Tuesday, December 30, 2008


images from the Hidden Garden, Northville, MI

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The Pleasures of Eclecticism

Driving to Michigan yesterday, I listened to country music on the truck stereo the entire drive.

That will shock some of my friends, who might think, because I'm a classically-trained composer who plays jazz and experimental music most of the time, that country music is beneath me. My feeling is that every artistic genre has got some great stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some really very bad stuff. Most art is mediocre, rather than bad or good; most art is bland and unthreatening. These issues of quality affect every genre of music. There's even some heavy metal that I like; though generally I don't like metal, probably at least as much for demographic and social reasons as for musical ones.

As I drove, I was listening to country music that I like: old-timey stuff, roots country, edging over the line occasionally into bluegrass and Southern rock, even jazz. I'm a Willie Nelson fan, a Johnny Cash fan, a Patsy Cline fan. I like old country, I like roots music, I like mountain music, bluegrass, blues, western swing, and all their intermingled derivatives. And I like jazz, and contemporary classical, experimental, and avant-garde music, too.

Most of what gets marketed as country music these days is as over-produced and over-packaged as the pop music coming out of Los Angeles. It's all about as shallow, and the subject matter is pretty much the same. Contemporary Nashville country music is basically rock & roll with a twang and a steel guitar. Who cares?

On the other hand, one thing you can say for most country music, even the mediocre stuff, is that it makes the miles go by faster on those long drives. Driving in the Western USA, where it might take you an entire day to cross one state, on the FM radio you get mostly two kinds of listening: country & western music stations; and Christian stations. Of course there is some overlap. When I take a long road trip, I always pack a hefty wallet of CDs, which might contain everything from obscure to centrist. Kitchens of Distinction, Joni Mitchell, J.S. Bach, October Project, Sarah MacLachlan, Perotin, a few favorite film soundtracks, Robert Ashley, Morton Subotnick, Samuel Beckett, the Police, and John Dowlnad. You carry with you a wide variety so you always have something to match your mood.

I was listening in the truck as I drove yesterday to Charlie Haden's new CD, released this past fall, that he recorded with his family and friends. The CD is titled Rambling Boy, an iconic title for an album by one of our greatest living improvising bassists. He began as a singer with his family radio show band, the youngest of the clan, and grew up singing country music on the radio. When he switched to playing bass, it was partly because he had discovered jazz. This album brings Charlie Haden full circle to his roots. It's one of my favorite CDs right now, and definitely one of the best of 2008.

I also listened to Stars and Stripes Forever, from the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band, from the 1079s. I found that CD a few days ago in a thrift store, and it caught my eye. This was one of those great iconic bands of that anything-goes era in music, that I didn't really know much about. The Dirt Band played in a lot of styles, though, not "pure" country. Bluegrass, jazz, rock, and novelty songs were all in the mix. This album features some interviews and live performances; it's historical as well as good listening.

My point here is a simple one, and one that gets overlooked in most criticism in the arts: the person's right to be eclectic, even inconsistent, in their tastes, and their right to be independent of fashion and trends. I like music from around the world, and I like music from almost every era in Western music history. I'm partial to certain periods—Elizabethan England, High Gothic organum from the school of Paris, contemporary experimental music—and locations—Indian music, Javanese gamelan, American Indian drum, and some others. I don't think it's necessary to reconcile liking such a diverse variety. The main thing is that one enjoys them all.

Where most critics fail is their tendency to think that their personal tastes indicate quality. In fact, even critics who are relatively objective in their assessments of whatever kind of art they study and respond to, and who are relatively able to sort out their personal taste from their critical assessment—even those relatively objective critics still make judgments that are more subjective than they imagine. I don't trust a critic who claims that it's all fair game, and artistic quality it purely subjective. But I also don't trust a critic who claims to be more objective than everybody else, all of the time—even if they usually are. No one can make such a claim without eventually sticking their foot in their mouth.

What I write as a critic doesn't have to be fan mail. But it also doesn't have to be a hatchet job. Far too many critics equate objectivity with negativity. Far too few critics state what succeeds in a given work of art as well as what has failed. And even relatively objective critics occasionally completely miss the point. It's called being human, and it carries no shame—so long as one can learn from one's own mistakes, and be willing to revise one's opinions.

But as a reader I can afford to be eclectic, wide-ranging, and contradictory. I can like all sorts of incompatible artistic products. Maybe you don't like them all for the same reasons. I do read trash science fiction, sometimes, for the pure pleasure of the tale; space opera is great fun, even if isn't great literature.

When I read, I read for pleasure, for knowledge, for curiosity, for much more. When I read, I am not required to be a critic. I think one problem critics have is they don't know when to stop: sit down, shut up, read a book for pure pleasure rather than for having to form an opinion about it. I do think most poets need to write more criticism; there is a certain slacking off in critical thinking, in general, when a whole rack of poets claim that they're Artistes, not thinkers. Their thinking is abandoned in favor of pure feeling, to the ultimate benefit of neither.

In artistic appreciation, one is not required to choose sides. It's not an either/or choice to like both Willie Nelson and John Coltrane. It's a both/and choice.

Never be ashamed of having eclectic tastes. People who like only one kind of music, or one kind of poetry, are usually as narrow in their other views as they are in their aesthetic choices. People who you share no common ground with politically can still be your friends at the saloon. In fact, how else are we all to find common ground, if not in what we like to listen to, to read, and to talk about? How narrow the world must be for those do not have eclectic tastes. That's not an interesting enough world, in my view, to want to live in.

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Monday, December 29, 2008


Today, midday, I went over to my parents' house for the last time, to say farewell. Farewell to the house, to all the years we lived there, together and separately. To walk through it one last time, and release all the memories, both good and bad. The house is being sold, and this was my last time there.

It was a bright cold clear day after a major melte, after Xmas, two days of dense fog, temperatures well above freezing, even raining heavily at times. On Xmas Day we had 14 inches of snow on the ground. After two days of melte, there is not much left, except where the plows piled the snow especially high. You can see the grass in spots. This morning it turned cold and clear and sunny again.

Last things:

My last visit to my parents' house, where I lived and they lived, before it is sold. I will be on the road to Michigan when that happens, later this week. So, this was my last chance to say goodbye to the place I used to call home. Last visit, last chance, last farewell, last walk in beauty.

When I walked around the back yard, one last time, the river was flooded all the way to top of the banks: between the melte, and the ice dams at the bridge downstream, the floodplain across the way is filled with water and ice, and the river is running fast and grey, water and ice lapping at the high bank on this side. The bare trees casting long black shadows across the snow and ice. Turkey tracks, deer tracks, rabbit tracks, and the random flicks of small birds, crisscrossing the lawn and and woods.

As I walked through the house, taking some last photographs, I noticed how the light was coming through the windows and spotlighting places on the walls and floors. I made some more photos, but I have thoroughly photographed the house over the last year, to document the move and sale, after my parents' deaths, and my own moving out, so these new photos are different. More inward, more quiet, just images of light and shadow, and more tightly focused.

When we emptied out the garage at last, last summer, we realized we had a huge empty room with a large echo. I had never heard such a reverb in the garage before, with the doors closed and the shelves emptied out. We played with that reverb, that echo, a little bit last summer.

Today I brought over a couple of small bamboo flutes, in addition to my camera, and I recorded some music around the house. I recorded a little in the empty sun-filled living room. But I mostly recorded in the garage. New pieces, improvised into fixed compositional structures, the way I often work; finding a line or phrase and letting it become an entire piece, developing as it progresses, inventing itself, shaping into a form so that I know when the piece is finished, and I stop playing.

This music was my farewell. I was feeling emotional, as I have been all month. This is at last the end of the process. After this, the house will be gone: no longer my problem, no longer our worry. Closure, and completion. Titles for each piece of music came to me as I played and recorded. And the titles are memorials. This too is part of the ritual of remembrance that I am undertaking for a year and a day. Each piece of this ritual, when finished, frees me to be who I am, and from now on, to do what I want to do, all obligations and expectations finished, ended, cycles completed, process forever engaging, but ending this part of each cycle. Now, I can move forward with my own life. Now, I can let go of the past. It is emotional, which is tiring, by night's end; but it's not bad feelings, just strong and compelling ones.

Farewell, for shakuhachi

Remembering all who have lived here, and who have gone before. Remembering the good times. No laments, but farewells. For now.

wood block, for suling degung

A walk-around the space, slapping the wood of the shelves on the walls, and walking through the room's center, playing the flute. A slow dervish of memory and mood and deep feeling.

Clearing, for shakuhachi

A summoning of focus. A clearing of the air, of the energy of place. An ending. A closing. An emptying. Kenosis.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Would You Want to Get an MFA in Poetry?

If you're tempted, think hard about your options. And remember that the single most important reason to do anything is because you want to do it, not because it's expected. I don't think going to grad school to do what you love doing is in any way a bad thing; but neither is it a cure for all your life's problems. It is a great idea in some ways; but it is not a panacea that will serve you all your life. Only life serves life. Experience remains the best teacher, in all its brutality and ecstasy.

I've been reading a lot of articles and essays, and books of essays, about poetry this past week or so, and the Master's of Fine Arts in writing degree has come up several times in discussion. The MFA is what one gets when one goes to a creative writing program at a graduate school English department, or creative writing program such as the Iowa Workshop. It's not a degree that takes a long time to get; usually less than two years. There are thousands of graduates out there who work in the literary field, in one capacity or another. MFA program turn out dozens or hundreds of poets every year. But poetry is one of the least funded of the arts in the USA, so your odds of finding a job in your field are near zero—unless you yourself become a poet/teacher in academia, or something similar. Don't give up your day job.

What's fascinating to me, which I was reminded of in my reading this past week, was how little the criticism of the MFA itself has changed over thirty years. The complaints about standardization, about how MFA programs churn out poets who all pretty much write the same bland post-confessional-lyric style poetry, about poets who may write well but don't teach well, about the uselessness of the degree—these complaints have all pretty much stayed the same over time. There are probably truths behind these criticisms; but they are also easy targets for criticism, because they're visible.

The two or three older poets I know who have gone back to get their MFAs have done so out of love of poetry, and because they found a teacher in a particular MFA program that they wanted to work with. I am all for older adults going back to college because they want to, for the love studying formally something they've always loved to do. I think that returning to college can be a life-affirming activity for an artist who has already wrapped some experience under her or his belt. It can be a way of systematizing what life has taught you, so that you can gain greater mastery over your tools, and also so you can pass on what you've learned. My experience of older grad students is that they are universally more interesting and more dedicated; they're in grad school because they want to be, not because it's expected, and their enthusiasm and dedication gives them renewed youth and vigor.

Speaking of things that are expected of one, I think that the Bachelor's Degree has become a necessary degree for most folks to have primarily because it now has become so devalued that it has the same importance, in a general way, that the high school diploma did 20 or 30 years ago. It's not that the Bachelor's degree is worthless, it's that it's now the entrance-level degree to society and the workforce that high school used to be, two generations ago. Effectively, we now require our children to go to high school for four more years, and pay lots of money for the privilege. On the other hand, lots of kids, when they graduate from high school, nowadays, really aren't mature enough to cope effectively with what the world has now become, in its accelerating complexity and pace of living; so those extra four years give many young folk a bit more time to discover who they are and what they want to do, and to develop some emotional maturity, as well as intellectual maturity.

So going back to grad school, later in life, can be a good process of continuing education. An MFA in creative writing is one of those programs, though, that one should do if one lives and breathes writing. It is perhaps a necessary gateway to literary discovery.

There are several recurring criticisms of the MFA writing degree, as I mentioned. The one I want to focus on for the moment, however, is a general question: Is teaching poetry in the academic (grad school) setting good for poetry?

Mostly I think it isn't. Mostly, I think it reduces inspiration to technique, and tends to create imitators rather than individual voices. The problem is in the academic setting, which is not void of personal politics or competition. The setting of scholarship can be invigorating, but it can also be deadening. A lot depends on the teacher. I've heard some poetry MFA teachers outright say that they let the students come to them, rather than being outgoing themselves. They use this as a way of sorting who is dedicated from who is not. The problem, however, is that sorting by benign neglect can also kill the joy for those students who are neither self-starters nor extraverts. A student who might need a little cajoling, encouragement, or ass-kicking can be get completely overlooked. Basically, the students are left to teach themselves.

My thought about teaching oneself is that it is probably the best way to go about learning. But why pay an institution money for what you can teach yourself by reading, reading, and more reading? So picking the right MFA program for yourself is going to definitely depend on who teaches there, and who you feel you can work with.

There is plenty of evidence that MFA programs create poets who all write the same way: short lyrics, usually post-confessional, often about small and mundane subjects. And when the topics are larger, the poems are often marred by easy sentiment and clichéd truisms, philosophical generalities, and viewpoints that assume the reader thinks just like the poet.

There is plenty of evidence that a lot of good or great poetry is created outside the academy—perhaps more than is created within. Not that "outsider art" is inherently better than "insider art," but rather that poets operating independently have less to unlearn in their creative processes. A lot of teaching is based on theory rather than practice. It is entirely too easy for ideological viewpoint to dominate the poetry, when the poet is operating in the climate of intellectual discourse and debate that is the Academy. And when "outsider" art becomes adopted into the academy, by the double process of imitating fashionable literary trends and by English departments hiring diverse viewpoints into their faculties, then "outsider" art loses its stance of rebellion, and can no longer call itself avant-garde. When you're no longer avant-garde, when you get the grants and get hired as the professors, the stance of being a rebel gets severely diluted, and becomes absurd.

So, I'm not convinced that academic teaching of poetry is worth much. I'm not convinced in any way that poetry that comes out of MFA programs is any better than poetry written by poets outside the Academy, who are off being independent writers while keeping their day jobs as whatever. MFA graduate poets may have more polish to their craft—but do they have anything beyond that? Exquisite little poems about nothing are still poems about nothing. Sometimes the dedicated amateurs rather than the professional contribute more to the arts, purely because their experimenting and exploring on their own, and are beholden to none.

If I were to go get an MFA in creative writing, it would be in poetry, or perhaps essay. I'm not much interested in writing fiction. I probably have a science fiction story or two in me, but I find most fiction to be mechanical and predictable, these days, so it doesn't attract me very deeply. It would be nice to get a grant or a scholarship from an MFA program to fund my tuition, of course. One positive way I've heard MFA's described is as 18 months of being allowed to do what you really wanted to do all along: read and write poems. So, in the footsteps of those older returning grad students I've known, I would only go get an MFA if I really wanted to, if it was made easy to do, and because it gave me the chance to immerse myself deeper into poetry, more systematically and with more time to really dig deeply.

But I would need to remain cautious about the immersion: an already-formed, published, experienced, and/or more mature artist has different needs than the beginner, or younger artist. If you let yourself get influenced too much, you risk losing your center, and getting blown every which way by the winds of literary fashion. Those winds can blow hard and fierce in MFA programs, because in some ways they have nothing else they can teach.

One of the big lessons I learned from music school was that no one can teach creativity or inspiration: they can teach you craft, technique, the tools you need to help you better mold and express and inform your vision. But if you don't go in with your vision already formed, at least partially, you risk becoming just another rote cipher among a long stream of bland imitators. So, going in as an older artist, one whose personal voice is already formed, gives you an advantage, in that you already know your work habits, and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. But you will also face resistance from teachers and fellow students, who don't realize what they have on their hands; and who will, implicitly or explicitly, try to get you to conform. The fact that my poetry is already considered radical, experimental, or alien—and that many poets whose poems would fit well into what comes out of the Iowa Workshop use words like "experimental" to describe my poetry in an essentially pejorative way—does not bode well for an easy passage. There is probably a way to smooth the passage, but I'm not sure what it is.

You're on your own, in the long run, no matter what. Artistically, it's probably better if you are. Your MFA degree is nice, and it was fun to get it, but it may not mean a thing in the end, as you might still end up pumping gas to pay the bills. And that might be when you write your best poems yet.

I've leave you with a quote from James Baldwin that seems oddly relevant:

The world's definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one's family, friends, or lovers—to say nothing of one's children—to live according to the world's definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Poets Have a Blind Spot About Music

(Note: This is a bit of a rant, about one of my pet peeves. Deal with it, or move on.)

There's an area in which many poets I have encountered have a serious blind spot—something that just gets you blank stares—and that is that songwriting is not poetry. Songwriting is songwriting; poetry is poetry. They are not the same art, and poets conflate them to their critical and artistic peril. There's a point at which poets claiming certain singer-songwriters to be poets becomes absurd; of course, one aspect of the absurdity is because the critical faculties seem to dissolve whenever fandom gets involved, or the cult of personality. Any time you hear someone claim Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan to be a genuine Poet, think carefully, and be suspicious. I realize this is heretical in many circles. But it's the truth. It takes nothing away from their accomplishments as singer-songwriters.

There are two sides to this blind spot:

First, far too many poets, because they are biased about words being their own artform and means of communication, don't give the music enough credit for making the song work. Far too many poets completely forget that adding music to words takes them both to another level, a synergistic level. Songwriting is not poetry, and the songwriters whose lyrics work on the page, as poems, are few and far between. I would argue that one or two individual songs by certain songwriters do achieve the on-the-page poem criterion, but not very many. And certainly most songs do not, even good songs.

In truth, a great song is a great song because it's a synergy of words-and-music, in which both words and music rise to a higher level than either could alone. Synergy: when additive elements create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. You cannot separate the words from the music, in a great song—although this is exactly the mistake far too many poets get stuck in. In a great song, the words and music are indivisible: they are one whole.

Most readers don't realize that when they read they song lyrics on the page, especially song lyrics they know and love well, because they well love the song the lyrics are part of, they are still playing back the melody somewhere in their minds, as they read the words. Pay attention to what is going in your mind when you read lyrics on a page: this is exactly what happens. It underlines how the words and music in a great song are not separable.

Second, far too many poets give song lyrics a quality pass. The truth is, song lyrics can get away with some clichés and tropes that purely-page-poetry cannot abide; up to and including clichéd rhymes. The reason that song lyrics can get away with this more than page-poetry is because of the music.

Now, the expectations for songwriting are different than for page-poetry. The needs are different. So, in truth, some clichés in songwriting, and the tendency towards end-rhymes, are legitimately given a pass, sometimes. This is because the music makes it work. The music, and the way the song is sung, makes all the difference.

The vast majority of song lyrics cannot survive a reading-only on-the-page silent internal performance. The vast majority of song lyrics, even from great songs, contain familiar tropes and patterns long since abandoned by formal, "pure" poetry. Even though song is the root of "fine art" poetry, in the same way that dance tunes are the root of many genres of music, once you separate poetry as its own artform, and music (wordless or instrumental music) as its own artform, then they must be considered as such.

I say this as a composer, performer, and occasional songwriter. I say this as an award-winning, credentialed composer and songwriter, who knows what the heck he is talking about: when the words and music come together, both are improved, both are enhanced, and both are made better than they were alone. Singing a poem is a very different experience than reading it, either silently or out loud. The music is what makes the difference. It is the combination of words-and-music that makes a song a song. Again, this is made evident by the failure that happens when they are broken apart: you cannot read the words on the page, as a poem, without hearing the associated music in your mind; and you cannot hear an instrumental version of the song without wanting to sing the words along. They can't be broken apart.

I know that I'm repeating myself. This is necessary, because you can say this over and over again to some poets, and you still get The Blank Stare. It just does not sink in with them.

The truth is, I have taken a lot of crap about my opinions on this—and most of that crap has frankly come from poets, who don't know anything about songwriting and some of whom are quite non-musical. (And perhaps who should know better than to opine outside their zones of actual knowledge.) I genuinely believe this to be a poet's blind spot. It's like asking some dancers to be verbally articulate: they can't do it; they have a serious blind spot about non-kinesthetic media, and to respond to your questions they'll move rather than talk—or move while they talk. It's like trying to get a fish to breathe air: struggle all they will, they can't make the shift.

The truth is, those of us who work in more than one artistic media, or who work in synergistic media such as songwriting, or multimedia video, or performance art, deal with these kinds of blind spots all the time. One can come to resent how much time and energy gets wasted defending one's experiential knowledge against the ignorance of the self-declared (theoretical) experts. Some few of whom are little more than critical bullies.

One does not have to be a musician or composer to appreciate music—but one does gain a deeper understanding of the musical process if one actively participates rather than passively observes. Even something as mundane and universal as singing along with your favorite music in your shower or in your car will bring you insights about song structure and form that you will never get from simply reading the song lyrics as words on the page. Yet, many poets think they know about songwriting from simply reading the song lyrics as words on the page. They think they understand. They don't.

Music is not an intellectual art. It is a somatic art. Singing involves the entire body: the breath, the muscles, the ears, the eyes, the skin. You can feel your own voice vibrating your flesh, resonating in your chest, throat and head. You feel music in a way that reading words does not recreate. The best poetry, I am convinced, is likewise somatic: it engages the whole person, and creates an experience in the reader's body and self that can be powerful, even life-changing. Great art is not an intellectual experience only: it is a full-body experience.

Music takes words to another level. Singing even simple words—the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, for example, or the famous song Amazing Grace—is moving in a way that engages the whole self on all our various levels.

Listening to music is immersive. Sound is omnidirectional. We hear binaurally, which we process into three-dimensional location by hearing differential echoes and resonances within an acoustic space. Sound is full-body, not unidirectional. We actually bathe in sound. The ears, the instruments of hearing, are sensitive to vibration not only from the air, but from the liquid and solid parts of the body that also transmit sound-vibrations. Our bones and flesh conduct sound vibrations even when our ears don't work. Even the deaf can feel the vibrations that sound makes in the materials that surround us.

Great songs also have something else that poets who are too verbally-biased overlook: the gaps. The phrases in the music where there are no words. The pauses between words. Great songs have silences—verbal silences, if not instrumental silences. There are pauses for breath. There are gaps in the flow of words. There are spaces of instrumental playing between the verse and chorus, and between strophes or staves. Ballad forms in song lyrics are usually broken into staves, each stave being a verse-plus-chorus. And don't forget the expressiveness of instrumental breaks: guitar solos, or improvs by any of the lead instrumentalists over a chorus of chord-changes. No words there. And any blues musician will tell you how the words matter, but they matter more when they are with the music; because in blues forms, the words are few, even sparse, and repetitious. What matters is their setting in the music.

Songs are not just words. Give that bias up! Songs are words-and-music. And the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Stop trying to break them down: it just does not work.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Winter Scenes

Images from Christmas Eve & Christmas Day, 2008, Wisconsin


Wednesday, December 24, 2008


For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, the First Duino Elegy

sudden, at the hilltop,
the angel a sustained explosion of light
we covered our eyes, blind, terrified;
was this god or demon, soul-drinker, soul-stealer?

voice out of light, saying
don't fear, be of joy but we,
not knowing, could not understand,
only hear through blank white of mind

it drove us down the road,
down from our dim cold hillside pastures,
to a hovel near a mud-walled inn,
light exploding everywhere
why didn't anyone else notice? surely they could see?

white fire made the rest of the world still
silent and pressed back from blasted ears
our eyes hidden behind raised arms
shadows darker for the light, till we tripped over
every path stone and ember

then quenched, the light gone out as sudden as arrival
after a moment sounds returned to the world
we were still crouched by the stone wall
the sheep, dumb as rocks, hadn't seen a thing

what was that? we asked each other
blank with unknowing, the light
gone, but then we saw that one star
which had bloomed over the east part of town

as though lanterns gathered by the feet of the walls
making a cool sea of light at at their base

and there it was, the trail
we had been shown, the place behind the inn wall
around back, nothing much, just dirt and straw
but what we found there—

what there was to find there
I can only name poorly, so brilliant
the afterimage of exploding light
it looked like an infant's hand
reaching towards the sun

somewhere, over another field
down some other trail, we knew
the light shall explode again
announcing to whoever would listen
that a great thing had happened

that cold night
bringing shelter to each of us
born unsheltered, born to be cold
now reborn in fire, to be warmed,
to be home, to be stood
against another bright wall, a long time from now
remembering, everything



A very white Christmas. Somewhere around a foot of snow on the ground here, with a fresh three inches this morning, and more on the way in a day or two. It's also around 20, which is the warmest it's been in a few weeks. I have the fireplace going, and candles around the room, as I sit in the pink sunset, with the Xmas trees lit up around the house. The wind is picking up a bit, and the snow-covered evergreens out my window are waving fronds in the fading light.

deer tracks pace
across fresh snow and lie
in circles between the pines

A favorite winter song of mine, in a favorite setting:

White are the far-off plains,
And white the fading forests grow;
The wind dies out amongst the tides
And denser still the snow,
A gathering weight on roof and tree
Falls down scarce audibly.

The meadows and far-sheeted streams
Lie still without a sound;
Like some soft minister of dreams
The snowfall hoods me around;
In wood and water, earth and air,
A silence is everywhere.

Save when at lonely spells
Some farmer's sleigh is urged on,
With rustling runner and sharp bells,
Swings by me and is gone;
Or from the empty waste I hear
A sound remote and clear;

The barking of a dog,
To cattle, is sharply pued,
Borne, echoing from some wayside stall
Or barnyard far afield;
Then all is silent and the snow
Falls settling soft and slow

The evening deepens and the grey
Folds closer Earth to sky
The world seems shrouded, so far away.
Its noises sleep, and I
As secret as yon buried stream
Plod dumbly on and dream.

I dream . . .

Poem: Archibald Lampman (1861-1899)
Music: Loreena McKennitt

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Blessed Solstice

Blessings on the short days, the dark days, when the light is furthest away yet beginning to return. Blessings on the winter solstice, and may you avoid wintermind even in your darkest hours.

May your Yule tree be bright, and your home be warm. May your heart be filled with joy as your hearth is filled with friends. May your spirits be deep, and your family be whole and safe. May your land be at peace, now and ever, and may your table be welcoming to the passing stranger. May your angels be close beside you, and your demons small and quiet.

So Mote It Be!

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Who Are You When There's No-One Else Around?

In my library I have a couple of shelves of books about writing: writing guides; translation memoirs; books on the philosophy of creativity, and on the practical aspects of creativity; books my writers about writing; books by poets about poetry. Some of them are more useful than others, either as inspiration or as practical guide. Counter-intuitively, some of the least helpful books on writing poetry are by poets. Surprisingly, one of most fun to read and the most useful is Stephen King's On Writing: A memoir of the craft. Three other really good and useful books, for my money, are: Conrad Aiken, Collected Criticism; Don J. Snyder, The Cliff Walk: A memoir of a job lost and a life found; Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the mind of poetry. There may be something to the truth that some of the best writing guides are structured as memoirs rather than exercise guides.

Writing guide after inspirational writing guide will tell you that your best, most valuable writing will come from your authentic self. That part of your self, or Self, that is most truly you. That part of your self out of which your authentic writing voice arises, which is distinctive and uniquely your own. The writing guides talk about how important it is to discover your authentic voice, which is the result of writing form within your authentic self, and to be true to it.

But how do you find your authentic self? Most writing guides don't tell you. They evade the issue, often because it's baffling to the rational mind, and not easy to put into words. They tell you how important it is, but not how to recognize it. We're going to take a moment here to look at that.

There are a couple of myths which the writing guides usually try to sell us, that are wrong. Or rather, they're partially right, in their intentions, and wrong in their executions.

1. Your permanent self

Some guides will tell you that you need to go within, to look deep within your self, to find your authentic self. Some will stress observation, contemplation, or meditation. Others will stress more intellectual means. Still others ignore the issue completely. There are no guarantees, of course.

But here's a way in which you are more likely to discover your authentic self: Notice what you are like when there's no-one else around. When you are completely alone, there is no need to perform for others, to wear masks, to pretend to be something other than what we are. When you're alone, you can let the masks fall away, and just be who you are. When there's no play, no acting, no thought of self-conscious presence on the landscape of interaction. When you're just sitting there quietly, watching the light change, taking in the silence, not thinking about anything in particular, not trying to force yourself to be anything to anyone.

Writing is often proclaimed to be a solitary activity, in which we go off alone to our fortresses of solitude, and wrestle with our angels and demons to bring forth the written word. But we carry our outer selves into our chambers with us; our relationships, intangible as cobwebs, are still in our minds. Both our joys and our family dramas are grist for the mill. Every writer at some point pulls some incident from life as a starting point, for good or ill. It's a basic practice, and almost every writing guide will at some advise you to "write what you know."

There are many benefits to solitude. It is when we are alone that we can most clearly hear those quiet inner voices, that our own inner selves in conversation, our mind in operation, the still, small voice of guidance and inspiration. Even when we meditate in a group, when we do it in silence, we are alone in counting our breaths and observing our thoughts arising out of nothingness, and falling away, back into nothingness. Nothing hones the observation of the self like silent inner contemplation as a discipline.

There is something eternal and changeless deep within us. We can reach it, and many have. This deep inner part of our selves is a place we are unable to talk about, because it exists in a place before naming, a place in us where words do not go, and cannot. Our deepest inner self is pre-verbal, and not subject to language. Our deepest self is not actually our writer's self, or our authentic voice in writing: because it is a place without words.

Yet our authentic writing self still has a cloud of words whirling in the air around it. This is not the deepest, innermost silence. But it is deep, and it is clear. It's not far away from center. You can use your memories of your deepest, pre-verbal self, as a touchstone for finding your writer's mind, as a place to begin from. If poetry is a Way, as haiku master Matuso Basho said it was, then this is the poetry mind from which one sets out.

Who are you when no-one's watching? Who are you when you're all alone? Who are you when no-one else is around, and you have no agenda, no plan, nothing to do but just be.

That person who you are, in those moments of silence and solitude, that person is more likely to be your authentic self. You can begin to write from within that space, tentatively perhaps, at first, with confidence growing with practice. With time, you can come to recognize how being alone in this silence feels; and you can take it with you, and remember what it feels like, and go to that same place whenever you write. It is something you can learn to find in yourself, that becomes your beginning place.

Start there, at least, and see where your aloneness, even if it's only momentary, takes you. Remembering who you are when there's no-one else around to influence how you are, in that moment, is a remembering that, with practice, you can also take back with you into your daily life, your relationships and interactions, and your work. This is how you learn to live authentically, and consciously aware of your own true self, even in the midst of turbulence and chaos, of everyday drama and strife.

2. Your impermanent self

One thing the guidebooks try to convince us of, albeit tacitly, is that once we've found our authentic self, it is a permanent, unchanging, fixed thing. This is completely wrong.

Who you are is always changing and growing. There is indeed a permanent self, an eternal self, under all the layers. But even this silent, eternal self is always evolving, always changing.

What are you like when you're alone? Are you the same as when you're with others? (A clue that you're living perhaps more authentically than most.) Are you quieter, more contemplative, more inward? Are you darker and more dour? Are you cheerful? playful? still? Do you remain more or less the same as when with others? Do you actively enjoy being alone, or does it make you nervous? These are all clues.

The truth is: No-one is fixed forever in one self. We are mercurial. To a greater or lesser degree, we change as we follow our feelings, our thoughts, our memories. This doesn't mean you have to act them out when alone, like some solitary pantomime, but your feelings are essential aspect your authentic self, and of your writer's voice.

Your authentic voice as a writer will change often, over the course of your lifetime. Don't think that once you've found it, that it will never change again. In fact, you ought to hope that you do keep changing, because change is a marker of experience, growth, and personal evolution. If you stagnate, you die: it's that simple.

I am not the same writer I was ten years ago, but I do feel like I continue to write from an authentic self that has an authentic voice. That voice has grown and changed over that time, and the products themselves, the samples of writing I leave strewn in my wake, are quite different now from what they were back then. But there is a central core that remains constant. The moon changes its face as it goes through its monthly changes, its phases of appearance; but the moon itself is constant, and solidly present, and relatively permanent. in yourself, there is a moon that also changes will remaining the same.

The Divine exists at the point of every paradox, and this paradox of changeless changing is essential knowledge for every artist. You will change, and you will remain the same. There are layers to the self, some more friable than others. The innermost, darkest chambers are those out of which our unique and authentic voices arise. You will know them by their grip on your attention. You will recognize them by their demanding presence in your attention. You can't evade or ignore them: they will be heard.

That's when you know you're on to something.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Grand Tetons 2: Black & White

more images from Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

When I arrived at the Tetons this trip, I had left Idaho Falls in the morning, driving up the Snake River Canyon, all the way up to the Tetons. It was a journey of some few hours, and all the way it was either raining, or promising rain. The ground when I stopped in the Snake River Canyon to take photos was freezing mud. It was a dreary day.

But I knew that when I got to the Tetons, the sky would begin to clear. To clear enough to reveal blue sky behind the fast-moving clouds, and to provide dramatic lighting. That is what I asked for, and what I hoped for. And that's exactly what happened. I spent the rest of the day in the Tetons, photographing. At times the sky was completely clear over me, warming me with direct sunlight, even though clouds still built over the mountain peaks.

Rays of light come stabbing down through the clouds above the peaks. The clouds moving very fast, snowing up there above the glaciers and cold grey Precambrian stone. Sometimes stabbing down to spotlight a parcel of land. Jackson Lake, at the foot of the mountains, is the source of the Snake River; another reason the Snake is one of my favorite rivers, because of its origins.

It was dramatic lighting all day. When I pulled into the Snake River overlook on the highway just south of the Pacific River flowage, surrounded by golden aspen, I knew I would get good photos there. I knew that I was supposed to arrive exactly when I did. I was not the only photographer there, and I had a good conversation with a nice man from Arizona, who was doing a long photographic project about the entire length Hwy. 191, which runs from Canada through Mexico, and passes directly through the Tetons, through Yellowstone, and many other scenic areas.

Early upon my arrival at the Tetons, I started shooting some of what I was doing in black & white. I felt the presence of Ansel Adams looking over my shoulder all day; so shooting in B&W was a natural thing. This scenic overlook above the Snake River is very near the same location in which Adams took one of his most iconic photos of the Tetons; it has been endlessly reproduced, and is quite famous. When I stopped at the Park station in Jackson, before driving on north, Adams' photo was reproduced as everything from posters to refrigerator magnets, and some even more exotic media. (I bought myself a notecard reprint of the image, as an icon to take home.)

The photos I took this single day of driving, stopping, and shooting in the Tetons are among the best photos of the entire road trip. The dramatic lighting was a gift from the gods, in answer to a photographer's prayers. The weather was windy but stable enough for the video camera to capture some amazing footage. These photos are some of the best I've ever captured, and the best I've ever been able to make of the Tetons.

This road trip, lasting five weeks, was more than a vacation. It was a revelation, and a life-changing experience. Somewhere along the way, I rose to a new level in my own photography. Going back over the images I made during the trip, I see many that are at a new level, both technically and artistically. I think I rose to a new level, although I couldn't tell you how or why. It just seemed to happen. I can truthfully say that intuition played a huge role in all this, leading me to be in the right place at just the right moment, more often than not. I can truthfully say that I spent a lot of time on this trip in, if you will, listening to my intuition about where I was supposed to go, and when I was supposed to get there. More than once, events and timings were synchronistic. Just look at the dramatic lighting made by these clouds! Right time, right place, luck and listening as my guides.

These are some of the best photographs I've ever made, ever; and they are the start of something new. This return to making B&W photos during the trip was part of this change, this evolution, this growth in my skills and eye. I can sense this, although it's very hard to articulate it verbally. I can only point to it as something that I think is new and different, and stumble around it with limited words. Meanwhile, the images speak for themselves, and, I think, speak well.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Grand Tetons 1

images from Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Grand Tetons, in northwestern Wyoming, are one of my favorite places on the planet. I first saw these jagged young peaks when I was 18 years old, studying geology in the field, my first college course at the University of Michigan, the summer of 1977. We were based near Hoback Junction, just minutes south of Jackson, and the Tetons.

It's been several years since I was here last. Driving through Jackson, it's a lot more developed. When I was here doing geology, Hoback Junction was a turn in the road; now there are houses and businesses, and it's an actual small town. Jackson proper was the central park square downtown, surrounded by the shopping district which is pretty much unchanged, classic Western porches and boardwalks in front of a wide variety of stores; the general store looks about the same as it used to from the outside. The town itself was small, although it was already known as a ski resort in winter. The southern end of Jackson seems to be where it's been built up a lot more: hotels, condos, shopping malls. I stopped on this trip at a very good organic grocery store, and bought myself cheese, meat, and crackers for a hearty snack lunch. There was a very nice used book store next door, and a laundromat on the other side of the grocery store. Obviously a lot more tourists are here than used to be. The town was hopping as I passed through, stopping briefly at the used book store, buying a couple of books, and having my lunch out of the cooler in the back of the truck.

For me, the Tetons are the archetypal mountains. In my imagination, when I think about how mountains are supposed to look, I think of the Tetons. In my dreams, when I am in the mountains, it is usually near mountains that look like these, sipping water from cold glacial lakes like these.

The Grand Tetons are the youngest mountain range in the Rocky Mountains. Most of the ranges in the Rockies age out at around 50 million years ago. The Tetons are 10 millions old, and they are still uplifting. The eastern face of the range is a block fault that is still moving, so the peaks are going up and the floor of Jackson Hole is going down. The block is rising relatively fast, too, about 5 inches a century. Every thousand years or so there's a magnitude 7 or more earthquake, right here, as the rocks along the fault break and slip, raising the peak even higher in a sudden jolt.

The reason the Tetons are so jagged is because they're young. Sharp edges haven't been worn down by time as yet, although the Hole and the Tetons were covered by glaciers during the last ice age events, circa 15,000 years ago. There are glacial polish zones where the bedrock has been smoothed and brightened by the moving ice.

I've climbed up to the glacial cirques at the base of the tall peaks, when I was doing geology here; I summited one or two of the lower peaks, on various climbs. I don't know that I could do that again; it's a younger man's sport. I remember hiking up the canyon trails towards the summit valleys. I stopped once at a switchback to drink water and rest for a moment; a ground squirrel came and sat on my knee, looking for a handout, obviously used to being fed by hikers. At the lowest of the glacial lakes, we all stripped our clothes off after the hot summer's day climb and skinny-dipped in the freezing, clear lake waters. That was our lunch break. Afterwards, it was another thousand feet and more to climb up to the foot of the glacier itself. I remember standing on the terminal moraine just under the high mountain peak, very close to the edge of the glacier itself, breathing hard, staring off into the vast open space over Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains to the east of the Hole. It was a hot, clear summer day, and you could see literally over the curve of the earth. I got sunburned in the thin air and bright light. I'd never experienced such a long view before in my life, and it left a permanent imprint on me. In all my travels since, I've often looked for the long view, which you get from the tops of mountain ranges, looking out over valleys, or the ocean. By this time in my life, I'd already been around the world, and grown up in southern Asia, the first half of my childhood. But I'd never seen a view like this before, and I was immediately addicted to such views. I remember standing there a long time, contemplating. I also took some print and slide photos with my pocket Instamatic camera (110 cartridge film), the only camera I had at the time, on this trip. This was my first extended trip out West, and my first photographs of the West were taken on these excursions. (I found some of these old photos recently when I was sorting through boxes in the basement.)

I bought a small book sometime that summer, probably in a store in jackson, called Creation of the Teton Landscape: The geologic story of Grand Teton National Park, by two USGS geologists, J.D. Love and John C. Reed, Jr. David Love is the same geologist that John McPhee profiled along with his home state of Wyoming in his classic book Rising from the Plains, part of McPhee's masterpiece of popular writing about geology, Annals of the Former World. I've read this book a few times since I bought it in 1977, a fresh reprint; it turns out that the book's entire contents are available online, here. It's still the standard guide to Teton geology, in its current edition.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gathering In

I spent some time, this cold clear winter afternoon, before winter officially begins, gathering in what I have made in the past year, to look over, to remark, to assess. The past three years I have pulled together all poems written within the year into annual master files. This is both backup and overview. I spent some hours today gathering in this year's poem-harvest, bemused, as before, that there were as many individual shoots and branches as there were. I never seem to know how many pieces I have left scattered behind me in the road; I usually look forward, not back. The road goes ever on and on, and looking back is not always wise; except occasionally, just to see how far one has traveled. At some point, it's smart to stop and tell the bees, so they can spread the news around.

In this bleak, bitter cold, I look through what I've gathered, somewhat surprised. Did I write that this year? I thought it was so much older. Time compresses around art-making, so that you sometimes feel as if you've lived with a piece your entire life, but it's been only months. And time also dances around what we make, when we look more forwards than back, dancing that spiral dance that emerges and re-emerges and dissolves back into our deepest blood.

Snow Spiral, from Spiral Dance

I look over what I've made, this past cycle of time, and realize the time was not all ill-spent, not as wasted and empty as I had sometimes felt. Out of deserts come fountains, their blue water all the more precious for running down the sunstruck redrock.

Mostly what I've made I cannot explain, anymore than I can see the source of the desert water. The spring emerges from the stone, but did it flow down inside the cliff, or horizontally along strata from a scarp far the other side of nowhere? Are our sources near or far? Time and space collapse into knowing only that the water arrives, as it arrives, trickle by drop, never drying up, no less wet for rising into dry, dry air.

I can remember when I took a photograph, and where it was taken, the time of day, the location, the conditions, even sometimes what I was thinking as I looked through the viewfinder, preparatory to releasing the shutter. We release the shutter as if it were a hound that runs faster than eyesight, slipping out and back in a brief wind. I can often remember the technical details. But the photograph, looked at months later, remains a mystery, something sudden and unseen that has quickened into a moment one can contemplate long. There's no way to explain the way paper captures time. We can talk around it, even explain it away; we can rationalize why the shutter was snapped that moment, just so. But in truth it remains mysterious: spirit moving the finger, spirit posing for its own portrait, revealing itself in stopped motion to be never-stopping, never-still. If you wait long enough for spirit to take the photo, removing yourself from the occasion, you can make one or two true images in a life.

And the hours of music that spool out along the road like weightless threads hovering in air, as far behind back down the road as the horizon. The tapestry of never-ending. It rolls along, unbroken, a continuous silent soundtrack, never still, always vibrating, collapsing and expanding with the lunging never-quiet breath. Draw in through nose and out through song. As the road goes ever on and on.

Out of the book come drawing and words, the road's journal. Somehow the hand moves, still, moves again, tracing loops and lines and circles. Patterns of hand-turned ink carry meaning into the way ahead, carpeting the way behind. You can only look at the book's voice so long, before the page blinds and sears. The glare from light reflecting off that white seamless ground, tracks dancing on snow. Who left these marks, no one can name. They are here, noticed, remarked, but never owned.

Which rose first, the moon or the trees?


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

days go by

you stall and stammer
before encounters etched into long
returns of memory

snow all afternoon and into night drive home in blizzard red blue light trucks in snow
blur by wind across eaten sacrificed corn-god harvested plains a month ago covered
with dead corn husks now furrowed black earth whitening under blizzard's onslaught
and salutation a silver moon brief week ago coin spun silver into high arctic cold stars
wheeling now trees again full of white leaves and cones while sun goes missing
snow all night driving brief surge of stalled traffic into blue red whirl lights spun
out of water into frozen white earth untented hearth flurries down chute throat of fire
and cold fires burn blue red silver coin spun high cold wind the bones of evening

as days go by, as nothing happens in this long dormancy still
sleep of winter ages long sleep of come heavy sleep the image of true death

Come, Heavy Sleep    
by John Dowland; processed and electronically modified by AD

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Snake and Hoback

Driving up the Snake River valley from idaho and into Wyoming, suddenly you realize it's not summer anymore. It's cold, rainy, and cloudy, and the leaves on the aspen and maple have started to turn bright fall colors.

When I set out on this long roadtrip out West, in mid-August, it was still high summer. I drove through the Utah and Nevada deserts in 100 degree sunny heat. I drove up the Pacific coast as the autumn fogs began to roll in off the ocean, chilling everything. Now, the days I am here in Idaho and Wyoming are the days of the fall equinox, in late September, and autumn has already begun.

Clouds layer above the road like strata in the mountains. The past few days of travel have mostly been rainy, dreary, and depressing. From the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia, through Portland, east up the Columbia River gorge into eastern Oregon, along the Snake River valley till you turn on Hwy. 20 to go across the plain to Craters and beyond, to Idaho Falls, then on now to Wyoming, driving again up the Snake River valley, it's been more rain than not. You haven't seen the sun in days, long days and nights of driving in sometimes torrential downpours, sometimes light mist.

The Snake River here forms a canyon once you reach the Wyoming border. In Idaho, there's a wide floodplain, and a manmade reservoir lake made by damming the river. On the Wyoming side, the canyon walls steepen, and the river becomes white and wild, bounding over rapids at every turn, green instead of blue or brown, the green of churned waters.

The Snake is one of my favorite rivers in North America. It's a long, winding river, changing through many moods and terrains. It's headwaters are at the foot of the Grand Tetons, my favorite mountain range. It empties into the Columbia where the borders of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon all meet, at the twin cities of Lewiston and Clarkston, named for the famed explorers. The river itself is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail, as are the highways that track it.

The Snake feels wild, even when it flows across the vast volcanic plain of south central Idaho, where it has carved a deep wide canyon into the flowstone, with towering basalt cliffs overlooking its curves. Its own canyon now keeps it locked into its channel, deepening without widening as it passes through the volcanic zone. The Snake feels wild. There's a lot of whitewater rafting upstream.

Where the Hoback River flows into the Snake is a place called Hoback Junction. Before turning north to pass through Jackson, WY, and proceed on to the Tetons, and then on to Yellowstone, I pause for awhile to go up the Hoback River road, and a few miles into the Hoback Canyon.

Willow Creek, tributary of the Hoback River, entering just below the Canyon

When I was 18 years old, I spent the entire summer here, right here: my first summer away from home, and my first college course, Geology 106: Geology taught in the field at the University of Michigan geological field station at Hoback Junction. The course was taught by three geology professors, a sedimentologist, a vulcanologist, and a geomorphologist. I had a real knack for the coursework. We learned in the field by driving up to outcrops and putting our noses to the rock itself. Rock hammers and magnifying glasses as necklaces were standard gear, along with sturdy clothing and rugged boots. We climbed up into the hills right here above the Hoback, to spend a day on various outcrops. Some other students and I climbed the hills behind the camp, going up high, able to see the southern edge of Tetons from the summit of the hills behind camp. I saw my first moose, placidly feeding on long grass across a meadow, below us to the north. I had never been out West before. This was the start of my love affair with the Rocky Mountains, with Wyoming in particular, which remains a favorite place of mine on the planet. I returned to Michigan after the summer of geology, tanned, fit, a little fringe of young man's beard, having done very well in class and deciding to pursue geology as my career, at least for awhile.

That line of silver buildings is the field station where I lived that summer, and from which we worked. The hills behind are the hills we climbed to see the Tetons from, and on the other side is where we saw the moose grazing.

Driving here again, spending time remembering. The time we went skinnydipping in Willow Creek, right where it flowed into the Hoback, a mile's walk from camp. The time we went up the canyon to do a field study of erosion and deposition on the canyon's north-facing side. The time we all drove up the Canyon for an evening at a local bar, getting drunk, playing pool. And the ride I took back to camp on the back of a motorcycle, racing too fast down the canyon, bending with the wind and the curves in the road. Exhilarating and terrifying both.

Today it's fall along the Hoback River. The aspens are turning golden. The maples are turning fire red. The pines and cedars, evergreen, everlasting, stoic in their emerald shrouds, kneel down to accept the coming of rain, the coming of snow, the weight of winter and the surge of melte to come, next spring. Returning home. The day I spend here feels like coming home. It was a good time in my life. It's a joy to see what has not changed, since then.

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Pleasures of Books

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trees of Light

I have three Xmas trees decorated and finished in my hew home. (They're artificial trees, nice but nothing special in themselves.) The big one in the music studio (the second bedroom converted to this purpose) is covered with musically-themed ornaments, which is a tradition in my family. My mother was a full-time musician, and my physician father was a dedicated amateur, so we have given each other musically-themed gifts for many years. This tree also bears a few special ornaments that are my favorite, my most beautiful ornaments.

There are two smaller trees, one on the glassed-in porch, and one on the table in the master bedroom. The small tree on the porch is themed for Mom and Dad, as a memorial tree. It bears ornaments that make me think of them, including turtles, loons, a squirrel, a Michigan ornament, and others that they had given each other over the years. It’s their tree. The third tree, in my bedroom, is all shiny reflective ornaments, like mirror-covered shapes, balls, and other things that cast light. In the afternoon sunlight, sparks of light fall all over the walls and carpet in this room. This tree also carries some of my personal ornaments, specifically given to me over the years by my family.

A solstice tree is about light. You hang the round reflective ball ornaments on the inner branches, so they reflect more light outwards, and also reflect the images of the ornaments and lights. They brighten up the whole tree with spherical mirrors. The outer branch tips is where I like to put the showpiece ornaments.

It’s snowed heavily as I decorated, setting the mood, the flakes big and heavy and falling almost vertically. Snow blows in heavy waves off the roof, making veils in front of the window.

I find myself feeling heavy with emotion most days this winter. It’s partly the holidays, the memories associated with them, and with decorating a tree. It's partly that it's my first holiday season alone; I often feel cut off, disconnected from the celebrations surrounding me. I do have friends, but many of them live far away from here, as does my remaining family. I have been invited to some family friends' celebrations, but I've turned down most of them, feeling like a fifth wheel; everybody has their own lives to enjoy together, and they ought to appreciate them all the more. I'm too close to knowing how fragile and ephemeral it all is. They need to spend the full force of their time together, without a relative stranger being there to also be entertained.

Part of me thinks decorating a tree or two for the holidays is stupid, as no one will ever come here to see them; and if you aren’t making them to share, then why bother? But then I realize this is part of my ritual of remembrance for this year; and I do it for myself, and for my absent parents. Furthermore, winter solstice trees are Trees of Life and Light. The Tannenbaum is much older as a tradition than Xmas, and is about the Light Returning as the Yearwheel turns; we come back to the light after plunging into the dark, and the Year turns round again. The further North one lives, of course, the darker and colder it gets at winter solstice. I live in the Northern Midwest, that part of the center of the United States that could be defined as being within a day’s drive of Canada. I am native to this region, despite my early years in India. The Midwest remains the heartland, and my own Heartland. I will always return here, as it’s the only home part of me recognizes as enduring, although I have had many other short term homes across the globe. My body feels like it’s at home, here, even though my soul likes to rove and wander and travel, and return.

Yet who do I have to share these beautiful trees with? Most of my closest friends don’t live nearby, and none of my family is left here. And they have their own celebrations to attend to. I have been feeling very alone, isolated, cut off, abandoned, even alienated. Everyone around me has their relationships, their families, their whirls of fellowship and friends. I have nothing of that left to me. I have a few friends here, it’s true, and they’re good friends; but my own closest friends pass through only briefly, or do not ever visit.

So I am probably overdoing the decorating this first winter solstice completely alone; I am probably trying too hard to remind myself of the light and joy of this time of year, to keep the darkness at bay. But I am doing it for myself, if for no one else: because I need these reminders, because I need to feel like the winter won’t swallow me; because I need to feel less alone and alienated, less separated from everything I have ever loved, and everyone. This ritual of remembrance is for we, the living. Just connecting is a struggle, and takes all my energy. Anything beyond that is something welcome but unexpected.

I plan to leave these trees up and decorated till after my birthday, which comes less than a month after Xmas, in mid-january. I always felt short-changed by that, when so many of my friends had summer birthdays. (On the other hand, winter's child is who I am, in so many ways.) My parents often left their Xmas trees up till my birthday, which was kind and thoughtful of them. They knew how much I liked trees filled with light, and they liked being able to add something to my birthday celebrations, to make up for its close proximity to Xmas.

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Time in the Rock

Here's a thing: a bright band of desert-varnished stone in the sun. Pictographs chipped into it, gradually through thousands of years fading back to rust, varnished again by time. The thought behind the thing: small brown-skinned carvers, sweating in the sun here, left these marks, carved with their hands these hands, spit-painted their hands over the top layer of crystal: they too were human, were once here, were once living, now gone. As we too shall go on. The rock remains.

Sorcerer hand and heart still gesture. Transform horned man beast to god and back again. Shifting into rock out of time. Gold flowstone banded riverbed tracks layered and lifted into the sun. hand to hand stretched into rock socket flute ring from hills. Hunchbacked fluteplayer live in the amphitheater of time over the valley floor stream trickle down to green river flow stone lamp and star.

And another: here lizards chase each other up the cliff. A face peers from a corner, weathered and cracked. A face, unknown, artist or subject, god or shaman or self, unknown. Rocks speak to each other, rocks that speak for themselves. Over the jagged edge, clouds rise and gather, woolen, rigid.

Into some kind of shelter the painted hands gather. Gods in stone gestures. Gods silent, dancing, captured in cliffs, remaining after the gatherers have gone, after we too shall be gone.