Wednesday Wonders: How to Walk from Poetry over to Sculptures

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Last weekend, I went to Western Washington University for the first annual Poetry Camp. After the end of the sessions and right before Jack Prelutsky, the first Children’s Poet Laureate, gave his fantastic reading of ‘Rat for Lunch,’ I went for a walk around the campus where I once went to school.

I was hunting the outdoor sculpture collection. 

A few pieces stood out in my memory from the time I went there and I looked for them like old friends. Others I had forgotten but as soon as I saw them I wondered why they hadn’t stuck around in my mind.

And some were new. Many of those were installed in 1999, several years after I left Bellingham.

Seeing them all felt like another kind of poetry all together.

Here was my view of ‘For Handel’ by Mark di Suvero from the 6th floor window of Wilson Library. It is huge, orange, and unforgettable, even for me.img_8400

This is one ‘Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham)’ by Robert Morris. The steam wasn’t running that day, but when it does, you can use your imagination to create sculptures from  what you see.

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This new one was massive and on a newer part of the campus.

‘Feats of Strength’  by Tom Otterness was my absolute favorite of the new ones and maybe even of all the sculpture collection. I loved the sense of play and the balance of those rocks.

The buildings begged to have their pictures taken, too.

And I wasn’t the only one with the idea that afternoon.

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I didn’t get to photo them all or even put everything I found here. You can check out the spectacular photo gallery online for more. Or better yet. Walk around that campus some day.

In my twenties as a new English teacher, I gave my Japanese and other international students tours of the campus. Over and over they would point to some object with no practical purpose and ask me what it was with a puzzled look.

Back then I said, “If you don’t know what it is, then it’s art.”

Thinking about it more this past weekend, I would change my tour guide statement. Now I think:

“If you don’t always know how it makes you feel but it absolutely makes you feel more than you did before, then it’s art. For sure.”

 

Which is, of course. too long. My students learning English would have looked even more puzzled. I’ll have to go back, soak up those sculptures, and come up with something better.

I hear they will have a Children’s Literature Conference in February.

May you find art and may it find you looking-

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P.S. Inside Wilson Library was also amazing! What a place for poetry to happen.

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Wednesday Wonders: Curiosity is the Cousin of Art

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On Sunday, I drove across the Cascade Mountains to sunny Yakima for a three day teaching conference. In this city my grandparents once called home, I let the sun melt away my everyday stresses and felt my curiosity perk up.

While strolling the neighborhood, I discovered churches with large blocks of  dark stone rising above the city streets of downtown. One sits just outside my hotel window.

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Those churches make me wonder.

Where did the stone come from? Who built these churches? Many of them are up for lease so what happened to make the churches fail?

I bet there is a story or five in those answers.

And then in my session yesterday, I had the good fortune to sit next to a mathematician. (I began to suspect he knew more than the rest of us when he launched into a description of vectors and their relationship to area.)

When we started using manipulatives to demonstrate how a negative number multiplied by a negative equals a positive, he mentioned that there is a mathematical proof for that.

That intrigued me.

So I asked if he could do it. He began working on it and says he’ll bring it for me tomorrow.

I can smell a story in that answer, too.

I have no idea if I will comprehend the proof but just trying to grasp the puzzle of it brings me joy. If nothing else, the experience could lead to the story of the linguist who fell in love with numbers later in life.

Earlier that same day, a teacher who works in the prison system read a poem to us titled ‘I See Something in You.’ She tells us she reads it aloud to the inmates in her class and that these men she works with can see right through insincerity. She’s got to give them her honest self, or she will fail as only a teacher in front of a class like that could fail.

I wonder what it would be like to have her job and asked for a copy of the poem so I could adapt it for my own students. Right after that, I wondered if I would have the courage to read it to them.

Maybe I will write those stories and the poem.

Maybe I won’t.

Either way, I love the way life tingles when the stories all around me get to whispering. I feel like my black cat checking out the vacuum cleaner hose at the top of his cat post, pulling himself up to see what all the noise is about or teetering at the top of a ladder just to get a new view.

Like him, I know there is danger tucked into the moment but, also like him, I measure that danger against the intrigue and zing of a life chock full of curiosity.

I might look stupid to that mathematician, I might find stories that wound me underneath those churches, and I know, like only a classroom teacher can know, that a poem could be the start of painful humiliation in front of a class of forty students, criminals or not.

But I also know if I follow those leads to the stories and the people tucked into them, I might get the gift of an artful life. Most days the falls are more than worth the climb up that ladder.

May you see the stories of beauty and joy all around you,

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Stone Churches…

 

A quilt of the Fred Redmond Bridge crafted out of fabric and curiosity by the “Anything Goes Quilters”: Deborah Ann, Anna Assink, Sally Fitch, Barbara Green, Sue Grimshaw, Nancy Rayner, and Jeanne Strater. I love their group’s name! I think my writing group needs a name like this.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Wonders: The Miracle of Wounded Art

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Over ten years ago, I took a class on adult psychology in a small classroom on Pill Hill in Seattle. The professor stood in front of us in a button up shirt with slacks that blended into the dark background of the room behind. As he described his experience of a wrenching divorce, he said he did not try to push through his feeling of pain. That did not work for him. Instead, he suggested that it worked better to fully feel emotions.

He used this story to illustrate a psychological principal that I no longer remember. I don’t even remember his name.

But I do remember seeing his pain.

We students saw his heart bleed although he said the divorce happened years before.

I don’t think he had yet found a way to heal. Even if I had been able to say something to him, he might not have received it from the ESL teacher in the back of the room.

But if could speak to him now, I would tell him to try art. 

Get out your paper and glue for a collage, crack open an old instrument case, write a poem, or take photos of falling down buildings in your neighborhood, I would say. I have no idea why it works or if science will back me up. I only know it works as well as any psychological treatment I known or tried on myself.

In a TED Talk by Angélica Dass, I listened to her tell of the searing comments and prejudices she has endured because of her skin color.

Then I watched her speak of the project she created to help herself manage this pain. Even as she described the way she photographed the people from around the world, I noticed her shoulders ease and her voice warm to the telling.

Maybe that psychology professor already knows about this trick of art and how it lets you fully feel without smashing you to bits under the weight of being human. 

Perhaps he even knows what a gift that art can become to others.

I hope so.

The beauty of Dass’s work cuts through so much of what we use to separate us. I don’t pretend to know why gifts to humanity need to spring from nearly unbearable pain like prejudice and divorce. I only know that they often do and that the art soothes the sufferer when she throws herself into the making.

I also know when someone pulls some once of goodness out of their wounds, everyone touched by the art is the better for it. 

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Did I mention baking? I made these in response to having a crown and root canal this week. They helped. Art with chocolate has to be the best of all.

Wednesday Wonders: When to Call the Book Done

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The other day my son said, “You know you’ve got a LOT of books on writing on your bookshelf. Have you read all of those?”

Mostly, I told him. (He wasn’t particularly impressed — just astounded that I could stay focused for that long on reading books about putting words on paper.)

And he doesn’t even know about the courses I’ve taken and the blogs I’ve read.

Writing takes a lot of reading.

And, of course, it takes a lot of writing words.

In my online reading, Randy Ingermanson once explained to me that the average writer puts over a million words down before she or he becomes a published author.

The million words could be several different books or it could be the same book rewritten over and over again.

I don’t know how many words I’ve written. It’s hard to keep track.

My very first novel is at the back of my file drawer where it will stay. I think I drafted 50,000 words or so. My second short historical fiction set on Whidbey Island is now around 30,000 words. Here is where it gets tough to track, though. It was 50,000 then I cut it down to 40,000. Then I added some. Then I cut it to the bone at 20,000. I added again to 32,000.

I have a third historical fiction set in Tacoma with a word count around that size, too, including the cuts and additions and whatnots.

Those are the larger pieces that are easier to keep track of. I’ve written scads of shorter pieces, some published, many more not, and some even on this blog. I’ve grown fond of mathematics but not fond enough to actually add up all the single words I’ve written to see if I’ve gotten to a million words. I know publishing isn’t anything like that straight forward anyway.

(You wrote the millionth word! Now you are published! Not exactly.)

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I declared my my second short novel finished last week. Over the last five years I drafted and revised, took classes with it, had my critique group read and re-read it through and then section by section. I’ve had beta readers take a look at it and acted on all of the feedback I’ve received in one way or another.

I’m ready to stop cutting and adding. I’m ready to turn my attention to other things and let the million words add up on some other project.

At first I decided to consign it to the bottom of a drawer, tucked into a file next to the first one about the fairies and the the other worlds full of trees and magic.

Then I read this by Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, one of the those books my son saw on the shelf:

“Work never sent out is very likely never completed. The author never has to stand by it, for better or for worse. It is never exposed to a stranger’s eye. It is never received with love, hate, indifference, or with interest. It has no audience, no public. As a result, the writer is never obliged to see it through a reader’s eye.”

Well, then.

I guess I’ll send those several thousand words out, roll with rejections, and get down word counts in revising my third novel.

I suppose I knew that all along from my music and drawing. Unless I share what I am doing, the art wilts in a corner. More often than not, I never make it at all if I know no one will ever see it.

May you know the joy of calling things finished even if that means you have to take a risk to get there-

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Wednesday Wonders: How a Storyteller can have Superpowers

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My mother-in-law Vivian likes to read popcorn Christian romances. You know the type. There’s a swooning woman and a shirtless guy on every cover of the stacks of books she keeps close at hand. God is always a player in these stories so they are not exactly Harlequins — but they aren’t far off.

Once I picked up a book with a title something like Breaking Love and read the first chapter. The writer knew what she was doing with an engaging opening scene and tension that made me wonder if Priscilla was ever going to unfreeze her heart after that last horrendous breakup with Jonathan because she needed to in order to save the farm.

I always thought these book were just silly things that Vivian read until my father-in-law Jim got sick. A retired home health nurse, Vivian took care of him for about two years as his health got slowly worse and worse from diabetes and cirrhosis caused by medications.

As he sunk deeper and deeper he became less and less engaged in the world around him. I could see Vivian becoming more and more alone in caring for him 24 hours a day.

One day I asked her about this. She said yes it was lonely but she often lost herself in her books. I could see how much those stories of Pricillas and Jonathans meant to her.

The writer in me perked up. Sometimes it feels as though the job I do with words is not worth much to others. People often ask me to do it for free. It is a vital piece of what I do in my paid work but not recognized much for its own worth. I work with student nurses who will likely save physical lives in their careers. The value of what I do is not nearly as clear cut.

But a story that could ease my mother-in-law’s burden. Now that was worth something. I honestly believe those silly plot lines saved her sanity and helped to heal her breaking heart in a way that no pharmaceutical could have.

Recently, I heard another story in a Radiolab podcast that reminded me of Vivian and her books.

In this a father desperately wanted to do something to help his premature daughter as her translucent body slipped back and forth between life and death. She was born at twenty three weeks and 6 days and was not at all fully formed.

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A baby much healthier and older than the one in an incubator whose father read to her.

He started reading her Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The mom and dad noticed that her oxygen saturation levels went up whenever he read — unless he tried to act out Hagrid’s voice. Then her numbers went down. His wife made him stop scaring the baby but he kept reading.

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Maybe the little girl was not reacting to the story. Maybe that is not a medically sound analysis. But it was clear to me that the dad needed to read it like he needed her to keep breathing. (She lived and is now a five year old ready to begin kindergarten.)

I realize what I am saying here contradicts what I said last week about writing for myself and not worrying about the interest or approval of others. I have found that most good life answers have an opposite side to them.

I do need a reason to write outside of myself. It can’t be my everything but when I hear how much stories matter to others it helps me to keep going.

In fact, I am such a sap that the story about Harry Potter and the baby made me cry.

That’s why I do this, I told myself. I don’t know that it will help a grieving widow or a desperate father. But what I do is for me and it’s also for others who might need the story I’m writing as much as they need any other kind of medicine.

I don’t know that what I write will work for them. But it’s worth a shot.

May you find your own story medicine-

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Wednesday Wonders: When Your Art is Worth Saving

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By Sydney Zylstra (retrieved from the attic in 2011)

“You know all those paintings your mother makes and then throws out?”

My sister and I nodded as my dad said this. We knew.

“Well, I pulled a few out of the garbage and stuck them up in the attic. Remember to get them out of there when I die so she doesn’t toss them.”

I understand why my mother wanted to throw those beautiful pastels away. It helped her feel free to make mistakes and go on to create more when she knew she didn’t have to keep or share what she created.

She probably felt something like Molly in this clip Jody Casella shared with me recently:

I also get why my dad didn’t want to let them go. He couldn’t see her mistakes. He only saw a picture worth saving — something he didn’t want in the trash even after he died.

I am drawn to that video of Molly and the memory of my dad stashing away my mom’s art. And I’m happy to say I no longer feel like dipping my manuscript in alcohol and setting it on fire over a gas burner. 

Instead, I keep this mantra by James Scott Bell posted near my computer screen:

“It can be fixed.”

That helps enormously when the mean voice in my head chatters on about all that is wrong even as I work to make it better.

And I’m glad Dad saved the pastels. A year or so after he died, my mom found them on my wall and stopped, looking them over for a slow minute.

I held my breath, praying I would not lose my treasures.

She surprised me by insisting they needed a coat of sealant to protect the surface. She then took them down and returned them to me, never suggesting that I throw them away.

Those canvases covered in flowers still hang in my hallway, reminding me to look at what’s worth keeping even when, at first, I might not think my characters have led me down the right path. 

May you know the joy of creating and the power of saving your work-

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Extra wonders:

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Seattle waterways before the Ballard Locks and the ship canal connected the lakes to the sound.

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My book and I loved this trip to see my Seattle family and visit the locks. So much to research for us here!

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.