Subversive Writing and Rambling

Subversive documents

We historic site colleagues were picking words to describe our presentation styles with the public. We like words: They’re artists and grad students who love communicating about history, and I do, too, and I’m, you know, CPT Me.

I suggested I’m “Intellectual but Funny.” They nodded agreeably, and one said, “The word we chose for you was Subversive.” Really??? Explanation: Because I had dismantled and rearranged our Revolutionary Personages talk to add in colonial poet Sarah Wentworth Morton, and to connect the subjects of the talk in my own chain of meaning.

My colleagues are young and in Master’s programs, blissfully unaware that in the Academia where I used to dwell, that’s not Subversive. That’s Required. That is called “intervening in the conversation,” and You’d Better have a new twist on things if you want to live in EnglishPhDland. Theoryguay. LitReviewistan. Jonestown.

OK, OK, a little dark humor isn’t going to leave a stain. I am proud of some of my work, deeply impressed by some scholars I know and read, and full of stuff to say about the 18th century. But I gloriously failed to be an academic many times while acting like I was trying to become one. That’s OK, though. Let’s all live our best lives.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Scholarly and Creative can harmonize. But often they don’t, and I still don’t quite get it. For example, the author of an important book in my field said to me over cocktails that, although nearing retirement, she was discovering a whole new way to approach theater history. She was now attending actual rehearsals at her university for the first time in her career. Yeah. From her tone, she felt subversive. I felt a little sick. I can laugh about it now.

My Revolutionary talk at work is a good, coherent little talk, a star shape nicely squeezed out of the Play Doh Fun Factory of my Intellect. But it was prompted by real, personal interest and Creative Sisterhood with Mrs. Sarah, and those things aren’t too academic. Do I get to call the talk Creativity? I don’t know, yet oddly, I care. I hope someday to have more Intellectual/Creative harmony.

Am I subversive? I don’t write in a bare garret, rejecting everything but Art; I have an AC. I read mysteries and watch Antiques Roadshow. I like vanilla ice cream a great deal.

The writer and queer/feminist activist Michelle Tea described “Sister Spit, the all-girl performance tour that tore up the United States at the end of the last century” as, among other things, “the my-poetry-can-beat-up-your-theory menace.” I like that. That’s funny. I value poetry a lot more than academic writing. I’ve been dealing with some things and been pretty sub-versive lately (get it?), but I still see a poet in the mirror. And will even if I do finish that book about 18th-century theater history.

I don’t know if I can reach Tea’s subversive heights, but I was busy writing this today instead of writing for money. Taking an actual day off work to prioritize whatever creativity showed up. Not wearing pants. Reading literature in the current administration. You do what you can.  I could murder some ice cream right now. Chocolate? I like eating it with a fork.

 

The portrait of John Adams by J.S. Copley belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I quoted from Michelle Tea’s piece “Sister Spit Feminism,” in her new book Against Memoir, published by Feminist Press. I highly recommend it. My talk and other good ones are available at King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail, Boston.

Return of the Blog. Oooooh.

zzzzzz

I haven’t done what I would classify as My Creative Work in more than a month, and as a result, I feel crampled (a word I accidentally made up) by life and also more than ready for change. I have been writing for money, about issues in moving with kids, and about the various Revolutionary Personages of the historic site where I am an educator.

Dilemma: being a CPT whose mind really needs to rest when it can, in the hopes it will stop being either the scattered monkeys or the wild elephant of Buddhist metaphor. The blessing and curse of being deeply engaged in and satisfied by multiple thinking-intense jobs, I find, is loving your work and then adoring empty quiet time. What blog? What poems?

So I’m going to change strategies to get uncrampled (second word I made up). First of all, I still stand for Going with the Flow and not criticizing yourself. You can’t demand the tide be in when the tide is just out right now. Use it as an opportunity to Experience Creativity, not in the way You Decided was right and meaningful, but just as it happens in your day, however it happens. Or doesn’t. No Ego required. Lots to learn and enjoy.

This year I’ve been trying to observe/receive more and think less in my Creative Work. Some of my usual writing is a fallow field. But I’m taking a lot of photos, trying to wait for things to show me themselves, rather than deciding first what it is I see. (For more on this creative process, see The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori and the photos of Minor White.)

I’m going to bring that exploration here, so that the blog can Be when I’m too tired even to think about an intelligent mini-essay or having Something Important to say. When he was interviewed by On Being, Yo-Yo Ma inspired me  with, “It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.” As an ex-academic, a teacher, and an artist, I deeply appreciate that reminder. That’s the Flow I want to Go with.

Court/Juggler

It’s weeks like the last one that remind me why this blog’s title is one part C and two parts PT. It’s a new thing to juggle Three Jobs: as with real juggling, you get the motion and rhythm going and sustain. And one beanbag eventually makes a sad little splat on the ground. If you’re me. Those papers all graded yet? Splat. Yet I am fortunate, and thankful that I enjoy the three, all of which allow me to exert some C in different ways.

And the week’s intensity gave me extra appreciation for what I’m sharing here, color palette charts from Highly Creative Sibella Court’s book Etcetera Etc: Creating Beautiful Interiors with the Things You Love.  She’s a collector of what she finds, many natural and castoff items that she brings together, which is why she calls herself a Bower bird in another book title. We don’t always have the same tastes in decor, but she’s inspiring and a total trip.

In a week where words literally swarmed in my brain, it soothed me just looking at these pages. Lovely, mouth-filling words in a sensuous font next to favorite shades. Read from top to bottom, or bottom to top if you’re feeling that way, they roll like a revel of a nature poem.  Unconnected words together, they offer sight, sound,  images, and potential connections for later creative work. Like a printed daydream for a CPT!colors 2colors 1

I used these images in a moment of inspiration and admiration, without the permission of Sibella Court or of Murdoch Books in Sydney, Australia. I hope they will forgive it.

Sometimes…

nice objects

…you have to write all day for other people, putting the PT into CPT. Sometimes a beautiful thrift-store find, a funky cup, artsy coasters by the kids you’re related to, and some wind-up critters is your Creative for the day.

Still Life with Freelance Deadline.

 

Unrest

Unrest

An intelligent-looking, attractive young woman goes upstairs in her home. She looks fine, but she crawls up on her hands and knees without even the energy for bodily rhythm.  Watching her feels like a terrible invasion of someone’s vulnerability, but she’s the filmmaker responsible for the scene, Jennifer Brea. Her documentary is called Unrest.

Shown at film festivals and on PBS stations, it’s available online and on Netflix.

Brea has ME, the worst illness you may not know about, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Perhaps triggered by a virus, it’s chronic: inflamed brain, immunodeficiency, impaired cognitive function, a screwed-up nervous system, a screwed-up every system. A dire inability to make physical effort, if it can be made at all, without disabling consequences. It’s not understood, and there’s no reliable treatment. Some don’t believe it’s real.

One of the photographed faces you can glimpse in the film is my cousin’s.

But this post is about Brea’s Creativity, not her illness. Her film is bold, even harsh, in its depiction of people with ME, while being very tender to them, and offering portraits of full human beings. The illness controls everything, but they are still far more than their ME. Although she cannot see this topic from the outside, being literally dragged down by it herself, her Vision as a film artist stands firm.

There is startling Creativity in how folks articulate the bizarre experience of losing their lives while still being alive to witness the loss, to paraphrase one person. It’s also in the ways they fill the empty space where their lives used to be. A short walk in nature becomes a pilgrimage, or floating in a pool becomes an act of poetry and freedom.

They speak and make posters for rallies and sing and write as they can, as acts of resistance and education, as well as of creativity. Brea sometimes treats ME almost as a realm of possibility, and that’s brave Art.  And while they do, they’re always afraid of losing even more, of collapsing in a public place as she does, of having their lives depend on medical personnel who don’t believe in or can’t care for their sick bodies.

Brea’s film mixes shocking information with moments of hope and certainly of love. It’s a balanced film meal: you may not want to swallow it, but you can digest it.

Unrest‘s ability to pull viewers into the experience of folks with ME may revolt you. It’s not easy. But your heart might open and shift along a new fault line, and make you glad it did. That’s the hard part of engaging with other people’s Creativity, or even with our own. But we do it, don’t we?

The image that doesn’t leave me is of a body that looks full of youth and sinewy strength, moving upstairs like a hundred-year-old tortoise. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t make visual sense, like medieval peasants in movies who all have perfect white teeth. Even after many years, my cousin’s illness still surprises me, throws me, with its endless shifting surrealism. Some days the clock tells time, and some days it hangs limply over a branch in ways I struggle to process.  She’ll like the Dali metaphor, I think, because she’s a person who studied and loves and used to work in art. She may never visit a museum again, but I hope she will with all my heart.

Talk about being a CPT: Jennifer Brea got this film made, and I recommend it as one tough, compassionate act of Creativity.

Please visit https://www.unrest.film/.

HI-iiiiiii!

gloves

Hello again. That was quite a break on my part. To be exact, it was a few breaks, all in the bones of my left wrist, the one I need for Writing and for half the keyboard. Since mid-March, I have been able to hold a pen enough to take skittish notes, and I learned to type with one hand. Frankly, getting the paid work done took all I had.

There has been many an excuse for not writing in my life, but it’s never been that I literally could not write. Watching the Bronte sisters dipping and scratching out lines on the recent Masterpiece program, I caught myself envying their speed. Yikes.

Last week I was able to write a draft of this post, and I’m currently typing it normally, albeit with pauses for “shaking it out.” So here’s what I’ve Got:

My city, and my walks through it, include several community gardens, some only a building lot in size. I love them. Our string of formal green spaces here is called the Emerald Necklace, and I like to think of the community gardens as a string of colorful, hand-made beads. I passed by a favorite small one not long ago, a week before it opened for the season. It was one of my first long walks since I healed and the ice melted, but I still found myself in a sooty haze of vulnerability, hand sweaty under the Velcro splint I wear outside.

The Garden, like me, was not then productive. Lopsided cubes and cones of protective wire mesh filled the plots, and old stalks lay bent or smooshed on the cold soil. The ice and snow did a job on them, too. All that mesh must have been neatly unrolled last fall, but winter tipped it into the shape of drunk tornadoes or the weird shape of houses in children’s drawings. Everywhere was a sense of inactivity, a sense of work not visited. Just like me. And here’s more: it was beautiful, sculptural, creative in its own way, full of potential. Yeah, I know. But be nice to me about it: I’ve been Injured.

My next visit was after opening day, and change had bloomed, if not much else. The wire had all vanished, along with the patterns of leaf litter. The plots were clean, newly opened spaces. The birdbath and the trellises had been leaned upright, and garden gloves waved from the posts where they were drying, hands suddenly present and ready to be used. A clump of daffodils spun yellow to match the bright metal bench across the way. A violet was growing rogue in the border area, and here and there other spots of deeper purple poked up, including in a pinwheel.

It’s too trite to say unto everything there is a season, and we just bloody have to Live With That. But I felt okay in the garden because my own creative tool was making its comeback. A CPT Life can have dull seasons brought on by so many things. It was surreal for me not to be able to write, but I could feel at home in the brown garden knocked over by snow and ice. And then again in the one full of new things growing and garden gloves doing jazz hands.

I didn’t want to make a clichéd Metaphor here, although I think it’s too late. Let’s call this a more literal bonding of a place I like and me, a snapshot of various creative tools forced into disuse, now back on the Creative Track. So there.

 

That’s it, You’re Grounded

rain

As my Kind Readers know, my good CPT habits have been challenged lately. I’ve been roughing it in Rough Draft Country, where the white noise in my head has been falling steadily into waist-deep snow between me and any finished piece of writing. That’s something stress does, because I’m one of those people who mentally chews on it, which leaves me wearily stranded far away from my better habits. But sometimes our own Deeper Currents float us back towards our Creative Selves, and I recently bumped into a shore.

I had some time to spend between a meeting and teaching, so I went to a downtown coffeehouse I hadn’t visited in a while. Finding an armchair free, I took out a lined pad I hadn’t used all summer to do some class prep, and a couple of folded sheets slipped out. One contained some writing done in the spring, months before, the last time I sat in that particular coffee place, tucked away and forgotten. Yeah, I know, but it did happen. I had noted The Cure song playing that day, taking me back to college-adjacent years:

However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you
Whatever words I say
I will always love you

I wrote that his sweetish, melancholy rasp blended perfectly with gray steel, warm smells, and the wide plate-glass view of Boston rain falling on a worn side street.

I read it with strange pleasure those months later, on another rainy day, looking at the same view. Bruce was inviting me to The Rising in the background, and that indeed fit the moment. Yeah, I know. An almost uncomfortable feeling of comfort settled on me, and I felt grounded, with a foothold again in my Working CPT self, swept by rain and habit into this déjà vu. You have whatever sparks you, and for me, an unexpected connection works like champagne bubbles up the nose: sudden, itchy, delightful. A forgotten creative day suddenly falls into another and lands on the same floor. I get a flash of Why it would be Awesome to teach Jane Eyre, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Haunting of Hill House in the same course: whoa! I meet a  gentle, aura-exuding organist at the church where I work, and suddenly there’s Sherlock Holmes explaining that his new client is NOT a typist as he first thought because of the shape of her fingers; she has an ethereal look, so she must be a musician. And I just met the lady. I realize I can blog about my morning walks framed by a French Buddhist monk’s photography in Asia.

When these connections hit me, I feel obliged to and pressured by my own working mind, but that one in the coffeehouse was soothing and asked nothing back. The CPT Me felt fairly present, as it slipped out of hiding in an embarrassingly clichéd way. But there it is. Yeah, I know, but a CPT can sometimes use a Little Pat on the back from herself, a little reassurance in a brimming-over world.

Hey-la-di-la, my blog is back.

wave

Hello. I’m back. I haven’t posted in recent weeks, and I also haven’t

  • gone on vacation, pilgrimage, or silent retreat.
  • faked a plunge down a waterfall with my archenemy in my grasp, and then traveled in disguise while my dear Watson thought I was, um, done for.
  • entered a peaceful writers’ colony somewhere mountainous or ocean-adjacent.

What I have done is Live Out a particular aspect of being a Creative Part-Timer, and now I’m going to blog about it, which is awfully convenient for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out in picturesque Waltham, MA, where I visited the wonderful More Than Words Bookstore and Cafe, where they do good community work with young people, and where I bought a used copy of Take Ten: New 10-Minute Plays, edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold. Short plays have long interested me as an art form, partly because I’ve been lucky enough to see so many good ones, and partly because, unlike full-length plays, they don’t Terrify me as a writer. My contributions to theater have been mostly backstage, but several years ago I drafted some plays under the influence of that delicious drama-feast of Shorties that is the annual Boston Theater Marathon. Then I heard me just spinning my wheels, didn’t like the sound, and drifted away. I do that.

I read my new book straight through, play after play, with no performances to take my attention from Exactly What the writers were Doing. Turns out it was an excellent way to absorb the pure craft. Mind you, reading plays can give you the how-to’s, but that’s not the whole enchilada . You truly know plays by watching them, just as you know people by being with them, not just by looking through their clothes closet. Sure, you get an impression of who they could be, but you’ve never actually met them. The craft I cracked while reading these experienced people was how to write a play For Performance, not for Good Writing. That’s a shift I had to make, and it helped mightily that I am a seasoned, loving theater audience. Just saying.

I took out my drafts from years ago and got excited because they aren’t bad at all. I need to chill out as the wright and ask them to do a lot less. And I need to make my characters stop talking like me when I teach, saying everything 1 ½ times to make sure it gets across. Actors’ job, getting things across.  So I made marks and notes. I revised and wrote new bits. And I forgot all about you, Kindly Readers of the blog. That’s the CPT experience, emphasis on Part-Time, that I’m back to comment on.

As usual, I had only so much time to write, and I used it on those plays, which left me focused and full of joy. “Honey, love the one you’re with” is a credible working philosophy. Yet I didn’t write other things that sat patiently waiting, including the blog and my “Daily Grind” work. That bothered me, but I quickly acclimated to feeling bad about them. I do that.  I did not sacrifice pleasure-reading, Jeopardy, or wasting time to create more time to Be Creative. And there it is, the best of CPT and the worst of CPT: everything I accomplished tumbling into the abyss of what I did not write, and all the unwritten blog posts spilling out in a few play characters suddenly alive and speaking. Now that I have the blog, a binder full of poem drafts, notes for two big projects, AND four plays in progress, what choices am I going to make about what gets how much time? Same or different? What will I learn about being a CPT and an artist from those choices?

 

 

An Ordinary Post on Creativity

Rose 1

 

College instructors’ mental abilities often wither after spring semester like drought-stricken leaves. Mine took a long time to sprout again, a possible sign of burn-out, as is the smoke coming from my eyeballs. I have been writing, sort of, although stopping teaching suddenly freed up time to be tired, detached, and uninspired. It was easier to write when the alternative was urgent lesson plans or grading? Writing got harder when there was more free time, and the alternatives were a novel or a nap? That should not be true, but Alas.

Yes, Gertrude Stein did say that geniuses have to sit around a lot doing nothing. Yes, I quoted her in my other post. But I believe when she said “really doing nothing,” she meant Really Doing Nothing, not watching The Big Bang Theory re-runs. And yes, a major shift in routine can throw off a person’s…routines. I found it hard to regroup, and I think it’s because my CPT identity and my writing had become so important this spring. Art and my spiritual practice were the “special” parts of my day. That Special, separate status I gave them is what the late Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki would call “a mistake.”

Sometimes I have good reading instincts. (Sometimes I claim the Boston Public Library’s Copley Square branch is sentient, cares about me, and makes sure I land on the books I need. If you’ve spent time in that building, don’t tell me you don’t believe it.) I felt urged to read, at the same time, Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Natalie Goldberg’s memoir about waking up as a writer and Buddhist, Long Quiet Highway, especially when I learned his lecture collection inspired the format of her first book. So I’ve just read them together, and the thing they emphasize about the practices they teach, Zen and writing, is that both are immensely Ordinary. Apparently I needed to hear that good and loud.

The habit of treating Creative Work as Special creates weird pressure, and it’s where the excuses spring up: I’m too tired, too depleted, not focused enough, not talented enough to Do It Right today. That’s been my recent experience. While confessing their own struggles, SS and NG reminded me, just do what you do. He said when you sit to meditate, Just Sit, with things as they are, without trying to attain or fix anything. She said, write to Be Writing, if you ever want to write. Both are ordinary practices, like washing dishes or earning a living, not glorious quests for which you need to be sanctified.

Simple, yet not simple when tangled in my own CPT thinking. Oh, I want my Art to be special; after all, I sacrifice to make time for it, and it’s Who I Am. I don’t want it to be unbrilliant, unproductive, not as good as other people’s….Whoa. Stop. The sound overhead is the Ego, tap dancing at full speed on a concrete floor. Hey, people are trying to write down here!

I trust SS and NG to know, but I could have read a hundred books. Until I experienced the reality of what they said, it was going to mean nothing. Being quiet with my own dilemma, I Experienced It. I have to practice the ordinary every day anyway, breathing, walking, and brushing my teeth as I do. I’m never too uninspired to pee. Writing does not need to be Carved Out of the ordinary day, but Added In to the ordinary day. Start with that perspective, and do your practice.

Poet Jane Hirshfield once asked, in a documentary about Buddha, what could be MORE miraculous than coffee in a blue mug. All things are ordinary and equally extraordinary, the secret prize in this cereal box of realigned understanding. Writing is ordinary, and my hands make these marks that signify my thoughts almost before I think. Wow. And as I drink morning coffee, every leaf on the tree ripples silently in a breeze that my skin feels as cool while my mouth holds milky heat. Across the room, little round things I shoved into wet dirt have sprouted live green things reaching for the light. On my walk this morning, the eyes of a mottled rabbit watched me as its jaws worked side to side. And people with their loves and hurts and talents walked through my vision….And here we are in Life… Extraordinary.

How many babies are born each day? What an ordinary event, really. This post is dedicated with awe and love to the Extraordinary Rose Esther N.

Out of This

I could not love, or look up to, a sister more than I do my cousin Amy. Aside from her intelligence, her immense sense of kindness and sense of the ridiculous, her love of books, cats, and baseball, she knows how to rappel down a cliff. A cliff. That she has climbed. With her fingers and toes. Her idea of fun is wilderness hiking and camping, even in the snow, even in Death Valley. Bugs, bears, trail mix, more bugs, being totally cool with pooping in the woods, all that. If there’s a guy where she lives in Berkeley, CA who hosts strangers for nude hot-tubbing in his backyard, she will have the key code. Yes, she took me.

Amy is also a Creative. Ballet/violin youth, art history at Stanford, house full of bohemian beauty, window boxes, art books and color. She is an amazing nature photographer.

But this description is the saddest thing in my life. For over a decade, Amy has been one of the Millions Missing, a person with ME/CFIDS. Most of that first paragraph isn’t true anymore: she can’t do those things. Or travel. Or see friends. Or leave the house a lot of days. Or be upright sometimes.

Here is how the #ME Action web site describes this illness that steals lives:

“Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is a systemic neuroimmune condition characterized by post-exertional malaise (a severe worsening of symptoms after even minimal exertion). It causes dysregulation of both the immune system and the nervous system. The effects of ME are devastating enough to leave 25% of patients housebound or bedbound. For moderate to severe patients, living with ME is like living with late-stage cancer, advanced stage AIDS, or congestive heart failure for decades.

In many parts of the world, it is commonly called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

There is no unified definition or diagnostic criteria for ME. Common symptoms include significant physical or mental fatigue, post-exertional malaise (a perverse response to normal exertion), debilitating pain, sleep dysfunction, cognitive dysfunction, neurological impairment, sensory sensitivity and severe immune dysfunction. The majority of ME patients also have…tachycardia.”

There is also no treatment, no cure, and almost no research. Now you know. Here is Amy’s picture in words of people with ME, posted for World Awareness Day, May 25:

Maybe you know, or used to know, someone with ME. We are the former coworkers who pushed ourselves to work for months or years, taking shorter and shorter days until one day we just disappeared from work and from your lives. We’re the friends you used to see several times a year whom you now haven’t seen in three or four years. We’re the people you always saw around the places you hang out, doing the activities you do, and now occasionally think, “Hmm, I wonder what happened to them.” Maybe we’re someone you see from time-to-time who looks and acts as you’d expect us to and you assume our appearance and behavior is what we’re like every day. What’s hard to imagine is that for most of us, if we’re even able, going out is a rare event or something we’re forced to do for an important errand or appointment. Then we go home, lie down and do little else during our waking hours for days or weeks except maybe stare at a screen, go online, read if we’re lucky, and do a bit of necessary housework. Most of that time we feel like we’ve run a marathon for which we haven’t trained, while suffering from mono, motion sickness, altitude sickness and a hangover. And nothing makes that sick feeling go away. Here I am in the place I spend 18-20 hours a day, not well enough to attend the SF protest.

Creating and curating a beautiful habitat, and taking pictures when she can, is Survival for her, not just Art. She is home almost all day, almost every day. To have beautiful colors, flowers, cards, objects, and prints to look at is how Amy keeps some pleasure and meaning in the space and time that used to be her life. Some of us are Creative Part-Timers because chronic conditions dictate our truth. But she is a True Artist, making some beauty out of this.

Here is my poem based on the signs she posted on Facebook for World Awareness Day:

“Missing”

I’m missing

my friends, family, work.

Community. Movement

and sweat, sunny days,

and feeling “good tired.”

I’m missing

my cognitive abilities, good memory,

sleep cycle, vocabulary, and focus. Parks,

beaches, classrooms, museums, stores, restaurants, theaters, theatres, walking, and hiking trails.

My normal breath

and heartrate.

I’m missing.

 

I, too, wanted to try to make beauty out of this. With all my heart I want her Out of This.