When the mind is particularly recalcitrant and thought refuses to bubble to the surface, what am I to do? Why, curse the dis-ease just a little, and then put my brainlessness to work at doing the Nothing it is so fond of doing anyway. I can hope that some sense will accidentally fall into place, but at the least, I’ll have enjoyed myself with a little ridiculous exercise of the inner sort.
There was a whopper of a rainstorm in Dallas recently. We were at our friends’ home, enjoying a little birthday party, and heard a few low growls of thunder in pauses between the chatting and laughter but had no great confidence rain would follow. It’s been overcast or cloudy often enough lately without granting so much of the hoped-for watering as it seems to promise, so we never take it as a given that we’ll be watered nicely. Not, in this instance at least, until the front door smashed open under the force of sideways gales and blasts of firehose rain. Bashed open once, and closed; then, a second time. And latched tight; the neighborhood was pelted well and truly until just a little before we left for home.
At home, it appears, no rain had come at all. Our gardens and spirits remained thirsty. I’m quite certain that a coastal-born person of my Washington upbringing and Scandinavian roots is a little more water-conscious, if not obsessed, than average. But the hints of rain that do arrive here, whether in sky-splitting gouts that last but an afternoon or in a steady series of lightly sprinkling days as we are sometimes blessed to see, are a fairly universally admired gift. And I find that north Texas is hardly alone in this.
The traveling we did this summer in Europe had very few rainy days among the many sun-soaked ones, and while we neither regretted the warmth and light of the sunshine nor bemoaned the drizzling times, we saw plenty of people in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, Port Angeles and Seattle who relished their rain-baths and their waterfront or fountain-side relaxation every bit as much as we did. Even the swans, geese, ducks and waterfowl seemed all the more pleased with their daily peregrinations on the days of and after the rains.
I think that there might be in all of us a certain kind of thirst that mere water only reinforces and reminds us is different from the sense of desire and hope that can fill our spirits. River or fountain, a strong and cleansing rain, ocean or streaming tears of joy, the only water that can quite slake our longing for wholeness and growth and hope is the remembrance that we are primarily made of water ourselves, and as such, will always seek a way to the well or the shore that reassures us we belong.
The drawing professor responsible for mentoring me in my undergraduate specialization in drawing and printmaking had no idea he was creating a monster. Safe to say there was nothing especially distinguished about either my skills or my scholarship in those days; he may be forgiven if he thought there was little hope of my passing his classes, let alone succeeding in being an actual artist at any point in the future. But for whatever reasons of commitment and kindness and selfless dedication to his pedagogical efforts, he took it upon himself to tutor and nurture me in my studies besides working wonderfully hard in the general studio sessions he taught.
Like any teacher, he had his characteristic methods and terminology, to the degree that any of us who took more than one semester of classes from him had our own favorite little catch-phrases and loving parodies of his work. One of the most frequent phrases (so we thought then, at least) to leave his lips was ‘texturally rich’—and you can bet your sweet pencil sharpener that any of us giving any imitation of him was bound to quote that one.
No surprise at all, then, that as soon as I started teaching, which thanks to his intervention and my subsequent hiring I did for the first time out of grad school in the very classroom where he’d taught me, it was as though I was instantly possessed by his spirit. I think I may have visibly started when I heard myself say that mystical phrase, standing there in the very spot where he’d once stood and repeated it to my classmates and me, never having remotely suspected that I would ever quite understand the term let alone use it so glibly and with such conviction a mere few years later. In my turn, I found it became a true favorite topic of study and tool for art-making and there were undoubtedly students of mine who thought it a funny catchphrase of mine and parodied my use of it.
That’s the way this stuff works, isn’t it. We become our teachers. First we find ourselves imitating our parents and siblings and playmates, learning from them both the persistent bad habits and, if we’re lucky and perhaps not too dumb, the worthy and useful skills and knowledge that will stay with us as we grow. Then we turn to teachers outside of the walls of home and neighborhood, as we get to school and move forward, and learn to imitate them too. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, is what helps us create for ourselves our texturally rich lives.
In art, it is the visual or tactile form of texture that I most often seek, finding in the wide variety of possible touchable or perceptible patterns and surfaces worlds of ways that I can shape and delineate and describe whatever subject I choose. As I work to make the art deeper and more complex, the textures I seek include less concrete, more metaphorical and philosophical ones that lend further meaning and impact to it. And that is where it begins to intersect with the learning and growing processes of life in general. A life well lived will be inherently texturally rich. I had no idea of the magnitude and import of this when my professor was saying that simple little phrase. But I’m very glad he said it often enough that I did internalize it, ponder it, carry it with me, and eventually, find a wonderful and purposeful truth in it.
Perhaps even fine teachers like him can’t make me into what I never was, a great teacher myself, but there was clearly a place in my heart and mind that resonated to the phrase ‘texturally rich’ happily and hungrily enough for it to take root and teach me good and useful things long after the echo in the classroom had faded away.
Self promotion is a gift. Some people are born wheeling and dealing or have inborn salesmanship, and others are born artists. Okay, that’s an unfair generalization, to be sure, but as an artist myself, and one admittedly devoid of any sort of business acumen or PR skills, I also know a ton of other artists of all stripes who, left to their own devices, would or will forever work, then die, in obscurity. I am glad and relieved that there are people for whom the promotion of others is an interest, skill set and/or gift.
If it weren’t for the practitioners of good business, whether as active promoters of artists’ work or more indirectly as patrons (buyers or spouses, for example), lots of us in the arts would either have to give up our artistic vocations or starve in the legendary garrets of the unsuccessful, regardless of talent or commitment.
There’s no obvious solution to this perennial artists’ dilemma, since being self-promotion-challenged so often includes being confused and intimidated by even knowing how to find and secure an able and supportive agent to carry the weight. What a conundrum.
This post, as you would naturally guess, is not a how-to. If I had the answers, any of them, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you or even cognizant of this puzzle at all. This is, instead, a note on my own perpetual wrestling with the questions of what to do with my creative impulses besides rambling around with them towing me by the heartstrings. I may forever stand in mystified awe and envy of those who know how to crow.
Others may be motivated by such things as the thirst for wisdom, the pursuit of creature comforts, altruism, or a craving for adventure. Me? What floods my being with happiness is letting my imagination run wild.
The minute that the busyness of everyday life keeps me too occupied to simply luxuriate in fantasy and creative play, I feel my soul shriveling. When I do get to enjoy my favorite state of dreaminess, my inner happiness unfurls, expands and explodes. If you must know, it really doesn’t take much to make me happy.
To capture the kind of innocence that little ones have would be a scientific coup beyond what even our best magicians could hope to conjure. How is it that such jaded minds and dedicated tragedians as adults can be made from the raw childhood materials of clear-eyed honesty and untouched truth and light? As an artist and writer, even simply as a grownup who believes that honesty and reality have far more forms than the dull quotidian ones in which we grownups generally clothe them to fit our fusty adult needs for blandness to feel safe, I search the boundaries between worlds endlessly in hope.
Sometimes I wonder if I have been cheating when I don’t follow precisely that stern old caveat that warns me to always Write about What You Know—that I should stay fixed in the firmament of my own particular universe, my peculiar range and realm of reality. Of course, I know that no beautiful fantasy and very little romance would ever get written by anyone if this rule were strictly adhered to in every way; what’s more, I remind myself as I write that every word I put down on the page is true, just not always for me and my own experience: perhaps it’s something I’ve known of believed or felt, translated into another person’s events, and sometimes it is perhaps best described as true of (or for) another person who herself or himself is not known on this modest three-dimensional earthly and human plane. Anyway, I am reassured that I bend the Rule a little but I never wholly break it; I tend to wander further from the truth only when I must–in order to make the truth of the matter most apparent.
Every Fourth of July I am filled with ambivalence. I feel so deeply fortunate to have been born in a country where I live a very privileged life: I can afford to live in a spacious, comfortable house, own a car that I can drive when and wherever I choose, eat (yes, too much, and that I have the choice of changing as well); more importantly, I can vote in any election–though I have sincere doubts that we are as close to a ‘one man, one vote‘ nation in effect as we are on paper–and I can say what I believe, and believe what I wish, and choose my own friends and live as I please.
At the same time, I am constantly troubled by the many self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ whose views of freedom translate what I see as privileges into their personal Rights without regard to how they might impinge on the health, safety and happiness of the people directly around them; who preach (because they are free to do so in this country) against the rights of the poor, the downtrodden, and especially of those who simply differ from themselves because they believe (and are free to do so) that the poor, downtrodden and different are inherently wrong or evil and that what applies as a Right to oneself is an undeserved privilege to another. It frightens me that the very freedom to think and decide for oneself is applied to people I would disagree with vigorously and even think dangerous in their views, even while it pleases me that I am free to oppose them.
What is called the United States of America is far from a land of wholly united people–this present time is no different from our past, if perhaps a bit more polarized than some eras in that regard. I’m constantly hearing the language of ‘freedom’ morphed into the language of making others change to suit our own personal ideals of how to live a good and just and proper life, not just here on our own soil but around the globe, and this too is not new but is no less fearsome a characteristic of our frailty as both individuals and a nation. We are spoiled, self-centered and arrogant in so many ways.
Yet the general goodness of living in a widely varied, opportunity-loving, favored land never leaves my heart and mind, either. Even if I define its better qualities differently than any number of my fellow citizens would do, I am aware of my good fortune in living in a place where that is both legal and generally acceptable, and where the very spirit of the country’s foundation says I should actively participate in making it as bold and just and generous as it can be. So though a part of me withers at the very idea of anyone needing political, legal or military systems, I am grateful to those people who throughout our history have committed with sincerity to their thirst for justice and making things right in the land and done those kinds of work to make it possible.
I just heard someone say a variant of the (true) old saw about ‘the guy who wrote the manual isn’t the one that actually does the job’ and am reminded that those who framed our constitution and envisioned as the nature and future of our nation could never have known exactly how it would unfold in practice and over time, even though they did live, work and die under that constitution as well. We all only do the best we are able, and as it happens, those of us who now live, work and die in America have a setting in which it’s possible for more of us to do so at an acceptable or even high level if we, too, commit to it and live our many-colored versions of the dream the best that we can.Show of Fireworks
Across this piece of Texas sky,
Local alchemists and
Magisterial teenagers are casting
New and sparkling stars, comets,
Blazing suns shot out of
The hands of these earthbound gods
Into the deepening blue-black night
And turning the sky of the
Lone Star State into great
Galaxies of momentary stars
Notes on the Fourth of July 2010
All through this night, a sparkling sky shouts out in dazzling handmade stars
of hopes and dreams, of glories past; what we believe makes the future ours–
our splashy, gleaming, naive wants, our bold wild brashness, sweet with pain
at the memory of what all this cost, this wealth of joy–this the faint refrain
as the night grows cold and the ashes drift: that our predecessors paid with life
to buy our present comfort, give us our privileged pleasures free from strife–
this tinge of sorrow underlaid still cannot dim, and never mars,
our gladness that that price was paid, so we fire our dazzling handmade stars–
our banners raise with collective pride, with staunch salutes and our boastful hymns–
at least until we wake up unchanged, long after the final firework dims.
We should still remember, when dawn returns and celebratory displays will cease,