I tell the people who come to the Tuesday morning Creative Writing class, “Just push through the first ten minutes where you feel like you have nothing to say, when it feels awful to be with your thoughts because there are either so many of them that you can barely breathe or you can’t think of single word to say. Just keep writing, until something breaks open or pushes up, edges its way in.”
“Writing,” I tell them, these tired people at 9:45 in the morning, “is not about thinking.”
I also am sure to tell them that I know nothing about writing, and that – in fact – I haven’t written anything “creative” in a month.
That’s not exactly true.
There were a few paragraphs in a paper on human relationships with nature that, in the course of writing, I felt a thin thread of the substance that once wound itself up and around and out of my throat, through my hands.
In my mind, there are endless things that could be said, but most everything feels like a moot point lately.
There has been no poetry, but who am I to say what is poetry and what is not?
My “slump,” my “block,” my quietude came on unexpectedly, a strange numbness that settled into me after I realized that three years ago, right around this time, my life felt like it was over.
I tell my closest friends, “I have either reached some new plateau of inner peace or I am completely shut down.”
It’s possible that it is more a combination of the two.
I think about things that, at one time, might have sent me into a full headspin or swoon of wonder and I find myself reacting with little more than an detached interest.
“Oh, I have three papers to write in a week.”
“Oh, that person is talking about suicide again.”
“Oh, the clouds look alive.”
“Oh, I’m going to visit my friend on Death Row for the first time tomorrow.”
“Why don’t I feel anything about any of this?”
I brought the handheld voice recorder with me in the car, thinking that I might have something to say as I drove East alone. It sat on the passenger seat like a little brick. I brought my camera, thinking that I might take a picture of the building that holds my friend, maybe from the parking lot. I didn’t though. Instead, I talked with the two prison workers who were lingering in the lot before their lunch break ended.
“How’d you get those tattoos on your hands?”
I paid close attention to the way the flowers were dying in the thin soil outside of the Visitor Office and how the other people visiting didn’t speak to one another and took off of their belts one by one, to pass through the metal detector. Most of the visitors looked like church ladies, doing good works. Two people appeared to be the aging parents of somebody, and seemed as if they may have driven in from the country, with their flannel and their boots, their old blue jeans.
I thought about writing a story about them, but what could I say that would be true?
I looked around and read the small brass plaques commemorating the retirements of prison workers. 35 years is a long time to work at a prison.
I read the sign on the door of the arsenal, and thought about what was behind it, about how unsettling it must be to work casually around so much weaponry, but I didn’t really feel anything, not like I used to.
“Look, here I am and there he is, behind that plexiglass and his hand is held up to match mine and I…think I feel something…I want him to wait, to hold his hand there until I can feel its warmth.”
When he took his hand down, asked me what I was thinking about, I said “nothing,” but I wanted to cry a little.
For the first time in weeks, I felt something.
See, you just have to write past the first few minutes, scratch your way past the surface beliefs, and then you notice the birds chattering in the trees across the street and you find yourself wondering if maybe something in the universe is relieved that you haven’t fallen completely silent.
You notice you’re writing in second person and it’s a relief, because that means you can still write poetry.
Today, I responded to a friend about a piece of writing on Centering space on Indigenous People and People of Color and I wrote that it “rehumiliated” me.
It was an odd word to find myself using – “humiliation” – in a sense that is positive, as if the humiliation were a gift.
What is that line from that old Smog song?
“Humiliation is good / It means you believe in something”
It’s worth noting that the name of the song is “Fool’s Lament.”
I remember writing some pedantic message to someone about the nature of humility, as if I knew anything about it at all.
(This is my hand, this week three years ago. For the most part, it hasn’t changed.)
If you’re interested in knowing what I’m doing, it’s not too hard to find out.
All you have to do is ask.
Here are hints:
I probably won’t be posting here much anymore.
It just doesn’t feel like something I want to do.
I still watch the clouds though and, in my mind, I write an entire book every single day.
Here are excerpts of writings from the past month or so…
Our relationships to the natural world are built upon ideas and experiences, as well as instinct and the inescapable fact that we do not live in a sterile, human-constructed vacuum. Even in our most constructed and mediated places, nature finds us in the form of wind, sunlight, and the small wild grasses that push their way up through the cracks in concrete.
Nature is a persistent truth that we all bear witness to differently.
For thousands of years, human beings have pondered the skies and the currents and have sought solace amongst trees and open lands. The vast expanse of the sea beckoned to the imaginations of early explorers and the fruits of the earth itself spawned the earliest human conflict.
Our existence is, itself, a thing of nature, driven by the same innate forces that support the growth of any species. Biologically, we differ very little from the other species we share this planet with. Yet, we are different, if only because we have come to think ourselves as being so.
Human consciousness – what we know and the ways that we know, our capacity to think beyond the immediate reality in conceiving of both a past and infinite possible futures – has, over time, set human beings apart from what we consider to be nature. With Descartes’ proclamation that one who thinks therefore is, and the notion that thought as humans experience it is the only legitimate form of thought, human identity has become thoroughly separated from nature.
This separation between humans and nature is reinforced in our language and in our expressed conceptualizations of what nature is, and what we are not. We speak about our love for nature, and we speak about protecting nature. We consider positive experiences we’ve had in nature – and thus place it as a thing that is apart from us, something that we can enter into, unnamed woods that are not our home, but a place we merely visit.
Many people – perhaps all people, across all times and places – have observed that, from the time of our birth, we are wild and fragile things, flinching at the light and shivering in the cold. We are driven by instincts, and those instincts keep us close to our mothers for many years longer than most other mammals and certainly for longer than the many short-living species that populate the Kingdom Animalia, where for so many creatures, life is – when considered in terms of human time – a seemingly hurried affair, a rapid sequence of birth, feeding, reproduction, and death.
It is no secret that, when we are very young, nature has the capacity to kill us with the ease of a chilly night, the nonchalance of a dry stretch of land. In many ways, it is no wonder that we have such a conflicted love-hate relationship with the wild world. Nature destroys crops and floods homes. It sends us reeling with fevers and buries our children. Even if we are spared, death is nonetheless inevitable and we must watch as everything we build slowly crumbles under the sun.
In our efforts to contain nature and to control nature – as it seems to be our instinct to contain and to control that which we are wary of – we have erected walls and scraped the earth clean, we have found ways to use nature, to manipulate its forces and its resources to bolster our own imagined dominance and the comforts of our constructed protections. We trim the grasses and temper the steel, invest billions of dollars in seeking to discover a concrete that will not crack. We have pulled the very elements out of the Earth itself and, as industrial alchemists, concocted mixtures that deter the simple rotting of wood.
We have made plastics and shaped them into bright blue bears and garish golden lions to place in the outstretched hands of our American children so that they may cut their teeth on them. Travelling through zoos on small trains, we ooh and ahh, thankful for the bars that separate us from those much sharper teeth.
True, not everyone is so lucky to go to a zoo. Those that are so lucky are told that nature must be protected, and that we must protect ourselves from it.
Regardless of where a person is born and raised, and the content of their specific language, culture, and subsistence, we draw lines between humans and nature, defining our relationship to the natural world and determining what our role might be within it, be we conquerors or stewards.
The lines that separate us from nature do vary and, in some places, are quite thin. In many indigenous cultures, the relationship to nature is sacred, a delicate balance of exchanges that weave a way of being in the world which is deeply enmeshed with the Earth and its processes.
For some cultures, such as those born of the industrial West, nature is a thing that is not only separate, but ours for the taking. This is reinforced by the laws that define our properties and by the beliefs we hold about how and why we were created. In much of the culturally Western world, as defined by the territories and cultures of colonialism, the relationship with nature which is taught is not one of interdependence, but one of dominance and exploitation.
As children in the West, across most demographic lines, we are told to not get dirty, and we watch as the grass is cut and flowers are planted in straight rows flanking banks. If we are lucky, we are shown books that manage to hold the Grand Canyon on a single, glossy page and we are taken on walks to the park, to play in these small, tamed places where there are trees.
The natural world and its inhabitants are dear and fascinating to us as children, but we unlearn quickly. In considering the current plight of the earth, it appears vital that we understand how it is that we forge our relationships with nature, and learn more about what constitutes health within those relationships. Further, it seems necessary that we reckon with the real existential impact that our relationships with nature – whatever those relationships may be – have upon our lives and our identities, both as individuals and as a species.
There is increasing literature on the subject of child development from an ecopsychological perspective and this represents a shift away from the anthropocentric traditions of psychoanalysis and the long-standing fascination with human-human relationships. People have begun to recognize that, as individuals, our lives are touched by more than our mothers and influenced by forces far more eternal than our fathers. However, in much of our waking lives, we are not given many opportunities to consider why we feel whatever we might feel when we think about wild places. Some people feel peaceful, some are apprehensive and still others are drawn to thoughts of real estate values and developments.
For many, nature is met with ambivalence and disconnection. It is something that is simply not a part of people’s lives. This phenomenon happens in all settings, though reasonably enough is more common in areas where humans have established a dominance over the environment and where their settlements, reaching into the sky, have become the most evident landscape. It could be argued, however, that even those who live deep within cities must cross bridges over rivers and shelter their heads from rain. Regardless of where a person lives, there is nature. Even in the most paved-over and ossified industrial regions, the sun casts shadows and the wind blows.
However, there is no guarantee that these elements of nature will be seen as being a part of nature. Often they are referred to as “weather.” Conceptualizations of nature are full of wild places, not parking lots. Nature is about trees and bears, not rat colonies in sewer systems or dandelions in the sidewalk cracks.
For as long as we have considered nature and the nature of what it means to be human, we have failed in developing anything remotely resembling an agreed upon worldview. If anything, our understanding of the natural world and our role within it has become increasingly disparate with every new idea.
Without a shared understanding of nature and what it means to be human, we will inevitably be challenged to respond collaboratively to the current threats to our habitat and, by extension, the wellness and sustainability of our species. Amazingly, we cannot even seem to agree that care of our habitat is important to our human survival. However, as nature is a persistent truth and, eventually, what happens within the environment we live in affects our own quality of life, it is worthwhile to spend time considering our individual relationships with nature, as well as how those relationships align or diverge from what we imagine to be other worldviews.
As concerns over environmental integrity and sustainability become increasingly real to us, we will reasonably be called upon to consider why we think and act the ways we do in relationship with nature and to reckon with the outcomes of our worldviews. Developing a coherent framework for understanding how it is that humans develop in relation to nature and what forces impact the content and expressions of those relationships is important.
There are numerous programs for supporting young people in developing a healthy relationship with nature, the value of reflective conversation and genuine interest in what young people think about nature and why it is important cannot be underestimated. It is for this reason that I was interested in learning more about my own children’s relationships to nature and how they think about it. In an interview with my 11 year old son, I asked him a series of questions, which are posted in the final pages of this work with the complete transcript of the interview.
My son seems to consider himself to be quite savvy when it comes to nature and often shares interesting facts about the natural world that he learns from his own independent studies, as well as sharing his thoughts about wanting to live further away from the small downtown of this city, somewhere where there are “fewer people and less noise.” He has an immense fondness for the mountains we live in and on the way home from our trips to the coast, which he is also fond of, he comments on the slow rise of the land and exclaims over the familiar sight of “the first real mountains.”
I knew that he felt positively about nature, but I was interested in learning more about what that meant for him, what the content of his positive relationship with nature is, why he loves nature and what that feels like for him.
Cloudcalling is the art and science of interacting with the vaporous elements of the sky for the purpose of enacting a belief in the workings of the world and a sense of larger structure.
This installation will feature several hundred 4×6 photos of clouds, taken over a 3 year period for the sake of documenting the rudimentary forms of God and the wind’s capacity to function within the forces of the golden ratio.
These photographs will be overlaid and linked to one another by means of copper wire and will be mounted on the walls of a small, dark room, lit by a single, clear glass low-wattage bulb and accompanied only by a desk, a chair and the occasional and conversational presence of the artist.
In the drawer of the desk, there will be small books featuring writings on the nature of clouds, which will be signed by the artist and adorned with a small bird made of copper wire.
However, these will only be made available to those who open the drawer and choose to take one.
Thus, this work is not only a presentation, it is a test and it is an experiment.
Sept. 11, 2013
I find it incredibly meaningful that tonight, three years ago, I was totally isolated and really pretty delusional, under siege by family and giving away my EBT card to an old woman at the public apartments just up the block in a deal I thought I had telepathically made with the President, sending letters to global newspapers about the fact that I had proved God and trying valiantly to remind myself that it was a regular week, that I just had to play it cool, get the kids to school on time, pick them up on time, try to be present in spite of the fact that I had inadvertently joined some sort of Illuminati and that it was possible that I could be “disappeared” at any moment and feeling like if I didn’t do the right thing, I was going to die somehow and that then my children would be sad.
I just kept telling myself that I just had to figure it out, try to do the right thing and it would all work out.
Three years ago on this day, I believed myself to be one of the most profoundly isolated and disconnected people on the planet, with my most core human relationships severed and just days shy of my last (ever) involuntary commitment, which would lead to court-ordered drugging and the loss of legal custody of my children.
So, it is remarkably heartening to see that I not only survived, but that my children are happy and we are all healing and I am a part of my community and a part of a movement* and, moreover, I am actually working toward the dream I dreamt up when I was mad…of helping to slowly and systematically wreck all the ideas that keep us from seeing one another clearly and appreciating that we are all constantly living and dying and evolving, right down to the stardust at the core of us.
I think, more than logic or ethics or any sort of analysis, that real love heals lousy ideas.
I will be working on constructing another site…or maybe I won’t.
Right now, I have a paper to write and letters to respond to.
I’d like to play music tonight, and go to bed before 2am.
We’ll see what happens…
Something always happens…