The year we moved into this huge house, I decided to take full advantage of the room we christened “the atelier”. I had every intention of picking up expressive practices that I’d abandoned over the years – for oh-so-many-reasons.

But I stopped attending the local croquis group after only a few months. All of the models were thin, 20-something women in “pretty” poses. Straight lines, and little movement.

It was both boring and demoralising.

I packed away my sketchbooks.


As an undergrad I studied studio art for a couple of years before switching majors. I remember one model from life drawing class who was tall, slim and in her twenties. She posed with a great deal of confidence. And though she was nude, her poses were always discreet.

During breaks, she would slip on her robe and make a round talking specifically to the young men in the class. She inspected the work on their easels to see how how they interpreted her body in charcoal. Sometimes she would put her hand on their shoulders and lean in, breathing in their ears. Her little ritual made many of them visibly uncomfortable.

It made me feel uncomfortable for – what I must presume were – entirely different reasons.

The power-play of subject/object is much more complex than we tend to consider. I suppose in part because our culture is quick to conflate beauty with sex appeal, and sex appeal with power.

Thinking now: Maybe it was fortunate that I was accustomed early to being invisible among the tall, slim beauties in the room. I never considered myself the subject, nor the object (or ornament) – but an observer. It makes aging that much easier.

However, as an observer I have not always been kind in my interpretations.

And I’ve often shamed myself into the corners of the world – for oh-so-many-reasons.


I remember another model who also posed for us in that life drawing class. She would would always wear a floppy sun hat, and she’d wink at us. Sometimes, she’d stand on her head during the 2-minute sketches. She was – I’m thinking now – probably in her 50s. Thinking then? She was “an old lady”.

And truth be told, her unabashed comfort with her own body made the majority of us visibly uncomfortable. Her poses were in no way discreet. Sometimes I would move my easel to another spot just to avoid having to confront her sex full-on.

Now? How I wish I’d asked her out for coffee.

It is a beautiful thought: lessons can be learned long after the teacher has left our lives.


The artistry in any medium lies in the work’s ability to evoke synesthesia. Each work is dependent upon each viewer’s subjective experiences – and the meanings we assign to them – for its claim as a work of art. We are each ultimately responsible for giving it life from our own lives.

And if – at any point in time – we think we see an objective reflection of the world as it is: a true work of art? Well, … there is no such thing as the world-as-it-is. There is no such thing as a point-in-time, because time exists in memory, so neither travels in a straight line. The world curves back on itself, folding over and over – always indiscreet in exposing the accumulation of what has come before – coming closer and closer to the wholeness of life, to Beauty.


Life Drawing

Ornamentation is not substance.
And the world will always shake off ornamentation.
It will distort the straight lines we work so hard to impose on it.

There is power in rejecting the consensual idea of beauty.
Rejecting it unabashedly.
Because that is acknowledging the substance of one’s own experience.


This is my ars poetica.

I used to have a bag of clay in the corner of my atelier here at the house. Which didn’t make much sense since the room was set up for bookbinding. For a year maybe -as a form of meditation – I made tiny begging bowls that I would return to the bag of clay each day.

The bag of clay dried out before long.

wp-1467116767648.jpgI haven’t really worked with clay since I was 13. I had an art teacher then who let me use the kick-wheel during lunch breaks. Mr. Shannon didn’t teach or instruct me that year. He was my mentor.

Once he gave me a set of watercolors and a salt shaker and said, Get at it.

Once he made a blind so I couldn’t see the paper while I drew my own hand, and I have been fascinated by the tactile quality of lines ever since.

Later I learned that Edouard Manet said there are no lines in nature. That is because line is a language. And, like my grasp of Norwegian, here my comprehension far exceeds my composition skills.

Another time, Mr. Shannon asked me to describe all the colors I could see in a white hat – worn by a cowboy in a Marlboro ad in a Smithsonian magazine –  if I remember correctly.

Not even black and white are black & white.

At the end of that year, my life was uprooted (again), and I lost whatever I was connecting to then. But the desire remains even now.

When I experience nostalgia, it is like this: small moments of half-discoveries. And nostalgia’s inherent fear of the unmet potentials.

Still, everytime I hold a rough piece of ceramic I am flooded with a calming and full ambivalence. There are days I wonder why I’ve not thrown out all of the dishes and settled with a few scratchy, glazed bowls and a few wooden spoons.

I suppose this really is the very definition of nostalgia? If I ever won the lottery, I would have a second, tiny home made of roughly-hewn cedar – and I would fill it with wool and beeswax.

Cinder block frightens me.

But so does snow.

img_20161007_095640Paper can make me weep with grief.

Handling old books is cathartic. And I cannot – and don’t want to – explain it.

I trace marginalia with my finger.

*

Last year I asked E. to give me Play Doh for Christmas. Now I have a small plastic box on my desk. It smells like my childhood: plastic.

Plastic/plastique/amorphous.

I suppose my experience is more associative than it is synaesthetic.

I hold the Play doh. I squeeze it like a stress ball.

I make ephemeral, unnaturally green begging bowls.

Truth be told: I am still too timid to leave a begging bowl – of any kind – in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear R.

I’ve been doing fine with these physically-distanced months. In part because I’ve been ridiculously busy and focused on everyone else’s needs. That’s good for me: focusing on everyone else’s needs.  Now the year is winding down. I have less to do, and to notice the pile of books on my desk that I meant to read, the list of letters I meant to write – that play still unfinished.

I scroll through the apps on my phone, and take in all the anger and the fear there.

Then I worry about everyone else again with a new kind of suspicion – I worry about what they think of me, or want from me in a way that is not good for me. I want to fix things that are not mine to fix. And then feel ashamed for having the arrogance to think I could, or should. When I scroll through social media I feel helplessly disconnected: Socially distanced.

I’m not missing being in the office, but I am missing seeing my friends face to face – more than I usually miss them. You are all so far away. And some of you (not naming names) are fully engaged in very real political battles on your home turf.

I have to remind myself I’ve never really lived in a world where I can call up someone on the weekend, settle into a deep, leather chair with a glass of wine, and have a good laugh. Do those little pockets exist for more than a moment or two, every few years? Where the company of friends really makes you forget the world’s bickering and reaffirms what you thought about people being clever/kind and genuinely wanting one another to thrive?

I watch too much television. Have picked up and moved on too often. Or maybe I’m too stiff from scarring. We all are.  No: some of us are. Some of us need a patient easing into social interaction. A deep, leather chair. Wine.

I should buy a deep, leather chair.

It is starting to dawn on me that I cannot travel this year. It wasn’t even a year ago I visited B. in Colorado. It seems like so many years ago. I was planning on to see you and M. this summer when I headed to London to be with the kid for a while. It makes me sad to think about it.

This summer we’ll go hiking. Not terribly far, but with a sincere intention of fremmedgjøring – out of the range of mobile phone coverage.

I have a strange desire to lug something heavy on my back so that I can put it down at the end of the day. I want to see something besides the yard and the same 4 kilometre stretch of trail along the lake.

Until then – until the grades have been logged and the students sent off –  I’m starting a garden. When I say “I”, I mean E. is sawing down the overgrown thuja to make room for the tiny greenhouses.  I’ll try to grow chilies and tomatoes.

Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro.

There is a space he is clearing along the southern side of the house where I’m going to plant raspberry bushes and apple trees.

It upsets me a little to consider that the trees might not take root.

I have a desire to do something that matters. Like growing things. I have a fear that even on this tiny scale, I won’t be able to do it right.

So I am procrastinating and blaming the weather. I’m blaming the weather for the melancholy, too.

For some reason I keep thinking about the Italians – months ago now – who spontaneously sang together from their balconies. Not for each other, but with each other.

Is there a really good word for this feeling it brings up in me? I know other people felt it. Because they tried so hard to repeat it.

This is a kind of grasping, isn’t it?

You know, way back in 2001 people were celebrating Earth Day. Everyone in the world was supposed to turn off the electricity and light a candle. A few days later someone got the idea that we all had to do it again so we could take a picture from space. I remember this because I wrote about it in a poem about 9/11. The aspect of the (meta-) performativity of our “Humanity”.

I’m not alone in struggling to just let it be. And let it come.

img_20200526_182658_7655223821023366188865.jpgDo you know what I mean when I say now that I think of Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to be part of any club that would have me?

These days I’m struggling to be human. I would much rather be Leonard Edgar. He doesn’t care what anyone expects of him.

He doesn’t have a facebook account.

I’ve been missing you. Hoping you are ready for a good summer. Wondering how you are really…

-ren

 

 

 

 

 

Moving closer to the Finisterre-


Afterthoughts on a month of focused meditations. Our guide asks us to consider what lies under our actions.

Underthoughts – it should be a word. Norwegians have the world baktanker – literally back-thoughts. I like the image of thoughts that push us through the world. But google translates the word as ulterior motives, which is the what it really means, of course. Still, I like having this literal understanding of the language as a kind of tool for thinking.

One of the delightful things about having learned a second language as an adult is how an ignorance of connotation invites me to took more closely into how language is inseparable from context. And how context so often is a matter of attributing intention on other people’s actions. So not knowing connotation gives me an almost scientific tool for my ruminations. But translating the ideas into a functioning language can be difficult.

Speaking of rumination, the cows are still in the barns. It seems odd to run along the lake in the early morning –  the sun already up – and find the fields so empty. The cattle have to eat all the harvested feed from last autumn before they’re let out to graze. These days away from routine – sporadic runs at odd times – have pulled me out of the flow of the seasons. The route is a shocking green.

Today we didn’t get to the lake until the crows had left. I’ve never considered their cawing ominous, but I have to admit the songbirds provide a might lighter soundtrack for the morning.

I decided to join this virtual Camino for two reasons. I’ve wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago for years now. In part to say I’ve done it: like running a marathon, or climbing a mountain. And in part for the contemplation it affords – demands. I don’t have photos or calluses or bragging rights here at the end. No stamped passport. But I put in the spiritual work.

When I began I had considered myself as being in a liminal state. But what I’ve come to realize is that there is no other state of being. There is no good reason to think of life as a series of stasis points with periods of growth – or with periods of decay – between them.

“The only constant in life is change”-Heraclitus.

I see it as a kind of responsibility. And I guess I have the existentialists to thank for that. Coasting between periods of effort is a nice little illusion. But maybe it’s been a linguistic problem for me – this word: growth.

I’ve heard far too often people saying things like “I am too old to … “, “Set in my ways…”, as though once the body stops growing we just “are”. Are – or am – is a decision, an attempt at stasis.

The word growing implies a destination – we grow into something. Intentionally or haphazardly. When we talk of spiritual growth we seem to be conversing within a context of hierarchy. We are rising, attaining, and improving. This way of thinking has an inherent judgement. Better than.

I like to think that I am better than I was at 18. At 30. Even better than I was two months ago. But I’ve probably lost good aspects of myself, too. Is there really a point in summing up and measuring my life against some kind of rubric?

What if I just stay in it. And trust that I am growing into death, into mushrooms, into trees.

Bragging requires someone else to listen; I doubt the trees give a damn.

So – circling back to the beginning – what is underneath what moves me through life? It seems awfully dark to say the inevitability of death and the paradoxical desperation for meaning, and for acceptance.

But that’s all I’ve got for now.

Looking forward to the cows to be let out of the barns – for whatever reason.

The 33rd – and final – day of the virtual Camino. 


I’m still searching for the actual Latin, but our guide tells us the gist of words scribbled along the actual trail is that we can never arrive, because we are already there.

And I keep trying to remember which poet said the purpose of the journey is to understand that there was never any need for the journey.

But maybe that was just Frank Baum?


When I planned to join this virtual Camino, I very much wanted to walk the distance of each leg each day. But that wasn’t possible, so I made a complex calculation based on my half-marathon running times, and found a number of hours I could devote to the “distance” each day. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have a job during Norway’s “Safer-in-Place” effort – a increasingly demanding job. I’ve put in longer days at the computer, and had fewer hours for the physical journey. I’ve been sick. I’ve been blue.

But the fact is, my dual focus on individual video mentoring of students (service), and on the Camino’s aspect of contemplation (personal), has given my hamstring time to heal. After yesterday’s run the back of my thigh ached – the entire length of it – a good ache: no sign of a sharp pain at the point of attachment. So I’m returning now to routine. The timing of the end of this journey is another point of synchronicity: I head back to the classroom on Monday.

I’m not going to try to sum up lessons learned. I’ve learned that much. But I can see changes in my perspectives, and movement in places still struggling with contradictions. Movement is good. Struggle is fine.

I am letting go of some fears and frustrations, preconceptions and absolutes.

I am letting go of some ambitions.

I am struggling with the impulse to now set goals and shape products. I am rejecting the creeping idea that the purpose of this journey was to clear the slate and find new meaning: reach some kind of epiphany at the saint’s tomb.

Is this a kind of summing up after all?

I’ve hiked for days once before. And I stopped caring whether my socks matched. I stopped looking at every hill as something to be gauged and conquered. I put one foot in front of the other and kept an eye out for grouse in heather.

What we leave behind us after a long journey is one thing, what we take with us is also important.

This time, I will try to take the lesson home. Learning requires repetition. We’ll see what sticks.

Dear Carolee,

I have been wondering if the “remains of winter” have left you. Has the poet-warrior returned? I am so sorry for my long absence. I’ve had to pull back for a time. For so many reasons. America being one of them. The whole concept of “it” on a social level, on a personal level. On the level of what am I now appropriating, no longer being an American, always being an American. How much does being identified as American by others make me American forever more. Whenever I speak: I speak “American”, even if I no longer speak for, or as a part of America. It is not the pain you are experiencing. It has been my own grinding pocket of noise. A pocket of past tense, of loss.

I pulled back. Listened more. Tried to discern the panic-inducing headlines (all for the sake of ad revenue), from the facts of damage. Tried to put it in the kind of perspective the priviledge of being on the outside affords. This is a different kind of self-imposed exile. One I didn’t expect, but should have. On 9/11 I felt it. And I was still actually a citizen. Even pulling back, though, Carolee. I feel like I’m doing wrong. Not appropriating what doesn’t belong to me, but then abandoning and looking at it from a position of detatched priviledge. I have no correct way to position myself in the public discourse on this. Except. The truth is there is no position of detachment. The world is too small now. Hate spreads like a virus – faster than a virus. So does fear.

What I’ve learned is that I lived in a bubble over there. As much as they talk about what social networks and the internet have done to insularize us with our opinions, I lived in complete ignorance of the real racial horrors. I was not taught in school that there was a time when you could purchase postcards at the 5 and dime to send home from your vacation, featuring lynchings. I had no idea Black men and women had to school their children in the safe way to answer a policeman if he asked a question. That lives depended on it. At least, that was the parents’ hope.

I’ve been listening and realising that while I did know the taste of government cheese, the smell of a condemned building, what it is to be a woman who jogs  alone in the late afternoon, with pepperspray in her fist – I never knew the true breadth of the ills of my own homeland. Maybe it is good Disneyland is falling apart at the fiberglass seams? A deep cleansing of the wounds, and another chance to heal?

But I know. I can say that from here. Where I am safely tucked into a healthcare system that functions. Where I haven’t felt the need for pepperspray in 23 years.

I didn’t want to write about this. My perspective is not important. But maybe what I learned from my perspective is relevant? I don’t know. I’ve tried to focus on writing.

And I know you’ve been writing. And publishing. And that makes me smile. And I know you are getting out in the green world. So have you “laced up your sneakers”? “Reclaimed the brain space?”

How are you coming with the forgivness you wrote about?

yogi bearOver the past two months, I wrote a play. Finished it. And it was like coming home. It was a great big “fuck you” to every fear I’ve had, to every question of “what’s the point”? Almost every morning, after an hour of writing, I felt like singing. Or rather, like I had just sung…or screamed.

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to take off the bear suit. Not that one.

But this one:

bear suit

I have been walking so softly – for almost half my life now – that I am a brittle presence in the world. So obsessed with belonging, with not belonging, that I’ve sprouted protection.

“Don’t touch me.”

All the while sending little coded messages into the world, in the form of poems. In books that no one can find.  I have competing desires. (If fear isn’t a form of desire, self-protection is.)

I’ve exhausted myself holding both these things in my hands, watching them fight it out. I feel like my body has mimicked every posture, in every wrong instance; my brain (and mouth) have run at the wrong tempo, and missed a crucial sign too often to deserve absolution from anyone. I’m grateful that there is something in me that resists the temptation to fill my noisy pockets with stones. But I do give up. Or give in.

I no longer care. In the quasi-Buddhist sense (because surely someone will correct me), “I” no longer care to figure myself into the equation. This little death happens daily.

And then around bedtime, not every night now, but on some nights: I have this urgent need to have my name in bold letters on the god-damned book cover, poster, neon sign.

Oh, it is so difficult to sleep in the bear suit!

How are you sleeping, luv?

XO Ren


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

Dear Carolee,

“There she is,” you wrote in your last letter to me. An image of you in running tights and a tank with a bandana on your head: the poet-warrior.

I love that image. It seems so long since I “talked” to you. But that image has been in my mind often.

Only this week am I also recognising myself again. I’m kind of meeting myself in the doorway – and like you – I’m not entirely sure where I’ve been.

Earlier this month I hit a rather humiliating and painful roadblock at work. It shook my confidence. But this week I’ve recognised it as a blessing in disguise. I also learned to cultivate a personal distinction between humiliating and humbling.

My best friend told me that actually seeing and admitting one’s shortcomings in a particular area, painful as that is, is a sign of maturing. And, at my age, I think that is wonderful – maturing may not be “growth” in the traditional sense of new, green shoots; but it is (r)evolution, change that bends towards a spiritual maturing. And when we reach the end of our natural life cycle, the wisdom we’ve accumulated will be somehow dispersed into the universe via the bacteria and fungi that eat us.

Not that I believe that for a second, looking at the state of human culture today in light of the millennia of potential fungi-released wisdom. I was listening to a 100-year-old woman on an episode of On Being this morning. There was a lot of talk of what we “as humans, have forgotten”. I keep thinking, really? When was this time when the majority of humanity was peaceful and satisfied with their place in the world? Ancient Greece with their misogyny and pederasty? Further back? When Noah danced naked and drunk, and his children were punished for witnessing it? When was this amazing period of human history everyone keeps talking about?

I do, however, believe letting go of false assumptions about history, about human beings in general, and about myself frees me to let go of striving. And I can enjoy this life while I have it.

The list of things I am not good at just keeps getting longer. Potentials ticked off a list I’ve carried in my head. I will never be a Broadway singer, not because I never had the chance, never applied myself. I am not good at it.

I’m simultaneously mortified by my own unconscious arrogance, and grateful for it. I believe it gave me the confidence that I needed so often in the past, for the bold forays into other territories that taught me so much.

Curiosity is the best thing about me. Following curiosity’s lead requires a measure of confidence. And failure is a lesson in appreciation. Humbling, right? The good kind.

Now I can move on, and focus on what I am able to do well in the world.

Once the kids leave home, all the mandatory hoops to jump through are  behind you. All the boxes on the “good girl” checklist we’ve been handed are ticked, and now what? It’s frightening to get here and realise you have been so busy making sure you succeed, that when you meet yourself in the door you see a cardboard figure.

img_1402
Where ogres and shadows linger all day for the vanquishing.

I switched to second person in that previous paragraph. Probably, in part, because that last paragraph doesn’t really feel  honest. I did not check off all those “good girl” boxes. The person I meet in the doorway, does have a hint of dimensionality and breathes. But I’m fooling myself if I think I can “focus” on what I do well. I’m still too curious for that. I like that about myself, actually. (Might be one of the few things I really do like about myself lately.)

I need to learn to really embrace failure, and not “take it personally”.

This is why I need running, too. The warrior-poet me moves (and does not think). Like  you, she gets out of her head, presses against the earth – gives and takes in a space of quiet. It is time-out from self-analysis, conversation, and the mental struggling I do too often with other people. A rock is a rock, and it has no intention that I feel necessary to root out and interpret. The patch of snow, slick instead of crusty, had no intention to make me fall on my ass. I should probably learn to treat people as I do nature.

That brings me back to poetry, doesn’t it. And Merwin’s vixen. And your farmhouse as you describe it so beautifully. Maybe reading and writing nature poetry can play a role in teaching me how to deal with people, too?

I do not run fast. I have accepted that. It’s my nature. But I run. And I have stopped thinking I have to improve. My running is good enough. If only I could transfer that to other areas of my life. “Good enough”.

I never harbored any secret desire to be a professional athlete. How did I get to a place where I believed I had to be a “professional” anything to have a justification for doing the thing? Like singing when no one else has to listen. (We are obliquely taught that it’s not good to “like the sound of your own voice”, aren’t we?)

I think maybe I’m still looking for some cultural boxes to check, as a measure of success. Those gatekeepers with their stamps of approval that allow you to confidently say at parties, “I am a (fill in the blank)”. I wonder if there ever was a time in human history when we didn’t present ourselves to each other under the label of what we do to earn money.

I am Ren, granddaughter of Florence, slayer of imaginary ogres and very real shadows.

I love the tone of your voice in the last letter, and in your posts since Christmas. I love the fact that you have had a year of “poetry adventures“, and your description of focusing on the path, not the destination (coddiwomple was almost my word for the year). I feel I am on your heels looking at the path in your headlamp.

Just until I find my bearings for the year.

Thank you for that.

(And thank you, too, for your activism. I’ll be thinking of you on Saturday. Take care!
And take a selfie.)

XO
Ren


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.