Pointers for a Writing Life

At the farm, for the month of June, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I will concentrate on the tasks in front of me. On the other days of the week, as much as possible, I plan to escape to a rental house on Cape Cod. It’s between Wellfleet and Truro on the ocean side, an area I love and where I have vacationed with my children since they were young. My plan is to work on a book I have been writing off and on for five years and more. I would like to finish it, am feeling the pressure to complete this project—or if it seems not-finish worthy, eject it. Send it over and out into the ethers—delete, delete. After all, it is only electronic bits of information.

But thankfully there is Annie Dillard. In her book, The Writing Life, she says, “Writing a book full-time takes between two and ten years.” She offers me relief. I have not been working full-time on this project. I have two other full-time jobs—art and the farm. She also says:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control: it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

I understand this ferocity. At home, I cannot open the book for it might take over, grab hold of a leg and not let go. When I am on the road, or somewhere else, anywhere really, on a train, in a hotel room, and now at the Cape, for some reason the danger is not present and I can turn to it, dive in, and to my astonishment, do the work I love—the search to shape of an event, or an object, with words. And then there is the book itself, becoming an entity of its own, taking over, devising its own life. The two of us now living together.

I am writing about moving to Old Frog Pond Farm, assuming the care of the abandoned orchard, and committing to bringing it back organically. What got me here? Why did my marriage fail? How has my Zen practice braided through the orchard work? And what lessons have I learned that appear in my art?

            Annie Dillard again:

The strain, like Giacometti’s penciled search for precision and honesty, enlivens the work and impels it toward is truest end. A pile of decent work behind him, no matter how small, fuels the writer’s hope . . .”

Yes, she is right, I do have hope. And then I fall short, I fail as I judge what I am writing. I hear myself say, I am not a real writer. I read other writers whose work I admire and see how my writing lacks their skill. How does one learn to write? Annie Dillard, thankfully, answers this question.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength; that page will teach you to write.

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Other than write, I take beach walks. On my first one, I stopped when I found a horseshoe crab upside down, it’s little pinchers barely moving. I turned it right side up and watched as it began to move. Its long tail spine pointing to where it had come from, its hulk moving towards the waves. It stopped after about ten feet, and I had this sickening feeling that it was dying, right there, in front of me. I touched its pointer, wriggled it from left to right, and it started up again, slowly, another six feet, scraping its way over the sand, leaving its foot-wide trail. We went through this ritual several more times, my teasing the pointer, the crab starting reluctantly to move, but each time it seemed to be moving more slowly.

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When it finally reached the waves, I felt this was its most precarious place to be. It stalled. It waited. The surf poured over its hard shell. It seemed to be waiting for something. Then a large wave carried it into the jumble of surf. I saw was the tail spine, sticking up above the wave, pointing.

 

 

Mothers of the Earth

It’s a rainy and cold Mother’s Day morning. I smile though, as I walk to the studio and meet two families of geese shuffling their puff balls away from my threatening presence. The tireless care of these geese parents for their young, the overprotection, their ceaseless devotion strikes me as radical. What if we offered this kind of care to the world?

This morning I have no sculpture installations, no farm workers, visitors, or meditators. I thought about what I wanted to do with my free morning—a yoga class for my body, meditation for the mind, painting for the muse. There has been so much doing in the last month. Good doing, yes. Caring for the trees and the land. Meeting and helping artists. Delicious lists of a new asparagus bed to dig, raspberries to weed, young apple trees to weed and mulch, potatoes to plant, mowers to fix, dead trees to take down, buried rice to feed (we’re growing our own effective microbes to inoculate compost and orchard teas) and so on. But writing this blog is not on my to-do list, it is not something I do and say, now that’s done. It grows from a particular seed of quiet with the shape and color that only comes from being alone. I have to weed the garden of its to-dos in order to uncover what is growing.

Last Sunday we had a Crone Ceremony for the first time at the farm. Thirty-three women gathered to celebrate and bless each other.

An Online Etymology Dictionary defines crone with a lot of negativity:

late 14c., "a feeble and withered old woman," in Middle English a strong term of abuse, from Anglo-French carogne "carrion, carcass; an old ewe . . ."

The defintion ends with:

Since mid-20c. The word has been somewhat reclaimed in feminism and neo-paganism as a symbol of mature female wisdom and power.

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At our gathering, we made ourselves crowns with fresh forsythia branches and flowers. We joined to acknowledge the new shape of our lives as older women, as wise and creative women with enough experience to trust our intuition. We rang The Olympic Bell and listened as its deep note resounded through the grove of pine trees. We let go of habits that no longer serve our lives today by tossing a symbolic twig or stone into the current of the pond. We owned our creativity and freedom as we sang, Amazing Crones to the tune of Amazing Grace, and celebrated that we still have much to offer the world. We ended our ritual in a circle in The Medicine Wheel as each woman asked to be blessed, and the group chorused, We bless you, and spoke her name.

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Like the cherry petals that have fallen, the flowers in our crowns faded quickly. I tossed mine into the woodstove the next morning. But, this week, the orchard apples opened their pink cloud hues and row upon row like trackless waves billow on every side. Will the Gods favor us with a good crop? Will the low temperatures forecast for Tuesday night freeze the about-to-open blossoms? Will bloom sustain the wind and rain long enough for the pollinators to do their work on the next sunny day? 

Will our bodies trouble us too much so that we can no longer do the things we love? At our gathering we had one women who could no longer walk unsupported because of progressively debilitating Multiple Sclerosis. As she stepped with her walker into the middle of the circle, we felt her bravery and her struggle. 

On this Mother’s Day, I offer a prayer for the earth and a blessing for our children and their children. May we do the work to provide good medicine to heal our beloved planet Earth. May we creatively cultivate the opening of all hearts for every sentient being. May we find the seeds of quiet to reconnect with what is important so that future generations will blossom and bear fruit.

We’re all mothers of the earth. Happy Mother’s Day!

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Generations

Dedicated to Annette Barbara Weiner (1933–1997)

I was recently prompted to read “Once More to the Lake,” the essay E. B. White wrote about returning to his childhood summer home, this time with his eleven-year-old son. For White, then 43, memories flooded back as he gazed at his son’s hands on the fishing rod. White no longer knew who he was—the son of his father or the father of his son. Disturbed by this unsettling dichotomy he wrote:

I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn't know which rod I was at the end of.

What is passed between parent and child, and how does this happen?

Generations is the title of the current exhibit at Hopkinton Center for the Arts, and the title refers to the relationship of the two exhibiting artists, my daughter, Ariel Matisse, and myself. Less than two years ago, Ariel decided to make an outdoor sculpture for our annual sculpture exhibit at the farm. This was the summer after she helped with the exhibit, After Apple Pruning . Taken with using wire while working on a collaborative sculpture for that exhibit, Ariel wanted to make a wire tree and asked to use a hollow log I had in the studio. I’m always fascinated with hollow logs—the form and the emptiness. The heart sutra, chanted daily in all Buddhists monasteries, says, Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Ariel wanted to gold leaf the saw cut, the way I have done since making the six-part Inside the Ordinary Maple in 1998. 

Inside the Ordinary Maple, wood and gold leaf, LH

Inside the Ordinary Maple, wood and gold leaf, LH

 “Of course, I will show you.” First you sand it smooth, gradually using finer sand paper. Then it needs to be urethaned to seal the wood. Moisture seeping up into the gold leaf will lift it. Then you need to apply the sizing and wait for it to be the perfect tackiness to receive the leaf.

Gold leaf is between .1 and .125 millionths of a meter or micrometers. One thousand sheets will equal an ordinary piece of paper. It’s not something you can grasp with your fingers. To pick up a small fragment, you will find a soft watercolor brush is useful, rubbing it first in your hair to create some static electricity. For large areas, I use a rolled leaf that comes with a thin backing material. Once the leaf is placed down on the sizing and pressed in gently, you lift off the backing.

Ariel and I sat around the log each on our stool, our hands moving together. I watched her fingers. They knew how to hold the tools, to feel the smooth surface of wood, to lift the backing. I showed her how to shine the gold, to burnish it with a cotton ball.

Then the project was all hers. Cutting wire to length, hanging this Medusa head of tangled wires from a hook on the ceiling, bending, shaping, counting the complex pattern. Twisting the roots and drilling the ends into the trunk. Where did she learn all of this? When? What is transferred between mother and daughter? Or, father and daughter ? Ariel’s father is a gifted ‘maker of things’, as he likes to say.

When the director of the Center, Kris Waldman, needed a show to fill the slot from January 25 to March 15, my name was suggested.  She came to the studio on December 24th and took photos. As she was leaving, I said I’d like to do the exhibit with my daughter. She was surprised at first, but then I pointed out two of Ariel’s pieces, Spiral, on the wall, and Willow, her first tree, the one we had gold leafed together. Ariel then sent Kris photos of her newer work.

Tempo V  , Ariel Matisse

Tempo V, Ariel Matisse

Kris chose sculptures from each of us and suggested the title for the exhibit. One of my pieces is, Filling the Vessel, a large five-panel sculpture I made in memory of mother. In the gallery, it faces the wall of Ariel’s sculptures. I feel I am in between the two of them. I relate to E.B. White’s uncertain feeling of no longer knowing who he is. 

I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture.

Recently, my art no longer feels like something I own; it belongs to something more fluid, a stream, a flooding of creativity across generations. I’m playing my part, doing what is in front of me, inhabiting my life as fully as I can, yet letting it flow. E.B. White describes how, while in the boat with his son, “A school of minnows swam by, each minnow with its small, individual shadow, doubling the attendance, so clear and sharp in the sunlight.” He seems to be seeing himself as one of these minnows, insignificant, one of the schooling fish. It’s points to the conundrum of form and emptiness. The shadow and the real are inseparable. White is not father and not son; and both father and son—a beautiful rising and falling of creation. The living and the dying, and the what never dies.

 We hope you will see the exhibit at the Hopkinton Center for the Arts, Hopkinton, MA, and perhaps join us at our reception on Friday, March 1; 6–7:30 p.m. The gallery is open Monday–Saturday, 9–5 p.m. and during the center’s evening events. The exhibit is up through March 15.

Left: Ariel Matisse,  In the Garden,  2019, copper wire, walnut, 11" x 6" x 5½". Right: Linda Hoffman,  Long-Legged Man,  2006, bronze, branch, wood block, 65" x 16" x 16".

Left: Ariel Matisse, In the Garden, 2019, copper wire, walnut, 11" x 6" x 5½". Right: Linda Hoffman, Long-Legged Man, 2006, bronze, branch, wood block, 65" x 16" x 16".

My mother, Annette Weiner, would be so happy to see the exhibit. If I had thought of it earlier, I would have suggested we exhibit one of her paintings along with our sculpture.

Tree  , Annette Weiner

Tree, Annette Weiner

When my mother went to college, she already had two children ages six and nine. Starting out as a Fine Arts major at the University of Pennsylvania, she then changed to anthropology and went on to earn a PhD the year I graduated from high school. As in the orchard, the cycle continues from seed, to blossom, to fruit. This poem by Dawna Markova says it well.

 I Will Not Die an Unlived Life

                       
I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

 

Long Shadows

Dear Blog Readers,

Happy New Year!

The last blog I wrote was before I left for a Buddhist pilgrimage to India in early October. When people ask how was the journey, I usually begin to talk about painting. Uncharacteristically, I journaled throughout the trip not with words, but with small watercolor paintings of important sites and experiences. Now, as this year ends, I am turning towards words as a way to understand how I was changed by the trip and to share it with you. It’s been a curious enfolding.

  Caw caw caw crows shriek in the white sun over grave stones . . .                                                                       —Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish

When I was a young child, a large Arborvitae grew outside our small row house in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial city with streets of row houses and screen doors that banged. We were among the few Jewish families, and we drove to Center City Philadelphia to celebrate holy days in the city’s oldest synagogue, Rodeph Shalom. The recitation of the Kaddish was my favorite part of the service because the grownups rose while the children remained seated, and the endless rhythmic chanting of V-im-ru ah-mein in the mourner’s prayer made me feel I belonged to a great sadness. However, when I was fourteen, I became disillusioned with Judaism and became interested in Eastern religions, eventually taking Buddhist vows.

The pilgrimage to India was a journey to the roots of Buddhist spirituality. Our group of sixteen Zen practitioners meditated under the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment, and listened to the Abbot of our monastery give a talk on Vulture Peak where the Buddha gave many sermons to his followers 2500 years ago. We visited the sites of the Buddha’s birth and of his death, a cave where he meditated, and stupas built to honor his most faithful disciples and his mother. I painted it all.

The Bodhi Tree, India sketchbook, LH

The Bodhi Tree, India sketchbook, LH

Painting from the bus window, India sketchbook, LH

Painting from the bus window, India sketchbook, LH

On the last day of our trip, I saw the headlines, “Eleven Jews killed in the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue.” I remember thinking something like, ‘it never ends’, but my reaction was shallow.

When I returned home from India all I wanted to do was to paint. The Catalpa Tree was waiting for me outside my studio—this giant of a tree that I had been drawing and painting over the last six months.

Catalpa Tree at Old Frog Pond Farm

Catalpa Tree at Old Frog Pond Farm

Dissatisfied with my prior efforts to capture its strength, I decided to paint the energy of its massive trunks, not the outer form of the tree. I painted one painting, tacked it to the wall, and started another, sometimes going back to work on an earlier one after it had dried. Around painting number five, this great sadness welled up inside me. What was I doing? Where was it coming from?

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Some of the paintings had fire and flame; not just trunk and furrowed bark. I listened closely, and from my heart rose up the words, “On October 27, 2018 eleven Jews were killed at the Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh.” I knew I had to paint eleven paintings to honor each person who died. Their names were familiar—Rabinowitz, Rosenthal, Stein. I come from a long line of Steins on my mother’s side.

A few weeks of seeing the paintings on my studio wall, I decided to do something to make the deaths more visible. I cut each painting across at the height to mark each person’s age at the time of the shooting. I added a new section and then restored the painting to wholeness by reattaching the cut-off section.

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The Arborvitae of my childhood, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Bodhi Tree in India, and the Catalpa outside my studio at Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard all blended, each tree unique and yet all sharing the same roots. My journey to India connected me not only to Buddhism’s beginnings, but to my natal tribe. 

In creating art we can transcend tragedy. We can also integrate the parts of ourselves that we have kept hidden. When asked about my trip to India, I still begin with, “I painted.”

May all beings have abundant peace in the New Year.

May we always see the perfection in the other.

May we care for the earth with great love.

May we not forget those who came before us and gave us life.

            V-im-ru ah-mein (and we say, Amen.)

Note: This series of paintings will be on exhibit in the Camilla Blackman Concert Hall at Indian Hill Music in Littleton, MA beginning March 1 with a closing reception on April 26th. And if you would like to hear a transcendent instrumental piece I recommend listening to Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Kaddish. for violin and piano.