Archive for the ‘art’ Category

autumn song

September 26, 2019

Out of a kind of desperation to avoid rifling through the list of my personal woes, I’ve started reading a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being I purchased from the friends of Richmond County Library a month ago.  I was drawn to it since it was the first collection of Virginia Woolf’s writing I acquired some few years earlier than my senior year at UC Berkeley where/when I would write my honors thesis on The Waves.  I think it was the title which, combined with the patina of Woolf’s high-brow literary rep, drew the “young” me to purchasing it those many decades past, although I can’t recall feeling much affinity with her writing at the time.

What is ringing through me now is a section from her “A Sketch of the Past.”

From this I reach what I call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.  Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world.  But there is no Shakespeare, there  is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

Awake this morning sometime around 5:30, I went out to greet the Moon & Regulus rising over the river.  As I sat with my 2 black cats in the dark, I was entranced by the songs of the night insects.  I thought of how few the days and hours that they have left before winter arrives.  That they know or don’t doesn’t signify:  they sing because they are here.  They are the music, while they’re on Earth, just as we are.  When one – or all – are finished, the next generation will take up the singing.  A listener such as myself may not notice the relay, but that act too is part of the symphony.

Over three decades ago to this very day, I began a friendship that most likely will not last another year’s journey around our modest sun.  What the insects’s song reminds me, however, is that my friend’s magic existed in the world before he arrived.  It awaited him to take up his role in weaving the song, to make his contribution, and it will be carried on by another after he is gone.  What is most precious about him – what compelled me to treasure him from the moment we met and to continue despite the ups-and-downs of our complicated relations – cannot disappear because it is inseparable from the essence of beauty and truth in this world and cannot be lost.

Of course, my sadness is ultimately, and embarrassingly, for myself.  My inability to grasp what chords I am going to contribute becomes more apparent when I view my life through the lens of my friend’s imminent passing.  Such questions as what will my song be and how much time will I have once I have found my voice tug me into wakefulness and push me out-of-doors at strange hours into the only world we have ever – and will ever – know.

This Christmas will not be televised

December 23, 2018

“The candle is not lit
To give light, but to testify to the night.”

— Robert Bly

For the past few mornings, I’ve been lucky to spy Mercury and Jupiter in the eastern sky.  Messengers of hope during (yet another) dark time.

Last night I lit a lightly cedar-scented candle, hoping it would hold its own against the horrible chemical fragrance arising from downstairs and pushing its way into my room.  In the dark I tried comforting myself with the thought that the scent was a residue from cleaning up another mess from landlord’s aging toy poodle and would dissipate by morning.  When I arose to find that they’d managed to hit on the one thing that could drive me out of a hole – a plug-in unit emitting Febreeze – I felt desolate.  The police officers they called 3 times last Tuesday evening would not do a thing to me, but this might well do the trick.

It’s a dreary time here in what was once my refuge, as my landlord and wife have returned.  Knowing the facts of how he bullied previous tenants long-distance and how easily any good will my behavior accrues over time gets trashed when the other person’s value system is premised on zero compassion, I looked but failed to find a temporary lodging for me and George.  A few friends counseled that I was overreacting: “they might be lovely people,” they opined.  I knew this translated into “shut up with your stupid anxieties” but decided that I might well be underestimating my abilities to endure what was supposed to be a brief layover before they moved into their Maryland condo.

But time speeds up when vast quantities of vodka are involved.  Within 24 hours I knew this was one of the prevailing factors behind his previous e-mailed rants.  But what did this knowledge matter?  I am in the soup, and it stinks of Febreeze.

I have about a week to go before my new apartment is painted and cleaned.  When the quotation above came to me this morning, minutes after I’d stepped back into this Bed-Bath-and-Beyond-scented hell following my communion with the planets and the river at dawn, I thought, “This is another gift.”  Art reminds us of our best abilities: not merely those that allow us to endure punishing humiliations but those that find the gleaming threads connecting us to others across time and space, that allow us to grasp them, and hold them close in our darkest hours.


Everything’s connected; everything’s changing. Pay attention!

March 8, 2018

photo by Annelise Makin


This morning I saw three juvenile bald eagles. Their graceful swoops looked more to me like play than competition. But I still have a lot to learn about bald eagles.

The moment after I watched them disappear into the blue, my elation collapsed. “I am an apex predator who’s terrified,” I thought to myself. It seemed, suddenly, a horrible waste of evolutionary preeminence.

Our mind has as many possibilities as the sky, which can bring winds and sun, stars, and magnificent birds. Into mine the next thought arrived, sweeping up like the eagles:  of Bandelier National Monument and its Frijoles canyon where indigenous puebloans lived from somewhere around 1000 AD until 1500 AD.  Last year I was privileged to learn and then to share with park visitors a little about how the inhabitants might have experienced their lives.

For my guided walk of the canyon’s pueblo, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs, I chose to structure my observations around the theme of time. I knew even then that I was interested in the subject more for what I didn’t know about time than for what I did. Like the tarot pack’s Fool, I was walking off a cliff, cheerfully hoping the steps would arrive when I needed them.

I would start my talk with historical time – covering the history of the park service and gesturing to the pueblo revival buildings built by the CCC – then move to geological and biological time, which led to agriculture. When we reached the first kiva, constructed in the circle the puebloans had brought with them from Chaco, I would talk about cosmological time as they would have brought the Chacoans knowledge of the night sky with them as well.

Since new rangers are thrown into their talks much like early christians were to the lions, that’s about as far as I initially dug into the excavation of time. But I remember the feeling of dissatisfaction I had those first few weeks. There was something just out of reach, a lesson that would, once grasped, allow me to articulate the feeling I had when I walked through that canyon –  of something that was intangible but also singularly present. It was like an echo one wasn’t sure one had heard.

When rangers do their walks, supervisors pummel them into working out their transitions from one stop to the next. At first, when you’re trying desperately to learn everything from geology and botany to hiking trails to excel spreadsheets to coworkers’ sensitivities, the harking on seamless transitions is a form of torture. But by leaning into that struggle to link the stop at the creek to the next stop, the kiva, I found the door into the realm I’d been sensing.

Archaeologists know that the puebloans had fields scattered on the mesa tops. Given the scattered rainfall patterns, having plots in various locations ensured a greater chance of harvest. But they also would have had plots in the canyon bottoms, using either irrigation systems or hand-watering the crops vital to their tribe’s survival. When we were stopped at the creek, I’d ask visitors how they would feel if their job was to water the corn plants. Would they be irritated because they had other things they wanted to do?  In our culture, that would be a normal reaction since there are so many other tasks we are push ourselves to accomplish.

These indigenous people, I suggested, knew that their tasks, no matter how small, were intimately connected to their lives, to their tribe’s success, to the lives of their ancestors and descendants. The corn itself was understood and celebrated as a gift from their gods. Through their acts of tending it, they were living in sacred time, where they were the center of the universe – in the middle of a circle – not strung out on some linear spectrum where some work was more valuable than others.

As it is with any circle, I can’t be sure exactly where this thought had begun, only that once I possessed it, it encompassed and enchanted everything else, carrying me along to the kiva’s circle and to the concentric circles etched again and again in the walls above the cliff dwellings. And the theme of sacred time led me to my final, and favorite, stop – the Macaw petroglyph.

I loved the chance to ask visitors what they thought the image was. “Anteater,” I’d get more often than you’d imagine. “Horse” or “donkey” were others.  Each guess, no matter how far-fetched, offered the opportunity to remind them how people couldn’t draw what they’d never seen. Since anteaters weren’t native to North America and horses & donkeys were not reintroduced to North American until the Spanish arrived, those possibilities were eliminated. And it also built to the significance of what they were seeing: a tropical bird native to rainforests 3000 miles away.  Since the brilliantly colored macaws could fly and talk, they were considered birds of spirit, and their feathers were objects of trade. But the person who drew this image didn’t see a macaw feather, I would point out. “He saw the whole macaw.”

At this point, as I spun out an imagined scenario of how this ancestral puebloan might have made the trip to central American to capture these birds, how it might have been the most thrilling part of his life, how he’d chosen to commemorate it with this massive drawing and how he might have been known by other tribe members as the guy who would go on and on about the time he brought back the macaws, I could look out beyond my visitors and see much of the canyon stretch below. That people had chosen to live here, to love here, to die here, and to make their art here was, I hoped, as present to my visitors as it was to me.

“Today we don’t all experience sacred time,” I would remind them. “And even when we do, we are able to achieve it momentarily through meditation or through religion. Or we might experience it through art, through music or movies or images. Think of how when we hear a song we loved when we were younger and how time suddenly becomes vertical, not linear. We remember the first time we heard it and maybe another time and another time. That’s how these people lived their lives all of the time. And when we look at this macaw, at this work of art, we have the chance to experience what they did every minute of their lives.”

I wasn’t at Bandelier for long, but something about that canyon moved me, or helped move something within me. I took what I learned there and used it at my next park, George Washington’s birthplace, imagining more experiences that were hidden from plain sight but were waiting, like ghosts, to be brought into the light: the enslaved families and their ways of existing and resisting.

I’ve continued to build a foundation of perception that our contemporary culture would prefer none of us possess. For it is a powerful and revolutionary act to see spirit all around you, to choose your ancestors, and to know how you act in honoring them matters across dimensions your mind cannot access alone.

Those three eagles were not an accident, my Bandelier spirits whisper to me. I will never figure out all the secrets to time, but I’ll keep walking and talking, writing and sharing, and trying to discover new doorways that will, I know, offer more beautiful sights and inspired insights, like steps revealing themselves just in time on The Fool’s path.

thoughts on art, truth, and unconditional love

October 23, 2016

I’ve found a temporary nest in my father’s second home outside of Albuquerque.  I’m not ungrateful for the space; it’s giving me room to think about what to do next.  Still, my relationship with my dad being what it has been, multiplied by my strongly developed hermit-like tendencies, made being here during the 2 weeks my dad & his wife were still in residency a tight-rope walk.

Once they left for Florida, I gave myself permission to tear into Elena Ferrante’s 4 novels (  Although my friend had recommended them 3 weeks ago and I had purchased them 2 weeks ago at a Santa Fe independent bookstore, I’d held off, perhaps sensing that once I started I wouldn’t be able to interact with members of the human race in any adequate way.  Within 4 days, I had finished them.  At first I thought, “Whoa!  Slow down.  Stop binging.”  Then I realized this is who I am, someone who binges on great fiction.  When I’m deep into another world, I can barely lift my head to consider the real one, forget to move for long periods of time, neglect caring for myself, grab junk food rather than cooking, dress carelessly, fail to leave the house.  I’ve been doing this since I was a child.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the 4th novel:

“And then he laughed … said obscurely that in his view love ended only when it was possible to return to oneself without fear or disgust, and left the room.”

I thought of the times in my life when love’s fever had cooled to the point that I could return to myself without fear or disgust.  At this point in the quartet, Ferrante has guided her readers through love’s infernos and finally places this remark in the mouth of the protagonist’s former lover, a revolutionary crippled by Fascists.  How had she arrived at this truth, I wondered?  Did it unfold itself gradually as she wrote or was it one of the ideas she began with when she started to write?  That she could place it so casually in the midst of the flood of words and ideas that filled these four novels filled me with admiration.  But truth is like that, no matter where you find it.  It glitters amid the dross; it stops time; it arranges chaos.

Reading these novels reminded me of why I want to write.  Not for fame or recognition but because through fiction there’s an opportunity to give something important to someone.  You can’t control what that gift will be or who will receive it.  You write because there’s a chance that something you express will act as a rope to someone who’s sinking so she can drag herself onto solid ground.

If art is any good, it manages to express someone’s notion of truth.  But it has to be forged with the highest intentions.  And for me that entails being alone, going into the depths and facing myself: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly parts.  This kind of scrutiny is not for everyone.  Other people choose to fill their lives with obligations & other people.  Resentful at the sacrifices I’ve felt forced into making, I once labeled these other set of choices as distractions from what was most important.  I realize now that they are different paths on the search for truth.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed in writing fiction.  It’s hard, and I’m one of the laziest people I know.  But I am also vain (Ferrante has a great observation about vain people too), so I will keep trying, hoping, dreaming.  I will also keep working at my ability to love unconditionally.  Because that’s what art is too:  giving yourself to the world, trusting that it will nourish someone somewhere just as you have been nourished, cared for, protected, and loved.

A Luddite states the obvious

October 14, 2015

From Todd Kilman’s review of “Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine” for The Washingtonian

The serious artist and the successful businessman could not be more fundamentally different in their aims and approaches. The businessman endeavors to give us what we want, devoting hours upon hours to researching the various shifts in the marketplace and spending great gobs of money in the process. The serious artist, heeding an inner dictate, gives us what we don’t want—disturbing us, shaking us from our complacency, waking us up to the truth before our eyes.

Yes, the differences are obvious, and yes, we constantly need to be reminded of them.  Framing Steve Jobs as an artist erases the subversive power of art.   What Jobs and other post-industrial entrepreneurs offered isn’t a new way of seeing.  Their devices have merely advanced a deeper dive into the consumer cycle that delivers experience quicker, faster, and shinier.  But what is the experience being delivered by a smart-phone, a gps device, a tablet?  It’s one mediated by what an internet site decides to provide, information designed to sell something, to take something from you be, it money or some less tangible energy.  When we spend large tracts of time peering at the world through a tiny screen, eventually, when we come upon a panorama of the world, we no longer have the tools to process it unless we take a selfie and post it on Facebook.  Until it’s there, we never went to Shenandoah National Park to watch the leaves change, never saw a bear cross the woods, let alone got out of car to take a hike through a dense woods populated with species whose names and biological realities we will never bother to consider.

Worse even that this, is how racing to reduce complicated, complex, vast experiences to a digital photo or a website dulls the skills we might have cultivated to engage with it.  We are no longer able to be patient with processes of the natural world, whether it be the turn of the seasons or the emotional ranging that creating intimacy involves.  We already know what we want, thanks to our technology, and we are looking to get that desire satisfied so that we can move on to the next.  At the entrance station where I work, the few times I’ve been in the main office and a car pulls up, the driver and passengers are so engaged at staring to the left into the empty booth that they don’t see me standing on the other side of the car.  It would be hilarious if it weren’t such a dispiriting reminder of how fixed people have become.  Then, as they leave, they ask me to recommend the “best direction” to take into the park.  I want to tell them, and sometimes I do, that the best direction is all around them, if only they would keep their eyes and their minds open.  Unfortunately, these two sensory organs have already been effectively diminished thanks to Steve Jobs and his techno brethren.

winds of change

April 13, 2015

A truly wise person will not be carried away by any of the eight winds:  prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, pleasure.


It is too soon to tell whether my next adventure will be a failure or a success.   Undoubtedly, both judgments will take turns tramping across my consciousness, whether in the midst of a sleepless night or in the dazzling rays of the setting sun.  There will be moments when I’m cast deep into despair, overwhelmed and exhausted.  Then there will be times I will want to pinch myself, incredulous at how much pleasure and beauty have manifested in my life.

Spring in central Virginia offers one of the best exercises in perceiving how quickly potential shifts.  Grey rainy days caution that winter’s retreat isn’t complete.  The next day, blue skies and mild temperatures tempt us, caution thrown to the warm wind as we step outside in short sleeves and bare feet.  One afternoon I walk by a shrub tight with buds; the next, its extravagant blossoms spill forth in colorful riot.

Every beginning starts with an ending, as inextricably mixed as sorrow and joy.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, our good news comes at the expense of another’s loss.  It is the economy, the ecology, of life.

I have little to add in comprehending this cycle of eternal resurgence, especially when so many talented others have offered their insights, works of art that comfort us at our lowest points and send our moments of celebrations into a higher pitch.  As I stand at this threshold, I want simply to capture my feelings and to say a prayer I hope I’ll remember in the months ahead.