One Who Loves

Yesterday I posted the written instructions I have given my two adult art students for “How to Draw.” Then I got the idea of making videos for art lessons.

If I were a great artist, a successful artist, I guess I’d be living somewhere other than in the back of beyond, but who knows? I’m not a great artist and certainly not a successful artist but a long time ago I realized how absurd a dream that is. Does doing good work lead automatically to success in ANY field? No. And art? Life is hard. Work is hard. Some things in our lives just SHOULDN’T be.

For a long time I didn’t draw and I didn’t paint. Well, I drew in my journals, “The Examined Life”. It wasn’t until 2012 when my stepson and his wife gave me brushes and a canvas that I thought of trying oil painting again. I hadn’t painted in oils since high school when I did a large oil painting and my art teacher told me I had no talent and more or less said he wasn’t going to teach me any more. I’m not sure he ever taught me which might be a salient point but WHATEV’.

It was late fall and rainy in San Diego County when I resolved to give it a shot. I had some oil paints that had belonged to friends. I took a photo of the cattle across the street and decided to try something I’d never done before.

Many Renaissance painters painted from dark to light, from dark, dark, dark brown or black, to light. My brother always said my paintings had no “depth” so I decided to start by painting my little canvas (11 x 14) with black Gesso. It was an incredible experience pulling a painting out of the darkness and I LOVED the painting even though, initially, one of the cows only had three legs (my bad). After that, I went for it. I bought paints and surfaces on which to paint.

I gave the three legged cow a fourth leg in the meantime

I painted small paintings — 5 x 7 — because, in my mind, I was in school. I joined the local art guild and showed my work twice a year. I kept painting. It got me through some awful times, always a source of joy, discovery, distraction. The more I painted, the more I learned about painting, paints and colors.

It meant so much to me because in my “real” (ha ha) life I was teaching EVERYONE. I could go into my shed, paint and the whole stupid idiot expensive difficult outside world disappeared. And then, as it happened, in 2013, I got two paintings in juried shows. The one below was in a juried show put on by the San Diego Art Museum Artists Guild.

The World is Out There

How did it come into being? Well, I’d been asked by my step-daughter-in-law to paint a scene of New York. In that scene the word “Stop” was painted on the street. I went to work and realized that the scene wanted to be a water color, not an oil. I put this panel away and did a water color that worked pretty well. Then I got a flyer from a fellow artist advertising her work in a gallery in Kansas. In that flyer was a photo of this sofa. I have always been amazed by how the old masters painted fabrics and wondered if I could paint velvet so I pulled out that “ruined” panel and painted the sofa. I let the sofa dry and put the panel away, but the whole panel was starting to intrigue me… I painted a lot of things on this panel that I cleared off with solvent before I painted this. I liked this panel a lot because it was interesting and mysterious.

Nothing I painted during this time was 100% successful (to me) but every one of those paintings (and those I do now) was 100% satisfying as an experience. I realized through this that the most important thing about art — for me — is its power to inspire me to keep doing it.

Lots of people stop because they’re not satisfied with their work. For me that’s a reason to keep doing the work. My great hero, Goethe, went to Italy in 1786. He was suffering a broken heart, inner turmoil, a personal crisis. One of the things he was looking for in Italy was inspiration.

In those days without cameras people had to draw their own souvenirs or hire a professional artist to do that for them. Goethe had a lot of talent as a visual artist and was torn about maybe, by writing, he’d gone in the wrong direction. He drew everything along his way as he had whenever he traveled. I have a little book of many of the ink and wash drawings he did on his journeys.

Somewhere on his Italian journey he decided he wasn’t good enough and he hired an artist to travel around with him. It seems that was the end of creating visual art for Goethe. If I could talk to him, I’d ask him about that. Like me, one of Goethe’s reasons for going to Italy was to look at paintings. Maybe he got daunted and, as Hemingway wrote, one should never get daunted. The featured photo is of one of Goethe’s ink wash sketches of a scene in Italy.

In imitation of Goethe, in 2004, in Giardino Giusti in Verona (which Goethe also drew) I drew this. It’s not that easy to keep a good record of what you see by drawing it.

My goal with my “students” is simply to inspire them to try without worrying about failing. Our world is so concerned with perfection and success that failure is undervalued. In the process of learning to paint or draw, there’s a lot of failure, but those failures are more useful than the things we “get right.”

There is a painting (sold long ago) that started out a thing of real beauty. I destroyed it (IMO) by forcing my idea of what it should be onto it. Funny thing, I have no photos of it once it was “finished,” but I have photos of it while it was still in the process of being painted, before I wrecked it. It was important to me to retain THAT moment, not the failed moment. Why? Because this painting taught me that it’s not all up to me. Creating the painting or drawing I WANT sometimes means stepping back and seeing what the painting or drawing itself wants to be. Anyone who tries is 100% sure to fail. The point is it doesn’t matter. Failure is — in art — the best teacher.

Descanso Valley, CA

To help my students, I made a couple of very rough videos yesterday. I’ve put the drawing video at the bottom of this post. It seems to have worked with one of them, so that’s cool. It’s purpose is not to give any technical instruction, just maybe to inspire enthusiasm to try. Inspiration in instruction is often underrated because it cannot be measured or controlled, but I think, in art, it’s important. Not all inspiration leads to great masterpieces, but it always provides the energy to try.

For me, painting is like skiing. I was never — and will never be — a great skier but no one has more fun. The word “amateur” means, “One who loves.” I’m proud to be one.

Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

Back in 2004 I went to Verona to study Italian for a month. One of the biggest things I learned there is that the Italian I spoke at the time was full of mistakes. My Italian sounded great but wasn’t. It sounded great because I’d spent a lot of time with a family of native speakers in Zürich and I’d been in Italy several times. I’d studied on my own as well, using a great CD rom that was actually interesting.

The problem with my Italian was Spanish. They are very similar, and I’d spoken Spanish most of my life. In fact, when my soon-to-be teachers read my written test, they didn’t know if I was a native English speaker or native Spanish speaker.

I was placed in the lowest class for grammar and stuff. I got to hang out with the smart kids in the afternoon for an art history seminar. BUT, outside of school, my schoolmates shunned me. My schoolmate from Austria even said in plain Italian on a field trip to Padova that she didn’t want to talk to me because she’d only learn bad Italian from me. I don’t think she imagined I understood almost everything people said in Italian. Maybe she didn’t realize I understood her.

And that was that, except for a British woman from Manchester with whom I made friends.

After about three weeks into the month, we had a field trip to Giardino Giusti, where I’d already been. I hadn’t gone to Verona to hang out with classmates and practice grammar, anyway. I was following Goethe and seeing the city, especially the paintings in the churches. Italians I met on my peregrinations didn’t care that my Italian wasn’t perfect, so I practiced a lot. I was obviously a foreigner it wasn’t a great time to be an American, Iraq war and so on… Italy had allied with the US and many Italians didn’t like this, evidenced by the rainbow colored “Pace” — peace — flags hanging from balconies.

Giardino Giusti is an old formal garden, so old, that Goethe had been there. He had loved it and had cut branches from the cypress trees to take back to his hotel/apartment. This act of German instinct was met with condolences as he walked home. The Veronese thought someone Goethe cared for had died or why else would he have branches from cypress trees?

Language isn’t just words.

In Giardino Giusti, beside a cypress tree, is a little plaque (one of several I saw on that trip) attesting to the fact that Goethe had been there. Clearly I was not history’s only Goethe pilgrim.

That afternoon, I wandered around the garden with my school mates. The Austrian woman assiduously avoided me. As is the case with many formal gardens of the times, there was a labyrinth. We decided to “do” the labyrinth and as we strolled through it I said, in German, “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.” This is from Faust, the prologue. The poet/playwrite bewails the wrong turns he’s taken in his life but comments that they are good fodder for drama. It says, according to my translation, “Life’s labyrinthine course of error.”

That phrase had become a kind of mantra for me, an explanation of my own labyrinthine existence that made no sense whatsoever.

“That’s not right,” said the Austrian woman in English. “Why are you trying to quote Goethe? What could you know of Goethe?”

I shrugged. It was right, and I knew it. I also knew that Goethe is a kind of demi-god in German speaking countries, and I wasn’t in a position to prove anything.

“I brought Faust with me. I will look it up when I get back to my apartment. I’ll show you tomorrow,” she continued.

I’d already decided she was just kind of a linguistic Nazi. And she was wrong.

The next morning, she came to school and brought Faust. Instead of showing me that I had been wrong, she showed me that I had been right. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I also liked how the little interchange illustrated Goethe’s assessment of life. After that, she and I began a friendship that lasted a couple of years.

One of the things I learned on that journey was the low esteem in which Americans are held in Europe. Most of my schoolmates (and teachers), at first, didn’t understand why I was there. Few Americans had ever attended that school. Then, they assumed I was a war-mongering, imperialistic, arrogant American. My Austrian friend confided to me later that she never imagined an American who had read Goethe. The list of their assumptions about Americans was pretty long. When they learned I’d already attended the opera (which is held in the Arena and is absolutely amazing), they wanted to go, too, so we all went to see Madame Butterfly. They weren’t totally wrong about Americans, but not totally right either except maybe the learning languages part. In any case, that summer I found it easier to let strangers think I was a German tourist.

A blog post about Goethe’s Faust that I wrote a while ago

RagTag Daily Prompt, maze

Goethe’s 250th Birthday

August 28, 1999, the end of my first week teaching writing at San Diego State, my teaching dream come true, I was going meet my good friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan, at Pacific Beach. Our plan was to eat sausages at a German restaurant. We were celebrating — well, Denis was helping me celebrate — Goethe’s 250th birthday.

Before dinner, we took an end-of-the-day walk on the beach. There in the near distance was an immense beautiful sand castle with candles burning in the windows. Dusk had arrived and the light from the candles reflected on the water left behind when the shallow waves retreated. It was marvelous.

“Goethe’s birthday cake,” I said to Denis.

On our walk back, Denis said, “Would you mind pie instead?” in his Staten Island accent. In Denis language “pie” = pizza. I thought, “Why not? Goethe loved Italy.”

Caveat: I didn’t take the featured photo.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/rdp-thursday-sand-castle/

Grand design?

“Don’t join anything, Greg. You don’t know who’s collecting those lists.”

My cousin Greg was along with us on his way to his freshman year at the University of Chicago. We lived in Nebraska, part way there from Greg’s home in Billings, Montana. From Omaha, Greg would go on to Chicago. The plan was that he would help my dad, who was not getting around that well and tired easily because his MS had decided to get real. Greg could drive.

We’d just had a long, and for my dad tiring, vacation that included visiting family in Billings and Denver, a week in Yellowstone and the Tetons, a short visit to the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower on the way from Nebraska to Billings. I didn’t know it then, but it was my dad’s Beautiful Spots in Nature Swan Song.

“You never know what the government is going to do with those lists. You might think you’re joining a club and your name lands on some list in DC and you end up in jail.” My dad was very serious.

I was there for these conversations, but I didn’t understand them completely. I was 12 or so. Now I know my dad was referring to Joe McCarthy’s blacklists. My dad was afraid Greg’s whole life would be blown away because of a club he naively joined his freshman year in college.

My dad had grown to real adulthood during the Red Scare. While he truly hated Totalitarian Communism, even more than that he hated “the thought police” and believed fervently in individual rights. My dad was absurdly intelligent, definitely not a mainstream guy. “They” in my dad’s mind, were the “conformists,” who would try to make everyone the same. He loved Ayn Rand’s novels and I think he would have found the political party that has grown around them to be oxymoronic. My dad’s biggest fear for Greg was that he would end up on a list and lose his personal freedom.

Greg had never really been out of Billings, Montana. I imagine my dad also thought Greg might need extra preparation for the big city. Greg majored in theater which was part of my dad’s concern. So many Hollywood actors, directors, etc. had been persecuted during the McCarthy Witch Trials.

That November, when Greg came to us for Thanksgiving, he walked with me to junior high. We walked through the forest. When I came home the same way, I found Greg at the opening to the forest. He wanted to walk me home through the golden and red deciduous woods. It was 1964 and Greg told me that he was attracted to men. He asked me not to tell anyone. I told him I might tell my dad. As I remember it, Greg shrugged. Maybe he understood that I didn’t fully understand what he’d told me. Maybe he trusted my dad. All my dad said when I told him was, “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s going to make Greg’s life a lot more difficult.”

We got back to my house. Greg sat down at the piano and played — and sang — “I am a Pirate King” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which he’d been cast. It was great.

Greg ended up dropping out of the University of Chicago and going back to Montana and finishing university at the University of Montana in Missoula where he majored in literature. He lived for a while in San Francisco, and ended up back in Missoula.

I didn’t see Greg again until he was in his fifties! We were at his mom’s house. The aunts were arguing about what they’d do if they had a million dollars. Greg showed me a book that had belonged to my grandfather, the essays of Thomas Carlyle. We talked about everything, then, to escape the noise, went outside into the snowy pasture. I took him to the back of the pasture where a local vet had built an immense “cage” to rehab raptors that had been injured one way or another. He died when he was 56.

I have thought often in recent months about what Goethe said, something to the effect that our lives depend on luck, specifically where, when and to whom we are born and at what point in the stream of history. That was Goethe’s response to the idea that our lives are motivated by a divine design. In OUR moment we have a lot of advantages that people born even, well, when I was born didn’t have. I got the measles and the mumps because there were no vaccines for them back in the 50s. My dad’s moment had (among other things) the McCarthy trials and the specter of the mind police looming over it. My cousin Greg’s moment considered his sexual impulse a crime.


https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/26/rdp-sunday-design/

A Look at “The Examined Life”

I finally found a journal — one of the infinite stream of tedium series in my studio called The Examined Life, that’s been worth looking into. It’s from 1999/2000 — 20 years ago. That was the time I began reading Goethe. Goethe is all through that journal, a kind of thought conversation with this amazing man, writer as I discovered things in my reading.

At the beginning, I was in the middle of reading Faust and had not yet delved far into Goethe’s words about his life. But it’s clear from this journal that his work had shown me how to think about my own life with more clarity. I wrote:

Who can say…the passage of time, the chronicle of the stray thought, repeated over the years, the one truth we know and the question for which we find no answer strike the rhythm of our blind dance, the ache of our despair. The glorious morning when we remember — once again — who we are. Over and over and over again, we fight for ourselves with ourselves against ourselves. Life is only part crucible. We are perfected on an anvil with the hammer of our hope. (My words to me at age 48)

Now I think my anvil was hope and the hammer disappointment

2000 was a strange year for me. Among other strange things, in the pursuit of love that had been offered, I went to Italy only to find the man in question wouldn’t even talk to me, but left me in the hands of his family. It was an internal nightmare from which I attempted to awaken by walking the streets of Milan and looking at paintings. It was a fairly successful stragedy and not one everyone has access to. But I was angry and lovesick.

Love has always been problematic for me. I understand why now much more clearly than I did 20 years ago, but it’s always implied the loss of autonomy and a kind of surrender. It is something I wanted desperately (for a long while) and something that terrified me. As witnessed in the infinite volumes of The Examined Life have always searched for it while simultaneously dreading it. In this installment of The Examined Life I record the turning point.

“…That is why I prefer the study of nature which does not allow such sickness to arise. For there we have to do with infinite and eternal truth that immediately rejects anyone who does to proceed neatly and honestly in observing and handling his subject…” Goethe

Goethe had suffered the same love sickness I had. He ultimately gave up on GREAT LOVE, and found someone to spend his life with, but I think it’s different for men than it is for women.

2000 was also the year that I finished the original version of Martin of Gfenn, a 97 page first-person novella. I was pitching it and found an agent for it. Ultimately it didn’t work out — publishers turned it down because it assumed too much knowledge of medieval Zürich on the part of the reader. That was fair. That led me to study, opening a whole world to me.

There is a rejection note of a type we don’t see any more.

This installment of The Examined Life is the first interesting volume so far.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/02/04/rdp-tuesday-eggplant/

Is it Worth Reading?

Here it is, September 11, again. People are posting here and everywhere (I imagine) about remembering the events of this date in 2001.

Why? It certainly did not wake us up and make us better people or more aware of our place as a nation in the WORLD. Following on the fall of the twin towers, we had a president who committed war crimes and can barely even leave the US, he’s so wanted by other nations for the evil he sanctioned during what I can only call his “reign.”

I still don’t think anyone really knows HOW it happened or really WHO did it.

Ultimately, it all seemed to have been pre-visioned by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (of four books…). It all seems to me like the Krikkit Wars and the US is Krikkit.

Krikkit is am immensely xenophobic planet. The people of Krikkit are just a bunch of really sweet guys who just happen to want to kill everybody.

The first Krikkit attack on the Galaxy had been stunning. Thousands and thousands of huge Krikkit warships had leaped suddenly out of hyperspace and simultaneously attacked thousands and thousands of major worlds, first seizing vital material supplies or building the next wave, and then calmly zapping those worlds out of existence.

The planet of Krikkit was sentenced by the Galactic Court to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected around the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it was unlocked from the outside.

That morning I was driving to school and listening to the classical music station that broadcast out of Tijuana. I didn’t even know about the events until I arrived and everyone was going around “Did you hear? My God! Isn’t it horrible?”

Yes, it was.

Class was held as usual but students were so distracted it was difficult to teach. Smart phones didn’t exist, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the US had been attacked.

After class, I went to my job at the school’s writing tutorial center. Everyone was talking about the attack (of course) and debating whether to turn on the TV. We were also waiting for the President of the college to announce that school was closed. Meanwhile, I worked thinking about how all my life the US has prepared for war. I grew up 2 miles from a large bevy of B-52s. “Peace is Our Profession” said the Strategic Air Command signs at every entrance to the base where my dad worked. I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up. The damage was done. Life goes on. I held my peace about that, though. I could already tell that Xenophobia would become the order of the day (week, year, culture). I’d lived in the People’s Republic of China soon after the Great Proletariat Culture Revolution, and I KNEW what could happen if “most” people got the “wrong” idea about a single dissenting individual.

I knew that real freedom was on the way out.

Just at the darkest moment of this dark day, one of my former students came in. He’d been 17 years old when he was in my first class, an intro to literature class. He’d never read poetry or studied literature before. His dad was from Germany. His mom was Mexican. He loved the class and it inspired him to read literature and write poetry. He also learned to love Goethe because of the class and to be interested in learning German and maybe going to visit his grandfather in Germany. So, in he walks, “Hey Martha! Is this any good?” He holds up Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

And I thought at that moment, “Yeah, the twin towers have been attacked, and the Pentagon, but the world holds to its eternal thread of beauty and here’s Schorsch to remind me of that which really matters.”

Meanwhile almost everyone else was watching the Twin Towers fall again and again and again and again; hypnotic, rage inducing.

The following days I was stunned by the kindness and gentleness of strangers in the grocery store, on the street, everywhere. I loved the silent hills over which the planes had stopped flying. Messages of condolence came in from all over the world expressing sorrow over the act of terrorism and (worse) the loss of innocent lives. The pace of life slowed and then, just as suddenly, there was Christmas music in the stores causing people to salivate heavily and buy things, the planes were back, people were taping a newspaper insert American flag to their front windows and wearing American flag lapel pins and (horribly) “REAL” Americans started attacking our local Chaldean businessmen in fits of stupid, fucking, ignorant fear and rage. A government agency was set up — a new cabinet position — “Homeland Security” and the “Patriot” act was passed making many of our Cold War nightmares come true. White powder in envelopes was feared to be anthrax and on and on and on… A new normal for us Krikkits.

Americans need to get out more both to SEE the world and BE SEEN.

On the big stage, Tony Blair and Dubbya and Chainy cooked up a fake case against Saddam (based largely on a dodgy doctoral dissertation Tony Blair had plagiarized). I stopped class the following March so we could watch, on TV, the first attack on Iraq.

So…I don’t know how to view 9/11. I’m very sorry for all the people who lost loved ones. I also think of all the people all over the world losing loved ones to terrorism here and there. Having lived in a neighborhood which was a haven for refugees (lots of Section 8 housing) I saw waves of disturbed, distressed and disheartened people from all over the world who were not in the US because it was their dream, but because it was their only hope of safety.

In 2004 I went to Italy where, after a young Swiss woman berated me angrily for the war in Iraq, I learned it would be wise of me to let people think I was German. It was an effective disguise, except, of course, in Germany itself.

Reposted from September 11, 2015

Happy Goethe’s Birthday!!!

Twenty years ago on this day I taught my first university writing class at San Diego State University. It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of teaching writing at SDSU from the moment I learned my ex and I would be moving to San Diego in 1984. I started my San Diego teaching career at SDSU, but teaching ESL in a department of extended studies, not the REAL university.

I did not know that the way teachers were hired was changing, not really in a good way, but in a way that led me to two classes in the department of Rhetoric and Writing. Both were sophomore level classes. I loved my bosses and I loved the campus. Leaving it behind was one of the few difficult things about moving back to Colorado.

I thought it was auspicious that I began my teaching life at SDSU on August 28, 1999, Goethe’s 250th birthday.

I first got to know Goethe in 1998 in the library at a community college where I taught. My students were doing a scavenger hunt for the OED in which, when they found it, they would look up “dork.” I scavenged for a book about Italy because I was in luv’ and going to Italy (maybe) that December to see the man. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d actually met Goethe superficially a couple of times before on a Zürich street near St. Peter’s Church, but that’s another blog post. I didn’t have my ID card so one of the guys working in the library checked it out for me.

It was the most amazing book I’d read. In it I found the person I most wanted to talk to, the person I most needed to meet.

Wanderer’s Night Song, I (1776)

Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest;
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süßer Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
Thou that from the heavens art,
Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Peace descending
Come ah, come into my breast!

Wanderer’s Night Song, II (1782)

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
O’er all the hilltops 
Is quiet now, 
In all the treetops 
Hearest thou 
Hardly a breath; 
The birds are asleep in the trees: 
Wait, soon like these 
Thou too shalt rest. (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

This was no caprice. It has remained a strong and informative — though one-way — relationship.

A year or so later, I taught a couple of little poems by Goethe to my students in a summer literature class. Many of my students said they hated poetry, but you know, you gotta’ do what you gotta’ do. I didn’t realize how much of a dent the little Goethe poems I wrote on the blackboard made until one sunny autumn day one of my students from that class showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”

I looked at her. “No,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed.

She was an African/American woman in her late 30’s who’d come to summer school at a community college where I taught. She brought her son to class every day. The very first day she said, “Don’t teach poetry. I hate it. It doesn’t make sense.” Her goal was a business degree from SDSU. She was working on getting her transfer credits. She succeeded.

I said, “I have to teach poetry. It’s a literature class.” She shrugged.

“Those ladies in the office said they’d give it to you. I guess they forgot. It’s probably in the office somewhere.” We took off for the office and there was a shopping bag tucked away in a corner of the place where faculty mailboxes were. “Here,” she said. “I saw this at a yard sale and I knew I had to give it to you.” She opened it and there was….

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/28/rdp-wednesday-caprice/

Meandering Look at Literature

I stay on standard time all year. This means in summer I wake at 8. All the people around me are up with the sun, but not me. In fact the best two hours of sleep are between 6 and 8. In a few months, I’ll be getting up earlier 😉

Last night I learned of a young writer who’s won all kinds of prizes for her book The Tiger’s Wife and has recently brought out her second novel. Naturally, I was momentarily gripped by envy. It’s just how it is. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris you might remember Keanu Reeves as Hemingway saying to the young guy from another time, who was writing a book, “Don’t show it to another writer. Writers are competitive.” I’d say failed writers are not just competitive but bitter.

Once the wave of envy passed, I looked at her book.

Once more I thought, “Good God. I’d never write this.” First person, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph after paragraph — pages — of description. Then I remembered the review of The Price that I hate and that has, I think, perhaps dissuaded from reading that book. That review described my writing as “sparse” (as if that were a negative thing 😀 ) and said my book was a failed attempt to write a book I 1) had never heard of and 2) would never write (I looked at it). How can you dis a novel for NOT being something it never set out to be? It is like dissing Huckleberry Finn for not being Portnoy’s Complaint.

I thought of all the things that go together to make a “time.” As I was growing up, and in school, the writers who were lauded as “great writers of our time” were Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Capote. There was no such thing as “Women’s literature,” there was only literature, and at that time the ascendancy of serious women writers — Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Norah Ephron… The good prose put in front of us was NOT paragraph after paragraph of description. Our professors — most born when Hemingway was still writing — had broken from tradition by embracing Papa. My giant anthology in college did not contain “The Yellow Wallpaper” or anything by Kate Chopin, never mind Toni Morrison. There was no “Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature” but by the time I, myself, was teaching at a university, there was. I saw it as a 1000 page literary ghetto, but that’s just me.

My thesis was about Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1828 – 1845 (during part of this time Poe was the literary editor) which was edited by Sarah Josepha Hale during its heyday. It featured ONLY American authors and most were female. It enforced the idea that women write differently — and about different things — then do men. This didn’t make women worse writers; just different with a different focus, a different reason for reading, different reasons for writing. They wrote from a female perspective about a separate world referred to back then as the “women’s sphere.”

By the time I was out in the world of work (which was academia, after the first 5 years in the clerical jungle) there was an overt and political motion against misogynistic dead, white male writers. I thought this was dumb. What if they were good? What if they had important things to say? Shouldn’t EVERYONE be read with the understanding that whatever benighted time they lived in would affect what they said and how? How they lived?

When I met Hemingway once I was out of school it was intense. I was in my late 20s and life was pretty jacked. I was already divorced, in love with a gay man who was also in love with me. I was on my own trying to connect one end of the month to another. The Hemingway I’d met in the 9th grade was a far different writer than the one I met at 27. No, wait, I was different. My bad. About the same time I met Capote. Two very spare writers yet very different from each other, both approached writing from a philosophical perspective that wasn’t all that different. Both very adamant about it.

And, their writing charmed me. It wasn’t all I read. I loved Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but they didn’t offer me any information I could use. Lost in Terra Nostra when I was in China (how weird is that?) I realized the outer world interested me more than the inner world. The inner world seemed finite (naturally) and the outer world? What was THAT all about. It was a forty year search in the labyrinth of reality before I met Goethe and got a road map.

Every writer is a person with a life and a journey.

The bottom line is taste. No writer can possibly know what every reader wants in a novel or why every reader reads. Beyond that is the social indoctrination of each generation. Tea Obreht’s book, The Tiger’s Wife, is (from the first three pages) intoxicating. It’s the kind of book a person might turn to on a rainy day hoping to lose themselves.

And no, I don’t write that book and I’m unlikely to read it. I don’t want to lose myself. I’ve been there before.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/08/12/rdp-monday-wake/

What I Didn’t Write

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”― Truman Capote

I left a lot of story out of the China book. I didn’t write much about my marriage and there are few references to the man who was my husband at the time. All I could do (I felt, fairly) was make the point that it wasn’t really his cup of (China) tea. I reached the conclusion when I was living in China that it was something you liked or you didn’t like and there were myriad reasons for either. I don’t think an unhappy marriage helped. Anyway, there is a ton of stories out there about failed romances. Why write another?

The book has also been “focused” by the slides I scanned and the fact that the project started as blog posts. I don’t know if the audience I would have imagined for the China book would have been the same if I hadn’t started it here for the people I know read my blog. The book is not the same as the blog posts — it’s more carefully written, ideas are somewhat amplified and some subjects dealt with more completely — but the underlying purpose is contrasting life in Guangzhou in 1982 with what I know of life there today, for foreigners, in particular.

For centuries people have gone to the Middle Kingdom and came home to write about it. There are thousands of books like mine out there in the world. I used to collect them. Some of them are beautiful, filled with old photos of a vanished China (as is mine) and a passion for China shining in every sentence. It’s because there are so many of these that I didn’t think I would ever add my sputtering story to the (wait for it, English teacher word, SAT word) PLETHORA of books already in existence.

What I couldn’t write clearly — but still hope the book says — is that China was, for me, an intensely inspiring kind of “school.” Every single day I was thrust into a world of objects, words, stories and ideas I didn’t know, didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. This was amplified by the conversations I had with Chinese friends. It wasn’t only that I was ignorant about China, I was ignorant about the stereotype into which I had walked — but didn’t quite fit.

When I came back to the US, I was homesick for China for years — writing this book has shown me that I never really got over it. During the 1980s my ex and I went to visit my grandma and Aunt Helen in Ashland, OR. They told us that when we drove back to San Francisco, where we would catch a plane, to go through Weaverville, California, and see the “Joss House.” It’s a South Chinese temple in the middle of the forest near a small mining town.

The Chinese worked in the mines around Weaverville, and they worked on the railroad, and, as far as possible, they’d brought their world with them. The Chinese in America faced a lot of racism, some of it for good reason. They brought their opium dens with them. The opium habit came to China from the British who found a market for the Indian opium and a better deal on tea. The various cultural and social revolutions of the early 20th century all but eliminated opium use from Chinese culture, but the Japanese brought it back with them in their invasion in the 1930s in the form of opiated cigarettes with which they flooded the tobacco market.

History is a convoluted mess of tangled string. When people talk about history they bring up the usual suspects — the only female painter of any importance is Frida Kahlo, the emancipator of the slaves in the US is Abraham Lincoln, Van Gogh is the great madman of painting, Michelangelo and Leonardo are the Renaissance, Harriet Tubman was the only person risking her life to bring southern slaves out of bondage. We naturally oversimplify the human drama and then think we have a bead on it, but we don’t. History is way too much for any of us — as Goethe wrote in Italian Journey. He set out thinking he knew about Italian art but when he crossed the border and looked at paintings in Verona and Padova, he wrote that far away we see only the brightest stars, but close up we see all the lesser stars (I would say the stars with less press and publicity) and they are equally wondrous.

I thought of this all the time I was working on the China book. Unlike myself at 30 in China, I now know a little something about the country’s history now. I know that in the early 20th century 99% of Chinese could not read or write. I know that most women still had bound feet. I know that famine stalked their lives and had for centuries. I know how thousands of young, educated Chinese voluntarily went to remote villages to teach and how intensely they were resisted, even killed. I know that the language was simplified so it was easier to teach. All this is just a micron of what I learned. I can’t even fathom the enormity of that ancient culture — or my own. I guess that’s the biggest lesson. It has informed all my historical novels. It’s why I write about “ordinary” people rather than the court of some king or queen.

The words of Cao Xueqin, the author of the 18th century novel, The Story of the Stone also known a Red Chamber Dream, influenced my philosophy as a writer. He wrote this amazing novel during a time when the writing of fiction was a crime in China. His family — formerly banner men, flag carriers for the emperor — had fallen on hard times. He wrote the book, he says, to entertain himself and his friends. Now — and for many past generations — there’s a whole field of study called Hongxue which means the study of Hong Lou Meng or Red Chamber Dream. I don’t think I’ve read anything as compelling, either. It’s a great novel.

And, even if Cao’s claim that he wrote to entertain himself and his friends is not true, even if it was a way for him to wriggle out of the crime of writing a novel, I think it’s a very high motive.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/rdp-monday-sputter/

Rio Grande and North Clear Creek Falls with HIGH Water

My friend and neighbor, Karen, and I took off today and headed north of Creede to see North Clear Creek Falls with high water. Karen had never been there and, according to old timers, the water hasn’t been this high in a lot of their lifetimes. I’ve been feeling (in the midst of puppy training) that I should GET OUT THERE but when you have to train a puppy, you have to train a puppy.

The drive up was amazing — the river has been flooding, mostly in flatter areas. We saw a place where it had apparently taken out a railroad track. Lots of fields were flooded and others were filled with wild iris. In the field near our hospital, where a large herd of bison live, we got to see bison in their winter coats standing and grazing in a meadow of blue and white flowers. We should have stopped to take pictures, but didn’t. We had a bit of a time crunch because Teddy was neutered today and I had to pick him up at 3. It’s a 78 mile drive to get up to the falls and we took off at 10.

All along the road — which winds along the Rio Grande — we were stunned by the high water. Karen, who could look out the window, noticed places where decks of summer homes were under water. Bridges — car and narrow gauge railroad — were VERY close to the water. Anyone attempting to raft would lose their noggin and the top of their raft.

The Rio Grande

We got to the top of the road which is just twenty some miles from the place where Alferd Packer ate his friends one desperate winter. This is what we saw.

We were hit by the spray, admired the rainbow, and I kept thinking of this poem from Goethe’s Faust Part II

“Let the sun stay in my back, unseen!
The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing.
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strive:
In many-hued reflection we have life.”

Goethe, Faust II, trans. Walter Kauffman