Friday, May 28, 2010

The Anemia Diaries

Don't ever let anyone convince you that the mind and body aren't one.

Those ultra-brainy philosophers walking around in a mental fog; those cyberpunks who want to merge with the Net, achieve cybergnosis and leave the "meat" behind in some kind of digital ecstasy; those mavens of the mainstream culture who are all head no heart; those poets who think it's all a mental puzzle box game; those writers who are so locked into their words that they forget they have lungs; those denizens of everyday life who live in their heads all the time, and forget they have bodies, or wish to.

None of that. They're all wrong.

That the mind and body are one has been brought home to me, forcefully, this past week, with events that serve as a reminder I'm not likely to forget any time soon.

Before I go any further, this is going to be one of those rare personal essays wherein I give more information about what's been going in my personal life than I usually reveal. The reason is, there’s a good story here, and some good lessons, that emerged out of the adventures of the past few days.

Another thing I rarely do, I also do here, that is: to write this in diary form. A lot happened in a short period of time, and even leaving out the inessentials, it’s a bold tale to tell.

Monday, May 24

Last night was a rough night. I think I have another ear infection. Swallowing is incredibly painful, yet I must do so regularly, because fluid is draining into my mouth from my eustachian tubes, or sinuses.

Today I went in for a doctor’s visit. The urgency was the pain swallowing, but I also wanted to talk over everything that’s been piling up these past few weeks. I have been feeling progressively more tired and sick for months now, and life had become an uphill struggle, a depressing daily grind just to survive. I felt like I was getting worse, and I wanted to talk things over. Because my mind was feeling foggy, I even wrote everything I was concerned about down, so I wouldn't forget.

The doctor visit was good, actually very reassuring. My concerns that could be addressed were addressed, or at least acknowledged. There are still some things in play. I was in misery, because the night before a growing pain when swallowing had blossomed into what the doctor discovered was a fully-blocked eustachian tube (which at first I thought was an ear infection), and swallowing that day was literally making me double over in pain; so I had eaten almost nothing. They irrigated my ear, and gave me some drops to help with the blocked tube, and by nightfall the pain had decreased enough that I could eat. (A few days and drops later, I can swallow without pain for the first time in a week.)

The clinic also drew some blood, to run some tests, and check on where my various levels were. The last time blood had been drawn, a couple of months prior, I had been slightly anemic, but otherwise my bloodwork was quite good. (My doctor has more than once told me that, despite my chronic illness, I have the bloodwork of a healthy man much younger than I am.)

Later in the day:

Feeling like crap. Hours spent at the clinic and at the pharmacy waiting to see people, and the follow-ups, and finally getting my meds. I actually was so tired at times that I managed to almost nap. I’m home again now, and I’ve actually turned on the air conditioning, to cool off the house somewhat. As much as I love this unseasonal tropical heat, I can’t handle it when I’m this weak and sick. The doctor and I went over everything I’m concerned about, all the past medications, my current foreground pains and worries. I got some clarifications and questions answered, and feel better about things.

It still hurts like hell to swallow, and I’m tired out from the pain. Now I’ve put some prescribed drops in my ear, and hope that I’ll be able to sleep without too much pain tonight. Also a migraine brought on by this long stressful day. So, pills taken, eardrops done, resting now, in the cooling air. Even with the AC I’m not going to cool it down to ridiculous levels; just below 80 is fine, down from 90-plus outside. In the evening, in the cooler air, I’ll turn off the AC and open the windows again for the fresh air.

I am so wiped out. I’m taking the rest of the day off. I’m trying to get some blood sugar in me; it’s slow going, because of the pain when swallowing.

Later, late night:

Two rounds of ear drops and the pain is thankfully greatly lessened. I’m drinking chamomile tea, and getting ready for bed. Another round of drops before bed, then hopefully I’ll sleep like a log. It was a tough day. But you know, I don’t fee depressed, and I don’t feel despairing. I’m not ready or able to jump up and down in glee, just yet, but I don’t feel like hell either. I feel pretty good, relatively speaking. I got through a very challenging, painful day.

Tuesday, May 25

Well, I said I was sick. . . .

And now I’m in the Beloit Hospital tonight getting two units of red blood cells.

I went in to see my doctor at the clinic yesterday, because I have continued to feel bad ever since March, and wasn't feeling like I was getting any better. Also, starting Sunday night I had a bad earache and extreme pain when swallowing; I've had ear infections before, and it fit the pattern. It turned out that it was a blocked eustachian tube; they irrigated my ear, and gave me some drops, and I felt much better by bedtime last night.

But they also drew some blood for some tests, just checking stuff. The next afternoon, today, I received a phone call from the clinic nurse, telling me to drop everything, get to the hospital Right Now, so that could give me a transfusion of two units of red blood cells. My red blood cell count was dangerously low.

This is not the sort of thing one likes hearing on the phone while waiting to check out at the grocery store. But I followed instructions, dropped everything and drove to the hospital Right Now.

Apparently my CBC (red blood cell count) was 6.4, which is half of what it's supposed to be. Apparently, my chronic illness, which involves bleeding ulcers in the colon, had depleted my blood count over the past few months to the point where I was two quarts low and needed a refill. Who knew? The leakage was gradual enough that I had adapted all along the way, and even though I felt bad, it was normalized, not a radical change. It's amazing what you can come to think of as normal, if the process is gradual enough.

(taken with my camera phone, since my camera was at home)

The hospital bureaucracy was a real mess. I was supposed to be an outpatient, but it was late in the day before I got the message, so then they wanted me to check in overnight. Which is fun when you're unemployed and have no health insurance. Well, I'll have to deal with all of that later.

My status now, some hours later, after I’d been given a bed, changed into a gown, and they started the transfusions, is that they did switch me back to outpatient status, but still I'm in a bed in a shared hospital room, receiving two units of blood. I'll be going home tonight, but it will be really late at night. I’m okay with that. I don’t want to spend the night here. A friend will take me home if necessary. It'll probably be 2am, but I'll be in my own bed for the night, and resting better.

The nurses say that I may actually be okay to drive myself home; after all, the transfusion should bring me back to a semblance of normal strength. They gave me a Benadryl, and they do monitor the start of each bag of red blood cells, to be sure there’s no allergic reaction. The nurses like me, and I like them; it comes from being a doctor’s son, I know all the gallows humor that hospital staff have to keep themselves sane. The nurse sits with me as each bag starts, to monitor. Your blood pressure goes way up for a few minutes, as the inflow raises the pressure; these are the highest BP readings I’ve ever had, 178/80, for example. Then they come back down to normal, as the flow steadies. It’s a very strange sensation, feeling, the pressure of the saline and red blood cells mixed, going into the back of your hand, where they finally placed it IV; they were better able to thread the vein there. I could feel the pressure of the fluids coming in, and I could taste salt and sweet in my mouth as they began. I sat there thinking: who owned these red blood cells originally? where are they from? And I felt deep gratitude, even as I also felt that I was being invaded by something foreign, alien, not yet mine. I guess that it takes a few days for the red blood cells to incorporate, and stop feeling alien.

My imagination veers over to an X-Files scenario, where these new cells are fizzing, full of nuclear energy, acid-green-glowing supercharged modules coming into my bloodstream, taking it over, mixing it in. I swear I can feel some aura energy left over from whoever originally owned these cells; like a lingering static charge. You lay there in bed, and takes a couple of hours per bag to get them into you; so you have lots of time for your imagination to wander.

In the morning, I'll go over to the Health Center and get another blood test, to check levels, and if they need to they'll give me another unit tomorrow.

Well, I've been bleeding from the ulcerative colitis since last October, since this current episode began, so this has snuck up on me. It sure explains why I've been feeling tired and sick these past few weeks—feeling worse and worse. I guess it crept up on me gradually enough that I didn't realize. So here I am.

I'm not asking for anything, except maybe for some good thoughts to be sent my way. I could use the spiritual support. I just wanted to let some people know what had happened. I almost don't want to tell anyone, but I don't want to do the Stoic Norwegian thing anymore. So, thanks, and help.

I'm not feeling depressed. I'm stressed but not freaked out. I like the nurses, they like me, because I can give hospital humor as good as they can—it helps having had a doctor for a dad, I've been around ER humor forever. A couple of the nurses have said I'm a real pleasant patient, I guess because while I ask questions about everything I also cooperate. Actually, I do want to get this done, and go home, and I do feel better.

It's funny—I'm not depressed, not even ia little bit. Even with this massive IV sticking into the back of my left hand. (It doesn't slow down my typing, yippee.) It helps to know that I'm supposed to get out of here tonight.

Hope your day was way more fun than mine.

Wednesday, May 26

They filled me up with two units of red blood cells, and let me go home, after all, at 2am. I was able to drive myself home. I actually felt really good, and newly energized. They say that's normal. It's also normal to get a "hot flash" when getting a transfusion, and I did get that.

Halfway through the second bag of red blood cells I felt my brain come back online. I felt sharper of mind than I have in months. It was like a switch was thrown, and all my mental and spiritual circuitry was re-energized, powered up again. I guess I’d been operating on a trickle of power for a long time, and hadn’t even realized it.

Today I went over to the Health Center, where they drew some more blood, just to check my CBC. I also spoke briefly with the doctor again.

I feel ridiculously energized. Almost too much. I feel giddy, and I talked too much at the Health Center, like I was wired or manic or over-caffeinated. I freely admit that it’s hard to trust this giddy manic energy. The contrast between Before and After is incredible. I haven’t felt this energized in months, probably since sometime last year. It’s a little overwhelming. Maybe this is how it feels to be manic, if you’re a manic-depressive. I feel like I can do anything, even though I’m restraining myself from doing anything too stupid. It’s not an entirely comfortable feeling, and I don’t entirely trust it.

I drove around town doing some errands after being at the Health Center, and I realized my senses were much sharper, and I was more attentive while driving. Again, the Before and After is a big contrast. My mind is so much clearer today!

I’m trying not to overdo it. I came home and rested for awhile. A little later, I want to do some weeding in the front garden; I’ve neglected it for weeks, because I just haven’t had the energy.

I wonder how long this fizzing energy buzz will last? All those little alien blood cells, fizzing through my veins, giving me the strength of ten.

Thursday, May 27

Another hot day. I’m feeling tired from the tropical heat. I’m sitting on the porch, a little thoughtful and quiet this morning, slowly drinking my orange juice.

It’s starting to hit home with me that I dodged a bullet. It could have been much worse than it was. I just missed an incident that could have been genuinely life-threatening. So today I’m feeling quieter, less giddy, more thoughtful.

I’m feeling tired again, but it’s “normal tired,” not “anemia tired.” The weather this week is record hot, temps in the 90s all week long, and that’s always tiring for everybody, anyway.

I think I overdid it yesterday. My back is a little sore, possibly from weeding in the garden in the late afternoon, in that burst of energy I was feeling. I probably did too much, and thus overdid it. I’ll pay for it with sore muscles for a few days—but those muscles have been idle for many weeks because I didn’t have any energy at all, and was exhausted all the time. Now, today, I don’t mind a little soreness, because it’s a signpost on the road back to something like normality.

Still, I have to stop and think about things today. I still feel more energized, and stronger, than I have in weeks or months. I’m just feeling a little more mortal, as well.

Friday, May 28

Writing a letter this morning to my family and friends, about all this, a summary, an update, a warning to myself of my own mortality:

Don't ever let anyone convince you there's no connection between mind and body. The next day after the blood transfusions, when I woke up, I was really energized, fizzing with alien bloodcells (sounds like an X-File, I know), and charged. I got myself over to the Health Center for another blood count, and a brief talk with my doctor; they were going to run the test, then let me know if I needed another unit of blood. I haven't heard anything yet, so I'm guessing my blood count is okay, at least for now. Anyway, I had such renewed energy yesterday that I was practically giddy at times. This anemia had probably come on so gradually that I didn't realize, it had started to seem normal, and the contrast between Before and After Hemoglobin has been intense, even shocking. Like I said, fizzing, and giddy. I got a lot done yesterday.

I'm also wondering how much of the feeling sick and tired and crappy over the past couple of months was really all about being anemic. I suspect more than I realized. I'm going to pay close attention over the next few days, and see what feels different.

Today I mostly rested. I woke up feeling tired—but normal tired, like you might feel after tiring yourself out the day before from having worked to satisfaction, not like super-low-energy-illness tired. I may have overdone the physical exertion yesterday. I did a little weeding in the garden, and grocery shopping. I may have overdone it, because my lower back and my bad knee hurt today. I'm going to have to watch that, and not overdo it anymore. This is going to take getting used to.

The next thing to deal with is plugging the leak, as it were. I'm seeing the GI doctor in a few weeks, and then my regular doctor again. (Medical bills are going to start piling up for me, which has me a little worried, but so far not totally freaked out or panicky. And I don't feel depressed, either.) This might take time to work out. I've got the forms to apply to the Hospital for financial assistance, and I'll get them figured out over the next few days, with help; those kind of forms are challenging for me, at the best of times.

Also, my mind feels much sharper than it has in a very long time. I realized yesterday that I had sort of come back "online" mentally, and all my senses were super-sharp again, like when driving. The transfusion has really made a difference. Now I just need to go on from here.

Anyway, that's the news. I just wanted to follow through with an update. I feel much better now! I think I’ll go for a walk!

Saturday, May 29

The Memorial Day weekend. I plan to avoid the crowds. I went over to the Veteran’s cemetery, though, where they always have a beautiful flag display this time of year, and made some photos. I also finally located the gravesite of a couple who had been family friends, in my Dad’s last years, and who had themselves since passed over, from age and illness. It was a quiet hour communing with the beloved dead.

I’ve been sleeping well. So well, in fact, that I wonder if all that insomnia I’d been having for months was related to the anemia. Other things are also not bothering me like they did.

I’m not well yet, though. I still have bleedings. It seems wasteful to be given two bags of blood, then continue to bleed it out again. But that’s my chronic illness, for now, still active, not fixed. I see the doctors again, soon, and my goal now is to stop the leak, and get well. All my focus is on that, for now. It’s more than enough to cope with.

In the meantime, I have all this renewed energy. So I am working on art projects and self-marketing projects (such as material for selling my photography services for weddings, etc.), while I have the clarity of mind and focused strength to do it. I’ve made great progress, this past week, on choosing photos for a possible future expedition, and getting them printed. I feel alive, again, even if there is still a shadow on the horizon.

So I’m working as much as I can on those projects that will hopefully help me move on with my life, once I’m well. You can’t wait to do this stuff till alter; you have to do it now, even as you might have to spend more time in hospital. If you wait to do it till you feel all better, or until you’re cured, you’ll never start, and you’ll never get it done. No waiting. Just get on with it. And, to be honest, it keeps my mind focused on mostly positive things, and keeps me from worrying too much.

Honestly, I still don’t feel anything like depression or despair; some worries on the horizon, some anxieties, some late-night phone calls to friends asking for moral support. But nothing like before. Nothing like the void, the abyss, the dark night. There have been lessons emerging as fast as arrows shooting by, if I can but catch them out of the air. Some of the lessons are very grounded and simple: Don’t worry tonight about what you can’t do anything about till tomorrow, anyway. Just let it go, and pick it up again when it’s time. Meantime, make of the day what it can be.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mendocino: Wood

images from Mendocino Cty., CA, February 2010

From driftwood along the shore

to land-art sculptures made on private land adjacent to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

to the beautifully-carved wooden entrance door to the Gardens themselves.

The wood found along the shoreline, as driftwood, and the wood fallen from the hillside and seaside groves, all go to make a haven for woodworkers. Being in Mendocino wakes my inner urge to work with wood. I collect and bring home a few bags of shore driftwood, to start working with, and learn how to shape into other kinds of art, and other projects. I have ideas for multi-media visual-sculptural work: photos of the driftwood framed in the wood itself; pieces of sea-carved wood attached to the corner of a framed photo; a wall-mounted mobile made of natural forms found in the wood; and more.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Thomas Dolby's New Music

This is the best news I've had all week: one of the most innovative, brilliant, complex, and inspirational artists of the past few decades is making a new album. Thomas Dolby.

Dolby is one of those recording artists who is a master of styles. His ideas about music have always been original, and he's always been on the bleeding edge of technology. He still is, as this TED video demonstrates.

One of the things about Dolby that I've always liked, musically, is his ability to seamlessly blend styles or music that no one else would think to blend, that most would consider impossible to blend. It's sort of a speciality of his, actually. For example, a song like "I Love You Goodbye," blends torch-song balladry with Cajun zydeco music. Of course everyone has heard "She Blinded Me With Science," or seen the classic video: a blend of mad-scientist tropes with pop love-song tropes. I tend to think of Dolby as an anthropologist from Mars, who approaches everything objectively, without presupposition or prejudice or preconception. This makes him incredibly open-minded and flexible. These are attitudes any musician would do well to emulate.

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LZ Lambeau

Veteran's Cemetery, Beloit, WI

This past weekend, the football field in Green Bay, WI, was transformed by an event called LZ Lambeau, a welcome-home celebration for those Wisconsin veterans of the war in Vietnam, many of whom never received a welcome home before. Some were spat upon. Many had psychological problems, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder); having suffered some from PTSD myself, albeit to a much lesser degree than any war veteran, I give them my empathy.

Had I not been involved all weekend in Madison with concerts and meetings, I would have gone to the LZ Lambeau event, no question. I probably would have met some old friends there: those men and women just slightly older than me, who survived the Vietnam War. I was approaching the age of having to register for the draft when that unpopular war came to and end. The War affected my entire and childhood and teenage years; it was on TV all the time, I was having to think about it all the time, you couldn't avoid. The Armed Forces recruiters were allowed in those years to come into the high schools and give batteries of aptitude tests, and to try to recruit from among the students. I took a series of those tests; I was told that I was in the top 1 percent of those tested (I never fully understood what their tests were looking for), and they tried hard to recruit me. I was polite in my refusals, although silently inside my own thoughts I was suspicious and mistrusting. I told the truth when I said that what I wanted to do was go to college, which is what I did; and then the war, and the draft, were over. So even though I didn't go to war, the war was everywhere, affecting everything we saw and felt and did during those years. And for years afterwards, there was confusion, and horror at home. Veterans were not embraced with open arms; they were not welcomed home. In some cases, they were vilified and rejected. Some never survived the return "home," and died by their own hands, or in situations in which they made their own deaths happen in other ways. A loss of a whole generation of men and women, wasted.

rose at the Moving Wall

I haven't been back to visit Washington, D.C., in many years; so I haven't stood at The Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial. The next time I'm in D.C., that will be my number one priority. In the meantime, the Moving Wall has visited my small town in Wisconsin, on its gradual progress around the country. I visited it, in the rain, when it was last here, and was deeply moved by it. This image of a rose placed before the Moving Wall, in memoriam, in my very town, just reminds me that war affects everybody, everywhere. There is no escape.

There are still broken hearts to be mended. Perhaps there always will be. It has been my highest hope that some veteran, attending the LZ Lambeau event, will find some sort of peace, some quite healing, some soft grief, and be able to go with their lives, changed for the good.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

What I'm Reading Now

Found at the thrift store today, a small set of literary books, all of them hardcover first editions, and one history book on a topic that still interests me. I've been having some good luck with thrift store finds of books lately; maybe people are doing spring cleaning. I find I can't turn my back on any of these books, and have to bring them home. Fortunately, I'm a fast reader, so they don't tend to pile up for too long.

Found today, then:

Fred R. Gowans: Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A history of the fur-trade rendezvous, 1825-1840 (Gibbs-Smith Publishers, 1985). For about ten years in the 1990s I was heavily involved with the Rendezvous scene, in which folks camp for three or four days on the weekend at a group, doing accurate historical reenactments of fur-trade era Rendezvous. This book is a history of the fur-trade era Rendezvous that happened annually on many sites in the Rocky Mountains during the years indicated. The fur-trade was opened by the French-Canadian voyageurs through the Great Lakes, and in the wake of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery, was extended West into the Great Plains and the Rockies. The fur trade peaked in the 1830s and was essentially done by the 1840s, due to overtrapping, although the legendary mountain man type lived on for quite some time. This book is valuable because it quotes from many journals and letters written at the time, which have stories and accounts of the Rendezvous, what went on, how people gathered and why, and what they did. The fur-trade is an era of North American history that still intrigues me, even though I haven't been able to get to a modern Rendezvous reenactment for a few years now. A great deal of history was made during that period, setting some patterns for what came to follow, even to the present.

Seamus Heaney: Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (FSG, 1980). Essays autobiographical and literary, a number of reviews, and a few important essays on poetry as a way of life. Heaney, the well-known poet originally from Ireland who has lived and written internationally, gives us a variety of writings in this his first prose collection. In his Introduction, the poet writes: "I hope it is clear that the essays selected here are held together by searches for answers to the central preoccupying question: how should a poet properly live and write?" At his best, Heaney is a solid thinker about poetry and language and what it all means. There is a long essay here on Gerard Manley Hopkins, which contains the comment: ". . . the function of language in much modern poetry, and in much poetry admired by moderns, is to talk about itself to itself. The poem is a complex word, a linguistic exploration whose tracks melt as it maps its own progress. Whether they are defining poetry or writing it, the sense of poetry as ineluctably itself and not some other thing persists for modern poets." That;s as good a summation as I've ever read of those attitudes and tendencies that, post-Wallace Stevens, have led poetry towards its current status of being arcane, obscure, and unpopular, a specialist's work rather than a public one. Hopkins is shown by Heaney to have endowed his words with a purpose; no matter how strange they might seem to us, Hopkins' poems were responsories: to life, to nature, to the Divine. Later on in this collection, Heaney provides us with a long essay on early Irish nature poetry, which I look forward to reading, as the ancients still have something valuable to teach us—a point Heaney has made throughout his long career.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. by David Young (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1987). Isn't it odd to find such rich and deep reading at a thrift store? Just wait: there's more. This is a translation by an American poet of Rilke that I have not encountered before. As a Rilke compleatist, who never tires of reading and re-reading that great poet, and who collects whatever books I find of his work, obviously I must bring this volume home, to place it on the shelves with my many other RIlke editions. The Sonnets were part of the remarkable outpouring of poetry that flooded through Rilke in February 1922, after his well had been dry for some years. During a brief span of days, he completed the Duino Elegies and wrote two sets of Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke later referred to this creative upwelling, in letters to friends, as his "great giving," in which the poems came to him as fast as he could write them down.

These are unusual sonnets. They constantly break out of the strict application of the poetic form. Young's translations, I think wisely, do not try to recreate the German rhymes into English rhymes—early translators of Rilke tried to do that and came up with some very bad translations that veer quite a ways away from the original poems, by trying to force them into the straightjacket of English poetic forms. Some other later translators have voted for sense over style, and not tried to rhyme their translations. Young works in a middle ground, aware of the sound of the sonnets, aware of the form, but not forcing a rhyme just to force the poem into a formal pattern; there are off-rhymes and slant-rhymes among his word-choices, which bring us some of the music without forcing it to become sing-song in its new language. For example, here is Young's translation of the third sonnet of Book I, which is one of my favorites of the Sonnets. I think this is very serviceable:

A god can do it. But tell me how
a man can follow him through the narrow
lyre. The human self is split; where two
heartways cross, there is no temple to Apollo.

Song, as you teach it, is not desire, not
a wooing of something that's finally attained;
song is existence. Easy for the god. But
when do we exist? And when does he spend

the earth and the stars on our being>
When we love? That's what you think when you're young;
not so, though your voice forces open your mouth,—

Learn to forget how you sang. That fades.
Real singing is a different kind of breath.
A nothing-breath. A ripple in the god. A wind.

James Dickey: Puella (Doubleday, 1982). Dickey is not my favorite poet, or novelist. I look from his early sublime poems to his Vietnam-era poems, which are among the most brutally honest of that time; then I look to his later work, which often just seems sadistic and crude for no good reason. This volume is the poet's imagined biography of his beloved wife's girlhood; it was written out of an obsession with imagining her life before they met. Dickey is nothing if not a poet of obsession. The writing is mythic, intuitive, occasionally hallucinatory in its sensuality; the style is open and flowing, atypical for this poet. Perhaps it's because this is a male-imagined biography of a girl on the edge of sensual womanhood. Dickey is never an entirely trustworthy narrator; you always have to look a little askance, and read between the lines. But there are bright passages herein. For now, I expect to place this book on my shelves nest to Dickey's Selected Poems, and give it a fair reading when I am in the mood to explore more deeply. I believe that one needs to occasionally read poets who one doesn't necessarily embrace—I don't hate Dickey, I just don't embrace him—because there is always something to be savored, and possibly learned from, even from those poets one later ends up abandoning.

This next book is the find of the day, for me. It hasn't let go of my attention since I saw it on the shelf at the thrift store; I immediately sat and read a few pages, before continuing on and eventually checking out and driving home. It's interesting to me that today at the thrift store might have called a day for writing, a day for literature; because the other two items I found amidst the chaff and detritus was a calligraphy pen set, and a very nice Japanese ink stone.

Italo Calvino: Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Harvard Univ. Press, 1988). Calvino died suddenly on the way to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1985-86; so this book is his last writing, and his legacy. In fact the book contains only five of the lectures; the sixth had been finished in mind, but not yet written down. Calvino was in my opinion one of the great storytellers, myth-makers, and fabulists of 20th C. literature. Every time I re-read one of his tightly-constructed small volumes (his thickest book is a magnum collection of Italian Folktales, while all his novels and story collections are quite slim) I learn something more about writing, about reading, and about metafiction. The first Calvino book I encountered was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which a group of travelers, all of whom have been traumatized by some dramatic event (offstage), meet during a storm at a country inn, and tell each other their stories by narrating them via a deck of Tarot cards. What a brilliant conceit: aphasic Chaucerian characters who have all lost their voices, telling each other their tales via the Tarot. That the book is compelling reading on every level is what hooked me into Calvino's universe of stories. Since then I've read everything of his that I can find; I'm particularly fond of Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit in the Khan's palatial gardens, while Polo tells of the many strange and wonderful cities he has visited in his travels, which may or may not exist.

In his lectures to be given at Harvard, Calvino writes about those characteristics of literature that he views as essential: lightness; quickness; exactitude; visibility; multiplicity. The sixth lecture, as I mentioned, had not yet been written out, but Calvino's topic for that was proposed to be: consistency. For such a mercurial, even experimental, writer, it would have been fascinating to know where he would have gone with that topic.

I feel like this is going to be one of those books that is going to forever change how I view literature. I look forward to reading it slowly, savoring each thought, unhurried, letting it seep in. WIth Calvino, that is often best: there are so many ideas condensed and wound into his spare prose, in each of his fictions and metafictions, that the prose has always seemed to me to have the flavor of poetry. With Calvino, it's often good to re-read after a period of time, too, for no doubt you will get more of it the second and third time around. As I said, I very much look forward to giving this last volume of Calvino's my fullest attention, as soon as my schedule permits.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fort Bragg, CA: Contrasts

images from Ft. Bragg, CA, February 2010

the riverbed full of sea-wrack, flotsam, wreckage,
boats full of memory and dream, littering the Noyo,
detritus, houseboat life, long-term and nomadic,
human refuge, human refuse, human sanctuary and wrack

down the river valley, sun-shadow moves under the crane's wing

whirl of cedar stump overgrown with coastal vine
the choke and dance of living

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Shades of Red

O my luve's like a red, red rose.
That's newly sprung in June;
O my luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

—Robert Burns

Along the northern coast,
Just back from the rock-bound shore and the caves,
In the saline air from the sea in the Mendocino country,
With the surge for base and accompaniment low and
With crackling blows of axes sounding musically driven
by strong arms,
Riven deep by the sharp tongues of the axes, there in
the redwood forest dense,
I heard the mighty tree its death-chant chanting.

—Walt Whitman, from Song of the Redwood Tree

Red was my father's favorite color. The red flowers that I grow in my garden are partly in homage to him, and to his life-long love of gardening. I grow several kinds of tulips, and lilies, and roses. The daffodils and tulips are already done this year, along with most of the other early bulbs, the grape hyacinth, the crocus. Dad liked solid red tulips, bright spots of red you can see a hundred yards away in contrast to the surrounding green. I like variegated, unusual varieties of tulips. I've planted some exotics, which did well this year, with all the early and sustained rain; the red and white striped tulips, and the tall thin purple, were especially lovely. The tulips are done, the bleeding hearts are in full bloom now. The lilies are growing tall, but not yet ready to bloom. I planted several new lilies last year, which did well; now I see that most of them have split their bulbs over the winter, and in many places where I had planted one lily, there are now two or three. Gradually, given time, the garden beds will become thicker and richer, as each year the perennials return, having split or multiplied or cast new seeds. The garden beds will thicken and the colors unfold throughout the summer and autumn, so that there will always be something in bloom, something providing color, rich spots of bright color amidst the green.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ocean WIndows

Ocean Windows I

Ocean Windows II

Ocean Clouds, Mendocino, CA

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Friday, May 14, 2010

The Rite of Spring

We will soon approach the centennial of three of the great ballets of the 20th C., music and dance that changed everything followed. It will soon be the centennial of the three ballets of Igor Stravinsky that changed all of modern music: Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).

The latter, which was premiered in 1913, was titled in Russian by the composer Vesna svyashchennaya, or "Holy Spring." The French title, Le Sacre du Printemps, was given to the ballet during production, and is the title by which the work is known outside of Russia: The Rite of Spring.

The premiere of the work, as performed by Ballet Russe, was greeted with derision and hatred, and was a notorious fiasco—probably as much for Nijinsky's provocative choreography and costuming as for the music. Stravinsky experienced this early pinnacle of his career in his early thirties—"such as composers rarely enjoy," he said many years later.

Few works of modern music, either "pure" music or for the ballet have had more myths built around them. Legends and stories, misunderstanding and deliberate misreadings, anecdotes and myths—all have revolved around this score since its original performance. Even the composer made myths and stories around his work.

As music historian Richard Taruskin has written:

In 1920 he [Stravinsky] told a reporter that the ballet had been originally conceived as a piece of pure, plotless instrumental music ("une oeuvre archetectonique et non anecdotique"). In 1931 he told his first authorized biographer that the opening bassoon melody was the only quoted folk-song in the score. In 1959 he asserted, through his musical and literary assistant Robert Craft, that the work was wholly without the tradition, the product of intuition alone. "I heard and I wrote what I heard," he declared. "I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed." These allegations and famous words have passed into the enduring folklore of with-century music.

In fact, however, the ballet's scenario reflects its oft-suppressed subtitle, "Scenes of Pagan Russia," and except for the human sacrifice at the ballet's conclusion is highly detailed and ethnographically accurate. The composer planned the work in extensive detail in collaboration with Russian archaeologist and painter Nikolai Roerich, to whom the score is dedicated. The music quotes a minimum of nine identifiable Russian folk-songs, all of them selected with the same eye towards accurate ethnographic detail as went into the scenario.

Did Stravinsky lie about The Rite, or rather make myths, because of prideful vanity or faulty memory? No, I don't believe so. Along with the centennial of the premieres of his great Russian ballets, we need to remember that the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution comes soon after. As Taruskin reminds us:

Having renounced Russia in the wake of the revolution and the Bolshevik coup d'etat, Stravinsky wished frantically not only to attach himself to the Western musical mainstream, but to become its leader. He zealously distanced himself from the parochial lore of his birthright and embraced an aggressively cosmopolitan ideology. Hence his insistence that his music—all his music—was "pure," abstract, (neo)classical, unbeholden to any specific time or place for its inspiration. And hence the legend of The Rite as a violent rupture with the past, when all the while it was an exuberantly maximalist celebration of two pasts—the remote past of its [pagan] subject and more recent past of its [Modernist] style.

Stravinsky largely succeeded in remaking himself as a cosmopolitan master of the new style of music. His influence was universal, and after he emigrated to the United States and began to teach composition, he was the influential teacher of two generations of Modern composers. He remains one of the most highly-regarded of Modern composers, and his place is assured in music history as an innovator, inventor, and stylist.

Stravinsky was also a master orchestrator, with a gifted ear for tone color and subtle orchestral shadings. If you listen carefully to The Rite's notorious pounding rhythm sections—shocking to early listeners in their lack of tuneful melodies—you can hear how each apparently identical repetition of a phrase or theme is in fact subtly reorchestrated each time: there are in fact rather few exact repetitions anywhere in the score, the orchestration is always changing.

Stravinsky's orchestral voice is always recognizable to my ear. I can always tell it's one of his pieces, just from the orchestration. Stravinsky is part of that lineage of composers, many of them great orchestrators with signature tone-color styles, that ranges from France (Debussy, Messiaen, etc.) to Russia (Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich) to Japan (Takemitsu, Mayuzumi, etc.). There is a lineage of influence here, of ideas going back and forth across these borders, or composers learning from each other, and of musical idioms creating one of the great threads of the modern international style.

The Rite of Spring has a historical context for its inception and creation. Between the first Russian Revolution in 1905 and the Bolshevik takeover in 1917, Russia went through a period of powerful nationalistic fervor, during which pagan antiquity was very popular, and was reconstructed and reimagined both ethnographically and creatively. All three of Stravinsky's great early ballets—Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring—were part of this period of foment. Each of them is based in its own way on Russian folklore, myth, legend, and ethnography. Each of these three ballets is uniquely Russian, a modern expression of a deep nationalistic past.

But this wasn't an altogether bright period, between the Revolutions. There were the horrors of World War I. There was a growing conceptual divide, imagined or not, between the citified and educated intelligentsia (kul'tura) and the vaster "elemental spontaneity" (stikhiya) of the folk peasantry. Poverty and work became serious daily issues in both city and countryside. There was a great exodus of Russian Jews, a second diaspora that had begun during the last years of the Czarist rule, and continued far into the Revolutionary years. Many Russian Jews were forced to leave their villages, and fled to Western Europe, to Palestine, and to the United States. The mood of Russia was turbulent, frightened, determined to be proud, yet afraid of its own shadow.

A Russian-born acquaintance of mine, many years ago, gave me an insight into Russian psychology that I have never forgotten. He reminded me that the Rus have been a conquered and tragically enslaved people for over seven centuries. The very word "Rus" originally meant "slave" in Old Norse, the language of the Viking conquerors—those how left their blond genes among the folk of city and steppe alike; those who founded the silver-trading city of Kiev. So, the Russians have been conquered or resisting conquerors for centuries. As my Russkii friend put it, "No matter how good things seem to be, right here and now, we never forget that the wolves are always chasing the sleigh." The wolves never stop chasing the sleigh, no matter how far behind they fall, temporarily; they are still chasing the sleigh, even now.

The Russians of a century past felt the wolves to be very close behind the sleigh indeed.

The Rite is still a shocking piece of music and dance. It still has the power to slap us around, activate some very old ancestral memories that live deep in our bones and blood, and make us remember how thin our proud veneer of civilization truly is. The Rite retains its potency, its ability to shock us, to make us remember our darker halves. It is an archetypal, profoundly mythic work; it's no wonder so myths and legends have grown up around the work itself, from the spillover of psyche into creativity that The Rite represents.

The Rite of Spring will soon be a century old. It reminds us that there are even older, more pagan, aspects to ourselves, than perhaps we are comfortable about admitting to ourselves. In viewing and listening to this work again, as it approaches its centennial, it's startling how fresh and new it still feels to us.

Here is a complete performance of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring as conducted for the dance by the great composer and conductor of 20th Century music, Pierre Boulez.

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Ocean & Skies: Mendocino County

images from Mendocino County, CA, February 2010

black raven, black sea-rock,
silver water, silver rain-sky

sea-fence, ocean-mountain,
rock-fin rising from foam

mirror-shore, water-sand-sheet,
cloud-lit swarm fitful wind-wraiths

of the last light of day, nothing but water-sheets and wind
when last bands of sun rain over black-rock water-sheen

somewhere near world's end and wasting

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Visionary Artwork 4

A few notes on method.

As with poetry-writing, I don't find endless tinkering to be all that useful or important to the process of making visionary art. The more you tinker, the more you risk the image losing its power, and going stale and overly-familiar. Most often, I do my best to work quickly, as spontaneously as possible, so as not to over-think an artwork and possibly risk killing its energy.

There are two or three larger, overlapping impetuses towards making a new piece, which can be categorized roughly as:

1. inspired by dreams, and records of dreams
2. inspired by waking visions; things I see, and ways I see things, made in Photoshop so others can see them too
3. made by playing around with elements and techniques in Photoshop till something ignites and tells me what it wants to become

The first two categories contain spontaneous as well as more "planned" or "deliberate" pieces. Many of these pieces are deliberate attempts to recreate what one has seen, in a dream, in a waking vision, in the imagination. The intention is to bring into the visible realm what one has seen, so that others might see it too. It's a way of sharing your unique vision of the world with others.

These images are "planned" mainly in the sense that one has the image very quickly, and the rest of one's effort lies in the execution: going to find the elements needed; putting it together, like a painting, which can take some time; finishing it up and polishing it, making it come as close to the original vision as possible. Occasionally this yields very strong work, which acquires more energy when you complete it, and keeps growing. (Which certainly renews my faith in the importance of incorporating our dreams into life.) I practice keeping my analytical mind in check—keep the inner editor or critic turned off—for as long as possible, at least till the basic conception is done. I might spend considerable time on the technical execution, if drawing in Photoshop, or editing certain parts of an image becomes necessary.

The following piece was made immediately upon waking, after seeing, in the last dream before waking, this image of multiple moons above the road. The feeling in the dream was that the sky had opened up like a window or a gateway, revealing another world, another universe, another place and time:

The following image was made this way: a quick imaginative waking vision, I knew what I was going to do when I made the photo of the huge willow tree, followed by a lot of work in Photoshop to get everything to look right. The lighting effects alone took several layers to make look right:

Arrival, from Spiral Dance

In Photoshop, as in painting, subtlety goes a long way. Underpainting layers, layers with slightly different lighting effects and opacities, multiple repetitions of a layer each with a slightly different blur to add depth—these are all typical techniques one can use. I find in practice that using a lot of layers with subtle effects looks far more realistic, more like what the eye actually sees, no matter what the subject matter is. Remember that the camera eye sees more things, in sharper focus, than does the human eye. That's a property of photography that can be used to create super-realism and sharp depth of field; and since the real world is often fuzzy around the edges, it can be an effect we need to tone down, to give an image heart and breath.

The third category, above, actually accounts for over half of the visionary art I make. Sometimes I get inspired by an element of what becomes the final piece, which leads me to go looking for the rest, to pull it all together. Sometimes the mood of a basic photo inspires me in a certain direction, and seems to call for something specific to go along with it. Sometimes it's pure play, which ends up revealing something archetypal. Fooling around with one's art materials is a time-honored way of finding inspiration, which is really no different in Photoshop then it is with colored pencils on paper.

None of this is accidental or random, however. It's a kind of active imagination, to use Jung's term, that goes spelunking for the contents of one's unconscious, and translates them into imagery, poetry, dream-narrative, and other creative materials. One reason I like working with wood is that it retains the feeling of being alive; Jung worked often with stone.

Photoshop for me is a tool in which active imagination can happen; the key to active imagination is putting oneself into a meditative, receptive, numinous state, to await what is brought forward by the unconscious for you to examine. This is dream-logic, and the logic of the Dreamtime: it's not rational logic, and it's not a process of art-making in which the intellect is "in control" of the process, or even present. None of that artist's ego beforehand saying that it knows what it's going to do down to the last millimeter; it's more important to set out with no idea of what's going to happen. You actually have to get your ego-mind to "step aside," to get out of the way. The discipline is to create a field of receptivity in oneself, then wait to see what comes forward. You might end up with a doodle rather than finished piece—a risk you take anytime you play with your artistic tools—and you might find something that needs to sit and percolate awhile, before you come back to finish it. Or it might all come together suddenly and complete itself. All this is as true for poetry-writing as for making images.

There have been many times when, sorting through photos made recently, I run across one that hadn't left much of an impression on me before, but which now seems to be surrounded with a powerful, glowing aura of importance. It can stop me in my tracks. When that happens, I start working with the image, trying out different tools and techniques to see what might happen—very like a jazz player riffing on a theme, trying out different ways of improvising till something starts to take form. Improvisation in Photoshop can very much be a way to activate the imagination.

There have been other times when I knew the photo was going to be important as I was making it, because the moment of its making was surrounded by something liminal, something numinous and non-ordinary. You get a feeling, a sense that something important is going to happen, and you set up the camera then wait for the exact moment when your intuition tells you to release the shutter. You know what's going to happen before it actually does—or rather, not exactly what, but that something special is going to happen. Some people call that feeling a hunch; others call it intuition. If it's luck, it's not random luck, but the luck of synchronicity, the meaningful coincidence when everything lines up just so, and sings.

This photo was made at one of those moments:

Sometimes, when you catch the light of spirit just right, just so, you want to jump up and down and yell "Yes! Yes!" to celebrate everything in the Universe converging, just so, to make the photo happen.

This leads me to mention a curious paradox: There have been numerous occasions when a viewer of my artwork thinks that a pure photo was manipulated in Photoshop, and when a heavily-worked image in Photoshop is taken to be a pure photo. The two processes are confused for one another; I grant that it's not always obvious. Yet that this confusion of means keeps happening is very interesting to me as the artist.

There is another, related paradox, too, in which someone sees something numinous and archetypal in an artwork which I myself view as fairly mundane; just as there are times in which I see a lot of liminal power in a finished piece that no one else seems to see. That line between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious, wherein live the archetypes, is an apparently fuzzy and movable line.

I leave these paradoxes unexamined, without trying to force them towards a resolution. As the artist involved, I find it very interesting, and make note of it, without necessarily needing to force it towards intellectual understanding.

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Ravens 2

Monday, May 10, 2010

Visionary Artwork 3

In many traditions, birds are a symbol of the soul. Birds in flight have always fascinated me. I have managed to capture some images of birds in flight that to me represent the soul in flight. I've also made some Photoshop digital collages and art-pieces using birds in flight as elements.

White Bird/Badlands

This is one of the first pieces of visionary digital art I ever made. Probably circa 1996, although the photo elements date from 1993. Color monitors on which to edit photos were still new to consumers; the digital revolution was in its relative infancy still. I labored long and hard to make this image, with several layers in an early version of Photoshop.

Water Birds I

These two Water Birds pieces were made from photos taken around the lakes in Madison, WI. The mood is darker, more introspective. I remember making the photographs, then assembling the final images later. There is a process in just playing around in Photoshop during which you discover things almost by accident, which inspire you to combine things in new ways, and create new kinds of imagery. These are some of the first wave of digital art I ever made in Photoshop, in the mid 1990s, when the tools were still fairly new, and I was still learning how to use them. Much of the experimental digital art I played around with at the time was collages of adequate if not brilliant quality; and some of the roots of the digital art I make now began here, although my technique and the tools I use are by now far more developed and sophisticated. Still, it's interesting to look back on this old work, and see some of the same themes play themselves out. Some visionary art themes are eternal, archetypal, permanently embedded in the collective unconscious.

Water Birds II
(Click on image for larger version)

Birds and water together, in visionary art, can evoke the spirit moving over the waters. Therefore, the days of creation; the myths of the ancient sea out of which all life arose; the sea that is a creator goddess, still always living, in motion, in change, in process. A rumble of wings over the dark turbulent waters: the world in turbulent upset, shaking itself out, trying to come to some rest but not ready, just yet, for the settled rest that islands and the mainland offer. Far better to fly over these dark and brooding waters, still, staying in flight, for now, till we know where it will all end. The sound of wings. The rush of water. Life, death, forces much larger than ourselves and our mundane concerns.

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Islands and Mainland

no man is an island
yet islands lay themselves ashore
as mini-continents elide and swarm
assembling California

entire of itself

each island still mainland
a promontory spike rising above the waves
a spike of land poking above the abyssal plains
a peninsula of eroded time
extruded from mainland colliding
all connected beneath waters

of all things most yielding
the Tao says water seeks the lowest level
filling in crevass, gorge, canyon, river, stream
seeking finally a sea, an ocean, the lowest ground
flooding the drowned lands
the rivers of eden

but the lands of the dead
are the dry lands
where there is no water and no thirst
and the stars never move or brighten

[Quotes in italics from John Donne's Sermons, John McPhee's geology books Annals of the Former World, and the Tao Te Ching]

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Music and Nature

There's a Taoist saying that Only the music of nature is complete and undiminished. In other words, if I as a musician play one note I am already neglecting to listen to other sounds. Only by playing nothing can I hear all sounds in complete harmony. Listening is more important than making sound. Music is like wood carving, in that a carving is created at the expense of taking all that wood away.

In other words: Art is artifice. Everything we make, as creators of art, and as co-creators with the Divine, is artifice. We are artisans. There is no "natural" music from this viewpoint; except purely ambient natural sounds.

While in many ways I'm a Taoist at heart, as an artist I accept that my music-making creates neglect of the rest of the soundscape. In fact, I want it to: it's a summoning of focus. Not in an ego-affirming manner, but as a way of focusing attention, as in meditation. We pay attention to our breathing. We listen to the temple bell giving the hour, tolling the times to begin and end the day's activities.

The implied emphasis on listening as a way of becoming one, of emphasizing oneness, is worth contemplating. Listening is central to both hearing the music of nature and to making music. The most limited musicians are those who don't listen to what their peers are doing. While I am all for hearing one's own inner music, listening in the silence for those musics that rise up from within, I also like making music with other musicians. Ensemble playing requires listening; a kind of listening that's not too dissimilar from listening within. The bottom line in each case is that one must pay attention: mindfulness rather slackness is required.

There were a number of composers of 20th Century music who were very good listeners to the music of nature. Some were also transcribers. Some created frames for listening, with mindful attention to listening being practiced by both audience and performers, within the frame of the duration of the music's performance. Some others transcribed the sounds of nature, and the musics of other cultures, transcribed them into notation for performers to reproduce. If there's a contrast here between these kinds of composers, it's not a contrast of who listened to nature better; rather, it's the contrast between "hands on" and "hands off" the sounds themselves. The "hands off" method could be seen as allowing the environment to make its own sounds, which become the music. The "hands on" method is perhaps more about transcription from nature. One might include recordings of natural sounds in both of these approaches.

The "hands off" camp could be thought of as the aleatoric, indeterminacy, open-spaces composers who allowed silence into their musical frames: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, David Tudor, among others. The "hands on" camp could be thought of as Olivier Messiaen (birdsong transcriptions), Alan Hovhaness (And God Created Great Whales, which includes humpback whale songs in performance; I've played this piece in orchestra, and it was a real pleasure), Colin McPhee (transcribed Balinese gamelan appears in several orchestral and piano pieces), and others.

I'm not interested in creating one more dualistic dichotomy here, and I'll point out that there is overlap between these camps, both in terms of musical technique and musical philosophy. I'm talking about composers' means of using sound in musical space; these are technical approaches to sound existing among many other approaches.

The Taoist ideal of pure listening, and playing not a single note, appeals to me—but it cannot satisfy me completely. I am not a Taoist master or a Zen master, and not yet very non-attached or non-active. As a composer, I still feel called to make music: it's a response to music, to nature, to poetry, to life experiences. Making music is not merely ego-self-expression, but it is "expression" in the sense of having a need to express a response. I cannot help it: I must make music.

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu thought about this extensively. In his book of essays on music, published late in life, Confronting Silence, Takemitsu has an entire chapter entitled "Nature and Music." In that chapter, he circles around music and nature several times, and also his need to respond musically to experiences in nature. This is what Takemitsu has to say about expression:

A lifestyle out of balance with nature is frightening. As long as we live, we aspire to harmonize with nature. It is this harmony in which the arts originate and to which they will eventually return. Harmony, or balance, in this sense does not mean regulation or control by ready-made rules. It is beyond functionalism. I believe what we call "expression" in art is really discovery, by one's own mode, of something new to this world. There is something about this word "expression," however, that alienates me: no matter how dedicated to the truth we may be, in the end when we see that what we have produced is artificial, it is false. I have never doubted that the love of art is the love of unreality.

Takemitsu echoes the Taoist saying here: art is artifice. Music is artificial. Music is unreal, a constructed thing, as much as it might seem to be discovered.

Yet music is not only expression. Music can be, in my experience, akin to a force of nature. The great Lakota shaman and healer Frank Fools Crow often referred to himself as “A little hollow bone for Great Spirit to blow through.” Fools Crow said his job was to keep the little hollow bone—like an eagle-bone whistle—clear of blockages, so that Great Spirit could always move easily through it. This is a discipline of readiness, of being prepared to receive nature through oneself, then get out of the way, so it can do its work. I feel this way about my creative work. As a composer, I have often felt like a little hollow bone, with something greater than I blowing through. The sounds and shapes and gestures come in a single breath, no matter how many more breaths it takes me to transcribe them, write them down, play them back. Jazz master composer and trumpeter Lester Bowie used to say how he had permanent 24-hour soundtrack playing in his mind; all he had to was bring it into audibility for the rest of us to hear it, by dipping into the soundtrack and playing what he heard; but the inner soundtrack was always there. This echoes my own experience of always having music playing in my head. (It also echoes a mythic Balinese story about the origins of music.)

What I get from all this is that music is expression, but it is not necessarily self-expression. The self, the ego-personality, is not what is being expressed here: it is not in charge of the process, in fact it has to “get out of the way.”

In order to move music-making away from ego-self-expression, and more in alliance with the music of nature, Takemitsu writes a bit later on:

I wish to free sounds from the trite rules of music, rules that are in turn stifled by formulas and calculations. I want to give sounds the freedom to breathe. Rather than on the ideology of self-expression, music should be based on a profound relationship to nature—sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. When sounds are possessed by ideas instead of having their own identity, music suffers.

Takemitsu explores ways of making this idea practical. One possibility is through an ethnological approach—what McPhee did with Balinese music, what Benjamin Britten did with Noh drama, what Takemitsu has done with combining traditional Japanese musical genres (gagaku, for example) with the modern orchestra. But the ethnological approach, which is a transcriptional “hands on” approach, Takemitsu in the end decides is not completely honest, because it is detached, observational, even analytical. The composer wants a more active relationship to the present moment.

Another possible to way to free sounds is to contrast them with silence. Takemitsu writes:

Music is either sound or silence. As long as I live I shall choose sound as something to confront a silence. That sound should be a single, strong sound.

I wonder if the task of the composer should not be that of presenting the basic unaltered form of music.

I think of the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, which to me contain huge amounts of silence. There is a tradition of natural forms, forms made to seem natural, based on nature, in which something very simple and elegant occurs. I think of Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures that are built on-site, always out of natural materials, some of which endure less than a day, some of which—the running stone walls, for example—which might endure a lifetime.

It is often considered an advanced technique, for example in the design of Japanese gardens, for the end result to appear effortless. But this too is unnatural: it is a technical accomplishment intended to be seen as natural. It remains artifice. Whether it is more self-conscious of its artifice than a less masterful result is perhaps debatable; but the aesthetic of apparent randomness is the end result of careful planning. This leads us to the paradox of artlessness vs. control. I think of Pierre Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata, which was composed using the principle of “total serialism”: every single aspect of the piece is subjected to cyclic mathematical determination a la the Schoenbergian tone-row, including pitch, dynamics, duration, and so forth. The end result is a piece in which every single aspect of the music is carefully determined and controlled—and which, when performed, sounds completely random and chaotic. How do we respond to self-conscious artlessness? Takemitsu writes:

The term “anti-virtuoso” appears to have a profound spiritual depth but in reality is closely related to the intellect, and in the end it is really rooted in the notion of human superiority over nature. This is not the way to confront silence. We cannot avoid the silence of death that awaits us. For this reason I spoke earlier of the gentleness and cruelty of nature. If a work depends on technique it will be picked bare by nature, its bleaching bones left to become part of the landscape.

A Japanese garden must be constantly tended, constantly repaired. The most artless-appearing, natural-seeming corner must be maintained by the gardener to seem so natural and artless. This is the invisible hand of tradition, of artifice, that invisibly, delicately continues to pretend not to be present.

Gagaku, the classical Japanese court music, lacks the Western concept of beat or measure. There is no pulse to this music. Sounds rise and fall, almost as though unrelated. But the music also expresses the Buddhist idea of codependent origination, in which it is seen that nothing arises in isolation, but everything arises in context and interrelationship with everything else. The pauses in the music have to do with eternity, with silence. They seem much longer than they really are. Takemitsu contrasts this timeless sense within the music as follows:

Western music has been carefully classified within a narrow system of sounds, and its presentation has been systematically notated. Rests within a score tend to be placed with mathematical compromises. Here the sound has lost its strength within the limitation of functionalism. Our task is to revive the basic power of sound. This can be done only by a new recognition of what sound really is. . . .

I have referred to the “stream of sounds.” This is not only an impressionistic description but a phrase intended to contrast with the usual method of composition in music—that of superimposing sounds one on another. This is not a matter of creating new space by merely dividing it, but it does pose a question: By admitting a new perception of space and giving it an active sense, is it not possible to discover a new unexpected, unexplored world? This is the same as recognizing sound as an object. Listening to the sho [the instrument in gagaku that maintains a continuous thread of sound] I began to think of a basic creative approach to negative space.

Negative space in art is what surrounds the object of interest: the surrounding emptiness. Negative space in painting is empty space, or unrevealed, unfulfilled space. It may be highly painted, yet to the eye it seems to be a void. Takemitsu’s idea of negative space in music seems to be, to me, a sense of timelessness, or rhythmic absence: anything can happen, any sound can manifest, but the duration of time is not broken into pulses, beats, or measures. It simply is time. In exploring this possibility, both Takemitsu and Messiaen have created musical spaces that seem to just float, like clouds or caves, with no beginning or end. They may change shape, but they don’t hurry anywhere. They simply are.

Sound permeates me, linking me to the world. I give sounds active meaning. By doing this I am assured of being in the sounds, becoming one with them. To me this is the greatest reality. it is not that I shape anything, but rather that I desire to merge with the world. . . .

What I have been saying is that we must give meaning to sound by returning it to its original state as a naked being. Sounds themselves, their movement as personalized beings—that is what we must discover and continue to discover anew. Organized sound is merely the subjective creation of the human being and is not the personalized sound I am discussing. My phrase “give meaning to sound” refers to something other than mere naming and differentiating. It concerns a total image. Both my acceptance and my suspicion of “chance music” stem from this point of view.

So we return to our original Taoist insights into sound: and are left with another paradox, of both acceptance of the ideal or non-action and letting sound be sound, and rejection of musical frames that are only a duration of time in which any sound made by the environment is reborn as “music” merely by existing within the musical frame. We must both accept and reject that kind of imposed purity. On one level, it’s a revelation that sound is music, and music is nature, and nature is full of sound. On another level, it so removes the composer from his interposition between nature and audience as sound-interpreter as to make music meaningless.

What the artifice of music leads us to, then—and this is what “expression” is all about, as opposed to self-expression, is that there is something in the music that goes beyond its collection of performed sounds. Takemitsu calls it a special element that cannot be rationalized or explained. He says that music which succeeds in expression captured space and time beyond everyday life, shaping and moving according to the will of the composer. (Takemitsu is discussing the gong sounds, the campanology, or bell-ringing, in Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphony.) Towards this end, Takemitsu quotes poet and critic Makoto Ooka, who writes about poetry as follows:

The words in poetry are something like iron filings on a sheet or paper: they can be arranged by a magnet and be made to rise, all pointing in one directions. Once a certain vital power penetrates words, the words themselves are abandoned, transformed by that power. Each word beings to show a magnetic character. Words gain direction.

It is interesting to think of this magnetism of meaning, or expression, in terms of music, as well as in poetry. The sounds used in a musical piece can also be magnetized towards some vital power. This is the power of music to evoke experience in the listener—what has superficially and inaccurately been called music “universal language,” i.e. the ability of music to arose emotion, contemplation, and active imagination when listened to. The only way in which music is a “universal language” is because it is made of sounds, and the natural phenomenal nature of sounds are something we all (naturally) share in common. We live in a world immersed in sound. What makes music universal is what makes it natural. There is an excitement, a life-force arousal, that happens when we actively listen to music.

At the end of his chapter on :Nature and Music,” Takemitsu takes this back to expression, to the search for the music of nature, where we began with our Taoist sayings. I can conclude this meditation no better than to quote Takemitsu’s again:

The excitement music provides goes beyond verbalization. And that is the reason we find meaning there.

That time when we are truly impressed by a human being occurs when we see great power working within a small humble person. This is also true of words. That is, we are impressed, not by description, but by something elevated to “expression.”

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Counting Drafts 2

In Counting Drafts I reprinted two older poems of mine to make the point that the number of drafts required for each poem was very different. I left the question open as to which poem had required extensive rewriting, and which poem was almost a first draft. I received not many guesses or comments in response, and the split was 50/50 on the guesses.

Well, pull out the trumpets and give a fanfare, because here's The Big Reveal.

Although, really, it's no big deal, and I doubt many care.

There were two points I was trying to make: that an excessive number of drafts of a poem may not always serve the poem well (or the poet; the issues involved could be psychological rather than writerly), and that what matters is the end result, the quality of the finished poem.

No matter how you get there, and no matter how long it takes you to get there, the poem is what matters.

if you hold yourself still, the fox

This poem is almost a first draft. Only a few words and line-breaks were changed. Like many other of my poems, it emerged more-or-less fully-formed. (Poems often emerge this way—one imagines that most of the drafting or shaping happens quietly in the back of the mind, before the poem is ready to emerge.)

The poem was written in response to a question in a discussion forum Have you had any meaningful encounters with nature? Do you ever have close encounters with nature that just automatically inspire you? leave your head dizzy with literary possibilities?

There were a lot of replies to that question that were personal stories of close encounters or surprising moments. I waited a long time before jumping into the conversation, because I had just been on one of my roadtrips down the coastal Highway 1 in California and Oregon, and the imagery and sights and smells were all very fresh in my mind. So to me the whole question about encounters with Nature was absurd: how can you possibly miss nature, since we're all immersed in it all the time? I realized that the question was based on the usual conceptual dichotomy of City vs. Wild, of Nature vs. Civilization, etc. But I was remembering that there's a pack of wild coyotes living along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago; and the places I'd just driven through, coastal OR towns that dip down to the sea where the mouths of rivers emerge, are so interdependent with nature that you cannot make any separations.

I reprint here some of the conservation that set my mind into white heat, which led eventually to the making of this poem. My initial response to the discussion question was:

In the past few days, driving down the Pacific coast from Portland to San Francisco, and camping along the way, I had encounters with gulls, sea lions, otters, great horned owl, ravens, numerous finches, crabs, humans and their children and pets, giant redwood trees, Monterey cypresses draped with moss, mushrooms glowing brightly in the dusk, songbirds, Stellar's jays, sugar maples (just beginning to turn fall colors, so that they are green on the bottom, yellow in the middle, and fire red on top), the overpowering scent of white pine from a logpile at a sawmill, kelp, mussels, bivalve clams, minnows, half-feral cats, deer, more deer (they're always on the move at dusk), redtailed hawk, turkey vulture, brown eagle, koi, willows, spiders the size of thumbnails, banana slugs, pampas grass, and much much more, an incredible richness of encounters.

The question, Have I had any memorable encounters with nature?, sort of boggles my mind, as it seems to assume that "nature" is something separate from "me," which is completely wrong. We are immersed in nature continuously. We are part of nature. Not even "city" is separate from "nature." There are two primary sources of inspiration in my life and writing, nature, and the inward life. These are not separable either, especially if you have encountered Jung's concept of synchronicity. The inner and outer worlds reflect each other. It's always there, perceivable, if we just slow down and pay attention to our surroundings,

I can't possibly pick one "encounter with nature," because (for me anyway) they are continuous, daily, absorbing, ordinary parts of everyday life and events. Nothing special, everything special.

If you hold yourself still, the fox will always come to you.

Obviously, this line became the first line of the poem, also its title.

I received this response:

I like your take on nature though. At least how if we slow down we might see these two strange worlds meet, whatever they are to us. I guess I could re-word my question to fit your viewpoint, something similar to: What parts of your continous everyday life, interacting with nature (which you may view as a part of yourself), inspire you and stand out most of all? I think you get the point either way, but thanks for bringing a new and free thought to the table.

as for the fox always coming to you...very well, she may, but once she comes you must never let her go.

To which I replied:

I think we always have to let the fox go, so that she might come and go as she wills. Clinging to an idea, a style, a vision, even clinging to life itself, can choke it, make it mannered, make it stiff. Let the fox remain wild, and she will come back to us. Put her in a cage, and she might die.

I think poetic inspiration is the same way: Let something wild in us remain wild, untamed, "natural" by which we could mean unmannered, unrefined, unfettered, and most importantly uncontrolled, and the wildness will remain in our poetry. It's a wildness we need, even in our cities, if we want to stay in touch with that essential aliveness, that breathes us, the very life-force itself, perhaps.

There was some more discussion, some of which centered around the above respondent saying: How strange I could say one thing, but completely agree with your disagreeing with me. The discussion led us to arrive at some point of congruency about how nature is not really separate from us after all; and how we might reflect that in our poems.

And, at white heat, within a day, the poem emerged. As I said, I made only minor revisions.


This poem was revised a minimum of seven times, possibly more that I didn't count. It began as raw and unedited spew onto the screen, a psychological dump, and a way of writing that I think perfectly healthy—write first, revise later. The first two drafts were huge and unwieldy, just raw and rough, more prose than poem. The third revision radically trimmed the poem's length, and beat it into some form, after which it continued to be pared away at, condensed, and polished. It remains one of the more emotionally raw poems I've ever written.

Many readers have assumed it's autobiographical. While it was written as part of the grief process during my parents' deaths, where a lot of this sort of emotion was floating around, in fact the poem is in a character's voice, not my own. It's personal, and personally emotional, therefore, but not autobiographical.

The poem is part of an ongoing series in which each poem has a title from ancient Greek; many of these words have theological or spiritual usages. Several of the poems in the series emerged from contemplating the Greek word that became the title; it's not common for me to have the title first, or use a word as a writing prompt, but these Greek terms are so rich with meaning, and so spiritually potent, they activate the poetic response in me. Writing each poem in the series has been a fluid response to what Greek word made me think and feel. What ties each poem in the series together, beyond the undertone of theological exploration, is that each poem is done in a different, experimental style. Not my usual thing. The entire series is an exercise is exploring how life-changing events affect the way one makes art, and what one makes art about.

What I think is successful about Kenosis is that it embodies the action of its title: it is not a poem about the emptying-out of the spiritual process of kenosis, it enacts that process. This was one root of the controversy surrounding the poem: the rawness made certain people uncomfortable; they would have had me talk about kenosis in the poem rather than enact it. I like the shape of the poem, the breathless long lines that propel the reader on and build a powerful momentum. Otherwise, I don't claim this to be my greatest poem; far from it; I think it still has some problems. But I can't do any more with it, and it's good enough as it stands to be part of its series.

Kenosis, I have mentioned before, as a poem generated a heated debate, and some controversy within the workshop in which I was working at that time.

The poem was also used as an example for a writing prompt, which was titled "Vision & Revision." The prompt asked for examples of how individual poets went through their rewriting process. I had to point out that this amount of revision on one of my own poems was atypical; there was also an interesting discussion around how much rewriting is too much.

The controversy led to a long conversation about moralizing in poetry criticism, the value of traditional vs. experimental styles in poetry, and more. I later took my own contributions to this discussion and reworked them into a series of essays. Since this controversy may have some oblique relevance to the discussion about editing and rewriting and drafts, I post the series here, via links, in case anyone feels inclined to dip into it.

Moralizing vs. Experimentation

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 2

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 3

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 4

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 5

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Uphill Struggle Against All Odds

Most people don't realize how much your health colors your perceptions, much less your ability to be creative. Most people don't ever think about it, until confronted with it. Most people who are generally healthy, barring the occasional cold or flu virus, have no clue how those who aren't feel, day to day. They take for granted that normal activity means you can do just about anything you want to. There's nothing intentionally malicious in this, yet things assumed in ignorance can be just as hurtful. One thing healthy people don't ever think of: there are days you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you have no belief whatsoever that you'll ever get well again. Another thing healthy people never seem able to understand (perhaps till they get sick themselves) is that each day can be an uphill fight, and they take for granted that you can do things that maybe you can't. When you're enduring a chronic illness, having to spend a lot of precious daily energy budget on educating the ignorant can be frustrating, taxing you beyond endurance. But you're stuck with it: education is the only way to get folks to comprehend. (Empathy is usually too much to hope for, but you have to start somewhere.) You're not allowed to just complain, though: you have to be stoic, righteous, and teach. Pity and sympathy are offensive: they're shallow, sentimental, and self-serving, and do not evince real understanding. A lot of the time in life, people listen to your words but they don't hear you.

The past few weeks I've been so weak and sick I've only been out of the house a few times, and never for a long time. For someone who loves spending his time in the outdoors, camera in hand, that can be pure torture. Thank all the gods for my garden. One of the reasons I've been developing a dense, lush garden since I bought my home is to use it to make photographs. But another reason is to be surrounded by half-wild greenery, so that even on a day when I'm too weak to do much I can still walk around the house and get lost in the greening. Gardening is a ripe spiritual practice, full of potential and healing. The lilacs are in full bloom right now; I trimmed a few flowers and put them in a vase in the dining room, their scent permeating the air, the scent of May Day, of Beltane, of spring. Yesterday, before it began raining again, I did some weeding. A half hour of intense on-your-knees work and I was panting hard, heart racing, and had to stop: such is the curse of a chronic illness that produces debilitating tiredness. Any exertion, literally any exertion, can leave you panting.

A few months after my father died, and a few months before my mother also died, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis coupled with irritable bowel syndrome. (Principal side-effects are debilitating tiredness, a lot of colonic bleeding that can produce anemia, and a severely touchy digestion.) Those are all literally life-changing events; if you think they don't affect how you make art, or affect the art you make, you're fooling yourself. (Medical trivia: if your doctors call it a "syndrome" that means they recognize the symptoms, but they don't know what causes it, and they don't know how to cure it.) I also went on a gluten-free diet at that time. That's all tied together: a very touchy digestive system, with the goal to still eat well while at the same time removing as many irritants from the diet as possible. I also had to cut way back on certain vegetables that are irritants, like broccoli. (I won't miss cabbage; I hate cabbage anyway. The only good cabbage is that which is placed in a clay pot with peppers and other ingredients and buried in the ground for weeks or months, to make authentic Korean kimchee.) There is a stress component to ulcerative colitis: high stress can bring on a flare-up, or relapse, or whatever you want to call it. It's no wonder an attack came on after Dad died. Last fall, a flare-up which is still in progress was brought on by the stress of dealing with my uncle's death, and my aunt's very nasty passage into Alzheimer's. I was able to build up enough strength to go on a roadtrip to California and Oregon this past February, but since I got back home I've been mostly sick. Chronic illness means you can be sick for months at a time; I'm going on seven months of illness right now. It's hard to feel like it will ever stop. I've learned not to talk about it, even when asked, because people want to hear that you're doing fine, not that you're not. No one likes a complainer.

Your appetite goes away, but you might not lose any weight, because you're unable to undertake even normal exercise. You're just too weak. Sometimes I live vicariously. I often enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain's television show No Reservations, which is sort of a punk-foodie show. If Julia Child was the classic American foodie show, the very first foodie show on US television, the equivalent of classical music or French accordion restaurant music, then Tony's show is the foodie equivalent of punk rock, with maybe a little heavy metal thrown in. Even though I'm classically trained, a composer with degrees in music, I've always been more of a punk rocker in attitude than a music-conservatory high-art snob. All music is good, though—as are all things foodie. (Is Alice Waters the Chopin of foodies? Is Ferran Adria more akin to Charles Ives or to Olivier Messiaen? Are raw-food ideologues more akin to bad hip-hop or to bad lounge music? I merely speculate; just because it's fun.) What I love about TV shows like No Reservations is that Tony Bourdain loves life, loves food, isn't afraid to be wrong or look stupid, and lives life at full speed. There are days when I can barely get through the day's chores, and it saves me to be reminded that you can still life with relish, with gusto, with joie de vivre! even when you're not able to do much more than boil rice and fry bacon. I have a small shelf of cookbooks, which I love to keep on hand and sample from with sensual pleasure, even though most days I don't have the strength to cook anything very fancy. Some days plain-and-simple and well-loved beats any four-star restaurant.

There is eros and thanatos in every life experience, including that of being ill. Some things that have no cure come to be recognized as bearing gifts. Focus too much on pathology and you become pathological. (You cannot look into the Void too long without the Void also looking into you.) It's not a matter of trying to figure out the "purpose" or "meaning" of an illness, as though it were a puzzle to be solved; rather, it's about learning to create meaning within the sphere of having to cope with and endure your illness. In other words, how you continue to live life with pleasure and love even when it's a constant uphill battle and you often feel like you're sliding back down no matter what you do. Find "meaning" in that. There are those among the generally-healthy who will try to encourage you by telling you to seek the lesson in the wound: a new age quest for meaning in all things. But such pseudo-wisdom ignores the dark gods, the dark night of the soul, acedia, and the as-yet-untransformed aspects of deity. There are other who quote the Nietzschean doctrine of "Whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." I knew a cancer survivor once who rephrased that, with delicate and forceful relish, as "Whatever doesn't kill you, missed." Period.

Living is not just an act of will. Nor is it a purely intellectual exercise. (Well, I suppose for some writers it is, those whose lives are tepid and lukewarm and untroubled by actual sorrow, for whom is more virtual than real. Long may they wave.) Being sick brings you into an intense awareness of your body unlike any other process; except perhaps open-hearted, little-toe-curling, fulfilling, tantric sex. Healthy people take for granted that they can have sex any time they want to, that the flesh will always be as willing to perform as the soul is to contemplate. Sensual pleasure, even sexual arousal, is available to me even in my nights and days of debilitating tiredness—eros is always present—but fulfillment may have to be postponed. I tire out more easily than I used to; I need to take pauses to get my breath back. I'll state for the record this truth about love and sex, which I have learned from being sick and tired all the time: lovers who expect me to go out of my way, and do all the work of relationship, will no longer be placed first among equals. If you can't do at least half of the work to meet me halfway, you cost me too much effort, and I can't afford to waste my time on you. Period.

I pause for a moment to make something iconic. A piece of digital art, perhaps, or a literal icon. Yesterday as I was out driving around town doing some shopping errands, an idea for a multimedia series of images came to me. All the same image, but presented in several ways, showcasing the various media I work in. A series of small icons, to be tucked away in the corner of the gallery, where some might not even notice. People ordinarily overlook the small corners, anyway, and focus on the oversized, prominent, gaudy big art in the middle of the wall. Big and loud is better, they say; even when it's not.

I know I'm still alive, despite all my worries about not having the strength to work for a living, despite whatever internal bad weather my body is putting me through today, despite shivering on even warmish days because I'm anemic—despite all that, I know I'm still alive because I can still make art. I can still write something, whether a poem or a small rambling essay. I can spend a few hours seated at my worktable transcribing, proofreading and correcting a musical score. I can get out the Dremel rotary tool and carve something, an icon, or a symbol, or a simple picture, into a slab of wood. I can garden as much as I can till I have to stop. I can draw something. If I've become a better writer, more fluid and focused, it's because I've had a lot of practice from having nothing better to do on those days when I've been forced to sit on my ass all day. Of course, now that I've been booted out of, or chosen to leave, every writing community I've ever participated in, I could also be going down a dead-end path in my writing, and not know it. On the other hand, those who booted me out displayed exactly the same sort of intolerant, judgmental ignorance that the worst of the generally-healthy display towards the chronically-ill: since we're not supposed to "dwell on" or otherwise talk about being sick, we get blamed for being unable to live up to the ignorant expectations who don't want to know what's really been going on. Call that judgmentalism whatever you will: some psychologists call it pathological narcissism. Everybody has a shadow side.

One other aspect of this chronic illness is that it's not blatantly obvious. To most people I don't look like I'm disabled, or sick. It's largely invisible to them, until I get into a situation where I really have to sit down, right now, and then they get alarmed. But that's how it is: you can be going along fairly okay, and suddenly you hit that wall of exhaustion, and you have to stop, right now. There's no choice. It's not something you can just push through or tough out in some macho-man fantasy of playing through the pain. For one thing, if you try to just push through it by sheer force of will, you make it physically worse, and you might need two days to recover rather than one. There are always consequences. For another thing, you have to learn how to manage your daily energy budget, or suffer those consequences. So you have to learn to say "No" to things that you do want to do—there's no getting around it, you have to say No sometimes to one thing so that you can say Yes to something else. It becomes a matter of forging priorities.

I pause again to necessarily visit my most familiar walls in the house: the bathroom. I'm thinking about installing bookshelves. Maybe a favorite photograph or two to look at. Perhaps a small self-contained stereo with a CD player. Things to keep the mind engaged while you pass the time where out of necessity you must pass the time.

You have to talk yourself into doing what you want to do. It's an uphill struggle to hook up to that inspiration, to keep your life positive and affirming. Making art is one of the few things I know to do which never fails to improve my day. Even on my worst, most challenging days, making some kind of art, making anything, keeps me feeling like life is worth living. Perhaps most generally-healthy people don't understand how important even such a small thing can be, to give you a reason to go on living. When the quality of suffering is high, the mercy of small gods is deep.

Is it worth it? It can be. It can be worth it just to have gotten through the day feeling reasonably okay about yourself, ready to wake up tomorrow and see what's changed. The uphill struggle against all odds can be worth it, even on those days when you feel like you've just been treading water, not getting anywhere, if you can remember to look back on the day and say: look, an icon; a poem; a piece of music. I bloody well did that! That's good enough.

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