Art & culture


Clear street, snowy trees

I often think of Emily Dickinson and her poem “There’s certain slant of light” on late February afternoons when my to-do list is long and the daylight is short.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Well trampled

It’s easy to be upbeat and energized on sunny mornings when a fresh coat of snow brightens the ground, covering the scourge of of February gray. But after dinner time–after lunch feels like an eternity ago, the afternoon chores are done, and it’s just me and my bottomless paper-piles–my spirit lags and falters.

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

Snowy steps

People speak of seasonal affective disorder as if it were a monolithic thing, with one’s moods being perpetually in the dumps from December through March. But instead, winter is an oceanic surge with troughs and swells. In the morning, when the sun is low in the sky but glaring bright, all seems possible, but when darkness descends in early afternoon, so do one’s energy and enthusiasm wane and ebb.

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

Sidestreet

Emily Dickinson knew all this; I imagine her as a raw nerve cloaked in drab, her emotional barometer ever attuned to the psychic energy of the cosmos. Faith came easily on sunny summer days when all Dickinson needed was a clover, bee, and reverie. But on winter afternoons, her mood dipped toward doom.

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

I’ve lived long enough in New England to know that winter always ends–the days eventually lengthen, and both warmth and greenery return. But it’s easy to forget that truth on a late February afternoon when the world outside is cold and dark and one’s to-do list is long.

Plowed

We got a few dense inches of snow overnight, topped by intermittent freezing rain throughout the day. Weather forecasters measure snow by depth, but that is misleading: deep snow is typically light and fluffy, and even a few inches of wet snow is much more bothersome.

Sleet on burdock

Weight would be the most helpful measure of any given snowfall: how much does a bucket left out overnight weight by morning’s light? Over time, heavy snow settles into a shallow sludge that is difficult to shovel. Throughout the day today, I could hear snowblowers in all directions as J and various neighbors worked to clear as much as they could before tonight’s plunging temperatures. Any of today’s slop not cleared away will freeze brick-hard overnight.

Sleet on sleek

This morning after walking Toivo, I finished Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, a thick brick of a novel. After initially enjoying the book, I faltered in the middle, getting bogged down in the history of Sephardic Jews in seventeenth century London, and at times I lost patience with the two modern scholars–one at career’s end, the other in graduate school–who gradually piece together the story of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe whose story is hidden in a trove of old manuscripts found in a mansion.

Sleet on snow

Scholarship can be a tedious slog, like walking in ankle-deep snow, and the academy is an often-toxic place, full of backstabbing and politicking. The Weight of Ink captures all of that, but ultimately it was Ester’s story–her curious mind and her rebellious spirit, both dangerous in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be scholars and free-thinking was denounced as heresy–that pulled me through the book to its moving conclusion, where life and the desire for continuance prove stronger than the presumed virtues of martyrdom.

Nowadays, women like me are free to write and study as much as we’d like–no societal scorn or hidden inquisitions can silence us–and there is nothing weightier on my mind today than the sizzle of sleet falling on winter window panes.

Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

Millet

Yesterday J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of French pastels. Pastels are a fragile medium: fine paper is vulnerable to light, and chalky pigments are prone to fading and smudging. For a short moment of time, these works were taken out of protective storage and displayed for all to see, and I appreciate the opportunity to admire them.

Cassatt

All works of art are handmade, but these pastel drawings seemed more immediate and tactile than paintings or sculptures. A brush stands between an artist and her paints, but pastels are held directly in an artist’s hand. The smudginess of pastels make them a perfect medium for landscape and portraiture, as they handily capture the fuzzy nuance of clouds, foliage, and skin tones. Looking at the blurred lines of these drawings, I could easily imagine the hands–indeed, the very fingers–that drew and blended them.

Mary Cassatt's pastel box

My favorite item in the exhibit wasn’t a drawing but an artifact: a well-used box of pastels formerly owned by Mary Cassatt. J is a long-time admirer of Cassatt, and before I knew him, he decorated his guest bathroom–now my bathroom–with prints of her paintings. You have to get your hands dirty to draw with pastels, so seeing tangible proof of the mess Cassatt made with her drawing supplies was thrilling, like seeing Virginia Woolf’s ink-stained hands in The Hours. Fine art can seem like an abstract or heady thing, but any individual artwork was created by a flesh-and-blood human. Mary Cassatt’s pastel box was a tangible reminder of the actual hands that drew her works.

Click here for more photos from the MFA’s French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault, which closes this weekend.

View from our seats

Last week, J and I went to the Boston Opera House to see Hamilton. It’s been just over a year since we went to the Opera House to see Fun Home, and I had high expectation of both shows, albeit in different ways, and both performances exceeded my expectations.

Overhead

With Fun Home, I had high expectations because I’d read (and loved) Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, so I was curious to see whether the musical could match the power of the book. (It did.) Whereas J watched Fun Home with no previous knowledge of the story, I couldn’t help but compare the musical with the book. I loved the musical version of Fun Home because it did such a good job translating Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her father into an entirely new medium: the same powerful story told in a slightly different way.

In the room where it happens.

With Hamilton, I went into the Opera House with an almost entirely empty mind. I didn’t read reviews of the show, and apart from knowing a handful of lines from “My Shot” and the title of the song “The Room Where It Happens,” I didn’t know much about the musical itself, other than everyone I know who has seen it has raved about it.

As it turns out, I learned a lot from the musical, and the first thing I learned was how little I knew about Alexander Hamilton himself. Yes, I remembered from high school history class that Alexander Hamilton was the first secretary of the treasury, and I knew he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr, but that was the extent of my historical knowledge. The musical did a very good job of sketching the contours of Hamilton’s life, the Revolution he fought in, the political debates he partook in, and his complicated personal life.

Boston Opera House

The genius of Hamilton, of course, is that nobody ever thought to use hip-hop as a genre to tell the story of an American Founding Father. After the first few minutes, however, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unique coupling of musical style and subject matter seemed entirely natural and even inevitable: how could it be that it took a couple hundred years for this particular story to be told in this particular way?

I wasn’t surprised that Hamilton taught historical lessons, and I wasn’t surprised that the hip-hop numbers and choreography were amazing: I trusted, after all, the opinions of the many people who had raved about the performance. What surprised me, though, was how emotionally moving the story was. Although I knew Hamilton dies in the end, I wasn’t aware of the other tragedies he and his wife faced, so I wasn’t expecting a hip-hop musical about an American Founding Father to make me cry.

Boston Opera House

In retrospect, I didn’t learn (or at least remember) much from my high school history classes because those classes never captured the emotional import of past events. It’s one thing to memorize dates and names; it’s another to understand the personalities behind historic events. Not only does Hamilton capture the political battles that happened when the Republic was born, the musical captures the personality, moods, and motivations of the people waging those fights. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece not only invited me into the room where it happened, it took me into the minds and hearts of the people there.

It’s been 15 years since Rachel Barenblat started blogging as The Velveteen Rabbi, and recently Rachel suggested that several of our long-time writing friends create a post to mark the occasion. The result was a rambling Google Doc conversation with Rachel, Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages, Dave Bonta of Via Negativa, Dale Favier of Mole, Natalie d’Arbeloff of Blaugustine, and me: six writers reflecting on 15 years of blogging and the friendships that grew out of it. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

Buried Temple, by Natalie D’Arbeloff. Acrylic on paper, 37cm x 37 cm.

Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.

Dave: At some level, it’s easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I’m an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I’ve been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other’s sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I’m OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I’ve enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn’t say I’m competitive, but Luisa’s commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there’s Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren’t mining it for blog fodder.

Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message. There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media. Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling…or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.

Dale: I didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days… I’ve outlived some of my personas — I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be 🙂 But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”

Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.

Beth: I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!

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