In the (imaginary) movie version of my new novel, What’s Left, who would you cast as Cassia’s great-grandmother Dida and her sister Athina?
What’s your favorite museum?
I’ve often joked (or was it boasted?) that we have the best stained glass windows in town. And not just at this time of year. Actually, there’s something basic in the Quaker practice of having clear windows, whether the view opens to the city jail next door or a busy highway or a placid burial ground – we’re not isolating ourselves from reality when we worship.
Sitting on the clerk’s bench one morning one May, I found myself looking out at a Monet. Well, the spring green for three-quarters of the hour fit the tones he used, until it turned metallic in the last quarter-hour when the sunlight turned harsh. Most weeks after that, I tried to identify which painter the view brought to mind – a sequence of Corot, Diebenkorn, Mitchell, Twombly, Klimt, Pollack, even the Zen painting of six persimmons (ours, however, had about twice that amount of fruit), and maybe a bit of Chagall or Hopper. (What was I saying about our Meeting not being blue-collar? Here I am, expecting most Dover Friends to know most of these artists!) Occasionally, even a Kaufmann, as Dick and Jane’s heads appeared in the lower corner while they walked up the ramp to the door. Sometimes the dogwood tree presented a flat image; other times it had holes, opening to the depth behind it; eventually, come winter, it was only sketches in front of a more distant landscape, and etchings, rather than paintings, came to mind. Expecting the Monet to return the next May, it didn’t, for whatever combination of reasons, although there was one week when it was adorned with pale stars – its flowers.
Not that any of this is essentially profound, other than as a recognition of the play of light – just as we encounter various presentations of Light within the room and ourselves through the hour. But I do consider ways our perceptions and expressions differ from the earliest Friends who sat in the room. These artists, for one thing, came after them, except for the 12th century persimmons (and those were off in China, anyway); the now familiar language from science or psychology, too, to say nothing of sports jargon and even military expressions. Did those Friends ever have a bagpiper playing at the edge of the yard, or some equivalent to our sirens on the street or music from a neighboring church? How did they see the world, in ways that we don’t? Somehow, all kinds of differing eras come together when we, too, sit together. So just how do we see each other through all of these seasons and ages?
This piece originally appeared in Types and Shadows, the newsletter of the Fellowship of Quaker Artists.
One late October afternoon, after most of the foliage had fallen, Randy Kezar and I simultaneously looked up from our pathway and beheld a large red maple fully aflame in sunlight as we strolled through the burial ground behind our Quaker meetinghouse. It was the embodiment of the single detail that says everything, the flash of perfection; this individual tree expressed the season as much as all of the previous color change and shifting light we had savored in the previous weeks. “I suppose if we were Japanese, we’d sit down and write a haiku on the spot, in celebration,” he said. Later, I took up the challenge and came up with a few lines I hope come close:
Somehow each New England autumn
comes down to boughs in a graveyard
– a common of stone and bone –
But my provocation and observations kept ranging wider, invoking a calendar not just of the place across a year but also the epochs that fill what went from a boneyard and burial ground to a Victorian cemetery to the present, as well.
The poems that resulted have one foot in Portsmouth and Dover, New Hampshire, and another in Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island, where I quote from the 1664 will of Alice Shotten Cowland and some of the activities of her son-in-law, Robert Hodgson – sometimes spelled Hodson, as well as Hutchin. (I detail what is known of their lives in my genealogy blog, The Orphan George Chronicles.) She was part of the early dissent against Puritan authority, first with Samuel Gorton and then as one of the first Quakers in the New World. I love Robert’s memorial minute, which calls him “an ancient traveler in the Truth.” He arrived in America on the historic voyage of the tiny Woodhouse, causing turmoil in Manhattan and Long Island before heading on to Boston. As far as I can determine, he was no relation to my line, no matter how much many have tried to find the link.
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To see the old meetinghouse at China, Maine, as it’s been turned into a Friends Camp arts studio (a messy one, at that) is a pointed symbol of the tensions many of us encounter as we attempt to live out our faith – and not just on the cultural front. (For the record, I am, after all, a published poet and novelist, a professional journalist, an avid contradancer, gallery-goer, foreign film buff, occasional violinist and harmony singer, and a lover of opera and classical music – all of which can raise eyebrows in various spiritual circles, and most of which would have been forbidden in traditional Quaker discipline – all this even before we turn to the struggles of the workplace, families, neighbors, or politics. Call me a snob, if you will.) The fact remains that the Society of Friends today is filled with many artists pursuing every imaginable medium. Dover Meeting is not alone in its range of talent.
A while back, I spoke of practice as something that’s ongoing and never finished, in contrast, say, to a performance or even a rehearsal. Practice as something done more for its own exploration and pursuit of a discipline than for any finished product. Practice as being part of a bigger encounter: the practice of prayer, practice of poetry, practicing musical scales, play practice, football practice, even medical practice. Something done with care, and if freedom follows in critical situations, as we often hear in interviews after a Patriots’ game, then all the better. Weeding and composting, I suppose, are part of the practice of gardening, apart from any harvest.
When I think about qualities that mark Quaker artists, I would tentatively suggest: placing the ongoing work ahead of themselves; “cool” rather than “hot”; a sense of experience and discovery rather than make-believe or escape; honesty rather than pretense; wonder rather than irony; humility rather than egotism or arrogance; candor rather than flamboyance; a preference for simplicity over complexity; directness rather than confusion; economy rather than extravagance; calmness rather than shrillness; curiosity and listening rather than dogma or bombast.
We might also turn the old Quaker views toward a critique of today’s cult of celebrities (almost universally entertainment/professional sports figures) and their exorbitant incomes – a situation that I believe accompanies a lessening of power within our communities. To that we could add the ways the arts are often used as a secular religion to sanctify public occasions. As for the Oscars?
But maybe that’s just another part of our unfolding spiritual awareness.
Barb Knowles of the blog saneteachers has nominated me for a Real Neat Blog award, and I thank her for the nod. If you’re not yet familiar with her site, let me tell you that anyone who knows what an Oxford comma is ranks high in my book — especially after all of those years as a journalist when I couldn’t use them on my paying job, contrary to my own standards. Here, though, things are different.
Allow me to confess, though, I’m of mixed mind when it comes to these awards. On one hand, WordPress (especially) is filled with marvelous bloggers who deserve wider recognition. On the other hand, I’ve found that trying to nominate others can be, well, embarrassing when you find they’ve already received that award somewhere in their past, even before coming up with fresh questions.
A while back I resolved to pass on these things, but then the temptation of participating can be fun. And then there’s that matter of time itself, which on this end will soon involve some major home and garden projects. Alas.
So here I am, looking at the seven questions, which I’ll tackle. But for now, I’ll wait before nominating others or coming up with seven new questions for them. Unless, of course, you’d like me to nominate you (go ahead, be bold and ask). After all, if you’re dropping by the Barn, you’re already cool — in all due humility. Any volunteers?
If you were alone on a deserted island with only one book, which would it be?
Make it the Bible. Not for the reasons most folks would assume — like what God’s trying to tell us. Rather, there’s plenty to chew on here about just being human, pro and con. And Wycliffe and Tyndale (those courageous early translators) do shape our English language, more than Shakespeare, actually. Your followup question would be which translation to pack, and there I’m stumped — I use many, each one adding nuances to the close-to-the-grain sources. By the way, are we to assume it’s a long stay on that island?
What is your favorite color and why?
Blue. Intense electric blue, the shade befitting Aquarius, the color of the clearest sky. Or its cousin, cobalt, the call of the North Atlantic on a clear day a few miles from where I live.
I like favorites, so what is your favorite song?
Since you didn’t ask about symphonies or sonatas or operas or chamber works, I’ll look at song as something that’s sung — in a form other than the traditional A-A-B-A musical form plus verses. (Bet you weren’t expecting that response!)
As a baritone in a choir, I’d put Sicut cervus, a Palestrina motet from the Renaissance, up there, along with a fuguing-tune anthem, Euroclydon, by the Colonial American William Billings.
Now you have me wondering about having the whole choir on that desert island. The plot thickens.
If you could make a memory, what would it be?
Our first grandkid. Leading to my learning to change a diaper. (I jumped in as a stepfather, later in the game.)
If you could join a TV show (present or past) and be a new character on that show, which one would you choose?
Mozart and the Jungle could use a third conductor. Maybe a sane counterpoint, mentor for Rudolfo? Or maybe just to send the older one back to Cuba?
What’s your ringtone?
Ringtone? Tracfones have them? Mine’s whatever I inherited back when.
Where were you born?
As I noted at the time …
It remains work, except for that sense, in the practice of the art, of being alive. Aware. Totally there, at times. A balance, between inspiration breath within and exhalation the atmosphere without.
Yes, it would be wonderful if we were all so spiritually deep that pure worship and our daily work of gardening and cutting firewood would be sufficient. But from experience, we can see that too often what resulted from enforced exclusion of color and imagination from our lives leads, over time, to extinguishing personality our gifts, as a group, are diminished and rather than loving delight, a bitter boredom sets in bringing with it, the backbiting profits of Satan. Which brings us full circle!
I believe we are expected to bring something back to the world from our solitude. Expected to be visionaries and priests. But not, as some would claim, shaman not unless we want to stake our life on the healing power of the individual work. Perhaps, as was recognized in Zen some time ago, when we start writing and singing and painting from this experience, the spiritual movement is already past its zenith. Nonetheless we also know the power of the Zen-suffused works of painting, poetry, pottery, architecture, tea ceremony, various martial arts.
Tantra: as means of going deeper. Concentration. Vibrations. Here the importance of the work of art is not the surface itself but what it triggers within the psyche of the viewer. That is, the canvas we Westerners revere is not so important mere surface of paint. The reverberation within the viewer is, ultimately, the point of value. (All that the viewer brings to the work, or the use of religious icons in the Eastern Orthodox traditions.)
Art as discipline. Self-discipline. Form. Submission/obedience. Never ending practice.
Stravinsky’s “limitations make art.” Heifitz’s love of movies yet no time to attend.
Solitude. Prophecy. Communion. Community. Vision. Hard labor.
Magnetic center point of growth.
Simplicity/direction versus art/artifice.
A separate life, our art? Or integrated?
Having something to say to express. Versus blue smoke and mirrors. Spiritual man has no need to be clever. Distrust of tricks. (Difference between craftsmanship and trickster?) Rather, to stand naked. Irony? Sarcasm? Or loving concern for the good of all? Celebration! Creation/creating. Versus discovery. Contrived versus organic. Maybe everything is different when played on a blue guitar. Not at all!
Exploring the Mystery. Connections. Links.
Here I am, writing (a) fiction about (b) sex and drugs and other aspects of searching. Also, (c) poetry from my pre-Christian experience. Some of my fellowship would argue that’s not where I should be. Some have been praying for me through this period. The kind of work that could get me read out of Meeting. Is this acceptable activity for a free Gospel minister? All I can do is explore the Truth as it’s been given to me.
How, then, turning outward into community or the world? To be candid, including the desire to get laid, the poet’s quest, the troubadour. Yet most of us, as “artists,” are out of touch with our communities. This is a manifold argument, too complex and heated to explore here, except to say.
Perhaps we really do need to be actively intertwined with our community to write well. Not necessarily a community of fellow artists, either. Rather, an intimate fellowship. Speak honestly, critically. Now look at the faces on the magazine covers or workshop brochures. How few look like people you’d like to meet! How much anger, hatred, envy, darkness brooding comes through. How little serenity, how little joy. (Would I want any of them for neighbors? Even the ones whose work I admire?)
Yet through the act of writing, I’m also more aware of qualities in other workers. Interesting. One measure of admiration is seeing something in someone’s work and recognizing a quality I wish I had but know I don’t. So I read that with gratitude and admiration rather than jealousy. Fellow workers in the fields.
Think of the spontaneous and to our “trained” ears, trite verse composed and uttered at Ohio Yearly Meeting, that when shared received an immediate reaction: “I would like to see that included in the published Minutes” and it was, because it expressed a communal feeling.
In the ancient Shah’s court, the poet stood at one end, and the jester, at the other. When one moved, performed, the other remained absolutely motionless: the unspoken balance.
By now you’re no doubt aware of my belief that local newspapers need a strong local voice, the kind that’s manifested in a talented general columnist or two. The New York Herald-Tribune, for instance, at one point had both Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe in that role. Think, too, of Mike Royko in Chicago or Herb Caen in San Francisco. In Dayton, we had Marj Heyduck holding forth from the Journal Herald’s Modern Living section – but everybody had to read her daily four or five vignettes, especially when they had a humorous edge.
These are the kind of writers who speak personally from the places regular people live, rather than the council meetings and police blotter events that fill the news pages. Unfortunately, they’ve largely vanished in the cost-cutting rounds at newspapers large and small, and communities and subscribers are impoverished as a consequence.
At their best, they get out and report stories that wouldn’t otherwise appear – or at least the aspects they dig up along the way are fresh and insightful. At the Herald-Trib, for example, Breslin would go to the city desk and rifle through assignments for ones he wanted to cover from the street – that’s how he wound up in Selma, Alabama, with dispatches from the front line of the civil rights movement.
Within the newsroom, however, they were generally viewed with disdain or even contempt, even when they scooped the beat reporters, as Caen often did to his colleagues at the Chronicle. Part of the gulf originated, I suspect, in the professional wall between third-person and first-person singular writing, and the fact that reporters are supposed to be neutral observers while a good columnist is permitted to be actively present and even emotionally involved in the story. Ideally, too, reporters are to be invisible agents, unlike the star billing given to a columnist.
All of the snow we’ve been getting has me reflecting on the first newspaper I served after graduating from college – and my frustration with its resident Scribe. There were, for starters, his affectations of a thwarted wannabe novelist – the tweed jackets with elbow patches, the scarf, the half-moon eyeglasses, and, yes, the fragile ego that demanded deference if not worship. There was also an over-the-top serving of purple prose but little substance that cut to the bone. Ultimately, what he served up was inoffensive and bland, but he did have a following.
His one redeeming quality, though, was an eagerness to jump into covering two kinds of stories no one else in the newsroom really wanted to do – weather storms and the deaths of prominent local figures. And there he excelled. Looking back, I can see where a first-person voice can enhance the story – we’re all in this together, after all – even when he was weaving in rewrites of breaking news fed to him by reporters and correspondents, as I vaguely think he was. The deaths, meanwhile, lend themselves to an “we recall when” transition from one detail to the next. Moreover, as a minor celebrity himself, his presence probably got many sources to say more than they might have otherwise. Hmm, my memory is that he leaned toward the editorial “we” rather than the more direct and contemporary “I.”
Outstanding local columnists, I should add, have never been confined to the big metro papers.
A few leaps later in my career, launching Jim Gosney’s daily profiles in Yakima, Washington, demonstrated that. He gave us a parade of characters who made a difference in the community without themselves being considered the kind of movers and shakers who normally got quoted.
And then, in Manchester, New Hampshire, John Clayton began doing something similar.
Both, I should add, were top-notch reporters when it came to questioning a source and digging up facts – and both could turn a phrase in their engaging storytelling and flawless prose. (That combination is rarely a given.) What they offered was the kind of local color and connection too often missing from today’s standard and shallow coverage.
Perhaps you know of others who deserve recognition. Maybe they could even serve as models in a rebirth of the tradition.
“You’re more of a poet,” one of my favorite authors mentioned over coffee.
Huh? I had, after all, found publishers for two of my novels but none of my collections of poetry. So what if both novels were out of print, right?
Back in high school, when the writing bug hit me, I envisioned successfully working in fiction, poetry, theater, and journalism – successfully and famously, at that. That was way back before I discovered the reality of just how specialized each field can be, even before we get into the micro-subcategories, or how much rarified knowledge is required to navigate them professionally. Or how much competition there is across the board.
A first I felt my friend’s comment as a gentle reproach. There is always so much more to master, after all, as I tell myself after encountering another moving example of fine craftsmanship and deep insight.
As I returned to his comment, though, I picked up on another angle, the one that reflects a particular author’s sensibilities. He has me realizing that my basic outlook is as a poet, and that I carry that over into my novels.
Recently, another friend and I were discussing what we’d been reading, and he brought up Jim Harrison’s novels. He’d just finished seven in sequence. “He’s also a fine poet,” I said. But now, as I return to my bookshelves, I see an argument that Harrison is a novelist first, an outlook he carries over into the poems.
This is not to say that a writer has to be pigeonholed or can’t move among forms. After all, I could present a long list of fine poets whose essays I treasure. Many of them, as I noted in the Talking Money series at my Chicken Farmer I Still Love You blog, address the decidedly down-to-earth issues of income, budgeting, labor, possessions, time, wealth, and community.
Detailing what would place a writer in the poet category or else in the novelist line could provide an interesting roundtable discussion all its own. We’ll leave that for another time.
I will, however, suggest it arises in a state of mind – of seeing the world and of relating to those around us. And, I will add, I find myself far from writing or revising poetry when I’m working on a novel, simply because the fiction generates or relies upon another state of mind, even if the prose that results has poetic qualities.
If classical music’s to find a fuller audience in America, the works of our own composers need to be presented. Especially those I call the Illuminists, after the great painters who finally have found widespread appreciation.
I love the orchestral works of John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, MacDowell, Griffes … and no other composer spanned so much change within two decades as Charles Ives.
We know only the surface. Listen closely, and you’ll find none of them sounds truly German, despite the accusations. Even were it true, we need to remember (a) German was the standard for classical music, so much so that even Dvorak suffered, and (b) German was a central component of American culture at the time, anyway – it was even a required language in many major city high schools.
Acknowledging this puts Aaron Copland within a longer tradition, and all of those who follow.
Now, if our major orchestras would only live up to the challenge. Is it really to much to ask that they play a fourth of their repertoire from their home base?