Seeking

The semester has begun. I’ve been immersed in reading Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) and Daniel Ariely (Predictably Irrational) while procrastinating on uploading materials to the software platform for my class and making tomato sauce at home.

Robinson detects, amid all of our human endeavors, a search for answers. That we have questions at all seems proof of sentience, if there can be such a thing as proof. Certainly the process, myth, and language of seeking surrounds most human developments: religion, art, philosophy, science, and others. It’s the classic quest narrative that runs through anthropologically vast distances, from Gilgamesh’s efforts to find eternal life to the Ramayana (with Sita as the prize, in Ravana’s clutches) to Rowling’s Harry Potter, who snags the role of “Seeker” in a game–a metaphor that continues through the series.

But are there answers to our questions? And a corollary: are we asking the “right” questions?

256px-Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God~

Ariely, like Dan Kahneman, reminds us that we do not always–in fact, hardly ever–choose the most rational actions or answers to dilemmas. We fail to ask ourselves the better questions. We fail to act upon the better actions or decisions.

But we keep seeking. I find that intriguing.

~

Event Ahead:

On September 16, I’ll be taking part in an art-&-poetry event at a gallery in the “Christmas City” (Bethlehem, PA). Info on my Events page, here.

 

Desire

In a comment on my last post, M. mentioned the sensuality of gardening. Truly, there is little that can offer more joys to the senses or more opportunity for sensual encounters of various kinds than a garden. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, all those pollinators going about helping the flowers have sex; the pistils and stamens, the ovaries fruiting, the scents and colors and attractions doing the work of creating what is juicy, spicy, tasty, fortifying, fragrant, or gloriously beautiful. While picking beans in the heat of late July or weeding in the dog days of August, however, the gardener may be forgiven for occasionally overlooking these aspects.

ann e michaelBut the garden can be considered sensual–the garden is all about desire. My desire to feed my family with fresh foods, or to decorate my view with blooms. My desire to share the garden bounty with friends, or to try new varieties of vegetables, or to see what happens if I let that volunteer melon grow.

And if plants can be said to possess any so-called human quality, I can easily anthropomorphize them as desirous. The desire to live, and to live in order to reproduce: these are the most basic purposes of our DNA, and of the plant’s. As a gardener, I manipulate the plant’s desire. I pick the beans before the seeds have ripened in the pods, and the bean plant in its urge to produce seed sends out more flowers, more young and tender green beans. It will continue in its desperate output until the roots are exhausted. Quite the pathetic metaphor, I guess.

The plants evolve each to its own specialty. Those that “choose” dispersal of seed via bird digestive tracts grow vivid against foliage, easy to see. Those that rely on maturing into pulpy rot, to ensure their seeds get nurtured in the soil beneath the parent plant, hide under large leaves close to the earth. The hard pit, the soft seed pouch that requires fermentation to germinate, the barbed husk that gets carried off in the fur on a mammal’s leg–gardeners often foil some of these strategies, but only temporarily. We turn them to our own uses because we desire the sweet kernels, the juicy flesh, the ripe scents.

Meanwhile the plants continue making more of themselves. The wind blows, and delicious summer fragrances enhance it as it floats the pollen toward awaiting receptors; the bees collect pollen on their legs while climbing into and out of flowers (how sexy), the female flowers of the squash stems swell…

What makes our purpose any different from the plants’? Maybe we experience desire not because we are human, but because we exist, as plants do, to leave something of ourselves behind. That something will not always be our DNA, however. It may be a system, a process, a work of art, a story. Something, perhaps, that we desire.

 

IMG_1547

 

Too busy to write (sigh)

May’s dry weather affected the peas, but otherwise the garden’s been outdoing itself this year–with no real help from me. The tomatoes have expressed their vine-nature, stretching to 7 feet in height, with the gold cherry tomatoes flinging their branches far into the tomato patch and other areas of the garden. That means I can pick cherry tomatoes and zucchini at one go! And whenever I get a free moment (not too many lately), I am harvesting or cooking or freezing the produce instead of writing.

I had two “volunteer” vines this year, cantaloupe and butternut squash. Their seeds survived winter in the compost bin, and they sprouted near the fence at opposite sides of the patch. I let them be, and was surprised to find they fruited well (the cantaloupe was from a grocery-store purchase, was surely a hybrid, and therefore might have produced flowers only, or bland fruit). The squash is terrific; and the melon, while not as sweet as one might hope, nevertheless had good flesh and flavor.

At this time of year, the garden’s become a butterfly and bee haven as well as a cutting garden. It looks a mess: tall cosmos of several varieties, sunflowers and perennial sunflowers and queen-anne’s-lace, cornflowers and zinnias and tithonia clustered together, colors clashing, pollinators buzzing, finches and other small birds busy at the seed-heads.

For I have not been weeding, as I have not been writing. Other priorities are claiming the be-here-now of my life; but I’m happy to find that the garden, and my writing life, can be sustained through other things and returned to at better times. Namaste. Have a tomato.

Bounty

Bounty

 

Supportive critique

One discipline that keeps me practicing as a poet is ongoing, regular discussion of new work. It has been my great good fortune to be part of a critique group that has been meeting monthly for, I believe, over 20 years! Our participants have come and gone a bit; the group consists of four long-time stalwarts and up to three others. We try to keep to under seven members or the discussions get too lengthy for one evening.

When one has participated in a group like this for a long time, the occasional issue of expected responses comes up. At least, it does for me. When I choose a poem to workshop with my critique group, I might say to myself, “X prefers more narrative poems…Q will think this too wordy…Z will probably correct the dangling modifier…”

If I begin to expect certain stereotyped reactions, one could ask, why bother being part of a group with the same people in it all the time? Would it be more helpful to scout around for novel feedback?

Actually, no. While I am sometimes correct in my expectations of a group member’s initial feedback (and I am often wrong!), the discussions that evolve from that point onward prove tremendously useful. What I learn and can use as inspiration to revise tends to arise from other group members’ questions, challenges, and misreadings; unexpected revision ideas appear during brainstorming, and bouncing the ideas off of others helps me recognize that the poem must communicate or die.

These are good things which nourish the creative impulse.

When we do take on a new member, we fear that he or she may be a bit shocked by our frankness with one another: after 20 years, there’s not quite as much need to dance politely around a poem that isn’t doing its job. But those who settle in with us see that we practice non-defensive openness and that we always find genuine things to praise. Our group purpose is to assist one another in writing the best work we can. That means analysis and criticism, but it also means encouragement and generosity of spirit. It offers us exchange of accomplishments, prompts, book suggestions, setbacks, joys, and sorrows (there have been more than a few).

It may be a small community, but it is a community. And my fellow participants are as supportive as any community I have been part of these past two decades. They take our writing commitment seriously, recognizing that critique is just another step in the process and that dissenting ideas can get us toward brilliance. Once in awhile.

What I see

When I trek to New York City these days, I generally go for non-tourist reasons; my sister lives in Manhattan. It’s a day trip, and I don’t always avail myself of visits to big-city attractions–instead, I “hang out” with my sister and her family, which tends to mean home-cooked dinners in her apartment and walks around her neighborhood, greeting neighbors in the coffee shop or on the sidewalk. Often, that’s interesting enough, as she lives near Ft. Tryon Park and The Cloisters. On my most recent visit, however, we decided to take the A train south to tour the new Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s located at the base of the Highline Park, with views southward to the new World Trade Center and westward over the Hudson (making our evening visit gloriously pink-hued during summer sunset).

We spent a little over two hours at the museum, and our initial assessment was that both of us prefer the building itself as an architectural experience over the old Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer. It isn’t all that much “prettier” from the outside; but the interior gallery set-up is more pleasant, light-filled, and navigable by patrons.

The opening show’s titled “America Is Hard to See,” a line culled from a slightly ironic Robert Frost poem (see an excerpt below). And the top floor gallery included a famous painting by e. e. cummings, so my poetry hopes were raised. The 8th floor of the museum was stunningly curated; I had high expectations for the rest of the galleries though, in the end, my reaction was decidedly mixed.

Thanks to Lederman copyright 2015. see whitney.org

Thanks to Lederman copyright 2015. See whitney.org

Levels 7 through 5 follow a chronological order, roughly, in terms of historical and cultural developments from the early 20th century to the present. This is a bit arbitrary, as artists alter their styles, and even their genres, over time–and some artists’ work spans decades, gaining and losing cultural momentum as fashions and criticism also change. As a result, there are clusters of pieces that cover similar themes but do not necessarily speak aesthetically to one another on the gallery walls. This was most obvious in the Viet Nam era gallery, which struck me as garish. The purpose in terms of education and theme was fine, but the aesthetics of the room as a display of art just did not convey, to me, what it might have in another perhaps less chronological arrangement.

Nonetheless, as far as getting visitors acquainted with American contemporary art, the new Whitney may be overall more successful than its predecessor. The former building’s galleries were arranged by donor collections and often had too much of the same, or else too little cohesion, and relied on the visitor’s being already reasonably familiar with contemporary art and art criticism. The exterior platforms of “outdoor galleries” (sculptural pieces) are impressive, though you may want to avoid the exterior stairways if you have a fear of heights.

I am happy to note that Calder’s Circus remains on display, along with the old and, by contemporary standards, poorly-produced video of Calder playing with these creations. I loved this piece as a kid and my own children also loved it.

~

Excerpt from “America Is Hard to See,” by Robert Frost

Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.
He might have fooled them in Madrid.
I was deceived bywhat he did.
If I had had my way when young
I should have had Columbus sung
As a god who had given us
A more than Moses’ exodus.
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.

The people on the streets and in the subways and in the neighborhoods were uniformly kind on this warm summer evening. Even when we got in one another’s way. That’s what I saw.

~

House & home

Falling Water

Falling Water

I went on a trip to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Fallingwater house, which is located in a forested state park area in the southwestern region of the state where I live, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a large state, and in all the years I have lived here I’ve never managed to get to Falling Water; so I was excited. The day we arrived, the weather was perfect, the water was high, and we toured two Wright houses–this one and Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s last residential design commissions.

Millions of people tour Fallingwater, so the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy folks (who have stewardship of the property) have their hands full maintaining the place, training docents and volunteers, and just keeping crowd control working. Kudos, by the way. They do a good job. Send them donations.

~

At the café (there’s always a museum café), my partner pointed out a letter reproduced on the informational wall–a note from Mrs. Kaufmann, owner of the house. She wrote that initially the home intimidated her a bit, as Wright’s designs tend to force the homeowner to live the way the house dictates, rather than the other way around. Curtains, a typical decor requirement for a 1930s residence in town, were anathema to Wright. In the middle of Bear Run forest, did Mrs. Kaufmann need curtains? No, she eventually decided–the trees provided color and changing light and privacy and were far more interesting than curtains. What initially seemed too austere for her tastes grew on her; she learned to do with less “stuff” and found that the simplicity made the things she did add to the house seem all the more valuable and aesthetically pleasing. The Kaufmanns must really have been special people to embrace the challenges of living comfortably in one of Wright’s homes, indeed, in his most unique residential design.

~

My husband and I designed our current home 17 years ago and have some idea of the compromises owners have to make, most commonly for financial reasons (that was not an issue for the Kaufmanns, who were department-store magnates). As we toured Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, one thing that hit us is that building codes have changed the way Americans build; you couldn’t get a Wright home design past most local zoning commissions in Pennsylvania nowadays.

For example, 19″ hallways? Nope. 6′ ceilings? I don’t think so. Some of the tight interior stair turns would be disallowed. And, let’s face it, the whole cantilevered balcony situation would set off a hundred bureaucratic red flags.

~

house 2009

My house in snow, 2009.

My own house had to agree with the local building code. There was also a budget we really could not exceed. Over the years, we have added to the deck, improved the porch railing, completed building interior doors ourselves, worked extensively on landscaping (first adding to it, then pruning back, then…well, there’s been a bit of mostly benign neglect recently). But we have generally lived comfortably in the house and adapted it to fit our needs, the way most people live in a home. As our living situation changes, with children growing into adulthood and moving away, with fewer pets and no more chickens, with less need for a large vegetable garden, we’re thinking of ways to alter the house. Or even to move out of it, and let some other family have a go at its joys and responsibilities.

Its sensibility leans toward a meadow-type or agricultural feel. That suits the region in which we have settled. Which may be the only way our house parallels Fallingwater: it suits the environment and the region in which it is situated. To me, that is one of the main purposes of good architecture, and the rule most frequently ignored by homebuilders.

~

Our home can boast an improvement over Wright’s houses: it doesn’t leak (I lived in one in Grand Rapids Michigan in the 1970s, and can attest to the leaking factor).  :)

~

For a 3-D computer-animated “flyby” of Falling Water and a half-hour documentary on its history, see this page (Mental Floss). Pretty interesting!