“We are in the midst of reality, responding with joy.” — Agnes Martin


, , , , , , , ,

A year later and I am back visiting the dead, this time questioning the responsibility of putting new life into the world.

Weaving in and out of the crypts and private chapels, the walls are lined with vessels holding ashes, shelves holding caskets, and the letters of names. It takes a strain of my imagination to fill-in the entire arc of a life that now sits in mostly forgotten urns, placeholders. Once behind the names were fleshes of personality, interactions that effected causality, relational change, consequences in the environment, impressions on the psyches of others — and then they were gone. Except for a spot in a tiny little box aside thousands of others, now also mere words.

Painting by Agnes Martin

(Painting, “Tremolo,” by Agnes Martin, 1967.)

This year, it struck me that the cast of musicians performing here and there among the dead were stand-ins, intermediaries. They attracted hordes of the living into this solemn place on the longest day of the year to challenge the human aloofness towards the dead, to weigh the untranslatable meanings behind those words. With mixed success. Even though evidence of death towers on all sides, our finite narratives and rehearsed terminal endings at the end of every sentence — we remain distracted from our own dying.

We committed to one dark grotto of those born in the early 1800’s. A professional cellist sat inside with her laptop and synthesizer. Sometime while she was tuning her cello and tapping on her laptop, it dawned on us that she was in high performance. The ambiguous noises were experiments against the classical instrument’s boundaries: a stutter and screech here, a falling note there, a computer’s response, and the cellist’s retort. When she finished her “tuning” performance and nodded her head to applause, we understood that the provisional and dissonant duet between cellist and computer highlighted the aleatory relationship between existence and not-existence — and was indeed beautiful music. As Steiner says, art reminds us that there is something rather than nothing, only by virtue of grace.

The scene seared into my heart the ruminating words I had read that day of my dear friend’s husband having only days to live. They were going down their road until a few weeks ago, their life was sideswiped by illness and overturned into a tragic twilight. At home in hospice care, they are surrounded by friends and family who improvise themselves into a blanket of love and support for his last moments. There is no score or predictable soundtrack here. Nor, as Pamela says, is this life a dress rehearsal. But at best we merely hear the music at all.

Painting by Agnes Martin

(Painting, “Trumpet,” by Agnes Martin, 1967)

My friend this evening and I jest that it is just as much the beauty of the performer as it is the melodic tunes (amidst many dissonant-sounding experimental musicians) that has drawn a thick crowd into side room of the columbarium. Sitting on the stone floor in vulnerable elegance, she plays odd, unrecognizable instruments in classical improvisations. And we, the living, over a trickling fountain lined with pertly pink and red impatiens, “watch” her fill the space of the eternally invisible with unseen timbres and undulating wavelengths of passionate percussion. When she breathes into a bamboo flute with an electronic lung holding a previous refrain to which she responds in turn, a strange but pleasing chorus emerges into a rhythm of labored breath, a futile and yet beautiful resuscitation.

(In the stairwell from one chapel to another, we overhear a woman remark that this is what people from the rest of the country think Californians do everyday.)

But the true entrance into me does not occur by that willful anticipation of art, just as much as predicted words here do not alight, but sink. Instead it happened when an unexpected noise entered the back of our music-filled worship. It announced the entrance of a young, disabled girl with the cognition of a child ten years younger. She burst into this delicate space, hugging a 3-foot Barney and two teddy bears, and proceeded to march directly to within inches of the musician. The performer was startled but without missing a note, welcomed her softly with her eyes. And the girl of a strange grammar, much to my held breath’s relief, plopped herself front and center with no further histrionics. While the music pulsed along, the girl’s father sat down in the back, occasionally waving a connective hello to his girl. But she is now entranced by the familiarly foreign music, playing seriously with one of the bear’s ears — because afterall, this is about our ears.

And I, the helicopter parent, who constantly restricts my exuberant son in a cloying distrust and tiresome fear of violating the perceived comfort of everyone around me, orchestrating him here and there so as to fit who-knows-what expectations, I succumbed to this scene. Yes, a carnival of existence among the backdrop of non-existence, of Nothingness — but mostly of trusting surrender. There in front of the dead, the distracted living, too — and because of the little bit of life under my domain that is there despite me — my heart busted itself into tears.

“As the shrine of Nothing, death is the shelter of Being.” — Heidegger

Painting by Agnes Martin(Agnes Martin’s last painting, “Untitled,” 2004)

“When a fox is fifty, it can take the form of a woman. When it is one hundred, it can take the form of a beautiful girl. When it is a thousand, it can speak to Heaven and will never die.” — Larissa Lai


, , , , , , , , ,

They left me last week, as was bound to happen.

But back in time, societies marked the first day of spring by the arrival of swallows, the same birds you might see outside your window right now. They cut through the air with imperceptible wing beats, more like the bugs they chase than bird-like. They sweep faster than my camera can focus, weaving invisible flight paths like loose braids in the ways my own memories criss-cross and become farther from truth, but in a way closer to me. And similar to memory, it’s as if one random clear day, they appear out of no where, just as likely as emergent from the ground underneath our feet than arriving from distant lands.

 IMG_1761 II

The same people believed that a fox could also be an immortal woman who prowls the night.

“When a fox is fifty, it can take the form of a woman. When it is one hundred, it can take the form of a beautiful girl. When it is a thousand, it can speak to Heaven and will never die.”

Our dear neighbor, Chuck (there is no better neighbor for warm mailbox conversation and handyman referrals and trinket-gifts to our scavenger son) has just spotted a fox traipsing along our backyards. Back there, the ceanothus is putting out snowballs of periwinkle blue, its branches forming undulating waves under which birds and snakes alike find refuge. And now this fox. I wonder what she wants to tell me.

Ceramic birdfeeder and goldfinch from my frontyard, 2008

(Ceramic snake birdfeeder, by Summer Lee, 2008)

May Sarton has been speaking to me through her journals. She tells me to make an art of solitude, of which I have a lethal deprivation these days. Solitude is not for everyone, she seems to say through her doldrums and delights. You can get stuck with yourself there and self-berate endlessly. But beyond that, there is an expanse that wants to be explored with ink, words, light. Silence.

Heidegger says getting to that place begins with willing not to will. By intending not to intend — which for us humans, hungry for connection and to be special, anxious for security and accomplishment, is pretty fucking hard. And only after that little unlikely step, can an awakening to an inner releasement occur. A lettingness. Gelassenheit, he called it, borrowing from ancient, mystical German text. In turn, through Gelassenheit, we are let in. The most mundane glint of light through a swath of paint on a centuries-old, unknown painting brings me to my knees. Or the tiny yellow feathers of a pine siskin is a sign of god. Or, on the other hand, nothing happens. Like Adrienne Rich’s fact of a doorframe: we may go through, but it makes no promises.

And for good reason, since that mystery is the foundation of being. But I forget. Or as Heidegger says, I fall asleep thinking I am most awake. And during my restless slumber these clear spring nights, the fox wanders through the moon-glazed fields of my backyard, hoping I glimpse her and remember before she changes form again.

So, despite my circulation-squashing chokehold on all trivial things right now — whether to have another child, how to produce an acceptable art piece, how to be a good parent and partner, how to protect wildlife and destroy the gun lobby, how even to slow down bastard time as it mocks my appearance, my memory, my ability to get anything done — I accept that those tiny pine siskins have left my feeder and have gone north for several years, if they return at all. They are faithful to a rhythm older than time immemorial. Not to me. And I’m so grateful.

By John Singer Sargent

(Painting by John Singer Sargent)

“The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well… For what comes after the door is surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty, with apparently no inside and no outside, no above and no below, no here and no there, no mine and no thine, no good and no bad… Where I am indivisible this and that; where I experience the other in myself and the other-than-myself experiences me.” — Mary Sarton, quoting Carl Jung.

“One can never pretend to comprehend completely –: that would disrespect in the face of the Unknown that inhabits — or comes to inhabit — the poet; that would be to forget that poetry is something that breathes; that poetry breathes you in.” Paul Celan to René Char


, , , , , , , ,

Since I was the youngest by 3 or 4 decades, my traveling companions were relieved it was me who, drained from travel and the stifling heat (and a sip of the local margarita), interrupted pleasantries to declare that I might pass out. Our host for the week escorted me to the warm cement sidewalk of a dirt street outside the humble restaurant and waited until the cool breeze of the desert night revived me. She asked me polite questions, mostly trying to ease my embarrassment, but also to indirectly resolve how it is that at not even 30 years old, I had become close friends and travel companions with a cadre of women in their 60’s.

The babel of barking dogs woke me the next morning, which was after the night of dreaming she came to hold me. Somehow, the dark sensuality of this woman a half-century older did not alarm me.

In the morning painting session, I start with images and colors I have known before, but they don’t cooperate. As I paint canvases full of utterly conventional crap, I find myself at the edge of tears. There in the shade of her turquoise and pink adobe courtyard, tendrils of bougainvillea cling to the walls closing in on me, mocking my vulnerability and failure — like the stuffing has fallen out of my bra and the world sees me trying to put it back.

She sees the paintings and since I cannot dare the gracelessness needed to throw them over the fence,  I wish for once they could tell a lie. She moves like a dancer around them and critiques them with the fists of a boxer. I am politely mute, in turn, hating my own politeness. I want to hate her but she is just the conduit.

Painting. By Leigh Hyams(Painting by Leigh Hyams)

Plus, San Miguel de Allende overwhelms my sensitivity. I know why the dogs bark. All of them trying to simplify and drown out the brightly jarring colors, the incessant music from blocks away, the dead heat, the spirit voices, the craving for something other. The unreachable ocean.

The next night I dream that my neighbor’s contractor tears out my yard. All my cherished plants are missing, upturned soil exposes eviscerated roots. I experience an abyss where there once had been logic and rationality. Before hitting bottom, I wake to the pre-dawn storm of bird songs.

My dream is clear to her. She tells me in deep tones and direct terms that this unknown is the place where I want to be. Because of this and the buzz in her words, I start crying as she speaks, releasing all the tears that started bubbling in the courtyard. Tears that were neatly packaged screams against my mediocrity, my mundane banality, my safety. Tears that were cages holding a fearful but overgrown child wanting out into the wilderness. My painter friends look on tenderly, thinking it is because I’m sad. But I am beyond sad or happy, I am approaching otherness.

They think she is only speaking to me.

She says, this crying business, as if to be disdainful and compassionate at the same time, is something that only artists can understand.

I would return years later for an extended time considering the small city, my being in the midst of fertility treatment, and the lack of communication to my home from this gritty, foreign country. I was prisoner again to my own painting in her light-drenched studio, but she was a gentle and stern warden. We had many conversations here and there, aside a parade of indigenous costume-wearing tribes, over breakfasts in teeming gardens, after a dip in the local mineral springs, and hopping along the cobblestones incongruently filling the roads.

Sensing her increased frailty and watching her meticulous devotion to a series of sparsely charcoaled paintings of local ruins — to me obvious elegies to past magnanimous accomplishment — I asked if she was questioning her mortality. She, sitting in the improbably verdant backdrop of a sumptuous, water-filled courtyard garden gleaming in desert light and singing heat, answered with a smile, and maybe a slight disingenuousness: not anymore than I always have.

Painting by Leigh Hyams
(Painting by Leigh Hyams)

Some mornings new art books would appear at my breakfast table, always with unspoken pertinence. I loaned her my copy of Mary Oliver’s recent Evidence — a book of searching poems comprised of terse words around what cannot be buried, even spoken, after a loss, or death.

So I can imagine exactly how it was when she died a few weeks ago. Her bed is overlooking her wildly tended garden. She is arms-distance to her favorite art pieces ranging from profoundly poetic to those with playful certainty, and those, maybe her favorite, continually in serious questioning. I can see the washed out colors of early Mexican spring, feel the light-headed air of the high altitude aggressively dancing with the dust lifted and levitating in her richly alive, medieval Latin city. And I hear a liturgy from the birds of her neighborhood, of course, taking over the tinny brass horns droning from distant radios. The birds alone can accept that someone who loved life so much should have to leave it.  As a consolation, when dawn breaks leaving an emptiness for the rest of us, they send jewels of ephemeral birdsong down to earth to adorn her.

“Toute chose sacrée et qui veut demeurer sacrée s’enveloppe de mystère.” Stephane Mallarmé

Painting, by Leigh Hyams

(Painting by Leigh Hyams)

“Threadsuns / Above the grayblack wastes. / A tree- / high thought / grasps the light-tone: there are / still songs to sing beyond / mankind.” – Paul Celan


, , , , , , , , ,

Despite some eccentricities in his presentation on the phone and his ardent refusal to use any technology, the elderly gentleman asks nothing and offers to help so today I go meet him in a restaurant in a suburb north of the City.

I anticipate that my art is ill-suited for his services, which mostly consist of lining up restaurants and businesses to display art with ungainly price tags. And when I see the Italian restaurant’s orange stucco walls with a range of some-accomplishment to beginner pieces, I remind myself to just see what the man has to offer.

He is sitting in the corner, with a feminine, white, bob haircut coiffed neatly, a large Nordic nose over a receding chin. He is incredibly tall even hinging on his aged frame. He looks straight at me with a pale, wrinkled face holding ice blue eyes. He hands me a form listing the opportunities he gives to artists. I politely decline all of them and tell him that my work in my experience has not been palatable for the average “civilian” (his term not mine). In turn, he explains that society needs art and that an artist does no service hiding out making art privately. Art’s service is to move and connect to other people. I retort saying art is about solitude and that the optimum experience is to stand guard over someone else’s solitude. I am not interested in converting people to a state of interest. Besides my art would be taken as freaky (my word) in the milieu in which he works. He asks why. I explain that lately my work consists of 6-foot, yellow watercolor portraits that are hard to look at. I explain how these works are about my ancestors, being haunted by them but the impossibility of knowing them. And of course it is also about their death, but I admit I have more questions than answers about that part, and art is the place for unanswerable questions. It is not of the stuff that people want to fill their homes with.

Then he argues simply, “But you have the knowledge of who your ancestors are inside you.” And I say, no, the mystery is more important. He agrees and asks if I have time for a story.

He tells me that he was born on a dining table in Copenhagen to a gypsy-blooded mother. He said he was five years old when he was first interrogated by the Gestapo. That year his family under pressure set out to leave Copenhagen to stay with his grandparents who lived in the countryside outside the city. All Danes at that time ride bicycles, he disdains. And they would have to pass on bicycle an SS checkpoint with machine guns pointed over the road.

I said I don’t like where this is going. He paused for me but continued.

He said his father told him he would go first, then his sister, his mother, then finally his father, all in one line. His father told them all to keep bicycling past the checkpoint at least 50 meters before stopping. His voice starts to shake and I realize my hope of a happy ending is dead. My eyes immediately well up. He apologizes. He says this is very difficult to talk about. I say it is very difficult to hear. He slowly continues. He utters that he rode across, then he chokes again and clears his throat. He heard gunfire behind him and he kept going. He is sniffling now and I am weeping openly. He says he rode to his grandparents’ house, familiar with it from previous visits, and arrived to what he calls his friendly oak tree. One, he adds, that has a chimney. I nod in complete recognition, ungracefully smudging tears off my face. He says he stayed for a longtime there at the oak tree until at some point he received a message. He was told that he is now on his own, an orphan of the universe, and that he was also now a genetic placeholder for his ancestors.

Encumbered lately by the difficult poems of Paul Celan, I sense in his poetry the excruciating search for the impossible understanding to his parents murder, their lives cut off not far from the place and time of my own storyteller. Celan’s life’s work (and resultant suicide) was the existential failure to make sense of life mediated by language, using that same language in a means to what he describes as becoming silent. Silent like all those he survived. He was tormented, like Hegel, by the fact that words have a way of removing themselves from their meanings. That one day someone could utter genocide and it would be far from what he experienced. His collection of poems is therefore entitled, The Last Poems.

Back in this beautiful Italian restaurant adorned with the hopes of artists wanting to touch others and be touched, our artwork — an offering for his family — hung in a silence that was awkward to all but us. He finally breaks it and says to me gently, humbly: I lived it — I know what war means. And at that moment, I glimpsed the entirety of the word myself.

Still Frame from Ancestors on Rice Video, Summer Lee
(A still from a recent video, A family portrait projected on falling rice. 2013. See the whole video here. http://youtu.be/IoGln7tNyGo

“Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist.

“Things I cannot speak of are not for the ear.” — Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, “Tous Les Matins du Monde.”


, , , , , ,

As children we sometimes rode in his vintage BMW. There was often silence in the presence of my reclusive, stoic father, but his car was always filled with classical music, teeming with the lilt of violins played by ghost-like hands on imaginary stages only alive in the mind’s eye.

But tonight I sit in the intimate presence of an expert and his violin. Without wires and speakers and road noise, nor the dynamics of a vast symphony hall, by luck (privilege is also luck) I am inches away from the source. Unmediated.

The result of animal hair vibrating against metal strings over the opening of a lacquered, wooden box, it is also the most complicated of unspoken languages, the full range of human emotions and unarticulated impulses, all coming through a man who has painstakingly practiced his craft for over 50 years. Neurons, muscles, the electricity of infinitesimal choices of movement, invisible wavelengths and the receptive ear. Music. And like the best art, it is much more than that.

It is the ultimate of hubris that I might try to write about this experience. As Marin Marais utters in the culmination of Tous Les Matins du Monde, this violinist’s playing is “A refreshment for those who have run out of words.”

But among my people are silent musicians who had no such openings during war, invasions, immigration, mundane necessity, to sit where I am tonight.

The performer himself has been crippled by polio, and so easily could not be sitting where he is tonight. In the perfection of interpreting for composers hundreds of years dead, there lies the unmistaken inflection of his own living voice, informed by the circumstances that make their mark onto one’s life. Like the unique gesture made by a painter’s hand. His talents are undoubtedly mending the frays of pain, those tears in the fabric of human survival, passed down to him by his own people.

Because I know this is a healing and that it is in the realm of the miraculous. Music, as well as miracles, come to life on the necessity of the present moment. For over two hours, I am tethered to present tenses by unpredictable sounds and melodies, by the sight of his hands dancing impossibly up and down the strings. I am tied there until the end of his last performance, a composition he knows by heart and displays the utmost limit of his skill, of all human ability.

When he finishes I break inside and experience a pronounced loss because it is over, as are all the circumstances that culminated into this one evening — there with my mother weeping at the greatness of it all, our backs to the thousands of other audience members behind us, their wounds closing even if they don’t know it. I am greeted by an acceptance that this will never happen again. Even more, all of this could so easily, more likely even, not have been at all.

As it turns out, the night of this impossible recital happened to fall on my father’s unrealized birthday. If alive, he would have turned 80 years-old. And in his quiet way, he would’ve been healed most of all.

“Music exists to say things that words cannot say. Which is why it is not entirely human.” — Monsieur de Saint Colombe, Tous Les Matins du Monde

“You’ll see how much your little bird has changed.” — Edith Piaf


, , , , , , , ,

Not much taller than the desks, she stood unblinking in front of the students, hopping and gesticulating wildly to convey her lesson to her jaded audience. In this of her many dramatic monologues with occasional spittle, she introduced a new topic, rudiment to understanding French, and maybe even life: existentialism.

We thoroughly read Camus, en français, and over time she espoused to her sheltered and callow high school students that every choice one makes has a consequence, and the absurd man is one who acts out of habit, shirking responsibility and awareness for the events and choices that come to comprise one’s life. We listened to Edith Piaf, learning her lyrics by heart. Having heard no other voice so utterly pained, wretched even, but strong and moving, I was taken. She grabbed me at the end of class after the rest of the students had drained out of the room, and for whatever reason, recounted that during her first teaching job at an elementary school, an air force officer entered her classroom and in front of her 25 students, handed her an envelope. In it was a piece of paper describing in the most coldly succinct language that her husband’s plane had crashed on a training flight nearby and he was deceased. There also in the envelope was his metal wristwatch, the only personal item with him and recovered from the crash, cracked with hands frozen at the exact moment of his death. With a teacher’s salary and two young children, she said Edith Piaf’s tragic life and inextricably-linked music became anthem to the fact she had no other choice to move on.

Her philosophy must have been a double-edged sword for the ESL students also under her care at the high school — the dregs, the few brown and black kids bussed into an otherwise privileged school of white kids dropped off by luxury cars. But there was no less, if not more, passion for these kids as there was for her sniveling French students. When her Edith Piaf admirer became Senior Class President, she arranged a secret meeting, knowing my duties as student organizer of the school prom. She said she had a young couple in her ESL class who wanted to go to the prom but could not pay the price of ticket, exorbitant even for today’s standards. She wanted to broker an arrangement for them, and they must never know. Loyal to her, I offered to comp them in, no one would notice in the shabby accounting. Slightly offended, she interjected to say the boyfriend had agreed to work the coat check before and after the dance to earn his way. I added their names to the paid list and other than her catching my eye at the entryway of the dance hall while she stood next to her couple, there was no word of it after.

She also introduced us to a book of poetry by Jacques Prevert, someone also familiar with war and loss. She had to have known I never returned my copy back to the school repository, and from time to time I still find a guilty joy in reading a poem or two from it — a treasured contraband. It was, of course, easy to tell her I was coming out as gay. She might have even said she had some gay friends or a gay son, I don’t remember. But after that, she took to meeting me at the town’s bookstore cafe, and we sat together as an unlikely duo of a middle-aged, manically energetic, short woman, and a gangly, wide-eyed, attentive girl — my hair getting shorter by the week as my shoes grew more militant. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I can smell the bitter coffee-filled air, and see the tome of pages from Antigone she xeroxed in French (another petty crime) and brought me to read over the summer. It was also there that she asked me to be President of the school French Club. I had no duties except to bring a piece of brie to the school club fair, where she also hosted an escargot-eating contest, and in turn it was something to add to my padded Stanford-bound resume. When our senior yearbook came out weeks before the end of school, she curiously asked to hold mine for a day or so. When she returned it to me, there adhered strongly to the inside the front page was an engraved, stately metal plaque. It read my name, the title of French Club President, and underneath, “Honni soit, qui mal y pense.” An ancient motto of chivalry, it means something to the effect of, evil to those who think evil, or shame to those who think shame of it.

The last week of school, she made me promise that I would let her be the last teacher I would say goodbye to. So, after gathering my things and finishing some tearful thank you’s to a few of my other teachers, I found her waiting for me in her classroom. As we walked down the hallway to one of the school’s exits out to the parking lot, she explained to me that there at the doorway was a threshold and it was marked by a strip of metal. She said that it was a milestone, a marker, this line. She would go on the other side and she was going to watch me cross. So I did: I unceremoniously stepped over the line, tears welling in my eyes, and there on the outside of the school she jumped to hug me. As she grasped me in her embrace she whispered in my ear, though it seemed louder and permanent: You have crossed the line and you must go, and I want you to remember, she clenched more tightly, you can’t go back.

Ladder, by Summer Lee
(An image from an art performance I did with Jesse Schmidt, 2008)

“I wish that once & for all I could put down in this wretched handwriting how this country impresses me — how great I feel the stony-hard flatness & monotony of the plain. Every time I write in this book I find myself drifting into the attractive but impossible task of describing the Fens — till I grow heartily sick of so much feeble word painting; & long for one expressive quotation that should signify in its solitary compass all the glories of earth air & Heaven. Nevertheless I own it is a joy to me to be set down with such a vast never ending picture to reproduce — reproduction is out of the question — but to gaze at, nibble at & scratch at.

After all we are a world of imitations; all the Arts that is to say imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see. Such is the eternal instinct in the human beast, to try & reproduce something of that majesty in paint marble or ink. Somehow ink tonight seems to me the least effectual method of all — & music the nearest to truth.” –Virginia Woolf

“It can be observed that darkness does in fact show itself active in light, determining it to colour and thereby imparting visibility to it, since, as was said above, just as little is seen in pure light as in pure darkness.” — Hegel


, , , , , , , , ,

Art by Binh Danh

(Artwork using light and chlorophyll, by Binh Danh, 2004)

The moment before total light, and total darkness has about it a fragiity. The best art and the best writing possess it. As my philosophy mentor once said, fragility is a necessary condition for something in the future to arise. But humans are wired to stockpile, safeguard, and barricade against fragility, especially in a Western culture that promotes an elimination of all that is inconclusive or ambiguous. It appears to be a minor miracle when the next moment manages to squeeze through our futile clamps on the future. On the unknown.

(I can learn much by watching my son change irreparably into his future self — a constant, gentle sadness for his past appearances, abilities, size, mannerisms that no longer exist.)

So we look to art and writing — the theatre where we can enjoy bloody spectacles without having our own lives be sliced and stained. We can even eat snacks while in a vicarious embodiment of an actor or protagonist valiantly facing whatever violently unanticipated plot-turn served up by cunning artist or writer.

But sometimes, the masterful artist or writer pulls the curtain up and reveals the theatre itself. Bruce Wilshire writes in his book on theatre: “It is art which is most obviously art that puts us in closest and most revealing contact with the heart of our reality: our ability to give presence to the absent or to the nonexistent.” Wilshire is speaking of the same mechanism by which paintings illuminate the presence of an object when it reveals it to be painterly. And when words reveal themselves to be word-like. Wilshire feels this is a path towards truly knowing ourselves.

I can think of no other than Paul Celan, whose poetry beautifully crafts language at the same time reveals its fragility. His words teeter between the most profound of meanings and meaninglessness. One inch this way, and his poems would be static and predictable declarations. One inch the other way and it would be jibberish. His skilled balancing act results in a present-moment awareness of words, and maybe if we let it, results also in an awareness that we are at our best when we are the most fragile. We are the freest, most alive, when we dance the high beam knowing the great depths below on each side of us.

The beam was set impossibly high for Paul Celan. During his life, his poetry was not famous, nor lucrative. Although a polyglot, he wrote in the language that denied him the right to exist, the same language belonging to those who killed his mother and father and imprisoned him in a concentration camp. One day, he underlined the words from Holderlin’s biography, “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart” and then drowned himself (one recalls Virginia Woolf), in the river Seine. He left the rest of the Holderlin sentence unmarked: “but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously.” Wondrously indeed does Celan’s work glitter.

To reveal language as language-like while it illuminates beyond it — to do so in German — was existential for Paul Celan. In the meanwhile, I merely (and happily, I have not the constitution for more) read the memoirs, poems — the thoughts — of the dead like Celan. Wilshire says we “engage artistically in myths in order to come to grips with the myths we live unthematically every day. To be is to exist in the presence of the absent.” Nowhere is this more acutely felt than when these posthumous thoughts are alive in my mind as I read them, as if I re-animate the corpse who thought them and wrote them down. And yet they are just words. Like the words here that you may have allowed an entrance for. But we put the book down, click off a screen, and move on. One has to. Today, afterall, is Tuesday. Well, just for a few more minutes, anyway.

“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.” –Virginia Woolf

“Poets became the true accountants, and their ledgers contained the un-profitability of the human soul.” Michael Marsh


, , , , , , , , ,

“…the fine print, the small type, of a meadow mouse.” — Thoreau

Behind my eyes is a geometric pattern, the dark blue lines zig zagging and dotting in that 1970’s way around white, repeated ad infinitum on the wall of my grandmother’s breakfast nook I haven’t been in for almost 15 years. It’s there when I rub my eyes in fatigue, who knows why.

On the other side of my eyes, you might see fibers of dark grey, green and ochre around a black circle.

But around the black center of a white-crowned sparrow’s eye is a dark mahogany-red. Inside the abyss of his eye, I can only imagine he is terrified as his heart races in my hand, little short breaths heaving his feathery chest. With the most delicate of touch, I run my finger up and down his body and make promises I can’t keep, still horrified by the thump of his body against the car window. His eyes blink fear and innocence straight into my eyes, but he has no control of his body, which has collapsed belly-up into my palm.

Minutes later, I declare it a minor miracle that he hops out of my makeshift hospital box and is gone. The next day he is returned to the glorious flock of 50 birds working over my now-expensive winter feeder.

Meadowlark by Summer Lee, 2012. watercolor on paper

(A recent watercolor: Yellow happens to be the precise spot where the eye tunes into the sequence of color frequency — it has the same vibration that stimulates the retinal nerve-ends and causes the phenomenon we call light)

Obviously, these birds are my favorite words, my favorite swath of paint — and I am ever envious of those musicians who have such mastery over the wild flocks of notes and melodies, every single beat tamed at the same moment they are also alate.

— and yet, among the most rigorous creators, there is a holy acknowledgment of the not-coincidentally aleatoric. Who knows to where those wings will fly.

After 8 years of minding this winter feeder, I know every resident from migrant as I welcome new offspring and pray for the missing. They are a light, a moment of solitude along my bustling path in and out of my home in this dark time of year. Their hearty feeding is proof of a cold darkness stretching longer than what daylight allows for warmth and food. And maybe my dedication to their feeder is an understanding of these fickle and insufferable days.

Anyone can sing, but there is astonishment that the wonder of words still visits me, like the small group of diminutive, navy-blue and chestnut nuthatches, who for some reason are eagerly taking my sunflower seeds for the first time this winter. They dive into the top of the bare tree, then climb with their powerful claws head-down along the branches like woodpeckers, whom they are always adjacent to in field guides. At the feeder, they grab a singular seed into the tips of their needle-tipped beaks and with a few nasally yank-calls, fly out of sight along a bobbing flight path, into the mysterious.

The next day my son playfully repeats, “dammit” as I scurry out of the car to grieve the little brown body lying below the same car window next door. He also says I am going to eat this bird after watching me consider its life, its body, photograph it, then gently wrap it into the freezer — not an absurd conclusion on his part. I don’t tell him that this bird had not yet developed golden plumage along his crown, being this sparrow’s first winter. He was born last spring in a forever-unknown location on the western coast of Alaska and followed his flock over a thousand miles, maybe two, to our feeder. Probably just like his genetic ancestors have done since time immemorial. But even so, my son asks me if the bird cries. No, but the song says it all.


The loving details of this bird life in my mind’s eye are already fading — I’m no master at this — but I can hear his song and his eyes have gone dark.

“…to face the possibility
that your innermost core may hold nothing at all,
and to sing from that – to fill the void
with every hurt, every harm, every hard-won joy
that staves off death yet honours its coming,
to sing both full and utterly empty,
alone and conjoined, exiled and at home,
to sing what people feel most keenly
yet never acknowledge until you sing it.
Anyone can sing. Yes. Anyone can sing.”

— William Ayot