The Intoxication of Inspiration

IMG_2584Recently I accompanied my nearly 93 year-old-father on an appointment to his doctor. My dad complained about not having enough energy to do what he wants to do. He’s got the desire but not the rest of what’s needed. And what is that? Art. At heart my father is an artist. His spirit is that of an artist. When I was little and we lived in New York City he took me to art museums where he marveled at what could be done with a few pots of color and a paintbrush. But outdoors as well, he would often notice that which others didn’t. “Look at the light on the brick building over there. Have you ever seen a color like that?” I learned such marveling at the everyday from him.

He tried to explain the feeling of inspiration of his doctor. “There is nothing like it,” said my father. “Everything is alive and exciting. You feel driven and yet unhurried.” Yes, I thought, though I said nothing, I know that. It’s my most favorite way of feeling.

Once I began walking in the woods and listening to the trees, inspiration came with more frequency and greater ease than I’d ever known before. I think there’s a latch or a dial within us. Once the latch has been lifted or the dial’s been turned on to the right frequency, we can participate more fully in life’s essence. That’s the intoxication of inspiration. It’s not about having the best materials or even all the right ones; it’s about opening and being available to the creative essence of life. A spiffy hat like the doorman’s hat my father’s wearing in the picture above, assisting me in making my Christmas cards, isn’t essential, but a doorman’s hat, in particular, may help open the door to the inspiration place.

My father finds his inspiration in pigment and color and form. I think inspiration is most everywhere, really, and can be found when we brush aside the mundane, distracting externals and tune into our essentials. For me, it comes most freely when alone and quiet and when out among and listening to the trees. Often it’s present during in between moments, the unnamed, seemingly insignificant times, even small as the space between two breaths. Given attention those moments can be enlarged. Like now as I write, it’s not quite night anymore and yet morning hasn’t wholly arrived; she’s still getting dressed. This is one of such days, too, a time of in-between—the ending of one year, but  just before a new year takes off with its bells and whistles. (Bells and whistles that I will hopefully sleep through.)

May your new year be lush with inspiration. May you be dazzled by it.

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THE ABCs OF 2014

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Before packing up the year and putting its contents in a suitcase marked “2014,” and placing it up on the shelf with all the others, to be unpacked and reflected on upon occasion, you might consider the ABCs of it—of your own 2014—a way to catalog the year.

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That the alphabet begins with the letter “A” is rather fitting when I think back on my own year and how ART, in one form or another, has been its primary modus operandi. Whether I was writing my forthcoming book or doing stitch work or collage, I’m grateful for the fuel that art was in nearly each and every day. (Pictured here a stitched collage to take me into 2015.)

For as much as “B” stands for the small winged creature who hums, this year it stands or flies and quivers also for my book, Step into Nature, due out on 3/31/15.

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that “C” is the letter for those who have whiskers and who purr, who possesses long furry tails and whose ears twitch. Ace and Stella are my two such beasties. Everyday they delight, and that, I suppose, brings me to “D,” which could stand for the dark-hat-donned-doubling-back-doubt, but why let a thing like that own an entire letter that has its own curved window to the world? Nope!

Instead, I’ll tip my 2014 hat to DELIGHT instead. Not only that but, holding the folds of a wide skirt, I curtsy deeply to that gift, to delight’s presence in my life.

And you? Where do the alphabet’s letters take you as you look back over this year before closing it up and lifting its suitcase up onto the shelf.

A Bit Of Magic That Began With A Pair Of Tiny Boots

IMG_2794A number of years ago I happened upon a pair of finely made miniature—about 2” tall—leather boots that came from Mexico. Loving them but having no idea how they fit into my life, I tucked the boots away in a box titled Someday.

Recently, beginning to prepare to make an art installation of a forest for the Monterey Public Library that will be displayed in their foyer vitrine beginning in April, I purchased a cloth doll form. The other day she called to me from the Someday box where she’d been resting in her silent way, so I retrieved her and the boots, made her a capelet and a blue flannel skirt—it’s winter, after all. I slipped the fine leather boots over her bare feet. Slowly she was becoming herself. A little filigree was needed for the capelet, and I stitched a heart milagro over her actual heart, much as my childhood Raggedy Anne doll had a red heart painted on her cloth skin. Only with my new doll the heart is, not surprisingly, worn on the outside of her clothing. Next came her long chestnut yarn hair. More of her self began appearing, but my doll’s face remained blank until I took a needle and black thread and asked for her eyes, then a red thread and asked for her lips. Forest Girl was born!

2014-12-22 16.56.14Here’s why I’m writing about her today: because of the magic. Once she had her boots and her clothes and her long hair and her face, she became someone. No longer could she be put in a box marked Someday. She had, just like my early childhood Christmases, been imbued with magic—the magic of transformation and possibility. Her hands are open, facing up. So might this heart be, the rib encased one of mine, reminded once again of how everything changes, often beautifully, especially when the magic of the season is invoked.

I wish you the magic of transformation, whatever your faith, joy in the returning light, and the generous, fruitful spirit of imagination in the coming year, and always.

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You Know More

IMG_1201When I’m teaching I’ll often say to my students, “You know more than you know you know; you know?” Reliant on the linear mind, on rational thought, we’ll never get to the all of what we know because the path to the wealth of our knowledge, especially when making art isn’t straight, nor is it predictable. The route is spontaneous, circuitous, and, sometimes, seemingly contradictory. When making art of whatever kind it’s helpful to quiet the linear mind, to trust the imagination.

Once, at work on a poem, I started to write a line that felt true but I found it difficult to accept the worlds because the sentence was entirely illogical and impossible. They kept insisting; the poem wouldn’t move forward without the line: “It is so quiet my mother could be alive.” I was in Desolation Wilderness on Echo Lake in a small cabin with a view of the water, and it was very quiet, but my mother had been dead for a number of years, and the silence wasn’t going to bring her back, no matter how quiet. However, the words resonated as true. There’s often a great gulf between truth and fact. After I wrote them down the rest of the poem came.

The other day a dear, longtime friend called me very upset. Through her gasping tears, she said that she didn’t know exactly why she was so sad and angry. Yes, her own mother was quite ill, but the overwhelm of this grief took my friend by surprise. That she couldn’t name it didn’t lessen the sorrow’s force. Her partner returned home from work; my friend and I said goodbye. A few minutes later she called back. Her sister had just called to say that moments ago her mother had died.

We know more than we’re conscious of knowing. The wisdom of our lives is often hidden. Making art is a remarkable way to get close to the knowing that exists always just beneath the surface of things. What’s there ready and waiting for you?

A Letter From Nina

IMG_1780A couple of weeks ago I received a letter from a young writer named Nina Tomkiewicz. Because she so beautifully captures the desire to write, the pull of it, that I asked if I could quote from her letter here:

“Recently I have discovered that I love to write. I’ve always been a journaler, but I never took myself seriously when I wrote. I thought that because I wasn’t writing professionally or taking classes, I must not really be a writer. Yet I wrote anyway, because I found myself transformed and comforted by putting words onto a page. I enjoyed watching my handwriting change dependent upon what mood I was in. I enjoyed the voices that dictated my prose before it became prose; these voices often longed to write even when I wasn’t next to a pen and paper.

I went to the library last week and looked at books on writing. I was beginning to take my interest in writing more seriously. I began to think, “Perhaps it’s not just something I do now and then, but something that I need to do to feel alive.” I stood in the aisle at the library and I felt giddy and excited looking at all these books on writing. I pulled yours out, Writing and the Spiritual Life. I am almost finished reading it…

I still do not know what place writing will have in my life ultimately, but as for now, I am enjoying making time for myself to write everyday. I try. Sometimes there are less words and sometimes there are many more. Reading your book has gotten me comfortable with the ebb and flow of both scenarios…. It’s like I finally opened up the aperture on my lens and now the picture is clear because there is enough light to illuminate it.”

Where is Your Here?

IMG_0720There are places we spend much of our time in—home, office, classroom. There are those we frequent upon occasion, and others we visit too rarely. Some places we can never return to again—they’re no longer on the map, or they’re too far in the past, or, perhaps, we may have been exiled from them. I think these days of the world’s refugees—the people who can never return home to their countries, their towns, neighborhoods, homes.

Certain places exist not only externally and in memory but within us—those are the places that inhabit us, much in the way love does and, sometimes, hunger, longing. We may carry them like heavy suitcases we dream of putting down but know we never will. We may carry them so lightly that at times it’s as if they’re not inside. Ah, but there’s the corner of the old house; I feel it now.

The place I carry within most distinctly is Jacks Peak Park. The trees are there in the woods not far from my house, of course, yet they aren’t only up that hill because I hold them too. And thanks to a recent acquisition, the Monterey Regional Parks District holds more of them than were held in public trust before. About 900 acres more! It’s land on either side of the official park that I walk frequently, and it’s stunningly beautiful, heavily treed.

What places to you carry within you? Where is your here? How long have these places lived existed within? How do you carry these locales? And what is it about them that’s gotten in? At Jacks Peak, it’s how the wind sounds like a child one day and like an old man the next; how the trees are individuals and how together they form family; how I can walk and walk and walk; and how the squirrels leap from branch to branch. That place has never, not once, made me unwelcome.

Write me and let me know your such places. I’d like to make a written mosaic of them that I’ll post. (*protected email*)

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A Book & A Fire & More

IMG_2633Last year at this time, I was deep into writing my forthcoming book, Step into Nature. When offered the contract, I was given 6 months to write the book. For me, that meant writing 7 days a week, 3 – 8 hours a day. During that time I took 4 days off. Those 6 months were the happiest 6 months of my entire 57 years!

Each of those mornings I got up before daylight, made a cup of the strongest coffee, and lit a match in the fireplace in our living room, where I would spend a few hours writing, researching, writing. Often I was accompanied by my two best-beloved cats Ace and Stella. Come late morning, I’d go out for a long forest walk.

The fire licked the wood; the flames flared; the heat warmed me. From wherever it lives, inspiration came; ideas flowed. Possibility was everywhere in this very room where I sit now. For all those who say writing is hard and ideas few and inspiration is nearly uncoverable, I offer my experience as an antidote, and suggest that art—poetry and ideas, paintings, dances, songs and stories—is everywhere and all the time.

For that joy I’m grateful to my literary agent Charlotte Raymond, my editor Anna Noak, and my husband Michael Stark. If it hadn’t been for them, I’d have neither written the book, deepened my love of nature, nor dwelled in the enormous joy that I was gifted with. My wish with the book is to bring readers out onto the land, to get to intimately know the natural places close to them, to honor the earth, and to develop a sustaining imaginative practice of whatever form of artistic expression they’re called to.

Yesterday, another primary, hardworking person on this journey, managing editor Lindsay Brown sent me the final layout of the praise pages for my book—3 pages of words from smart, accomplished, and kind people. Grateful, too, am I for Emmalisa Sparrow and her fine work, and everyone else at Beyond Words, the publicity and marketing folks, the designers, those behind the scenes, and the dedicated publishers. Each person who has done even a small thing for this book has my enormous gratitude. I count my students among those who made the book possible. And let me know neglect to mention my artist father and my close friends.

I pay homage to the fire, for the spark of possibility it gave me, for the heat that warmed even the chilliest mornings. That spark of fire is a shared thing; we all have it within us. It’s how we light each other’s lives in even the darkest times of year.

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Emily and the Fire-Flower Ceremony at Dawn

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Many years ago, I had a young poetry student named Emily. From the time I first met her, when she was in kindergarten or maybe it was first grade, it was clear here was someone attuned to the world and people and the spirit that flows between us. Even young as she was, she paid attention not only with her eyes and her mind but, most closely, with her heart. Throughout elementary, she noticed, wondered, and made poems out of what caught her attention. Nature was frequently her subject.

Later, and for years, we’d run into each other, or she’d come to a reading I was giving or to an art show opening, and the person who greeted me was the same girl I’d known before, only now she’d, as if by magic (and great parents and time and a good life) become a bright, elegant, kind, and insightful young woman.

When I received an invitation to her wedding, I danced around the room in anticipation. When she asked if I’d read a couple of poems in the ceremony, I was both tickled and honored to do so. And now, a PhD student at Stanford University in anthropology, Emily is studying the Mayan language in Mexico and getting ready to do fieldwork there. Before leaving for Mexico, Emily bestowed a title upon me that I’m most pleased to accept: Godmother, well, fairy Godmother, actually, only in Spanish, Hada Madrina. She’s been reading this blog and sent this note and these photos after a recent post:

“I am now living with a healer woman named Floridelma and taking Maya lessons. She invited me to participate in a fire ceremony, which was really more of a flower ceremony, this morning at dawn. Flori has a little hearth made with rocks, coral and shells that she lines with sugar and copal, then fills with colorful candles. A ring of flowers is placed inside the stone ring and then a small fire is lit in the middle. During the ceremony, which was for Mari Carmen who sought clarity with regard to what she was put here on earth to do, Flori chanted in Maya, of which I understood only the numbers 1-10. I also understood that the woman from Vera Cruz was born on the day of bats, an animal that is “like a string that ties the earth to the heavens.” It turned out that whatever she needed to do would involve asking her grandparents (who visited us via the fire during the ceremony) for forgiveness on behalf of her family.

I’ve just realized I have to get back on the bus to return to the countryside where my host family lives. I enjoyed the cairn post on your blog. Floridelma’s hearth made me think of it. Naturally, the ceremony concluded with a feminist-oriented chat over gourds of hot chocolate. You and Norma were there, too, I’m sure.”

Perhaps there’s a ceremony you’re ready to create to support your imaginative life, one that involves a ring of flowers placed inside a stone ring. Then you light a small fire in the middle. Might your creativity be “like a string which ties the earth to the heavens”?

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A Stormy Night at Gabriella Cafe

 

IMG_1556IMG_2760The small restaurant glowed; it was candlelit and full of many fine people. There was that hum of conversation that always reminds me of a crowd of honey-happy bees. The hive we found ourselves abuzz at? Well, that was the nectar of imagination, for we’d gathered to chat about just that. Santa Cruz Sentinel Entertainment Editor Wallace Baine and I had been invited to lead a discussion on imagination. Tandy Beal quoted Emily Dickinson; Robert Sward remembered being run over by a car and how his imagination got triggered anew by that jolt; painter Jan McGeorge talked about loss and the power of walking on imagination; poet Stephen Kessler quoted poet Robert Duncan; Kenny Hill talked about the guitars he makes and the wisdom of his 21 year-old son. Musicians Kimball Hurd and Alisa Fineman were there. Wallace discussed the power of the conscious mind; I discussed the power of the unconscious one. There was more, much, much more. When imagination in everyday life was mentioned a lot of heads begin to nod in recognition of its power in their lives.

Here’s my takeaway: though I live in Monterey now, Santa Cruz was my home for 30 years. What I had last evening was the privilege of being in the presence of artists, teachers, students, friends, people I have long loved—some close-up, some from afar. Sometimes I feel my greatest community is experienced when I’m alone walking in the woods, communing with the trees. Last night I felt the camaraderie of imagination and community in the presence of a packed house, the crowd gathered to dwell for an evening together in the hive of imagination. Such honey there was!

Thank you to Paul Cocking of Gabriella’s for inviting us; thank you to Julia Chiapella for the photographs.