A prose poem, it described my visit on Thanksgiving morning by a group of wild Turkeys, who came down from the mountain behind my home, and hung around under my windows for a couple of hours.
They were magnificent creatures, and their arrival on Thanksgiving under my windows was for me as a mystical experience, for they connected me to things larger and wiser than myself. Their appearance inspired a quick google into Native American legend and lore about these noble birds, and what followed was that I experienced the interconnectedness of land, history, and life’s collective consciousness, a broad, sweeping, and elusive reality.
I felt in awe of these birds who I saw as grand, teachers of a higher order.
As I remembered their visit this past week, I double checked when I wrote the entry. I thought it must have been at least two years ago; two, maybe three.
No, just one.
I find what I have accomplished, learned, and created this past year extraordinary; more precisely, what I’ve made myself available to, and how its shaped me. There’s no will involved, it’s willingness, and it’s a flow. And there’s been more than a year’s worth of life lived these 360 plus days.
Last year, about this time, I was reeling from a broken heart, and the loss of a misguided love who I believed was the one; I had no idea where or how the book’s narrative would take shape, and I was at a loss for its future; and for all of my optimism, I still hadn’t learned to settle into the present moment.
I was still a creature of anxiety.
After countless miles in the mountains (an exaggeration, but a nice turn of phrase), tens of thousands of words (an understatement, because the hours tossed in editing are difficult to acknowledge), a summer of gardening, reconnecting to my visual art, a month-long fast, reading and listening to endless books on writing and self-development, nurturing relationships, hours and days in meditation, and learning to breathe and appreciate in stillness, life has done what it does: grown and proliferated and effortlessly opened itself.
This past week, I thought about my first gardening this past summer. I brought my pots in a month or so ago, and the basil and parsley and cilantro have eked out an existence in the back room, until I can afford a grow light.
The basil sits on the windowsill. It’s leaves turn toward the diminishing sun, struggling for every minute of available light; the oversized tub of parsley that sits on the floor sends out long shoots, reaching for the window, determined to get what it needs, the light of life. The cilantro, less so, because it’s slower grower and in a smaller tub, and its shoots are modest in their aspirations.
It’s an overworked metaphor for the soul, the plant growing in the light, I know. But if you’ve never raised plants from seeds, watched them proliferate under the summer sun, and then seen them struggle for what they need and want, there’s an inevitable lesson: we are here to reach for the light that makes us grow. It’s not metaphysics, it’s what it means to live.
To grow and thrive, we need our soul’s light, water, and fertile soil: and what makes one grow and flourish, may well be toxic to another. This is the beauty of difference. Orchids and parsley and asparagus fern don’t thrive in the same soil, sun, or watering conditions. The conditions we need to flourish aren’t necessarily given to us, it’s our job to create the best circumstances for ourselves with what we have, and through our choices nourish our psyche, spirit, and body, until they work and grow together, day by day, as we turn our faces toward our light, the things that make us open ourselves to life, until we stand like a regal sunflower spreading its petals in late summer.
I’ve learned that life is simple, and thriving is our rightful nature as beings on a soul guided journey: to turn toward what inspires and nurtures, and then grow.
Writing tens of thousands of words has been part of my growth, part of my life’s light, writing until I hit my truths, the things waiting to get out, the discoveries sitting like dormant seeds. As I work on life, the seeds start growing, and they find their way on the page. The relationship between art and life goes back and forth, a loop that eventually dissolves the boundaries between inner realities and outer ones. Eventually, in my mind, the distinction between inner and outer appears only as a convenient myth: everything is connected, and what I have understood as meaningless, isolated fragments wait for me to uncover their meaning and beauty.
They wait to find their place in my story arc, and this unfolding arc shows how one life relates to that great elusive life consciousness: a story connecting the individual to the universal.
In this entry, the waiting discovery planted itself last Thanksgiving morning. The morning marked by the visit of eleven wild Turkeys, who I saw as master teachers, ancient souls visiting under my window, messengers offering me a totem of things to come. “Abundance, fertility, nobility, awareness, connection with Mother earth, ” the animal symbolism website informed me. Did I think a year ago that tens of thousands of words would allow me to discover more about love, life, and growth than I’ve previously known? Did I expect that a summer of gardening and books and art and new relationships would begin nurturing parts waiting to come alive?
No. I have lived more this year than any year before, creating, breathing, exploring, writing tens of thousands of words (in fact, hundreds of thousands), including a prose poem written a year ago, under the morning sun, and prompted by the visit of eleven magnificent creatures whose promises carried more weight than I imagined.
Tens of thousands of words later, a year having passed, and I recognize that I barely comprehend everything for which I should be grateful. So I surrender myself to the feelings that ripple through me and travel into the ether: the joy of being alive and grabbing the scraps of happiness that float around me, catching one, letting it go, catching another, letting it go, hoping that someday I’ll see the big picture better, grabbing scrap by scrap, until the horizon’s filled with nothing but glorious scraps of bright colored tissue paper like happiness .
For I have another belief, one supported by science: as my gratitude grows, it spreads, and these feelings shape an incomprehensibly resilient and achingly fragile world, as water shapes stone.
May you see your meaningful totem, and honor its importance.
I ran across an article this past week. Stephen King tells a story about himself and J.K. Rowling.
They were both being interviewed, at different times, and after her interview, she stormed into their shared waiting room. “They don’t understand what we do, do they? They really don’t understand what we do,” with a few profanities sprinkled in, out of frustration, according to King.
King replied, “No, they don’t.”
The irony amused me, because neither King nor Rowling knows what they do, and they have said so. This is not me pontificating like a know-it-all, this time; this is what they have said, in print. No, they don’t know what they are doing. They just do it. They write. They do it over and over. They do it until it feels or sounds or looks like they have hit that thing waiting for discovery.
Over the past two weeks, I reread King’s stunning “On Writing.” It’s a remarkable book, and I’ve never read a King novel, am not a devoted King reader. But if there were only one book that an aspiring writer could choose to read, in a hypothetical universe where the starry-eyed-would-be-writer may take only one book on writing with them on the road to perdition, it’s that one.
I’ve read a lot of books on writing, especially this past year. It’s part of what I do, as someone who works with these strange marks, collects them in words, lines them up in sentences, organizes these sentences into paragraphs, believing that I am strangling meaning from marks, words, sentences, paragraphs.
When it comes to crafting meaning, I believe writing’s soul is best revealed in Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit.”
But the work, the psychology, the habit of writing, the muse’s mystery, to which there is no mystery, King conveys with shining skill. When I write shining skill, read: “work.” Because the reason he’s successful is that he writes every day. He writes and writes and writes. And he writes because he loves it. He doesn’t write for the fame or the glory or the money. He writes because, in his words, “I love it. I fucking love it.”
King has never written anything for money. Only for the writing, the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the story.
And because he loves it, it’s all about writing, revising, writing, revising, listening, writing some more.
It’s all strange, and nobody who does it knows how it works. I say this because that’s what they say. They being the ones who do this thing called writing, the ones who do it really well, the ones who connect to things bigger than us all, and then bring those things to us.
I have these pages here that I’ve been working on relentlessly for weeks now. Hundreds of pages, gutted, because it wasn’t going where it needed to, wasn’t singing.
King says, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings.”
Endless hours, numbing at times.
I sacrificed the children for the greater good. Art. Clarity. Story. Meaning. I’m not certain for what yet, but the darlings are dead. In the age of word processing, there isn’t even a wastebasket full of paper.
But there was a moment after said death squad visits, that I returned to the page, a day or two later, after letting the survivors breathe, and I had no idea know where some of this stuff came from. I know that I didn’t write it, I didn’t recognize a word.
There’s someone running around my apartment who has some skill . . .
Friday night our local community store had an artisan night — we have small monthly parties, and local artists show their work, gain exposure, and there is plenty of free food, wine, and margaritas, all donated. Artisan nights are a reason for people to get together, mingle, spend time together, and local artists are stars for an evening.
A friend who lives down the street showed up to the gathering with a pretty teal blue and white gift bag for me. Inside were two elegant boxes, “You can open them both now, or you can open one, and open the other on Sunday.”
I chose to open only one gift as this same friend, her daughter, and I had plans for a special brunch date on Sunday.
“Just one gift,” I said. “I want to open the other when we’re all together on Sunday.”
She told me which box to open. Inside was a tiara. Not a plastic tiara, but a sterling plated tiara with quality rhinestones, with a well made hair comb for placing on my head. Not a toss-away-toy, but the real deal.
Now, I’ve always disliked tiaras. They seem to me to scream privilege, and a princess mentality that I have looked down on in quiet contempt. I would never say, “I think those things are ridiculous,” rather, I held my self-righteous smug superiority to myself. I would see pictures of women in tiaras, and turn my nose up. “Why,” I would think, “would any self-respecting woman want to wear a tiara?”
I found out Friday evening.
I wore the tiara all night at the artisan party, and I made sure everyone saw it. “See my tiara,” I said with a childish pride. (Recent Harvard studies show that thinking young — age is an attitude — has positive effects on aging. I turned the clock back 20 years Friday.)
There’s magic in putting a tiara on, in owning one’s specialness and saying, “I celebrate myself. I sing about myself. I shine. I sparkle. I glow. I am wonderful. I am royal and proud of it.” Amanda plugged into was something deep and precious, and I was ready.
I pulled her aside, and told her that two years ago, I never would have dreamed of wearing a tiara. “You get the tiara,” I told her, “when you’re ready for the tiara.”
I wore my tiara all night at the party, and I wore my tiara during our elegant brunch on Sunday.
So here is what I think about the metaphysics of tiaras, because I do believe there’s a metaphysics involved.
It’s not about personal superiority. It’s about not shying away from the magnificence that we are all born with. Being royal is our birthright, it’s an attitude of grace and confidence, not the birthright of a select few, and it’s something more profound than Disney princesses and beauty pageants.
The metaphysics of the tiara is best expressed by Marianne Williamson in A Return To Love:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people don’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us, but in all of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Yes, there is a metaphysics to the tiara, and Marianne Williamson sums it up.
I spoke with another friend on my birthday, and told her about my tiara, how I felt, and how I thought there was something deep and karmic about this gift, how much fun I had, how light and wonderful the world seemed when I wore it.
“There’s magic in it, you can feel it when you put a tiara on,” she said to me, “in the practice of magic, the tiara has power in it.” She went on to explain something about magic and head wreathes and their relationship to power and the tiara — the specifics eluded me, but it sounded like the metaphysics of the tiara.
A sparkling magnificence worn on one’s head that says, “I don’t play small.”
It’s a powerful life choice seen in a play of brilliant reflection, beauty, and confidence effortlessly worn.
You get the tiara when you’re ready for the tiara.
I walk down the road, turn to the right, and keep going until I wander into the decaying cemetery. Passing by the worn stone markers, the past calls me. I imagine the once living, feel their lives pull on my sweater, read their names, see dead flowers in pots and remembrances left to weather.
Time’s emptiness fills the area, interrupted by the impertinent truth that we never believe our days will end etched in smooth obsidian or worn granite: life marked by a name, two dates, sometimes a word or two.
I walk beside the motionless bones, still tongues, silent histories, interred stories once colored by memory’s palette, to enter a path hidden by tall grasses, leading to the lake.
I follow the path a mile or so. Wet autumn leaves stick to my sneakers. Maroon and yellow, remnants of spring’s green cling to my soles during my walk to the water’s edge.
I sit. Quiet everywhere. Clouds hang dense and low, they imperceptibly merge into the hills’ afternoon mists, a soft blanket insulating the day’s sounds,
except for a crows’ caw, and an unfamiliar melodic, staccato song.
A lone hawk flies overhead.
From beyond the hills, a small flock of wild geese fly in toward the lake, they yell in noisy abandon, skim the water’s surface, and then fly away, following their ancient route, a journey as old as the mountains, older than the trees. A ritual older than worn gravestones, written in avian blood.
I sit. Quiet, again.
I look over the lake, and the circle of surrounding hills. Trees vibrant with death’s nearness take on magenta, gold, amber, red, orange, colors paint-like dappled over the rolling hills, as though a sleeping giant emerged during twilight, and with an over-sized brush, colored his canvas in flaming magnificence, in a glowing display of grandiosity and vainglory, knowing the show days are few. I close my eyes. My breath and body now fully live, oozing out of me into water, earth, air, crow caw.
In death I live.
Death surrounds me in splendor.
I sit and breathe.
I am lake, mountains, clouds, trees,
and a flock of geese, whose ancient blood
carries me beyond stone memorials
and into glory.
“Annigonol ydy un iaith.” — One language is never enough.
Sometime in the late 90’s, I hiked from the Isle of Anglesey, through North Wales, Snowdonia, and down the Pembrokeshire Coast path, with the Irish Sea to my side. I explored miles of solitude and natural beauty and ancient relics and history, an experience that I will be expanding in an essay, for a planned collection.
For today, I offer the following to honor the Scottish independence referendum, for reasons that I hope will be clear by the entry’s end.
On the first leg of my Welsh journey, I stayed on Anglesey, a large island off the western shore, that’s a short ferry trip from Dublin, across the Irish Sea. The island is a remarkable land, as are its people. I stayed on a 550 acre farmhouse bed and breakfast, taking day trips from this rural, comfortable base. Mrs. Jane Brown ran the bed and breakfast, and she was a model of charm, hospitality, warmth, and a library of history about the area and Welsh lore. Mrs. Brown gave me the kind of oral history rich in color and texture that only a native could create.
Her generosity was singular. Mrs. Brown and her daughter-in-law took me on several day trips to places that few outsiders could have or would have known about. One trip was to a church used only few months a year, for when the tides change with the seasons, water surrounds the church the rest of year making the sanctuary inaccessible. There are no public programs to change this. Instead, the locals work with the way things are, they honor nature, this ancient space, and the mystery of the two together. The doors open and close at nature’s invitation. When the waters recede, it’s a local pilgrimage that honors life, death, and change. Archaic, I entered a world in which rituals from nearly a thousand of years ago remained unchanged, the rough old stones and worn wooden benches whisper stories that give themselves over for a brief time. Most of the year, this space protects itself from the outside world, with the rise of water around it.
The world I entered in North Wales, and particularly in Anglesey, was rare. Strangers were friends in minutes. I remember tea with Mrs. Brown, her daughter-in-law, and their distant relatives who lived in an old farmhouse, near the island’s border to the channel, and the Welsh mainland. Mrs. Brown’s distant cousin embraced me, a modern American woman, and introduced me to the entire family, including the horses and sheep, an introduction followed by warm elderberry pie fresh out of the oven, which was a large stone hearth in the kitchen, hot black tea, and lively conversation.
One does not pay for such human, “cultural,” experiences, they are freely given when people share of themselves.
But here’s the setpiece of these hastily shared anecdotes, and why I offer them today in regards to Scotland:
Mrs. Brown fixed me a lovely dinner before I left, that included her entire family, with whom I had become attached, in two weeks. Over dinner, they asked what I would be doing when I left, where I would go, what were my plans. I mentioned my stint to hike up Snowdonia, then I would bus over to the coast and begin my long hike down the length Pembrokeshire Coast path, eventually taking the train from Carmathen to London. “I’m excited about London, because of the free museums,” I said. They chuckled.
I then said, in light humor, “Maybe I’ll bump into the Prince of Wales,” believing that I was connecting my London visit with them, even though they would be miles away, trying to tell them that I would miss them, and be thinking of them, still.
The table went silent. I looked around, and suddenly the uncommon warmth that had been given to me disappeared, and there was a palpable void.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Mrs. Browne, said curtly, “We don’t speak of him here as ‘The Prince of Wales.'”
“Okay. I’m sorry. But why?” I asked, completely perplexed. I had offended these folks who had been wonderful to me, had adopted a simple bed-and breakfast lodger as family during my time with them, and I hadn’t a clue about what I had done.
Then, raising her voice, as if to take a knife and change history in a single slash, “Because he’s not Welsh!”
Dumb American, I thought to myself, wondering how I could be so thick.
The tension dissipated, and we returned to Mrs. Brown’s lovely supper, and Mrs. Brown opened another bottle of Welsh made wine. But I then understood that there were things not usually talked about with guests, and I also understood how deep the Welsh identity cut here in the northern parts, in the farthest reaches from England’s geographical influence.
The history made privy to me was Welsh history. Not English history. Not the history of the United Kingdom. They were Welsh. They had unique stories, and a unique understanding of the world, that they kept alive, passing down, giving freely. The were Welsh and proud. This identity was perhaps nowhere more clear than in the signposts written in Cymraeg. The smaller the village, the less the need or want to translate. You understand or you don’t.
Mrs. Brown and her family will most likely never see an independent Wales. I’m guessing they are watching Scotland’s vote with deep personal pride, and a kinship with those who share an island with those who dictate a strained beast known as “The United Kingdom.”
“He’s not Welsh!” I’ll never forget that moment, a moment that changed my too American perspective, and made my blood identity to my Scottish kin deeper, gave me more circumspect respect for the spirit of those who refuse the control of anyone’s history, no matter how quiet that rebellion.
Now, when I say, “I am a Guthrie, ” and remember the stories my mother gave to me about her family’s people, and their independent pioneering into the midwest, I understand something a little deeper and richer, thanks to Mrs. Brown.
Sheets of nearly completed mandalas and almost finished paisley print pictures and bright flower pictures needing more color cover the living area’s floor.
Pens and pencils and scribbled-in journals and half-read books are strewn in exquisite chaos across the rug, in a room lit by candles, scented by incense, serenaded by crickets and frogs and late summer breezes blowing through the doors, a music that will too soon fade into winter’s slumbering silence.
Behind the couch sits the dining table, the boundaries between it and the easel in the corner are indistinguishable, for the flurry of paints and torn art books and brushes and pencils and watercolor pads and tubes of gouache and brightly colored tissue paper create a scene worthy of an artist’s canvas, form and content merging in this cosmos of clutter.
I am less certain that I am creating art than living it. Yet in the heart’s sphere, these beautiful atonal, asymmetric stacks of paper and paint and glitter and colored pencils dance in reverie, disregarding my too critical eye. Because they show my heart finding its way, art emerges in these exquisite stacks of colorful bedlam, an exploration reminiscent of a nebula explosion.
I know at my life’s end, there will be more left undone than done, and I whet my spirit with that dissatisfaction. Until then, I look at what some would call clutter, the maelstrom of a disorganized and unfocused mind, and I see life rise like great art into the evening’s quiet.
When I lived in Cambridge, I had seven large wooden bookcases, stuffed with books.
Mostly philosophy, literature, mythology, poetry, and world religions. And art books. Oversized, gorgeous, collector’s editions. Some I picked up at museums — I had publications from American and European museums — and others I bought simply because I couldn’t resist their beauty.
Some of my favorites were on the Uffizi, Van Gogh, The Louvre, Kandinsky, Leonardo. And Giotto. I loved the volume on Giotto, a magnificent publication that received glowing reviews, for it celebrated the father of the Italian Renaissance in remarkably accurate, color saturated reproductions. The oversized edition had sumptuous fold out plates, and detailed images in which you could see the master’s brush strokes, dabbles, accents, photographic close-ups whose beauty brought me to tears.
When I left Cambridge, in the whirlwind of change and dissolution, I sold or gave away most of my books. I didn’t mind getting rid of my other stuff, but getting rid of the books was something I never imagined I would do.
I remember crying to a friend in the middle of my bankruptcy, pending eviction, moving to the middle of nowhere chaos, “other women have children, and homes, and whatever it is that those women have. I have my books, they represent my life, and I have to get rid of them.” I was blathering as though I had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer with only weeks left to live.
My victim narrative was in overdrive, my books tethered to something that needed to be excised at the root level.
I can’t tell you how much it pains me to write that, now. How transparently silly and self-indulgent I was being. But as I spoke those words to him, I started realizing that is why the books had to go. I was too heavily invested in an identity that wasn’t working, and I needed to let go so that I could dive into deeper creative waters. I also needed to embrace parts of myself that I had too long-buried, under work and study and self-loathing.
I didn’t know it then. But I do, now.
Getting rid of the books was transformative, because it meant letting go of one identity to embrace another, and I began understanding that all of this dissolution was the destruction before an inevitable creative resurrection. My choices, however radical they may seem on the surface, were an affirmation that I was willing to do what needed to be done to get to where I wanted to go. Which is what I have always done, with a kind of unflinching resolve when my back is against the wall. Ironically, where I wanted to go was exactly why I had all the books: I wanted a bold, creative, meaningful life, full of a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual richness.
“She who would find her life must lose it.”
I was getting rid of the unnecessary to get the meaning that I sought. The books were central to my intellectual search for meaning. But I needed to shift my perception. I was beginning an exploration in which I crafted meaning from the inside out, not the outside in.
For this reason, although I didn’t understand why, once I started getting rid of the books, they couldn’t go fast enough. I packed them up into suitcases, called a cab, loaded the cab with the suitcases, which I then hauled down to the basement of Harvard Bookstore, that is, their used book buying department. Sometimes someone offered to help me get them down the stairs. Sometimes I was on my own lugging a hundred pounds of books down to the basement. Trip after trip after trip, it took several trips a day for days to carry out the heroic task.
I won’t say that it doesn’t still sometimes pain me to realize the tens of thousands of dollars of books that were swept from my life in a matter of days. Other women have children and homes and cars and whatever it is that they have. I had books. And I had an extraordinary library. As I went through my life’s exhaustive hoarding, I appreciated what great taste I had, the breadth and scope and intelligence that I managed to stuff into my collection. Some of civilization’s finest written works, lovingly sitting on my shelves, row by row by row.
I also had a fairly extensive collection of Folio editions, beautifully bound and illustrated classics, that lined several shelves like the kings and queens of the collection. No used books on those shelves, just classics elegantly bound and sitting in embellished slip cases, looking grand and stately.
It was a library that I would have coveted. I had made it mine.
The art books were the last to go, sold to the book store just days before my move. While everything else in my life I let slip through my fingers with relative ease, the art books were precious, for they represented my life’s treasured adventures. They represented not just beauty for its own sake, but visits to some the world’s great museums, that I had managed to tuck into visits here and there. There was a gorgeous, red slip cased, double volume on Van Gogh that I shipped to myself from The Louvre. The complete catalog of Camille Claudel, bought at the Musée Rodin. Catalogs from exhibits that I made the time to visit, Kandinsky, Picasso, Brancusi.
The search for meaning lay most conspicuously in the art books. Travel, adventure, beauty, spiritual longing, stored in two shelves of gorgeous books that circumstance dictate that I leave behind.
It took three cab trips of several suitcases, but they were gone in one day.
The several hundred dollars helped pay for my move.
I don’t have room for books, now, though I have managed to collect a couple of stacks in the art supply littered living area. I ask for a lot of interlibrary loans from our small community library, and I sometimes access the New Hampshire public library’s online system of electronic content.
Our library is right down the road from me. Out my front door, over the river’s bridge, down the road a couple of hundred feet. Our librarian is incredibly helpful, always making sure I get my idiosyncratic requests from larger libraries. She once even went to the trouble of borrowing from a New Hampshire university, though they were somewhat begrudging in filling the request.
The pubic library here is funded mostly through community efforts. This weekend there were bake sales and book sales through the “Friends of the Library.” These events coincided with Old Home Week, a rural fair celebrating the old historical homes in this area. The weekend draws a lot of tourists — there’s a large craft fair held in the elementary school, the library has several events, and both our community store and our library generate a large chunk of their annual income from Old Home Week’s visitors.
I normally don’t attend bake sales or community book sales. I rarely eat sweet baked goods, and I usually doubt that any of the books will be to my liking. But something told me to go to the book sale. I just knew to go. I walked down the street to the library, and on the front lawn stood a large white awning, covering the bake sale and rows and rows of boxes of books. Three smiling women volunteers greeted me. Most of the boxes were of contemporary best-selling fiction, which isn’t my interest.
“Do you have anything that is pretty and colorful, maybe some photography books?” I asked, thinking of my art journals.
“Nonfiction,” the volunteer said, “is in the library, downstairs.”
I walked in, and at the top of the stairs were two boxes of books. On the top of one box was a book bearing Leonardo’s famous angel from “The Virgin Of The Rocks.” The angel got my attention, immediately. I started digging in the box, and there were old art history books. Varying degrees of quality, but lots of books with color plates. Color plates for art journals. I was ecstatic. A book on Giotto. A book on works in The National Gallery. A book on Leonardo. A large color book on the Uffizi. A beautiful small book on The Louvre collections.
“Hey, are these for sale,” I asked.
“No. Those aren’t for sale.”
My heart sank.
“Oh, wait. One box isn’t. Let me look at the other box.” Our librarian walked over. “Yes, the books in that box are for sale.”
I dove in with abandon, “Oh my goddessess,” I sang outloud. Book after book contained plates that could be used in my art journals, a luxury I never would have allowed myself with my other art books, but here they were sitting and waiting for me at the top of the stairs.
Waiting for me, in this box, not even shelved with the other book sale books. Art for my creativity. Not art to sit on a shelf, but images I could use to develop my own voice, my own creativity.
I dug in deeper. “How To Draw A Horse” found its way into my fingers, complete with illustrations and sketching instructions. I smiled from a place of quiet if ebullient joy. “The Year Of The Horse,” my year. My promise of creative adventure. (Search for “The Year Of The Horse,” if interested in reading the backstory. The book was nothing less than Providential.)
There’s a time for simplicity. Then there’s a time to go all in. This was a moment to go all in. Restraint wasn’t called for, this was a time for Blakean excess. “The road of excess,” wrote Blake, “leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Two large stacks of exploitable art books made their way into my grateful arms, for twenty dollars.
I awoke last night drafting this essay in my sleep, going in and out of dreams, remembering my life as it was less than two years ago. For it was about this time in 2012, that I was hauling books to Harvard Book Store, selling my futon and bookcases, giving away porch loads of stuff to The Salvation Army, having no clue about where my life was going. Leaping into the unknown, yet again, with a vague idea of becoming a writer, as though it wasn’t something I didn’t already do, all of the time.
I thought of my beloved art books, and my treasured library. I will have a library again, larger and even more voluptuous in its excesses, I believe. But now is not that time. Now is the time for embracing my voice, with clarity and conviction, and writing about why it was important to abandon other people’s ideas to craft my own.
Perhaps most important, I know with certainty, not the certainty that blinds you, but the knowing that’s been earned from living one extraordinary experience after another, and learning to listen a little better to that inner voice, that there’s always another side to our darkest days, if we let life slip easily through our fingers.
We can get better at it. We may never arrive, but a life well lived means letting life flow through you, instead of reaching for it over and over, grabbing onto something as permanent, then getting upset when it slips through your fingers, as all of life does.
“Other women have . . .” such a powerful reflection of where I was and who I thought myself to be.
Last week, I returned some books at the library, and entered a raffle to support the summer reading program. The volunteer said to me, “Well, if you’re lucky, you will win.”
“I’m one of the luckiest people I know,” I said, with an understanding of how many in the world would look at my life and say “blessed.”
“Well, you’ve made good decisions.”
Yes, I have. And no, I haven’t. I have made disastrous decisions, mucked things up big time in so many ways that I’ve lost count. But that’s not the point. It’s always what you do with yet another inchoate draft, a seemingly irredeemable art journal page, and a major bad decision that gets you closer to where you see yourself headed, if you’re willing to work a little more with it, and then give the mistakes over to imagination and grace. Over and over again.
This is creativity’s essence: the vision to see through failure after failure, blunder after blunder, and let the beauty emerge.
Creativity isn’t economical. Creativity’s full of thousands of pages of wasted words, journal pages decorated in expensive mediums and then covered up by gesso, in the need to start over again. Creativity’s full of excess, as Blake understood, an excess that is as necessary to our creative life as air and water are to our physical life. Formula only takes us so far. This is what religious dogma doesn’t understand, and where science fails when it demands unremitting skepticism. The artist’s adventure, and life’s adventure, is in breaking from the formulas into failure and perseverance.
We may touch mystery in the process, learn more than we ever imagined possible for ourselves.
This morning, I remembered my beloved Giotto art book on the bottom shelf in my living room in Cambridge. It was such an indulgence when I bought it, but I had to have it. The closeups, the thick black lines, the vibrant pinks and blues and greens, the brilliance and passion and tenderness with which Giotto painted. I then remembered my first visit to D. C., and my visit to The National Gallery. I turned the corner, and there was my first Giotto. I didn’t know The National Gallery had a Giotto, but there it was, and I immediately knew it was a Giotto. There was no mistake, the way the infant grasped the Madonna’s hand, the unmistakable break from religious iconography into Renaissance humanism. I gasped, and almost cried. My first Giotto in person.
One day, I will visit Italy, and see the Giotto Saint Francis cycle, I will view his works around the churches in the Italian countryside. But this morning is not that morning. This morning, I took a book on Giotto that I found in a box of old books that inexplicably failed to make it to the shelves for a community book sale, and I lovingly tore out details from one of his great frescoes. I glued the fragments on an art journal page that I’ve been working on, glued them over an extravagance of metallic blues and Caran d’Ache pigments and various lines that I created with a French curve set, obliterating some fine work, so I could cut up Giotto and make his work my work. I gilded the page’s edges, and then I gilded the fragments. I thought how fortunate I am to be living this life, creating this art journal page, listening to the birds, and seeing the sunlight bathe the room.
I am the luckiest person that I know, to be able to document this experience in writing, an entry that could not be written had I not given up a life that was not worth hanging onto, while embracing the uncertainty of the one waiting.
In giving up the Giotto on the shelf, I got the one I could use.
the fuzzy stems on cucumber plants, and their massive leaves that grow and grow,
the colors purple and green,
the old blue blanket’s soft velvet nap,
the big red cardinal singing in the lilac tree yesterday,
the smell of cut grass and basil warmed by the afternoon sun,
the scars on my arms,
the holes in my heart,
the split ends that need trimming,
the chipped white porcelain mug filled with green tea,
the sweetness of Super Hit incense,
the candle flame burning next to me,
the rain’s melody,
the brightly decorated card in the mail this past week, reminding me that others think of me more than I often realize.
Thanks for this moment, these few words.
May I disappointment myself less, live deeply, love selflessly, dream boldly, create effortlessly, and give without thought, better than I’ve imagined, for however many days life gives me.
May I be a little more practical and a little less foolish. Or a lot more foolish, with the courage to make foolishness farsighted and wise, even if I never know it. So long as the world is more beautiful when I leave than when I arrived, having recklessly lived my days loving generous and well.
“It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention.”
— E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Several years ago, a cream and yellow striped feline visited me in the early morning hours, during Cambridge’s oppressive mid-August swelter.
Charlotte, as I came to call her, introduced herself about five a.m. under my window with a hoarse, insisting cry. I looked outside, she saw me, and when our eyes met, I knew that she wasn’t going anywhere, soon.
I didn’t jump with joy to play surrogate mama to a lost cat so early in the morning. Despite my grogginess, I pulled myself out of bed and went outside to find the creature needing help. There she was, skin and bones, coat dull and shedding, skittish and frightened.
I went back inside, opened a can of food, put it in a bowl, grabbed another bowl, and filled it with water. I returned to the back steps where she was waiting for me. I put the bowls down, and Charlotte gorged the food in under a minute, which I took as my cue to go inside and grab another can. Finished with the first can, she greedily lapped the water, until I came back with more food.
She was too anxious for me to pet her, so I simply sat on the back steps and talked with her. This went on for about thirty minutes, me talking, her eating, drinking water, calming down, looking around and orienting herself, checking me out, until she finished the second bowl. I went inside for a third can, but she was gone when I returned.
The next morning she came back, about the same time. I again met her at the back door with a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can, certain that she’d eat two. She wasn’t as hungry as the day before, and her attention was as much on me as on the food. I talked to her in soothing tones, and asked if I could pet her. She nervously froze when I put out my hand, so I withdrew it and spoke my reassurances. She finished the first can, and attentively watched me as I opened the second. She again took her time with the second bowl, drank water, walked around, walked close to me, but she couldn’t bring herself to let me touch her. She wanted affection, but her frayed nervous system was all defense. She walked in big circles and small circles, went from bowl to bowl, moved toward me a little at a time.
I finally put my fingertips to her body as she lapped water from the bowl. She didn’t pull back. I touched her dry, dirty coat. She accepted my touch, and her tail’s tip curled a little and shook, like a faint smile. Two strokes. Three. She pulled away. She circled around again, came near me, looked up as I talked to her, let herself get close, then pulled away. It took maybe another half-an-hour before she decided that we were okay, and she finally let me caress her head, stroke by stroke. When I sensed a calm in her, I reached my fingers for her body and she moved close to me. I slowly stroked her, and a delicate purr hummed in her throat. We enjoyed each other’s affections for a while, before she moved on. When she walked away, I saw that her paws were bright red, and she put her feet to the gravel surrounding the yard as if to broken glass.
She didn’t stop by the next day, but she did the day after, announcing her arrival under the window, with the sunrise. She was friendly and calmer. On her third visit, I named her, believing that her sweet, resilient soul deserved my first literary hero’s name. She craved my touch as much as food, and she struggled between a desire for affection and her stomach’s demands. Conflicted she moved back and forth between me and the bowl, purring, rubbing against me, rapidly eating from the bowl, until, apparently, she ate enough to quiet her hunger. Then, after eating most of the first can, while I sat on the stairs, she stepped into my lap, nudged my face with hers, and purred as I stroked her. She stayed in my lap for a few minutes, then returned to her food and water. She looked better than her first visit, but she was thin, filthy, and her coat was in miserable condition. I got a better look at her paws, which were tender with abrasions. She had obviously traveled some rough roads. We spent the morning together, and when she had her fill of affection, company, food and water, she left.
I wanted to bring her in, soon, but there was Leonardo. Leonardo was curious about her, pushing his nose against the balcony screen when she appeared at the back steps, and squawking when I talked with her. He enjoyed being “The King Of Everything,” as I had nicknamed him, and I doubted that he could share — share me, share his toys, share his home and the privileges of his kingdom. He was older when I adopted him, and he quickly settled into his kingship after too many homeless days. I gladly spoiled him, knowing that someone had dumped him, not caring if he lived or died. According to the shelter, he had been homeless for a long time, because it was difficult for the volunteer to trap him and bring him in. I wasn’t certain if bringing in a one-to-two year old female was fair: he wouldn’t be aggressive, he was a gentle creature, but at his age and with his temperament, he was ill-disposed to happily adapt. I called my friends at the no-kill shelter, his home before ours. “You have to have her tested for FIV first,” Joan told me, “you need to catch her and have her tested, do the FIV testing before you allow her in.”
I didn’t know about this FIV protocol for strays, and the information bought me some decision time.
I researched how to lure Charlotte into the cat carrier — I didn’t want to scare her by trying to trap her, but I now knew that I had to get her in for the FIV testing before I could consider letting her into Leonardo’s dominion. This bred in me another anxiety, for I knew that I may have to give Charlotte to the shelter. I felt responsible for her getting the home that she deserved. Though the no-kill shelter vetted applicants, if I gave her to them, I had no way of knowing if her home would be a good one. My nurturing instincts were in overdrive, fretting about Leonardo if I decided to keep her, fretting about Charlotte’s long-term well-being if I gave her to the shelter.
“We have time,” I told myself. But Charlotte’s visits over the next weeks were irregular, and timing proved difficult. Her only predictable behavior was that she preferred visiting between five to five-thirty in the morning. My brain rarely worked that early, as I was on a late night schedule. Catching her meant cajoling a stray into a cat carrier in the early morning hours on the day of her choosing, while triumphing over my morning brain inertia, without notice. Or caffeine.
During the day, I often saw her in the neighborhood. Wandering the streets near the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, near the Graduate School of Design, darting in and out of yards on Irving Terrace. This deeply troubled me, for the neighborhood is deceptively tranquil, with its red brick side walks, old New England homes, flourishing trees, and Harvard owned buildings. Irving Street, the street I lived on, is a residential one-way shortcut to reach the Cambridge Street Mass Pike exit — cars illegally speed up to seventy miles an hour down the quaint, narrow single lane road during morning and evening rush hours. Kirkland Street, right around the corner, is a rambunctious thoroughfare for semis and delivery trucks avoiding Harvard Square’s traffic. Not many in the neighborhood let their cats wander outside for long. To do so is asking for heartbreak.
Seeing Charlotte run from yard to yard made my stomach ache. I had to catch her. Another concern murmured in my thoughts. We were now well into September. Soon the weather would cool. I wanted her safe before the cold arrived. All preparations were in place for what I hoped would be a gentle, safe trapping and cab trip. I hated the idea of trapping her, but I had to for her welfare. Food, carrier, cash. If she showed on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, I would take her into the shelter for testing. Any other day, expect Sunday, I would take her to the vet, pay the bill myself, and figure out what to do from there.
Oddly, Charlotte quit visiting. Mid-October arrived. No Charlotte. I feared finding her body on the street, hit by someone racing to work or dinner, her excoriated paws not fast enough to avert their speed. A few years earlier, a neighbor found her cat Maggie dead in the street near the Science Center, hit by a car. I imagined finding Charlotte in a lump of open, rotting flesh left for dead. I didn’t want that for her, and I didn’t want to remember her that way.
November. December. No Charlotte. I didn’t see her around the neighborhood. I left the window opened even as the temperature dropped, so I could hear her if she announced herself. The first snow came. There were no cries outside my window. Winter was brutal that year. Snow drifts covered my basement apartment windows after a record-breaking Nor’easter. For two months several feet of snow pack covered the tightly shut windows. In my heart, I had buried her.
As the days grew longer, the ice and snow melted. Spring came and the world dissolved into greens and flowers and singing birds. The windows were again open. One morning, late in June, about five in the morning, I heard a familiar if too long absent cry outside my window.
I jumped out of bed, grabbed a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can. I ran for the backdoor. There was Charlotte. Her coat shined, she was clean, and she had gained weight. She looked up at me, brushed up against my legs, and her tail curled. I put down the food and water, but she refused both. It seemed deliberate. She ignored both bowls, as if to say, “that’s not why I am here.” I sat down on the porch steps. She stepped into my lap, rubbed her face against mine, and melodically purred as I stroked her. I asked her where she had been, told her that I missed her. I looked at her paws, they were pink, soft, and healthy. Even though she didn’t have a collar on, I understood that Charlotte had found her home. I kept offering her food and water, but she wasn’t interested. She had come by to say thanks. She didn’t stay long. She seemed eager to get back to where she had come from, as though she needed to get back home. You may think my imagination has trumped my good sense, be amused at my anthropomorphic indulgence, find my need for sentimental embellishment running roughshod over intelligent narrative decisions.
I think not.
I think I was paying attention. Charlotte visited that day to say hello and thanks. She left, perfectly happy.
I lived on Irving Street for at least another five years. Charlotte never again visited, and I never saw her in the neighborhood.
Many humans suppose that because nonhuman animals don’t have language, they don’t speak, and because they don’t speak, they don’t communicate. In this view, reason and language show our superior intelligence, presumably because of either God’s will or evolution’s privileges. And we’ll continue to live in this privileged position until Jesus returns, or we get the research done that proves otherwise.
I believe that this hubris is wrong, be it a sacred or secular dogma; I also believe that the dogma has it backwards. Language doesn’t give us better communication: I believe language’s most common uses lead us into an intellectual and spiritual deafness that we must unlearn if we are to listen, again. This insight runs through the world’s great mystical teachings. This is why the mystics tell us, “Be still and know.” Meditate. Learn to listen to the whispers in the trees. Listen to the voices that aren’t heard with the ears, but are found in the heart. Life’s deepest communication comes from listening, not from language. Language seems to me something that we’re stuck with because we’re human, a tool as beautiful as it is dangerous, full of metaphorical darkness and light.
There’s a telling moment in the movie “Being There” when Melvyn Douglas says to Peter Sellers’s character, Chauncey Gardiner, “. . . there’s something about you, you don’t play games with words to protect yourself.” Chauncey is a simpleton, but everyone mistakes his simplemindedness for wit, understanding, boldness, and honesty. The story brilliantly and hilariously maintains a difficult premise: a simpleton catapulted into power and privilege through dumb luck and projected interpretations onto nothingness. “Being There” is one of the darkest, funniest comedies ever made. Written by Jerzy Kosinski, Kosinski was a Polish Jew whose family narrowly escaped being sent to the camps during the German occupation. (Itself a fascinating story.) The movie, based on Kosinski’s own novella, is a penetrating critique of the media, language, and interpretation — his insights obviously came from living during Germany’s propaganda fueled genocide. But Kosinski’s critique goes deeper than political satire. He distrusts language’s created realities, he questions our unassailable trust in this flawed tool, and he shows how we fall prey to the beliefs given by our uncritical dependence on language. We may do language, as Toni Morrison writes in her Nobel lecture, but in doing language, language does us.
Chauncey emerges at the story’s end a free man, unperturbed by the world. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t write. He is. He doesn’t do language: therefore, language doesn’t do him. The movie famously ends with a shot of Chauncey walking on water, as a voice tells us, “Life is a state of mind.”
We mistake language for communication, but it too often obscures communication, because it’s slippery. We believe that language is concrete and necessary, think that it reflects permanence and reality, and that’s the illusion, because nothing is permanent, and reality’s a strange and strained construct. There’s a more problematic conceit in everyday language use, though. We use language to hide ourselves from ourselves, and from others. We unconsciously play the mythologies, the stories, the unquestioned traditions, the denials in which we’ve created comfortable niches. Consequently, habits of mind bestowed by language and engrained by life’s inertia deafen us. Unless we work at unlearning, we don’t control language, it controls us, limits us, and keeps us from hearing what we would otherwise hear, if we weren’t domesticated to hear in ways too convenient for our own good, ways that keep us from listening to the world’s infinite voices.
That sunny spring morning in June, Charlotte said thanks to me, without saying a word. And she did it better than many of us who have this thing called language.
The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, “Words only have meaning in the stream of life.” Words may need the stream of life, but the stream of life doesn’t need words. The stream of life needs us to listen. Then, if we’re paying attention, we can hear speech where we would least expect to, although it’s taken me almost twenty-seven hundred words to convey that point.