Monday, May 30, 2016

the obscure lives of writers

" order to be obscure someone else has to actually know you’re obscure." 

- Anselm Berrigan

So let's talk a little bit today about obscurity. I have to admit I've always liked the word which is I suppose a good and lucky thing.

It was late in the week and it had been a gloomy one, little sun, much rain. And I realized my camera was pretty empty. I'd spent a couple of afternoons in the garden, planting things. A rose bush for one. And conveniently, a rose fell from it, was knocked off in the planting. I brought it indoors and tossed it into a water glass. Before dinner I was slicing a lemon up for a pitcher of water. A small band of light came in through the back door to land on my increasingly decrepit blue table. So, okay, a still life with lemon and rose. Which reminded me of this next poem, a still life dream, beginning with the rare lemon. 

Still Life

by Marianne Boruch

Someone arranged them in 1620.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
a lot and neighbored it next
to the plain pear, the plain
apple of the lost garden, the glass
of wine, set down mid-sip—
don’t drink it, someone said, it’s for
the painting. And the rabbit skull—
whose idea was that? There had been
a pistol but someone was told, no,
put that away, into the box with a key
though the key had been
misplaced now for a year. The artist
wanted light too, for the shadows.
So the table had to be moved. Somewhere
I dreamt the diary entry
on this, reading the impossible
Dutch quite well, thank you, and I can
translate it here, someone writing
it is spring, after all, and Herr Muller
wants a window of it in the painting, almost
a line of poetry, I thought even then,
in the dream, impressed
with that "spring after all," that
"window of it" especially, how sweet
and to the point it came over
into English with no effort at all
as I slept through the night. It was heavy,
that table. Two workers were called
from the east meadow to lift
and grunt and carry it
across the room, just those
few yards.  Of course one of them
exaggerated the pain in his shoulder.
Not the older, the younger man.
No good reason
to cry out like that.  But this
was art. And he did, something
sharp and in the air that
one time. All of them turning then,
however slightly. And there he was,
eyes closed, not much
more than a boy, before
the talk of beauty
started up again.

{from Grace, Fallen From}

Thinking about how we arrange our lives, the beauty in it, the precariousness.

Calm Things, the book, came into the world in 2008 - which seems an awfully long time ago. In the essay titled, "Precarious" there's a description of our daughter riding her tricycle in the basement. And now she'll soon be 18. When I wrote that essay which looks for consolation in the precarious moments captured in still life paintings and in the hand held out, outstretched to catch or steady, I think I imagined that it wouldn't always be that way, or at least not so dire. I might have imagined that our lives would be a little less obscure a decade on. (The book would have been finished a couple of years before publication...).

Maybe they're a little less so? Maybe.

"Ah well.  Who knows if this book will add anything to my works. Damn my works. I don't know why people attach so much importance to literature. And as for my name? To hell with it, I've got other things to think about."  

- Clarice Lispector

An excerpt from "The Obscure Lives of Poets" by C.D. Wright which can be found in ShallCross, which was finished shortly before her death.

Rare relief springs from poetry and lying flat, cloud-searching on the grass.
[how a glass ear is fashioned from words]
One poet goes silent as fishes; one stands in a lightning field and slowly begins to move.
[as a fugue composed in an open boat]
One writes again every thousand+ days and plants all things magenta, so named
for the Italian town of that name.
One, as a lock against beggary and death, writes only elegies; was advised by a mild elder:
It is all right to be depressed just as long
as you don’t let it get you down. [how wisteria can bring down a house/likewise cat’s claw]

I want to interject here that I don't think living the obscure life of the poet is necessarily so bad.

I never really wanted my life to be anything but obscure. But at least that.

In fact, you could say that I'm on the side of the obscure.

Look carefully around you and recognize
the luminosity of souls. Sit beside those
who draw you to that.

Learn from this eagle story
that when misfortune comes, you must quickly praise.

Others may be saying, Oh no, but you
wil be opening out like a rose
losing itself petal by petal.

Someone once asked a great sheikh
what sufism was.
                             "The feeling of joy
when sudden disappointment comes."

Don't grieve for what doesn't come.
Some things that don't happen
keep disasters from happening.

- Rumi (Coleman Barks, translator)

How to live as an obscure writer, artist. Look for luminous souls. Find joy, in spite of everything. Go forward with curiosity.

A post or two ago, I'd talked about imperfection. The way lives come across as being so lovely and beautiful on the internet. A couple of people said to me recently, "oh, I saw on Facebook that Rob's show went so well, that's so great." And you know, it was a beautiful show and it looked incredible hanging in the gallery, but for whatever unknown confluence of reasons and events, it did not sell particularly well. At all. A few nice things came out of it - some cool coverage in magazines, for example. But okay, that's the life we've signed up for and what else is there to do but feel joy.

All this really to say, that this life is not perfect, not even close to perfect. I have nights of insomnia, long weird dreams about selling the contents of my house, and then the house itself. I've been nervous eating. My stomach aches. I could go on....

Because I seem to keep recommending No Time to Lose by Pema Chodron to various people for various reasons, I thought perhaps I should heed my own advice and take it down from the shelf and revisit it. I love the part on the three disciplines (not causing harm, gathering virtue, and benefiting others). She says, "the most fundamental instruction for not making a mess of things" is "remaining like a log." There's something kind of amusing about that expression that works for me.

From Shantideva:

"And when you yearn for wealth, attention, fame,
A circle of admirers serving you,
And when you look for honors, recognition -
It's then that like a log you should remain."

Last Spring

by Gottfried Benn

Fill yourself up with the forsythias
and when the lilacs flower, stir them in too
with your blood and happiness and wretchedness,
the dark ground that seems to come with you.

Sluggish days. All obstacles overcome.
And if you say: ending or beginning, who knows,
then maybe—just maybe—the hours will carry you
into June, when the roses blow.


Ending or beginning: who knows.

Let's move from obscurity to hope. In the book I keep mentioning by Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise (on my recommended shelf above), she has a chapter on hope where she's speaking with Brené Brown who everyone has heard of I imagine. She's talking about hope as a function of struggle.

Brown says, "But you know what? I think we lose sight of the beauty. The most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn't know I could get out from underneath. The moments I look back in my life and think, "God, those are the moments that made me," were moments of struggle."

They go on to talk about resilience. KT says, "I'm glad for the language of resilience that has entered the twenty-first-century lexicon, from urban planning to mental health. Resilience is a successor to mere progress, a companion to sustainability. It acknowledges from the outset that things will go wrong. All of our solutions will eventually outlive their usefulness. We will make messes, and disruption we do not cause or predict will land on us. This is the drama of being alive."

Did I mention how much I love this book?

They go on to talk about 'failing gracefully,' which I think is so important.

Is it possible, too, to hope gracefully?

And then there is this strategy:

“Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”

- Karen Blixen

To go on writing, making art, one must be resilient, if nothing else. And while there have been many times I've worked without hope, I can tell you it's much preferable to adopt a mildly hopeful stance.

To return to Pema Chodron, she talks about a kind of laziness called, "loss of heart." She says discouragement is an indulgence. We must take heart, marshall our strength to do so.

We must, because really, who wants to miss out on the drama of being alive? The mess of it, the beauty of it, the struggles.

I'm going to end with a bunch of photos from the beginning of the week, when there was rain and mist and a general overcast. I kept trying to focus on small things. A bug, a drop of water.

So it's to the point where when I don't include a photo of Ace people start asking about him....

The perennials in our front yard have really taken off after the rain.

The view of the highway in the mist and drizzle:

My backyard vine is really lush after the rain. I'm most happy about this as it's the vine I hide behind all summer.

Last things.

Recent pins.

My recurring bird set is up to 335.

Reading, "What do clothes say?" Shahidha Bari. An excerpt:

Where language falls short though, clothes might speak. Ideas, we languidly suppose, are to be found in books and poems, visualised in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. They are taught in classrooms; expressed in language, number and diagram. Much trickier to accept is that clothes might also be understood as forms of thought, reflections and meditations as articulate as any poem or equation. What if the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries disentangling like a frayed hemline? What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways that human beings have lived: a material record of our experiences and an expression of our ambition? What if we could understand the world in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?

And. Rob is on Instagram. I've resisted Instagram for so long.....because I have enough web addictions as it is. But I do get the allure. All photos all the time. And the real time nature of it is great. However, I'm just going to live vicariously through him and all the art people he follows there. (Admittedly it's mainly me doing the clicking and posting.... but he's the one who enjoys all the rest of it).

And that's a wrap, friends. Wishing you a calm week and that you may enjoy the messy beauty of being alive.

- Shawna


  1. Beautiful Monday as expected.
    This is one of my favorite places to begin the week. xx

  2. Being a fellow photographer, lover of labs, snd seeker of wisdom, I like your blog, Shawna, which I just discovered yesterday. As to your current posting, I especially like the still life images of fruit. Well done.

  3. I'm reading this on a gray rainy Memorial Day, feeling eerily peaceful and nostalgic at the same time. I'm an obscure writer, a less obscure friend, a loving mom and wife, and I'm sipping up your words and photos like a glorious glass of iced lemonade on a hot day. Thank you.

  4. You share things that I feel, you share things I did not know I was feeling and you have a way of arranging all this with beauty, healing and hope. I appreciate every one of your honest conversations on Calm Things. Bless you week dear Shawna.

  5. I echo the remarks above by Sandra Dunn. And while we have met only once, I feel impelled to say, I send you a warm embrace. Pema Chodron has an interesting perspective on hope, amplified by one of my influences and her students, Meg Wheatley. I wrote about it in my first blog, a few years ago during a particularly challenging time, when sitting in silent retreat, I began reading When Things Fall Apart, as my life had. Particularly enamoured this time of your photos of the orange (my favourite colour) and especially the rose and brass bell...a wisp of coloured resonance back and forth between them. You have an eye, and of course, such a way with words. With metta...

  6. It is all messy beauty, although sometimes after a night of insomnia, I may leave the word "beauty" out.
    Your photos here are just incredible, Shawna. I love how you focused on the little details and the light is so yummy! I especially love the oranges and I love how they are placed on the edge of the table (I always remember that little tidbit about still life in "Calm Things"). I think it may be time to re-read that book. :)

  7. I too am resisting Instagram -- have checked it out and continue to resist.
    I love that photo of the poppy and the perspective you've chosen. I'd say that poppy is about to say something.

    I may not always be able to stop in, sometimes I stop and read though don't comment, but most times when I'm here I can't help but leave some little note.
    I'm with Karen Blixen whether the advice is for writers or not. Wishing you a week of small things and free of despair.

  8. Thank you all for visiting and leaving these lovely comments and links and love. It means a lot and keeps me going. xo


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