Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lands afar and mine

Somewhere in my many-chambered past I learned the words to "Song of Peace," aka the hymn version of "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius, the opening line of which is, "This is my song, O God of all the nations. A song of peace for lands afar and mine."

Recent reading has carried me to those lands, across oceans or down highways I've followed since childhood. We all know the phrase, "armchair traveler," yet a perfectly told story does transport us. There is no season unsuited to reading - finding cool stillness on a summer afternoon or the cocooning of a rain-drenched winter night. Fond as I am of the occasional nap, weary as I may be at the end of the day, I fight to stay awake to see what happens next.

My recent fictional adventures began with "The Ginger Tree" by Oswald Wynd which was also adapted as a Mobile Masterpiece Theatre presentation. It is a favorite of a friend who volunteers in her local library and finds treats for me in the gift shop where they sell donated volumes. It is written as journal entries of a (as our story opens) young Scotswoman sailing to China in 1903 to meet her betrothed. Not all the seas she encounters are calm.

The names of faraway places conjure notions of lives whose distance from anything I know first-hand would have to be measured in more than miles. Mary MacKenzie made her way in Far Eastern cultures, both in China and Japan, for more than 40 years and in telling her story, Wynd carried me beyond any sense of fiction. I won't spoil plot points but will just say that, first, the character's reference to Lafcadio Hearn's books on Japan gave me an avenue to follow to learn more about Japanese customs and traditions, and second, that this heroine reminded me of another young woman whose travails had me devoted to Masterpiece Theatre. It is perhaps my favorite of their series, "A Town Like Alice," and I only knew the work from television, had never read Nevil Shute's novel, published in 1950.

What I remembered of the program was impossible hardships endured by a young Englishwoman working in Maylaya when the country was invaded by the Japanese army early in World War II. I am not quite 3/4 finished reading the story and can't recall clearly all that transpires (a very good thing, so the tale is familiar and, at the same time, new) but it shares much common ground with "The Ginger Tree" in Asian settings, women who transcend loss and deprivation, glimpses into alternate ways of life - choices made by intention and circumstance - and characters who are real and still larger-than-life for their courage and clarity. Jean Paget's wartime ordeals are only part of her tale, only one of the situations in which her wisdom and kindness are revealed. As her odyssey takes her to the Australian Outback, she continues to enrich the lives of those she encounters. To use a word I've heard a lot lately, she is wonderfully authentic, knows herself and her mind and is a friend I will miss when I reach the last page.

Leaving the lands afar brings me to "Round Rock," the first novel by Michelle Huneven, which is set in a Southern California agricultural valley and is populated by recovering alcoholics. That is a feeble oversimplification of a novel with enormous warmth, vivid and enviable descriptive writing and characters that you wish would go on and on in sequels. As we are both from nearly the same town and both still live close to where we were born, I wanted to read how Ms. Huneven interpreted familiar places. As I have mentioned before, I like to read about Los Angeles - just as I like to read about places that aren't Los Angeles - and love details such as the dry hills resembling lions (they made me think of the scratchy upholstery in my grandfather's car). In a thumbnail biography, it states that she studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop which generally indicates someone with, you might say, above average skills. Her work was suggested by another native who knew I would find her writing instructive and appealing. She has three novels in print - going by and other on-line sources - and I look forward to the other two and hope for many more.

Reading makes me wish for the maps we had in elementary school in which we'd place a pin for the location of every story we completed during the summer. There is nothing to keep me from reaching for the atlas and reviving the tradition, nothing except the fact that I can become as lost in an atlas as any work of fiction, following borders and rivers and trying to remember what some of the countries used to be called. February, over too soon, was a very good month for books, but then I can't remember a bad one. The bedside stack awaits.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Postmarked 2010

This is one of the pieces of mail art I submitted to Postmarked 2010, the fund-raising auction for the Prison Library Project in Claremont, CA. The piece was done on corrugated box cardboard, the puppet with Tria markers, the rest of the piece with Prismacolor pencils, text also Tria marker. All the particulars are available here.

At the Postmarked website, you can see all the donated art, learn about the Project and may even bid on-line.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Out of conflict comes a gift

A long-ago animated television show called "Crusader Rabbit" included a character named Arson and Sterno, the Two-Headed Dragon. Take a leap and guess how well the two separate heads got along. Since what I know about neurology is the equal of what I know about structural engineering, I suspect that my synapses make connections that differ from the way any other 14 out of 40,000 people would. So Arson and Sterno reside in memory, to be called forth when I acknowledge ambivalence, contrast and ambiguity in my own nature; they give faces and personalities to my seemingly disparate parts.

Where I don't assume I vary so much from my fellows is in living this yin/yang, hubris/nemesis existence. I would prefer to spend more time frolicking with aspects in greater harmony. An example is the desire for order, the ability to know where my hand needs to reach to find whatever I need, and the reality of piles, stuff, disarray. And one of the less attractive handmaidens of this conflict is judgment, harsh, undeserved and not an opinion I would feel so strongly about similar traits in another. This has set me on a path of learning to come from a more loving place in all situations, to extend compassion and acceptance to the greater world and to myself. This brings as its sidekick generosity, particularly generosity of spirit; an open heart out of which flows love.

There may be a line between loving, self-acceptance and giving ourselves too great a pass. There may not. Among newer lessons is the radical belief that any looming task may be confronted in small portions, a meal consumed one bite at a time. And there is also the choice to postpone or cancel. Not every seeming imperative is the actual creature.

With the awareness of compassion and generosity comes a greater wish to share, to stop measuring or counting or figuring. Just give it. You will be the richer for having done so. None of your better angels will be standing behind you, frowning. One of the ickiest results of being stingy or cautious is the knowledge, which will come, trust me, that you have missed the turn leading to peace of mind. Letting our hearts and hands open, with no assurance of any return, and without the intention for or desire of any, is freeing. We are catapulted from the ground we normally stand, wanting to be sure there will be enough, whatever that means, to enter the flow of Divine abundance, where enough will never be a question. We trust the urging to let something of ours become something of theirs. Quantity is not an issue for no matter what our circumstances, we do have something to give, if not materially then in kindness or attention or the results of our talents.

In my mind there is a manifesto-in-progress, where thoughts such as, " You will never go wrong taking the high road ," line up to remind me what I believe, should I forget for a moment and allow my heart to start shrinking. Another which I will add is this: It is not only good manners to keep the smaller portion for yourself, it is simply right. And without making a show of it. Let us be part of the great prosperity that surrounds us, in joy, imagination, energy, love and benevolent thoughts. The world needs what we have to offer; let us bring it forth.

Friday, February 19, 2010


If any of the following topics resonates for you, I have a documentary to recommend: German cinema, South American rivers and native people, the clash between what we call civilization and ever-more-scarce remote lands in a timeless state, the question, are we propelled or pulled to our doom by dreams, tenacity bordering on madness, Werner Herzog.

The documentary, produced and directed by Les Blank, is called BURDEN OF DREAMS and is the tale of filming Herzog's FITZCARRALDO, in which, for veracity, he insists on dragging a three-story ship up a 40% grade to launch it upon an unreachable-by-water tributary on the other side of the hill, part of the story of the fictional lead character's dream.

Since first seeing Herzog's AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD about which I had read that his actors were required to climb through the Andes in the armor and court dress of Spanish conquerors, I have been unable to lose the images he captures, on the face of lead actor (as he is also in FITZCARRALDO) Klaus Kinski, of the impossibility of their plight, of the power of the primal or deeply primitive to triumph against everything except firearms with ancient, intuitive knowledge of life, death and survival. When I saw FITZCARRALDO some years later for the first time, then again perhaps six months ago along with AGUIRRE, I can only describe my response as emotion, which began as infatuation and grew into love. Both AGUIRRE and FITZCARRALDO swept me away, no river pun intended, raising an awareness of how I am moved by and aligned with the unlikeliest of goals, possibly the more apparently doomed, the better.

A phrase such as "hopelessly majestic, yet redeemed" sounds creepily like reviewer-speak but can't be called inappropriate. I have loved movies since I was three and went with my mother and father to the drive-in, several of which were no more than a town away and whose double-bills changed twice a week. Not anything close to a prodigy, I did have a scarily retentive mind and would be called upon to recite the trailers, short subjects, cartoons and pictures we had recently seen. Sometimes they woke me up to stand there in my pajamas and amaze dinner guests.

Having just finished seeing BURDEN OF DREAMS within the past hour, I haven't allowed myself time to process its themes or truths, yet the compulsion, the need to say something about it isn't going to rest. In one on-camera interview, at one of the many points where the whole project appears impossible, Herzog tells his interviewer that he makes movies because he really doesn't know how to do anything else, though he should stop making them and have himself put in an asylum. At another point, realizing how complex and fraught with disaster the film company's intrusion on the jungle and its people may be, he is clearly troubled by the peril in which his project has placed them and their way of life. "I don't want to live in a world without lions," he says, "and these people are lions." Herzog is one as well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

One of a kind, but then aren't we all?

This morning I woke up and realized that no magic had squirmed through the window during the night to allow me to sit down at my keyboard and, just like that, put together sentences that you would mistake for Raymond Chandler's writing. Dang.

While searching, without success unless you want to count people who didn't hit it BIG until they were 30, for Late Bloomers, I thought Chandler might fit into the category, but alas he saw "The Big Sleep" hit the bookstores when he was 51, by which time he had been writing for "Black Mask" magazine, on the heels of younger efforts in what his biography described as, " reviews and bad poetry."

The Chandler fansite has a changing collection of quotes from his work, each rich and vivid and real enough to remind me why he and his characters endure. From his novel, "The Little Sister," they featured this sentence: She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight. Reading his words makes me smile and I wish life hadn't brought him depression, alcoholism and disenchantment. Even with such plagues, his thoughts and means of expressing them remain true and timeless and cause other writers moments of grief and envy.

If there is a point to this, it is to hold on to your vision. Other than Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses, I wasn't able to construct the hoped-for list of notables for whom success arrived after their hair had started to gray. But then we need to discuss what success means. In her novel, "Charms for the Easy Life," Kaye Gibbons has a character tell us of man who survived hanging and, I think, several other unpleasant encounters, yet who had the titled charms in his possession. Observing that the charms seemed not to have helped him, we are told that it all, "...depends on your definition of easy."

Success in achieving peace of mind, in releasing feelings of ill will, of finding good in situations from which it seems to have fled, of remaining open-hearted when word from all sides might call that foolish, where will we find the list of our fellows who achieved that at any age? While we work on the outside, scribbling through unsatisfactory sentences for their inability to hold up from one generation to the next, we can work on the inside. My emerging awareness tells me that a quiet mind, trust in a good outcome and knowing the difference between who I am and who I am not will carry me in the appropriate direction.

As I try to edge closer to Mr. Chandler, wishing I could offer to carry his briefcase or run to the store for a new bottle of ink or fresh typewriter ribbon, I know it matters that we water and talk to our dreams, encouraging the sprouts, praising the blossom that becomes the peach. It matters that we remember none of this is a contest; to become conscious is neither a team activity nor a competitive sport. It is a process whose language is spoken in words such as emerge, develop, evolve, expand. If we remain steadfast to those as goals, how can we be anything other than successful? Please excuse my ignorance, but I think it is the Shakers who say, "Hands to work, hearts to God." Allowing for varying definitions of God - and success - and the simple joy of a delete button and not all that White Out, we can craft tales and art and music that will grow our hearts and pull our aspirations within reach. Those who doubt their ability to lasso the moon only need more time to practice with the rope.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Say the secret word

For several weeks I have had a new and regular writing assignment. I get to write the introduction to the Stamp Your Heart Out newsletter. Here is their website where you can, if you wish, access the newsletter and sign up to receive it:

SYHO is my home store. Located in Claremont, CA, a beautiful, historic town of many prestigious colleges, it is where I first taught stamping, several years before I had the opportunity to work as a stamp designer. The newsletter allows me, as does this blog, to practice what I love. When I began writing a blog, I remember having a vague notion of fame and sufficient income, based on what, I couldn't even guess. Last year I let time, too much time, pass between postings and as 2009 came to an end, I knew that being at least semi-steadfast about entries was essential; it was a soul assignment. I have no idea where such a commitment will take me, perhaps only to this page. In the moment, that feels sufficient for our voices have power. It may not be as important that the words find readers as it is that I write them. I don't believe I'm alone in my state of wandering in the dark. We pick up a clue and it moves us to the next spot - in a former life filled with sports car rallies the rules were the same, the game was played by having directions only to the next rally point. I once heard the path through life described as "doing the next indicated thing" and I have taken that as my only instruction.

But back to the newsletter. Store owner Joan Bunte invited me to create a paragraph a week, based on a word of my choosing which could connect with stamping, creativity and the enormous stock of inspiration her store provides through samples, demos and a very skilled staff. The joy of riffing on one word - I've never played an instrument, I can only guess - leaves everything wide open yet has to, as we hope, make sense in the context of paper crafts. It is a dream assignment and helps fuel my other writing.

Consider yourselves fortunate that Word of the Week was the topic singing to me this afternoon. The other choice was a soon-abandoned mishmash, almost as inconsistent and baffling as my attempts to learn knitting, in which I wanted to pull Holden Caulfield, Don Quixote, my own mental health and teenage emotions into a coherent essay. Can't imagine why it didn't come together. Perhaps, as with the knitting, my casting on either pinched or gapped. Certain times, we are wise to know our limitations.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Looking for the real in real life

I may be cranky about television because mine is not working. The elderly set itself works fine but the sub-par digital signal box which the govenment insisted I purchase to receive an over-the-air signal - to which had to be added the expense of an external antenna - died a shockingly premature death, several weeks after the other dreaded box in our home expired. That I am a conspiracy theorist is not a well-kept secret and something about this whole converter box hubbub emits an unlovely odor.

So that may be the catalyst for less-than-benevolent feelings toward the medium in general but as we are launched, willingly or not, into hours and hours of coverage of the Winter Olympics I have difficulty reconciling physical excellence with a network's relentless self-promotion. I think of the Olympics in general as deriving from Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and those who participate in the competitions in its name as beings occupying a higher plane than the rest of us. The hours - not hours, years - of practice, a focus I can only call single-minded and the possession of natural grace and skill are worthy of honor. It may be that I am wearied by the number of good shows NBC has cancelled, by their ruthless expulsion of smart people who have the potential to see them rise in stature again and the sound of that Olympic theme droning in the background from our one functioning set that make me feel the world's best amateur athletes deserve something better. This will not come as a surprise: everything in life cannot be condensed to a momentary audio clip.

If I were heading the operation, I would have taken it as a sign, a portent, when it became necessary to import snow to the Olympic venue. As I said, my dissatisfaction could well be with the shoddy products we were forced to purchase to continue receiving "free" television, yet there is - as is frequently the case - a bigger picture. I believe that real life is something different than what we are put through out here, every day, filled with falls from grace, votes of no confidence, attention whores accepted as minor deities, tales of bad behavior, forecasts of doom and the glorification of those without intelligence or imagination. I believe real life IS lived on this planet in quiet ways which do not call attention to themselves. It is lived from the heart and is much more concerned with giving than receiving. It is modest and witty and kind and built on compassion. It does not match the information we receive from standard news outlets or from our governments. It asks us to know the false from the true. And all it requires from us is living an authentic life, not as mimics of what we see and hear but as risk-taking odd-balls who are comfortable not matching the existing paradigm. Thoreau knew we were not meant to keep pace with our companions. May all the competitors from every corner find a deep, sustaining self-acceptance of their membership among the non-ordinary. We have been trained to see winning as the goal, when what matters is showing up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The teacher appears

Bookstores may well be my favorite places. New books, used books, tidy and set in orderly arrangements or dusty chaos, I am welcomed by the scent, the feel, the words yet unread. And then there is which is no different than having a fairy godmother.

My far-away brother sends us books as gifts and amazon manages to drop them at the front door in as few as two days. If this isn't magic, then I misunderstand the concept. And as a devotee of doing business with small, local shops, this produces misgivings. Please notice I did not say guilt, for that would be untrue. It is simply logical that when books can be ordered from Australia and delivered to California within a few days, one would choose that option. But it is not without emotional conflict. The best one can hope for is to find a balance between supporting a local merchant who may not have a title in stock yet provides the pleasure of browsing, touching, carrying home something equally acceptable, and having the finger-snap gratification and ease of an on-line business. Life is fraught with ambivalence.

In the last few days, my gift boxes contained the long-desired "The Elements of Style (Illustrated)" by Strunk/White/Kalman and a Little, Brown and Co. paperback edition of "The Catcher in the Rye," the lack of which on our shelves I discovered when J. D. Salinger died. The paperback is a Back Bay imprint of Little, Brown and Co., original publishers of the hardcover novel in 1951. Both of these volumes link me to other ages and aspects of my life, those of teenage years and a term of service in journalism. Both incarnations remain part of who I am.

When I first saw this edition of "The Elements of Style" on the New York Times list of best-sellers, I had trouble imagining non-writing readers finding content that would cause them to purchase the book. I was not imagining enough. Described as, "This much-loved classic, now in its fourth edition, will forever be the go-to guide when in need of a hint to make a turn of phrase clearer or a reminder on how to enliven prose with the active voice...and (Maira) Kalman's fifty-seven exquisite illustrations give the revered work a jolt of new energy, making the learning experience more colorful and clear."

As I paged through my new copy, I cringed at all the examples of poor writing choices I make, having taken to a - I think I would call it - conversational style in my postings and other current works. Writers talk about writing and a lot of that talk concerns how we want to become better at what we do. I am interested to see how well I will be able to follow the teachings of Mr. Strunk and Mr. White without abandoning the voice I think I have found. Ego is a demon.

What Maira Kalman, a blogging artist and writer for the New York Times, has done to enhance the lessons offered in "The Elements of Style" is take a sentence or phrase from the text and use it as a caption for one of her paintings. The uniquely Kalman art gives me the feeling that a scolding for sloppy workmanship has been softened.

Salinger, whose protagonist spoke to me on a heart-to-heart level, reminded me in the first few paragraphs why I want to find words that will retain their meaning over decades and not fall into the world of dudes and rads and awesomes if I can avoid it. Maybe by not writing from the voice of a contemporary teenager, whose language is unknown to me anyway, I can preserve something timeless rather than settling for temporary.

Once I became aware that such events happen, I realized my significant teachers prefer to arrive incognito. Those new and deceptively innocent brown boxes left on the doormat may have just delivered a few of them.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Never too late

Just as we continue to discover new-to-us information about the outside world, we also get to be surprised by what we find exploring our own interior lives. What might be considered landmark birthdays, 30, 40, 50, 60, have not seemed like anything other than...a birthday. Soon I will turn 65 and have been nearly breathless with wonder to find that I am excited. There is such a strong sense of possibility, the opening of doors, perhaps a revelation of what I will actually be when I grow up.

I believe the choice, the opportunity, to evolve is always at hand. I don't know, really, how it is possible to remain unchanged when each day is a unique experience, bringing its own character and energy and drawing us further along what I think of as our path. There is no way to know (at least for those of us with unspectacular psychic abilities) upon waking in what direction we will head, like an ongoing game of Pin the Tail On the Donkey, blindfolded and spun around, hoping we are lurching toward the target and not, for example, the quicksand. So far, any sticky traps have been shallow enough to escape and have, as mystics tell, brought their own specific wisdom.

Time stretches, allowing us to grow into ourselves. My Finnish grandfather had a phrase about a substance that expanded or contracted to fit perfectly; he called it Finnish foozle (I guess at the spelling) cloth, the perfect material for clothing a family of children with a wide age spread; no one stuck with the too-short pants, the dress with the waistline hitting around the solar plexus, the shoes which pinched or slapped loosely, like playing dress-up. Life is constructed of his Finnish foozle cloth, bringing us, in symmetrical contradiction, what we might rather not have yet exactly what we need.

If I were not on the cusp of 65, I would not know the number of unforeseen and, in the moment, unwelcome events I could not only survive but eventually use as the flat, dry rocks that would help me ford the rising waters. If my spiritual growth had stopped even a few years (even a few months) sooner, I would not be able to claim optimism as a natural state nor would I know an emotion other than fear or anxiety over unknown outcomes. And this is particularly helpful, for outcomes generally are pretty much unknown; that whole business of no guarantees.

I have learned to be softer with myself, not speak inside my head like some mad dictator - or a character we could name from "Alice in Wonderland" for whom it was impossible to get it right. I have discovered, I believe, a still and compassionate core to which I can escort myself and find that my human inclinations do not signify the end of the world; that a task left undone today may be approached again tomorrow or perhaps may be crossed off the list unachieved. Think of it.

Over a number of years, we have the privilege of meeting ourselves on the way to something which had, once upon a time, seemed more essential than sunlight and which assumes its true proportion when its purpose becomes clear: whatever the thing was that we had to have or do or be, we realize it was instead simply the vehicle that drove us to what was the real destination. Our authentic selves wait for us, unless we have been among the most blessed who received that information much sooner. I think they send outriders, scouts in the way cavalry troops employed them, to see if we are drawing closer, then gallop back with progress reports. I think we sense their presence. It creates the excitement of knowing something is eager for our arrival, our blooming, our throwing off of any last wisps of an untrue or half-hearted version of our real identities. I would never have imagined myself saying this, yet I know it to be true: it keeps getting better.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February, and not any too soon

February is a month which I live in the present moment and also in memory. If all time truly does exists simultaneously, February is one of the months in which the sense of that is great.

It is a birthday month, mine and that of the first girl who spoke to me when I arrived to begin kindergarten at a new school where those early friendships had already been established. She reached out to me with a piece of candy and a kind word. Candy, a language as universal as a smile.

I take joy in the arrival of birthday cards, many in decorated envelopes, and always save them until the day, finding pleasure as well in remembering childhood cards and even grown-up greetings, such as the ones which contained a check from my grandfather on which he always wrote, with flourishes of the pen, "Birthday Remembrance."

This short and stormy month used to have two school holidays, the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln observed separately. There were years when our Girl Scout troop traveled to Yosemite to experience the park in winter over those long weekends, a bus ride filled with song - one trip it was a rolling CAMELOT soundtrack for those of us who'd memorized the words by the parent-maddening device of simply playing the album over and over and over.

The dime store, was there anything nearer to heaven on earth?, was the source for Valentines and their components. I will still buy heart-shaped doilies for no reason whatsoever, any size, any color. So by extension, February also remains the month of the grade-school crush, the agony of finding a card which said enough without saying too much and hoping it wasn't overlooked in the deluge the class postman delivered to each desk from the lacy and heart-encrusted box created just to collect them.

One of February's blessings is that it isn't January, which has frequently left me feeling bereft as the holidays are over and whether they served as distraction or celebration, they were gone along with the lights and the food, the fragrance of the Christmas tree, the time away from work or school, the anticipation and surprise, the music and the flurry. It is not an exaggeration to say that January sometimes feels like something to be gotten through, a hollow and colorless place, on the road to the return of red, sugary treats, gatherings and free time. I seem to be one who adjusts slowly to change, going from the Big Fun of December to the Bergman-esque landscape of January makes me want to nap long and often or lose myself in any books that had recently come my way.

This is really intended to be a simple "Welcome February" for I could reminisce without end, drift backward through years, ages, eras and gather an armload of February goodness. I will acknowledge it as a new square upon which to step, a place to begin rather than the trailing end of something finished. It is home to Aquarius and Pisces, champions of underdogs, rebels with causes, visionaries. It is one hell of a lot of candles on the cake and taking delight in being here to witness such a blaze while making wishes for things to come, a celebration of what our hearts may hold and the hope of learning just what that may mean.