The Verb To Father: Trouble And Searching For Solace

2014_04_05Slough_properties 89-Edit-Edit-2Before heading out to nature, my solace, a morning workshop I’m leading at Elkhorn Slough, I consider the concept of father. At dictionary.com, I read the word can be confused with further and farther. Might that be part of the problem, that fathering and mothering, on a large countrywide scale have gotten farther, further?

There’s no cloistering myself. I may go out beside the slough this morning and enjoy the lift of fog the warmth of sun’s arrival and the workshop participants and the movement of my body through open space, but I’m going walking and teaching with a sense of loss and absence and overwhelming confusion over the hate crimes, the murders in Charleston.

On this day before Father’s Day, my first without a father, though without a father who died a fair and appropriate death at 93, I feel the loss of the verb to father on a large scale, a societal, cultural one. Unable to make sense of the killings and unwilling to consider these unnatural deaths out of the context the recent many murders of black men, I am looking for understanding.

The verb to father: “to beget,” “to assume as one’s own; take responsibility of.” There is what I find lacking, “the taking responsibility of.” I’m not a writer with answers but one with questions though I am certain a light needs to be held on the causes of poverty and gun control and racism, the lack of justice and fairness in our country, the unequal access to opportunity. I want to shoulder some responsibility here but I’m unsure how, “to act as a father toward” our country’s plight, “to take charge of begetting.” That’s the question I pose for art-making, for conversation, for action.

 

 

 

Weaving Grief, Nature, and Art-Making

IMG_4108In his poem The Peace of Wild Things, William Stafford wrote about going into nature at night when he felt despair. “I come into the presence of still water,” he wrote, and that calmed him down, gave a sense of perspective. I don’t so much go into the woods at night but yesterday morning I took my despair for an uphill hike. The walk did both me and my sorrow good.

Shortly after beginning the climb a red-shafted flicker shot through the air, landed on a Monterey pine and went up the trunk using not only his feet but his strong, pointed beak. (Flickers are a kind of woodpecker.) I felt privileged to witness this because the flickers are incredibly shy and usually get away from people as quickly as possible.

Father’s Day approaches, and it’s nearly four months since my father died. My favorite aunt died yesterday. Some days my grief defines me. This sorrow is like a heavy stone I pull behind me or I try to slip it on my tongue—big as it is—and swallow. Grief is not a bad thing, just a sad one. It slows me down no matter where I carry it.

Odd how sometimes memories approach of their own volition. Often after a visit my father would walk me out and stand on the sidewalk as I drove away. I’d roll down the window and wave or toot my horn. Many times I said to myself, “Is this the last time?”

My father was a complicated man. Our relationship was not easy. He could be and often was unkind to me. But we loved each other fiercely and shared a reverence for art.

In the evenings when that stone of despair sinks inside me, I go to the table where I make things with my hands, arranging images; I cut, layer, and glue colored paper. Last night I wove these pieces together in an effort to weave myself together. This evening, were you here, likely that’s where you’d find me.

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A Stitched and Wing-ed World

Margaret sewing collageAlmost once a week my friend Margaret and I walk together which means walking while talking and talking while walking. We frequently have to rest in places where were we not talking so much we’d not need to catch our breath, but that’s okay; it’s nice to stop and see her face.

The other day we walked up the trail to the water tank. The steep trail that heads up (and up) from the road, ending at Jacks Peak’s Lower Ridge Road, where Margaret and turned right, happy to be able to walk on a wide, flat road. There she told me about making the collage (pictured here) in a workshop she’d taken with me several years ago.

“Did making it lead me to what I’m doing now?” Margaret wondered. “Or is what I felt called to embark on what got me to make it?”

“A premonition picture?” I asked. Just like dreams—daydreams and night dreams—can lead us, can be indicative of what’s to come, so can the art we make wake us to new, previously unconsidered possibilities.

In Margaret’s collage we see a wing-ed woman sewing, focused on her work. Below her a horizontal row of stitches leads to a window. The woman appears held, elevated, above the fray. In the bright sky, sun-like, is a stitched circle inside a circle. Above that, the Roman Coliseum floats at a tilt—ancient culture is suspended, right above her, easily accessible to the woman’s mind. And there to the right an old, rusted skeleton key, ready to unlock what needs opening.

In the intervening years between when Margaret made this picture and now, her life has changed a lot. Just as happily married and just as happily raising her three daughters, she’s hardly above the fray, but she is sewing and studying the art and craft of it. Readying herself for a new career, Margaret is stitching her way into her future. A fine teacher—I’ve taken hand-stitching classes from Margaret that have greatly influenced and enhanced the art I make.

When we enter into the world of art-making, we allow our deeper selves, our subconscious, to hold the reigns for a while, to make choices, instead of being entirely reliant on our rational, conscious minds. We then make ourselves available to our greater knowing that is numinous and luminous, magical and surprising.

Those of us who make art are made richer and more whole by engaging in it. The ballast of our lives strengthens. You never know what door your imagination key will open onto—ah, such vistas and turning points and new-found truths.

The Approach of Summer

IMG_4003 What is the approach of summer if not the beginning of a journey into heat and languor and unhurried long days?

No matter how hard I’m working, when it’s summer (or almost summer) that work has a lighter feel to it, more air gets in, more light does. (I don’t care if it’s an illusion, it’s an illusion I love.)

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In 1980 my best friend Gina (who in 2015 is still my best friend) and I drove cross-country in my little blue bug. We traveled from spring into almost summer. She was 24 and I was 23. Young. But then every summer I’m young and as the poet Anne Sexton wrote, “We wore our bare feet bare.” Still do.

In the photo album I made of that trip, there are my early attempts at poetry. One is comprised of road signs: “Do not straddle lanes” is what the sign said. What I added was “Do not get out and dance on them either.” I was learning my way and pushing against what needed pushing against. Still am.

IMG_3997My best memories of that trip are pulling off the highway because I saw a rushing river below and insisted I had to get in. I think Gina paced along the shore waiting for her crazy friend who’d stripped at water’s edge.

Driving in Queens, New York, at a stop sign a man got out of his car and walked up to me and began screaming, “Whose a your father? I’ma gonna kill your father!” What had I done?

IMG_4008We bicycled from my grandmother’s Astoria home, crossing the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan, and we were free and we were best friends. We laughed together and drove together and flipped most every “no” on its head.

Here’s to dancing on the lines and between them. Here’s to summer and warm air on your face and breeze and to having best friends.

“Deliriously Lost in a Secret Ravine”

IMG_3975Monterey poet, Laura Bayless, signed up for my summer workshop and to confirm her attendance sent not only a check but the poem below. Undoubtedly better than money.  Look what she does! Notice how Laura celebrates the details of the common world with such uncommon language. I love “tangle of supple willow spurs” and “purple-white pagodas.” Then there’s just the word “greensward” alone! How can you stay inside once you read this poem? Tie your laces and get outside to celebrate your miraculous common world. Take that notebook and joy down the beautiful details surrounding you! Thank you Laura Bayless!

IMG_3891When I’m Ready To Go

take me to the greensward, the woodland dale
beyond the tangle of supple willow spurs

where a footbridge crosses the river
that mirrors a few bleached yarn clouds.

Tag along to where tiny purple-white
pagodas crop up among late spring grasses.

Let me get deliriously lost in a secret ravine
where fiesta flowers cling to my legs,

so I can gather woodmint for tea,
let the hairy fringe pod keep its secrets.

I want to tread trails deer forge through
underbrush that crowds the oak forest

and talk with the fractured scarecrow
husk of an old pine stump.

Allow me time to linger beside owls clover
and lime-green tresses of maidenhair fern,

admire saffron sunkissed lichen on a fallen log,
follow a wandering cabbage white butterfly.

Then plant me where the buckeye torches
circulate their vanilla scent in May, and

cast off their chestnut-colored spheres in fall
onto the backyard fringe of a sunlit meadow.

Laura Bayless
©2015
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In Hand

2015-01-22 10.51.04The saying goes, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” and were I living on the land and hungry I’m sure I’d feel that way. Because of the life I have I’m grateful for the birds in the bush. Only a few times have I held a bird in my hands, when one has gotten caught in the sunroom of my home unable to distinguish window from open door and I was slow enough and still enough to cup my hands around the heart-throbbing frightened bird and carry her outside to feel the force of her life push away and up and up.

Yesterday I volunteered as I do upon occasion for The Gathering Place, an organization that serves lunch to Monterey’s homeless women every Tuesday. About 100 women were gathered yesterday. After lunch we found a quiet place to write together. Ruthie, a tall, short-haired, bare-armed woman said, “A hawk dropped a rabbit right next to me at my camp the other night. I felt honored by the gift and carried the still-warm soft rabbit to the trail. Next morning it was gone.”

There are many small parts of nature I like to have in hand, to feel the nubbiness, or smoothness or edges. If you pick something up from beside the trail and hold it the relationship to that part of the earth and to nature overall shifts. You bring it close. Anything we hold in hand we become personal with. The abstraction disappears. This feather, this flower, this stone, this pine cone. Save the poison oak, I pick up most anything to feel its weight, to bring it close, to shorten the distances between the earth and me.

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Girlhood and a Santa Cruz Discovery

IMG_3947Today’s blog post is from the Bookshop Santa Cruz Summer Newsletter. Locals can pick up a copy of their chock-full newsletter at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Step into Nature is available there and anywhere books are sold, but you can’t have the copy my cat Ace is sleeping on!

Girlhood and a Santa Cruz Discovery

If, as a child, one is reluctantly transplanted from a city or, as in my case, from a couple of cities—New York and Chicago—to a sleepy beachside town, which is what Santa Cruz was in 1967, an introduction or a series of introductions to nature may be required in order for a love of the earth to blossom, in order for, many years later, a book celebrating nature and its role in imaginative thinking to be written. Once upon a time, there was a house on the upper west side of Santa Cruz at the corner of Overlook Drive and Crestview Terrace. (It’s no longer there.) When I was 11 my family moved into that small house, which had a large backyard and a grassy front yard that, to the great consternation of the neighbors, my city father refused to care for. Of all things, behind our house, there was a vast cow pasture with actual black and white cows! This was discomfiting; I was used to verticality, a nice rise of brick and cement, plenty of things for a child to do with city activity right outside the front door. The humanmade world was reliable; the natural world was not.

Shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz, seeing me stuck inside most of the time, my mother began to shoo me outside to play, though repeatedly, I’d rather quickly return to the comforts of the couch, complaining that there was nothing to do out there and worse, “There’s bugs outside!” I wanted to shelter in the living room where I felt safe with my books; I wanted to return to the city, to art museum and ballet culture. If I were going to spend time in a park, let it be Central Park. Knowing we were there to stay, my mother continued urging me out, hoping I’d make friends with the neighborhood children and begin to enjoy the outdoors, praying I’d adjust to our new life. My younger sister, on the other hand, had taken to the great outdoors with ease; she was made for running and climbing and playing hide-and-seek in the bushes.

Luckily for me and for my future, my crafty mother found a way to ease my hesitation. She introduced me to the enormous Monterey pine growing in our side yard. Pretty much the only climbing I’d done before had been up and down the many steps to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and up and down the many other steps to the New York City Public Library. My nearly 50-year-old mother showed me that a tree has its ladder up; she taught me how to climb, to rely on my arm strength, to swing my body, and she proved to me that while up in a tree’s branches one can arrive at a delicious peace. From high above I had a sweeping view that nicely put our new town in perspective. Perched on the upper limbs, leaning against the sturdy trunk, accompanied by a good book, Ritz crackers and an apple, along with my faithful diary, I began a reluctant adjustment to a new life.

A few years later, when in 7th grade, I met a boy named Patrick Brady. He took my hand and walked me—just the two of us—out of the neighborhoods and into the redwood forest at UCSC before the land was quite so built up. Knowing the redwood trees like personal friends, he wanted me to know them that way too, and placed my hands up against their soft bark, urged me to lean into them and breathe deeply. Rainy days never stopped us, and Patrick and I spent many hours close together beneath those great trees in many kinds of weather.

If your first kisses occur in a redwood forest, your relationship to nature is going to reflect that. It certainly began to alter mine; I started noticing trees, paying attention to them for their wisdom and tall leafiness. Might I too bend easily when confronted with harsh wind? Could I offer shelter to those in need the way trees do?When in high school, my group of hippie friends and I discovered Wilder Ranch long before it was an official park. We’d cut school, pile into a couple of cars and drive up to Empire Grade, park, climb or squeeze through a series of barbed wire fences, walk past the old limestone kilns, carrying drums, flutes, and tambourines, along with assorted mood elevators and lunch, and walk back into the land, free from burdensome adults, to spend long, languorous afternoons together. Much like houses have rooms, there I discovered that so can nature, and that each room may offer a different quality of feeling. A wide, grassy vista has unparalleled beauty; I saw wind playing with grass, hawks swooping down and effortlessly rising up to ride the airstreams.

Santa Cruz’s natural world—or nearly natural world—also inspired my first act of civil disobedience. The same cow pasture that at first had intimidated me had, for years, became a walking shortcut, and my fear of the cows disappeared after many harm-free hours amongst them. And then a developer bought that land and the cows went elsewhere. Once the earthmoving equipment had been moved in, once I was certain the open field would truly be destroyed, anger at that destruction got the best of me. One evening, with a bottle of laundry detergent in hand—Wisk, to be exact (how odd memory is)—I walked out and unscrewed the gas caps of several large machines, poured detergent into the tanks and walked back home, satisfied. Even though it was, of course, of no use, I’d made a personal statement on behalf of a place I’d come to love.

Of course, what would Santa Cruz’s natural world be without the beach? I’d not known till spending time with friends on local beaches that sunlight could be so expansive and weigh on one so warmly. And doesn’t sunlight dissolve most all hesitation? Before time beside the Pacific I never knew that anything could shout more loudly than my father! Those fearsome cresting waves accepted my anger too, more than once, each time transforming it into something better. There’s another spot adjacent to campus that, perhaps, you’ve wandered to as well, where another first kiss took place; where, I’ll bet, a lot of first kisses have been enjoyed. When I wanted to be sure the man I was dating was as into me as I was into him, we went for a walk to upper Pogonip. I led Michael down a trail to a redwood grove where a cement pool was full to overflowing with icy spring water and where goldfish swam. After surprising him by stripping and plunging in, I invited Michael to join me, which he did. A few years later we were married.

Santa Cruz abounds with natural enclaves where not only can peace and love be found, where not only can one celebrate with friends and delight under the sun, where not only can anger and fear be tamed, and not only can we stretch our legs and free ourselves from the constraints of what may be an otherwise sedentary lives, but where the imagination can find itself renewed and flourish wildly. Time out on the earth’s uncompromised places has proven to me that the imagination is far larger than I’d realized, that it can meander, dive, cross ground as quickly as running water, leap, and take flight.

When I received the contract to write my new book Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life, I was given six months to write it. There wasn’t time enough to even consider how difficult it might be to go from proposal to finished draft in that amount of time; I had to simply jump in and write. Luckily for me, the words came with little effort, guided as they were by not only my present time in nature but by those early, Santa Cruz days of trees and sun and waves and rain when this girl’s city ways were expanded and she found new dirt-filled, sky-studded ones!pinecone in hand


CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

Scattered like birdseed throughout the text of Step into Nature is the Cabinet of Curiosities—a compendium of art-making inspirations. Here are a few excepts to lead your into the world of nature, accompanied by your imagination:n Consider the parts and places of nature you feel connected to. Is it the deep darkness of many-roomed caves or the lushness of a rainforest? Perhaps butterflies’ ability to flit resembles your own? You might jot down a list of those aspects of nature that feel like “family.”

What’s blocked your path to imagination and creative expression? How have you responded in the past? What technique might you incorporate from nature for the next blocked moment? n On a blue-sky day, take a short return trip to childhood and lie back on a soft spot of ground. Look up at the clouds. Who’s traveling there? What appears out of the billowing white? n Consider the places nearest you to which you might offer your protection. How does this protection manifest? Why and in what ways is it important to you?

Excerpted from Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination & Spirit in Everyday Life, by Patrice Vecchione, published by Beyond Words/Atria, Simon & Schuster Publishing, 2015.

 

The Allure of Paper

IMG_3905As part of a project called Future Library, Margaret Atwood wrote a story that won’t be printed for 99 years because the trees growing in Norway to hold her words won’t be ready to harvest for paper till then. Meanwhile, those lungs of the world—as grocery clerk Jamie refers to trees—will grow and grow and become home to birds and other creatures, will make shade for those who need it, will give the wind something to run through. The project’s centered on the idea of whether there will even be humans in 99 years. And faith that there will be.

Composing on paper is entirely different from writing on a screen. Though I primarily wrote Step into Nature, my new book, on my laptop, most of it began on paper while I was out walking in the nearby woods. Each day I’d tuck a hand-embellished notebook into my fanny pack and off I’d go to walk, yes, but also to take dictation from the trees. Once in the forest, words, images, ideas came to me as they come nowhere else, and I’d jot down notes. Upon returning home those notes became sentences, paragraphs, the premise for entire chapters.

IMG_3908Going through my closets and drawers, I’ve gathered up a lot of paper and had my local copy shop repurpose it as spiral bound notebooks, small, pocket-sized ones. They’re lightweight and easy to carry. But before taking them out, before a single word is jotted down, I decorate and personalize them. I’ve found that doing so initiates a relationship with the tool, and thusly I’m more inclined to write freely in them. Sometimes I make a collage on the covers or simply paste a photograph there. I’ll embellish the inside covers with favorite quotes, words to lead me on, add pictures there too. I love the feel of nubby paper against my hand as I write. I like the feeling of the inked words taking hold of the paper and settling down there. The image I’ve made for the cover inspires my content too.

IMG_3906On Monday, June 1 I’ll offer a journal-embellishing and poetry workshop at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 7pm. Come join me if you’re local. No need to enroll in advance. The only cost is $10 for materials.

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Spring Bounty

IMG_3856Yesterday morning I arrived at the farmer’s market shortly after the opening bell. The Friday market goers were a bounty of humans buzzing around the flowers, fruit, and vegetables much like bees around a hive.

Despite being adverse to crowds, I was happy to be among them. Bee-like I hovered over the goods at Tom Koch’s stall, bending to the escarole bigger than my face, slipping a handful of mandarins into a bag, his red carrots too.

When it was my turn, Tom asked, “How are you?” with a twinkle in his blue eyes that belies his age. “Well,” I said. “And happy?” Tom pressed holding my gaze. “Yes,” came my effortless reply. “You?” I asked, “Are you well, too?” “Yes,” he said. Following his line of questioning, I continued, “And happy?” “I’m well,” said Tom. I raised my eyebrows but pressed no further. The line of people behind me let us leave it at that. Tom and I reached toward each other for a kiss. Bounty of joy and a hint of sorrow.

The hardest question I had to answer was, “What else will we eat?” And that’s what made me the happiest, that I get to ask the question. None other needed my momentary attention. Bounty was in the question itself: “What will we eat?” And “What flowers will light our home?”

IMG_3851Adding to the escarole and mandarins I carried home fava beans and radicchio, broccolini and pluots, cherries and calendulas, bachelor buttons and some flowers whose names I don’t know. Peppered bacon. Asparagus too. Bounty.

If you too frequent a farmer’s market, what bounty do you come home with in the form of food, flowers, and friendship?
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Lonely As A Cloud

IMG_3811 Much of William Wordsworth’s poetry was inspired by the walks he took—often with his sister Dorothy and later also his wife Mary. His poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” contains inspiration from them both. Dorothy kept journals and wrote about the day when out walking they first came upon a few daffodils and then many more of them. In her Grasmere Journal she wrote, “I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake…”

The lines that Wordsworth considered the poem’s best came from his wife, the second and third lines here from the poem’s final stanza, “In vacant or in pensive mood,/ They flash upon that inward eye/ which is the bliss of solitude…”

That’s inspiration being described, which is to me bliss of solitude. Ah, to wander like a cloud, alone upon the hills. Just yesterday and the day before that I was out there too.