What it means to be a grown-up

Dorothea Lange

From Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet:

"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me.

"I am part of all the people I have known.  There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that  forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one.

"Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."

As do I, but it's what I strive for.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

The images in this post are, of course, by the American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) -- best known for her work among migrants, sharecroppers, and displaced families during the Depression years, and among U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage forced to live (to our country's lasting disgrace) in internment camps during World War II.

"Art," said Lange, "is a by-product of an act of total attention." And she was a great artist indeed.

Dorothea Lange


Earning age

Isak Dinesen photographed by Peter Beard

From May Sarton's Journal of Solitude:

"In a period of happy and fruitful isolation such as this, any interuption, any intrusion of the social, any obligation breaks the thread on my loom, breaks the pattern. Two nights ago I was called at the last minute to attend the caucus of Town Meeting...and it threw me. But at least the compionship gave me one insight: a neighbor told me she had been in a small car accident and had managed to persuade the local paper to ignore her true age (as it appears on her license) and print her age as thirty-nine! I was really astonished by this confidence.

"I am proud of being fifty-eight, and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced, and potent than I have ever been. I mind certain physical deteriorations, but not really. And not at all when I look at the marvellous photograph that Bill sent me of Isak Dinesen just before she died. For after all we make our faces as we go along, and who when young could ever look as she does? The ineffable sweetness of the smile, the total acceptance and joy one receives from it, life, death, everything taken in and, as it were, savored -- and let go.

"Wrinkles here and there seem unimportant compared to the Gestalt of the whole person I have become in this past year. Somewhere in [my novel] The Poet and the Donkey Andy speaks for me when he says, 'Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.' "

Crofters Hands by Paul StrandPhotographs: Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen, age 82) by Peter Beard, and "Crofter's Hands" by Paul Strand.


Moon stories (for Beltane)

Celestial Pablum by Remedios Varo

Personaje Astral by Remedios VaroMoon Gathering

by Eleanor Wilner


And they will gather by the well,
its dark water a mirror to catch whatever
stars slide by in the slow precession of
the skies, the tilting dome of time,
over all, a light mist like a scrim,
and here and there some clouds
that will open at the last and let
the moon shine through; it will be
at the wheel’s turning, when
three zeros stand like paw-prints
in the snow; it will be a crescent
moon, and it will shine up from
the dark water like a silver hook
without a fish -- until, as we lean closer,
swimming up from the well, something
dark but glowing, animate, like live coals --
it is our own eyes staring up at us,
as the moon sets its hook;
and they, whose dim shapes are no more
than what we will become, take up
their long-handled dippers
of brass, and one by one, they catch
Born Again by Remedios Varothe moon in the cup-shaped bowls,
and they raise its floating light
to their lips, and with it, they drink back
our eyes, burning with desire to see
into the gullet of night: each one
dips and drinks, and dips, and drinks,
until there is only dark water,
until there is only the dark.


The paintings here are by the great Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963), who was born in Girona, Spain, studied art in Madrid, fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War and to Mexico when the Germans occupied France. She then spent the rest of her life in Mexico, where she worked closely with the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. For more information on this wonderful artist, I  recommend Janet A. Kaplan's fine biography, Unexpected Journeys; and Surreal Friends, by Joanna Moorhead & Sefan van Raay, about the friendship between Varo, Carrington, and photographer Kati Horna. (Varo, by the way, was a formative influence on the character of Anna Navarro in my novel The Wood Wife.)

Personaje by Remedios Varo

The poem above is from The Girl With Bees in Her Hair by Eleanor Wilner (Copper Canyon Press); it appeared online on poets.org. All rights are reserved by the author.


Are you holding it fast?

Doris Lessing

Jenny Diski wanted to be a writer, she says, "since I got the idea that each book I read was actually written by someone, that there was such a thing you could do and be in life." At fifteen years old, through a series of cirumstances, she came to live with Doris Lessing.

"Doris taught me how to be a writer," she recalls. "I don't mean she gave me lessons, or talked about writing. I can't remember her ever talking about writing, except to mumble occasionally that she was on a very difficult bit at the moment, meaning she was preoccupied, or to bellow as I thumped down the stairs past her closed door 'Be quiet. I'm working.' I was very impressed with the idea that writing was work. Even now, I always say, 'I'm working,' rather than 'I'm writing,' if anyone asks. She suggested books she thought I should read and began my instruction in the history of cinema with visits to the Academy and the National Film Theatre. But that was part of a general education of a teenager. It had nothing to do with me becoming a writer. We never talked about that. I never asked her to read anything I wrote. I learned what it was to be a writer from being around, in the house, day by day, observing her being one.

Cornishware coffee mugs

"Her morning started early when she went to the kitchen in her dressing-gown to make a cup of tea. Actually, a pint of tea in a huge blue and white striped mug, which she'd refill every couple of hours. If I happened to be up or on my way to school, she'd nod and I'd say hello, and take off. If I was at home, I'd hear the sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen. The shotgun sound of typing went on continuously for hours. She typed incredibly fast and only infrequently paused, perhaps for a sip of tea or to light a cigarette. When she did, the sudden silence was enormous, and then, whatever I was doing, I'd be on the alert, waiting for the clatter to start up again, rather like sleeping with someone with apnea when they stop breathing, and you hold your breath waiting for them to start again. She thought as she typed. And the most practical help she gave me was when she sent me to learn touch-typing, really so that I'd have secretarial skills, but, I realised quickly, by clattering myself and not having to think about typing, that it enabled the shortest possible distance between the thought in my mind and the fingers getting it on to the page.

"While she was writing, she conformed to her warning letter to me. She occasionally had supper with friends, but more or less went into what she referred to as purdah. Writing was the priority, and when something came along to interrupt – including sometimes my doings and misdoings – she dealt with it fast and efficiently, and with frequent sighs. Then she got back to work."

(I recommend Diski's full essay, published in The Guardian here.)

Books by Doris Lessing

Lessing herself said: "Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, 'Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?' Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration.

"If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

"When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. 'Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?' "

Doris LessingPlease note: If you experience problems reading or posting comments (as I'm unable to do myself), don't worry. Typepad is aware of the problem and working to correct it.


Myth, nature, and memory: Aleah Sato and Gina Litherland

In Bloom by Gina Litherland


Path of Needles by Gina LitherlandBirth Day

by Aleah Sato

The story is sketchy at best.
Owls gathered and the bark shed itself from the oak
As tears pooled into torrents of lodestars.
Tornadoes collided and the princes fell from their towers
Holding the gold of dragons and peasants.
I heard the bells rang thrice and the priests,
Against their rosaries, called, “Lord, bring us.”
I needed no milk. I took to scarabs, those chocolate clocks.
I rode the Cyclops, my brave heart, and called canyons
With the beating thrill of thunder.
The Goose Girl by Gina LitherlandThe tails of foxes bent into ?s.
The skunks danced and raided –
         My good kin.
The subtle mercy – I cared less for it –
Demanded fiction in the burning of skin.
“Kill her,” someone whispered.
Nails bent. A witch walked on water.
Even now, I court Medusa’s daughter –
The maker, the ender.
Someone released the Necromancer.
A writer flew from the hand of a muse.

Poems spoke my purpose.
Poems re-created the real of another’s imaginings –
Murmur of Pearls by Gina LitherlandThat was the key to my survival
And to grow my own vine to magic –
      Likewise, to misery.

                              Barn Owl feather

The poem above comes from Aleah Sato's terrific Jane
Crow Journal
, reprinted here with her kind permission. It seemed the perfect piece to end a week in which we've been discussing the mythic power of fantasy and the creative process.

The art today is by the extraordinary Gina Litherland, Wolf Alice by Gina Litherlandwhose work Midori Snyder introduced me too some years ago. (They both hail from Wisconsin.)

"I have always been interested in the interplay between myth, the natural world, and the domain of dreams and memory," writes Litherland. "As a child, I spent many hours exploring natural wooded areas and empty lots inhabited by multitudes of insects and wildlife. This, along with a fervent interest in reading, particularly fairy tales, laid the foundation for my current investigations as an artist. Much of my work is inspired by folklore, myth, and literature reflected in my own personal preoccupations, specifically themes of desire, femaleness, the natural world, the human/animal boundary, children's games, ritual, intuition, and memory. The painting techniques that I use, traditional indirect oil painting techniques similar to those used by fifteenth century Sienese painters, combined with textural effects created by using various tools other than the paint brush, allow me to create a detailed, layered, and complex surface of images recreating the experience of looking at the forest floor with its rich blanket of diverse matter in various stages of decay. Suddenly, an object emerges and comes sharply into focus."

Please visit Litherland's website to see more of her gorgeous artwork. Two of her exhibition catalogs, Gina Litherland: Recent Paintings (2007) and The Murmur of Pearls (2009), are available from the Corbett vs. Dempsey online bookshop.

Little Red Cap by Gina LitherlandArt above: In Bloom, The Path of Needles, The Goose Girl, Mumur of Pearls, Wolf Alice,  and Little Redcap.