Monday, December 26, 2011

Women Taking Steam 2


A dog team yelps briefly in the starry night.  Then quiet.  Our boots squeak in the snow, the temperature hovering at 20 below.  The hairs in my nostrils freeze, my lungs breathe in dry air.  Clothes, frozen on the line, hang out to dry; stiff white sheets silent against a violet-black sky.  We walk on a narrow path beaten down by pack boots and animal tracks; a path of least resistance through knee deep snow. The steam house stands in a small clearing surrounded by birch forest, interrupted by the light of a half moon.
It is almost like a dream to me now.  I can’t place the village, and the experience is frozen in my mind. It was fourteen, maybe fifteen years past.  I am traveling in Western Alaska, and visit many villages in the course of five days as an itinerant therapist.  I remember a row of spruce-log cabins facing the airstrip, a modern schoolhouse perched atop a small rise, oil drums emerging from mounds of deep snow.  Perhaps the village is New Stuyhawk, Inakpuk or as far north as Koliganek.  The exact location puzzles, but a haunting memory lingers.  I am washing my hair in a wide metal bowl, taking a steam with two of the local Eskimo women.
            The heavy wooden door scrapes the icy ground when opened, and a warm rush of air billows out. I pull the door tight behind me, breathing in dry warming heat. In the small entryway, we remove boots and socks, and hang up our clothing on moose horn hooks.  There is no light inside but the kerosene lantern one woman carries to lead our way.
            Naked, we step into the heat room.  At the far end of the enclosure is a 55 gallon fuel drum serving as a wood stove.  The stove sits erect above a bed of river rocks.  An old metal bucket and wooden scoop rest nearby.
            They speak very little so I watch the women, and follow them. We sit on a long wooden bench against the wall.  One woman dips the wooden scoop into a bucket of water and ladles it carefully over the rocks.  Hissing steam pours forth and I breath in deeply the welcomed moisture.  The women speak a few words in Yupik, laugh a little, then quiet.  I close my eyes and feel my skin tingling.  The heat deepens.  Moisture collects along my hairline, in the creases behind my knees, between my breasts.  Again a woman dips the scoop and pours water over rocks.  More steam surges.  I think, I don’t even know your names. She continues dipping and pouring until the whole room is filled with a relaxing warmth.  I wait and watch. The floor is made of narrow slats of wood spaced an inch apart, allowing the water to drain.  We slide from the bench to the floor and sit cross legged; I am handed a large wide metal bowl. One woman scoops water into the bowls.  I am handed a bottle of shampoo. With rounded backs, they submerge their long black hair into their bowls and begin washing. I feel the warmth of the room, the sweat, the deepened glow of the wood stove. I am entranced by this rich moment, a simple elemental cleansing shared with two strangers.
      We have steamed many times, my husband and I, while camping on the naked beaches of cold swift rivers.  It is one of the many simple pleasures we enjoy after a long day of rowing, often in inclement weather.  After assembling gear, preparing the evening meal, and erecting the tent, we are ready to begin the ritual.  The forest offers many dead tree poles, and we choose a few six or seven footers to lash together at the top, making a simple teepee frame.  We punch the ends of the poles into the beach sand and envelope the structure with a large plastic tarp.  Inside, rocks are piled in a circular mound, and in the middle, a fire is built. As the heat builds, the sounds of fire and rock, popping and cracking echoes on the nearby water.  We hunker down and let the steam do its work, draining our muscles of tension, putting bodies and minds at ease.  Then within the heat of the smoldering fire, we discuss the next day's unfolding.
     So that is the plan for us tonight. As I look out the window of my studio, there are two colors...black and white, with various shades of gray...a white winter landscape. We'll steam tonight, in the form of a dry sauna in our home,  and a world apart from the rigors of a riverside camp or far-away village.
    Still it will feel every bit as restorative and relaxing; not ancient or remote, but simply...good.








Monday, December 19, 2011

Tidings of Joy

Source: Mostra dell Artigianato, Florence, Italy

Ten Laws on the Art of Joyful Living, by Kazuaki Tanahashi 
(side comments are mine by way of continual successful and not so successful attempts at practicing these teachings)
1. Your happiness is more important than anything else (or your relationship with the god of your understanding is more important than anything else - same thing).
2. The happier you are, the more you can help others.
3. Smiling makes you happy (even if you don't "feel" happy; smile anyways, it works in various increments).
4. The more relaxed you are, the happier you are (is it really necessary to chase around after more "stuff" this Christmas; is it possible to shop with ease rather than desperation? Or make some gifts instead? May we learn to Slow down). 
5. A moment of meditation can help you refresh yourself (sit everyday for at least 20 minutes, watching your breath come and go; if you find yourself agitated, great. That's what it's meant to do...discover your agitation. Sit still anyways without getting up to make chocolate chip cookies or go out for a beer).

6. The lower your expectations are, the happier you are (goals are great, but sometimes you have to "adjust" your goals and dreams if the outcome is not what you expected; sometimes pushing harder just creates more misery; drop the outcome and be happy instead.
7. Happiness attracts happiness.
8. The ultimate healing is to live joyfully at each moment (a lifetime endeavor...one breath, one moment, one experience at a time).
9. The more fully you face your own death, the more joyous you become (can't run away from this one; well, you can, but...)
10. You can always improve your art of joyful living (by being grateful for every experience thrown your way, whether good or bad, if you're receptive  to what it can teach you).


 Oh, and #11: Buy, make, and/or enjoy art: it will sustain you.


Monday, December 12, 2011

We are Winter People and Today is a Snow Day


3 yrs. old

We walked heads down into the icy wind, my brothers and I, across a mile of barren wheat field under a lead gray sky. The expanse was a whitewashed playing field we could roam undisturbed for hours.  At the far end of the field was a long drainage ditch, and on our hike across the field, we stopped to place pieces of graham crackers that had broken off in our pockets at the openings of muskrat holes.  With snow welded to our mittens and our pockets stuffed with snacks, the day stretched out like miles before us.  The only rule of the day was be back for supper.  Of course we had no watches, but could sense and feel when it was time to turn back towards home.
The drainage ditch, filled with arching cattails in the fall, was smothered with four feet of soft powdery snow in early winter; the mere sight of it a treat to our creative energies.  One by one, we jumped with abandon into the untouched mounds.  Like off the diving board at the public pool, we leaped cannonball style, landing softly with a quiet muffled thud.  Gingerly we crawled out to higher ground, careful not to disturb the integrity of each hole and causing a cave-in.  Exhausting the length of the ditch we jumped and jumped until, like a strand of beads laid end to end, our string of hovels was complete.
            Inside one hole the three of us gathered, digging it larger and packing the sides to fit our bundled bodies. The energy of huddling created a cozy warmth, and pressed shoulder to shoulder, we talked excitedly about our newly created fort. Biting balls of ice off our mittens and eating crumbled peanut butter cookies wrapped by our mother in waxed paper, we sat in relative comfort, our voices thick in the dense air. Far above us, wisps of white clouds slipped across the gray winter sky.  
            Later we split up, one person to a hole. Within moments, I became restless and felt conspicuously alone. I called to my oldest brother but he couldn’t hear me two holes down, his name simply didn’t reach. Then the fear set in. Several years later, I'd feel that fear again, when I was six and a neighbor friend delivered me back home after a weekend away at their summer cottage on Lake Michigan.  It was the first time I had been apart from my family overnight, and I had adjusted well, until I got home.  The house was empty and pin-drop quiet, and it was as if my parents and three siblings had simply vanished from the face of the earth (they were next door; no need for alarm) Still, for a brief moment, I felt abandoned and alone. There was silence where I could only feel me, only hear me. Being alone was scary.
Though the unfamiliar  fear of silence grew around me, I stayed put.  Having learned how to avoid the label of ”cry baby” by my brothers, a manipulation they often used to prevent me from tattling on them or to toughen me up, I chose instead to be brave. 
Rather than running from the silence, I sank into it.  Eventually I became aware of the muffled sounds of my mittens brushing against my wool coat, the huff of my breath going in and out, and beat of my heart.  If I were still enough, I almost heard nothing.  It didn’t take long to realize that I rather enjoyed the experience.  Nowhere in my small world was there a place this quiet and still; noise was constant and everywhere. The sound of TV variety shows in the background, the thump of bare feet on wooden stairs, the barking of dogs at night.  Even in church there was commotion.  Babies screeched; people coughed and cleared their throats, harsh organ music blared.  The silence, here, was to be cherished.
About the time my attention wandered to the cold seeping in around my shoulders, my eldest brother, on watch for my welfare, poked his head into the opening and with a bit of irritation asked, “What are you doin’?  How come you’re not comin’ out?”
After hours of rigorous play tired and hungry, we trudged back to our pink brick house on the dead-end street that bordered the snow-covered wheat field. That day in my self-made fort, a contrast had been noted, a small seed planted under my radar of everyday awareness.  There is an inner silence I can tap into that can be experienced anytime and anywhere; a place that is calming and grounding even in the midst of commotion and noise. There's no need to block out the silence; it's joyful, expansive and not the least bit scary.
I'm thinking of this today because it's a snow day. The trees are shawled with snow; the kids are sledding down their steep driveway (yay...no school) and a neighbor hums by on his snowmachine while I dig myself out of my quiet hovel of a home. We are WINTER PEOPLE, and today is a SNOW DAY. Hallelujah.

2 more kids would arrive later
more mischief


Sunday, December 4, 2011

STAR GAZER




Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we
would do if the stars only came out once
every thousand years.  No one would sleep
that night, of course.  The world would become
religious overnight.  We would be ecstatic, delirious,
made rapturous by the glory of God.  Instead,
the stars come out every night, and we watch television.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

New Poem: Old Road



It was not long ago I wore
my hair in braids
like twisted rivers falling softly over my shoulders,
or smooth vines held in place with green satin ribbons.

No longer a child, I’m too old to wear braids now
too old to wear above-the-knee-wrap-around-silk-skirts and 
French-cut-bathing-suits, or
form-fitted-knit-dresses that reveal every imperfect curve.

The young ones no longer look me in the eye or hip
perhaps the swing is gone, they see no use? though
I pay my taxes faithfully-feed-the-chickadees that flock the trees,
rub away enduring dust
cook a meal they hastily consume then with a tart shove, push themselves 
away from the table. 

They don’t see me walking the old dirt road
or the deep lines of my forehead covered in a hat made of spun llama
soft and supple as new lamb
To them life is a horse race.
my mother used to say wear your hair piled up high,
she liked it that way 
but no, I’ll wear braids again at the end of the road when 
the holy-bound dream is to die-young-of-old-age.






Monday, November 21, 2011

Stepping Out and Dr. Zhivago


     Stepping out and walking up the hill over
     ice-crusted snow and through the blessed darkness,
     Colored tree lights shine and blur the edges of girls
     with their crayons hunched over paper, boys
     with blocks and toy trucks scattered across the floor.
     Talking menu, the women drink tea and
     hug the little ones 'tween their petty sufferings
     Swigging home-brew, the men speak of glaciers
     and shipwrecks and skillful hunts yet to come.

     On our way back down the hill
     when round flakes of snow sway to the ground without shattering,
     memories flood our moonlit minds.
     We see a future shorter than our past,
     knowing each new amusement and every stale resentment
     will shiver away and die suddenly, as though we never expected it to,
     in one miraculous breath of many.

     It is fitting that tonight we watch a movie, Dr. Zhivago
     a decades long fairy tale of sorts
     where good and evil and destiny and all reconciliations
     awaken the human dramas that unfold
     from birth til' death.
     we claim the paradox.
     we make love and feel the sorrow, taste the gladness and
     we share the disappointments
     shamelessly, of our own diminutive lives.

Writing this poem awakened an old memory of the song, Mother Russia, by the band, Renaissance. A beautiful classic; almost 9.5 minutes long, but worth the time to fully appreciate Annie Haslam's legendary clear and elegant vocal range. Mother Russia and  I Think of You are both from the Renaissance album titled, "Turn of the Cards". I wore out playing I Think of You in the early eighties when my husband was away from home for long periods, working on the slope; however...you can't really wear out a song as gorgeous as this; books and music and art are meant to be worn thin...that's how they heal hearts.




Sunday, November 13, 2011

Eureka. Nelchina. Mendeltna.

     I am fascinated by the names of small towns and villages in the Copper River valley area and beyond; places like Gakona, Chistochina, Chitina...many from the Athabascan Ahtna Indian language. It is 150 miles from Eagle River to Tazlina, and I share the road with very few people, with the exception of truckers delivering goods to the Eureka Lodge, Sheep Mountain Lodge and many other small stops, ultimately arriving with major deliveries in Anchorage. I have driven this road hundreds of times and never tire of the myriad details the land reveals under changing weather and light conditions. The light may assume a different bend or quality as you sweep along the flats of the Matanuska River or sail down and around escalating mountains that a few miles prior created an entirely different character of  shadow and luminence. It is fascinating, nourishing, and humbling to behold. Quinn doggy loves it too; never missing a chance to spring like a rabbit in the snow and nuzzle frantically for voles running around under thickly laid grasses covered by the warmth and insulation of ten inches of snow. He delights in his game.
     Gulkana. Chisana. Salina. Nabesna.
     And I delight in mine. The way words sound in the quiet air when I say them aloud, to myself. Still. Delicate. Austere. Like the land.










Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cabin Notes #1



This morning a half moon hangs in the sky.  I take my walk along the river at around 10 am, when the sun breaches the horizon. The river is consumed by clumps of noisy ice, bouncing and swishing in the current; the temperature is 5 below. Ice is beginning to form on the river’s edge, creating swirling patterns widening out from the bank. I walk along in the stiff morning wind, and notice snow drifts sprinkled with silt from the nearby sandy cliffs. Being alone out here in the quiet of the woods can be a very productive time for writing; I also make time to visit friends in town.
Tonight Lucille gives me a book called Our Side of the River II, by Sis Laraux who was born and raised in Akiak, a village along the Kuskokwim River. I am captivated by her stories of childhood tales and lore of Alaska and finish the book in a few hours.  This leads me to a host of books on our cabin bookshelf published in 1978; each one an autobiography of an individual from a wide variety of villages, told in an oral, storytelling style (out of respect for the person’s native voice), compiled from many hours of taped interviews. They’re unedited and best read aloud so that you can listen for the sound of the spoken voice. I’ve had these books for years, and have joyously re-discovered them; autobiographies (now called “memoir”) have always been a source of great interest so off I go, reading late into the quiet night.
Lucille and Arnold are our long-time friends, of Athabascan lineage. We’ve shared a fishwheel for years, and I remember once when Arnold and my husband were building the wheel (which is constructed with two large baskets into which the fish swim), Arnold said the “Indian” side would catch more fish than the white guy’s side, and we all got a good laugh out of that. Lucille is a great cook and baker, and tonight she sends me home with a new “easy” recipe for cinnamon roles and I remember one summer evening (when the sun never sets) staying up until 2 am after harvesting fish, when we ate a whole pan of fresh baked cinnamon roles while telling stories (some comic, others tragic) of times past in the Copper River valley.
So many stories…and we’re creating our own…with the ever-turning passage of time.
All photos/writings copyrighted; may use w/permission; email monicadevine@gmail.com

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hail, Poetry!


Listen.  And  follow word by word...the full-cast quatrain from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "The Pirates of Penzance" Hail, Poetry!

DAZZLING, entertaining work created by designers in the M.I.T. Student Art Association's LineStorm Animation consortium, and supervised by PELL OSBORN, who teaches the  LineStorm classes. 

Recently I've been researching how to create VIDEO POETRY, and came across Pell's work. I emailed him and he warmly responded, offering encouragement and sources on the how-to's of animation. Over the years, he has guided students in creating personalized group animation projects in the public schools and at the college level on topics important to the community, such as conflict resolution, diversity and social responsibility.

Pell's breath of experience in digital technology reaches all the way back to 1982, when he founded MotionArt Studios in Boston. MotionArt  is an "association of designers, animators, and technophiles," who collectively have produced many award-winning animation projects for companies such as American Airlines, Honeywell, OceanSpray, Save the Children, and others. In 1991, while working for UNICEF in Nepal, Pell co-founded the first animation studio in Kathmandu!

"MotionArt champions animation as a profoundly compelling medium that clarifies, influences, entertains, inspires and occasionally CAUSES FIGHTS IN BARS!" 
I think Pell would fit right in here in Alaska, and I'd like to invite him to submit his work to the Anchorage International Film Festival, held yearly in December (first call for submissions occurs in June). We would love to host you in our home, Pell, should you chance the Alaskan deep-freeze, which I'm sure is quite similar to Boston. 

We are inspired.  Once again.  Thanks to Pell Osborn.








Monday, October 17, 2011

Loretta

A poem inspired by a quick write on the topic of "first love."

Loretta

She told me one night behind a bush,
Sitting in the moist grass
How parents do it to make babies.
I sat dazed under a dome of stars
feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach.

“Liar,” I yelled.
The very thought of it was unreal
As unbelievable as Death
More incomprehensible than God.

That you call Love?
I hate you, Loretta.


I'm enjoying a poet new to my awareness by the name of Jack Gilbert; born in Pittsburgh and twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. From his book, The Great Fires...Poems 1982-1992:

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

She-Fish


I've been experimenting with different art materials lately and came across Pan Pastels, which are loaded with lots of pigment and are fun to use. They come in small discs of color, each called a pan. You simply rub the pan in a circular motion with a Softt (Tm) Art sponge (I use sponges bought in the cosmetics department of my local store, which work just fine). It's sort of like applying make-up; you load up your sponge and drag it across your surface (in this case, stretched canvas).  You can block in large areas of color, build layers, and work in fine details.  They are compatible with conventional pastel fixatives, and can even be erased from the paper using any artist's eraser.

For She-Fish I used collage, Pan pastels, markers and acrylic. When my boys were little, I used to decorate their bedroom with photos and art that would last over many years and still be age appropriate (animals, nature, sports). I think this would be perfect for a child's bedroom, adding color and whimsy!

Pan Pastels

Check out Pan Pastels on YouTube for more detailed instruction on their use, and have fun creating.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Memoir Excerpt #3: When Mountains Agitate the Wind


Flying 2,000 feet above the tundra on a partly cloudy day, the slant of the sun breaks across my face, and the proximity to the earth below is tangible and intimate. In good weather, everything below is visible. 

The muted greens and yellows of grasses and small shrubs rise up slightly over the land; land that is not chopped up and taken over by the muddle of roads, buildings, and power lines; ground that still exists as unclaimed space, unconquered in a way, stretching out for miles and miles in every direction. 
Flying this low is a sensuous activity, whirling out over the earth, close enough to see colors and patterns sketched into the land, far enough to detect movement of animals in migration. There is breathing room and a great sense of freedom in the experience of flying over  vast, seemingly empty space. Wide-eyed, I watch a herd of caribou glide in a northerly direction, then gracefully shift like a wave toward the east, coursing toward a boggy pond to drink.

The engine’s hum sounds like a lawn mower motor, typical of the Cessna 180, a small, high wing aircraft with ample horsepower and capable of many different arrangements of space. Today, the four seats behind me are removed and the space filled with cases of soda pop, mail, peanut butter, Pampers, and straw for sled dog bedding, all herded under thick nylon nets. For villages only accessible by air or water, short stops in quick planes are vital to the commerce and communication among residents. 
On a typical jaunt, you never know who or what will share the space: a family attending a birthday celebration 50 miles upriver; evangelists with opened Bibles in their laps setting out to “save” a village; a petty criminal on his way to town for a court hearing; or, on one occasion a body was laid to rest in a coffin directly behind my seat.

I am the only passenger on this flight and the monotony of the engine drone becomes a soothing comfort to my senses. 
We are aloft on a draft of wind that feels like waltzing or being lifted up on a swing and gently set down, rolling on the pitch and lull of soft air. The movement of clouds is reflected on a string of boggy ponds below, and a flock of snow-white trumpeter swans skims the surface before delicately touching down. My mind strays into emptiness, as open and expansive as the unencumbered geography below. In good weather, flying is the one place where clarity of mind becomes effortless. I can think up there; a sentiment I imagine is shared by many passengers and pilots who enjoy the intimacy of flying in small planes.

A fascination with flying first took root in my late teens when I saw the ocean for the first time flying over the Atlantic on a back-packing trip to Europe.  As a young adult, having never left the Midwest, the experience was incredulous. Soaring through cloudbanks and seeing sky meet water in all directions was daunting and to my young mind, simply miraculous. That was and still is, an indelible image with a powerful message: the whole world lay before me and anything was possible. Travel for the sake of travel; explore for the sake of exploration. Doesn’t the sky have as many tangible mysteries as the oceans? Isn’t it embedded somewhere in our genes the desire to explore and understand the natural world below, as well as above our beautiful earth?


The strangeness of proximity and separation experienced from an airplane, noted Charles Lindbergh was this: a destination is thousands of miles away and your proximity to the ground, only seconds away. Stranded between heaven and earth, romancing the air currents like birds, there is another world, with waves and vortexes of wind creating an invisible topography of the sky. I wonder if pilots see the elegance of this topography from their mind’s eye, when they are negotiating mountain passes or climbing to escape a band of turbulence, searching for calm air?

To be continued.....

Monday, September 26, 2011

No One Thing

I am searching for no one thing. Nothing. Not the next best thing. Not the last great place. Oh, I peruse around for the best chocolate cupcake recipe a full-bodied bottle of wine Cheap plane tickets to Florence a handmade winter cap for my baby love. Can I say these things? can I say I'm a hedonist who adores the earth's beauty and little things, like the gathered buzzing of bees drunk on nectar bare feet on a cold stone floor, drifting powerless clouds, and slow foods? Can I say, with proper respect I'm not pushing up against anything? Defining my space, at war for a cause drawing a circle in the sand? Can I say the earth is dying everyday? Will others become suspicious if I do not join? Will they call me stupid and ignorant of their god/theory/science? Will I be thought of less, here, if I say these things? That the world is much bigger than All our fears That she will turn in time and her natural excavation will plow us under Can I say this without being hated? Can I say there is no It? Can I say Shiva is not It? Nor Jesus or Buddha? Nor running marathons, publishing books, winning the lottery, feeding the poor, conquering a mountain, surviving illness. With proper respect, can I say there is no one thing that will save us, nothing to search for, little to do. What does it take to fill oneself up? There are mountains beyond mountains. There are oceans beneath oceans. Sky beyond claimed and unclaimed sky. And do I think because I push around a single grain of sand, I am special? That I will never die? That I will live forever? Can I do my work and still be happy? Can I hold all the beauties and horrors of the world in my heart, and still be spacious and loving? Can I burn for Life as well as Strife with reverence for all, Searching for nothing? With proper respect, can I say there is nothing to save?


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Santa Fe, New Mexico

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Delicious autumn!

"My very soul is wedded to it. If I were a bird, I would fly about the earth, seeking the successive autumns."
Every year when the colors change and the trees turn to flame, I think of this quote by George Eliot. We hiked the south side of the North Fork, Eagle River. The orange and browns of the tundra, white lichen spotting the ground, black rock faces towering over hanging valleys, the moss berries under our feet, a mama moose and her offspring...kept us in a state of lasting awe.  

Autumn, the golden enchantment.  Watching hawks ride the thermals, catching the warmer columns of air to lift them up without winging.  

Oh, Delicious autumn!  My very soul is wedded to it. 






   

Monday, September 12, 2011

Granite Bay


We motored out into Prince William Sound in our boat/landing craft, Tookah, with a couple kayaks strapped aboard. Only a hour's drive from Anchorage, Prince William Sound is a boater's paradise on the north Gulf of Alaska, with glacier carved fjords, bays, coves, lakes, and hundreds of islands that one could take a lifetime to explore. What was remarkable on this particular trip is seen in these photos. We anchored Tookah, hopped into our kayaks and slid into Granite Bay, paddling softly. As we floated along, the stillness of the atmosphere and the way the light played upon the rocks bore perfect reflections of the rock-strewn bank, rendering what looked like totems

The rocks appeared as though they were floating... an optical illusion.

We paddled deep into the cove to its end to a freshwater creek. By the time we turned around to head back to Tookah, the light had changed, and the images disappeared. I rubbed my eyes. Did I really see that? The beauties and mysteries of nature never cease to leave me spell-bound. What magic!


Monday, September 5, 2011

Consciousness has its own Coherence



     I'm in the process of writing my memoirs of the last thirty years living in Alaska, which is an adventurous task (I took my first job out of graduate school in Fairbanks, circa 1978). I write about going out on the ice with whalers, growing a garden in the expanded daylight of summer, flying in small planes to Indian and Eskimo villages, the rigors of cabin building, the cold and darkness of extended winters...oh, the darkness.  And yet, I'm not exactly sure what the over-arching theme of the manuscript in its entirety will be when I'm finished, but I can hardly wait to find out.
     Consciousness has its own coherence, says Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of five novels and  the memoirs Slow Motion, and her latest, Devotion. I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing her speak about memoir last week at the Anchorage Museum. She re-iterates what I've heard over and over from writers (and artists alike); and that is, you often don't know ahead of time where the story will lead, how it will turn out, what the sole purpose or underlying theme is until it is written, because sometimes consciousness works that way, it has its own coherence and we just need to trust the grand scheme, the bigger picture, the major theme that resonates beneath the story. She writes: "In truth, I often have no idea what drives me forward when I'm writing a work of fiction.  I try to remain willfully obtuse about my themes, because to over-think, at least in the early stages, creates a self-consciousness that ruins the work.  It's only later, much later, when a story or a novel is finished, that I understand what it is that I've done, and what has driven me to do it." " This is also true for memoir. You write a story from slivers of memory, and discover later what the story is really about. Cloaked in the story about catching and harvesting red salmon on the silty beaches of the Copper River, I later discovered the connective tissue underlying the story was the pain of my mother's death and the quiet exploration of her life.
     This is what I admire most about the creative process. You just never know, and not knowing enables your thinking to loosen its grip around pre-determined plans; it's expansive so long as you learn to be at peace with the "not knowing." Mysterious discoveries reveal themselves in spite of yourself and that's where the magic lies.
     Dani spoke of writing about relatives while they are still alive, and how delicate a process it can be. She wrote a story about her sister who was quite angry for the telling because after all, it was her story. But isn't a sibling's story also your story? Do we not exist in relationship to each other? I have four siblings who shared the same household as I, yet each of our stories surrounding a shared incident would be wildly different. It's like Anais Nin said: we don't see things as they are; we see things as we are.
     On the writing life: I cringe sometimes when it takes me two hours to write a single satisfactory paragraph. Writing takes time. And reflection, thought, revision, insight, hard work. But if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes; there is nothing else to say or think or feel about it. Sometimes it's lonely; you stand outside of the group, watching people, taking mental notes...did you catch her sour expression, notice how he laughs for no reason other than the pleasure of laughing? All grist for the mill. You spend blocks of hours being alone, deep sea diving, looking for compelling creatures. You also watch your mind; how it works, how it spins a story, how it has a "mind" of its own, how you often have to reel it in, question its motivations, exercise it, free it so you can begin again. 
     There is always a story within a story, a thinking about what you're thinking. Consciousness has its own coherence, in spite of our best laid plans.



Monday, August 29, 2011

Go Forth and Create!

Friday is my day of creation; a day set aside every week to do nothing but create art. A day to explore new mediums, play with paints and markers and collage. To pick up the guitar when I get stuck, strum a little, sing a few songs. Stare out the window at the mountains, breathe deep, smile inside. Then get back to work, um...or, I mean play. Retired from the work force (for the most part), and dumping cable TV has opened up luscious blocks of time in which to create. For me, painting is play, whereas writing is work and I must set aside ample time for both;  I don't wait for the Muse to appear though she is invited to bring her ideas to the table at any time.

I bought a bunch of 6 x6" canvases and started playing with acrylics and collage. This one is called Conversation with a Tree.


"We have no art," say the Balinese. "We just do everything beautifully." The jewelry making and wood carving and weaving and cooking were not called "art" until the westerner arrived and decided to make it so, thus creating marketable commodities to buy and sell (it figures...).


Imagine being so mindful of everything you do throughout the day that each activity is done artfully, with pleasure and full attention. Why, that one thing could change the world!

A friend once told me, many years ago, that if you want something in your life, you have to create it. You can't wait for others to motivate you; can't sit around and complain about what is lacking in your community. My friend opened up the first health food store in Marquette, Michigan. Then he went on to contribute to the city's fine art community. I've never forgotten what he said; if you have a vision, act on it. Maybe you'll draw other people in, maybe you won't. But you have to do what makes you happy, what creates beauty, what inspires you into a frenzied, passionate state (OK, a calm, passionate state).
My creation this fall will be starting a Women's Art Circle, one Friday a month, to meet with other women and create art. Drawing, painting, knitting, felting, beading, photography... any type of creative endeavor where we can exchange ideas, problem solve, try new mediums, and feed off each other's inspirational energy.

But most of all, we'll laugh. Yep. Laughing is good.

Monday, August 22, 2011

In a Hundred Years...All New People

Like grass, people die away.

If you were told you had only 10 years left to live, what would you do? How would you spend your time? "Spending" time is like spending currency...precious gold. Today I have forever banished the phrase "killing time" from my vocabulary, and will try to "spend" my time more economically. Unfortunately, we usually don't understand this wise use of time until most of it has dwindled away. 

This question of ten remaining years will become a reality to everyone of us, statistically speaking, when we're in our early 70's. Not so far off for many of us.

Our perception of time compresses as we get older. Remember when you were a kid and your next birthday was eons away? Then in early adulthood, the time was still substantial, only less so. But by the time you're fifty and beyond, birthdays click by so fast you sometimes forget how old you are (wow, am I really 58?)and it doesn't have anything to do with how busy you are; elders who no longer inhabit the working world report the same quickening perception of time. Our movement through time appears to speed up significantly as we age. 

Is this due to chemical changes in the brain? A loss of melatonin that makes the brain perceive time in a compressed fashion? Or is it simply because in a child, few memories are built up yet, so he has oodles of time, years upon years, to create them? And when you're older, you recognize the little time you have left and the dreams of future planning begin to diminish.
Chuck Esker proposed this theory about the trajectory of time: When a person is 50 years old and goes through all the experiences during a year, there are not too many things that happen that are new and unique. (Let's face it; much of adult life is repetitive). In fact a year is only equal to 2% of that persons entire life to that point. All future years become a smaller percentage of the life experience. However when a person is five, almost everything is still new and a year is 20% of that persons life at that point.
So at 50 years of age, a year is equal to 2% of a life, and time flies; but at 5 years of age, the same year is equal to 20% of a life, and time drags.

Time is a construct. A continuum whereby we track the events of our lives. Before time, man tracked activity by the seasons, an organic evolution of events without number, without comparison, without conscious thought. Death then was nothing more than a completion of a cycle; people were not "outraged" by it, or think it shouldn't happen. I imagine it was such an ingrained part of life that there was no separation or angst about it whatsoever. No fighting it off; no praying for things to be different. It just is, as natural and normal as birth itself.

Back to our original question. Here's how George Bernard Shaw summed it up:
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.  I rejoice in life for its own sake.  Life is no brief candle for me.  It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.  Thirty years ago, when a huge enchanting future lay before me, I remember thinking "I'd rather burn out than rust out." (from Mick Jagger, or maybe Neil Young?). Now that I'm on the other side of fifty, rusting out is just fine by me.  Maybe I can slow things down a bit by learning something new each day?
These are the types of questions my friends and I perused at our recent college girl's reunion. What would happen if we just stopped paying any attention to our ages and birthdays? Just let the time go and forget how old we are; what would that feel like? Would it slow things down a little? 
Lindy's answer: "Will we still get presents? We'll still get presents, won't we? When I die, you can cut me in half and count my rings, but we'll still get presents, won't we?"

Hahaha!  Now, seriously girls.