I just came back from a visit with family in California. The temperatures were in the 90s during the day, which is a bit hotter than we’re used to in my part of the country. Thankfully, temperature-wise, we went into San Francisco for a day and toured the SF Modern Museum of Modern Art, where we saw a lovely and stimulating series of exhibitions on American Abstractionist art, on various periods in Andy Worhol’s art (have you ever seen his early commercial art? It’s amazing), some fun Alexander Calder mobile and stabile art (Seattle has his “Eagle” piece on exhibit in the Waterfront Sculpture Park), and a really intriguing “living wall” of plants – ferns and other wall-based greenery.
Speaking of temperature, the past couple of days we have had cooler temperatures and even some RAIN here in Seattle, which makes me smile. At least for the past two years I don’t think we’ve had a drop of rain in August, so my yard and myself are very delighted with a bit of precipitation. I am delighted.
What I’m working on
About my writing, I am happy to report that things are starting to move forward. The main rule I’m reminding myself of is, “Be gentle with oneself. Be generous, be kind.” I don’t think I can have too much kindness toward my own creative self, and if you are as self-critical as I am, you’ll know what I mean. I know, of course, once I have a draft of a project on paper and complete, I can bring in those wonderful critical voices to help fine-tune the project. But for now I’m keeping my critical voices outside my drafting space – in the “green room,” as it I’m imagining it – where they are sequestered from making negative judging remarks on my artistic work, until they are needed.
I have two novel projects I’m alternating between, one is about sixty pages long at the moment, a realistic novel about a marriage falling apart, and the other still in infancy stages at thirty-five pages, an ensemble novel about a group of people living in a 1920s historic apartment building who interact with each other and form a community.
Here is a haiku I wrote for a project on the topic “Shenanigans.” I was thinking of last year’s lunar eclipse!
Fickle moon you haunt me.
Be yourself and drop your silvery shenanigans,
disappearing behind the sun-golden mask.
As we round the corner of the last weekend in July and head straight into early days of August, one thing I notice is how much sunlight we get this time of year. In my neighborhood the days start early with songbirds greeting the light, and the golden quality of the light makes me think ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
Soon enough we’ll be having shorter-shorter-shorter days and then there will be darkness at five pm. Then it will be time to curl up with a hot drink and a warm book and read!
Which is its own small pleasure.
Here’s a short poem from my recent work. I hope you’ll find something to enjoy in it!
The thing you notice last
The thing you notice last
are the hands.
Thick fingers but not ungraceful.
The hands of a fisherman
must be adept to the tasks of fishing,
the tying of lines both large and small,
the propelling of oar through water with
or against the current.
The deft handling of a slip-muscled fish
not wishing to be caught.
Hands, whose fingers mimic
the sharp talons of the river bird – eagle, hawk, osprey –
gripping and prying.
Winding line and fileting flesh.
When you ask what’s the best way to catch river fish,
in your young person’s untried voice,
the answer comes: Don’t be afraid to go into the deep. The shallows are no good.
Away you go, and only later
you understand this as a commentary on life.
I am my own worst critic, so the saying goes. But in my case, perhaps it’s best to say, “I am my own BEST critic.” I know all the little weaknesses, all the faint places where my writer’s mind can be insidiously attacked from inside my own head. “You’ll never finish that project. Your words will dry up and you’ll have nothing to say. Or what you do have to say will be boring and predictable.” All those nasty biting criticisms that can prevent us from even picking up the pen, opening up the computer, typing one sentence, one word. Instead the little creative writer inside us decides to take a vacation. It packs its bags and leaves town. Why hang around if those voices will only pull it down, pull apart its work, tell it what a failure it is?
In the past few weeks as I’ve been going through creative recovery, working my way through The Artist’s Way, endeavoring to be gentle and to take things in slow steps, not rushing or pushing or pressuring my creative self to produce, produce, produce, I have discovered something that surprised me. Shocked me, even. I have discovered that my critical voice is woefully over-developed. From a New York Times article on a temperament model based on ancient Greek philosophy, I discovered I am likely hyper-critical, hyper-judging – more than “average” – especially toward myself.
Strangely, this was both dismaying and liberating news. No wonder I shrink from the page as my first reaction to the thought of writing? I’m telling myself it’s already bad even before I start. I’m judging my efforts before they’re on the page, and the judgment is not complimentary. No wonder my writing efforts have long been subject to fits and starts.
In a way, I’m happy to have discovered how self-critical I am. I come from a long line of perfectionist high-achievers, ambitious and self-judging. If we were going to do something, the women in my family, we must do it to the very best possible level. No lowered standards for us!
I’m happy to have discovered it because it has helped me to be more actively self-forgiving. I am experimenting with heightened gentleness, with more self-forgiveness. With lining up things to be grateful for accomplishing, rather than things “I haven’t done yet.” For instance, this week I was asked to provide public comment at a meeting of our City Council on a neighborhood activism issue, and my first thought was, “Not me! I’m not good enough/smart enough/capable enough to do this!” But then my second thought – after calming down with tea and soothing music – was, “They asked me, so I must be smart enough and accomplished enough to make it happen.” After that, I wrote up my comments and I’ll be going to the City Council meeting tomorrow to present my opinion. And it will be fine, I’m sure.
What I’m working on now
Here is a companion piece to my earlier “Bookbinder” piece from a few weeks ago. I’m working on a new project that this may be a part of.
To begin with, the art of cabinet-making seems monumental and life-changing, something of substance and worth, the basic making of a box, a bureau, a bookcase, the fitting of a dovetail joint, the box joint, the blind mortise-and-tenon joint, the bridle joint, the object that becomes a work of art in the hands of a skilled crafter, the selection of wood with an eye to its beauty and the finesse of its grain, the reverence for the living being the wood came from, an upright breathing resin-producing bark-protected column of cambium and xylem encircling the cord of heartwood, the heartwood of stored sugar, dyes, and oils, the art of cabinet-making through which the transformation of tree to wood to functional object is made by use of adz and augur, bevel-edge chisel and block plane, c-clamp and cabinet saw – this is a practice of firm hands, finger dexterity, and shrewd measurement, and, above all, patience. Iron can be forced, yet wood yields more readily to the caress of the experienced palm, the precise placing of surface against groove, the pliant placing of joint pieces together. Iron can be burnt, cast, molded; wood must be cared for, kept in shape, protected from extremes of heat and cold. Wood has been a living thing, iron has come from inside the earth, and before that, the inside of stars. While iron was being invented in the long-ago fusion furnace of stellar clouds, wood has arisen only recently, in planet terms, from the death of living beings that came before it. Wood has a heart, iron has a soul.
Anaea knew this. She had come to woodworking school to be the person she’d always wanted to be. She would remake herself just as she would remake wood, the stout gift of the earth, into beautiful objects of art. Graceful. Lithe. Through woodworking she would become everything she felt she was not. She would transcend a life of clumsiness, she would transform into a person of grace – patient, perceptive, calm. Her intensity, which had dogged her all her life, which had cost her jobs and relationships and sleep at night, her intensity would be smoothed down and channeled into quieter streams of productive emotion. Through the artisan work of cabinet making. She was sure of it.
Thank you for your lovely and encouraging comments over the past few weeks as I’ve been struggling to find my way back.
I have been feeling like this:
When I have wanted to feel like this:
And even though I’m not yet entirely to that place of balance and creative energy that I’ve been hoping for, I am finding new energy and creative interest in small projects again. Slowly, slowly, step after step. Thank you for your generosity and grace in responding to me.
What I’m working on now
I have still been doing a poem effort almost every day, along with exercises from The Artist’s Way creative recovery book. And a little more writing here and there. Here is a poem I wrote last week:
Poem of Invitation
It is not far to my place
you can come after lunch
bring along the cat and all of the dogs
the turtles in their shells
The sun rises late tomorrow
and the feet play their games
Just come when you can
The table is set the cutlery is out
there will be butter on the table
next to the soft rolls
and the hot muffins.
Would there ever be another like you?
I don’t think so.
And the fog will descend around us
the cats will stalk back one by one
the dogs fall asleep on the front porch
the turtles, the turtles, the turtles
will bring in their bubbled heads
the soft rolls will be cut
and smeared with butter
and eaten – whole –
because they are so good.
And you will tell me a story
after the one I tell you.
The stacks of books and papers on her desk, the tumble of folio, recto and verso, that spilled across two, no, four, no, five tables, sturdy wooden dark standing tables surrounded her and constituted the workshop of Viola the bookbinder. Bookbinding was an old art. Not the oldest art in the world by any means, but one of the oldest in history. A piece of literate history, anyway. She connected to it that way, endpapers and headlines, folios and book covers, illustrations, words, texts. The soul of a book was more than the sum of its parts. If her father had not taught her bookbinding she might have become a scientist or a rabbi, yes, they did have women rabbis these days, ever since the 1970s. And when her friends had gone off after college in the 1980s to become Wall Street traders or go to law school – so many lawyers in her crowd of college compatriots – Viola set up her workshop on the third floor of a 1920s brick building in her childhood neighborhood, a room with an abundance of natural light and a wealth of passing people who waited at the bus stop for downtown or went into the park opposite. She used to hope when she first saw the place that the walls held secrets, that ghosts of the previous tenants would keep her company on those long days of hand-binding books on her work tables. She used to listen to NPR all day when she first started, until she gave up on news radio. Now it was the local jazz station alternating Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson, with a little Brubeck thrown in. The jazz music would strangely suit the rhythms of fitting the hard boards in their cloth covers, gauging the gutter and setting the foot and, anchoring the signatures into the text block. Music was a little-known companion to books, Viola often thought, and the playlist of her day took her into history and back to the present as she formed the hand-bound books for her customers, many of them Asian or European, where the book had long been conveyor and purveyor of a certain economic class. Gauze, cardboard, and adhesive. Hinge and corner. Top edge. Footband.