** NB: This will be my final entry on THE STREET. Tomorrow, on the first day of 2013, I intend to make my first entry on a new blog IN BEAUTY. I need a new beginning. We all do. '
Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.' -So said Dickens long long ago, really not so long ago . . . ***
I live in a curious (and beautiful) region where the signs of change are continuous and variable, as I suppose change must be, but still it is sometimes confusing when signs of winter's onset appear simultaneously with signs of birthing spring and the demise of summer.The last leaves are dropping from the Ginko trees and at the same time, the tree branches are prickling with buds. For these trees, winter is a silly inessential comma shoved between summer and spring. Beneath their temporarily barren branches, green green grass is frosty white in early morning hours, but spring bulbs ignore the cues of winter's entry and take
advantage of increased sunlight to proclaim the arrival of spring. The first hyacinth is in full bloom, and its sweet perfume tangles with that of dozens narcissus flowers opening; indeed, some of the earliest spring flowers are already nodding, their bloom finished.What to make of this signatory confusion?
That the signs we read, those we recognize as measures of certain 'truths,' i.e. the reality of seasons, are not concrete markers but flickering shades, anchored not to any concrete reality but tied loosely to shifting context?I dunno.
'Thinking' may help me reorganize this confusion of seasons into a new sort of normalcy, but who knows. There is an argument to be made for recognizing and reading signs, but what happens when the inherent meaning of the signs changes? There are times when signs advertise a spent reality or are written in an archaic language. What then?
I tend to think that we might try abandoning our notions of knowing and instead dive into what surrounds us, swim in it, feel it, breathe it, swallow it, live it. Of course, there are things we need to know, we need to consider, to manage, if we are going to create useful joyful communities focused on the future, but we also need to dive into dream, even if the sign reads STEEP DROP. In this past year, we have all come to the edge of one cliff after another, fiscal or otherwise, and, at times, ignoring the warning signs, stepped over the edge. We haven't crashed yet.
As I write this, I hear my neighbor's wire-wheeled high-polished purple hot-rod fly by at super-speed. I look from my window and see him flash by and note that he ignores the red light on the corner and the one by the school and the one beneath the BART tracks. No one follows. This is not a good 'sign,' I think; it does not suggest peacein the New Year . . .
But is it a sign and if this is a sign, what kind of sign is it? One easily ignored or one arriving with as much vigor and determination as the fragile pink of the hyacinth beneath the leafless still-blooming rose? Is it sign of continued decay, rising anger? A sign of dismay or simple youthful recklessness? Or one of bizarre hope, the extreme hope to get from here to there at speed without crashing?
I suppose it's all in how we read it.
The pink heart above covers a hastily spray-painted swastika, a sign emblazoned on two phone poles at the opposite ends of one block by some misdirected (or angry) individual. Some days later, another more concerned and thoughtful resident (or passer by), stenciled pink hearts over the swastikas, imposing a beauty and grace over disorder and suggested mayhem. The signs shifted and the social environment of the block shifted. Anger was translated into peace.
How do we discover harmonious solutions to complicated life puzzles? By ignoring signs, or by recognizing signs and then re-imagining them, re-purposing them? By translating the negative to the positive? By learning a new language, unearthing a vocabulary of justice, discovering the grammar of love?
Maybe the only solution is to open our arms to life, to wake, to rise, to sleep, to be.
I suppose it's all in how we sing it.
And dance it.
Another storm has swept across the bay -- this one even more ferocious than the last, leaving behind flooded streets, sagging hillsides and skies bluer than they would be without all that grey to prop them up. After the roaring rains Christmas day and the tropical deluge of Christmas night, the parks on Boxer's Day were empty but sparkling, and my little dog and I enjoyed walking alone along the shore.
Well, we weren't entirely alone.
Ducks paddled happily about on the newly formed ponds covering the green expanse of the ball field. Not much chance for Christmas touch football games here, but the mallards with the shimmering green heads and neat white collars are happy indeed.
If only we humans could adapt as easily as do the ducks, if only we might paddle as peaceably in new pools of thought as these pairs of ducks in their new fresh water pools. We might discover that we, too, could find new paths, new ways of being, dive like ducks, happily pulling grasses, finding new solace in old places. But we don't.We just go on, determined to
maintain our ferocious belief in our old stodgy ways of 'progress', believing that bigger is better, more is necessary, but that 'new and improved' attitude as a foundation for living is destroying both the present and the future. It is clear now that if we don't adapt, if we don't scale back, find simpler ways of being, we will destroy the planet.
Our climate is changing with a speed not predicted, and that change is our fault. We have suffered through more extreme climate events
than ever this year, but still few are making the necessary changes in their lives that might slow the change, ensure a healthy future for future generations on the planet. Everyone thinks change is someone else's responsibility, and so storms grow ever more ferocious. And we go on, merrily consuming, consuming, consuming, demanding more oil to meet the needs of this increased consumption, this greedy scraping all there is to scrape from the bones of our Mother earth. The future destruction of the planet is preventable, but I fear we lack the willpower
to change. We are not as adaptable as ducks. Humans want their wars, their things, their luxuries.
If only more people could understand that the luxury they crave is beauty, and that beauty already surrounds them, then perhaps we could protect that beauty, save our planet.
luxury is the planet itself,
the sky wide above the willing land below, white waves on
seas, light after the storm, oxalis in yellow bloom, dry grasses suddenly green, small critters scampering from rock to rock, iridescent plumage of wild ducks, an unexpected shadow, a bright flash of color. The air we breathe.
Why can't we change, understand less as more, be content to enjoy the small moments.
Inside those small moments is a vastness that can fill our hearts and erase the boundaries of our minds.
Along with millions of others, I was on the road yesterday. I hadn't planned to go anywhere. I had spent the morning puttering about, sweeping floors, washing sheets, pruning vines, and was just settling down at my drawing table when a dear friend called and asked if I wanted to go with her to Sausalito and walk about the annual art show. Why not, I thought -- I am always too alone inside, reading, writing, drawing -- and agreed.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the bridge, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the short hop freeway to Sausalito. Stop-go-mostly stop traffic along Sausalito's main street. Huge very official signs for parking -- $10/$20 take your pick. This lot full. That lot full. No room at the inn. Finally we parked in a mostly empty parking lot of a Chinese restaurant, closed for the day, and then walked to the festival, marveling at the long lines of festival goers waiting for the huge buses contracted to ferry folks the not-so-many blocks (2? 3? maybe 4?) between the parking lots and the festival gates. They would wait longer in the hot sun for their hiccup of a ride on those gas-guzzling air-conditioned buses than it would take us to walk leisurely from the most distant parking lot.
We paid our last dollars to the ticket taker (no discounts for artists, deep discounts for children, smaller discounts for age, none for wisdom) and entered the grassy alleyways of art, paintings settled against makeshift walls, tents winging white against the blue blue waters of the harbor, steel sculptures casting blue shadows on bits of woven paper and fragile hand-painted silks.
I don't intend to offer here a rambling review of the festival. With more than 250 serious and enthusiastic artists exhibiting, that would be a most difficult if not impossible task, at least for someone like me, but I would like to mention just a few artists whose work attracted me because it stayed just outside the boundaries of 'safe' and 'saleable' art that encircled much of the work exhibited at the festival. Curiously, all three of the artists I mention here identify themselves as self-taught artists. The work they create is indeed unique but not so personal as to be unreadable. Their works link culture to culture, hearts to mind.
Born in Ghana, Prince Duncan-Williams
came to the US to study architectural drafting but soon found himself drawn back to a family tradition of sensuous silk mosaics and began to perfect his art, carefully gluing brilliant silk threads and capturing the colors and vitality of jazz with his surprising and lively images that draw traditional African arts into concert with contemporary art and music. Another African artist, Fortune Sitole
, grew up making art in South Africa before coming to the US. Using unusual materials -- corrugated metals, wire, bottle caps, whatever he finds -- he creates boldly colored lifeful images of the Township he once knew as home and now carries in his heart. He currently works at the American Steel
building in West Oakland. Justin Dobbs Robinson
is a young Alabama artist also more interested in art than product, trying as hard as others to be a salesman but clearly a bit uncomfortable with all the festival glitz. He paints -- and collages -- imaginative creatures with good-natured grins, sweet and happy -- the happiest a small painting entitled "You are the Tie You Wear".
If I had had $300, I would have bought it then and there.
I like happy.
walk on through
After walking about from tent to tent, booth to booth, for more than three hours, I felt rather hot and tired, my mind smoothed rather than joggled about, which I found a bit disturbing. I was glad, of course, to see so many actively creating but had hoped to see more heart less glitz than I had seen and so despite the sweat settling on my lower back, I felt a bit dry and deflated. Perhaps, I was simply on overload.
Soon, we were back on the road, bumper to bumper over the sparkling waters of the bay, moving into the slushy sway of East Bay traffic, slow enough to let me read the banner hanging from the overpass at the Berkeley Marina:WAKE UP AND SMELL
I breathed and I could smell it, thick rich and dark, the decay of centuries slowly thawing and settling, sifting ancient waters into rivers mixing with the sea. The ice is melt
ing; the traffic is bumper-t0-bumper. Too many are looking for ways to extract more oil, more gas. Too few are speaking about how to reconfigure our lives so we use less energy. Drive less. Fly less. Plant gardens. Eat local produce. Turn off air-conditioners. Turn down the heat. Localize.The gate in the picture above? It leads from an ancient cemetery to an even more ancient tree. The cemetery holds the bones of sailors whose ships went aground in stormy seas. Those bones are dust now, but the tree, young when the graves were dug, still clings tenaciously to the windblown cliff, living branches sprouting from
those that seem broken and dead.WAKE UP AND SMELL
THE PERMAFROSTWhere do we go from here?PS . . . Go see Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild . . .
Ancient Hapu Fern tangled with an Ancient Red-red Rose
Last night, I lay quietly listening to the earth exhaling -- slowly with a long blue hiss that slid easily over BART trains quarreling with highway traffic and settled pink on the hollow fog horns. I liked that even with all the noise -- sirens, drunk halloos out on the street, dogs yapping, horns honking -- I could hear the earth whistle like lace.
That now in these drab grey desperate times at the edge of this lumbering city the earth could sing such a sweet lullaby may seem smiraculous but I know it's really quite ordinary. Blessedly ordinary. I thought of the red-red roses I had seen earlier in the day attached quite firmly, almost intentionally, to the underside of the giant frond of hapu fern our front. The fern frond had been drooping towards the earth, the rose reaching for the sky, and when they touched, they attached. Of course, no one -- except perhaps the wind -- had pinned the rose to the fern, but there they were, joined at the lip. They had been both busy dying -- the rose petals curled and dropping, fern fronds turned and drying -- but then quite unexpectedly t here they were united in a sudden celebration of life.
Thorn to frond, corsage to lapel.
I sighed to see those two ancient plants leaning into one another . . . Nature the artist creating an unexpected tableau, reminding me to keep breathing, keep dancing, watching the brushstrokes of light and color, listening for sky songs and answering sea echo. I don't care how corny it may seem . . . I love such small moments of gasping love that the earth provides.
If such beauty daily remin us of just how precious -- and miraculous -- life is, why do we humans continue to pollute the planet, endangering and perhaps eliminating the future? Are we so foolish to think life eternal, beauty everlasting? Why can't we change our habits of consumption, learn to live more simply, find happiness in small moments? Why do we need to have and have some more? Why are we so convinced that the only way to cure our economic woes is to buy and buy and buy?
MELTDOWN. Acrylic and watercolor on paper 12"x12" Tia Ballantine, Aug 2012
The arctic ice is melting at an unexpected speed; the Greenland ice-sheet went into full meltdown this summer
, and still too many believe that this desperate problem we have created will somehow right itself. It won't. We have to change. Abandon war. Grow gardens. Love one another. Make art. Sounds so simple as to seem rather desperate, I guess. What do I know? Who am I to say? I'm just a breathing being living close to death, loving life and waiting for the wind to pin a rose on me.
This afternoon, I fixed myself a cup of tea and sat at my drawing table in front of the open window, listening to the street and to my heart. I waited until I could feel color dance my bones, and then I opened my sketchbook and painted the small painting above. Meltdown.
rain maker in the shade
Monday afternoon, I had the privilege of experiencing composer John Luther Adams
' Inuksuit (
2009) performed this time by 24 musicians under the spreading trees at the Faculty Glade on the UC Berkeley Campus. The concert was free and well attended by both old and young plus frisbee chasing dogs -- not my Earnest-the-Importance-of-Being-Earnest, of course. I have enough sense not to bring my dog to a place of drums, knowing (as I do) that he hates drums -- I think they might sound to him like guns. When he hears them, even the friendliest of drums, he turns and runs for home, lickety-split.
And the first drums of Inuksuit
sounded more like guns than thunder or a call to community. Explosive and sudden, they erupted from every corner of the meadow and struck open the afternoon air. Soon they tangled with sirens, many sirens, at first buried behind the quieter rice rain drums, conch shells, birds, and the tap of snares but soon sirens grew louder and inched up over layers upon layers of drums and clashing cymbals.
The sound of danger. I found myself hoping that things might cheer up a bit soon.
Thirty years ago fellow artist Brendt Berger and I used sirens to create a sound piece that provided the soundtrack for a street theatre piece I designed to wake observers to the dangers of the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. That soundpiece was somber and extraordinarily disturbing -- the sound of the end with no beginning to follow. Our little troupe of artists suited up in disposable white coveralls with cadmium red Xs painted on the back and then moved through the streets of NYC, faces painted white, hands clutching over-sized boom boxes loaded with cassettes of the siren soundpiece. We collapsed in intersections, stopped traffic, and the sirens played on. No respite. We were acting against what we saw as a clear and present danger, but offered little hope. No solution. Inuksuit,
on the other hand, begins with sirens (and airplanes and distant train whistles) but then ends on a hopeful note, allowing its listeners to trust that we humans are more capable of love than hate, that we can make right what is now wrong. Inuksuit may mean 'to act in the capacity of a human, but we humans are a peculiar lot. We don't always do the right thing, but we can, if we choose.
We don't have to watch the world melt; we don't have to wage war. We can choose how
bells in the sunny glade
John Luther Adams has lived for decades in Alaska and thus has had the opportunity to see up close and personal just how the actions of the Great Consumerist society, humans acting unfortunately like humans, are affecting the more delicate pulses of the planet. He watches as the winters warm, as ice melts and permafrost slumps and sinks, and what he feels as he watches is tucked inside his Inuksuit, both warning and prayer. To be human is to act, to dream, and to reason, and although not all of our human actions are reasonable, grand or good, we can change when necessary. Inuksuit convinces us of that by heightening in the space of an hour all our senses. Inside this music, we become more aware of both the limits and the extraordinary expansiveness of our human capacity .
By the end of the performance, every pore of my skin was hearing every whisper of the world around me. I could hear trees breathe, insect wings, the patient rustle of birds moving from branch to branch. As the last silver note sounded, crows high above in the redwood trees cawed loudly, and then the bell in the clock tower sounded the hour. With the staccato drum and sirens, Inuksuit warns, but with the delicate ringing of bells and pinging of triangles, also provides the grace of new beginnings, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful.
Guitars after midnight without the moon
In small spaces between dawn and dark, I sit --
in narrow spaces away from glare and noise
round spaces where brittle traffic wind won’t fit --
I sit, my fingers wrapped in bird voice
my back heavy with palm tree rustle
as dull as thick as the neighbor’s cat. I sit
Wondering if those who plotted and prodded
are now ashamed or contentedly asleep, eyes
hooded under throws of silver sparkle lies.
A flirtation with style puts out the light, ends
with the decision of heat too brutal to record.
No distance to the sun. No ice to cool down.
Painting oil/canvas 1983 . . . Photograph - clip from "Under African Skies" Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon, circa 1987
my vegetable-herb-fruit garen
My job is ending. In one week I will once again be unemployed. Knowing that work paying a living wage is hard to find, I have been using my down time during these long months of work to think about re-figuring my living space into a healthful and comfortable hermitage that will nurture my return to the life of a hermit artist and poet, living simply, creating daily.
I have planted vegetables in my backyard -- squash, broccoli, lettuce, two tomatoes (Roma and Early Girl) -- in beds that already house mature rhubarb and strawberry plants, fruiting blueberries, a sweet pepper plant (two years old already), cilantro grown tall and setting seed (I love coriander), and various culinary herbs -- oregano, thyme, tarragon, savory, various basils (including Holy Basil), chives, parsley and more.
Plus flowers . . .
I cannot live without flowers. . .
nasturtiums with fuschia behind
. . . and everywhere there are flowers.
Roses bloom on fences in the front yard; pansies peek from below the skirts of poppies, sprouting in the most unexpected places -- between bricks and under the canopy of squash leaves. The Foxgloves, always amazing with their spires of pink, much beloved by bees, are finishing, but Fuschia against the fence are just beginning. Magic Rue is slowly unfolding its starry yellow blooms, and nasturtiums cascade from planters and creep up trellises, confounding the eye and heart with their intense color. In the late afternoon, I sit in my yard and just breathe, watch the hummingbirds and the butterflies, imagine what this yard will look like long after I am gone when the lemon trees have grown heavy with fruit, the tiny plum tree puffed tall and wide.
I know it won't be the same, but some green will remain. Maybe the nasturtiums or the lavender will still bloom, shading the drying earth. Gardens thrive when tended, shrink back when that attention disappears, but always something survives, some happy plant that grows merrily with no more attention than the casual brushing by of rain and sun. Everywhere across the continent, hills and fields are filled with garden 'escapes.'
I recall the 'wild' asparagus at the edge of fields in Colorado, marking the boundary of a long-ago homesteader's garden, and a field of 'wild' thyme blooming purple beneath the Tappan Zee bridge in NY State. Neither were really wild -- wild in the sense of happy-go-lucky maybe but not indigenous and certainly not endemic. They were the remains of gardens, stretched wide.
lavender, Martha Washington pelargonium, and olive tree above
Maybe it will be the fruit trees that survive, or the Western Dogwood. Perhaps the olive tree will continue thriving in its small plot near the street. Olive trees need little water and live for decades. Take the people away, remove the racket of the city, shut down the lights, and I can imagine it still fruiting, long after more delicate cultivars have succumbed to the blistering sun
in a world of melting ice and rising seas.Our climate is changing. The world is warming. We really can no longer deny that. Carbon dioxide levels world-wide are now higher than at any time in recorded history.
If you don't believe me, see what NASA
has to say. If we don't change our ways, conserve our resources, stop madly consuming, we will soon be rushing like overwrought lemmings to the edge of the last cliff we'
ll ever see. It's up to us to save our world.
Each of us. Drive less. Turnoff the lights. Live without air-conditioning. Open the windows. Work when it's cool. Sleep when it's hot. Plant vegetables, eat what you grow.
Collect and save rainwater, use it to water your garden. I have four rain barrels strategically positioned around my little house. My plants love that soft silky sky water, and I love the being able to live with green growing plants, my little carbon dioxide eaters and oxygen producers.
Hooray for gardens. Hooray for life.
rain barrel, provided by the City of Oakland
At the full moon perigee, we expect earthquakes. Instead, we get cold. Winter has arrived late this year, a burr stuck to the hem of spring. It's important, I suppose, to remind ourselves that burrs carry seeds, and the tenacity of those burrs allow plants at home in one valley to hop rivers, cross mountains, move to the next valley, settle down and grow again.
It's all in how you roll the dice.
city trash can, 8th & Peralta, West Oakland
On a grey day, a pink river, no current
We’re in the thick of it, this spring --
Blossoms falling as soon as they open.
No wind sweeps them away, no rain
washes them helter-skelter to the bay.
Oxalis, February bloom
Louder on full moon nights, the street
wakes up. Highway whine sharpens its axis.
Train whistles whip the wind to speed.
Dogs bark longer louder faster. The couple
on the corner argue more with words
and less with fists, finally. Unmuzzled,
a motorcycle wraps up the banging pile driver
breaking concrete beneath the overpass,
and inside all that clamor, the steady tick-tock
of a clock with a spring that needs daily winding
and rings as loud as a firetruck if the alarm is set.
For now, my alarm is the cherry tree, its pink bloom
washed white by the early February moon.
This spring, one spring, come too soon.
February 5: new leaves, willow tree, Alameda, CA