of Water," from Plainwater, Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

I am moving back into writing mode again, after a hiatus readying my last novel for market and doing the work that lengthy process entails. [Mostly the kind of promotional writing every writer likes least: casting a book synopsis and an updated bio, gathering blurbs and past reviews.] Now it is time to begin a new book. I am crackling like a live wire with anticipation. The pleasurable part of writing comes at the beginning and at the end of the work. The beginning of the process is, as Anne Carson describes so beautifully above, rooted in the impressionable "first look." One glimpse of a nascent essay or novel, the unannounced narrative flickering like film behind your eyelids. This chimera gels in the attic of your brain, awake and dreaming; sentences and details and dialogue leak onto the kitchen counter, slide across the dash of the car, stick like gum every place your thoughts find you until - at last! - you sit down and begin to write it. Beginnings are a whirl of seduction and false leads, doggedness and free-fall. They are stunning.

The ending of the process arrives in a concrete way. Ending a writing project brings the pleasure of completion. The idea has become dimensional. The outline colored in, the paper doll stands in her paper attire, ready to take the stage in a reader's imagination. You plucked your story out of the vault of heaven and scribed it to terra firma. Savor it. The thing you have made.

How do we find the catalyst of successful creative beginnings? Exploration. In the surgery of first look. That moment of pure anthropology. What stays.

Carson, in her inimitable way, deftly defines for us "unexpected awareness": the moment shift occurs. Our minds imprint the essence of a thing, opening to simultaneous impressions and intuition. Who are you? Where is this place? What is this thing? Can I? Should I? Why? We respond to the authentic power of origins, the genuineness of difference, the curiosity of strangeness, the poetry of reflection. Encounter the unfamiliar.

Invite in creativity with a clean look: a moment of unfiltered, pure anthropology. Let ideas rise, untouched, give voice. Our best work is seeded in that first awareness. How we shape this creative genesis or craft the work is less important than giving this moment its full due. Let the unfamiliar present itself without judgment or expectation. If surprised, it will be for good reasons. If deeply familiar, create room. Hope for the indescribably new. There we begin.

Hearts and Boxes

July 2, 2014

Tags: art and creation, the moderns, family, patterns, finding joy, intention

THE LITERARY LIFE
by Billy Collins

I woke up this morning,
as the blues singers like to boast,
and the first thing to enter my mind,
as the dog was licking my face, was Coventry Patmore.

Who
was Coventry Patmore?
I wondered, as I rose
and set out on my journey to the encyclopedia
passing some children and a bottle cap on the way.

Everything seemed more life-size than usual.
Light in the shape of windows
hung on the walls next to the paintings
of birds and horses, flowers and fish.

Coventry Patmore,
I'm coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

How many things have I looked up
in a lifetime of looking things up?
I wondered, as I set the book on the piano
and began turning its large, weightless pages.

How would the world look
if all of its things were neatly arranged
in alphabetical order? I wondered,
as I found the
P section and began zeroing in.

How long before I would forget Coventry Patmore's
dates and the title of his long poem
on the sanctity of married love?
I asked myself as I closed the door to that room

and stood for a moment in the kitchen,
taking in the silvery toaster, the bowl of lemons,
and the white cat, looking as if
he had just finished his autobiography.


This poem spoke to me this morning for the simple reason I, too, woke up with an odd question occupying my mind. Not about a poet, but about the boundaries of autonomy. Is it possible, I wondered, for independence (the state of being independent) to nest in dependence or codependence, like so many Russian nesting dolls that symbolize the various degrees of autonomy and community? When we speak of personal independence do we mean the standard dictionary meaning - "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like of others" - or sweep all that definition of the body-politic and more into a proclamation of self-thinking? A cultural salute to the "solitary intelligence"?

The world itself is a loosely-stitched global quilt of independencies and co-dependencies, and intermingled, shifting national states between the two. Hearts and boxes. In some ways happily delineated, organized, and in others roughly folded, crunched at the corners. In my house for the next twelve weeks we will practice our own independent-comingling as my daughter, a third year medical student, takes up her old room, now guest room, for a brief set of clinical rotations at nearby hospitals, all part of her required medical training. I am beyond thrilled. It is a gift to have her home. It is also my challenge to respect and observe the shift in borders in the shadow of the old. Is she wary behind that easy smile? Does she wonder if her sturdy independence will wobble as she takes up her old seat at the family dinner table? Will she miss her personal space and newly adult world, however short the time home or respectful the daily routine? I suspect so. I would. But we love time together, and this can be an opportunity to invent a new degree of "us."

The sun this morning seems more brilliant in her presence, the kitchen tomatoes red and ripe in the bowl. The sauvignon blanc I pour for the two of us as we share the wide rocker and discuss the day under the shade of the cherry tree, ever more sweet and satisfying on the tongue. Here's to Independence, my friends. Of whatever varietal you celebrate this weekend, personal or national. It's all good.