Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Flowers of October

Thinking about my absent parents tonight; my mother who died last January, and my father who preceded her by a mere seven months. I'm thinking about time passing, about rituals, about the upcoming holidays. Which for me start with Samhain, All Hallow's, Halloween: the turning of the Yearwheel, and for me, the true start of the new year. I am contemplating life the way I usually do in October, as the year dies, and the biosphere around me shifts into deep autumn, slowing down to its annual hibernation, the leaves failing and falling, and brightening the earth as they crumple. The utter clarity of the cold sky the mornings after the first hard frost. Over summer, I transplanted my father's pink rose bush from the old house to the new; this was the rose that grew in front of the house. Whenever it grew a blossom, in the last couple of years, Dad would cut the rose and take it to Mom, who was living by then in the Alzheimer's residential home. He would take her a fresh pink rose, which she loved. She always loved flowers, and Dad always had a rich flower garden. I didn't expect it to bloom this year, although it's been healthy otherwise. But this, this late in autumn, there is pink bud on it; if we don't get a hard frost, there will be an October rose, or maybe a November rose. Can you imagine. What a rare blessing. A bloom in late autumn, to end and begin the cycle of the year. It will bloom, and be a message.

Last night, I found out that the son of an artist friend of mine, who was developmentally disabled, prone to seizures and brain events, passed away suddenly a couple of days ago. Very suddenly, during one of his most extreme seizures; although it's wonderful he lived this long, as he's dodged a few bullets before. He was a great guy, very loving and caring. Yes, he had problems, but he was always involved in art experiences, he loved the outdoors, and he very sincerely prayed for my father, when learned my father had cancer; and he also prayed for me. He was a big-hearted person who gathered friends into his life very easily, very quickly. A remarkable soul.

In my new front yard, I have a small garden plot. There had been three old, flat juniper shrubs, that weren't doing anything except growing sideways and covering everything up. In the past month, I pulled them out, dug into the dirt around them, pulled out the bad roots, and left the crabapple tree roots from the tree stands at the corner of the garden plot. In the past few weeks, I've planted new perennial bulbs for next year. Remembering Dad's garden, how every year he planted new bulbs, even though he already had a hundred or more, around the house. remembering the explosion of color that began in March, with the purple and white crocus emerging almost before the snow was gone, through the tulips and daffodils, the lilies of high summer, and other flowers later into the early fall. in my new garden I've planted narcissus (daffodils), tulips, alium, hibiscus. I am remembering my father working in the garden. It was his form of personal therapy; he would come home from his doctor's office, change into grubby clothes, then go spend and hour or so in the garden before dinner. When he came back in he was always cheerful and present. I realize now that he was putting the difficulties of the day, the toils and frustrations and anxieties, into the soil: he was planting his darker feelings into the dirt, shedding them, giving them back to Mother Earth to be purified and released. I see myself in him, now. I understand his garden therapy, and I am starting to do it, for myself, now. I will plant some more tulips and crocus tomorrow or the next day. I transplanted the pink rose earlier in the year, but I also transplanted some hostas from Dad's yard, to line my shaded walkway. Hostas are amazing and beautiful plants, need little care, and thrive in a lot of places that other plants don't like. Many Japanese gardens in the USA feature hostas as prime plantings, since they look good the entire season.

I am going to make a small rock garden, like a pocket-size Zen garden, in part of the garden plot. I am going to arrange a collection of rocks—some gathered by me, some gathered over the years by my mother, some found digging in the new garden here—into a symbolic mountain and ocean, a dry stream, a tall peak over a flat lake. Mountains and rivers without end embrace the ten thousand things. It will be small enough that almost no one will see it form the street, unless they know how to look for it. It will be hidden but not concealed. I will know it's there, and I will look over it throughout the year.

I do this in remembrance of everyone I have known and loved who is now passed over.

I do this is memory of their love, and my love for them.

I do this knowing that all of us pass over, sooner or later. We are all ephemeral. Not even the land endures forever, changing slowly over millions of years.

I do this as part of my own healing, my own garden therapy. As I have learned to do in sweatlodge, give those tears to the earth, give them to Mother Earth, who takes them into her infinite bosom and returns light, love, and wholeness. I have cried many times in sweatlodge, and always come out blessed and healed by the Mother. She is there, in dark and heat, with the glowing heated rocks in the central pit, rising with the steam and sacred plants dropped onto the stones. Hearth and heart and home.

In my new rock garden, there will be Pueblo Quartzite from outcrops near Devil's Lake, rock 1.5 billion years old. In the garden, there will pink granite from a roadcut near the top of a pass in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. There will be dreamstones from Pescadero in California, and from Moolack Beach in Oregon. There will be a gravel path made of crushed mountain redrock, like a dry stream between two borders. There will be stones from around the world, that I have gathered from many states in the Rocky Mountains, and by the Pacific Ocean. There will be stones that my mother and father found over the years. When he was in college, my dad found on a beach of Lake Michigan, if I recall correctly, a black stone with white intrusion of quartz into, that had been weathered into the shape of the capital letter D, the initial of our family's last name. I found another D-stone on the northern shores of Lake Superior four or five years ago. The Great Lakes have given us a home, for many years, and remind us of our name.

I am remembering the dead tonight. They gather close; we talk together late into the night. I burn candles late into the night. I have two Buddhas carved from wood that sit in zazen before a carved lotus that holds a small candle. Calling the earth to bear witness. I burn candles that I have made, myself. My grandfather taught me to make candles, when I was a boy. I still have many of his candles, which I can't bring myself to burn. I wish I had his candle molds, but they were lost some years ago. I burn candles that I've made, and that close friends have made for me.

I don't understand people who say they don't make anything. That they can't, that they don't know how. I cannot understand the belief that one is incapable of Making. I think it's just a tragic misunderstanding. It is a tenet of my own faith that we all make. We are part of Creation, and we are made in the image of the Creator, so when we create, even if it's just making a meal, we are participating with the Creator, and being part of the ongoing flowering and unfolding of Creation itself. How could it not be so. We are the flowers of spring, and we are the flowers of October, when we the living remember and speak to the dead.

In October I have, many years, been at a creative peak. This has happened enough times in October to be a noticeable pattern. Often I write essays and poems at white heat. I begin enduring photo projects. I started a photo project when I was still in college that I called October Light, which was a celebration of the clear, cool blue light of the sky during October, in the Upper Midwest, and the way it colors everything with an almost spiritual clarity. I remember photos of the shadows of bare-branched trees falling across the bare ground, where one brightly-colored leaf had fallen. Even then, my aesthetic was akin to wabi-sabi, although it would be years before I knew and understand the importance of that term in Japanese aesthetics.

In October, I burn. Will we burn in heaven / like we do down here? / Will the change come / while we're waiting? / Everyone is waiting. The sky burns, the trees burn with colored light, the land burns with inner white light, the fire of living. The mind of light. The white light. The light that sheds across the lintel of the Door of Worlds, shining from the passage between worlds, no-place-between, the actinic light of the places we must traverse as we pass between. The dead open their hands: / their hands are filled with light.

In October, this year, I am freed as I have never been free. I am now an Orphan, without parents or rudder. But the Orphan is also free to create new worlds, new histories, because the past is gone and unknown. I come from a nation founded by immigrants; a nation that carries the Orphan archetype. It's no wonder we still are seen, even in dark and unfavorable times, as a land of opportunity. What drives us is our constant need to reinvent ourselves. To explore. To become pioneers, again and again, to seek new frontiers, the distant horizon. The sun is going down over there; let's follow it and see where it takes us. In my new home, my own orphanage, there have been times when I've felt haunted, oppressed, burdened, with the family history. Now, though I feel blessed to be making my own history—free at last, free at last, Lord God Almighty, I'm free at last.

Words weave together in new spells for the memory of the dead. We speak to the dead through our lives, as part of our lives. The walls between the worlds are thinnest around Samhain, All Hallow's, Halloween, and it's very easy to cross over, and have a chat. Sometimes you see little ghost cats flicker around the edges of your vision, chasing after ghost mice and ghost hares. Sometimes you see more significant and eerie presences. Some are more friendly than others. Deflectors up.

Purple were-lights gather in the fields at dusk, when the mists rise. Golden pumpkin eyes glow on porches. Harvest sheaves of wheat gathered into effigies stand at the corners of fields, and as door guardians. A distant train sounds in the deep night, echoing from the hills.

We do these things is remembrance of our beloved dead.

So Mote It Be.

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Abstract Glass

These are close-ups of glass pieces from the Dale Chihuly retrospective show at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

For me, what these colored and black lines and curves most closely resemble, in other artwork, is Georgia O'Keeffe at her most abstract. For example, as seen in the recent museum show and book catalog, Circling Around Abstraction.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Abstraction, 1927

Georgia O'Keeffe, Grey Blue & Black – Pink Circle, 1929

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Devil's Lake 3: Water, Rocks, Leaves

Devil's Lake State Park, in the Baraboo Hills, south central, WI

At a particular spot near the foot of the East Bluff, a creek meanders down from the hills. Surrounded by tall aspen, maple, and oak, the water fills with leaves in autumn, changing color. The flowing water reflects both the deep blue sky and the many-colored trees surrounding it.


Devil's Lake 2: B&W

Devil's Lake State Park, in the Baraboo Hills, south central, WI

open aired
light between mountains
grand canyon

rhythm of leaf on stone
lightflickers between sky and ground
open doors to heaven

the Devil's Doorway, on the East Bluff

flock of turkey vultures
wheeling in the thermals
along the cliffedges, waiting, watching

void in branches
a door for the mind
to inhabit

reaching for the sky
indiscrete splash of light
the tall maple

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Devil's Lake

Devil's Lake State Park, in the Baraboo Hills, south central, WI

Ancient Pre-Cambrian rocks exposed by the glaciers, forming a spring-fed lake between two bluffs. Pueblo Quartzite, some of the oldest rock exposed in North America. 1.5 billion years old, makes up the bluffs, which rise over 500 feet above the water. The lake region is considered sacred by the Native Americans, who named it Spirit Lake, and left several effigy mounds by the shore.

I camped for one night, in mid-October, then spent all day making images and video. It was an unseasonably warm day, the sky mostly empty, not much wind, the air crisp and clear. The light was superb, the autumn colors brilliant.

red sumac glows
in dawn by stand of gateway aspen
inviting the visitor

pools of gold
sea rustling
ocean of fallen leaves

dewdrops on red maple leaves
carpet the lawn—
last night's chill still underfoot

gold, gold, blue
in autumn sunrise halo—
only black in winter

lone sentinel hovers
above a sea of changing colors:
painting the sky

Three-colored maple trees, and their individual three-colored leaves, are one of my favorite things about autumn. The richness of the contrasting colors. A single tree, green at bottom, yellow in middle, red on top, as the colors slowly work their way down from the sky.

fire sunset
living earth immolation
turn to feathered dusk

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lessons from Having Been Bullied When Young

How much of my life has been about endurance.

I was writing recently some thoughts about self-assessing oneself as a creative writer, and I got into a long memory tale about being bullied while in elementary school. I was a small kid, a runt, who didn’t have a growth spurt till he was 14 or so, and I wouldn’t fight back. Not because I was afraid that they would hurt me more for fighting back; but because I knew I had such a reservoir of power in me, a volcano of berserker rage, that I knew if I ever let it out I would fucking kill them. I was more afraid of my own dark nature, and the power it contained, than anything else.

All this thinking about my childhood has led me to some self-knowledge I was able to formulate for myself in a manner that finally sank into my own being enough to really hit home, and be retained once and for all. There are two pieces to this: First, that no one who has been bullied for a long time ever completely trusts authority; authority figures back then were ineffectual, clueless, or just plain stupid, and not to be turned to for actual support, then or now. Second, it was another lesson in endurance.

I can look back on my life, now, and see how many lessons there have been about endurance. I’ve often been impatient and frustrated about feeling stuck in endurance, again and again, and I’ve prayed some dangerous prayers, at times, to break up the log-jams, as I framed them. For example, for three or four years, when I first lived in Minnesota, I prayed daily a most dangerous prayer: Thy will be done. That’s really asking for your life to be stripped clear of everything that isn’t in alliance with the will of Heaven. You’re asking for it, when you pray that prayer; and I got it. When you pray that prayer, you’re that asking everything that you don’t need, that gets in between you and the will of Heaven, to be removed; and it has been, from my life, as it has from others. I still get into anger about it, and I can still fight it, when I don’t like the guidance I’m given. That doesn’t mean I won’t do what Heaven wants me to do—most of the time. A few times this past summer I’ve had just about too much, and said so, and told the Powers That Be to go fuck themselves. Which you have to do, sometimes, or they start to take your compliance for granted, and get uppity. Respect for your own needs must be maintained: that is part of taking care of yourself, in that you have to know your limits, and refuse to be pushed into self-destruction via exhaustion or overwork. You have to be able to say STOP, and be heard. I’m significantly tougher about this than I used to be. And dangerously less willing to be tested to destruction–dangerous to anyone who pushes me in that direction, that is: that volcano is still there, the force of it available to be directed where I will, if need be. I know the mere possibility intimidates some folk, and that’s not my problem.

But another thing I learned from being bullied: keep going. Do the next thing. Don’t stop, don’t let them stop you, and don’t give up when you know better. Some of one’s innate skepticism about other people’s motives, and much of the willingness to trust one’s own inner compass over what other people claim is better for you to do—this is all part of that, too. One thing I have noticed about kids who have been bullied, myself included: they tend to develop an inner moral compass, an innate sense of wrongness, that they trust more than any received wisdom, especially if it’s been shouted down from a pulpit or microphone, by some messenger of social authority. Bullied kids tend to innately be skeptical of authority figures, no matter what arena they are in. Bullied kids tend to be harbingers of resistance, when the social fabric veers away from social justice.

I am reframing some of the arguments around poetry and the arts I found myself in the midst of, over the past year: I realize now that what I was really objecting to was being bullied. I was refusing to drink the kool-aid. I refused to just shut up and take it, when obvious ignorance and stupidity was on the attack. I was unable to stay silent in the face of obvious injustice—which amounts to being unable to stand on the sidelines, anymore, and watch other people, whether or not they were friends, get bullied. When someone I knew was being attacked for apparently personal reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of their work—when they were being targeted for vendetta—I could not keep silent. This got me into loads of trouble, and I have now left, by choice, every single poetry board I once considered home. I regard this as their loss, not mine. I cannot claim that any board I have joined since then will ever gain my complete trust; perhaps one will, the key point is that I cannot guarantee it. Once bullied, thrice shy. Still, I’m able to go forward, and participate where and when I feel like, and speaking up against injustice, still, without being too dented by attack. I’m all for cordial disagreement. The gods forbid everyone agreed on everything; nothing would make for a more bland world. My tolerance for shouting matches is at low ebb, however; if people can’t discuss their disagreements amicably, I will be happy to show them the door. I have enough drama of my own to deal life, in my life. Life is too short and too sweet to willingly take on the drama that rightly belongs to others, and not to oneself.

Anyone who thinks this is a demand for them to drink my own kool-aid is wrong: I have actively, openly, and politely solicited discussion from people who I have had disagreements with. I am always open to a good discussion. For most of the questions I’ve asked, the queries I’ve made, the viewpoints I’ve invited response to from those who disagree with me on the issues, I have for the most part received in reply a ringing, and very telling, silence. One might say, a deafening silence that communicates a great unwillingness to actually engage in discussion. So be it.

How deeply does this history of being bullied go as an underlying motivation in my recent decisions to back off from the online poetry community, and go my own way? I think, a lot. Probably a lot more than I realized, up till now. Re-framing the discussion in this way seems to lead me to insight after insight, within and without. It all seems very connected, very relevant.

I keep returning to what Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said: A prophet is one who interferes with injustice. If you place that next to the tendency for poets to be truth-tellers, to write as I often do in the vatic mode, then you can see more clearly how poets are prophets. And why they must speak out. Poets must interfere. There is no real choice but to speak out, when one sees an injustice being done.

This isn’t about superficially political poetry. This is about the spirit of injustice and bullying being rejected in all modes, in all ways. It is about refusing to sit on the sidelines when you see one side or another of an aesthetic argument resorting to name-calling and innuendo, rather than logic. It is about calling even your own friends on their bullshit, when they step over that line. No one will love you for this; it might even cost you some friends. But it essential, or you abdicate the right to call yourself a poet-prophet.

No wonder so many contemporary poets avoid this prophetic mode in their work, preferring to think only about small topics, and write narcissistically confessional poems about their feelings, or how their boyfriend just dumped them, rather than engage with these larger cultural issues. Speaking out against injustice can be scary, and it doesn’t make you loved—and the desire to be loved, to be right, is far stronger than most will admit to, even within ourselves. And the issues are indeed very large, and occasionally daunting to contemplate.

But if now us, then who? If not now, then when? The future is coming at us faster than we expect. And my art is my activism; it’s the most effective tool I’ve found, so far, for changing lives and making the world a finer place. I’ve achieved a great deal more, I feel, with my art and writing than I ever did marching in the streets. Although there will come a time, again, for marching. There will always come a time for all of these modes of interfering with injustice, in turn.

I object to political partisanship on the grounds that it is bullying, in exactly the same way I object to partisanship between literary and artistic camps. Anytime someone tells you that they know better than you do, it’s a kind of bullying. Taken to its revealed extreme, or extremism, it is a form of fundamentalism that insists that it owns all the right answers. When things get desperate, people reveal more, via their rhetoric, than they realize. They let something slip, and reveal the rot of corrosive emotion underlying their previously polite rhetoric. When the going gets tough, the bigots reveal themselves. I refer to literary bigots as well as any other variety. Those poet-bigots who get on their soapboxes about their own kind of poetry being superior to all others, let it said plainly, are bullies.

Being bullied, I now know, also made me tougher. I’m a lot tougher than I look, and tougher-minded than even some of my friends can imagine. Some few know. They know because we can argue points of belief without losing our sense of honor, or our respect for each other. We can still value each other without losing sight of each other’s basic humanity. What a bully does is target someone who seems weaker than they are themselves; targets them to pass on the abuse that probably received themselves. Bullying someone is inexcusable because it places both blame and consequence onto the world while taking no responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions. Being a bully is easy, you can always beat someone up then when they finally turn on you, you can claim you were a victim too, as your excuse. Bullies are existentially insecure; unless they are outright sociopaths, they know what they do is wrong; on some level, they know they haven't got any logic to stand on.

Being a warrior is not easy: it demands honor and personal accountability. Not all soldiers are warriors, just as not all people are fully human beings. It’s something you have to strive to be, and learn to become, and work hard to achieve. It is not a given, and it is not an entitlement. Being a warrior means honorably refraining from violence unless it is absolutely, unavoidably necessary. Genuine warriors love peace; even as they prepare for violence.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Light and Space

If I were 20 now, if I had the chance to do it all over, to start all over again, I would probably go into architecture school.

I am constantly, vividly, viscerally aware of how light and air fill an enclosed or an open space. The way natural light moves on a surface, or in a room, is transcendently beautiful, with no other adornment. A bare wall, at the right angle to the sun, is beautiful all day long. Reduced to its purist forms, architecture is a container for light, and thus for spirit.

Santa Fe, NM

I might also work in interior design or landscape design. The goal being to create spaces for contemplation, quietude, meditation. I create these spaces for myself, most recently in my new home; I also gather them to me, as memories, in many places I've traveled to, or visited.

I like natural materials. I like wood surfaces that have been weathered by sunlight, rain, and time. White sunlight on grey cedar shingles. Light rain on whitewashed wood. I like the pure solidity of reinforced concrete, but also the aesthetic of chaotic weathering. A rust stain below a steel pipe on a concrete wall has spirit. Skin on stone.

Temperance River, MN

The color white, in design and architecture, is not a void. it contains all colors, and reflects them all. It responds to the changing light throughout the day and night. A whitewashed building on a Greek island's high hill. A white picket fence. A white chair under spreading trees. A white canvas tent on a high mesa after a light snow.

camp, Arroyo Hondo, NM

I like reflections. I am not found of mirrors, but I love windows, pools of water, glass, wet stone, and the they way they all reflect light. If I were to design a terrace, I would have inset lines and curves of moving water channeling through the stone pavements; narrow enough to be easily stepped across, but wide enough to reflect the sky. I once had a dream in which I was on a terrace made of red desert stone, into which had been incised narrow channels through which water was flowing, reflecting the clear blue sky with small white clouds; the overall shape of pattern was a labyrinth.

dawn, Flambeau River, WI

I like light to come through. Skylights over shower stalls in a high-roofed bathroom. Small rectangular windows at odd places in corners and clerestories. I have a photographer's eye for light—I have noted more than once that I am aware that many of my landscape photos are really photos of the sky—and if I applied that to a building, or a public space, light would always be getting in. Light-pipes to underground subway stations.

Taos Plateau, NM

We divorce ourselves, without imagining the consequences, from the natural cycles of night and day. We use artificial light even where we don't need it. We use harsh, direct light, because we imagine it to be more efficient and illuminating, simply because it is direct. We create enclosed spaces, indoors, all too often to block out the outdoors, the natural light, perhaps to prove our dominion and control over it.

adobe building, NM

Night finds a way to get in, no matter what. A single lamp is better than a brightly-flooded room. A candle in the right place, reflecting off the walls, is better lighting than a row of flourescent lights. We don't honor the dark enough. The shadows in a room, at night, are as important as the objects and angles that make them. They're very much alive.

Taos, NM

If I were 20, and had it all to do over again, I would probably go into architecture.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Redwoods Vision, Northern California

Optional soundtrack: Of All Things Most Yielding    

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