Day 22. You do not have to be good.


“Family of Things” 6×6, oil on canvas

Every time I do a 31 in 31 there comes a point where I hit a wall. I question work I once adored. I worry that, contrary to the stacks of paintings that have already collected and which stand firmly in evidence of my ability to create, that I will not be able to finish the 31 days. 

Yesterday was my wall. Brick, not too tall, just tall enough that scaling it would require some help. A rope maybe. Some sticky shoes like a cartoon where the character walks up the wall parallel to the ground.

And then that wall whispered to me, as it often does, the words from a Mary Oliver poem. “You don’t have to be good,” it said. “You don’t have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting…the world offers itself to your imagination.”

And I saw a photograph of geese saved in one of my pinterest folders, and even though the painting didn’t seem like it would turn out, I did it anyway, knowing I did not have to be good. Just present. Just a part of the family of things.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver

 

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When I was in highschool, I used to tell people not to get me flowers ever. They don’t do anything I bemoaned. They die so quickly, I argued. 

But I hadn’t started making art yet back then, and I didn’t yet appreciate things without overt practical functions. Color was not yet, to borrow from Monet, “my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.” 

In one of her most famous poems, Mary Oliver writes “doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?” Yes. Everything. Maybe the practical thing flowers do is remind me to pay attention to the transitory, to put myself in the way of fleeting beauty so that awe might take hold.  

I never tell people not to buy my flowers anymore, and I often buy them for myself nearly every time I make a grocery run. I know they will die and too soon. But I also know they assert some sacredness about a space, claiming it in time, asking me to consider its beauty.

 

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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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Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces you will Meet

 

Alfred and Mary

 

In my last post, I wrote about the new series of paintings I’m developing based on Mary Oliver’s poem “Invitation.” In this series, I’ve been changing up two things. First, I’m using cold wax medium in the paint which amps up the texture as well as gives the paint this waxy, translucent quality I really love. Second, I’m painting quite a few faces, real human faces with eyes and noses and protruding chins– you know, the whole nine. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My love affair with Oliver’s poetry has been going on for a couple years now. For me, reading it is almost more of a spiritual than a literary pursuit. Her poetry is the only thing I read from a real, hard-covered book and not a screen. Sometimes I make tea or light a candle. It feels sacred. When I close the book, I feel more calm, more hopeful, more secure. 

But it wasn’t quite so long ago, or maybe a very long time ago depending on how you look at it, that I had a different favorite poet. I first encountered T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” as a teen in the nineties. I clung to it, quoted it, read and reread it, and memorized most of it for at least the next twenty years. In fact, in college I did a series of paintings (two pictured below) based on one line from the poem: “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve not read the poem, I still highly recommend it, although I’ll warn you that the speaker is a tortured, self-important, middle-aged balding man who catastrophizes, worries, and obsesses. He is, quite frankly, exhausting. But I loved it (and still do) because it’s gorgeous. It also speaks to my own self-deprecating and still egoistic tendencies. I felt the closest to Prufrock in my early twenties when I wanted to tell a boy I was interested in him and thought the whole universe hung in his response. Turns out, and I know this might surprise you, it didn’t. 

In the fourth stanza, there’s this phrase I’ve long carried with me– “Prepare a face to meet the faces you will meet,” and as I’ve been painting these faces, I keep thinking of it. It’s like what we do on instagram– prepare a certain face to present to other highly cultivated and curated faces. I’m funny! I’m quirky! I’m important! Meanwhile, underneath the prepared face, aren’t we sometimes just little insects “formulated, sprawling on a pin…wriggling on the wall” under the close inspection of others? 

 

Invitation to Linger

 

Now as an almost forty year old, I feel most at home not in Prufrock’s world but in Olivers where the natural world can be nothing other than what it is. Life is not measured out with coffee spoons and our existence does not disturb the universe; it is a tiny but vital part of it. 

Prufrock says, of his mundane dilemma to ask a love interest a question, that he has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed” while in “Wild Geese” Oliver reminds me that  “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” In Prufrock’s mind, he can “disturb the universe” by simply asking a question, whereas Oliver suggests in many of her poems and literally in “Wild Geese” that despite our despair and longings, “the world goes on.”

Armed with the poetry from two very different seasons of my life, I have been preparing faces to meet yours, but I hope they will do so in honesty and not in fear. I hope they are more Oliver than Prufrock; I hope they will invite you to linger as they have me.

These paintings have beckoned me to pause and to get out of my own head. I want each one to remind me that the universe does not hang in the balance of either my thoughts or my art, and therefore, both are free to just be part of it. Part of the universe and not at war with it– what a lovely notion. I’m working to let go of the strain and agony of my more Prufrock self and settle into the “rather ridiculous” performance of the goldfinches that are everywhere performing “not for your sake or for mine but for sheer delight” in my new paintings. 

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.