Election Day

The hound and me

"What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness." - Barbara Kingsolver (Animal Dreams)

No matter what happens in the US election, it's going to be stressful in the days ahead. Please be kind to each other. Tilly and I send our love to American friends, family members, and colleagues in the Mythic Arts community.

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The ohotograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. The little election day sketch, "Bunnies for Biden," is by me.


I think it is love

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We've often talked here about the value of slowing down, paying attention, being fully present in the place where we live, the lives that we create, and the work that we do. Yet sometimes -- like now, in a world-wide pandemic -- life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?

Daffodil Fairy by Cicely BarkerWendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words:

"What can turn us . . . back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it,  and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

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For Berry, it all comes back to place (whether rural or urban), and our intricate web of connection to the human and more-than-human neighbours we share it with.

"I stand for what I stand on," he says, "the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."

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That, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. Spring flowers emerging. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a crisp April morning. A wild spot in the woods to write wild words while Tilly pads quietly nearby.

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In his poem "Healing" (2006), Berry writes:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

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Words: The two Wendell Berry passages above are from Standing By Words: Essays (Counterpoint, 2011) and What Are People For: Essays (Counterpoint, 2010).  The last quote is from "Healing," published in Given: Poems (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006). The poem in the picture captions is from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Writing in the woods behind my studio. The "Daffodil Fairy" painting is by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973).


A day out at Chagford Show

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Yesterday I went to our village's agricultural show, now in its 119th year, celebrating the skills, crafts, and lore of the local farming community, and its central place in life on the moor. Reflecting on the nature of community, I was reminded of this passage from "The Common Life" by essayist Scott Russell Sanders:

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents.

"After twenty-five years with [my wife] Ruth, that is how I have come to understand marriage, as a constant exchange of labor and love. We do not calculate who gives how much; if we had to, the marriage would be in trouble. Looking outward from this community of two, I see my life embedded in ever-larger exchanges -- those of family and friendship, neighborhood and city, countryside and county -- and on every scale there is giving and receiving, calling and answering.

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"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious; and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant battering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us.

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"The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hopes. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

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In an interview in 2004, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams also spoke of the value of putting down roots in an increasingly peripatetic world:

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community? It doesn't mean it's easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you're not going to go away.

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"It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in 'casserole diplomacy' by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

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"That way we begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons; we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the stregnth within ourselves and each other to hold these lines. That's my definition of family. And that's my definition of love."

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Words: The passage above is from "The Common Life" by Scott Russell Sanders,  published in his essay collection Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Ethos (Chelsea Green, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Chagford Show, 2019. I've blurred the faces of the children displaying their sheep for privacy's sake.


The ties that bind us

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Another book I've been carrying with me during my travels -- and reading slowly to make it last -- is Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper.

The subject of these essays is family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books and their authors, objects, food, and (most poignantly for me) the fellow members of a care circle surrounding a friend with cancer. Although Hopper's own upbringing was unusual (her parents were "religious hippies" in a cultish Evangelical sect), the underlying dynamics of the familial and social ties she examines are nonetheless relatable as hell. Plus, it's a beautifully written book, and even the lightest of essays (a discourse on binge-watching the old American television show Cheers, for example) is made luminous by the the author's clarity, honestly, and unfailing compassion for the ways we both support and fail each other as we move through life.

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In the opening essay, "Lean On," Hooper takes issue with America's cultural adulation of the Solitary Hero (Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideal self-reliant man,  Joan Didion's ideal self-sufficient woman) and articulates the value of leaning on others, and letting others lean on us. In response to Didion's assertion that the solitary self is the authentic self, she writes:

"My scepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don't see why the person I am when I'm rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they will still be part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I'm bossy and my friends know I'm kind, and when I'm alone I'm neither, but really I am both. My identity is not an independent state.

"I cannot imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love's neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgements past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you'd read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you."

(You can read the full piece online here.)

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An essay about Hopper's complicated relationship with her brother starts with this delicious opening:

"There is a form of intimacy that consists of being harangued by someone in a bathrobe. A brother. He might be standing and pacing and you might be lying down on a couch under an afghan. He is exasperating in a way that tends towards escalating energy, and he intermittently throws off or emits sparks, like a grindstone, like a rasp, like a pronged plug in proximity to a faulty socket. The stakes are high for him. He suspects that your way of thinking is suspect. You suspect he may be right. You further suspect it is not just your way of thinking that he finds dubious but the person you have turned out to be.

"You find yourself arranged together this way -- pacing, bathrobe; reclining, afghan -- because you share a home. In other words, you share a domestic space in which seriousness does not depend on dignified dress or ordinary standards of civility. In this home, certain protective coverings (shirts and pants) can be dispensed with, while other kinds of protective coverings (afghans) can be piled on or, in particularly tense moments, pulled over one's face and supine body like a shroud of surrender. But it is never really surrender: just a way to collect yourself and breathe warm condensation breaths under the wool while presenting an implacable surface to the man who is talking. You are biding your time until it is your turn to speak.

"And you will inevitably speak. You will always have your say. You are arranged this way, after all, because you are brother and sister, tumbled together since childhood like agates in a rock polisher, generating your own conversational grit since you first had enough shared language to talk."

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Hopper writes about the complex nature of friendships (a subject deeply under-represented in our literature) better than just about anyone. The essay on her brother ("Oh Octopus") also reflects on the family bonds we make with friends:

"Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of the legendary queer saga Tales of the City, calls families found in adulthood 'logical.' 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.' I understand what he means. At the same time, in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic. A term I sometimes use instead is 'invented family,' because it implies the work of creation. It is family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then, all families are invented, even biological ones. A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from surviving documents; a collection of dissonant or harmonizing stories. Perhaps the best phrase for my purpose is 'found family.' It evokes something of the feeling of lost or cast-out sheep who find themselves once again in the safe fold.

"What I love about found family is that it can accomodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospitals visits of any other family -- all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quality time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason,  a found family can know and love you for who you are -- not for who you once were, or who you never were."

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If the passages quoted above don't make your heart beat a little fast (someone is finally writing about this!), then Hard to Love may not be the book for you. But if they do, seek out a copy post haste. It's quietly extraordinary.

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Words: The passages above are from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas, edited by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Writing and reading outdoors this morning, with the hound close by.


Living and working in place

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One of the books I carried with me during my travels over the last few weeks was How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in northern California (the center of the American tech industry). I read it slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought -- and now that I've finished, I recommend Odell's book for anyone engaged in the deep, slow work of making art in the shallow, fast world that Silicon Valley is busy creating. 

Here's a passage from the book's introduction that will give you a taste of what's inside:

"We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations -- and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In the endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

"Given how poorly art survives in a system that values only the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetric, or less-than-obvious. Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables."

How to Do Nothing

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Odell writes that her book is "a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy": to social media, apps, and other technological tools that are increasing co-opting our time, our focus, and our lives.

"A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as an ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to everyone lucky enough to be alive."

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Odell is not suggesting that we banish the Internet from our lives altogether. Nor does she endorse the notion that merely taking periodic "offline Retreats" (which is one of my own practices) is an adequate means of addressing the myriad ways the attention economy is re-shaping societal norms. When "doing something," in a hyper-capitalist culture, means "doing something productive" (ie, making money) -- as opposed to the things we do in the private parts of our lives that cannot or should not be marketized -- then re-framing the idea of what "productivity" means is a radical act.

"The fact that the 'nothing' that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1.) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the 'dropping out' of the 1960s; 2.) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3.) a movement downwards into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiousity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it's worth asking: What would 'back to the land' mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could 'augmented reality' simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do so?"

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Later in the Introduction she notes:

"The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive. My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose the rerouting and deepening one's attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

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"I am not anti-technology. After all, there are forms of technology -- from tools that let us observe the natural world to decentralized, noncommercial social networks -- that might situation us more fully in the present. Rather, I'm opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and the way we think about our onlines selves and the places where we actually live."

It's a fascinating book, yet not a prescriptive one. Each of us must determine for ourselves how phones and apps and Twitter and Facebook can best be used (or not used) in our lives. But what Odell has done -- for this reader, at least -- is to reframe the debate on the subject: widening its context and acknowledging its complexity. I'm still thinking about the questions she poses...and already my relationship to the attention economy is changing.

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Words: The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared inTin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Working by the leat on a bright spring morning.