Friday, December 31, 2010


Yes, I'll make resolutions as 2011 appears on the horizon. I too will "resolve" to do things better, to exercise more, to whine less, to be more grateful. I'll follow this tradition dating back thousands of years to be a better person. The ancient Babylonians, credited with starting the resolution tradition, are said to have most frequently resolved to return borrowed farm equipment. That's funny.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this definition of "resolve" to a late middle English word that means to dissolve, disintegrate, or solve a problem. The ancestor of this word is the Latin "resolvere," which is composed of "re," which expresses intensive force, and "solvere," which is to loosen. So, ultimately my act to resolve is to forcefully loosen something. I like that definition. I'm going to forcefully loosen my attachment to anger, to sloth, and to excess. That sounds do-able.

Wondering why resolutions are typically made at the beginning of the year, I discovered lots of intriguing things. One is that the beginning of the new year has changed a number of times. Before Julius Caesar, the new year was on the vernal equinox, the re-birth of greenery in springtime. Caesar made January 1st the beginning of the year on his Julian calendar. That worked for awhile until a church council in 567 thought new year celebrations were too rowdy and so abolished January 1st as the beginning of the year. The new year was celebrated on a number of dates in the Christian world for the next 1,000 years, with Dec 25th and Easter dates sometimes being dubbed "New Year's Day." The milestone settled on January 1st in the 16th century. I think it's fascinating that bodies can make such decisions. Seems like tracking a new year along with the tilt of the earth would be the most logical.

Folks all over the globe review their lives at year's end and start a new year fresh. Resolutions are accompanied with lots of interesting gestures, from jumping seven waves, throwing flowers in the sea and lighting candles in the sand, to exchanging gifts, burning Christmas trees, kissing loved ones, and scrubbing the house. Noises are important in many new year's celebrations, including fireworks, noisemakers, and bells, originating, it's said, from the need to drive evil spirits away. A Buddhist tradition is to ring gongs 108 times, representing 108 human frailties. The Greeks ring bells 12 times, as they eat 12 grapes, representing the year's months.

One of the most intriguing new year's customs I discovered is wearing underwear of a certain color: Mexican women who would like to get married in the coming year wear red underwear and those who are pregnant wear pink underwear to bring good luck to the baby.

So tonight I think I'll join humans around the globe at this important pivot. I think I'll wear green underwear (to help me act more environmentally sound); I think I'll eat 12 olives; I think I'll jangle my new wind chimes 12 times; I think I'll kiss my sweetie and then my dog; I think I'll make firm my resolve to forcefully loosen three of my attachments. This will head me in the right direction for 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


As I age, like many, I take mild delight in being a curmudgeon. There are some issues that just make me a bit cranky and I don't feel like apologizing for them. One such issue involves television. I'm not a fan. Don't have a big flat screen. My living room, with its hardwood floor, teal walls and hand-tinted landscape photos, is a salon, a spot for reading, talking or playing the musical instruments stored there: native American flutes made by my sweetie, conga drum, and small hand drums. It is living room, not a watching room.

Not a TV watcher, I spend my time at home reading, grading papers, writing, cleaning, cooking, gardening, knitting, or playing with my dog. I do not spend my time at home watching TV. Television's main function, in my world, is to serve as a vehicle for NetFlix. The house's two TVs are located at the east end of the place, in rooms with doors that can be closed, so the rest of the house can be quiet, which is how it is most of the time.

My daughter is the same way, seeing TV primarily as a movie-viewing tool. She was regarded with pity by a loved one when he discovered that, as recently as 2007, she had a TV with no remote control system...a TV with an on/off switch that was a knob to be pulled! How could the poor dear get by with such an appliance?

I know there are lots of wonderful people who do not share this approach to television, people I love a lot. In deference to them, I am tempering my observations, couching them in terms that may belie the intensity of my feelings. Hope I am successful at this modulation.

I do not need to have TV as background, finding it actually bothersome, rather than relaxing. I do not need to keep up on the latest news, whether it's from MSNBC, Fox, CNN, or PBS. I do not need to listen to rants about the left or the right. I do not need to know where Angelina and Brad are at a given moment. I do not need to be yelled at by advertisers.

My crankiness about TV surfaces in public spots, as well as the privacy of my home. In airports, I try to sit well away from TVs, though that's a challenge. Same thing goes for restaurants and bars, again a challenge. I was disappointed this week, as I went into a very upscale bar/restaurant located along a beautiful river. A key selling point of this place is the river view. I stopped in for happy hour beverage and appetizer, seeking a light early dinner in an elegant setting. Amazingly, this fancy spot, with its sleek modern architure and stunning black and white photographs, had a blaring TV hung above the glass wall with the river view in the bar! An oxymoron of sorts.

A friend who was traveling posted her annoyance at having to endure booming TV in the hotel's continental breakfast room. She wanted to eat breakfast while visiting with her husband, not eat breakfast while enduring the blast of Fox news. I share her disdain for TV's invasion of personal space during mealtime.

A clear indication of just how TV averse I really am occurred this week. Staying in a very nice hotel, I refused to open the huge mahogany credenza housing the TV. After I'd been in the room for two days, I finally opened it up and found an amazingly clever set-up for making coffee. I'd gone two days without in-room coffee and done so needlessly, all because I'm not a TV fan.

My annoyance about TV occurs, in part, because I have really sensitive hearing. In motels, this is not a good thing, as I can hear folks talking or TV playing rooms away. Outdoors, this is a very good thing, as I can hear owls hooting several houses away. Walking along a river this week, I was able to hear one of my favorite birds, the bashful rufous-sided towhee, as it scratched in the maze of blackberry bramble draping the bank. Could only see the towhees occasionally, but knew they were there. I was able to hear the wingbeats of cormorants as they dashed over my head and hear their amazing splashdowns out in the middle of the river.

I like listening to noises that aren't necessarily man-made. I like being fully present in my environment, taking in all the magic that is offered us each day. For me, television can disrupt that process. And today, the curmudgeon in me offers little apology for that view.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bringing Green In

Sitting in my living room, I am delighted with my view: curls of rope light across the big window, blue LED lights all along the roof line, and white sparks on the tree in the corner. This year I decorated our Christmas tree with peacock feathers, about 80 of them. Sprays of gilded artificial leaves and pheasant feathers dance with the peacock's rainbowed eyes, as do deep turquoise ornaments. It's a gorgeous tree, snugged up against the teal wall.

Such a fun custom, bringing greenery into the house this time of year. I love it and I love the long, long history of this act. Because the winter solstice occurs this time of year, many people have thought that bringing greenery into their homes would help bring the sun back. Some societies thought that the sun god was weakened by illness this time of year and hoped that celebrating the solstice would help the sun god "eat" and return to full health. Bringing the greens inside renewed confidence that the sun would grow healthy and that all plants (not just evergreens) would thrive again.

Numerous cultures celebrated this way, including the Egyptians who brought green palm rushes, symbols of life triumphing over death, into their homes, hoping that these would help the god Ra recover. Ra, with his hawk-shaped head, wore a crown that included the sun. The ancient Romans also decked their halls with greenery, to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn, in hopes that he would help their lands turn green and productive again. Druids and Vikings revered evergreen boughs, with the Druids decorating their temples with them as symbols of everlasting life and the Vikings honoring them as the sun god Balder's favored plants. European, primarily German, customs incorporated evergreen interior decoration as part of Christmas festivities in the seventeenth century and Westerners have loved the custom ever since.

Evergreens are such fascinating plants, decked out as they are for year-round photosynthesis and prepared to take on the harshest weather. Their diversity is amazing. My late husband used to train me to distinguish various conifers and I enjoyed the drills. He tutored me in needle shape and distribution (whorls were fun to ID!), bark, overall shape, top configuration, cone design and size, as well as location (north slopes most likely had some fir). Tamaracks (larch) were easy for me to ID in fall (bright yellow) and winter (needle-free), as were ponderosas (Grandfather trees) with their ruddy bark and long needles. Our house on the river had huge ponderosa pines, three stories high and as wide as the house. When they went through their August needle drop, we had mats of dried needles over the whole yard, the roof, the deck, and the driveway. It was wonderful. Though the pines dropped wheelbarrows full of needles each summer, they remained faithfully green all year long.

Evergreens: symbols of unending life. I like the idea of bringing evergreens into the house for the dark of winter's longest night. The greenery reassures us that the sun will come back, the plants will grow again. And, in this house, with 80 peacock eyes perched among the pine boughs, the reassurance is spectacular!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Art n Love

Just spent three days basking in the glow of a group of artists that loves, I mean, loves its art. Watching this group (Ozomatli) perform, I was convinced that this isn't just a business deal for these guys. They love performing. They love taking their art to a higher level. They love seeing the joy in audiences' faces as they congo through the throbbing crowd at the end of a show. They love watching frenzied fans bounce, jump, wave, dip, and scream in response to their Latin, funk, hip-hop, mid-Eastern, rap art.

Because I've seen them perform so many times, because I read their posts on Facebook, because I sometimes talk to them before shows, I know their affection for the art is genuine. They're not just doing this for the money or the ego-strokes. The pull is heart-deep.

One of the Ozo shows I watched this weekend was devoted to kids: Ozokids. It was held in a rowdy adult venue, the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. It was held with an open bar (you had to be stamped to be able to drink the "Big People" drinks). It was attended by all kinds of adult Ozo fans. Seemed like a regular Ozo show...but it wasn't. The driving spirit of the show was genuine love, for the kids and for the music that moves kids to dance, jump, play instruments, and grin. Seeing these band members in silly costumes, doing gallops and jumps and performing really dorky drama, while powering out their wondrous music, was touching. It was like being in the living room (the loving room?) of a big, warm family.

This group has always touched me with their substance. These aren't fluffy pop artists; they care about issues, causes, humans, kids, and art. A short history of the group was recently captured at a composite presentation made in San Francisco at a TEDxSF show (TED is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group). The TED gig revealed the group's commitment to lots more than just CD and ticket sales. Their hearts beat for kids all over the world, as well as for social justice issues facing adults in this country and elsewhere.

Scoping Ozomatli's fifteen year history of commitment to music and social issues, the TED show was a cerebral confirmation that this group really does love its art, its art as a tool for social change and a warm hug extended across contention and discord.

But this weekend's Ozokids show was not cerebral confirmation. Seeing them shine for the next generation of Ozo fans, seeing their genuine affection for these kids, I responded emotionally, not intellectually. I became even more smitten with Ozomatli. They love their art. It shows. It's not pretense. It's the real deal. I love seeing such an authentic bond between artists and art. Their passion speaks to me deeply, reverently.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Art Talk

Artists talking about their art: not sure I like that. Years ago at a literary seminar in Key West my sister and I heard presentations from some of the writers I revere: Annie Dillard, Gretel Erhlich, Terry Tempest Williams, Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, Richard Nelson, Thomas McQuane, Peter Matthiessen. These are writers who stretch their necks out to defend the Earth and all its inhabitants. These are people who have won big with their art, as in Pulitzer, et al. These are world-renowned wordsmiths, weaving wonders about the natural world.

I loved the chance to see and hear them. I loved the opportunity to connect faces with persona I had imagined over the years as I read their works. I loved seeing the energy sizzle among them as they engaged in repartee.

But, as I look back on the experience, I also feel a bit disappointed. I saw that one was pompous and unreachable. Another was an annoying drunk. Another was shy to a fault in this setting. One candidly discussed artist's ethics in a way that was less than satisfying and tainted my view of her work. I saw that one loved the spotlight, enough to damage his artistic integrity. And, blessedly, another embodied all the idealized virtues I posted for her in my imagination. These writers were, in fact, very human artists: flawed, funny, and foolish.

I see now that I wanted, with these renowned nature writers, to let their art speak for them, to let the words they struggle over, build meticulously, revise and revise, be the lasting brand in my memory, not the characters doing their impromptu acting on a Key West stage.

This notion came to mind yesterday as I explored a wonderful exhibit of my state's superior artists. The juried show contained exciting, exquisite work in varied media, including sculpture, painting, printmaking, photography, and even robotics. A close friend of mine, a landscape photographer, had a stunning entry, a black and white panoramic scene. (One of his photographs is on the cover of my book of poetry.)

All these artists were invited to share a written message about their art. My friend's words were on point, showing me a strong moral commitment to his work and our planet, as well as helping me understand why he is now working with panoramic images. My experience of his art was enhanced by the words he wrote.

But in some instances, the words were distracting, at best, and even annoying. And why was I surprised at this? These artists' media are not based in words. That realm is not their forte. One entry, from an artist I met decades ago, was particularly notable. It displayed the artist's discomfort in using words, an uneasiness I remember from my personal contact with him. Although my understanding of his work was enhanced a bit by reading the words, the piece spoke to me powerfully on its own. I didn't need his shy, terse note.

So I thought about artists writing or talking about their art, about the act of using words to embellish, explain, or justify artwork. I prefer to deal directly with the source, to read/view/hear the artpiece and arrive at my own conclusions. Create your piece, dear artist, then let me decide what I think of it.

This is not to say that artists shouldn't write or talk about their work, not at all. It's just conveying my preference for a close encounter with the art.

I've spent some time writing / talking about my work, even though it makes me a bit self-conscious to do so. For example, the preface of my poetry book, The Silence of Bright Star, explains to the reader that poetry is for me like water and that the act of writing a poem is much like that of building furniture. These explorations were intended to share with my readers underlying views about the art but, in the end, my poems speak for themselves.

Art words---talk or prose about creations---are fine supplements. But for me the artwork is the purest connection I have with an artist.