Wednesday, April 16, 2014

This morning

Today I woke up in the dark bud of morning and laid there for a minute, grasping at last night’s dream.  A call, “MOM!!!” interrupted my lingering.  I popped up and shuffled down the hall with quiet urgency, like a nun on her way to matins.  Eloise had had a bad dream.  I smoothed her forehead and cooed about the dark, and just about had her back to sleep when the bathroom doorway flooded with light.  

Gwendolyn had flipped the switch on the day.  I looked up and she was brushing out her hair in long strokes, obediently upholding a tween girl’s duty.

The three of us tip-toed through the hall.  It was still dark, not yet six, and though we were quiet, we could not mask the breeze of our scent.  The dog was awake now too, hauling her old bones down the stairs with us in a noisy tangle of claws and hardwood floor.  Loud enough to wake up Chloe who always makes it her business to remind me of the next thing. She calls from her bed  “Mom, don’t forget to undo the alarm.”  Because sometimes I do forget, and I let out the dog.  On those mornings I am the culprit who blasts our family into the day.

By the time we all get to the kitchen I am wistful for the morning I didn’t have.  For the quiet hour to myself, for the few lines of writing, for the cup of tea with the small indulgence of honey, and yes, Facebook.  

I put on the hot water and warm the milk for Eloise.  Gwendolyn, ever-duty bound, is face down in her homework.  She is checking off boxes and then looks up to ask me this, “Mom, what is figurative language?”  I pull around behind her to see what she sees:

Introduction to Poetry

Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

I am surprised.  I did not expect this.  I fell asleep reading Billy Collins, circling over and over his poem called After the Storm.   

“What does he mean to walk inside the poem’s room? Can a poem have a room?”

And so I say, “Well, let’s say this poem is a room--is it mean or friendly?”  She says “friendly.”  I follow up “What do you think happens when the light switch turns on in a poem.”  She says, “well the room fills with light and something pops out at you.”  Yes, my dear one, exactly.

We are so deep into The Introduction to Poetry that I don’t hear Chloe slip into her morning nook at the breakfast table.  She chimes into the scene with her own question, “Mom, do you like it?”  She’s drawn a race car.  It’s rounded at the edges, but toughened up with a spoiler, a huge tailpipe, and flaming decals, that, in truth, look more like the wings of an eagle.
“Henry, draws much better cars than me,” she says.
“Chloe, I love it.  I see you’ve drawn flames and a spoiler.  Very cool.”

Now my cup of tea is half gone, an egg is sputtering on the stove and it looks like the contents of the refrigerator have fought a small battle on my counter.   The dark bud of morning has opened into full bloom.  No writing got done in the dark, it is true.  But a golden sensation rises on the crown of my heart and I wonder what else in the world could I have written about today, but this?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Suspending the desire to be elsewhere

Last night I had the chance to meet the artist, Louise LeBougeois.  I have the pleasure and privilege of owning one of her paintings.  This isn't the one I own, but mine looks similar:

Here are a couple of other examples of her work:

The digital images, though beautiful, fall short of conveying the luminosity, reflection and depth of the paintings.  They feel like portals you could fall into, and their dimensionality  gets lost on the computer screen.  In real life if you walk by one you can't help but stop and slip into its spaciousness.

Buying one of Louise's paintings was at once one of the easiest and hardest things I've ever done.  On the one hand, the piece we bought, transported me straight past thought, into yet undiscovered quiet in my body.   Small pools of stillness collected right below my breast and belly.  They ebbed and flowed in hypnotic unison with the work, and I knew.  The piece communicated something about life and the world that agreed with every cell in my body and I wanted my home and my life to reflect this wordless experience.

And yet, I had never bought anything like this in my life.  From a rational perspective it was difficult to defend spending money on something so impractical.  I worried that we would should be doing something else with the money, like saving it or donating it to charity.  But we had a big blank space, and spending the money did not preclude us from saving or making donations, so we took the plunge.  We entered into a relationship with a piece of work, with an artist we'd never met, and with the gallery owner, Lisa Chadwick, who showed the work.

Last night we had the chance to put all of the pieces together.  Louise was having an opening in San Francisco for her next collection of work, and in yet another completely impractical line of thinking, Graham and I hauled up to the city on a weeknight to experience an opening night for the first time.

We got the chance to see a broad collection of her work and to meet her in person.  My favorite part of the evening was getting to talk to Louise about what it felt like to work as an artist.  She reported that she has been an artist her whole life.  She studied art and psychology in college.  And after taking a few different jobs to make ends meet in her early twenties, she decided that it was time to get practical and apply to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist.  One day, as she was starting to write the essays explaining why she wanted to become a psychologist, she, and this is in her words, "fell apart crying."  She knew she was an artist, and she knew she had to give her art a shot, even though she had no idea if she could ever support herself or find professional success.  What she said was, "I knew I would rather fall flat on my face than never try at all."

I am so grateful that she kept the faith.  Living with the kind of love and devotion that she put into her work is a blessing.

Lisa Chadwick, the owner of the gallery, read us this quote, which, for me, explains so well the impact that Louise's art has on me and on so many others:

"Great art suspends the reverted eye, the lamented past, the anticipated future;  we enter it with the timeless present; we are with God today, perfect in our manner and mode, open to the riches and the glories of a realm that time forgot, but that great art reminds us of:  not by its content, but by what it does in us: suspends the desire to be elsewhere."  --Ken Wilbur

As Lisa described it last night, buying beautiful art is more than buying more things.  It is supporting the work of an artist and stewarding a message that has a life of its own.  If the work outlasts me, which I hope it will, my home will have been a temporary haven in the journey of a timeless, wordless message.  I suppose this isn't practical in the usual sense, but over a long arc of time I hope the effort proves to be useful.

If you find yourself in Union Square this month, consider visiting Dolby Chadwick to experience Louise's paintings for yourself.  I'd be so curious to hear what you think.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Inspired by Laurel

My fellow writer-blogger, Laurel posted this provocative photograph on her blog today.  Along with the image she included a few paragraphs of her fiction writing.  I believe the scene she posted is related to the bigger writing project she is working on.  And this is one of the first times I've seen my friend publicly reveal this aspect of her writing life.  We haven't talked about the post yet, but my guess is that this was one of those things that felt BIG, as in risky and wild and vulnerable and brave.  

The scene she wrote is vivid and compelling.  I highly recommend the two-minute treat of reading it.

               Source:  Art Limited

If she and I don't meet up sooner, we'll talk about her post on our next Sunday morning jog.

For about two years now, it's been our habit to meet halfway between her house and mine and then to run to the The Burghers of Calais,  in the main Quad at Stanford.

When we arrive at the sculptures, we each tap the figure that has become "our guy"  (Mine is figure on the far right).  Inevitably during our jogs, about five blocks from campus, both of us feel like we want to stop running, but getting to that tap keeps us going--it marks a clean finish that is within our ability, but slightly beyond our natural will, and over the course of two years, I'm sure the few extra blocks we run has added miles to our grand total.

We started this habit of tapping the statue (which is now a compulsion, a kind of superstitious belief that bad luck will come if we don't make it to our final tap) when we were training for our half-marathon in 2012.  At that point I don't think either of us had the conscious thought that we would become writers.  We were both writing, but it feels safe to say that fear and practicality shrouded our intent.   So we set our sights on 13.3 miles and started running.  We built a habit, we discovered that our relationship thrived in the context of a shared goal, we kept running, and we celebrated when we hit our milestone.  The running habit was good for us so we kept on running even after we finished training for the race.  

And still, we did not have in mind that we were writing together.  But after the half-marathon, writing became our shared focus, and since that time our writing lives have changed.  It's not that we are producing more volume (although we might be), but it's that we are putting more of ourselves into the process.   We are writing like it is our life's work, even if that life's work is only celebrated between the two of us.  This level of commitment feels like crossing that bridge in the mist in the photo.  We have no idea where it is going, but we are invested to the point that we have no choice but to cross and find out what's on the other side.  This is scary and good, and I believe it may be just the craziness that propels real artists. 

I never would have gotten to this point without a friend by my side--and not just any friend, but my friend, Laurel.  My friend who has taught me about clean finishes, intelligent process, and precision.  My friend who has been by my side taking one more step, encouraging me to take it to the finish line, to tap the statue.  Every once in awhile we peer around and look at where we are, but it still feels too scary and bad-luckish to say that we are doing the one thing we most wanted to do, but were afraid to admit--which is to become writers.  Instead, fueled by companionship and shared strengths, we satisfy ourselves by taking the next step.

Thank you for all the encouragement and inspiration.  And for sharing a tiny bit of your fiction today. These two quotes popped into my head after reading your blog today.  

"The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one's curiosity like a high-spirited thorough-bred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick sun-struck hills everyday.  Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to none of its magnificent geography, only a length.  It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between."
--Diane Ackerman

"I wrote the last sentence of The Patron Saint of Liars in early April and stumbled out of my apartment and into the beautiful spring feeling panicked and amazed.  There is no single experience in my life as a writer to match that moment, the blue of the sky and the breeze drifting in from the bay.  I had done the thing I had always wanted to do:  I had written a book, all the way to the end.  Even if it proved to be terrible, it was mine."
--Ann Patchett


Monday, March 24, 2014

Celebrate: 2 Years of Sitting

There is a group of us that gets together on Fridays.  We move a little, read a little, and sit a little.  It's not much really--one hour out of the 188 that accrue each week.  And even that tiny slice of time, sometimes we miss it.  We even let ourselves take the summer off.

In our 24/7, always on environment, such a part-time occupation hardly seems worth mentioning, and yet, that 1/188th of the week, repeated over the course of two years, has become a nourishing habit for a small group of us.  If one of us is sitting on a Friday, we know that we will have a partner to sit with.  We are in it together, and that feels good.

We celebrated with yin yoga, zentangles and pink champagne.  Someone who had never led before, took a turn being "in charge."  She was lovely--her voice sounded like a flute.

We'd never done zentangles before.  Our leader showed up with a library book and some supplies:  square paper, pens and pencils.  The instructions were simple.  Using the pencil draw four dots, one in each corner.  Then four lines connecting the dots to make a border.  One pencil dot in the middle and then three pencil lines dividing up the interior space.  Using the pen, you filled in each of the quadrants with whatever kind of doodle struck your fancy.

What amazed me was how beautiful these pieces came out, it is the same way with our sitting.  One of the biggest surprises, to me, of our weekly meet up has been just how beautiful it is.  Always.  No matter what.  Someone arrives with a stem from their garden.  We try a new move.  We light a candle or two, read something sage or gorgeous, and then we sit quietly.  The zentangles seem to capture this kind of beauty too.  A few lines and some doodles on the same sized paper--in black and white--done by a group of folks who are not visual artists--who would have thought it could be so beautiful?

I think both the zentangles and our weekly sitting are pointing at something about creativity.  Both practices suggest that holding a specific kind of space (a simple paper square, or an hour in the week) and showing up with open willingness results in something.  To me this something often looks like beauty.   I think it is related to what Suzuki Roshi calls "nothing special."

"So if you continue this practice, more and more you will acquire something--nothing special, but nevertheless, something."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What else should we ban?

I recently read the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chavez.  Their new initiative, you've probably seen it, is now the Twitter hashtag #banbossy, a social media campaign aimed at preventing girls' and women's strength being pigeon holed into the label bossy.

A lot like she did with Lean In, it feels like Sandberg is calling it like she sees it from the c-suite.  She communicates from her own perspective about the challenges she herself has witnessed.  She participates in a corporate paradigm--and writes and thinks from that point of view.

The corporate paradigm is an aspect that throws up issues for some of us.  Not all of us sit in the c-suite (or want to), not all of us got pigeon holed as bossy.  And so it's can be easy to discount her message, to think it's not for us, or worse to imagine that her point of view diminishes our own choices.

I, for one, am an opt-outer.  I left my corporate job before I even had children.  I thought briefly about going to graduate school before having my third child, but bought a sewing machine instead.  It was right before Christmas.  That fall Gwendolyn had just learned to write her letters, and so for Christmas I had her write each of her grandparents' names in magic marker on a piece of off-white cloth.  Then, in tiny bright stitches, I embroidered over her writing.  Following her hand, I imagined myself crafting a tiny piece of history.  I took those little scraps and sewed them into custom Kindle covers for each of the grandparents.  They were sweet.  And for one Christmas my girls' new words were the gift that mattered.

Clearly not the c-suite.  But there were labels, definitely.

The ones I encountered as a girl were:  oversensitive and emotional.

And then just recently, I took our second daughter to the pediatrician.  For a couple of days she had been phlegmy and coughing.  The next afternoon her face looked a bit ashen, kind of like it did when she had pneumonia last year.  So I called for an appointment.  The receptionist heard my story, and commented that I was using my "mothers' intuition."  

That's a label I seem to be encountering lately:  intuitive.

I must admit, I prefer intuitive to oversensitive or emotional, but it still has an off-the-grid  feel to it.  I'm not sure I want to ban the word intuitive, but it has been interesting to think about other words that could be used instead.  

If I just use a couple of synonyms, my labels sound a lot different:

I am perceptive, connected and smart.

Girlfriends, whether we sit in the C-suite or not, regardless of how we relate to the corporate paradigm, we have been labeled.  Worse than that, some of our most important strengths have been diminished by the words others use to judge and describe who we are.  This labeling thing is about our voice, our visibility, our relationship to our own strength.  It is about the possibility that the culture around us has underestimated the usefulness of our gifts, and that we have, from time to time, accidentally followed suit.

The question #banbossy has raised for me is, what other labels should we be banning?

If it strikes you please share.  We need to be out there supporting one another.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Birthdays

It came to me clearly on Thursday during my first yoga class in awhile.  It was two days before my Birthday, and I was trying to imagine what my mother was doing two days before I was born.  Suddenly it hit me, a picture from nowhere, simple, like a frame in instagram, this snapshot of nine tiny pounds of pink flesh, trailing a magnificent, ethereal fan, vast and absolutely complete.  By all accounts the thing is invisible, but I swear to you, I got a glimpse.  And it was beautiful enough to make you cry right there on the yoga mat.

By no rhyme or reason that the mind could ever figure, my own Birthday was reborn, eight years ago when Chloe pushed her way through the passage on March 3rd, two days after my March 1st.  And from here on out, my Birthday will always be marked as two days before a birth.

This odd bit of numbers and comings and goings of souls pointed out to me that in some regard, I knew exactly what my mother was doing two days before I was born, because somehow, it is always the same--the anticipation, the fullness--my doctor says all us mothers become like over ripe strawberries, weepy to the touch.   Who wouldn't be two nights before touching the mystery?

 And then we arrive, tiny and vulnerable, glittering in cosmic dust.  Our bodies will run and grow and stretch, trying to catch up to the vastness that we could be.  Until we learn the trick of being still.  And even then we will run and run some more, because we just can't believe it could be true, that we arrive complete, trailing a fan of magnificence that is our birthright.  Who would have imagined?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The return trip

When I was young my aunt lived on Maui. We'd fly from New Jersey to visit.  I remember the trip when I was about ten. My father wore corduroy OP shorts, and my mother wore elegant sarongs that she would tie up around her neck.  Skinny like a grasshopper, my brother was impish, refusing to smile for photographs.  We stayed in a beach condo softened by bunches of magenta bougainvillea and a tumble of green lawn.  There was a pool with a black iron gate around it, and on the other side of the bars was the beach and then the Pacific ocean.

We spent long mornings at the beach, mostly in the water.  Swimming was like plunging into a liquid jewel, the water clear and faceted and so lovely it was hard to take your eyes off of it. I stared at my toes in the sand, so many feet down, shimmering in aqua water.  Waves stretched into clear tumbling curves, and when the timing was right I would ride the frothy edge to shore.

When we got hungry, we'd walk to a local beach restaurant that served the best onion rings.  Imagine, the crust was made of crushed up potato chips.  Salty and crunchy on the outside, a little bit sweet and mushy on the inside.  I'd have a banana smoothie with them.  This was before any kid from New Jersey (where we lived at the time) knew what a smoothie was.   The adults drank Mai Tais, which they renamed Bye Byes because they were so strong.

Last week I had the chance to step onto that same beach, in front of the black iron gate, where those very same condos still stand.  The restaurant is gone and there were a few more people on the beach, but everything else was just the same.

Squishing my feet in the sand, I felt a faint tickle in my chest, a fizz like tiny champagne bubbles popping, the cellular memory of joy rising to awareness.  That sensation mingling with the current moment led to a sense that happiness could be layered generation after generation, and that to have born to a line of people who knew how to be happy and anchored that feeling to a place that would outlast all of us, that this was a blessing of unknown proportions.  Maybe this is why, for the past few years, without a plan or without reason, I have been on a series of return trips, revisiting he places where my growing up family taught me how to plant seeds of joy, so that those same seeds can be sown in the next generation.  I do not know what collaboration of fate has offered me the privilege to pass on this learning, but I do know that it is no small thing to know how to be happy, to have learned how to dance with the world and how to love the goodness of every sparkling jewel at your feet.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Love letters

Last month I mentioned that I have been translating my great grandfather's letters.  Here's a little peek into that project.  This is a typewriter produced by Olivetti, the company my great grandfather founded:

The Olivetti Valentine typewriter was released on Valentine's Day in 1969.  You don't need to know a thing about typewriters or about industrial design to feel it's visual impact.  It's like a Ferrari, but with typing keys.  Its clean lines, its color (it actually came in blue and green too, but it is only ever remembered in the red), and it's curved corners pack a memorable punch.   It's portable too, with a stiff red case that slides over the body and snaps onto the back of the type writer, where there is also a built in handle.  Once you've popped it into its outer shell you get to walk down the street with a hot-rod brief case feeling like a poet-spy.

Forty-five years after its release, The Valentine has gotten cooler with age.  If you go to buy one on Etsy, you'll have to spend upwards of $750--and that is without it's must have manual.  ("Dear Valentine, This is to tell you that you are my friend as well as my Valentine, and that I intend to write you lots of letters," it reads.)

At the time it was released, though, it was a commercial failure.  It was priced too high, it didn't sell well and even Ettore Sottsass, the designer on the project, was disappointed in the design.  In an interview years later he compared it to, "a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up."  

But in 1971, only two years after the Valentine's release, it was admitted into MoMA.  Most American design museums followed suit, and this typewriter is a permanent fixture in many contemporary design collections.  More importantly, of all the typewriters that Olivetti produced the Valentine is the most memorable.  So while it failed to make any money, over the arc of time it has proven to be valuable in an entirely other realm, one that feels a lot more like magic.  It is like a dream you can't shake, poking into memory, stirring up emotion and continuing to hang around in an influential way.  It is a piece of art.

My great grandfather died twenty-six years before the Valentine was released.  Some people might say that naturally implies he had nothing to do with that design.  I disagree.  In fact, when you read the first letter I translated in this project, you'll see for yourself it would be difficult to imagine another artifact that so perfectly captures the founding of his company than the Valentine typewriter.  

Here's the letter.  My great grandfather wrote it to his wife Luisa on the occasion of producing his first typewriter in 1908.

Dearest Luigia,

This is the first letter that I'm writing on the new machine and it is with great satisfaction that I dedicate these few lines to you I hope you receive them with pleasure.  The machine isn't perfect yet, but I think in a little time we can make it as well as the best machines of its kind.

A thousand affectionate kisses for you from 

If that isn't a Valentine, I don't know what is.  A message of love carried along by the generations.  Like a child's macaroni art, and all other things worth saving,  it was created with love and saved by love.  And in the saving, some artifacts that might seem worthless in one way succeed in 10,000 ways we could never know.  The Valentine is one of these kinds of things.  

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 10, 2014

More on the question of art

I love this poster that hangs in Eloise's classroom:

If you can't quite make out the words, it says, "Art has the role in education of helping children become more like themselves instead of more like everyone else."

I feel lucky to pass by this message daily.  Figuring out how to become more like ourselves seems a decent reason for anyone at any age to practice making art.  It may also be one of the reasons that prospect of making art, at least as an adult, can feel like running naked through the streets.    

Sometime between second grade and college graduation I digested a set of messages about how to inhabit my own uniqueness that led to an organizing theory about as nuanced as a sledge hammer.  Instead of learning to be more myself, I figured out how to be a lot like everyone else, just a smidge better.  I learned to establish my individuality by excelling in areas that came easily to me.

The main problem with this strategy was how successful it turned out to be.  And along some tree-lined path in Harvard yard I started to feel the pinch of having backed myself into a corner.  I had channeled most of my effort in school around a few academic strengths leaving entire regions of my being untapped by my education.  At times I dipped into small projects that felt silly, like staying up late at night to make anonymous cards with upbeat quotes for schoolmates, or mailing long group letters to my summer camp cabin mates (that I would copy by hand, in sets of 8).  But they felt about as relevant or useful as a pot of daisies at a highway construction site.  The best idea I could come up with to bring together the power tools with the flower pot was to prepare to apply to medical school (you can see how well that worked out).

At the end of four years of college, I had become such a lopsided version of myself, that sometimes I think it has taken the years between then and now to even myself out.  A career as a writer would have been unthinkable to me then.  And I promise you, if one of my friends had told me they wanted to pursue acting, I would have had to wrestle desperately to hide the visible pity and terror I would have felt for them.  

It makes me sad to think how many years passed before I started to find my way out of the corner.  I forgive myself, at least a little, knowing that a similar kind of logic drove Ann Patchett (one of my favorite authors) into writing.   In her most recent collection of essays she explains that she was not a good student at elementary school, and that she knew she wanted to be a writer, at least in part, because she struggled with pretty much everything else.  She went with an effective strategy, but it makes me wonder, is this the best way for a culture to select for its artists?

Years ago, before a trip to New York City, my mom asked me if I would be interested in seeing the revival production of Eugene O'Neil's play, A Long Day's Journey into Night with her.  Having been away from New York and out of the theatre scene for sometime, the first thing that registered was that this downer of a production was a full four hours long.  I could already imagine my head bobbing in the darkened theatre.  But out of filial obligation I agreed to join her (note to self:  may I be as kind as my own mother when the day my adult daughters show up this clueless).

The night of the performance we made our way to our seats, which were in about the fifth row, at center stage.  The theatre glowed with an amber light, and the air hummed with anticipation as throngs of fellow audience members took their place for the evening.  By that time I had learned that the production included Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.   Nevertheless I still feared that I'd fall asleep.  And then, something surprising happened. Claire Danes and Meryl Streep sat down next to each other in the row in front of us.

The next four hours were a hypnotic journey, so intimate I felt I had become part of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.  The world fell away, and the only thing left was their dark panged living room  brought to life by four plainly dressed actors on a set so minimal I hardly remember it.  The acting was so compelling, especially the performance from Hoffman, that when the performance ended all my mother and I could do was sit there in stunned silence.  Claire Danes and Meryl Streep did the same.  

Forever after that, I felt a certain closeness with Hoffman.  Not that we were friends, but that I knew he had shared generously with me.  I walked away from the theatre carrying a gossamer swath of him.   His burly voice, his blue eyes, and a certain intensity of presence not too unlike thunder as it rolls in during a summer storm, were all woven into a sheer veil that I was allowed to keep.  The feeling was strange, but unmistakable.  I absorbed something from him that night that is still with me today.  So when the actors returned to the stage for the curtain call, I joined the whole theatre in a riot of tears and applause, a roar of live gratitude the likes of which I have never experienced since.

Carrying this sheer cloak of him within me, I lament his death like the death of someone I actually knew.  The loss feels shockingly personal.  And yet it still does not quite account for how I find myself pulled over to the side of the road, crumpled over the steering wheel weeping.  It feels a little crazy, to be cracked this way by a Hollywood story.  

And then I think of Eloise and Ruby, and the poster that watches over them like an angel, telling them every day to become more like themselves.  I think of how they pass their days cocooned, protected by kind women and unlimited supplies of paper, paint, glue and markers. All day long they work their little hands as a trail of art streams behind them. I realize that I am weeping for them, weeping for all the art they will not make, for the way the art supplies will dwindle from the classroom year after year, how the prevailing culture will corner them, and how without knowing it I will participate in the process.  As sit in my minivan on the side of the road, I realize that I can do better. I promise the gods or my ancestors or whoever is kind enough to be watching over me that I will be brave, I will even run naked through the streets if I have to, to prove that we can make art that reflects who we are and live to tell the tale.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ruby's not an artist

The other day I was dropping Eloise off at school and one girl at the art table had an announcement to make.  "I am an artist" she proclaimed.  I think I said something dopey and neutral like, "How wonderful, this class must have many artists," to which the student replied, "No, Ruby's not an artist.  She just does scribbles."

I lost a little breath, as if I were Ruby, the four year old who was just told she was not an artist.  I sat there dumbly, unarmed with a proper response.  This felt like such a wrong thing, for one four year old to tell another four year old what they could not be.  I fumbled on.

"I think many artists scribble.  Many famous artists work has a lot of scribbling in it." It was a pitiful response, failing on a number of fronts, not the least of which was defending little Ruby.  

Eloise, piped up and said, "I'm an artist.  I make lots of pictures."

"Yes, Eloise, you do.  You are an artist,"  and then I added, feeling fraudulent,  "I am an artist too."

The other girl looked up from her colored blocks, right at me and told it to me straight. "No you're not."

"How do you know?"

"Because my mom is a doctor and she goes to a real doctor place to see people." 

She turned her back and walked away.

A day or two later, I recalled that over Thanksgiving break I met someone who introduced himself as an artist.  Graham, the girls, and I were guests at a friend's "holiday leftovers" lunch.  I found myself sitting next to a man about my age, maybe a bit older, with curly red hair, glasses, and a rumpled plaid shirt.  When I asked him how he spent his time, he told me he was an artist.

On hearing the word artist, my presence of mind split into layers.  Inside snippy commentary bombarded me:  that's kind of pretentious to introduce himself as an artist, is he professional, does he make money at this, or have a grant, or is he kind of faking it, like he wants to be an artist, and he makes stuff in a studio, living off a trust fund or something.  It was not a kind narrative.

Outside I asked, "So what do you make?"

He described making things out of found items.  Out of old tires, a used up couch and his grandmother's cushion that he had saved because no one else in the family wanted it. Stepping into what felt like common ground, I told him, "I make things out of fabric I save too, like from the girls' baby clothes."

He turned a few degrees in my direction, and tilted his head.  "You do?  Wow, what do you make?"  And from an undivided place I described sewing Christmas ornaments out of old nightgowns.  He listened carefully, asked a few more questions, and in the light of his kind attention, my previous confusion, along with its edge, evaporated.

Back at preschool, Eloise sits at the art table.  She has a pink marker in her hand, and edges it along the paper.  "Mama, it's me and you.  And there is Hawaii." I ask her a few questions about her drawing, looking carefully at the sharp corners and swift turns of her lines.   I spend a bit of extra time, allowing us the luxury of lingering in a conspiracy of art.  She shows me her work, I receive and enjoy it, and somewhere in between she has become the artist she claims herself to be.