Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: Paradise in Plain Sight

I finished Paradise in Plain Sight in three sittings.  I read it the way hungry people stuff themselves at an all you can eat buffet.  I piled up the pages, devoured them all, and rolled away round and full.  The meal was that good. 

If you are hungry, if you yearn for the thing that is missing in your life, if you wonder why your life is taking so long or why there isn't more time, if every once in a while you tire of feeling anxious or confused or put upon....This book makes for one delicious, nutritious meal.

As in Maezen's previous books, Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold, she offers up her life with generous honesty.  When someone asks her daughter what it's like to have a Zen priest for a mom, her daughter tells it straight up, "She yells a lot."  After buying a new house, our guide/heroine experiences that, "peculiar misery that follows as soon as you're handed what you asked for."  Later in the book she describes how she's spent a long stretch of her life living as though there were two versions of herself--one version, the as-is model, and the other version, the much-improved model.  "I am taunted by her perfection," she says. Sound familiar?  The point here is that she's a lot more like the rest of us than her Zen robes might make you think.

And at the same time, she is a sensei.  She is ahead on the path and is shining a light along the way.  Her guidance comes in the form of poetic language, "You have to rely on a sliver of moonlight, because half of every day is night," instruction, "the best place to practice is a place you don't want to be, using time you don't think you have," and straight forward presentation of Buddhist dharma concepts.  

I know, I know, you're not a Buddhist.  But here's the thing, the word dharma is often translated as truth, and can have a capital T--truth kind of a feel to it.  My experience of it is more basic than that.  Dharma feels like firm ground, it is the way things are, it is the stuff that holds steady over time and in every kind of weather.  You know it when you encounter it whether it comes from Jesus, the Buddha or Captain Picard.  So spare yourself wondering whether or not "Lessons from a Zen garden," are for you.  They are. 

With that, I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages:

"Don't worry about a thing.  It's the garden that makes the gardener, not the other way around.  All you have to do is show up."

Monday, April 21, 2014

I owe you this much

Here they are, the three Spencer sisters, invading my nephew's playroom.  August Camillo is not yet two, and my three basically took over his joint for Easter.  There was no golden crown rising, no poetry lesson, no moment of evanescent insight or beauty.  Nope, not this Easter.  There was too much chocolate, a fierce case of the "gimmees" about the too much chocolate, and a lot of grabbing to boot.

The four year old did a face plant, the second in two weeks.  A whole new shiner to explain to the pre-school teachers.  When she wasn't crying, she was lobbing stuffed animals over the side of the loft, aimed directly at my brother's mother-in-law's head.  I'm not sure what you call the mother-in-law of your brother--she is something like a mother-in-law once removed to me or something along those lines. But no matter, what I can call her is kind.  "Oh, I'm fine," she kept saying with a smile on her face as the next squirrel bomb hit her on the head.

And then there was this, Eloise's knock, knock joke to end all knock, knock jokes:

Knock Knock.
Who's there?
Hammer who?
Hammer his penis.

Yep, that happened on Easter.

And then I promptly fell asleep on the couch.  I only woke up because the phone in my pocket was ringing.  It was my Aunt Virginia calling from New York, she'd been trying to get in touch with someone, anyone to exchange Happy Easters, but no one else had their phone on them that afternoon.  "At least there's someone there today who's taking responsibility," she said.  "No one else is answering their phone."

Virginia, thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt.  It was undeserved.

I tell you all this, because, I just want you to know how it really is, and how I really am--falling asleep on the couch.  

I want you to have the whole picture, because the truth is, I see unspeakable beauty everywhere, but you'll never believe me, if you don't know whole picture--how I fall asleep on the couch, how I swear like a sailor, how my kids bicker fiercely,  how one lied to me, and how the first place my mind went was to pin it on her friend--just like that, so swift, "my kid would never do that," so wrong-headed.  I missed an important meeting, I dropped off my kid and someone else's at art class without waiting to see if they walked through the door.  They didn't.  The teacher never showed and I left them there for two hours unattended in the middle of town.  I was responsible for all that.  And that was just this weekend.

You see what I'm getting at? I just want to make sure you get the whole of it.  The golden crown rising was no fiction.

Friday, April 18, 2014

On the Occasion that a Few Olivetti Adventures Eclipse

Cosmic overlap was the theme this week.  In the sky we had the Blood Moon eclipse, and here on the ground in Palo Alto, we encountered our own kind of weird overlap.  I think of it as the Olivetti Adventure Eclipse.

I was going to wait to post about our recent trip to Yosemite until I felt more sure about how to piece it together. But on the eve of hemming and hawing and holding back, the TV show The Amazing Race, featured an Olivetti M20 Scuola as part of a “speed bump” element to the race.  The show was in Rome and two sisters had to pick up the typewriter at the Pantheon and deliver it to the “Typewriter” building, the Altare della Patria.  

Camillo would have rolled his eyes at the idea of his typewriter paired up with a building that most Italians think is brutto and that he, himself, must have thought was an architectural abomination.  But he would have liked the publicity and he would have laughed at the show, just the way he did after a theatre production in Minneapolis in 1893.

“For me, however, the audience made a bigger impression than the show, this childish group [the American audience] is so moved and so identified with this impossible drama that they cheer for the good guys and boo for the bad guys.  It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world from Rome, we were having our own version of an Olivetti adventure.  After 17 years of trying to book a room in Yosemite, I finally succeeded this past January.  I got two rooms at the Ahwahnee for April 8-11.  After a quick fist pump to celebrate my coup, I proceeded to spend the next two months imagining that April, for sure, was a terrible time to go. How else could we have gotten rooms?  Would it rain? Or snow? Or both?   

I should have known better.  

The week before we drove off in our van, my day by day translation revision work arrived at the Yosemite letter.  And I discovered that we would be in Yosemite within a week of when Camillo had been there 120 years ago.  Barring the California drought we would be seeing the same patches of snow, the same waterfalls surging with snowmelt.  I’m sure it could have rained or snowed or both, but it didn’t--not for us and not for Camillo.

I don’t know why I ever doubt this project, but I still sometimes do.  My word for the year is practice, so I practice trusting, but with trust if you’re practicing it, I don’t think you’re actually doing it--but that’s another blog post.

What follows is my best attempt at blocking out the story, mine and his together.  Forgive me. It is a draft and it is long.  I will still be your friend if you decide you don’t have time to slog through it.  But I will love you more if you do ;-) LOL.  I am standing so close to the material it’s like being a nose length away from a Pissaro or Monet--hard to see what you’re looking at exactly--so any eyes that have distance on the work are much appreciated.  

My journal appears in normal text and Camillo’s is in italics.

Thanks to everyone who even as much as glances at the pictures.  Your attention is nothing less than love itself.  Thank you.

April 18, 2014

120 years ago today, Camillo wrote home from Yosemite, CA. It sounds like a long time ago, and I feel that length of time in my great grandfather's absence. And yet at the foot of Half Dome with a piece of paper in my hand, 120 years ago is hardly yesterday. Camillo is gone but he speaks to me everyday. More than that, a few minutes a day, I rewrite his words and become that young man. In Yosemite I hop on a bike and ride through the woods, I smell the pine, I listen for the rushing waters. I stop and wet my feet in the Merced's waters, nearly at his orders, and something of him is so close I can feel it, a voice in my head, a cloak of awareness, and the hum thump of my pulse, a steady beat reminding me that more of my life will be spent in Camillo's form than in the body that I wear today. Most of my life I will be be spent as a figment, an echo, if I'm lucky, a word on a page salvaged by a great-grand-daughter.

April 8, 2014

I had the idea that we would be following right in Camillo's footsteps, up until two days before leaving, when Eloise developed some kind of urinary tract infection, or other kind of "pee pee problem" that had us headed to the bathroom every ten minutes.  We zipped to the pediatrician.   Tests for all the usual suspects turned up negative and we so we headed to Yosemite hoping for the best.  Ten minutes outside of Palo Alto we stopped at Toys R Us to purchase one of those small plastic training potties (ironically, the green one we had for so many years had been sent to Goodwill less than a month ago) and a pair of rainbow/neon light up sneakers I hoped Eloise would agree to wear since lately every single pair of her shoes has been causing cartoonish scenes where the four year old thrashes on the floor all arms and legs and no, no, no.  

We tested out the plastic potty in the van parked in front of Toys R Us.  Success!  And got on the road.  

We arrived in Yosemite at about 6PM after many, many pit stops along the way.  In just the first few minutes arriving in the valley (at least at this time of the year) you get the sense that you have arrived in a magical place--the towering monolithic cliffs, pine trees as big as you’ve ever seen, and many flowing waterfalls.  At the first sight of a waterfall, we pulled the van over to have a look.  We were late for our dinner reservations, but we didn't care...none of us had ever seen a waterfall so big.  Graham and the big girls ran across the road and onto a bridge to get a good look, while I helped Eloise with the potty again, following the rest of the crew a few minutes behind.  The sun was low and threw a shafts of light on the gushing water.  For about a minute everyone was quiet taking it all in--and then it became obvious, in that way that it does with little ones, that it was time to get the family to dinner.  To keep everyone occupied we continued to listen to XM radio--Classic, Are you gonna stay the night, etc were our soundtrack driving into the park--a trip which really would have preferred a good John Williams symphony.

We hopped back in the van and headed to the Ahwahnee where we had booked rooms.  

The Ahwahnee is nestled into the soaring granite cliffs.  When you look at the lodge there is a small, seasonal waterfall to the right, and to the left the massive Yosemite Falls thunder in the distance.  If you turn around and put your back to the lodge, you look across the valley to Half Dome.  At sunset, light painted across the curved dome reaching up into the sky, it was like a fresco of a sunset inside a sunset.  One of my first thoughts was that John Muir made a lot of sense when he called Yosemite Valley a Cathedral.  

For our small crew who went to Disneyland before Yosemite, it looked a lot like God had been copying Walt Disney.

Yosemite Valley, April 18, 1894

Dear mother,

As you can see from the amazing header of this paper, I am in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, in this tiny slice of Paradise that is called the Yosemite Valley.  How did we get here?  This is the somewhat difficult problem that I solved in a rather elegant and economic, if not comfortable, way.  Yosemite is a little valley ten or twelve kilometers long and one or two wide that encloses so much natural beauty that it is one of the wonders of the world.  The valley is 1300 meters above sea level and it is more or less perfectly flat in the length and width of it.  But if the valley is flat, the road that gets you here here is not at all short or flat, it climbs for about about 40 kilometers and then descends many mountains and valleys.  After many comings and goings the road finally falls steeply into the valley.   Because it was built in such difficult circumstances, the road is beautiful, although very dusty.  It’s owned and maintained by a “stage company” that owns a few good hotels along the road into the valley.  In general, travelers depart from Bereuda, a little village on the Los Angeles-San Francisco rail-line, and then continue by train to the last stop, a town called, Raymond.  After an overnight stay in Raymond and two days in the stage, they arrive in the valley where they can stay as long as they want until they head back to Raymond.

There is no other option but the stage company, and they charge fifty dollars for the trip, without accounting for the cost of a hotel in the valley (four dollars a day) in the price.  As you can see, it’s a bit of a hefty fee, so I decided to make my way a little slower (and more economically) with my bike.  Am pleased to say I succeeded quite well.

The road from Raymond climbs slowly at first and then more rapidly ending at a place called Grub Gulch.  The view isn’t great and the soil is more or less dry.  I did the road a little by foot, and a bit by bicycle without stopping much because I was flying trying to find my way to the Ahwahnee, which is a little group of houses about 34 kilometers from Raymond.  I was trying to get there before night because I’ve heard that these mountains are well populated by rattle snakes.  They are are much less terrible than legend has it, because they never attack humans; they alert you with their rattle many meters before you run the risk of getting very close to them.  The only really terrible case is when one unconsciously steps on a snake that is sleeping, in which case one runs the risk of dying.  Otherwise in general they flee or at the very least they don’t ever follow humans.  I did see one about a meter long and it was half dead, probably killed by a vulture.  

I arrived at Grub Gulch around midday.  I had lunch there and rested a bit, then I did another four or five kilometers of climbing to a village whose name I don’t remember.   When I got there I encountered the good news that only two or three miles separated me from the Ahwahnee.  I walked and rode for a half hour, but at the end of the final descent I didn’t find the Ahwahnee, instead I found another climb.  I was disappointed, because I it made me think that the people I met had deceived me.  But despite that, I continued for an hour when I finally ran into a cabby who told me that I had taken the wrong road and I had taken the only road that didn’t lead to the Ahwahnee.  I turned around and finally I found myself in the middle of a beautiful hotel where I devoured an exquisite meal in the company of the owner and two young ladies who lived there.  This hotel is the hotel in which travelers who take the stage eat.

April 9, 2014

The next day we hired a guide to take us on a hike (Camillo never would have relied on someone else to show him around--in one letter he says something like, I've learned the hard way that it's better to get the map yourself than ask someone else for directions).  This is not the first time we've hired a guide to take us someplace, and the moment of meeting the person who is assigned to our rag-tag kid crew can be tense for me.  I always request someone who is good with kids, but sometimes, some places, those people don't exist.  In this case we lucked out, our guide, Sam, had run the children's program in Yosemite last season.  He knew a lot about the park, but more importantly, knew a hiking route that would work for us.  He didn't even seem too surprised when we packed the potty into the bottom of the jogging stroller!

We rambled along the trail to Mirror Lake, making potty stops along the way.  The rule was that we had to be 100 feet away from the trail and 100 feet from the river, so Eloise and I were always leaving the group.  At one point, we headed to the woods and I stopped in my tracks.  A small bobcat was right in front of us.  I had read about the bobcats and mountain lions--and the advice that stuck with me was to keep small children close to the adults.  I quickly grabbed Eloise's hand and backed away, keeping my eye on the cat.  "Guys, bobcat, bobcat, bobcat..." I kept saying.  It was exciting to see it, but a little too exciting until I got back to the trail and could take the wildlife scene in from a safe distance.   I had to chuckle that the plastic potty ended up being the key to our most exciting wilderness adventure yet!

April 10, 2014

On the second day,  we split into two groups.  Graham, Chloe and Gwendolyn took a rock climbing lesson with a guide named Miranda, and I rented a bike with a trailer for Eloise and me.  She and I visited the Lower Yosemite Falls in the morning, and then went into Yosemite Village to buy sandwiches for ourselves and our rock climbing crew.  Our plan was to meet Graham and the girls at the rock climbing site for lunch.

This idea was more difficult to execute than I expected it to be, since the rock climbing location was just a cliff off a trail.  There were no signs, and even the landmarks that did have signs were far from the cliff they were climbing.  Graham had dropped a waypoint using Google maps, but cell coverage in the Valley isn’t great, and so it was difficult to make use of it.  At one point, I realized that we had overshot the location by about a mile (which had all been downhill), and after some swearing, turned the bike and trailer around to retrace my pedaling, now uphill in the eighty degree heat.  

After lunch, Eloise and I continued our bike tour of the Valley.  As we stopped for yet another potty break, I felt deflated.  I had had a fantasy of what it would be like to see Yosemite through Camillo’s eyes.  I imagined some spiritual communion between him and me, that I would hear his voice, or feel his ghost leading me around, and here I was at the potty again.  The difference between him at twenty on his bike, and me at forty with my three kids and husband, felt like a huge chasm--and the idea that it could be crossed felt like naive wishful thinking.

The way was totally uphill for about 12 kilometers, and then was varied with a little uphill then a little downhill.  The temperature was pretty cold and when I arrived at an elevation of about 2200 meters above sea level, there were several feet of snow in the small coves protected from the sun.  I followed the way a little by foot and a little by bike, but it wasn’t bad because the way was superb.  In the middle of the road I ran into the coach that was returning from the valley and the travelers told me about the marvels of their trip.

At two I finished a long ascent near a hut that belonged to a worker who maintains the road.  He told me he lived there for more than 14 years both summer and winter in the company of a magnificent dog.  I had lunch and made my friend very happy with a shot of my fine whiskey.  It’s fair to say that I’ve never drunk as much whiskey in my life as I did in these two days

We did finally get back on the bike for the ride.  I wanted to ride as close to Vernal Falls and Brideveil falls as I could, since Camillo had climbed in to see them.  I followed a route I had charted out on a paper map I was carrying in my pocket.  About half way through, right as I was about to get closer to the falls, there was a sign that said “road closed, shuttles and service vehicles only.”  Huh.  

In what was probably a poor judgement call on my part, I decided to ride carefully on, promising myself that I would turn back if the way seemed dangerous at all.  From what I could see the road was clear and paved.  A shuttle bus drove by and I decided to follow it.

The way was shady and cool, I called back to Eloise to see how she was doing.  I turned to look over my shoulder and saw that she had fallen asleep, and for the first time since being in Yosemite I felt the blanket of solitude wrap around me.  I rode silently, paying close attention for anything that seemed like it could cause danger, but there was nothing.  Just a wide paved road in the woods.  There was the sound of rushing water, the smell of pine needles, and the damp cool of thick shade.  I passed the trail heads to Brideveil and Nevada falls, feeling the tug of wanting to go exactly where Camillo went, but rode on, Eloise sound asleep and quiet.

She woke up when we met up with Graham and the girls.  It had been a big day for all of us.

April 11, 2014

The next morning we left the Ahwahnee to go see the big trees of Mariposa Grove.

It was a bit of a walk from the parking lot to the Grizzly Giant, and the girls were not in the mood.  There was a lot of grousing after a restless nights sleep and the exhaustion of the rock climbing the day before.  But Graham and I forced them along in what was turning out to be an unpleasant march.  At one point Eloise and Gwendolyn “went boneless” and planted themselves on the ground, refusing the march on.  Chloe, who had read about the giant actually wanted to see it, so she and Graham forged ahead.  I stayed behind with Gwendolyn and Eloise.  Part of me was angry and part of me was resigned, so I decided to take a breather.  We played that alphabet game...I went to the store and bought...A-Apple, B-banana, etc.  By the time we got to R, Chloe and Graham returned triumphant.  This made such an impression on Gwendolyn that she changed her mind and rose to the occasion.  Of course, now Eloise was mad that she wasn’t going to get to see the big tree, but we needed to make tracks in order to get home in time for dinner with Nonny, so Eloise will have to see the Grizzly Giant some other time.  

The walk was worth it, and I think that G will remember the sight of the Grizzly Giant for a long time to come.

"The trip went pretty well" I think to myself.

Among trees, the red manzanita with its winding branches and the american pine with its straight trunk take first place.  The road climbs until an altitude of about 2000 meters above sea level and then for about four or five kilometers remains more or less level.  Tiny houses are found along the road, only a few huts and even then only a few are inhabited.  Prudently, I brought my own modest lunch and a small bottle of whiskey, so I didn’t get hungry.  At 2:30 I had done 17 miles and I only had 4 more to go, all descending, when I came to a fork in the road leading to Wawona, my goal for the day.  Wawona is the other to a big park that is home to gigantic Sequoias, which after a few giants in Australia, are the largest on earth.  I had time, so I took the other road and after an hour or more in descent I came to the big trees.  There are about a hundred, a few taller and a few shorter, but all are a respectable size.  The tallest of all rises about 90 meters above sea level, but its trunk is not the most mammoth.

The “grizzly” is the one of all the trees that has the largest diameter (about 10 meters at the base).  However, the biggest impression this live giant made on me was from a much smaller trunk (around 5 meters at the base) that was lying on the ground in its entire immense length.  In addition to these giants Mariposa Hill (that’s the name of the place) has a huge amount of other trees, all of a respectable size.  The forest that covers these mountains made me think of the ones I admired in Washington state.

The same night I took the train as far as Bereuda, where I spent the night, and Sunday morning I left for Sacaramento where I arrived the same night.

The trip went pretty well. The line crosses the Sierra Nevada mountains and the landscape is beautiful at many points, however a type of roof for the snow lined about sixty meters of the way, blocking one of the best views.

Tomorrow morning I’ll go to the Post Office to see if there are some letters and then I’ll close this eternal one of mine which is also addressed to uncle and Emma.

Lots of love to uncle.  Kisses to Emma, Carlo and the children.  Greetings to Ep Tom and all our friends.

Kisses from


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