This week on our walks, as we circle around the pond or up the road and back, we have discussed choices and paths not taken. Tonight’s loop took us past the shed we fondly call the poetry hut that Warren built for Zoe when she was 11 and wanted a space of her own. It now stores our packing materials. Warren talked about his first impressions of this piece of land after a chance sighting of an ad in the Washington Post. I reflected on how this year of staying home during the pandemic with daily local walks has more firmly rooted me in Virginia. We noted the paths we walk and the paths we didn’t take in chance encounters, job offers, education or romance. The quiet grey of sky, still pond, and green burgeoning of honeysuckle is like the inhale before the rush of spring growth.
“Chance … has a distinct meaning for me. I do not know where I might have been led by the paths that, as I look back, I think I might have taken but that in fact I did not take. What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.” — Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done [Thanks to brainpickings.org]
I read my Mom’s journals and am impressed by how full they are with quotes, sketches, scribbles, and beginnings of poems, leavened by only occasional moments of doubt about her work or her school choices for us children. Her poems, at times, may be too concerned with rhyme for my taste, but her inspiration from NYC entering into spring as each tree on her block begins to bud is infectious.
She was driven to express the simplicity and the variety of growth in flowers, bushes and trees. She was dedicated to finding joy in the everyday and spreading that joy and hope. Each day she sought to be more organized, to have her worktable ready to go though frequently that was a loosing battle. She wanted to work on nice paper but so often was afraid to use it so instead used small postcards and printed on the backs of envelopes. She felt strongly about choosing a path that was very human, aiming to show her true self. At one point in her journal she asks herself, what is it about sunrise and sunset that moves her to take so many photos, to make so many drawings? She answers, sunrises and sunsets are the treasure; they remind her of the essence of life right here and now.
I don’t worry about rhyme. Two trees, One next to the other, are rarely identical. I think and write the way flowers have color, But how I express myself is less perfect, For I lack the divine simplicity Of being only my outer self. I look and I am moved, I am moved by the way water flows when the ground slopes, And my poetry is natural like the stirring of the wind …
Alberto Caeiro, from “XIV” in The Keeper of Sheep; A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poemsof Fernando Pessoa, ed. & transl. Richard Zenith, Penguin Classics, 2006
Under blue skies we put a few broccoli and spinach seedlings in the dirt today while listening to the dog, the crow, and the peepers .
the god of dirt
The god of dirt came up to me many times and said so many wise and delectable things; I lay on the grass listening to his dog voice, crow voice, frog voice; now he said, and now, and never once mentioned forever.
Welcome to Spring 2021. Here in Virginia it feels like the ground swell of spring is moving. The fields have a hint of green, the red maples have a tone of deep red, the daffodils have begun to open and each tiny shift is so welcome in this year of the pandemic.
I have done so little For you, And you have done so little For me, That we have good reason Never to agree.
I, however, Have such meager Power, Clutching at a Moment, While you control An hour.
At this time of year my Mom was always really busy. She loved to give books as gifts but she couldn’t give them away unless she had read them. Partly, they were good books she wanted to ingest. But she also wanted to make sure the content was appropriate for her sister, daughter, or granddaughter. When the book The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold came out Zoë was a young teen. My Mom had bought the book to give to both of us. But after reading it she decided a story beginning with the rape and murder of a teenage girl was inappropriate. When I read it a few years later I agreed it was a brutal setup, but it clearly was an incredible work of fiction. For a teenager yet to go to high school heaven seemed to be high school and the novel examined that imagined place.
Around that time one Christmas eve after dinner, after the dishes were done, and the stress of Christmas presents being wrapped was behind me I declared it was time for a round-the-block dog walk. It had begun to snow and so my aging mother decided to join us. We headed out to the New York streets hushed by both the holiday quiet and the accumulating snow flakes. We walked along Prince Street, up MacDougal, and back along Houston. It was beautiful but I got frustrated by my Mom’s slow shuffling steps as I kept getting ahead of her. Finally, as we got to Houston Street I took her by the elbow so that I slowed down. Then together we could appreciate the beauty and the pace of the walk.
In my dreams I often return to that walk. That stretch of street is not particularly beautiful, but we are almost home and somehow I have many memories of deep conversations on that stretch of pavement. In my dreams the moment I take my Mom’s arm hoping for the next chapter in the conversation I wake up and the magic vanishes until the next dream.
Take my hand. We will walk. We will only walk. We will enjoy our walk without thinking of arriving anywhere.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, from Walking Meditation, in “Call me by My True Names: Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh,” Parallax Press, 2005
After my Dad died we had to clean out his loft. He had lived there for over forty years. It was a giant emotional task to sort through not only the books, clothes, and art supplies, but the art work both my parents had made. My three brothers and I sorted, sifted, argued, and assigned homes for each object. I would come home to Virginia to teach my classes at the Corcoran, regroup with Warren and then head back for another round of sorting. When I would return to NYC my brother who was local would have unpacked another group of sculptural figures that he had found in the dark and dank basement storage space. It felt as if I was looking at the Qin terracotta warriors arising from an excavation.
It was a struggle to pursue my own studio practice through all this. I found myself looking at Chinese and Japanese tomb ware. I kept thinking there was something to burying all your earthly possessions (or even freshly made accoutrements) at the end of one life in preparation for the next. I began to make what I call Shield Vases. I was not only inspired by Japanese Haniwa figures but the need to shield myself from the emotional process of grief and clearing out two lives worth of artwork. As I write these stories I touch the moments and the history which helps to bring it all back to life. My dreams have been intense. This morning I dreamed that my parents walked through the trees that separates our property from our neighbors. They waved saying, “please, wait for us. We want to go for a dog walk with you.”
…how could I have known, that by pressing this pen to paper, I was touching us back from extinction?
— Ocean Vuong, tiny excerpt from “Cu Chi, Vietnam” in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016
Both my parents were inventive in how they went about their work. My dad was structural, organized, and had theories while my mom was far more intuitive in her approach to art and life. She created a beautiful soulful nest of a home. It was not always neat, but it allowed for experimentation, growth, and variation. Even her sewed repairs and stitched-in clothing name tags had an original creative flare. Sometimes the stitches were so exaggerated and messy us children were reluctant to say our mother had repaired our clothes and instead claimed it was our own mending. I have one last towel in the studio that has her handiwork. It is a red towel from the days when Dad decided that each family member was to be assigned their own color bath towel. It looks like Frankenstein might have stitched it in an erratic burst of craftsmanship, but I can no longer let it go as is stitched with the color of her absence.
Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.
— W. S. Merwin, “Separation” from The Second Four Books of Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 1993
For my Dad’s eightieth birthday he told me he didn’t want any gifts yet I felt it was important to celebrate this birthday as an accomplishment. My mom had died eight month earlier and had been looking forward to turning eighty. I went to Costco and bought a case of Budweiser beer bottles as Bud was always his choice. I brought the bottles to the studio and gessoed them white. Then I centered them on my wheel and painted them with some of my handmade brushes. It was a truly fun project to have twenty-four bottles that I had nothing invested in but to make them a little bit special. I wanted Dad to feel extravagant and celebrated, but not to feel like he had to keep the objects.
Of course he loved them and kept them. After his cleaning lady threw a few of them out he began to make two-sided digital flower images which he glued to cardboard with metal stems so he could place them into the bottles. The flowers morphed into portraits. Every time we came home there was a new bouquet of his flower children in the bottles. Somehow the one bottle I have saved is a simple striped one.
Right now, darkness takes a deep breath in. Hold tight. We’re riding the backs of the swans. There’s no flying without land, no emptiness without an edge. What world are we living in? And yet:
Here you are. Here you are, the winter tells us. An offer and a fact.
— Nina MacLaughlin, the ending to Inhale the Darkness in The Paris Review , November 30, 2020
It was one of those days when I wanted to capture how each blade of grass, dogwood bud, or grape vine tendril was emphasized by being encased in glistening ice. I carefully crunched through the icy snow while the puppy skittered and skated across the slick landscape. She monopolized my attention although I wanted to be lost in the intricacies of ice, reflections, drips, cracks and showering branches. At dusk I circled around our neighbor’s field. I like going up the steep hillside, able to look down on the pond and the swampy area upstream. Occasionally I can glimpse the studio. It reminds me of being on rooftops in the city.
Last night while talking to an old friend she reminded me how exciting it was to go up on my parents’ roof in Soho where we watched the sunset over water towers and the distant World Trade Center. My Italian friend–who I met when I was eleven when we lived uptown–remembered going up on that roof. He said it felt like being in some crazy movie including being taken afterwards by my older brothers to bicycle through Central Park in the snow; something he had never imagined doing! Sometimes we went to the roof via the fire escape, a skeletal black metal structure which was a way to escape up or to descend. When we went on trips my father would put one of his sculptures, a life-sized bumpy welded aluminum portrait of a woman holding a hammer, in front of the fire escape window with the shade down so that if a robber came down the fire escape they might be scared away. I had no fear of heights only excitement at the view.
from Ocean Vuong:
“During these aimless forays (in New York), I kept finding myself looking up—particularly on residential streets lined with anything from monolithic tenements to luxury brownstones. But I also saw, attached to nearly every building, a skeletal structure of architectural finesse equal, in my eyes, to any of the city’s glittering towers. Fire escapes. Not buildings exactly, but accessories. Iron rods fused into vessels of descent—and departure. Some were painted blue or yellow or green, but most were black. Black staircases. I could spend a whole hour sitting across the street from a six-floor walk-up studying the zig-zags that clung to a building filled with so many hidden lives. All that richness and drama sealed away in a fortress whose walls echoed with communication of elemental or exquisite language—and yet only the fire escape, a clinging extremity, inanimate and often rusting, spoke—in its hardened, exiled silence, with the most visible human honesty: We are capable of disaster. And we are scared. … I wonder what would happen if I were to bring the fire escape back inside. In fact, what would the fire escape look like if I were to wear it on my person, personality—in public? What would a fire escape sound like if it was imbedded into my daily language—and if I didn’t have to apologize for it? Could this be one reason we create art—one reason we make poems? To say the unsayable? … I approach it as if climbing the rungs of someone’s fire escape—whether I go up or down is between me, the reader, and the poet. And maybe nothing is burning at all. Maybe we are only up here for the view. But it’s up here that I wonder, at the risk of asking for too much, what if a fire escape can be made into a bridge? … And yet, in a time where the mainstream seems to continually question the power and validity of art, and especially of poetry, its need, its purpose, in a generation obsessed with appearances, of status updates and smiling selfies bathed (corrected?) in the golden light of filters, in which it has become more and more difficult for us to say aloud, to one another: I am hurt. I am scared. What happens now?, the poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and thin as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance. A place where I can be as honest as I need to—because the fire has already begun in my home, swallowing my most valuable possessions—and even my loved ones.”
— Ocean Vuong, from The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation, 2014, in The Rumpus