One of the great moments in my summer was working with my Mom at Jack Straw to record her story about learning to sail. She was in the first group of storytellers to record their short pieces for the Story Chairs project. I’ve been working on the audio for the chairs since July and hope to be finished recording stories by the end of September. Then Moe Provencher and I will sequence, mix in songs and music and get the audio ready for the electronics. Hopefully the lobby at Jack Straw will be ready for the chairs before the end of the year. There will be a celebration for sure.
Mom read beautifully – a natural, as Moe said. She immediately got the knack of picking up a flubbed line and of listening to the recording and knowing what she wanted to re-do or tweak. It was a deep pleasure to share the studio with her, and to hear her read aloud again as she did every day, nap time and before bed, when we were children. Hers is the voice I often hear inside my head when I read a book, measured and nuanced and reassuring.
Recording sessions have been fun and revelatory throughout the project: matching a voice to a story by someone who can’t make it to the studio; hearing how each reader’s voice is their own, or how they sometimes read a piece differently than I might. The writing is always transformed into something else when read aloud. The experience has reminded me again of the origin of stories, in human kind and in my own life – the sure promise and music of the storyteller’s voice, and the readiness of the listener to be utterly changed by their story.
Janel Kolby submitted this poem for my Story Chairs project, very short fiction, non-fiction, poems and songs for recording. I am still actively looking for contributions.
The tapping of my foot fought the rhythm of the train.
I wasn’t in the mood to be lulled to sleep.
My boyfriend and I had just gotten in a fight, and I left.
I didn’t know where I was going, I had nowhere to go.
My anger was deafening.
And then the doors opened.
A shiny man came inside.
His suit was shiny shark skin, and his shoes were shiny polished.
He reeked of smoke and gin.
But he was a man.
His nail-bitten hands clasped the pole in front of me.
His tie had once been neat.
The train started up with a metallic squeak.
The man lurched, hanging on tight,
and hungrily tore at a bagel,
powdering crumbs onto his feet.
With his last, hard swallow,
he looked frantically about,
and wiped away cold sweat.
The lights flickered, and I caught my breath.
The train squealed around a corner,
and we held against its force.
I felt him lean against my knee,
to steady against my form.
He was warm, he was strong.
Minutes, no, seconds.
We breathed as one.
The doors re-opened,
and he was gone.
I was ravished by a museum experience yesterday inspired equally by patient handwork expressed through order, and wild improvisations of color, texture and pattern. The Bellevue Art Museum has two shows that, taken together, touch the heart and overwhelm the rest of the senses. Friend and artist Martha Worthley was in town and we went together. Martha is a painter, brilliant colorist and dedicated seamstress. She is one of my favorite people to share an exhibition with because she likes to look and look and talk about things as she goes, like me. She grew up in Rhode Island with a family of antique collectors and brought that knowledge and experience to Gather Up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection.
The exhibit takes up the second floor galleries and showcases over 200 objects from the Shaker sect, collected as its membership began to dwindle in the late 19th and early 20th century. Shaker furniture, simple in lines, lovingly crafted and designed for best use, is beautifully represented here as well as paintings of ecstatic visions, bentwood boxes and other daily objects. Context is given by exhibit design, labels and by the incremental effect of seeing the objects, photographs of their makers and such things as a loom for weaving the cotton tape that had many uses, or the tool used to tease apart flax fibers that would then be spun into thread and used to weave or knit clothing and other day to day textiles. It’s a lovely self-contained world on the second floor.
Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley is a cannily installed collection of over 50 quilts that come out of the vernacular tradition of improvisational quilt making. Even symmetrical, rigorously pieced quilts are full of invention. Martha and I walked from room to room repeatedly having our minds blown by American quilt traditions influenced by textile traditions, brought from Africa by slaves and internalized by their descendants. The sight lines within the galleries are terrific for framing a single quilt from afar so that in the overload of color and pattern the formal aspects and overall effect of its composition can be seen. Up close, that tended to fall apart for me, as I was drawn into the color, the idiosyncratic piecing and how placement and manipulation of familiar quilt pattern blocks created energy, emotion, tension and excitement.
Martha kept catching me out, seeing layers of interconnecting pattern, when I was focusing on a single layer of pattern within the work. “Spider Webs and Stars,” she said in front of the first quilt we spent time with. It took me a few moments to see the stars and I might not have, up close, if she hadn’t called my attention to it. I used to think that the way I saw the world was a little broken, but now I know that it is simply my way and is the very thing that sometimes lets me see things that no one else notices, or allows me to make unique connections visually or intellectually.
About halfway through the galleries Martha turned to me and said, “I kind of feel like crying,” something I’d been feeling myself, and within five minutes I was. This happens to me when surprised by beauty; it kind of catches hold and works on me.
I didn’t take photographs and my favorites are not featured on the website or that of the Mingei Museum, which originally put together the exhibit, but there is a terrific Flickr set taken by Megan Connor taken at that museum. You can see Spiders and Stars in all its pink glory, and many more. The exhibit is up at the Bellevue Art Museum into October. Don’t put off going, as you will want to have time to see this show more than once.
In the big book of poetry for children that lived on our bookshelf for years I often returned to a short and rather silly poem by Ogden Nash. I liked the idea that you could make a poem in two lines and that it could be both clever and naughty. As I read it, the author, in questioning nature, challenged a central tenet of my belief system: that nature might be mysterious but there is always a reason for its systematic organization and workings. This is the poem:
God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.
Today, I like this poem by Nash better – he is still stumped by nature’s manifestation, but puts himself in the picture.
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I’d call me Us.
One pair of legs bounced up and down, they belonged to a small girl upholstered in polka dots. The chair tried to bounce up and down too on his stubby legs. The chair wished he too had a festive upholstery to catch her attention. But the girl turned away as the bigger people said something, her name maybe, as they stomped out of the room.
The chair sighed and his stuffing un-fluffed. Then the girl turned back. She snuck a grin like she was sharing a secret with him.
“Want to hear a story?” She said.
The chair was flabbergasted. No one had ever talked to him before. He’d gotten used to the idea that the closest he could ever be to the people were those few times they chose to seek rest on his strong back.
“You can hear me?” The chair thought as hard as he could, trying to project it from every seam.
“Quietly, like mouses,” the girl muttered, her eyes darting to the doorway. The chair stopped his loud thoughts, pulling his fabric together closely. After a second she relaxed.
“This is our story, you’ll like it. Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived in a castle in the bluest part of the sky,” she began, her face dimpling. “She only ate jellybeans and was a doctor who cured brain cancers. A troll married her mom and his name was Hank and he ate a lot and laughed too much at things that weren’t funny. One day they flew down into the city that was made of whalebones and pine trees and the beautiful princess found a best friend. She loved him and named him Horatio. Hank said to leave Horatio because a best friend has to at least talk but he doesn’t know anything. The princess vowed to be with Horatio forever because she was brave and daring and everyone loved her. The end.”
The chair swelled, like he was a loveseat. No, a reclining sofa. This person loved him. She named him. Horatio. It was a beautiful name. The chair started crying, softly, choking it back into his springs so his seat wouldn’t get wet and become uncomfortable.
“Happily ever after, right Horatio?” The girl said, digging into her pocket and pulling out a turtle. She kissed it on its scaly head.
The chair felt like its seat had been kicked out. He had been such a fool. A turtle had legs that actually moved. Anyone would love that. He was only good for the junkyard, or kindling if he was lucky – at least kindling was useful for a few minutes.
His thoughts were interrupted by the unexpected weight of a small body melting into his.
“Now you tell one,” the girl demanded.
The chair wrapped her in his protective arms and told her everything.
Anne Cunningham is a writer of fiction and game content living in southern California. I cannot wait to record this story for my Story Chairs project.
I am going to use Poetry Monday to highlight one of my favorite blogs, Books Around The Table, co-hosted by four marvelous illustrators, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Lario and Julie Paschkis. Their posts are always rich in visuals and inspiration and Julie’s Undersea Post this last week is a perfect example of why I like this blog. A reader shared this poem by Elizabeth Bishop in the commentary. Julie’s response is my own, “I love the mixture of beauty and ugliness in the language and imagery.”
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
I’d like to invite you to participate in a project I’m working on. For a show at the Missoula Art Museum several years ago with Jeffry Mitchell, and with the help of talented craftsman Ben Oblas, we made two story chairs. I had long had a vision of settling in to a chair and having stories told to me automatically. Jeffry and I made the upholstery together and recorded some audio and the experience was much as I had imagined. Comfy. Surprising. When you sit your weight triggers audio that is played through speakers concealed in the wing-back upholstery.
There were a few technical issues to address, and additional feedback let us know that more and varied audio was needed, so that return visitors could hear something new. Jack Straw Productions has awarded me an Artist Support Grant for studio time, and a place to site the chairs when the audio is ready, in their new lobby, at least for a time. So I am collecting stories to record, and challenging writers and storytellers to submit a story of about 600 words or less for the story chairs. You may record them or I will, and there will be credit within the audio and in a posted author sheet. I will have an online presence for the work as well.
The following story is an example of a series I am working on right now, on my own experiences with animals. It is 560 words and takes about 3 minutes to read aloud. I am aiming to keep these animal chronicles shorter, under 500 words. Let that be your guide. I will be recording in August, so let me know if you would like to contribute. I’d love it – fiction, poetry, song, non-fiction, old or young audience. I intend to mix it up.
It’s hard to see a hummingbird’s nest, even when you know where it is. I’ve seen very few.
One spring some years ago my friend Suzette and I drove up to Bodega Bay to visit Audubon Canyon Ranch, an egret and heron sanctuary where these water birds nest together in a stand of pines. The visitor can hike up the hill of the canyon and look down on the rookery. Depending on when you arrive in the nesting season you might see courtship behavior, nests being constructed, eggs being incubated or carefully turned, or the mated pairs feeding their young. It’s all good.
The Ranch was closed – we hadn’t thought to call ahead – so we parked by the entry gate and sat in the sun eating our sandwiches and looking at the bay. The Ranch has a garden at the house, which is set back from the road, and wildflowers grow by the gate. The hummers were busy and one made repeated trips to an oak tree.
Suzette, a great naturalist, got up and went to investigate, wrapping her sandwich carefully in its napkin. “It’s hard to see a hummingbird’s nest,” she said. “You hardly ever see one.”
Suzette is the type to turn over a rock in her spare time. She always knows what wildlife is in her place, and what that wildlife might be up to. Once, when we both got duped into going to church sleep-away camp, with deadly food and deadlier programming, the two of us snuck off when we were supposed to be participating in a treasure hunt. We climbed the hill behind the cabins, our feet quiet on the pine needles, greatly relieved to be heathens alone in the woods. As usual, Suzy started looking under rocks and very soon turned up something fast and reptilian.
Also unusual. A small lizard with an electric blue tail paused on the ground, alert, frozen.
“It’s a blue-tailed skink,” she said. “When it gets scared it sheds its tail.”
“Really?” I asked. The idea made me queasy. Plus, neon colors in nature never mean anything good. “Is it poison?”
“No,” she said, reaching out a finger to touch the tail. “See?” And just as she said the word the skink rushed off, leaving its tail writhing on the ground behind. It was thrilling and frightening and unexpected, the disembodied thing moving bright and shiny against the needle litter. I had to talk her out of taking the tail back with us.
Underneath the oak tree we both stood a respectful distance away and waited for the hummingbird. After awhile it reappeared – it had babies in the nest and was feeding them. If we hadn’t followed the bird’s flight we would not have seen the nest, so well was it concealed, with bark and lichen covering its exterior and the nest itself seeming to grow out of the branch it was built upon. We watched it for awhile and then looked out at the bay in time to see an egret cut its wings at an angle in its descent, change direction and cut them the other way, zig-zagging down to the water’s surface, showing off for us. The bay sparkled under an onshore breeze and the egret fished the shallows, stalking the reeds at water’s edge. We finished our sandwiches and drove home, content.
All rights reserved by Ron Wolf
Walt Whitman for this Monday, in his vigorous and brave spirit of the self as celebration of life. I was obsessed with Leaves of Grass in high school and with Whitman’s life, his service in the Civil War, his regard of Abraham Lincoln and the gorgeous prose he wrote alongside his poetry.
Through his writing Whitman helped me to imagine life at that time, and to feel that in myself lay the power to create, to express my vision and have it reflect both myself and my time. At a time of war and its loss, I also identified myself as an American through his work, independent, observant, reverent and vigorous.
Laws for Creations
By Walt Whitman
Laws for creations,
For strong artists and leaders, for fresh broods of teachers and
perfect literats for America,
For noble savans and coming musicians.
All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the
compact truth of the world,
There shall be no subject too pronounced–all works shall illustrate
the divine law of indirections.
What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the soul, except to walk free and
own no superior?
What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but
that man or woman is as good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach creations through such laws?
You can download Leaves of Grass from Project Gutenburg.
John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars deserves every bit of the praise and attention it’s received since its publication. If I’d found this book as a teenager I would have seen myself and hugged it close, even though I’ve never had cancer.
Hazel Grace Lancaster has cancer that has reduced her ability to breathe – she must be on oxygen at all times. Her lungs ‘suck at being lungs’. Her world has been reduced along with her breathing and, concerned about depression, a “side effect of cancer”, her mother makes her attend a weekly a cancer support group where she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor who has lost part of one leg to his illness. The book tracks their relationship as they share books, play video games, talk about ideas and struggle with how to seize all that life has to offer even as people in the support group die and their own health is compromised. This is a love story but also a story about the power of ideas – and of books – to inform and anchor our lives. A central character is a book, Hazel’s favorite novel that she shares with Augustus and whose ambiguous ending sends them both on a quest for the answers to questions left hanging by the author.
The Fault In Our Stars is funny and sad and beautifully written and you won’t find spoilers here. I listened to the excellent audio version, narrated by Kate Rudd. In the author interview included at the end, Green talks about his experience working with young cancer patients over a decade ago, and how it informed his writing. This NPR interview addresses his point that young people with cancer want to live while they are alive – all Hazel wants is to be herself, to read, to love and to be loved, to have a creative life.
While I was listening to the book, right about the time that Make-A-Wish came into the story, a request for exhibition venues came into my day job at 4Culture: Ruby Lhianna Smith, a young photographer, wanted to display her work, undertaken with the mentorship of an artist-in-residence at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Working with the family and the hospital, our curator arranged to hang the photographs facing the street as an additional show for the month of June. That work was being installed the day Ruby died. It’s a beautiful group of photos that express her illness and her impulse to life. In the midst of life’s reduction she chose to be an artist, to look outward, to create a legacy. I thought of Hazel and Augustus as the work went up, and the vibrancy of the lives that Green created, with death a side effect of cancer, and life the central point.