Watchless.

Watchless.

 

“Today” by Mary Oliver 

Today I’m flying low and I’m

not saying a word.

I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

 

The world goes on as it must,

the bees in the garden rumbling a little,

the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.

And so forth.

 

But I’m taking the day off.

Quiet as a feather.

I hardly move though really I’m traveling

a terrific distance.

 

Stillness. One of the doors

into the temple.

 

A door into the temple opened for me unexpectedly:

Way back in long-lost May, I was playing basketball with my oldest stepson (he will be more than happy to tell you that he beat me) when, scrambling for a loose ball, I cracked my Apple watch on the pavement. It didn’t seem like the end of the world, just a scratch, and I’m not very particular about such things. But then the watch started activating the emergency call system without being prompted. It would start beeping menacingly and counting down from five. Sometimes I could get it to stop, and a few times it went right on ahead and called 911, and I had to profusely apologize for wasting the dispatcher’s time. I quickly decided just to turn it off (which also activated the emergency call system). I think it was trying to break up with me. 

It’s been about one fully watchless week. After a long walk with my husband on a quick anniversary trip, we joked that while he had 20,000 steps, I had none. Without a means to measure them, certainly they could not exist. Without a watch, was I even a person at all? Did passerbys just see a man walking down a path chatting to some invisible force just to his right? 

As fate would have it, a business outside our hotel posted this sign on the sidewalk we passed each day of our trip, another reminder that time does not need to be incessantly watched over, managed or even observed. 

It’s been a full week of not knowing how many steps I’ve taken, miles I’ve walked or run, how many calories I’ve burned. It’s been a week of not getting texts on my wrist and then whispering a response into it. I’ve been slower to respond. I’ve missed things.

But for all I’ve missed, I’ve gained perhaps twice as much. I’m noticing the gifts this little change has offered to me–  enjoying a walk instead of the numbers it grants me at the end, working intuitively on a painting rather than setting timers for how long a certain part should take me. 

I wrote recently about how I memorized Mary Oliver’s “When I am Among the Trees” and what a joy having those words stored inside me has been and how often I access them. I have repeated to myself daily the end of that poem, even more so since breaking the watch: “And you too have come into the world to do this/to go easy/to be filled with light/ and to shine.” Instead of measuring all the things a watch can, I’m using this line as my ruler– if I am doing these three things, it does not matter the miles, the emails, the to do’s, the social media posts (or the number of likes and comments). If I, too, have come into the world to do these things (and I think we all have) they supersede all else, releasing me of the burden to constantly do more. 

The poem that begins this post is written into the background of the painting that you also see at the start. I think “Today” is up next for me to memorize. So that I can cling to it when I’m all bustle and no stillness.

I’m already shopping for a new watch, but I’m not in a rush to buy it. When I do settle in on one, I’m going to take off many of the notifications I’ve previously relied on. I’m going to have a healthier watch relationship. If before I was a stalker to time, now I want to let it do its thing as I do mine. Mindful of but not obsessed with it. 

I would love to know where you find quiet, how you slow down, and if anything has ever shown you that not measuring might be the easiest route to joy

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Think like an artist

Think like an artist

 

Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

 

I referenced this poem briefly in a recent post. Having taught high schoolers both art and poetry, it both makes me laugh and it speaks to me. Deeply. 

And not because I find myself so far removed from the students’ obsession with deeper or, worse, hidden meanings, but because I find the impulses so familiar. What is the one thing I can reduce this to and thus eliminate it all together, letting what it means be what it is.

The Power of “I See”

It was art that helped me with this inclination to reduce. Namely, a professor who at critiques where we would sit in a circle and discuss everyone’s work, made us begin each statement with “I see.” This liberated us completely from having to say anything particularly profound (every self-conscious nineteen year old’s worst fear). All we had to do was name something we were looking at, and the simpler and more objective the statement the better. For example, my professor preferred we say things like, “I see a bright red red circle in the top corner and a smaller one of a very similar but not exactly the same red in the bottom” instead of “I see a sun and I see beauty.” The first comment gets us to look at the parts of the painting in relation to each other. The second makes an obvious statement followed by a judgment. 

It was like a silly version of “Simon Says,” and we struggled, often beginning our sentences with “I like” and not “I see” which would trigger a do over. I tried this with my own students during the six years that I taught. They struggled too, but insistence on “I see” eventually led us to discover design elements we’d not noticed before. One person would inevitably see something that made us say “Aha!” 

I see a series of vertical lines

I see muted colors

I see triangles everywhere

I see big strokes in the foreground and tiny ones in the background

I see thick black lines

I see organic shapes.

It didn’t matter what you said as long as it wasn’t a value statement or a recitation of what was obvious– I see a bowl of fruit when that was overtly the subject matter– and everyone could do it.

I tried to use this same technique with the poems I taught. My students always wanted to jump ahead to what a poem meant, as though it were a math problem to be solved. If I had been able to give them an equation, many of them would have gladly and joyfully accepted as they eagerly plugged in symbols and rhymes into the variables to arrive at that blessed “deeper meaning.” 

Instead of saying things like “this poem means we should live life to the fullest,” I’d project the poem onto the smart board and ask for “I see” statements: “I see four stanzas with two lines in each” or “I see images of cold in the first and last stanza and ones of warmth in the middle” or “I see a question mark at the end and notice it is the only punctuation.” Once we observed, we saw more. We appreciated more. We had more to discuss. We saw more not of the one thing the poem “meant” but more of its beauty, more of its nuance, more of its contours. We could behold it.

I realize now that the key to appreciating or excavating any work of art is just to pay close attention to it, setting aside our expectations and assumptions as best that we can.

Now I use “I see” (or try to) for more than art and poetry. I use it for understanding my kids– I see folded arms or a sly smile. This is just information. And I’m just gathering it. I use it when I read something I don’t fully understand. I used it last night when the oldest showed me a ballet on youtube that diverged from the conventions we typically associate with ballet. Instead of immediately jumping to “I don’t get it,” I thought about what I was seeing. The contrast in the bodies, the unusual shapes they were making.

“I see” can take me from ungrounded speculation and assumption to sincere curiosity. It takes me from recklessly jumping to conclusions to being observant, open minded, and curious. 

I wonder what would happen if I always started with “I see” instead of “I know” or “I think.” I wonder what would happen if I treated difficult topics or conversations like an art or poetry critique, looking first to observe, next to make connections, and last to make any value judgments or conclusions. 

I share this because I think I am the best version of myself when I think like an artist– leaning into curiosity, openness, and discovery. I think I’m the best version of myself when I trust that my observations (when they are particularly astute and when they are simple) will lead me somewhere worth going.

Does this make sense to you? Do you ever think like an artist? I would love to know your thoughts.

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Linger, Late Bloomer, Linger

goldfinch painting

 

Late Bloomer

 

In the eighties, my mom read me a book that really spoke to me. I still have “Leo the Late Bloomer” and have read it to my son countless times. Leo is a lion who doesn’t immediately catch on to things, but, at the end, when his parents stop worrying about if he will “bloom” or not, he just does. Even as a small child, I knew I was Leo. 

late bloomerI was bad at school before I wasn’t. I didn’t make the basketball team in junior high, and now, well, just ask my fourteen year old stepson who loves when we hustle the neighborhood kids in two on two. I started painting in my twenties and not as a young child. I didn’t read early or particularly often. My love of books was a slow burn– a hint of smoke that rose slowly into a comforting fire in my bones.

I didn’t get on social media until way after it was ubiquitous. I was shy for most of my life. I avoided crowds and parties before I learned to delight in them. I went through a divorce before I married my person.

I’m writing this down more for me than for any other reason– a gentle reminder because sometimes I think of my life, of my art, as some place I have to get to and I’m not even close. I catch myself saying things like, “Certainly, by now…”  and think of success only as on some linear track. I’m either running forward but through peanut butter or smoothly backtracking. I forget that there’s a version of myself that would never have dreamed where I am now was ever possible. How upset she would be to learn that very often I take both big and small successes for granted.

 

Lingerer

 

“Do you have time to linger?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem “Invitation,” “for just a little while out of your busy and very important day.” She then invites us to watch goldfinches that have gathered in a field of thistles. Their songs compete, yes, but “not for the sake of winning but for sheer delight and gratitude.” 

 

It is a serious thing

Just to be alive

On this fresh morning

In the broken world

 

Fresh morning. Broken world– how simply she describes that gut-wrenching and hope-filled dilemma. 

To linger is not to race, multitask, obsess or pull out each newly graying hair from the sides of my head.  To linger is to notice, to enjoy, to be present in a broken world. 

Since I met Leo as a child, I’ve quite happily thought of myself as a late bloomer. Just because the blooms take a little longer, doesn’t mean they won’t come or won’t be spectacular. But even though the term was always comforting rather than derogatory, I’m wondering if maybe I might swap late for “lingerer.” Part of being late is lingering, and lingering, Oliver reminds me, is good.  

I’m trying to remember that how things start isn’t how they have to end, that there is an ever-present open invitation to linger. Slowing down is often harder and more important than speeding up. Truthfully, I started this post from a place of disappointment and needed these reminders. I’d just received a small but meaningful art rejection, the kind that somehow, insanely, holds more weight than a thousand successes, a million compliments. 

I’m ending with the hope of the goldfinches. The ones whose invitation I have whole-heartedly accepted. The painting that starts this post is from a couple years ago. The new series I am working on is about goldfinches too, primarily Mary Oliver’s poem and the invitation it extends. The images are a bit different than the ones I’ve done before. And even though they are inspired by the goldfinches of the poem, some of them don’t include literal birds at all. I am excited and perhaps just a little nervous to start sharing them with you in the upcoming days and weeks.

In the meantime, I would absolutely love to know if there is anything in this post that resonates with you– if you have ever felt late to bloom, eager to linger, full of both disappointment and of hope.  

 

 

Invitation by Mary Oliver

 

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.