#21 decembrance 2020


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

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#20 decembrance 2020

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.”

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

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#19 decembrance 2020

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

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#18 decembrance 2020

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

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#17 decembrance 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

#16 decembrance 2020

At this time of year I feel like time tightens around my chest. But this year it’s more intense than most not because we are busy but because of the extended hunkering down. I feel like I have been hoarding ideas of light, loading up on extra candles and firewood to stave off the longer winter and the cold to come.

I think back to my childhood in the city. It was fun to be out walking after five o’clock when Christmas lights were bright and street lights lit the way. My father was often the one to get us outside no matter what the weather. I have fond memories when we lived uptown of walking in Central Park late at night when there was snow on the ground and the city sparkled around us. I learned to ski in Central Park. My parents got cross country skis way before they bought us kids skis, so we trudged behind them in our downhill equipment. I can see my dad now, laughing as he says it was all a ploy to tire us out.

At dinner time after an outdoors day or really everyday, my mother was all about lighting candles to make the moment bright. My mother still appears in my dreams irritated that we have let go of their apartment loft because she can no longer find her candles. Tonight on what I hoped would be a snow day–but which has become a freezing rain day–it’s still a chance to be here by lighting the candles and a fire.

I’m here—
the snow falling.

— Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

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#15 decembrance 2020

I try to get outside before dark. At 4:00 today I headed to town to drop off a box for UPS and then take a walk on a different path. This is a mostly blacktop loop with a nice view of hill and sky with a few more humans than my normal walk. For my puppy I aim to provide some different experiences. When we encountered a running group of high school boys we stepped off the path into the tall grass. While she sat they ran by.

Then there was an older man with a weaving walk wearing a red puffy jacket with an orange bucket and a long tool. I finally realized he was picking up trash. So with an excitable puppy and my hard to discard urban awareness I thought we should avoid him. When we got close I realized he was on his phone. As we passed him he hooped, yelled and lurched towards me. I pulled the puppy up close on her leash and stepped back. He said, “I just had to tell someone my granddaughter just got into NYU!” It was so out of place and unexpected I was speechless.

stark ridgeline leaden
in winter grey, hawk out of
place without blue sky

— Greg Sellers, haiku journal entry, December 15, 2020
[link to Greg’s tumblr]

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#14 decembrance 2020

I woke to thirty eight degrees and pouring rain — my least favorite weather. I slipped on my muck boots, down vest, wool hat and new long tangerine colored raincoat. I bought this raincoat after I discovered my old black one was no longer waterproof. A bright color for dog walks on the margins of the daylight seemed like a great idea.

As much as I hate this weather I felt like Momo a character from a favorite children’s book called The Umbrella by Taro Yashima. The main character Momo was given red boots and  an umbrella for her third birthday. But she has to wait days before she can use them. The illustrations are soft colored pencil drawings of city views and the coming and going, to and from school. Momo, which means peach in Japanese, tries to convince her Mom she needs the umbrella to keep the sun off but is told she has to wait for the rain. The story is a subtle lesson in the narrative of patience.

This morning my new raincoat felt like that umbrella. It was bright, waterproof and fit perfectly. It made my sopping wet route like a dance. The story reminds me of the beauty in bringing active attention to my repetitive everyday walks. The illustrations remind me of the view from our NYC Ninty-Fifth Street apartment. The yellow chair Momo sits in while putting on her boots feels like something I sat on. The raindrops bouncing on pavement are a micro moment from long ago bringing back the rhymes and rhythms of an urban childhood.

This well-thumbed novel
Was the tale she loved best,–
Fields of autumn rain.

— Richard Wright, from Haiku: This Other World, eds. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert L. Tener, Arcade Publishing, 1998

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#13 decembrance 2020

I remember one day when Zoë was a young teenager she and I went shopping at Target. When we were in the housewares department she told me that she couldn’t wait until she had her own apartment. When I asked her why she gleefully told me “because then I can buy cool, colorful plastic dishes.” I can happily report that when the time came setting up her first apartment she asked for some of our pottery for her kitchen. After a couple of moves she now has different sized bowls for oatmeal and ice cream.

Zen Boy

Why do you have
only one bowl?
I asked our son
helping him arrange
new kitchen cabinets
three plates
three mugs
three glasses
one bowl
a red oatmeal-
sized bowl
He smiled
I like
having only one bowl

— Naomi Shihab Nye, in Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners, Greenwillow Books, 2018

#12 decembrance 2020

I often tell people that growing up in a family full of artists I felt like the only space left for me was the table. In our New York City apartment my dad used one bedroom for his studio, my mother had a drawing table at the end of the living room for her work, my older brothers were making model airplanes and super eight films in their bedroom and my younger brother and I were sharing the other room. The rest of the apartment was filled with surf boards, bicycles, sculptures and prints. My parents slept in what might have been called the maid’s room in another era.

The theater of our home happened mostly at the dining room table. My father often read aloud family round-robin letters from his father and relatives. My brothers spun shaggy dog stories or concocted outrageous puns. I sat pondering the milk pitcher and mentally redesigned my misshapen first attempts at a sugar bowl.

During 2020 I have completely embraced our home in Virginia. I am happy to make small circles around our property as well as back and forth to and from the studio. But there are those moments when I miss the big cities of Washington, DC or New York where museums, galleries, restaurants and stages hold the promise of imaginative answers to our current situation. As I photograph for this series I have been struck by how I create a little theater of backdrops, objects and pots to express how hope is the opposite of desperation and how it is not as comfortable as certainty.

“Hope is the opposite of desperation—it’s not as comfortable as certainty, and it’s much more certain than longing. It is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”

— Jericho Brown, excerpt from One Whole Voice which in turn is comprised of extracts from “A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith,” edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, Tupelo Press, 2012. [In Poetry Magazine on Poetry Foundation website]