Archive | February, 2013

Thinking About Cezanne in Lilliwaup

18 Feb

Do you ever imagine what it might be like if people we read about in school lived in our neighborhood , ate in our restaurants, did their grocery shopping at QFC, Fred Meyer’s,  Safeway, and IGA,  attended our PTA meetings, and checked their e-mail at Timberland Library?  I do! All the time!

I told someone not long ago that , looking for inspiration for my waterclor painting, I had invited Paul Cezanne over to spend the winter in Lilliwaup and Hoodsport. I thought he could stay, say, at the Sunrise Motel, where he’d have a view of the water, and wander over to the IGA for some fresh vegetables, and some bread and wine (and a copy of the Mason County Journal. He could get his gas at the Shell station next door, and, well, since it was the mddle of winter, I guess he could do anything else he wished, if he didn’t mind the rain–which was coming down in torrents, at the time, day after day, and night after night. I don’t know if a cup of  Olympic Mountain Ice Cream at Hunter Farm would be enough to cheer him–maybe Vanilla with a little Raspberry Sorbet on top only works for ME, but you never know.

In my last conversation with him, he was out in a rock quarry somewhere, in the summer, painting the evergreen trees growing out of the rocks, and the mountain in the distance, and I wished, really, that I could go over there and visit HIM. Or maybe he could e-mail me a couple photos that I could, then, put on my Facebook page. That wouldn’t be the same thing as being there, but, you know, that back-lighting does liven things up a bit. I stare at my Facebook photos of the Grand Canyon every morning, and again before I go to bed, hoping  that I’ll wake up there in the monring, but–no such luck–not yet, at least.  (I don’t know what I might do with the cats while I’m gone. I did meet a man down there on the South Rim with a cat in his travel bag. The poor thing stuck his or her head out and looked at me. I thought he looked quite woeful, and don’t want to impose the Arizona heat on my two delicate  felines. )

I told Paul that I had painted two paintings inspired by him, but, as yet, I have received no reply. The first is called “Rain in the Garden,”  and the second is called “The Road To Lilliwaup.” All my paintings come with narratives. This is because, like my handwriting, my paintings often require a little translating. Like my handwriting, also, they are a bit abstract, and sometimes I am the only one who sees the varioius layers of subtle humor in them. Of course, I made them. “De Gustibus,” as my colleague, Ervene, used to say, and we would both burst out laughing. “About taste there is no disputing” is the English version, meaning that we can’t persuade someone to share ours, and vice versa. Taste comes from somewhere that is untransferable

So–back to that first painting. I had actually been expecting the rain for some time, but it held off for weeks, so that I could finish weeding the huge neglected gtarden I found on my property when I moved here. (I say “my” rather ruefully, because I am a mere renter, and renters do not own anything, not even a weed-infested garden like this one, which had rose roots and butterfly bush roots as thick as my wrist that intertwined themselves all across the six feet width and the forty-foot length of the place. The previous owner, back around Civil War times, had “turned it over,” as the locals politely express it, meaning he had not bothered to dig out the weeds, but had just shoved his shovel under them here and there and  flipped over a few every once in a while, so that the next season, they came back maybe upsidedown, but stronger and more hearty than ever, eventually building up to about fifteen inches of sod that Paul Beunyan woiuld have had trouble removing, not to mention a seventy-year-old lady such as myself.

Anyway, I knew that if I sat in my living room at my computer desk, looking out over the so-called garden and tried to write somethng serious and worthwhile, I would soon be muttering oaths and  grouching about how I should have removed that ugly mess before the rains came. And so–I did not sit down at the computer, except to check my e-mail, until I had dug out every last one of those horrid things and transported them to the neighbor’s burn pile, where they belonged. Then I made a thousand trips to all  five Home Depot stores within driving distance, in search of just the right shrubs and bulbs and perennials for this space, planted them all, covered everything with nice, dark bark mulch, and, wearily, retreated to the house to rest.

That, amazingly, was the night the rains came. And come they did! They “pushed and pelted” as Robert Frost would say, “”until the flowers actually knelt”–or so it seemed, and so I imagined. I got up out of my bed, wrapped my bathrobe around me, and went downstairs to record this powerful event in my first watercolor of the season.

So, that’s it! If you look at the painting, you can imagine my very garden, at night as soon as you realize that it was right outside my door, the second tier of a three-tier back yard that is so steep that  you can’t use a power mower on it without running along behind and leaping over the six-foot garden space. By rights, my painting should have been six feet  high and about eight feet wide. That’s not forty, but  it’s enough to rival Monet’s waterlilies, and to convey something of the power of that rainfall.

A garden at night, without benefit of moonlight or star, or porch light, leaves something to the imagination–leaves everything to the imagination, actually., but the focus was not on the garden, after all. It was on the RAIN that was “pushing and pelting,” as I said. I made the rain black and vigorous, and showed clearly that it did not just fall into the earth passively, and sink in, like a thought in the brain of an unquestioning child. No, it pushed and pelted, and sometimes bounced off, like a golf ball hitting a concrete wall–thousands of huge drops all at once. That is, after all, what a downpour is! So–I painted a downpour, as I was saying. That’s it!

Painting numnber two, “The Road To Lilliwaup,” is more subtle. In fact, it is so subtle that even Paul himself might not realize just how it was inspired by HIM. Well, all I can say is that it WAS.  If you know how he paints, or painted, you know that he sometimes plunges in with vigor and paints those evergreens growing right out of  those European rocks. They are nice, tall, substantial evergreens, at least my age, or older, with a little blue sky showing through. I doubt that he ever painted an evergreen or any other tree  obscured by rain or fog, but, sometimes, he painted broad farm and valley scenes, all without Texaco stations and fast food restaurants, and parking lots, and old pick-up trucks rusting here and there, and without three dogs barking and jumping in every fenced-in yard, and without angry ladies waving frying pans at passing strangers. There were, after all, no dogs to be found in any of his paintings, and no fences that I can remember, and no angry ladies. In his early years, he painted a lot of nude bathers, but by the time he began painting trees and open farmland, he seems to have forgotten those. He paints those scenes with a nice delicate, subtle richness –just kind of warms up, and softens up, the landscape, with color, and a sense of tranquil distance. You can tell he does not expect the mountain to erupt like Mt. St. Helen’s and send ash  in every direction  to blacken fields and yards and cars and houses and dogs. It’s just a dormant mountain, off in the distance, somewhwat like a calendar mountain, except divided into Cezanne splotches of color.

And so my “Road to Lilliwaup” is like that.  The rain has calmed down a bit by then, and is not pelting earth or people. Imagine standing down at the bottom of my road, our road, that is to say, and looking north, in the rain, and mist, and fog. Imagine that it is early morning, or early afternoon–it makes no difference. The sun is trying to break through, but there is no sun–just a slight glow. To the left is our basalt cliff, with smaller evergreens, and what I might politely refer to as “underbrush” that is not under anything, dong their best to root themselves in rock. They are almot obscured by the fog and the mist. Then there’s the road, curving so beautifully up the hill and to the left, with headlights on low beam coming toward you. You can see the light, but not the cars or trucks–just a series of  headlights in mist. Then, to the right, you know as well as I do,  the Canal is there, below more trees, mostly evergreens, but, of course, the Canal, too, is fogged in, or misted in, so you cannot see it exactly, but anyone who lives here knows that it is there, and perhaps tomorrow, it will be visible. At any rate, you can easly stand still and listen and hear the swish of the waves,  or the gentle swaying of the tree branches.  And so there you have it–the basalt rocks, the highway, and the Canal, all there, with the headlight glow, but all just about invisible. Those of us who travel this road regularly know it well, and imagine it just exactly as I have painted it.  

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Reflecting On What It Might Mean To Nurture Spirits

10 Feb

I will say, at the outset, that I do not know, in any absolute way, what other adults need or want in order to create for themselves a life that feels not just worth living but reasonably good and satisfying most of the time. This is something I would like to understand better than I do. One short essay, of course, will not enable me to arrive at such understanding, but perhaps it is a step in that direction.

It seems to me that just about everything we do, as individuals, as families, as friends, as communities, and as societies, depends on our understanding of what each person’s spirit requires, and yet it is rare to hear, or even hear of, a conversation on this subject.

First, I suppose, it might be helpful to reflect on what “a spirit” is, or might be, and on whether we have–or might be–such a spirit. When I use the term, I do not intend for it to be understood in a religious or a scientific way. Let’s just call it, for the time being, “a poetic way.” I mean, as I have written elsewhere, that I believe, and I behave as if, each of us has a “something” inside that is both conscious and unconscious, often both visible  to others and invisible to others, that feels like “the thinking and feeling and being aware and awake and separate and distinct core and essence of ourselves.  I call this core and essence our “spirit.”  I cannot speak with certainty about what that core/essence is or feels like or behaves like for others, and I doubt that  it can be summed up very adequately by anyone in words. Perhaps I can , however, sketch it in in much the same way that I might sketch in a particular evergreen  tree that I pass by on Route 106  between Union and Belfair, and between Belfair and Union. I have glanced at this tree thousands of times, and have even parked my car near it, in rain and sun, to make pencil and pen and ink drawings of it, and to photograph it–or, at least, the top part of it. In the last fifteen and a half years, it is the only tree on Route 106 that I have really paid attention to, and, yet, I cannot say that I “know” it in any intimate or real way, or that I understand it  deeply and thoroughly.

Even after seventy and a half years of living, and really devoting myself to trying to hear and understand spirits of  people of all ages, I would say that my understanding of people is still on a par with my understanding of that tree.  (Of course this has been made more challenging by the fact of having had the shingles virus doing its work in  my formerly “good eye.” For the last twelve years or so, everything I have seen  has been seen with  my formerly “bad eye”–which was 20/200  for most of my life, and which was a far-sighted eye. Neither eye sees clearly close-up. Perhaps in a metaphorical sense, this is how most, or many, of us see. As Robert Frost says, in his poem, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” “The land may vary more;/ But wherever the truth may be–/ The water comes ashore,/ And the people look at the sea./ They cannot look out far./ They cannot look in deep./ But when was that ever a bar/ To any watch they keep?”)  

I take pictures –thousands of them–and often enlarge them to  eight and a half by eleven, or even eleven by seventeen, so that I can look closely at both people and things. (This is how I learned, several months after returning home,  that I had captured power lines in one of my favorite photos of the Grand Canyon. The possibility that there might be power lines in that remote North Rim area had never even occurred to me.)

 I try to be a watcher, in spite of these (and many other) limitations,  but, most of the time, I am more aware of my efforts to be a listener. I listen most to other people’s children–and teenagers–(I have none of my own)–and to people older than myself, most often, residents of nursing homes, or former residents of nursing homes. The people in between these age groups, unless they are my colleagues, or my students’ parents, are pretty much unknown territory to me. 

When I walk into a school, I almost always stand silently just inside the main door and  breathe and listen. I also look around to see if there are new posters on the walls, or if the furniture has been rearranged, or if a new plant or piece of artwork has been added, or an old one removed. Consequently, I know that many schools, these days, have signs proclaiming that the school is a “bullying-free zone.” Nevertheless, what I most often hear, upon entering a school, is the sound of one or more adults talking in a loud, angry, accusing, bossy, often sarcastic, belittling tone at a child, or at an entire class of children.  When I enter a home, this is most often the tone of voice I hear when adults speak.  In the last forty years or so, these are the tones I have heard most often in whatever state or town I have been in, whatever home or school or classroom I have entered, so I am not talking about one generation of students–which suggests that most teachers grew up listening to these tones when they, too, were young.

A nurturing tone and nurturing behavior often bring tears to my eyes–they are so welcome, and so unexpected, and so rare.  First of all, there is nothing smug, or self-satisfied, or mean-spirited, or bossy about such tones and behaviors. What I notice, first, is that they are empathic.  It is clear that  the adult is emotionally present for the student, that the adult  feels that the child, at that moment, needs to feel accepted for the in-process child he or she is, in the midst of experiencing discomfort, hurt, sadness, worry, resentment–or excitement, delight, amazement, curiosity, intense interest, eagerness–whatever the feelings are, and that, often, some feeling or combination of feelings, is filling them, and even overflowing. The empathic adult, somehow, manages to stand with, be with, the child. Maybe he or she rests his or her hand or forearm on the child’s arm or shoulder. Maybe the adult kneels down or bends over, to put his or her face at eye level with the eyes of the child, or maybe he or she stands just behind and to the side of the child, so that the child, first, hears  and feels the empathy.

If we could make only one change in the way in which we present ourselves to children–our own or other people’s, this tiny empathic gesture is what, I think, would do the most good. If we could attempt it today, and tomorrow, and every day, consistently, even for a week or two, I think we would create the beginning of the revolution Sir Ken Robinson talks about in his TED talks.

The first sign that we were making a difference, I think, would be that students would, individually and collectively, breathe a sigh of relief. Something in them would soften, would relax, would feel just a little bit more hopeful.  And maybe they would feel, even for a moment, that this adult, at least, cares, and is present, and is capable of listening, that this adult knows what tenderness is, and feels that children in general, and these children in particular, are worthy of such tenderness.

It is tenderness, to me, that can work miracles that all children everywhere desperately need in order to grow up to be adults capable of empathizing and caring.   

Creative Bones

1 Feb

When people tell me they don’t have any creative bones in their bodies, I wonder what they really mean. Maybe they just mean that they cannot remember a time when someone praised their drawing, or painting, or other imaginative work. Maybe they mean they haven’t learned how to produce a photographic  likeness of someone or something. Maybe they mean they feel most comfortable following a recipe, or a plan. Maybe a blank piece of paper makes them nervous. I just don’t know.

My college students, on the first day of class, used to say, “I’m not creative,” but I just didn’t believe them. They were used to being judged and criticized–even for the most trivial things–like margins, or handwriting, or how many sentences their paragraphs contained. They had never had a teacher who claimed to be a “dialogue partner,” a teacher who was just as busy learning to think better and write better and dialogue better as they were. They didn’t realize that such things are lifelong processes–and not just some clever tricks to bring up their grades in college.

“Don’t expect anything special and impressive from me,” is what they often said, at the beginning. They were so used to having to “think the way the teacher thought” that they hardly dared to think the way THEY thought themselves. It was really shocking to them to have such an opportunity. They were not expecting it at all.

They were so used to being judged, so used to seeing their writing as a performance to satisfy teachers. I think creativity cannot thrive–or even survive– under such conditions. Criticism that we don’t seek, and are not ready for, wounds our spirits. We, as parents and teachers, do not do our children any favors by being in the spirit-wounding business. We need to nurture interests and strengths. We need to enjoy the process of learning, and help others enjoy it too–if we want our children to be creative and value their creativity, their energy, their insight, and their imagination.

Well, we can do this best, I think, by being dialogue partners, by listening with our mind and our heart, by enjoying their creative processes and enjoying our own.

I have always felt that creativity happens when we feel comfortable enough with someone not to “put on airs,” not to act as if we are more, or less, or other than what we are. Under those conditions, there is a kind of “flow,” a kind of unselfconscious naturalness in what we say and how we say it. It is as if our internal censor takes a nap, or a time out, and we breathe, and listen, and let our reflections just be what they are, let them stand apart or come together as they please.There is a degree of honesty, then, a degree of longing to censor nothing, to guard nothing, just to share on the outside what is already on the inside–and have it heard, accepted, and understood in a caring, empathic, insightful way.

That, to me, is creativity–not, as so many others have pointed out, a matter of “making things up,” but of getting down whatever it is that feels like flowing at the time. 

I call such remarks creative because they do not come from a persona. They do not come from a role, from other people’s expectations. They are not meant to impress, or to hurt, or even to persuade. They are not meant to hide, or falsify, anything. They just want to move up into shared consciousnesss, where we can acknowledge them as ours, and let them move on.

Emily Dickinson said, in one of her poems, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant / Success, in circuit, lies. / Too bright for our infirm delight / The truth’s superb surprise/ As lightning, to the children, / eased, / with explanation kind, / The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”  Perhaps we, too, feel this way, and decide that some truths are too sudden, and too large to speak about, and speaking them anyway would blind us all.

“But it is  only a moment,” we might say to ourselves, in reply. “If we could sustain it, we might get used to it. It might not be as overwhelming as it now seems.”

Our words are so powerful that, sometimes we feel we must give up on words, at least temporarily, must put them aside, and try to convey where we are through some less transparent medium. Maybe we come to realize that there are no words that correspond closely enough to what we have in us to express–or that words are too linear for the layers upon layers of thought and feeling and memory and inertia and ambivalence we know are present and on the move. What words could carry such a complex, back-breaking, and heart-breaking load?

What an ambitious, exhausting, and absorbing work it is–to try to see, and say, and share, what is real for us, in the deepest, most honest, most life-affirming way possible.

We realize, at such times, in case there was ever any doubt, that our creative processes are anything but trivial. For each one of us, they express the core of what it means to be one of a kind, to be conscious and alive. They come from and express the essence of our creative bones.