Mixed Messages

The haloed little figure on one shoulder and the little horned figure on the other shoulder, each whispering, is an old trope. Today I feel as if I have various small voice boxes all over me, with all sorts of things to say. Some have birds’ wings, some breathe cigarette smoke, and some are stone. Mixed messages.

How can any decent person think about a blog today, this week, as if it’s important. Creativity, seriously?/How can any decent person not stand up to every type of violence, the empty noise, the knowledge their attention is a product for sale? THIS week, how can anyone not do some human, Creative thing in the face of all this scratching at our skin?

I should have rolled out, not just been awake, before dawn, and taken a walk before I got to my writing. I should heed my priorities because no one else will./I should be gentle and patient with this person who had chaotic, rough dreams and bad sleep, enjoy the quiet time, and not treat my “schedule” like the chariot that needs to pull the sun./I shouldn’t use the word “should” on myself at all, especially when it pushes “need to” out of the way. Why are the “shoulds” so much easier to articulate than the “need tos”? See above: violence, noise, attention as product.

I want to blog./I want to read./I want to look at the yellow leaves out the window sifting the sun, and I want to do all of them all day.

I want to understand the difference between a sense of purpose and a sense of responsibility./There’s no difference./There’s EVERY difference./Isn’t there?

Every poem can be analyzed, played with, followed forever. It’s never done: there will be no sign./Put your poem on your blog and get some more coffee and do the laundry.

 Dreams
  
 Another dream: late to teach, 
 streets stretch, destination
 retreating. My half-run feeds on
 panic never questioned.
 Spaghetti-like stations,
 unfair, shape-shifting
 routes of trains,
 unchallenged because
 the stamina demanded
 I deliver without
 a thought. Finally the door,
 students hanging around
 like a shop full of clocks,
 space used up in clatter,
 time disassembled.
 In some versions, also
 farm animals. Or snow. 
  
 Downstream of chaos, waking
 cramped. Some books rest near
 the weary lamp. Somewhere I read
 that eras ago, the unexhausted
 slept night’s first hours,
 then rose a little while, 
 to rustle embers, sit,
 turn pages, listen to
 the hidden river of the trees.
 Or to love, bodies safe
 from daylight’s flying shards,
 grind-spin of metal on stone.
 Or just to look at whatever
 indoor shapes cast shadows. 
  
 Who first found out that even sleep
 needs pausing, found out it would
 submit? Is there a foxed treatise,
 spell of the old words
 however desired? Or did they
 simply pull chairs closer around
 a remark at table on the moon
 that eased clearly through oak leaves,
 like a shell flown by tides, after
 invisible rain? Didn’t they
 discover what each had
 witnessed alone? Didn’t they
 nod and smile over the hill of rinds,
 the crags of bread, the sea of salty meat?
 Didn’t that moment of empty
 mouths, that pause, become so quiet that,
 before another wave of conversation,
 the candles stood amazed
 to burn that true air, that silence? 


The photo, by me, is of two pieces in the Kindness Rocks Project, seen on The Mall, Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA, on Easter weekend, 2020.

Sticks and Stones: Stones

KC stone 1KC stone 2

When I took these photos, I was doing an exercise in Looking at the familiar objects in the historic site where I work. There was a quiet 30 minutes one day last winter, and I decided to pay closer attention to the sculptures and memorials on the walls. Not to the people they remembered, but to perfect stone ivy leaves or rich abstract designs. Each pointing to someone’s artistry, time, and focus.

That experience is a cliché you could read in a thousand blogs, right? So I’m not going to write about slowing down, being mindful, observing the present world, feeling appreciation, or any of that.

I’m also not going to offer this stone only as rarefied beauty in an historic church. I do find this work beautiful, and I miss being near it this spring.  My heart does find Creativity sacred.  But like much art, this art exists because of past financial privilege and white privilege, and sometimes that privilege existed because of the organized kidnapping and labor of enslaved people. It’s information the site shares with visitors as part of its History Program.

This is one of the longest periods the building has remained empty since 1754, and right now it might seem to have its own closed-off existence. But it doesn’t exist outside the world, and it holds a lot to Look At. Beautiful and otherwise, sometimes at the same time.

 

By the way, please visit King’s Chapel in Boston, with its fascinating, difficult history and remarkable building, at the History Program’s pandemic-expanded web site.  We’ve worked hard on it and hope you will explore. When the building is open again, please visit in person. We have a lot to share.

 

Sticks and Stones: Sticks, Part II

more sticks

Finished semester grading blahblahblah had about a week to get read for first fully remote class blahblahblah gig economy juggling blahblahblah

Hello. As much as I have things to say about Stones that have been wanting to burst out of me for weeks, I want to revisit Sticks. The stick building in the park, featured in the first part of Sticks and Stones, continues to grow longer and more complex. It has many more doors and skylights now. Of course, it, um, always had skylights, obviously, but these seem to be intentional. There are wonderful patterns and clever weaving from end to end. I’ve been in it, and it’s fun. Creative fun!

 

Stick it

Oh My Days!

King F

Oh, the Creative things I’m going to get to during this weird spring break once I take a nap. And process the global pandemic. And learn that I still exist even without a work schedule in the foreseeable future. And nap. I refuse, however, to time excerpts of things for use in hand washing. The Jeopardy Think Music will do for me.

As things grow stranger and more distressing, I’d like to give the last few days their Creative Context.

Friday the 13th is forever tied to a series of films. I’m not a suspense and gore person, but I appreciate the art of scaring people with things they actually know are aren’t real. Let’s also remember that it’s the hallowed moniker of the monarch of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, King Friday XIII. The man rules one of the creative capitals of my childhood, a place named, by the hallowed Mr. Rogers, for the imaginative impulse.

Saturday, 3/14, was PI day. Shout out to Archimedes of Syracuse. Wicked awesome thing to figure out, my friend. Math is an elegant creativity with deep tap roots into the universe, although that does not mean I have to enjoy trig. The discovery of mathematical and number-related stuff has inspired some fine plays, including Breaking the Code, Arcadia, and The Women Who Mapped the Stars.

I once asked my friend the Math Professor how his department celebrates. We all have a slice of pie, he told me. Here’s to the dough-crimpers and everyone who makes creative crusts and fascinating fillings. Here’s to our own Omni Parker House Hotel, birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie, which isn’t really a pie, but which is very good. And to all the comedy creatives who knew what else a pie could do, and took one in the face to make us laugh.

Back to plays. Sunday was the Ides of March, about which Shakespeare had some words to say through the mouths of emperors and conspirators. The “line” on social media for 2020 is that if your whole group stabs Julius Caesar together, you’re not social distancing.

If your only experience of this play is reading it in high school and having to “translate” it into “our English”, then I’m just bloody sorry for you. You should see it set in a dystopian shadow-city in mob costumes or something. Speaking of bloody, I worked as crew once on a production of this play that included most of the cast dipping their hands into Caesar’s blood and then dashing about. So here’s the creative secret to removing dried, syrupy fake blood spatter off an entire multi-level stage while setting up for the next act. Puddles. Squeeze some water onto those red puppies and walk away. By the time you get back, they’ll have dissolved, and you can wipe up easily.

Everyone be well. There are lots of creative folks, whether they make stage entrances, make music, or mix your cocktails, who are exiled from their work and incomes right now. Let’s all do our best to care for and support one another.

 

 

Chance Creativity

AGW

At the risk of a blog overrun by shadows and cemeteries, let us proceed. I am a happy collector of Chance Creativity wherever it’s found, whether in Nature or in human effort. I collect moments of connection between what’s around us and what we perceive. (Oh, right, yeah, that’s…Creativity.) But sometimes you come across something surprising that uplifts.

I love the extra layer of creativity in this tomb door plaque in the Hancock Cemetery, Quincy Center, MA, observed by my ever-curious and history-minded colleague. There’s a wonderful variety of materials and surfaces, an attractive font, and fine stone artistry. Certainly it makes sense to have the names in alphabetical order.  But look at the Chance Creativity in Appleton, Greenleaf, and Woodward: “wood” rises into “green leaf” rises into “apple.” I’m going to believe that, after all the time and attention, the stone carvers saw it, too.

What is in play here? The ways we memorialize, and what stone symbolizes. Space and landscape. Style, even in burial, that reflects people, regions, and eras. Human relationships and how we express them. They all came together here, our eyes joined them, and there is the image of a tree in stone, made of words.

Thank you to Christina Rewinski for her historic explorations and the photo.

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.

Yeah, I was Inspired by a Book Again

Tenant

We’ve had major “stay in with a book” weather in New England, so I just re-read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She impresses me more and more and that’s sad, because she only wrote two novels.  Death be not proud, suggested another writer, and I second that.

The post, though, is really about the Preface to the Second Edition. I’d like to quote some of it because I was moved by the way it echoed from the 1840s into today.

…I wished to tell the truth…But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn…for the mud and water in which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures; as, in like manner, she who undertakes the cleansing of a careless bachelor’s apartment will be liable to more abuse for the dust she raises, than commendation for the clearance she effects.

“Acton Bell,” Bronte’s pen name, depicted a society of childish adults, bullies without inner resources or self-restraint. Not that you’d need those qualities back then if you were a wealthy landed gent with no natural predators. Or if you were a movie producer, or an ill-coiffed business tycoon with a red cap. Wait. Did I just mix things up? What we were talking about? Oh, a society that produced and valued this sort of thing, that criticized someone more marginalized for speaking up about it.

As the story of ‘Agnes Grey’ was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life… so, in the present work, I find myself censured…O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace—there would be less sin and misery…

That last sentence laid me out flat: With the privilege of a white-skinned/cis/nondisabled/hetero/American-born citizen, I often get to whisper “Peace” at will, both in Life and Creatively.

Some accused Bronte of indulging in the “coarse” and “brutal.”  They were probably extra-shocked that the journal of a female character records that coarse brutality. Helen Graham struggles to protect herself from oppression and abuse, but it still becomes her story because she writes it down. In Bronte’s novel, Graham and her journal survive by acting against the conventions of society. Other emptier, seemingly more powerful people disintegrate from the inside out. Creative check-mate. Food for thought.

 

(For Ali Smith and Ijeoma Oluo.)

 

Shriek and Spit

Yes, 2017 is here, and like some, I’ve been troubled by what exactly I’m doing with this blog in this world. When I gave you my elevator pitch of “being creative in a brimming-over world,” I had little idea what kind of Brimming Over was brewing. I don’t want to be pithy here, and I’m having trouble finding a new, significant way to say it’s time for Artists to make sure they are present, because every act of love, connection, and clarity counts. But if I can start this blog up again, then I think I Mean it.

As poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote for another Inauguration Day eight years ago:

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,/anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

To get started again, I’m going back to some pure, basic lessons in Creativity I learned from the wisest of the wise. I encountered both these Amazing Creatives by accident, at different times, and was fortunate to witness their work. I don’t know their names, but I think they were both two, maybe three, years old. You thought that “Shriek and Spit” title was some sort of metaphor, didn’t you? Nope.

The first Teacher crossed my path in the central atrium of the Boston Public Library. Four stories high, it was once a cavern that matched the rest of the plain, concrete-is-king-era architecture. It was fine. Now that the big Renovation is complete, and the library around it is badass (but cozy) red and purple, the atrium has become a wonder of soaring simplicity. Suddenly I find it irresistible, but unlike my Wise Teacher in the stroller that day, I didn’t know what to do with it. He/she/they did. (Yeah, I don’t even know.) Right in the middle, and the kid waited for it like the master he/she/they was, out came, through a wide smile, one perfect, Loud, high-pitched, single note of air-slicing shriek. And it flew upward and echoed like the work of art it was. The kid knew it would, and the little face glowed with pure joy and smug triumph. Like any artist. Then the stroller-pushing adult said, “Ssshhhhh!” Really.

The second Teacher I met in hot sunshine, while meditating in the middle of Boston with Thich Nhat Hanh (yes, I DID) and several hundred other cross-legged people. A couple in front of me had a wee girl, standing behind them and doing Her Own Thing, oblivious to the mob of silent adults around her. She had realized that if you gather enough saliva, lean over a little, and go carefully, you can release a long, long string of spit that reaches the ground, if you are rather small and a total Master of your Art. I was fascinated. I couldn’t help it. It was great. And I couldn’t help noticing her steady, perfect concentration as she just did the thing she was doing, present to her moment, creating her gleaming thread. Simply enjoying herself, she had gone, naturally and completely, somewhere every adult there was practicing to reach.

It’s important for CPTs to remember that Creativity can burst or flow out of simple moments of openness and attention, and right now, every moment like that counts. So whether it’s mouths, hands, or whole bodies, keyboards, canvasses, cameras, kitchens, kilns, stages or streets…shriek, spit, and speak!

kid