By nature, I’m fond of schedules that serve ballast-like, no matter the chaos of life’s external events and my internal creative ones. These blog postings appear on Wednesdays and Saturday. But not yesterday. Yesterday was, instead, taken by my father who may arrive at his 93rd birthday in the hospital; being 92 let alone being 93 isn’t a such an easy thing to be. It seems the flu was too much for him. Last night I climbed beside him in his hospital bed, cuddled close. This is something I’ve never, as an adult, done before, not during any of the many times I’ve spent time with him when he was very sick, at death’s door, in the hospital. Last night the distance the bed rails made between us was too much. My dad’s mind is a bit confused right now, but when I asked if he liked me being in his bed next to him, he let down his guard, or what the hell ever it is, and said, “This means the world to me.”
My father isn’t the red fox of this story. Rather, I often refer to him as the energizer bunny because despite enormous difficulties—health and otherwise—my father is incredibly tenacious, and has just kept on going and going, beating the drum of his life. The fox of this story is actually a fox.
In today’s news I read that the red fox has returned to Yosemite Park for the first time in over 100 years. A fox has been viewed via remote motion-sensitive camera. According to a reporter from Capitol Public Radio, “The Sierra Nevada red fox of California is one of the rarest mammals in North America, likely consisting of fewer than 50 individuals.”! (Exclamation point mine.) And there, in the photograph, that fox is walking, head-up, bushy tail behind him between trees across the snow—clearly on his way somewhere.
Today I’d like to celebrate the nature of return—the light, as spring gets nearer; a handsome red fox; childhood intimacy between a daughter and her father.
What parts of nature engage in play? North of my home there are bluffs along the coast perfect for walking along—wide open bluffs and wide open sky; the raging Pacific below the cliffs. I particularly like to walk through the ice plant there that in late fall turns about a hundred shades of orange making the place feel otherworldly. Recently, three vultures flew above me, but they weren’t hunting. Other times that I’ve seen vultures they’ve been circling above their next meal; I’ve watched them land on a dead animal to enjoy a feast together. This recent flight behavior was different; they weren’t zeroing in on something; there didn’t appear to be a goal to their maneuvers. One bird would catch a draft of air and ride it, suspended, letting herself be taken by the wind. Then she’d pull out of it and fly toward another vulture and they’d circle together, drift apart. It looked like they were having fun. Were the vultures playing? Oh, vultures play, too!
Lots of animals do! Though hardly a kitten, my Stella cat certainly does. She’ll hide behind the bedroom curtain, wait for me to come in calling my familiar tune, “Oh, Stella, where are youououou?” She hides exactly like a young child would, not moving a muscle till she can stand it no longer! The American psychiatrist, Stuart Brown, said, “Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” It’s a part of childhood; it’s a part of nature; and it’s an essential aspect of art-making. Studies have shown that children who play outside are healthier and happier. When we engage in play, we take ourselves less seriously and this allows us to arrive at ideas, images, stories, and conclusions, to ask questions we might hold ourselves back from otherwise.
The mind of a play gives us a chance to be foolish, to step outside of typical ways of being. In the way-way-olden-days it was the fool, the jester, who could tell the queens and kings what they wouldn’t listen to coming from their otherwise most esteemed advisors. The jester might walk in wearing bright colors and a pointy hat, bells on the tips of his shoes and tell the king, “Your people don’t want you to kill the dragon,” and the king might consider this and not say, “Off with his head,” because it was recognized that jester’s character had access to knowledge that the more serious folks didn’t. A pointy hat, anyone?
Here’s to a few jars of finger paint and a large sheet of unblemished paper or a pair of sharp scissors and a stack of magazines, possibly a recorder, a harmonica, a drum. See what happens. Might we play as the wind flutters? Or joust as two young elephants or a pair of wolf cubs? As the painter Richard Diebenkorn said in his “rules” for art-making, “Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion…Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for… Tolerate chaos.” Play is a time in which we tend to more easily tolerate chaos. How about we play with it?
The forest a few miles from the bay where I walk as much as I possibly can (which is never enough) is dense with Monterey pines, some oaks, thick with assorted underbrush, poison oak, in particular, some false sage, and a lot of bushes I don’t know the names of. It’s a place of muted colors, and that’s partly why I keep to an understated palate in my attire; I prefer the illusion, anyway, of blending in.
When even a tiny fleck of unexpected color appears, I’m stopped by it and have to look and swoon and smile. Such a surprise might come from the fallen orange arrow of a flicker feather or a loveliness of flying yellow ladybugs that occurs, when it does, always in the same place.
Yesterday’s blue borage was just that bit of color—a clustering of many-blossomed stalks with an abundance of five-petaled flowers growing up from long tongue-like greenest leaves. This blue is deeper than most skies, lighter than cobalt or lapis, a rare ocean but never a lake that I’ve seen. If I had a shirt that color I’d never take it off. Borage in the midst of January is the color of the beloved’s return eons after you’ve given up on him, when all loss is forgotten and you stand rapt and entranced, sated and enamored before the color blue.
Alone in a large field there was a single tree, a small dead oak one, all bent leafless limbs, a jagged brown-gray thing of beauty, standing in the sun and the rain, in the day and the night, home to some beings, I’m sure, though I know not who.
The tree was behind a barbed wire fence and though a fence itself wouldn’t keep me out, that the field and the tree and the fence were on a highway was enough to. There was an honorable about this small tree that caught my attention every time I drove by, once stopping me so I could look a bit closer and take a picture, with the thought of bestowing the tree’s photograph with blossoms or leaves or lights, but I never did; I just drove by and looked and tipped my imaginary hat to the field’s beacon, the field’s talisman.
Until the day I drove by to see that someone hadn’t let a barbed wire fence along a highway keep them out. The tree was now dressed in bright and flagrant color—having been painted pink and blue and white! Whomever you are who did that, I tip my hat to you. You made of that dead tree a celebration of imagination. A while later, after rain that came at long last, the tree toppled over onto its side. It is now a sculpture of a different kind. The occasional cow visitors amble around it.
And you, what might you like to transform in your life? What is there—behind a fence or unfenced—that’s in need of a few coats of brilliant color? What will your imagination color?
For many years—since I was 19-years-old—I’ve taught poetry to children, though “taught” has never been the most accurate word for what I do. Really, I’m a door-man—a door-woman; I open the door to imagination and hold it open, inviting children to walk into their own worlds. Most kids accept the invitation; I keep holding the door open for easy in-and-out access. Recently, a 4th grade boy wrote his first poem ever with me. That day I’d asked the class to write about themselves in the third person. (I encourage you to try it; you’ll discover things you never could by sticking to writing in the first person.) The poem Aidan wrote hit me with force. “He’s got something,” I thought—depth, awareness, honesty, skill with language, and that ineffable more.
When I chose his first poem for our poetry anthology—a booklet with one poem from each child—a poem he’d given his permission to have included, and we met again for a rehearsal in advance of our recital this evening, Aidan read his poem as the others did, but afterward, accompanied by his teacher, he came up to me, a bit hesitantly, and expressed discomfort with his poem. I suggested he choose another of his poems to read and made clear I’d not meant to cause him displeasure. Then I asked what he didn’t like about it.
His response is why I’m writing this. It was as if he’d not even written this poem, that’s how startled he was by his own words, uncomfortable with having written about the shadow side of his personality. Keep in mind that he’s a 4th grader with an awareness of this side of himself! His teacher and I explained that we all have this side and chatted about it with him. Aidan then said, “Now that I understand my poem, I’m fine with reading it.”
This is not an experience unique to 4th graders but something that can happen to any of us when we write or make art, because within us is a well of awareness and knowledge that we’re not conscious of. Part of it’s our own well and part of it is part of the well of collective unconscious that’s shared by all people. When we write or make any kind of art and enter a state of mind beyond conscious understanding we are able to articulate things far beyond what our rational, linear minds can give us access to. We may tap into that which is beyond our individual experience. The world is troubling these days; we may find through making art we’re able to process and sort out some of that.
Here’s the last part of Aidan’s poem:
“Some people say that Aidan is a spirit of nature.
They see that the lonely Aidan is a myth,
a mystery from beneath the scene.”
Not searching for signs, signs find me. When a bird dropped its droppings on me two days out of three I felt it was a sign but I don’t know what the hell that meant. Someone told me it was good luck. OK, I’ll take it as such because that was nicer than what I’d come up with.
Artists of whatever form are often rather attentive people—not necessarily attentive to dirty dishes in the sink—attentive to what calls them. Isn’t that what art-making is about, in part, anyway, we look for indications of where to go—which color to use, what word best follows the one that came before.
Me, I’m always seeing signs. Here are two signs in the physical world that were right in front of me when I came by—one from outside Oaxaca and the other on a now gone building at Ft. Ord in Monterey. Two good signs. I follow them as I can.
And you, do you notice such things? How does your art benefit from such attention? What are you attuned to? You might find a way to bring the signs—of whatever kind—that are around you into the art you make.
Not in a desert, not in an ice field, not in a forest, but in the middle of Economy Parking Lot Number One at the San Jose airport, in the exact section where I’d parked my car, I was lost. Or my car was. Which was pretty much the same thing. Daniel Boone once remarked, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” That parking lot was not where I wanted to spend the rest of the day and certainly not several weeks. Dragging my suitcase behind me, I walked up and down row “J” for I’d-prefer-not-to-admit-how-long before I found my silver car amongst the many other silver cars. At least I was sort of in nature—out in the open air—and not enclosed indoors.
When I’d parked the car just over twenty-four hours earlier, I’d been in a hurry, wrote down my parking row and rushed to catch the approaching shuttle bus. In search of my car, eager to get home, the details of the lot came into focus as if I had, not x-ray, but x-tra vision: the lot was rectangular; no cars nearby had been backed in to their spots; silver cars where in abundance; the exit was to my left; each shuttle stop was painted blue; the air was without much scent and comfortingly warm when the sun hit the back of my neck.
When my car magically appeared, I was relieved, indeed, but glad to have lost it for that while because of coming to realize this: When we’re lost, we’re more attentive to the particularities of our surroundings than at other times. We need to be. When looking for something we recognize, we slow down and become acutely observant of our environment, the details of place, in the parking lot, even the texture of the asphalt stood out.
But we don’t have to get lost to have this kind of awareness. In the forest—whether I’m physically lost or lost from myself or lost in connection to the larger world—I ask the trees to talk to me. Then I get quiet inside and wait for my pesky, perpetual chatter to stop. The forest speaks. I look and listen.
At each year’s beginning I always have the inclination to look back over my shoulder at some place I’ve been, where I’ve come from. Artist Erin Lee Gafill wrote a piece she posted on Facebook in which she looks back at a first place she and her husband lived when they were young. I’ll paste the link below. It’s a really good read that I think you’ll enjoy.
Erin’s writing took me back to a first place, Milford, CA, where I lived just after leaving home when I was 17—it’s pictured here. A converted chicken coop on highway #395, 22 miles from Susanville, California, it had no heat, just that which came from my waterbed. There was snow outside for much of the time I lived there during the winter of 1976. No kitchen or bath either. For those I used the big house.
What I remember most about that time was my chosen aloneness and a determination, a seeking, that lit like a flame, helping me to overcome difficult anxiety. I remember how much writing was a part of that time, how it anchored me, how putting words on the page got me through.
And you, where’ve you come from? Recall a place of long ago (or not so long ago!) when you were just setting out on your own? How does that time inform who you are now?