Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

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mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.

Conditioning

In regards to my last post: I’ve conferred with some people who knew Jack Fisher, and I may have mis-remembered parts of the story. Although those who knew him agree it sounds like something he would do, no one else can place the painting that I recall. His daughter says it’s possible I saw a sketch or preliminary painting that Jack never completed. (She definitely recalls how much he abhorred the water tower!) If so, perhaps his talking about the possibilities of the composition made an impact on me, even if the work itself was a watercolor sketch that never made it to canvas. Entirely possible.

The point of my post remains the same, however–that “ugly” things can be understood in ways that may offer new perspectives on what we consider beautiful.

I guess what I am trying to get to qualifies as a kind of conditioning. That’s now a therapeutic approach to teaching people how to overcome, say, a phobia of airplanes or elevators. You put your toe in the water, so to speak, or learn about the thing that causes fear. And knowledge can overcome fear. Not always, but often.

Inadvertently, I discovered conditioning on my own, when I was about twelve. I decided to study some things I was afraid of–spiders, bees, darkness–and managed to unlearn the fear. It does not work with everything: I’m still acrophobic.

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‘Lunchtime Atop A Skyscraper’ Charles Ebbets, 1932

My biggest fear was one most human beings acknowledge–the fear of death. From the time I was quite small, I worried and feared and had trouble getting to sleep because my mind raced around the Big Unknown of what it would be like to die. Many years into my adult life, I decided to explore that fear through my usual method: self-education. I read novels and medical texts and philosophy and religious works in the process. Finally, after visiting an ICU many times during the serious illness of a best-beloved, I decided to sign up as a hospice volunteer.

It’s one way to face death–one sees a great deal of it in hospice care. But the education I received from other caregivers, from the program instructors, and from the patients and their families, has proven immensely valuable to me. Am I afraid of death? Well, sure; but fear of death (thanatophobia) no longer keeps me up nights. I possess a set of skills that helps me recognize how individual each death is–just as each life is. More important still? I treasure and value the small stuff more and am less anxious about the Big Unknown. It’s going to happen, so why agonize over it? This is conditioning. For me, anyway.

Conditioning does not have the same meaning as habituation, because conditioning requires learning and is more “mindful” than habituation. Habituation occurs when we just get accustomed to something and carry on; perhaps we repress our emotions or our values in order to do that carrying on. People can habituate to war, poverty, all kinds of pain, and can make not caring into a habit. We are amazing in our capacity to carry on, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. Getting into the habit of warfare, hatred, ignorance, hiding our feelings, or other hurtful behaviors is often easier than getting into more helpful habits like daily walks. I do not know why that is.

I am, however, endeavoring to condition myself to stay awake to new perspectives, to stay inquisitive, to plumb the world to find, if not beauty, at least understanding and compassion and gratitude. Maybe one day I will even manage to get that perspective from somewhere very, very high up…    [yikes!]

 

Aesthetic “therapy”

I have been musing on Rebecca Solnit’s text in which she writes about the Romantics’ “new” appreciation of Nature. I was particularly struck by her research about how in Europe, and among the Eurocentric American colonizers, pre-Romantic era society considered mountains not only dangerous but also “ugly” (in Wanderlust: A History of Walking). Aesthetics began to change in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. Walking the natural world for something other than pure transportation from place to place altered our social ideas about what’s “beautiful.”

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“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”  —John Cage

 

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This train of thought reminded me of Jack Fisher’s water tower. Jack was a friend and extended-family member who who lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania from the 1940s until his death in 1999. He was an architect, engineer, teacher, builder of many things, and an artist.

Often when we were visiting, Jack would show us a painting he was working on. On this occasion, he told us how annoyed he had felt at a new condo development; the big, aqua-colored water tower rising from the housing campus especially irked him. “It’s so ugly!” he said. “So ugly, and I was feeling so mad, I decided to do a landscape painting of the damned thing. And here’s what’s funny–I kind of like the composition here, and the colors. What do you think?” He was right. It may have been an ugly water tower, but it was a lovely painting.

Unfortunately, I do not have an image of that painting except in my memory; here, however, is a painting of Jack’s that depicts the fields in Bucks County, PA, which he considered beautiful.

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Suber’s Field with Clouds, Jack Fisher, oil, 1998

Imagine a water tower here, and a sea of peak-roofed condominiums. And a balanced composition, and a deft use of colors.

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Looking closely enough at something to find that you no longer see it as ugly requires an almost meditative change in perspective. It’s been an approach useful to me as a poetry prompt and as a means of more closely appreciating the world and everything in it. I don’t mean that I identify with the 19th-c Romantics, though I eagerly trod where Wordsworth trod when I visited the Lakes District a few years back; I don’t. My view of nature is really with a small ‘n’ and is pragmatic and scientific, among other things.

But: John Cage’s question to himself is a reminder to be compassionate, to observe with openness, information, education, perspective, and loving-kindness…while walking through the world.

 

Autumn, time transfixed

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When we were initially landscaping our property, I chose to plant a particular species of zelkova known for its lovely fall foliage color. I cannot recall the variety now, although I am sure I recorded it in my garden journal 16 years ago. The leaf color is challenging to capture in a photograph. If only I were a painter, then I might manage. Of course, the color varies depending upon time of day, cloudiness, and atmospheric changes.

It is a lovely tree that announces the equinox quite articulately.

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Equinox, autumnal: a slowing of crickets, the brief visits of migratory birds, quieter dawns, fewer bats at dusk, longer shadows. Time is far from transfixed.

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I visited the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, on a warm October day to see the René Magritte exhibit. Magritte’s work is so easy to parody, so graphically amusing, that my brother–who was not all that familiar with the artist–at first said, “This reminds me of mediocre high school art.” After viewing the entire gallery, however, he had changed his mind about Magritte.

Magritte did a great deal of commercial art and, like Warhol years later, felt comfortable with the kind of graphic representation to which wide audiences respond. And then he played with that audience’s expectations, sometimes more effectively than others. One painting which certainly upends expectations and which I was glad to see again is La Durée poignardée, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago; it was a favorite of my late friend David Dunn.

La Durée poignardée (1938)

time-transfixed-1938(1).jpg!BlogThis image of the painting appears at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/rene-magritte#supersized-featured-211652

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Here’s some playfulness concerning the title. The French word poignarder means to stab, and the implication is to stab with something pointed, ie, a dagger, since the verb is transitive. It interests me that the accepted English translation for this painting is “Time Transfixed.” The meaning I associate with transfixed in terms of, say, holding in one place (pointedly?) is that of pinning insects to a board as in lepidoptery displays. In this painting, the “stabbing” seems to be reversed: the pointy end emerges rather menacingly from the static, domesticated mantelpiece. If this image depicts the verso side of the display, it could be time itself that has been killed, spread open, and pinned, invisible from this aspect. Or perhaps the translation should be “Time Stabbed through Its Continual Duration,” stabbed with a poniard in the shape of something almost as ongoing, the contemporary barreling locomotive engine.

As it is a genuine surrealist painting, no particular meaning can be assumed. The images are random; make of them what you will. Magritte came up with wonderful, mysterious titles for his work–his paintings and their titles have inspired quite a few poets over the years. David Dunn was among them.

No wonder, really; this artist was quoted as saying, “The function of painting is to make poetry visible.”

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Meanwhile, since I am not a painter, I will let the zelkova tree make poetry visible to me for a few days…and then get back to writing some myself.

Virtual, physical, personal

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Redbud leaf in fall

Through the blogosphere, I’ve met some fascinating and talented people. The virtual connection, although I have learned to value its scope and immediacy, generally seems a bit wanting in connection for me. Even though I tend toward introversion, my favorite way to connect with people remains face-to-face. [Go ahead, call me old-fashioned.]

In the days of listservs and message boards, I first began “meeting” colleagues online. I signed up for the Women’s Poetry listserv (Wom-Po), which is still active today. One of the best things about that list, besides the fact that I learned a great deal about poetry/women’s poetry/teaching poetry/contemporary and historical female poets, is that I met many of my colleagues in person while attending writer’s conferences, readings, and similar events.

What joy for a person like me, who tends to be a bit reserved about meeting new people. For introverts, a virtual introduction and conversational exchange online–even just recognizing a name on the listserv–has made possible a route to social icebreaking at conferences like AWP.

This past Saturday, another virtual connection joined the realm of the physical when I got the chance to meet–in person–artist Deborah Barlow at the opening of her show at Morpeth Contemporary gallery. I’ve seen her artwork on her homepage; but as is often the case, viewing the work in person was revelatory and beautiful. And meeting the artist herself–also revelatory and beautiful!

I recommend her blog, Slow Muse, which has alerted me to many a terrific book on creative thinking, the creative process, and poetry as well as introduced me to several wonderful contemporary artists’ work.

As the seasons undertake the dying-toward-renewal process, I welcome musings and inspirations. The shining, textural depths of Barlow’s paintings offer another way of looking. As do good books and sunny mornings on the back porch.