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My granddaughter Siena tangled up (joyously) in lights

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.

— Garrison Keillor

Compulsory is a good word for this time of year. So is paradoxical. While the holiday percussiveness is pervasive, I still keep looking for some quiet, a bit of solitude, a calming moment.

Prioritize quiet mind. That’s all. Prioritize quiet mind.

Stop the mental noise several times a day. Long periods of up to an hour are excellent. If not long periods then short periods are excellent. But have a plan. Ten minutes of just looking at flowers. Five minutes of cloud watching. Ten minutes of sitting with your eyes closed watching your breath. Six minutes petting the cat or dog. Read something spiritual that truly inspires you to think about your own divinity. During these times never, ever, think about what needs fixing or your “to do” list. If you have trouble keeping the “monkey mind” at bay, keep a mantra handy. Interrupt the monkey mind by repeating a phrase such as “God is love” or “I love cool water”. Give yourself permission to believe that quiet mind is a mind which heals everything.

Other than a general sense of well being, you may not notice a change in your life right away. However, after the gestation period of a few weeks or months you will gain what you have been looking for. A healed mind heals a world.

— Paxton Robey

I am heading east for a few weeks. I will return to Slow Muse in mid-January. Happy New Year everyone.

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Officially known as ACT-CL J0102-4915, the galaxy cluster has been nicknamed El Gordo. “This cluster is the most massive, the hottest, and gives off the most X-rays of any known cluster at this distance or beyond,” said Felipe Menanteau of Rutgers University. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Hughes et al, Optical: ESO/VLT/Pontificia Universidad. Catolica de Chile/L.Infante & SOAR (MSU/NOAO/UNC/CNPq-Brazil)/Rutgers/F.Menanteau, IR: NASA/JPL/Rutgers/F.Menanteau)

Slow Looking, a new book by Peter Clothier, is a meditative invocation to slow way down and connect deeply and profoundly with the world around us. Clothier (I have written about him previously here) is focused on the impact of slow looking on art and how frequently we do not allow ourselves to really see. As a “reformed art critic,” Clothier shares his personal recognition of how easy it is to fall into that “not really seeing” stance:

It was once I began to learn about the value of paying attention, then, that I began to take more careful note of how I was looking at art. It disturbed me more than a little to realize that I could easily walk into a show at a gallery or museum, take it all in—so I thought—speedily and efficiently with my discerning eye, and then go home and and write about it. So it was disconcerting to catch myself, sometimes, spending more time with the wall label than with the painting I was going to write about…

The impediments, as I see it, are threefold: there are in the first place, innumerable distractions. Then, too, we bring mind-sets along with us, which prove to be nothing but a cause of distortion. And finally there are mental fabrications: we often just make stuff up; we see those things our minds invent for us, rather than what is there in front of us, real and evident.

It is easy to get lazy about looking. And for those of us who are makers with our very specific and well developed aesthetic proclivities, Clothier’s description of perfunctory viewing hits home (for me anyway.) It is easy to dismiss art that comes from outside my very elaborate value system. Way too easy.

To address these issues, Clothier combined his interest in meditation with his passion for art to offer up the notion of “One Hour/One Painting.” It is a simple exercise to be sure, and not necessarily a new idea. That was the assignment I received as an art student when I asked my professor what makes a Rothko painting great. His response was simple: “Go sit in front of it for one hour. Then let’s talk.” It worked for me. Completely.

So why stop at art? One hour of looking deeply at anything is transformative. One of my other favorite places for deep looking is NASA’s steady stream of images from space. Conceptually and visually, there’s plenty to contemplate. How appropriate that David Grinspoon begins his enjoyable and informative read, Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, with this quote:

Penetrating so many secrets,
we cease to believe in the unknowable.
But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

–H. L. Mencken

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Shoji Hamada

How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind:

Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.

Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”

Robinson continues this line of thought:

The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.

Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.

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Hindu altar, Kanchipuram India, 2008

Blue Arabesque, by Patricia Hampl, is a book-long meditation and memoir that starts with her deep and sudden connection to a painting by Matisse hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. Writing not as an artist but as a thoughtful wisdom seeker, Hampl describes a conversation she has with a 60 year old nun who has lived in a monastery cell since she was 19. When asked if she could name the core of the contemplative life, the nun gives her a one word answer without hesitation: Leisure.

I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn’t see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Hampl’s description of the “this” in the nun’s answer is “the kind of work that requires abdication from time’s industrial purpose.”

Is there any other nation that has put time to industrial purpose with the fervor of this one? A word that is loaded with subtextual contempt, “leisure” is rarely offered up as the core requirement for anything valued in our bottom line, materialistic, time-managed, wired world. Contemplation, and the leisure to have it, are almost considered illicit, wasteful, indulgent.

Hampl later refers to our lifestyle as a “raid on ease,” a phrase that epitomizes the feeling of being under siege to do more of everything, and to do it faster and better. In her deep connection to the painting by Matisse, she is reminded that “the birthright of the uninterrupted gaze” has been lost.

Maybe that has been the point, even the project, of modernity: to abandon the gaze, to give over to the glimpse.

That’s not a trade off I’m wiling to make.

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Early on in my art education, a professor told me a parable I have never forgotten.

Long ago, an emperor in China loved ducks. Inordinately. His passion was so overwhelming that he called forth the greatest artist and calligrapher in his kingdom and made his request: I want you to create the ultimate image of a duck for me.

The artist accepted his request and then left the court. Every day the emperor waited for his painting to arrive. Months passed, but still no word. After six months and a loss of patience, the emperor sent for the artist.

“I’ve been waiting for you for six months, and still you have sent me nothing!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the artist pulled out a large blank sheet of rice paper and a sumi brush loaded with ink. With just a few graceful, simple strokes, he produced the most exquisite and elemental image of a duck.

The emperor was dumbfounded. The beauty of the piece was stunning, but he was still irritated.

“I have been waiting for six long months. Now you come to me and produce this beautiful painting effortlessly, right in front of me. Why did you wait so long?”

The artist answered, “It took me six months to be able to capture the essence with so few strokes. What looks effortless to you is the result of dedicated labor.”

It’s a simple story, yes. But as a young artist I knew it had some particular permutations of meaning in my own life. Coming from a culture whose landscaped backdrop was the parched soil of the Great Basin desert, my DNA was preloaded with attitudes about the righteousness of hard work. Mormonism has a proclivity towards being a “doaholic” culture, a quality which is captured brilliantly in an essay by Hugh Nibley called “Zeal without Knowledge.” My favorite line from Nibley’s piece captures the essence of the problem: “Mormons think it more commendable to get up at 5AM to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.”

The “hard work above all” value set probably parallels other family system “ubertangles” like alcoholism, sexual abuse and criminal mindsets. It’s hard to even place those terms in the same sentence given the righteousness with which hard work was embraced in my family. My mother was raised on a farm and often talked about hoeing the beets as a child. Everybody worked HARD. Being lazy was just not an option. But being “lazy” in my culture of origin was not just sloth—it also included things like sitting quietly and doing nothing (also known as meditation) and enjoying nature without raking the leaves at the same time.

As an artist who spends so much time in the studio alone, I have had a lot of time to dismantle much of that thinking. Dismantle does not mean dispel or destroy. It means you have a better idea of just how deep the stain has permeated your psyche. (Stain sounds so harsh, my mother would say. Perhaps we could go with “tinting”?) So while my discipline and focused hard work are held by many as a virtue—and I am not devaluing the importance of those qualities in the creative professions—I am also learning how to be at ease with the full arc of the process. Ease sounds too much like easy, and easy and effortless are not values where I come from.

This last spring was a period of so much grief and loss in my life that my ability to paint came to a standstill. For weeks I would go in to my studio and just sit, doing nothing. I thought that if I just showed up, the ice would melt and I would be ready when it did.

But this was being iced out at a level unlike any other I have known, and it did not melt as I had hoped. After several weeks of that brave vigil, I got the insight that I should stop forcing something that wasn’t remotely ready to budge.

Just a few weeks ago the nudge came to start showing up again. Not the long days of work that I was used to, but short visits, as if courting young love. Then one day new work burst out of me. It wasn’t planned or even premeditated, but was the most authentic gesture I could make from the most wounded place in me.

The work that resulted was very different from previous paintings. For over a week I had the complete series on my studio floor, not sure where it was going or what it meant. It wasn’t until my husband and two friends came to the studio and responded so powerfully to those pieces that I allowed myself to legitimize them.

Two of those images were used on the show card I sent out for my upcoming exhibition in Provincetown (details are available at Slow Painters). What has surprised me most has been how many people responded to the new work. I received more emails and phone calls about these pieces than any before.

My friend Riki, a brilliant artist and writer, wrote these words to me:

I came across this amazing image on your card. Can you talk about it? Is this a new series of work? Am I looking down on an interior space deep in the human heart disappearing at the upper left in a pure white light?

Is this about your mother?

Rap me on the knuckles if I’m trespassing but really, I’m stunned. Star struck. This feels very different.

Kathryn, my partner in the death and burial of our dear friend Morris, wrote:

Maybe what you’ve recorded there seems a record of my long siege of grief as well as yours. Why have we almost lost the Greek understanding of art as catharsis?

And Andrew, shaman in training, wrote this:

Captures for me a state of organization or un-organization in keeping with my pre-occupation with the ayahuasca experience. I can’t tell if this is of a mind dying or of a mind being born. Can’t tell if it is vision into the past or vision into the future. Can’t tell if it is a cave wall or the inside surface of a mind. As such distinctions may be arbitrary anyway, the art offers me wide-ranging freedom to think in all these directions at once and without boundaries. It seems like a node or switchbox but linked to what and channeling what I can’t tell.

However these images came into being, I’m not sure. But I’m also not asking. I do know it wasn’t from righteously sweating in the beet field but more akin to the Chinese duck—the preparation at some earlier time allowed the gesture now.

Ticelle 1, 18 x 18″ mixed media on wood panel
Ticelle 3, 18 x 18″ mixed media on wood panel
Ticelle 5, 18 x 18″ mixed media on wood panel

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It’s a wordless place where I spend most of my time these days. Language is a bridge that gives out without warning, a friend then a foe, the metal against your skin that is either too cold or too hot.

So I’m giving into my proclivities. Leaning on metaphor rather than exposition, on suggestion rather than description. The words of others feel like trail markers, and I’m so grateful when I see a stone stack to reassure me that this actually is a path, that others have come this way many times before. I am not lost yet.

Franz Wright is the son of poet James Wright (whose haunting poem To The Muse was posted here on June 5.) I read this and was reminded that death is not the only way nature tells you to be quiet. And this line served up a precise and deep incision: “your conflagration starved/to diamond.”


Death is nature’s way
of telling you to be quiet.

Of saying it’s time
to be weaned, your conflagration starved
to diamond.

I’ll give you something to cry about.

And what those treetops swaying
dimly in the wind spelled.

Franz Wright

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Another day of rag and bone shopping, of gentle and cautious gestures, of softly silencing the voice of judgment, of speaking in a quiet voice when I want to be screaming. This is my courtship of the muse, I remind myself. The process is a dance of seduction, and success requires great patience and focus.

My husband now has a phrase he uses for my art making time: Studioing. He pronounces it studi-O-ing, accent on the O. I like his name for it because it gives the illusion of doing something recreational, like leaving the house to go kayaking or to take a canoe down a river. The reality is that I feel like I’m underwater, not gliding over the surface; I am a diver who must go down to the sea bed and secure the cabling, an anchor, a piling.

Once again my friend Sally Reed has enriched my thinking with her insightful offerings. This comment was left in response to my posting from yesterday about wooing the muse, “Court and Spark.”

The poem by James Wright is a stunner. And in the words of Emily Dickinson (thank you for reminding me of this Sally) a great poem “makes my body so cold no fire can warm me,” and makes me “feel as if the top of my head were taken off.” I felt headless the first time I read this piece. Thank you Sally.

Yes, sometimes it is a playful and sweet seduction.

In some cases it can be a darker and more painful story. Sometimes the muse herself can be feeling fragile or frightened. So then patience and gentleness are the watchwords. I don’t think it dampens the joy, ultimately, do you? In fact, perhaps the opposite.

To the Muse

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn’t
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.

I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:

You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.

Three lady doctors in Wheeling open
Their offices at night.
I don’t have to call them, they are always there.
But they only have to put the knife once
Under your breast.
Then they hang their contraption.
And you bear it.

It’s awkward a while. Still it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don’t
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.
That way they only have to stab you
Once. Oh Jenny.

I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn’t, I can’t bear it
Either, I don’t blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of the black sand,

I don’t blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.

–James Wright

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Thank you, collective mind. And in this particular case, thank you friend Sally Reed. In response to my posting below entitled Talisman, Sally sent me the following:

This brings to mind another less acute, but still astute, evocation of grief as a dog. It’s by Denise Levertov.

Talking to Grief

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

Your post also reminds me of these lines, or at least of the feeling stirred up by the lines, from DH Lawrence:

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

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A Surprise in the Peninsula

When I came in that night I found
the skin of a dog stretched flat and
nailed upon my wall between the
two windows. It seemed freshly killed –
there was blood at the edges. Not
my dog: I have never owned one,
I rather dislike them. (Perhaps
whoever did it knew that.) It
was a light brown dog, with smooth hair;
no head, but the tail still remained.
On the flat surface of the pelt
was branded the outline of the
peninsula, singed in thick black
strokes into the fur: a coarse map.
The position of the town was
marked by a bullet-hole, it went
right through the wall. I placed my eye
to it, and could see the dark trees
outside the house, flecked with moonlight.
I locked the door then, and sat up
all night, drinking small cups of the
bitter local coffee. A dog
would have been useful, I thought, for
protection. But perhaps the one
I had been given performed that
function; for no one came that night,
not for three more. On the fourth day
it was time to leave. The dog-skin
still hung on the wall, stiff and dry
by now, the flies and the smell gone.
Could it, I wondered, have been meant
not as a warning, but a gift?
And, scarcely shuddering, I drew
the nails out and took it with me

–Fleur Adcock

I found this poem while I was in England, and since then I’ve read it at least 30 times. It feels so personally primal, delivered with a harsh viscerality that burns right through me.

The primary image is haunting, a stripped and earthy rawness that is tinged with ambient, unformed fear. The themes speak to a deep place in me: Protection coming from where you least expect it; life outside being viewed through a hole shot through the wall; a willingness to sit with slow and odorous putrefaction; the instinct that will claim this ghoulish remnant as a talisman. The visionary quality of this poem has cast an unshakable spell on me.

Fleur Adcock has been one of my favorite poets ever since I was introduced to her haunting “Weathering” by David Whyte 20 years ago. A gentle and comforting acknowledgement of being a woman and how one can age with grace, that poem does not belong on the same page as this one—a poem that reads more like an open wound. Of course with time, we get around to encountering all the difficult passages that happen in living a life, ageing and open wounds being just two.

A note about the image: This is a portion of a large scale drawing by Chuck Holtzman hanging in the MFA in Boston, with the faint reflection of me in the glass. This drawing has become a kind of personal talisman for my art making self these last few months as I have sat in the silence.

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The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

Elizabeth Bishop

“He sleeps on the top of a mast.” Like so many of Bishop’s images, this one takes on a life of its own. What is it to sleep on the top of the mast? What gives the image such power?

Common interpretations reference Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim Christian comes upon three men fast asleep, with fetters on their heels.

They are Simple, Sloth and Presumption. Christian then seeing them lie in this case went to them, if peradventure he might awake them. And cried, “You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons.” He also told them, “If he that goeth about like a roaring lion come by, you will certainly become prey to his teeth.” With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, “I see no danger”; Sloth said, “Yet a little more sleep”; and Presumption said, “Every fat [vessel] must stand upon his own bottom, what is the answer else that I should give thee?” And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way. (From James Fenton in the Times Literary Supplement)

Another interpretation draws a parallel to the personal domain of Bishop’s life and her battle with alcoholism.

And it has been noted that the reference to sleeping on the mast of the ship has its origin in the Book of Proverbs…which reads in the original (as the Authorized Version has it): “When shall I awake? I shall seek it again”. The “it” that the sleeper on the mast intends to seek again is wine, and the passage that it belongs to is a warning against drink (Proverbs 23: 29–35). Here it is as given in the Geneva Bible (which Bunyan used, in addition to the Authorized Version):

31 Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. 32 In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. 33 Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. 34 And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. 35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.

This vivid evocation of habitual drunkenness gives us a sense of the biblical meaning of “sleeping at the top of the mast”; it is one of two parallel impossibilities – the drunkard is like one who sleeps in the middle of the sea, or who sleeps above the sea. (The Geneva Bible explains the first part of verse 34 as implying “In such great danger shalt thou be”.) Sleeping at the top of the mast would be both precarious and giddy-making; nevertheless the drunkard prefers sleep to waking, and so, if he does wake up, he will drink himself back into a stupor. As the Geneva note puts it, “Though drunkenness make them more insensible then beasts yet they can not refraine”. (Fenton)

Secular interpretations also abound. Harold Bloom claims this as one of his favorite poems. “I walk around, certain days, chanting ‘The Unbeliever’ to myself, it being one of those rare poems you never evade again, once you know it (and it knows you)”

The five stanzas of “The Unbeliever”, says Bloom, are essentially variations on the Bunyan epigraph. “Bunyan’s trope concerns the condition of unbelief; Bishop’s does not.” Quite how he could be so sure he does not say, but he continues: “Think of the personae of Bishop’s poem as exemplifying three rhetorical stances, and so as being three kinds of poet, or even three poets: cloud, gull, unbeliever. The cloud is Wordsworth or Stevens. The gull is Shelley or Hart Crane. The unbeliever is Dickinson or Bishop”. No doubt generations of diligent students have been recycling this taxonomy of poets ever since. (Fenton)

While intellectually informative and provocative, these variations cannot capture the essence of the image in a clear and encompassing manner. For me, this image is dream-like, with a prophetic warning about staying close to the earth. What takes us out, to sleep on the top of the mast so to speak, is a highly personal question.

Bishop’s gift is a mysterious ability to empower the most commonplace into something extraordinary, repeatedly transforming images and bringing them into another dimension and realm.

“I am very object-struck…. I simply try to see things afresh,” Bishop said about herself in an interview. “I have a great interest and respect…for what people call ordinary things. I am very visually minded and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.”

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