Sunday, January 28, 2018

Reflections on a Wise Woman by Maria Popova

Wonderful article about Ursula K. Leguin by Maria Popova on her blog: 

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.
A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Chingand her classic unsexing of gender.
In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters(public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)
Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:
Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.
The key words are spare time. What do they mean?
To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.  But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time? I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.
A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hoursand ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:
The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?
And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?
Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:
The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.
An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula Leguin

"The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and
sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather
stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the
treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the
terrible boredom of pain. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to
embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost
lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any
celebration of joy."  
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"
I am profoundly saddened to hear of the death of   Ursula Kroeber Leguin on January 22, 2018 at the age of 88.   I cannot express how important this wise mentor has been to me from the first time I opened one of her novels.  It seems very strange, the thought of living in a world that she is no longer in, where her voice is no longer heard.  
Back in December of 2015  I sent a photo of the painting below to her,  along with a letter expressing my appreciation.  I was pleased to at last be able to thank her.
"Ursula Leguin as Spider Woman, Weaving the Worlds Into Being" (2015)

I was so delighted and surprised when she wrote back!  She sent me a card, and a poem  I will treasure always.  Now she is truly spinning stories among the stars.

Here is a post I wrote about Ursula Leguin back in 2011 - I felt like sharing it again.

December 17, 2011

Ursula Leguin's site opens with a map of Earthsea,  a realm of enchantment I've spent many years visiting.   I was delighted to see, at the lower left corner of the map she provides, a little spider with her thread running off the page and off the map............ah, yes, Ursula is a great manifestation of  Spider Woman indeed.   

There is a kind of synchronistic personal mythos in this for me.  As a young art student at Berkeley,  almost every day I trudged past the Anthropology exhibits, fascinated by the magical  arrowheads and woven fabric in display cases, on my way to the painting studios in Kroeber Hall.  Kroeber Hall was named after her famous father,  anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber.  I was not to discover Ursula Leguin's worlds until many years later - but in every novel, I always see the  eye of the anthropologist's daughter, creator of the star wide "Ecumen", with it's many complex cultures.  Alfred L. Kroeber is especially known for his study of Ishi, the last survivor of the California Yana.  Ishi's story was told by Ursula's mother, the writer Theodora Kroeber, in her famous  book Ishi In Two Worlds.    

"We are volcanoes.  When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains"  

Reading  "Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences", or "Always Coming HomeI always see the anthropologist,  her profound respect and understanding for the  lost worlds of people like the Yahi, and her insight into the complexity, creativity,  and infinate possibilities of human cultures.  

One of my favorite stories  is "May's Lion".  Here the author contrasts the experiences of two old women, living alone in the same land, but in different eras.  Each is visited by a dying mountain lion.  "May" lives out on the edge of some small town, perhaps in California.  She talks to her cow, she loves her bit of land.  "Rain's End" lives there too, but she is a native woman from an earlier time.  The lion has come to both women to die.  Rain's End knows this, and sits with the lion, offering prayers for it's journey into the next world, understanding the honor the lion has given her.  May also sits with the lion, transcending her fear.  But her grandson arrives and shoots the  lion.  And in some way  she cannot fully understand, May knows that something important has been lost, something sacred.

"There are no right answers to wrong questions."

To  add a footnote to (my own story) I returned to Berkeley to open a gallery in 1997, and became friends with Arjuna, a storyteller and Tuva singer who had opened a performance space just a block away.  He created a powerful play and songs based on the story of Ishi, and for years  gave performances on the anniversary of his death.  Arjuna continues to make his  music in the California desert (for information visit his website Harmonic Fuzion).  When I left Berkeley in 2000, he gave me a tape of "Ishi" and a Tibetan singing bowl, and I left him a copy   of "Always Coming Home", by the daughter of the man and woman who inspired his music.  

Circles. Sometimes I wonder, how are the stories we love and the stories we end up living really separate?  Thank you, Ursula Leguin, for weaving me into the Great Story.

"The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerant uncertainty: not knowing what comes next 
Ursula K. Leguin

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"For a Dancer"........ remembering Gabrielle Roth

"To sweat is to pray, to make an offering of your innermost self. Sweat is holy water, prayer beads, pearls of liquid that release your past. Sweat is an ancient and universal form of self healing, whether done in the gym, the sauna, or the sweat lodge. I do it on the dance floor. The more you dance, the more you sweat. The more you sweat, the more you pray. The more you pray, the closer you come to ecstasy."
- Gabrielle Roth
I heard the music recently of Gabrielle Roth and The Mirrors, and it brought back how important she was to me when I was, perhaps, a more "embodied" person, when I was dancing more.  I  wanted to remember her here, the brilliant and soulful and tough artist and teacher and spiritual visionary that touched the lives of so many.  

To   Gabrielle, author of Sweat Your Prayers,  physical movement was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the  spirit and discovering an ecstatic path to self discovery.  I'm always saddened  when I see some of the great teachers of my time leave, and Gabrielle Roth was one of them, a teacher of  dance as healing and joy,  the   creator of the 5Rhythms  movement practice.  She  passed away on October 22, 2012.

To see a  beautiful  movie about Gabrielle Roth and her work:

Here's a song I love that somehow fits this post: 
 "For A Dancer" by Jackson Browne:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

"A House of Doors"............Lithographs from the 80's

"Leda and the Swan" (1985)
Another artifact from the recent excavation of my life as an artist (where have I been?  How did I get here?) ........this portfolio of  Lithographs I did in the mid 1980's. I remember how much I loved being in the litho room, grinding the big stones.  The images were mostly drawn a collection of old photographs of my family I found, my mother as a child, my grandmother I never knew..........they haunted me, these people and that brief moment caught in black and white and then gone, lost, relics, artifacts, stories, mysteries.   The entire collection was called "A HOUSE OF DOORS"  and I wrote a poem that went with them, that eventually became a performance piece.  I worked so hard on them............and only showed them once.  

"A House of Doors" (1985)

"Day of Radience" (1985)

"Some rooms diminish, some rooms compress
Rooms can be tricky.
What I chiefly remember are doors

I live in a house of doors."

"Icarus Had a Sister" (1985)

"Persistence of Memory" (1985)

"Dream II" (1985)

"Dream" (1985)

"Winter's Dream" (1985)

"Ancestral Visitation" (1986)

"When Rain Sang" (1985)

I Remember white dresses I wore.
I can't remember the girl's name.

"Funny", she said, "How time
 takes the names out of things,
and bleaches the rest kind of transparent."

Funny. Chiefly,
I remember doors."

"Streetcar" (1986)