Right Brain Relief

One night in September David and I were doing our usual campaign check-in at the end of the day. I was thinking, if I’d known it would be this hard to run a campaign for state office I wouldn’t have done it. Then David said, “If I’d known running for State Rep would be this hard I wouldn’t have done it.”

David was about half way through knocking on the 896 doors on the canvassing lists of “persuadable voters” given to him by the Democratic party. Grueling work. We were figuring out how to deal with the mess of Facebook — comments misrepresenting and attacking David and two fake Facebook pages mimicking David’s campaign page, only these full of defaced photos of David, slashed by red banners proclaiming him a Gun Control Extremist. We were planning mailings and I was organizing volunteers to write letters to the editor, drive David as he canvassed, stuff mailings and write postcards to voters.

We were exhausted and there were still six weeks of this ahead. I wasn’t sure I could keep up, but two weeks before the election the pace slowed. I began to have blocks of time I could take up my own writing again. Except I didn’t. I kept checking things off lists — cleaning up the gardens, taking down screens, stacking wood. 

David and I went to an art opening and I talked to my friend Al, a celebrated clay artist, about not being able to write or do anything creative. “Of course you can’t,” he said. “You’ve been in your left brain constantly for months.”

He was right. I kept track of David’s paperwork and lists of door knocks, oversaw data entry, sorted spreadsheets of voters and postcards and people to invite to house parties. Everyday I updated an online list program so I could quickly scan across categories: volunteers, events, signs, print jobs & mailings, to-do tasks, social media. Every few weeks I had to file a NH Campaign Finance report. I used Excel more in those three months than I had in the previous 10 years.

With Al’s comment in mind, I signed up for The Grind for the month of November, a daily writing commitment to other writers through email. The Manic Mix category includes collage, for some reason, and I’d used The Grind before to get me started collaging.

It worked again. While I didn’t quite make my goal of creating a postcard collage every day during November, I made 21. What a relief it’s been, to be in my right brain. Enough of a relief that for the last few days I’ve begun to work on poetry again, I’ve written a couple of political columns, and just now I wrote this.

I’m Grinding again for December. A poem or collage every day. I might make it.

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The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

 

The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

Talking with Emilio I often find myself explaining idioms. “What do you mean you’ll take a pass?” he asked recently. We were in the car and not playing ball of any sort, so how was I going to catch a pass?  To him a piece of cake is what he gets to eat at birthday parties. Tying the knot is a way to attach two pieces of rope. How can you drive someone up the wall?

The shoe is on the other foot? This idiom first appeared in the mid-1800’s as “the boot is on the other leg.” Either way, it makes clear the possible discomfort in reversing roles, especially when positions of power are involved. Did I have that in mind as I put together the images in this new collage?

A friend recently told me she thought the collages I was making two years ago really “had something.” The encouragement was welcome, because I missed creating statements with images. The Fractured News series I did early last year, weaving newspaper and magazine articles and graphics, was calming in the midst of so much distressing news. The need for calm amidst the news hasn’t gone away.

So I uncapped my x-acto knife and opened a favorite book of images and followed my instincts about what to cut and shape and paste. Getting a leg up? Finding a foot hold? Standing on my own two feet? On my feet? Have legs? The shoe is on the other foot? The words that go with what I put together come later — it’s all layer and color and intersection as I collage.

It’s fun to be back to it, especially as a break from all the word work I do. My memoir work right now is pulling out pieces to make into essays. I’m also starting to assemble a book of poems. I signed up for a poetry manuscript workshop with Kathleen Graber this summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, without any plan for a next book. I knew having a deadline would get me working, and I must have known somewhere in the back of my mind that I had a series of poems from five years ago in a folder buried in a folder. Those poems were waiting for me, ready to be the basis of my next book.

And my knife and glue were waiting too.

 

 

 

Making Things

I love to make things. I make poems and blog posts and stories and prints and broadsides and dinner and sweaters and gardens and friends and granola and yogurt and books and books of boxes, which will soon have poems in them, the boxes that is.

Yesterday I made things all afternoon with Alison, a friend who also loves to make things. And she knows how to sew.  With her help I lengthened  a too-short sweater by attaching the extra of an extra-long scarf to the bottom. Now my favorite sweater falls past my hips, exactly as long as I want it. I made treats for Alison to put in her freezer and she made a skirt out of another too-short sweater I never finished or wore.

While Alison and I were happily making things, David and John made music, playing guitars and singing. John remarked on how much better David has gotten and David answered, “I’ve been practicing and playing like I need to make a living at it.”

I thought, yes, that’s how I write, I put in enough hours to create something I could sell. Given what I write, if I do “sell” a piece it may not bring in much money. It may not bring in any money. But I work to create marketable pieces. It’s extremely unlikely that David will ever play guitar and sing for money, but he wants to be that good. Using the standards of the material exchange economy keeps us working hard, and we have the great good fortune of not having to make the exchange actually happen. The results of our creative focus are free to be gifts.

Have you read The Gift by Louis Hyde? He won a MacArther Grant for it and it was well deserved. Creativity is a basic human instinct and the art that comes from that instinct is a gift. It doesn’t have to be in the market economy to be meaningful. In fact, creativity is even more important given our culture’s focus on money and commodities. We need to create not to earn but to share.

If you want to make art of some sort but don’t think you have permission or the time or a worthy talent or the necessary creativity, read The Gift.

Then make something.

Detroit: Put It On Your List

Detroit isn’t often a destination choice for a winter family vacation, but there are reasons it should be. The New York Times chose it as one of 52 Places to Go in 2017 and Lonely Planet put it at #2 for Top Cities to Visit in 2018. If their motive is to encourage tourists to go spend money in a city working hard to make a come back, I support that. Detroit is a great choice.

We have a couple of major Pistons fans in the family and I grew up as a Celtics fan and so did my kids. The Pistons played the Celtics at the brand new Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit last Friday night, which coincided with Emilio’s school vacation. So Adrienne, Matt, Emilio, and Ava traveled to Detroit from New York, Sam and Mariah came from Tennessee, David and I flew out of Manchester. The three planes arrived within minutes of each other. I walked off the plane, went one gate over and waited five minutes before Emilio emerged from the jetway in his Detroit Pistons hat and Andre Drummond shirt.

The AirBnB we rented was a three-story house, once abandoned and bought by a nonprofit that hires local unemployed people to learn a skilled trade while rehabbing properties. The returning prosperity of Detroit is less evident in the North End neighborhood. The AirBnB had a boarded up house beside it and one across the street and every block had vacant, littered lots.

But there were also houses occupied by friendly people. Everyone I passed as I walked to a coffee shop with David, Emilio and Ava on Friday, or while Emilio and I ran on Saturday gave us a hearty hello. An elderly man on the porch of a big brick house on a street scarred by boarded up windows and junk-choked yards cheered Emilio and I as we passed him on our two mile running loop through blocks varying from high end to abandoned.

Adrienne had tapped into her enormous network and found a friend who knows someone who knows someone and we were met at the Arena by a tall, handsome black man in a long camel hair jacket who escorted us to center court before the game. He took our photo while Kyrie Irving and Andre Drummond drained three point shots on either side of us. The photo was in a collage on the Jumbotron several times during the game, along with a shot Adrienne posted of Matt and Emilio in Pistons gear posing outside the arena.

The Detroit Institute of Art is a first rate museum worth visiting just for the Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry Murals,” a series of frescoes that cover the walls of an interior courtyard — huge, detailed, layered and complex. But you don’t have to go to the museum to see first rate art. Murals cover the sides and fronts and center strips of buildings all over the city.

The Heidelberg Project is the most bizarre and exuberantly expressive street art I’ve ever seen — a city block of sculpture and installations constructed from recycled toys, shoes, wagons, metal, plastic, and stuffed animals, bleached and wilted from the weather. Piles of discards of every sort are a central feature. Large and small rectangles of crudely painted plywood were nailed to trees and buildings, decorated with clock hands pointing to different times.

Every where we went we had good food, good beer and a good time. People in shops and restaurants and on the street were friendly and happy to know we were visiting from out of town. There was a vibe of welcome everywhere. A Lyft driver waited for us to all to load in her car after the Pistons game, even though it got her yelled at by an overly aggressive policeman because she didn’t move as soon as he said to. She was impassive and polite, then rolled up her window and drove us back to the AirBnB.

Yesterday morning Sam, Mariah, David and I dropped off our rental car and took a shuttle to the airport. As we boarded, the driver asked where we were headed. When he started to drive, he said, “You folks from Tennessee?” Sam and Mariah both said yes, that’s us. “When you get there, I want you to find someone for me.” “Okay.” Then a bluesy jazz version of Candyman came on and the driver laughed full and happy. Everyone on the shuttle laughed.

“And you from New Hampshire? How about when you get home you find some boogie.” More loud funk and we all laughed again. I got up and danced.

A Gift of Experience

 

Emilio at the Whitney Biennial

A week ago David and I finished the holiday gift I gave him for 2017 — a commitment to visit at least one museum and have one outdoor adventure a month. Experience gifts make sense — we already have so much stuff — and they’ve been a needed break from the dread and disgust that’s been too present for the past year if you’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening in the world. Which we are.

Early on we decided if we went someplace outdoors we’d never been before, that could count as an outdoor adventure. It didn’t have to be arduous. Just new. We also realized early on that there are a lot of museums near us. New Hampshire has a snowmobile museum, several rail depot museums, a telephone museum, a model railroad and toy museum, and a classic arcade museum that has pinball machines and electric games built no later than 1987. We didn’t go to any of those, but we did go to the NH Historical Society museum which has an old ski-doo snowmobile as an exhibit.

So what did our year of art and adventure include?

We trudged through snow up a hill in an orchard under a full moon. We camped in Evans Notch and hiked the Baldface Circle (very arduous!), slept on the front porch three times in the last month, toasty in big down bags, swam in the North Atlantic twice in September and in Long Pond during the second week of October. Wet suits are magic in cold water, but we came out a bit off balance from the cold affecting our inner ears.

 

We walked in Ireland and hiked in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Snow Canyon and Jenny’s Canyon (Utah is amazing) and lowered ourselves into lava tubes, caves hollowed out of old lava flows. We stayed in the Mitzpah Hut near the peak of Mt. Pierce and hiked to the summit of Mt. Mooselauke twice

 

Our museum visits ranged from interesting to mind blowing. The Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier, featuring impossibly intricate and detailed paper art, was a marvel. We took in the Whitney Biennial along with Adrienne, Emilio and Ava. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston twice, most recently to see a phenomenal performance of poetry read by Jane Hirshfield (her own and her translations of Japanese poetry) and music composed by Linda Chase. The three part piece was a collaboration written in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was masterfully done. Stunning music along with spoken words in the best weave of the two I’ve ever heard. And that was after being enchanted by the exhibit of wild and vibrant wall-size murals by Takashi Murakami.

My favorite museum visit was to the Northwood Historical Society’s museum, open on August Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00. The town’s artifacts are housed in the small, square, brick building that was the Northwood Narrows branch of the library when I first moved to town. It’s around the corner from my house.

David wore his short wetsuit for that visit; we stopped at the museum when we saw it was open on our way to swim. The Historical Society volunteer staffing the museum that day didn’t pay any attention to the wet suit. She was too busy watching the two helicopters circling over the fields and woods of the Narrows, looking for a fugitive batterer, a man who’d come to town after abusing his girlfriend and then ran away from the police when they found him at a house on Blake’s Hill.

They caught him. It was an exciting day in the Narrows.

Boardwalk at Coney Island

Last Friday we walked the boardwalk on Coney Island, a good choice for our last outdoor adventure of the year. Closed for the season, the arcades and amusement parks were like huge broken toys. We walked with a cold wind at our backs, then turned and walked into it, along the gray water, the winter sun low in the sky. We walked for a long time.

I’m grateful to have a life that allows me to choose experiences like this, to take breaks that refresh and energize and inspire me. I hope to keep it up next year.

 

Armchairs & An Untitled Manuscript

Weeks have gone by without a blog post. How did that happen? I’ve been very focused on getting through another revision of my memoir and when I got to my desk that’s where my energy went.

Until this weekend. Because I’m finished. The manuscript is done. It’s formatted and ready to print out and read through for one final check.

Last week I told David I was done and he kept saying you’re done, you’re done, that’s a big deal and I couldn’t deal with that so I kept trying to qualify what I meant. But I guess I meant it. There’s a scene in the memoir when I’ve finished the manuscript of The Truth About Death and I go sit on a foot bridge over a river on a cold, windy day and cry. All I could think was, now what am I going to do?

So again, now what am I going to do? Well, I still don’t have a title so I need to figure that out, polish the query letter I wrote a year ago, do lots of agent research, and then launch the manuscript into the unknown.

Meanwhile my current printmaking class has led me to armchairs as a subject. Comfort and stories are drawing me. I’ve made monotypes and etchings and I’m not done yet.

Maybe I’m ready to sit down for a while.

 

A Book of Boxes

I’ve written before about John the Founder (of Vermont Studio Center) welcoming everyone on the first night of my latest residency there by saying, “This isn’t a place for ego or worrying about how our work is viewed by the world. We’re just a group of people, who for one reason or another, like to make things. So go ahead, make things.”

That has stayed with me for the more than three years since I was there, because I like to make things. Sure, I make dinner and a garden and crackers (check out these amazing, life-changing crackers) and yogurt, but those are all practical. When I most need permission is when I want to make something that’s a creation for the sake of creation, something arty, something that pushes me to try something new, something that might not be perfect.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing and editing in the last few weeks, going through another revision of my memoir and working towards the deadline on an editing job related to my work on sexual assault. Lots of hours at my computer, very few hours at my art desk.

I’ve also been making a lot of phone calls and writing emails to Senators and Reps. There is no shortage of the need for political action and resistance , and I’m keeping up with my 15 acts of resistance a week (mostly).

With all those hours at my desk and nothing tangible to show for it, the urge to make something was strong. The Image & Test class is over so I’m not getting a weekly fix of making: printing or folding or binding a book.

Yesterday I tried an idea from the class and made a book of boxes. I folded six mat su boxes (a basic origami box) from prints I made in class, collapsed the boxes, and then used a coptic binding to make them into a book.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I figured it out well enough and the result was more interesting than I’d imagined. Not only can the book be closed, then opened as each box is unfolded to find what’s hidden inside, the book can stand on its own as curious object. It spurred David to do a serious of photographs that catch it all angles.

But what is this for? It’s for itself.

 

Returning

The last month may be the longest blog break I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t intended, but it happened. Which is life, right?

Or maybe it’s my reflexive response to the current political insanity. Yes, I’m still obsessed with the news and spend a lot of time working to keep myself centered and using my energy to resist the dismantling of so much of what I’ve taken for granted as norms of democracy and living in a country inching its way towards true social justice.

At a party this weekend I talked about how meaningless my blog seemed to me after the election. How could I write anything that wasn’t directly political and pushing back against the madness engulfing us? Why write about the apple blossoms filling the trees and then salting the ground around my garden as the flowers start to fall apart?

“Because that’s exactly what we need,” one friend said. “We need to read about apple blossoms.”

It has been an extraordinary year for blossoms. From the forsythia bushes to cherry trees to apple trees to dandelions to lilacs, everything is having a bumper year of flowering. There are maple trees on my running route that have such thick clumps of red seed pods (also called samaras, maple keys, helicopters, whirlybirds or polynoses) they look like tropical blossoms, heavy and full as they nod towards the ground.

Yesterday afternoon I sat on the back deck steps for a few minutes, looking across my garden beds to the lilac bush intermingling with the largest of my apple trees. I could hear a catbird and finches singing. Every time I walked towards the small wood shed on the side of the barn a robin screeched from its nest at the top of one of the posts, trying to distract me from what must be a clutch of pale, blue eggs. The yard is an unbounded aviary (which actually would make it not an aviary at all, but you know what I mean), full of birdsong and nests and the flash of wings.

The world is still beautiful. I’m still resisting (15 acts of resistance a week — phone calls, emails, meetings, discussions) but I’m also still writing and drawing and turning over the soil and planting and picking bouquets for the house.

I’ve learned this before but have to keep learning it again. Bad things happen, but birds and trees and bushes don’t care. The sun comes up and spring comes on and the grass gets green and then grows again and the cows return to the pasture across the street, as they did today, right now come to the corner right across from my porch, as they do most evenings.

That’s reason enough to celebrate.

 

 

 

Deep Cuts: In Trump-Adjusted Terms

Detail of One Story At A Time by Kim Rugg

“In Trump-adjusted terms, I’m fine.” That was the answer a woman gave on a podcast I listened to this week when asked how she was.

Perfect! I thought. A way to skip the usual five minute greeting of yes, things are okay for me except I’m completely freaked out about the ongoing circus that our federal government has become — the meanest, freakiest, scariest circus ever — and half the time feel like I can hardly breathe. Now we can just give our TAT score.

In TAT I’m doing well, in part because I saw the Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art on Wednesday.

An attractive part of delving into visual art for me is the absorption in making something with my hands, beyond my fingers on the keyboard as I write. Most of my writing time these days is editing anyway, which doesn’t even mean many keystrokes — mostly I’m reading and sifting.

Time spent weaving a collage of newspaper strips or cutting blocks of words or gluing beads to a piece of paper for a pressure print as I listen to music can feel like slow snow — a suspension that’s going to amount to something at some point, and the creeping pace to that place feels just right.

But the level of detailed suspension in a head space of meticulous making displayed in the Deep Cuts exhibit is breathtaking. It can take me an hour or more to fuss with the strips of newspaper I weave to make a collage, painstaking for a relative newbie like me.

Then I saw Kim Rugg’s collage in the exhibit, “One Story at a Time,” and understood painstaking on a whole other level. Her work is a reconstruction of the front page of the NY Times after dissecting it letter by letter and pixel by pixel. The letters are put back together by alphabet, starting with all the a’s and preceding to z.

Detail of Altered Text: Unbearable Lightness of Being by Youdhi Maharjan
Detail of I am the rejection of you by Ambreen Butt

 

Youdhi Maharjan cut every single letter out of pages of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, along the exact lines of the letter, then massed them in a central column that runs through the excised pages pasted on either side. The letters are all discernible and black — you can see each letter in the cut spaces also, glowing gold from the background of the collage.

Ambreen Butt cut and collaged pieces of rejections letters — her own and others she got from friends — into a 10 foot circle that looks like an alternative sun. It’s beautiful, a source of light from an unexpected globe.

This is just a taste of this mind-blowing exhibit. Where do these artists’ brains go during the hours upon hours upon hours of exacting work? The same place my own brain goes as I continue to massage 85,000 words into a book constructed of the exact right words in the exact right places?

Whatever that place is, in TAT, being in that headspace myself, or looking at the marvels artists make from that space, makes everything better.

 

Bookmaking

 

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I’ve been making books (the first definition of bookmaking is someone who takes bets –those of us making actual books come in second).  I’ve learned how to fold sheets of paper into zines and bind pages with the five hole pamphlet stitch. Next week I’ll learn caught loop binding and then on to coptic binding, a beautiful braid of stitches to hold a book together.

I’ve been making phone calls. My goal each week is 15 acts of resistance, which include making collages and going to meetings but mostly calls to Senators Hassan and Shaheen with occasional calls to Annie Kuster. My message is basically the same — resist the Trump autocracy/hypocrisy/treachery flavor of the day. I also make regular calls to McConnell’s office because his particular brand of partisan bullshit cowardice is particularly infuriating to me. Sometimes I even get through. When I don’t, there’s no way to leave a message. Of course.

I’ve been drawing. Every day. I’m bound to get better.

I’ve been getting smart feedback on my memoir manuscript from incredibly generous friends (you know who you are) which has made my writing brain fire off in flashes of insight that I know will lead to a tighter, stronger, more dynamic book. Part of yesterday was spent making lists of what’s coming and going in the next draft — getting ready to dive back in.

I’ve been writing pushback against injustice. Yesterday I sent off a column to the Concord Monitor pointing out the absurdity of arguments against a bill to protect trans people from discrimination; opponents claim it will lead to women being assaulted in bathrooms. I’ve had it with the “bathroom bill” idiocy. NH’s bill to add gender identity to the anti-discrimination law isn’t about bathrooms and the opposition isn’t about protecting women. Let’s be real — the bill is about justice and the opposition is about bigotry. HB 478 — call your NH House Rep to support the bill today.

I’ve been running. According to my training plan I’m running 11 miles this morning. That means my legs won’t do much else today. My gratitude for a body strong enough to still be running long distances is deep, but I definitely feel the difference between a body that’s 60 and a body that’s 63. Hopefully it will all stay on track for the NYC Half Marathon on March 19. Can I run a time qualifying half marathon again? I’m sure going to try.

I’ve been making collages. I’ve made a book collage of collages inspired by Ta Nahesi-Coates’ essay in The Atlantic, “My President Was Black.” The article describes a concert and party the Obamas had at the White House in October, a farewell celebration. It was presented by Black Entertainment Television and was primarily a party for black people — black performers, black guests, black luminaries.

It was a joy to read about, black people having a party at the White House. A house built by black slaves.

But I know there are people in this country, not the majority but enough of them, who couldn’t stand the idea of a black family in the White House, much less that family celebrating there. The White Fuckboys particularly couldn’t stand it.

Now the White Fuckboys are trying to run the country though they’re not having an easy time of it, partly because their treachery keeps catching up with them and partly because of the organic rise of resistance that’s swept across country.

Let’s keep it up. We have no choice.

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