A Brand New World

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Photo by John Simmons, 1975

I.

“This is how I feel right now/Obsolete manuscript/ No one reads and no one needs Pages lost, incomplete/ No one knows what it means/ Minds grow dark, so suddenly…
Useless part/ This useless heart/ Useless art/ What am I? Why I am I/ Incomplete?/ Obsolete
This is how it feels right now/ Obsolete manuscript/ No one reads, no one needs/ Useless part/ This useless heart/ Useless art . . .” – From the song “Obsolete” by Regina Spektor from her latest album, Remember Us to Life
“‘The Fire Next Time’ was not only for me the story of an elder who’s trying to teach a younger nephew . . . the facts of life. What I probably got from that is the notion of different perspective, that . . . it was legitimate to see the world totally differently than the dominant way . . . which is the Western dominant way of seeing the rest of the world . . . whether it’s Europe or North America . . . there is always this incredible sense of . . . we are the world, we are the center of the world. And we see the rest of the world from that center. . . And [James] Baldwin helped me understand that this was a political standpoint and that we were legitimate to question that and to see ourself as as well the center of the world or at least as important or as valuable . . . to have a different perspective on that . . . that’s why I always said what I learned from Baldwin is this way of questioning something that might seem solid – nothing is solid – and this sort of agility – of mental agility and intellectual agility to question everything.” – Raoul Peck, filmmaker, in an interview on Fresh Air about his Oscar nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

There are rare occasions in life when we realize that what we’ve told ourselves about the world, the lens we’ve used to define “our world,” has become inadequate, has become too narrow. An epiphany, or an event shakes us out of our version of reality, and concepts that relate to our previous way of thinking feel empty and are no longer relevant, or what we might say about those things. Reading, writing or speaking about various topics, especially the more superficial ones, becomes meaningless, even great works of literature suddenly lose their luster temporarily, unless they are able to bridge their relevance in this new world and if not, have the potential to become uninteresting because we are in a new version of reality we must study very closely as though we are cramming. I’ve experienced this three times in my life.

In 1996 I went to Burning Man in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, normally home to horned lizards, kit foxes, badgers, and rattlesnakes, all of which retreated from the chaos and crowds during that eccentric weekend in the wilderness. I was nineteen.

Silver CDs dangled on a string that reflected the burning rays of the sun, a brown motorized couch moved across the desert earth; there were raves under blackened skies, naked mud baths under oppressively hot sun; there was a drag queen circus show, and a forty foot high wood burning man sculpture with long legs and little other defining features.

In this world a man could have breasts and walk around in a tutu with no shirt on – and she did, a man could walk around naked wearing nothing but a cock ring – and he did, a woman could wear nothing but black leather thigh high boots – and she did; in this world clothes were unnecessary or costumes, and making love out of the shadows would probably be condoned.

After a trek through the barren, parched landscape to explore the novel terrain and human beings, I lay alone, to get away from it all, against the steely gray, cracked earth without a shirt on in very short blue jean cutoff shorts that frayed at the ends, my hair plaited into seven braids. I closed my eyes, my knees pointed upward, and I felt like I was on another planet.

I traveled to Burning Man with a group of poets. The purpose of the trip, and collective pursuit, was to create a “poetry tent,” a place for readings amidst the bands, installations, sculptures and noise.

Back then, I wrote politically and sexually charged performance poetry with feminist and social justice undertones, and I read a couple one night in that poetry tent, but realized immediately, every poem I had ever written had become obsolete/ irrelevant. The subjects of my poems didn’t exist here, in this Dionysian utopia, it was beyond the restrictions and laws our society imposed upon us. As I read aloud, the words felt vacuous and I found myself thinking: who am I preaching to? Who is this choir? And I realized then that it was possible for an environment to be created in which the world as I knew it was gone, or that reality could quickly become something different than I thought it was – even if it was only for a weekend.

On the final night of Burning Man, almost every physical sculpture was lit on fire, or so it seemed, everything ablaze and the smoke and carbon made breathing uncomfortable that final night, it perfumed my hair with bitter flecks and left me with an apocalyptic feeling of emptiness – my old poems metaphorically burning along with everything else.

Something similar happened to me when I went to Nepal in 1998 – the foundation of how I saw reality/ the world shifted. The myth of Western society as center stage dissolved. Amidst the Tibetan monks chanting and ritual instruments emanating from nearby monasteries every morning, the kangling horns and tingsha cymbals, and the prostrating maroon clothed monks with toned arms circumambulating Boudha Stupa, I witnessed the bloody carcass of a buffalo hanging at a nearby meat booth, a mother severely disabled walking on her knee bones (the rest of her leg missing) beside her toddler who gnawed on a piece of raw meat; I saw a pyre lit over a river, obscuring human remains, while family and friends, fully dressed and partially submersed in the water surrounded the body and sobbed; I made friends with homeless children between the ages of five and seven who slept in an ally like a pack of wolf pups, and lastly witnessed a woman wash her hair at dawn on a roof top by herself.

I watched her from a different rooftop and she didn’t see me. She washed her long black hair in a bucket as the sun came up, she whipped her hair down into the full bucket, and then flipped it back into a fast-moving waterfall, then combed through every shiny black wet strand of it until there was not a snarl. So then, that was it. I realized there is not one way to bathe, to wash one’s hair when the sun comes up, even “toilets” can be anything (in Nepal more often holes in the dirt with no toilet paper in sight.) I had lived mostly in Boudhanath for a month at that point and it hit me: there is no one way to do anything, there are millions of ways to exist, to live, function – existence is the epitome of multiplicity. I realized there is no one right way – to believe or be – from the grandiose to the minuscule gestures of life on earth.

II.

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Photo by Doreen Simmons, 2011

“The center was not holding . . . It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of American in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hope and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not . . . I had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” – Joan Didion from her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/ if you are the healer it means I’m broken and lame . . .Vilified, crucified, in the human frame . . A million candles burning for the help that never came/You want it darker . . There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame . . .They’re lining up the prisoners/ And the guards are taking aim/ I struggled with some demons/ They were middle class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim/ You want it darker . . .
– Leonard Cohen from his newest album, You Want it Darker released October 2016. He passed away November 8th, 2016, the day after the U.S. election.
“Leading up to the war, I doubted the value of anything but antiwar poetry. I thought all my nature poems were . . . Well, stupid. But the moment the antiwar movement failed and the bombings began, I knew how important poems about birds and trees and loneliness and sex and food and joy were. I knew those little poems were weapons in the war for human kindness.” – David Budbill in and interview with Diana S. McCall in The Sun, reprinted in the January 2017 edition.

The third time I experience a fissure in my perception of reality, a fissure in my perception of the world – it’s the fall of 2016. This time the country of my birth – the United States of America – has been twisted into an alternate reality of disconcerting fictional discourse and dissonance by the man elected president. What I always felt my fellow citizens and I were immune to – is no longer the case – we are like other countries now – the ones subject to control by a dictator-like figurehead.

On election night I realize immediately this is one of the most significant events in American history in my lifetime.

After a few hours of sleep, I get up on November 8th and feel like someone I love has died, or like I have made a grave mistake I cannot erase mixed with the worst hangover in history, even though I barely drank the night before.

I have a hard time getting the words out to my three-year-old son when he wakes, “Trump is our next president,” my voice breaks, the sun begins to rise. I have nothing else to say. Nothing else on my mind.

“Hilary didn’t win? I thought you said she was going to win,” he says concerned.

“No, she didn’t win . . . I‘m so sorry. . . I was wrong.”

“Trump is not nice,” my son says.

And then I count up in my mind that my son will be seven and a half in four years – which seems like an eternity – an eternity in which a text book narcissist and habitual liar could be president, a man whose commentary is sometimes inappropriate for children to hear; a man who says he doesn’t like the idea of heroes.

After observing my unwavering despondency throughout the day, my three-year-old later reassures me, “It’s okay that Trump’s going to be president,” sort of the way the Dalai Lama might say it, and something in me wants to be soothed by his words, that on some bigger bird’s-eye-level it will be okay, the way great catastrophes are okay, or okay in the sense of accepting such and such is reality, therefore, on some profound level, okay – the world goes on, things go on, humanity finds a way..

I find myself -alone – in couple’s counseling a day later. “Yesterday, my clients and I cried together all day,” the therapist says woefully with a peaceful smile. I realize this is one of those moments all Americans will remember, the way they remember where they were when JFK was shot or when the World Trade Center was hit.

At this moment I’m incapable of feeling that Jews, Muslims, Latinos and all people of color are safe in the United States (due to the promises made, hate speech used, and documentation about those now in the highest positions of government, and I can‘t shake it, my anxiety hard to quell, the proliferation of hate crimes across the country in the name of the man elected, not by the majority of Americans but by the Electoral College, is on the rise) and I’m not alone. In a conversation with Nick Hasted a few days after the election, published November 17th, in Independent, Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the graphic novels Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I and II says:

“I seriously worry all the time . . . It’s my nature. But here – eureka! – I’ve finally found something worth worrying about!. . . And I also can’t help but see parallels to the Thirties and Forties wherever they’re to be dug up, to a degree . . I see something similar to Hitler. . . in that it’s gone very fast to things that seem surreal to me, like Trump supporters shooting four civilians at a polling place in California – one of them died. And there’s the slide towards incivility . . . For the first time I got to see my name with three parentheses signs around it. I don’t think it was a secret that I’m Jewish, but they were making sure that the alt-right people would know that I was Jewish. That’s just something I saw a couple of days ago. ‘Oh, I see. OK, it’s a new day.’ And at this point we don’t care about refugees’ lives. They’re not white lives. So yeah, sure, I’m worried.”

“You can’t let your thoughts get out of control,” my therapist says, “you can’t guess what the future will bring, we just have to see what actually occurs and deal with each thing as it happens. Anxiousness causes a fight of flight response which makes it more difficult for your brain to react as rationally as it would in a calmer state. Put a photo of Trump on your meditation altar and send him thoughts of loving kindness,” she says with a snicker.

I think, yeah, yeah, sure, it will probably be worse than I can imagine, and there is a disconnect between she and I – I feel an urgency to put myself on the front lines (but I do not tell her) and I have a looming sense that I may have to sacrifice a lot, maybe everything, that my role as a mother may have to be secondary at times to this cause – it feels similar to the dread and existential crisis I might experience if I knew an asteroid were heading toward earth . . . my country as I once knew it is about to disappear, and suddenly none of the rules apply, and it’s as if all the other things I could write about – the subtle things – do not matter.

I know I’m going miss writing about the lush forests sometimes and seeing their every contour, and the river water gold hazel of my son’s eyes; I know I’m going to miss some of the beauty that’s all around me, all the time, because of the need to stay informed about what’s occurring and to vigilantly protest it, and there is a weight to this form of collective grief and political upheaval, a weight to consuming the details of the many events, rulings and their outcomes that go against everything I believe in, not to mention the dizzying array of obvious misinformation and propaganda that spews like a geyser daily.

I hesitantly confess to the therapist, knowing I will be reprimanded, that I read every article I can from every reputable journalistic newspaper and magazine I can in every spare minute of everyday. I read it all until my hands are blackened with ink, no not that, until I’m dizzy and can’t see straight because for the first time in my life I’m utterly addicted to reading everything on my iPhone, everything possible in the time allotted, every article, every blog post from every reputable news site I can. I sleep beside my phone, it’s the last thing I look at before sleep and the first thing I look at when I wake, and sometimes I pick that glowing rectangle back up at two in the morning so I don’t miss something, and in the in-between hours what I read seeps into my unconscious where I dream that I live in an annex where ominous voices can be heard below.

She says, pointedly, like an annoyed mother, “Why are you doing that! Don’t do that! Don’t read articles right before bed!” and also goes into a tangential diatribe about how great NPR is, a source I enjoy but don’t find sufficient as my sole news source at this time. When we discuss politics I can tell she hasn’t been filled in on several current stories I’ve read in the New York Times and Washington Post.

I nod politely as she continues to talk about the frontal cortex and the importance of calming the monkey mind as I contemplate whether it would be a good idea to start training to use firearms, or if my life as I once knew it is gone – the comfortable bliss of freedoms allowed in a true democracy, which we didn’t have to fight for only two days before.

A couple weeks later, my three-year-old runs around the front yard under 200 foot redwood trees, after four straight days of rain, yells on the top of his lungs over and over again, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!”

“Where did you learn this?” I ask him.

“From Eric in my class,” he says casually, giggling, with a contagious sparkle in his eyes as he looks directly into my eyes to make sure I see what he’s doing and acknowledge his sense of humor. After he receives my non-verbal wide-eyed queue and smile, he looks away quickly and carries on with the chant – so carefree – happy – entirely unburdened by the words he’s shouting – for him, it’s pure comedy, pure theater.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera, wrote, “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”

And so here we are, closer to the earth, like so many before us, closer to the precipice of the shrinking polar ice caps, where we hang on a very fragile ledge of the unknown, in a brand new USA, a less democratic one, with a wannabe dictator regime I don’t have words for yet, or perhaps too many.

Everyday millions attempt to carve into this brand new world, for all of humanity, chip away at it like Rodin, forming “The Thinker” out of nothing, try to make something bright out of decay and repugnance. This is our clay, but it’s trapped like the bones of a prehistoric creature in tar pits. An anchor reaches out to save the sinking cargo, the sinking pieces of what once was our world and the rope slips but will not be released.

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Sonoma Mountain Road

Just like children sleepin’
We could dream this night away.
But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancin’ in the light
– Neil Young, “Harvest Moon”

My husband, son and I are on our way to the home of a family we do not know, a friend of a friend, for Passover, and everything about this drive is new. Three weeks ago we moved to California and our skin still stings with newness. Dry air collides with damp cool coastal wind on the precipice of what rainy season exists in this region, and the chemistry of our bodies is a mixture of exhilaration and nerves and exhaustion that makes us feel sad and vulnerable and present at once.

Sonoma Mountain Road is like so many in this area, one that seems like it wouldn’t be there at all, or that it would find its end, but it just keeps going; it buckles and narrows but does not yield. We pass through an extensive redwood grove, bouquets of moist ferns at the base of ruddy trees, that appears as swiftly as it’s gone, a stark contrast to the rest of the open landscape and bare rolling hills and vineyards. Was this once all redwoods? And then we pass through an oak tree forest, almost as startling to us, with thick low branches that spread out like open arms inviting children to scale their way toward the sky.

After the winding vertiginous road, we disembark as though stepping off a skiff and see children run in a hilly open landscape that has its own slopes and valleys, like a human body, its own array of ecosystems. Old vine grape vines slant further down in a dip, and there’s a prolific vegetable garden with raised beds and wooden box frames up on a flatter bit of land closer to the house where a jungle of nasturtiums makes an attempt to escape.

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The air is cool and fresh -it’s the first month of spring- and many of us wear down jackets and scarves. Our boy quickly joins the other kids – and there’s something about the children scattered like chess pieces, or bunnies here and there, haphazardly running, zigzagging, that is chaotic and orderly at once. They are like every child since the beginning of time who has found joy in sprints of complete abandon, red-cheeked in the cold spring air at dusk, completely lost in their imaginations and the wilds of the outside world which is the greatest playground known to man. Who needs a jacket when you feel this alive, their uncovered bodies seem to say as they move continuously.

Soon the adults call the children to gather at the elegantly arranged outdoor table, set for fifteen, where green bouquets of parsley wade in glass jars on a white table cloth.

“Where’s your other boot?” my friend, who has hardly aged a day since college, many eons ago, asks her son, Z, a lively five-year old boy with dark brown eyes and loose short curls that go from brown to gold at the tips.

“This is honestly the fourth pair of boots I’ve bought him this year,” she says, exasperated and amused in equal measure.

Then my friend’s daughter, a five-year-old with white-blonde spiral locks, is upset as we sit down, something about the colors she used in her Haggadah coloring book. Her irritation develops into a full belly cry in seconds, but her tears are soon quelled by the many eager adults looking for a way to appease her, and before long the first glass of wine is poured and the Seder begins.

My friend’s daughter has a beaming smile now as many adults make a point to say l’chaim and smile warmly in her direction. The children cheers with grape juice and the contents of at least one child’s glass spills across the table.

“Would you like more wine?” my husband asks the hostess.

“Go ahead and keep this thing full all night,” she quips, her attractive big blue eyes beaming.

Each adult, and the one child old enough, reads a portion of the Haggadah clockwise around the table.

The adults assist the youngest child in singing: “Ma nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?/ Why is this night different from all other nights?” And we sing “Miriam’s Song,” “Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand/ And we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land,” and “Let My People Go” with as much passion as we can muster.

The life of Moses is brought to life by the hostess with finger puppets and the children gather around her and the heating lamp, faces turned upward, rapt, as though listening to a storyteller around a bonfire in some other century. Baby Moses is set in a basket and floats down the Nile river, as the story goes. . .

I spent the day of the Seder, during meals and other activities, prepping my son, who turned three the week before, about Passover and Moses and Pharaoh. Was I really telling him about that big and horrible word – slavery; this word belonged to a long list of other words which described things I wished did not exist in the present as well as throughout history: genocide, holocaust, war. I could feel the density of these words like a crushing weight that would begin to corrode the carefree joy he easily tapped into daily. Could we not just skip this part about the human race for now? But I was doing it, I would tell him the story of Passover, or at least a cliff note version designed for a three year old.

For many days after he would ask, “Tell me the story again about Moses and Pharaoh,” already so naturally drawn toward the tension and drama in stories of good and evil or the gray areas in between. His question was followed by passionate commentary, “I don’t want to be a slave, I don’t want to live in Egypt, Pharaoh is mean! Let my People Go!” he would say.

The children make jokes and giggle and chime in soberly on the Passover story while taking little tastes of this and that from the Seder plate: hard boiled egg, charoset, matzah, horseradish. They dip parsley in salt water, until it is drenched and dripping, and you can see delight on their faces the moment they taste the briny bitterness.

After the majority of the Haggadah is read (we never do get around to completing it) we eat matzo ball soup with barley and beans, kugel and salad, which the children barely touch because they are full from their Seder plate snacks and are off in search of the afikomen. Z has found it for the past couple years and the adults are rooting for a new winner this year, or for a girl to win, as they head off in little search parties, working together, so eager to find their treasure.

I never do see which child finds it, but once it’s found, they proceed to hide it again and again, creating an all together new game that they don’t tire of for a good long time which allows the adults to have that rare indulgent pleasure of being able to speak more candidly for a while.

“Are you going to have more kids,” someone asks me.

I’m not sure,” I say, “I haven’t decided, but it’s decision time,” which is what I always say so generically when I am asked this question (and I’m asked this question quite frequently . . . How long can I say that for?) And then that question is usually followed by the question, as it was on this night, “How old are you?” and when I tell them they respond with, “Oh, I thought you were so much younger!”

“I didn’t think I would have another, but I’m so glad I did,” a woman with an eight year old and an 18 month old says. Her new baby is an absolute delight.

“I’m just starting to miss babies again,” my college friend says, “now that the twins are five.”

Conversation continues about where everyone’s from and where we moved from and how I know my friend who invited us here tonight, about Prince who passed away the day before and Purple Rain – how old we were when we saw it, about the rising real estate values in various Northern California towns, about the Green Gulch Zen Center and Sausalito and Fairfax, about mountain biking and beaches, and more wine is poured and bottles are drained and the hostess is lovely and hilarious, the more so with each glass of wine.

The hosts’ daughter, a blond lightly freckled five-year-old, continuously picks up our son, to his dismay, and brings him into her room where the children have gathered to put on performances for the adults.

A few of us clean up the table, bring plates and silverware and empty wine bottles into the kitchen,  and the wood stove in the living room warms our bodies after an hour and a half of cool spring zephyrs.

Every now and then the audience breaks into laughter and exuberant clapping, “Encore, encore!” a dad shouts.

After a few more show stoppers, the guests trickle out toward their cars and the ritual veil of the holiday begins to wane.

Reveling in the warmth of the evening we walk outside, with gifts of chocolate dipped matzah in our hands, serene and happy.

At the horizon an extra-large ochre full moon levitates above Sonoma Mountain like a gift from space we weren’t expecting and we pause as though we have never seen a full moon rise over a mountain before we give hugs and say au revoir to our new friends.

In this moment all is perfect: the company, the aftertaste of good wine still clinging to our mouths, the sky, the light of the moon, the first stars. In this moment it even feels right that we moved, that we’re away from our beloved friends and family in North Carolina, that we’re in California, that we’ve uprooted our whole life and stand in the balance of a foreign equilibrium where we find our way anew each day, with each new experience and new friend we make.

On the drive to the farm house in Valley Ford, where we’re living for the month, a special Prince tribute is on the radio.

“Prince is one of my favorite musicians, he was an amazing guitarists and a great song writer. He was a poet, an incredible artist,” I tell my son in the backseat.

“Prince died?” My son asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“I miss Prince, but we can still listen to his music,” he says optimistically.

“Yes, that’s true, we can still listen to his music.”

One of my favorite songs comes on and I turn up the volume:

“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life, Electric word, life/ it means forever and that’s a mighty long time. . .”

We dance in our seats, only confined by seat belt and car seat and the metal of our new charcoal gray Prius that moves quietly down the road.

“Are we going to let the elevator bring us down/ Oh, no! Let’s go crazy!”

“I really like Prince’s music,” he says, before the next song, another favorite, “Raspberry Beret” begins.

“I’m glad. You have really good taste in music,” I say.

As we drive into the blackness of the asphalt onto Highway 1, the illumination of that Sonoma Mountain moon seems lost in the rear view mirror as the coastal fog moves in like a presence to be reckoned with.

Home Sweet, Nebulous, Home

Looking Homeward“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Loss is nothing but change and change is nature’s delight.” – Marcus Aurelius

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood . . . back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” – Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

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I.

What does it mean to leave everything behind? To leave one’s home thousands of miles behind. So far in the distance it cannot be seen only remembered as though it were an island you once passed by on a ship at night or a place that was part of a long elaborate dream that caused you to smile upon waking.

And like a dream, that home is intangible – has become intangible now that you are not within it – a place in which you have stopped the momentum of its essence into your psyche like a high speed train suddenly emasculate on the tracks so a haggard man with ruddy skin and ghostly hair can stumble vertiginously back into the darkness.

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And it will never be the same. Now that you’ve left. It will always be a slightly foreign place. That home which once was a place where you lived with a slight level of unconsciousness – because you could – because you knew where everything was and how to get there, and you knew many of the people and their names and their children’s names and where they dwelled and their intimate stories – and you could make your way through the streets with a bandanna tied over your eyes.

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And in addition, you loved the city where you resided. Was there any place on earth like the Paris of the South?167

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And you loved the people with their fresh faces and audacious ideas, their ornate bicycles like whimsical piñatas speeding through the streets, their dense forest mountain paths full of fiddlehead ferns, trilliums and deciduous trees that in the fall look like the most extraordinary display of parrot feathers; their gypsy jazz and traditional Bluegrass, the rhythm of contra and clogging and hollers so green -so, so, green and contained content worlds in themselves- the youthful itinerant anarchists with their dogs and washboards and banjos, worn out fatigues and body odor; the woman who plays spoons on the street who would be beautiful were in not for her missing teeth, the persistent smell of hops and yeast with hints of citrus as the sort of eau d’ cologne and live bands of every sort in the street – 057Afro-pop, punk, experimental rock, electronica – the dolce vita flows as easily as the drinks and everyday life can be like the most gorgeous Felinni scene and just as surreal: an orgy of food and drink and friendship and fun, with an eccentric  purple bus that jets around its route each day, with laughter and music blaring from open windows, and a cross dressing nun on a tall bike as part of its shtick.

II.

In what felt like an instant, it would never be the same: the child’s bedroom, the family car, the dreams for the landscape we tended and pruned and poured over and petted for over a decade.

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We left our residence of eleveIMG_1949 (2)n years in a quick three and a half weeks: the house where we conceived our son, labored, planted fruit trees for him to climb and eat from (to nourish him) that we thought he, and I suppose we as well, would grow along side. Trees to grow old with, to love. To observe. To be in awe of how fruit grows from flowers where bees orchestrate their usual miracles.

The Buddha left his home and family to be unfettered. How would things have been different, or even the outcome of thousands of years of human history, had he taken his family with him, so that he would have been half-fettered or partially tethered? Could he have done it with them? Become enlightened that is.

I don’t stand a chance.

When I was eighteen a boyfriend wrote to me in a postcard, “Home is where I set down my backpack.” Somehow I never forgot that line or the sentiment of ecstatic freedom I sensed he felt when he wrote it. The open road, no roof, few possessions, bringing him fully into present.

The places where I set down my bags, now, full of mixed-up wrinkled clothes that are thrown on hastily each day with little care or pleasure, do not feel like home.

If anything my body is the closest thing to home – the shell that carries me from place to place and allows me to embrace those I love so that I can feel my arms around them and squeeze them to bring us heart to heart, to feel the rhythm of the organ that pumps blood and warmth through us, to feel the tributaries, rivers inside our bodies that are the same as those outside in the landscape our bodies are moving in now.

There is a great wilderness, wildness, openness to the wide-eyed sky and Sonoma coast where fault lines remain invisible to the naked eye under the earth, under the sea from this vantage, where we stand now, rolling hills dotted with tribes of cows, so far from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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When I was in high school my parents lost everything, our home and their livelihoods, in what felt like a sudden whoosh once the eviction notice was stapled to the front door. We drove around recklessly, we had no where to go: no home, no place, no money. We were looking for a miracle, a handout, a roof over our heads – who would be the benefactor of such a great act of compassion?

“Maybe I should just go the Yogi center and make yogurt,” my mother said as we drove down the bumpy gravel road in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and I couldn’t stop laughing but I was so sad, and the dust of the road rose up behind us like smoke, and I felt elated and light like I was levitating above the gray-blue Volvo station wagon the further we traveled from the cherished shelter of my youth and all the memories that resided there – all the joy and everything else in between.

Snow Song Triptych

Snowy WheelbarrowNearly everything stopped for two days. There was silence. Vehicular traffic ceased which seemed to erase tensions built up from years of sound pollution and I walked in a foot and a half of snow and realized, rather guiltily, as though I had fractured fine china, that I had stepped on two snow angels a child had made earlier that morning.

A solo leaf, that managed to cling on until then, far past fall, gracefully somersaulted midair, and like a sporadic mouse skirted and scraped the very top layer of snow speaking a language where only sssssssshhhhhhhhhh was possible.

At times the wind picked up a handful of snow, turning it into a little glittery tornado swirling about, until each particle dissipated back into the whole where it was granted, once again, the gift of invisibility.

Blinding Gold

“A kind of light burned within me.” – Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 2

I have five pages left of My Struggle: Book 2. I will board a plane for Canada in a few minutes.

Had I not, simultaneously, become obsessed with Sally Mann’s photographic memoir, Hold Still, My Struggle: Book 2 would have been completed by now.

In need of traveling light, a thought comes before I enter the airport. Yes, of course -tear out the final pages – no matter how sacrilegious it might seem. My copy is already battered.

One night, late, I enjoy a glass of wine while reading Book 2. I lounge on the couch, read a few pages and then whoosh – sleep. The old vine Zinfandel makes maroon Rorschach stains on page after page.

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Another day, while checking out books at the library, the entire contents of my son’s water bottle spills and heavily soaks a quarter of the book. I pull it out of my bag, make sure to point out to the librarian, “This is a book from home,” and then because I can’t stop there I say, “It’s one of the greatest books I have ever read. I love them so much and the library doesn’t have them, only four have been translated so far.” She hands me a paper towel, says, “It’s the kind of book people wouldn’t check out here.”

Once home, I open up my adored book like a fan and place it on the deck, the off white newsprint pages splayed so the light can reflect off them. Some of the wine has washed away, transparent violet watercolors fade in the sun.P1130116

In the end, I simply forget to tear out the pages at the last minute. I will now carry a five-hundred and ninety-two page, mostly completed, book on my back during a week of travel in Canada and realize it as I place my mahogany leather boots on the conveyor belt at security check where I am felt up by a woman with a Russian accent. When I question the necessity of this, she points at her evidence, an x-ray of my body – a yellow blip marks one breast.P1130135

Disconcerted, I pick up my backpack at the other end of the conveyor belt and feel relief and comfort already by the weight of My Struggle: Book 2’s nearly six-hundred pages, knowing it’s with me, knowing I can disappear into it and take refuge in the heights of Knausgaard’s passages which knock me like a wave and suck me into their undercurrents.

I then carefully place my laptop back in the backpack and watch, out of the corner of my eye, each body behind me, robotically, go through the motions: shoes off, jackets off, belts off – a river of disheveled humans passing unevenly through gates.

Were the next Walt Whitman in this line, or wandering the halls of the airport or waiting for his/her flight – I’d like to think I would notice him or her standing out from the crowd – bright-eyed, thinking something privately to him/herself, ruminating deeply on some topic, face not epically cast down, illuminated by a handheld screen in the terminal, but facing toward the world, alert and awake, eager to make eye contact with another human being who has chosen to step off the electricity powered walkway and take notice now and then of the natural light outside the vacuum sealed windows.

On the first leg of my flight, I finish the rest of the book before the plane lands. A tear, held captive on the surface of my eye, wavers. I’m moved by the book’s conclusion and totality, but also I’m away from my son for the first time and alone for the first time since I gave birth to him.

My impulse to wake at his subtlest note in the night will have no purpose for a week. I don’t know where these instincts will take me left to flounder. The image of a fish, without the luxury of arms and legs, violently thrashing and flapping its entire body on land comes to mind – the desperate act of being driven toward water.

Barely gone, but 30,000 feet above the earth where he plays, where he puts the magnetic pieces of his wooden train cars together, I already feel a stabbing, tugging ache like the prick and release of a needle.

Alone, even the seats beside me vacant, I look out the window of the plane. I see a circular rainbow form around the sun while it remains obscured by clouds. Then later the sun, as it begins its ritual descent, illuminates the uppermost cloud cover, shadowing its undulations in blinding gold.087

The Art of Seeing a Gallery Curated by No One

“An alchemist puts the phenomena of the world in another context” – Anselm Kiefer in an interview with art critic Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

Rust Petals

Perhaps the greatest gallery of all is the one in a city’s abandoned spaces, outdoors, left to chance, curated by no one and left to evolve by the hands of strangers and the elements of nature – all rust and chipping away layers – creations where permanence and impermanence entwine nonchalantly – and through the alchemy of these forces something new evolves.

These collaborative art works with egoless, anonymous creators and no monetary value, made by everyone and no one, change subtly over the seasons. Sometimes flowers and plants interject their presence into the compositions, sometimes they appear barren, sometimes spray paint is applied to their acts of rebellion.

Tall Grass Tails Meet Steel

What might be called “graffiti” is painted over, but even that is done unintentionally in a way that resembles or becomes “contemporary art.” The pieces are abstract and complete, whole finished works in themselves, without effort or ambition.

Geometric LayerEach time I walk to the café where I write and pass through this gallery, I see something new as if the art gives my eyes greater acuity. I have to stop and look – I am drawn toward them like a Lepidoptera to light and I want to get that close to see their every layer and contour.

I must look like a peculiar woman as I stare scrupulously at what might appear to someone else as nothing, a woman photographing nothing, but I can’t help myself. In the detritus and rust and brokenness of these pieces, I see something sublime and illuminating that I must frame; compositions worthy of greatness, a place where art, alchemy, the natural landscape, the city’s history, and randomness meet, like a mushroom blooming out a rotting log, a place where the cycle of creation and death reveal there is really no end to anything and that art is everywhere and in every thing.IMG_2194 - Copy




Walk, Dance, like an Egyptian Walking Onion

Though a perennial tour de force, I had never paused long enough to fully appreciate Egyptian walking onions until this summer when I noticed them performing modern dance at Butoh speed throughout the garden.

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They caress the air with their long tentacles and curve and contort like the silky flesh of a snake weaving through labyrinths under the earth. They swirl and circle upward until their weight causes them to topple back down, or they stretch like a yogi, extend to new soil where the baby onions, that are birthed from the tippy top of the strongest stock, root themselves back down into the earth in an endless cycle.

P1120622With the artistry and innovation of Martha Graham they perform, in the open air, outside on their experimental stage. We can be a part of the audience or take part in the performance, separate the baby onion bulbs from their mother stock and plant them in open spaces . . . and later watch the dance begin again, each time a little different, each onion with a different story to tell and a different way of interpreting the dance.

Martha Graham Onion

Nietzsche 101 for Toddlers

Karl Ove and NietzscheMy two-year-old saw The Portable Nietzsche beside my bed, which bares Nietzsche’s image on its cover, and asked, “This, Karl?” (referring to our previous conversations about writer Karl Ove Knausgaard). Not expecting the question, I laughed abruptly, “No,” I said, “This is Nietzsche.”

“Oooooh, Nietzsche,” he said as if he knew exactly who Nietzsche is, and now clearly recognized him, which made me laugh more.

So our first conversation about Nietzsche, it turns out, is when you are two, I think to myself.

He belted out the name, “Neeee-chuuuuh!” a few more times because this new recitation brought pleasure to his lips, mouth and vocal chords, but also because he could tell how much it amused me.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Ove Knausgaard: a resemblance?

Then I see what I had never noticed before, which my son in an instant must have recognized: on the book covers of The Portable Nietzsche and My Struggle: Book Two both men are photographed in black and white, both look with heads turned completely to the west with a determined, pensive gaze; both have their right arm lifted. Nietzsche rests his head on his hand, propped up on bent elbow like Rodin’s The Thinker; Karl Ove’s arm, and bent elbow, is lifted to bring a cigarette to his lips. Nietzsche has an impressive thick wooly mustache, and Karl Ove a modest beard. They both have tasseled hair because when you are a person who prioritizes, above all else, thinking and writing it will always take precedence over making sure each hair remains in place.

A couple weeks later we are traveling in Boulder, Colorado. I unpack my bags, set a couple books beside my bed, including My Struggle: Book Two of course.

Seeing this my son said, “Oh, Karl!” and then, “Where’s Nietzsche?”

“Nietzsche didn’t come with us to Colorado.”

“Oh, okay.”

And then uncontrollable joy comes over me and laughter that makes me rush to him, scoop him into my arms, squeeze him and kiss his luscious cheeks over and over again. A huge smile of confidence, half aware of his cleverness and how pleased I am with him, lights up his entire face.

Yes my dear, dear, boy, Nietzsche didn’t come with us to Colorado.

Exquisite Palimpsests

Palimpsest: Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“Of course, I can imitate a line, but that is not what I want, and the real line emerges when it wants to.” –The Journals of Jean Cocteau

Exquisite Palimpsest 1

The palimpsests I encounter most, at the moment, are the ones my 21-month-old son and I create together.

His first experience making art begins with lines lightly scrawled from a waxy midnight blue Crayola crayon, a few little squiggles per page. He informs me that they are, “Snakes, snakes.” He often likes to say a word twice and the repetition gives the word an immediacy and urgency that elevates it to a level of vast importance.

On a walk, just the week before his first forays in art-making, we came across a small injured Garter snake in the middle of the path that winds through our neighborhood. For many days, after, he would reflect back on the snake, “Snake ow, Mama.” And I would say, “Yes, the snake had an ow.”

When I write the letters of the alphabet on a page he informs me that the letters C, O and D are clearly, “Moon, Mama.”

He now requests I draw a bus, roughly, ten times a day. On the same page he continues to draw and draw repetitively in thick strokes until the representational image has vanished under something resembling a Jackson Pollock, if Jackson Pollock would have taken to the medium of crayons and magic markers.

Exquisite Palimpsest 2

We take turns sometimes with a single broken blunt scrap of crayon, like old friends sharing a flask of whiskey. He draws for ten seconds, hands the crayon stub to me, I draw for ten seconds, hand the crayon stub back to him. And we go on this way for half an hour on a single artwork. This is our Surrealist experiment, our Exquisite Corpse, our exquisite palimpsest.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5

At nine months old, my son started saying, “This.” It was a way for him to direct me toward what he wanted, but it was also a way for him to ask me the name of a thing. He would point up a painting in our home by Cuban-American artist Humberto Benitez, of a crowd of women and men dancing and drumming, in the spirit of a Diego Rivera, primary colors flashing and say, “This?” and I would say, “Art,” and he would repeat the word, “Art, art,” two times. Soon he would just point up to the painting and say, “Art” and I would say, “Yes! That is art.”

I hope the word art will hold an evolving meaning for him; a word that over time will just continue to absorb complexity, a word and a thing allowed to dance between definitions, dangling in its own balance, in a contented state of flux, but with its roots still intact; a word that will expand to the point in which it will defy definition over the years.

I hope I am able to teach him that art is a sort of ingenious game of the imagination, sometimes playful and invigorating, and that there is a delicious elation that can arrive during the process of its creation.

As a child, my dad would often take us to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He would say, “Mara, look at this painting! The textures and layers!” and so on. The only color on the crusty expanse of canvas: white.

My mind expanded on these family excursions – electricity surged though me – I experienced joy, ecstasy, inspiration – all this at once. I was awake, really seeing and taking it all in because art truly lit up my father. He became a firework beacon of light that could not be contained on these outings, because this was Art, Art I tell you! (with a capital A) and it was brilliant and vital and invaluable and had to be mulled over and examined. These mind-altering masterpieces could not be touched with our hands, but we let our eyes be windows to the soul when we looked at them through eyes that were seeing as if for the first time.

Exquisite Palimpsest 3

My toddler son and I are making our first works of art together in quick succession. We scrawl lines, circles, spirals, As and Os, wheels and eyes and noses, floating faces and body parts, snakes and sand, dots and dashes, the sea and the sky and trees until it all becomes an abstract expanse, like desert sand in a slow but strong moving storm, the new grains cover the old ones, until the ones underneath are barely discernible; until not a square inch of blankness is left or it all become monochromatic -one- one thick expanse of desert with all the geometric shapes and bodies and balls and boxes you could identify underneath barely visible, an almost clean slate of solid color with little flashes of white – an exquisite palimpsest we made together.

Exquisite Palimpsest 5

Karl Ove’s Spring

I just finished reading My Struggle: Book I by Karl Ove Knausgaard. The novel sat beside my bed and traveled everywhere with me for the past month, from Asheville to Key Biscayne, Miami to Los Angeles, and West Hollywood back to Asheville. My son, not yet two, would sometimes look at the book and ask, “This man?” Karl Ove’s intense searing eyes looking back at us, from the book cover, complex and mysterious, like every moment he had lived and every word he had scribed, every struggle, both significant and mundane as well as every cigarette he had chain-smoked, was written into a map on his face. “This man is Karl Ove,” I would say almost proudly, with an air of he is someone important, just one of the greatest writers of the twenty-first century! Eventually I would just hold up the book for him and say, “Who is this?” and he would say, “Karl,” as if Karl was a good friend of ours. It never ceased to amuse me.

Karl or his novel, the first in a six-part series (four volumes published in the U.S. so far), felt like a good friend to me as I read it. It has been quite a while since I have fallen-in-love with a “novel” and it feels good to be in-love with one again. Spring is the perfect mise-en-scene for such sentiments, as it is here in one of my favorite passages from the novel. The “character” Karl Ove, as a teenager, has fallen in-love for the first time, simultaneously spring is unfolding in his hometown in Norway:

“Few things are harder to visualize than that a cold, snow-bound landscape, so marrow chillingly quiet and lifeless, will, within mere months, be green and lush and warm, quivering with all manner of life, from birds warbling and flying through the trees to swarms of insects hanging in scattered clusters in the air. Nothing in the winter landscape presages the scent of sun-warmed heather and moss, trees bursting with sap and thawed lakes ready for spring and summer, nothing presages the feeling of freedom that can come over you when the only white that can be seen is the clouds gliding across the blue sky above the blue water of the rivers gently flowing down to the sea, the perfect, smooth, cool surface, broken now by rocks, rapids, and bathing bodies . . . One evening in March the snow turns to rain, and the piles of snow collapse. One morning in April there are buds on the trees, and there is a trace of green in the yellow grass. Daffodils appear, white and blue anemones too. Then the warm air stands like a pillar among the trees on the slopes. On sunny inclines buds have burst, here and there cherry trees are in blossom.”