** 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.
Okay. It's been a while, and my most faithful readers (you know who you are ;-) have been chiding me, gently probing to discover the cause of the 'blog jam.' Would it help to admit that following the demise of summer I am in mourning for the dying sun?
Probably not, but no matter.
Here I am back to offer some last impressions of that season of light. Here in the Bay, we don't have those stunning displays of brilliant reds and oranges covering entire mountains such as exist back East, but there are days, like the recent afternoon pictured below, when trees blush pink and sidewalks are painted gold with fallen leaves, days that make me smile, grateful for the ghost of the sun lying at my feet.
All this yellow made me laugh.
Tripping down this sidewalk, my trusty dog Earnest AKA Toto-in-disguise at my side, I felt certain I would soon see the Wizard or at least stumble over the Scarecrow.
Of course, I didn't.
Unless the tiny woman with the huge bag of recyclables balanced on her back could be counted as a wizard. Who knows? She did give me a big smile and would have waved had she not needed both hands to hang onto the bag and its magical contents of convertible currency, aluminum to nickels. As she moved sturdily across the street, her back bent but her spine stretched long, wizard-like indeed.
It's a prickly time of year, magical and desperate. Spines seem to burst forth with as much vigor as blossoms in the spring. Passers-by look skeletal, wet with rain, hair and clothing plastered close, umbrellas inside out, metal innards quite exposed. Trees stripped of leaves are naked bones, stark and steely gray but still a fragile bulwark against the inevitable winds of winter, fingers reaching to catch the leaving of the light. Such magnificence -- these edges -- I should feel grateful for this sudden beauty, but I mourn the dying of the light, miss the rustle of the leaves. The sound of branches scraping the sky is lost on me.
But that's okay, too.
Autumn skies have enough music to carry me through dark December days. Plenty of strong chords, howling winds, and always the grace notes of geese honking their way further south.
Trees pressed against flooded blue and leaves pressed to rain damp concrete. Both leave lasting impressions.
I came upon these sidewalk leaf prints pictured below while walking recently in Emeryville. The leaves of young sycamore trees had blown down during the last raging rain storm. After the 'river of rain' -- the 'pineapple express' -- had glued the leaves to the sidewalk, tannins leached onto the white concrete, and when the next blustering wind came howling off the bay, it blew away the spines of the fallen leaves, and the shadow of summer remained printed on the sidewalk.
A perfect ghost.
Meanwhile, I've been working, printing books and painting.
Sometimes Sleeping with its imperfect ghosts, standing guard.
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.
Daily, I walk on this strip of sidewalk, passing by St Patrick's Church, and daily I think this is the most beautiful sidewalk in the world and then I check myself -- okay, maybe the most beautiful in Oakland. Okay, maybe West Oakland. Okay, maybe it doesn't need to be the 'most.' Maybe it is enough to feel beauty brush by as I walk, to inhale loveliness, to feel flowers like sunlight on my skin -- an indelicate confusion, an intimate prayer. . . not the sort of prayer desperate people send up to heaven (God help me with this, God save me from that) but quietness exhaled, a breathing for the grace of continuance.
Let the sun rise.
Let flowers drink the wind.
Let sky settle slowly and quietly on the day.
Let night come in waves.
Let me walk in beauty.
All around me there are fire crackers, rockets, and explosions load enough, large enough, to be small bombs. It is almost July 4, the day Americans celebrate their freedom by blowing things up -- a phenomenon I have never understood. Freedom is translucent, shimmering, and fragile. Bombs dense, dark, and sharp. How does the latter represent the former?
Why don't we celebrate our freedoms with flowers, with fragrance, with song?
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.
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
. . . and disappears too quickly into the thrum of the city streets. Where have the past two weeks gone? Why have I not posted anything here? Am I dead? Dying? Sick? Confused? Captured? Stuffed under the kitchen sink, all trussed up with dental floss?
None of the above. I have no excuse. I've just been wandering, in and out of rain, re-imagining spring.
And spring has been happening.
Flowers bursting from concrete.
Seas lifting past usual borders, leaving behind wisps of ocean hair.
And in some neighborhoods, there are new houses of a size suitable for fairies more at home sheltering under lily leaves. Furniture-less, these houses keep the rain off words -- spread the word. Keep literature circulating and free.
I'm all for it.
So winter leaves, summer comes sneaking in, and I am making my own decisions about my own teeny-weeny house of a size suitable for dreams.
What am I in the eyes of most people - a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
. . . So Vincent Van Gogh once wrote to his brother Theo.
Now, I'm going to go and make some tapioca. I love tapioca -- fish eyes and glue, we used say as kids, our spoons clanking against the metal sides of the pan, polishing it clean before the pudding cooled.
Fish eyes and glue.
On those days when I just feel like walking briskly non-stop without indulging in the distractions of sea winds and ducks slip-slap-slapping their feet against waves as they attempt water take off without traction, I go to Emeryville where the sidewalks are long, very nearly always empty, and reach all the way to infinity. There's nobody talking and nobody walks along the sturdy nearly 1/2 mile-long fence separating the magical kingdom of Pixar from the rather more mundane outside world of concrete and gravel. Nobody but me, that is, me and Mr. Earnest, the wonder dog.
At this time of year, it is still possible to peer through the black iron bars into the inner sanctum, and I do. Those bars are too wide for my hands to grasp without stretching uncomfortably, but I can lean against their immobility and almost taste the lush green lawns within, imagine being barefoot in all that grass, walking next to star creatures and six-foot caterpillars. A lovely dream, a distant impossibility, close but as far from my world as are translucent glaciers under an arctic sun.
Soon, however, the thorny canes bound to those massive bars will be in full green growth, budding and stretching and concealing. The secret Kingdom of Pixar will once again disappear. New canes thick with buds will swell through the bars and burst into pink bloom. The street will be flushed with roses, the air perfumed . . . and that blue sky, resting now so sensibly on that sturdy triangle of black steel, will suddenly and inexplicably be propped up by a most outrageous froth of hot pink.
I can't wait.
Different types who wear a day
coat pants with stripes and cutaway
. . . putting on the Ritz.
Just the other day, I was out trimming my all impetuous passion flower vine and came upon a butterfly, a butterfly in January. A real butterfly -- a California Painted Lady, sitting quietly on the redwood post beneath the green waterfall of leaves. It didn't fly away.
Then, today, cleaning my refrigerator, I came upon a head of Romaine lettuce that I bought perhaps a week before Thanksgiving, in mid-November. Now before you scold about my housekeeping, imagine this. That head of lettuce, still in its original bag, was as fresh as green as the day I bought it -- no greying outer leaves to peel away, no browning stalks -- just Romaine looking for all the world like Romaine. Why have I keep it for so long? Now you can tut-tut-tut about my housekeeping.
But my housekeeping is not the story here. I held that lettuce in my hand, looked closely at its still perfect leaves, and then carefully laid it back in the crisper. I have no intention of eating it, but I'll keep it. I'll just watch it -- see how many more months it stays fresh and crisp and green. It startles me to see lettuce so old and so green. Makes me wonder . . . what are we eating these days? Why -- how -- does lettuce stay fresh for two and a half months?? Is that even possible? The bag reads 'organic' 'no preservatives.' Say wha? No preservatives and this ancient head of lettuce looks like it was just cut from the field? Why? Was it watered with liquid plastic?
Cabbages can last that long naturally -- just peel off the limp outer leaves and the center is still sweet, but lettuce? Lettuce was the treat of the spring, fresh greens, new greens, tender greens that might soon wilt. Romaine lasted just a little linger. Pick it in the morning; it might still be fresh for the evening meal, but who ever heard of 2 1/2 month old Romaine still fresh. . .
Our world has gone strange. Butterflies birthing in January. Eternal lettuce that will never wilt.
I'm not much interested in eating ever-crisp-always-green lettuce grown sometime in 2010. My liver might be suddenly as crisp and green. I rather prefer the real and the ephemeral -- baby lettuce that settles flat onto the plate (eat it quickly!), fog that disappears by noon, sun that skips gold on water, children's chalk drawings on sidewalks that will wash away with the rain.
The imagined and the dreamed -- as real as real can be.
Boats and flowers: what a child sees
and butterflies, what a child dreams
. . . or sees, could be, beneath
a waterfall of green January leaves.