What’s new?

When my son was five, our family traveled around the United Kingdom for five weeks. I went on a knitting frenzy, wanting to find locally-spun yarn on each of the British Isles. I knit in the car, knit in every one of our B&Bs before breakfast and after supper, knit in pubs. Nathan desperately wanted me to teach him to knit. In a busy, crowded yarn shop in Oban, Scotland I picked up some child-sized needles and we sat down before dinner that night to have our first lesson. He sat patient and wide-eyed while I cast on enough for a little square, maybe 16 stitches. Soon he became distracted and I could tell he was fast losing interest.

“Don’t you want to learn to knit?” I asked.

“Yes. But I don’t want to make a square, Mommy. I want to make a sweater.”

Learning new things is hard. Really hard. It’s one thing to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name or where to find a great new restaurant or even how to use WordPress. It’s another thing to learn to make a sweater from nothing, to learn a language, to learn a whole….thing. To stick with it through thick and thin, through the rush of fantasy and the sludge of reality.

I’m trying to learn some new things. Not a new language, exactly, but kind of. And we all know that learning a language gets harder the older we get. A friend writes beautifully about the power of words, the cozy fabric we wordy types weave for ourselves and wrap around our shoulders to comfort us and warm us. The words we cook up into a hearty stew, stirring together flavors, textures, and smells mixing like so many metaphors.  Lovely, right? Now, imagine doing it in Chinese. Or Sanskrit. Or taking Intro to Anatomy at the age of 53. Or deciding to become a barista so you can make beautiful pictures in latte foam and learn that all that is actually about something entirely different: physics (that class you never took) and chemistry (that one you barely passed).

Sometimes I’m not so sure my menopausal 50-something brain can handle learning a whole lot of new things. Certainly not happily. Certainly not with the kind of comfort of dipping into a delicious new poet or a book recommended by a trusted friend. It’s a stretch, and who wants to stretch? Not I, said the Little Red Hen.

What about you? What are you learning? Where are you stretching?

Is social media “the madness of art”?

Recently I came across that irresistibly quotable quote from Henry James’ 1893 short story, The Middle Years:

We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

The setting for my being held, once again, by these words was a 2008 speech by Cynthia Ozick about “ghost writers.” For her, the “madness of art” is not, actually, in the art, but in all the things we do to escape it. “Art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction,” Ozick says. Boy, howdy.

Perhaps as a defense of my recent rash decision to deactivate my facebook account, “the false face of wishful distraction” resonates. I got off facebook for three reasons:

  1.  I became personally aware of the passive-aggressive nature of indirect communication through updating one’s status, and decided that if someone wanted me to know what they were feeling or doing, they needed to pick up the phone or send me a note.
  2. The general time-sink that is facebook. What would that last hour before bedtime be like if I wasn’t zoning out in front of the screen checking up on everybody else’s day? (Answer: Great!)
  3. All the ego stuff….was I getting enough friends, enough likes, enough positive attention to earn my place in the social media world?

Around the time that I was admitting all this to myself, I came across a generous column on The Attic’s Ask Miss Lit page, responding to a writer’s complaint that social media was taking over her life. (I don’t know why I think the writer is a her, but I just do.) Wise Miss Lit pointed out that there are many great writers out there who have no facebook friends, no personal website, no blog, no nothing. They just write. (Cynthia Ozick doesn’t even have her own website. Imagine!) And neither do most clergy, painters, poets, doctors, or teachers.

What if work – be it making art or teaching or gardening or mothering or writing – is what is sane in the world, and all those things we say will help us work, but are actually things we do to avoid work…what if that way madness lies?

Day 4: Caffe Pallino

This morning I had coffee with my wonderful friend Ashley Henry and we had, as always, a wide-ranging conversation, touching on all the things that come up for each of us this time of year. When we meet – not often enough – we meet at Caffe Pallino because it is right near her house and my office.

There are lots of things I like about Pallino. For one thing, it’s one of the few good cafes that stays open well into the evening. And the baker occasionally puts out a sample plate right next to the register of big huge chunks of house-made coffee cake, scones, muffins, and cinnamon rolls. They make great breakfasts, don’t get crowded for Sunday brunch, and have fabulous gelato.

Like a lot of coffee shops, the place doubles as an art gallery. Unlike a lot of coffee shops, the art they hang is really good. The bright, open decor (which another friend of mine doesn’t like because she says it’s too “shiny”) doesn’t hurt. The art here consistently says to me: take me home. Someday I will. Today I’m just happy to have had a chance to let my eyes wander the walls and be grateful to this artist, whose name I don’t even know, for putting together lines and oil and string in the colors of night and light and earth, just right for this light-and-dark earthy time of year.

Day 1: The Fresh Pot

Welcome to my FADPDX3 project. This year’s project is a stretch in a couple of different directions. 1) Blog every day and 2) Visit a different coffee shop every day. This is a stretch because I am such a creature of habit it’s remarkable I’m not a nun. Stay tuned, and if you know a coffee shop I should visit, leave a comment to let me know.  

I wrote this on Day 0, because on Day 1 I’m on Mt. Hood not thinking about coffee or blogging.

The main thing about The Fresh Pot is that their baristas, all of them, make the very best latte I’ve had in Portland. I like the location – I frequent the one adjacent to the Hawthorne Powell’s – and the time I go is in the hour or two before Powell’s and the other stores open, so there’s always a parking space along with an easy getting-into-the-day feel as things begin to open up and fill up. The Fresh Pot crowd is fairly diverse as cafe-goers go: young, old, couples, singles, laptops, paper. The cafe curates a monthly show of only the freshest local art, sometime by its own staff. The only thing I don’t always love about the Fresh Pot is the music, which often too loud and techno for me. But that’s me.

This project means I won’t be back here for about a month. Good by, Fresh Pot!

Beach Creatures

The other day my beloved was showing off his new ipad and shared a video from The New Yorker illustrating the September 7 story about Theo Jansen‘s beach creatures, or Strandbeests, wind-powered sculptures that walk on the beach. You all may be familiar with Jansen’s work, but maybe I haven’t gotten out much lately. Or, more likely, I’ve been coming across adventure and delight and beauty in other places. Here they’re all rolled into one. Take a look and enjoy!

Air Jewelry

For years, I’ve worn a cross whenever I fly. A superstitious ritual, perhaps, since I rarely wear a cross on the ground. When I fly I wear a cross to reassure myself that faith (not necessarily mine, some days) is stronger than my chronic travel anxiety.

Most recently, instead of a cross, I’ve flown wearing a necklace my new friend Nikki. made. She makes jewelry out of junk: others’ cast-off jewelry, hardware, children’s toys, and other small items. the tag line of her business is “everything is beautiful in its time, even nuts, bolts, and washers.” Every time I see Nikki, she is wearing a new creation: a pendant made of a small metal plate with a piece of a vintage earring dangling from it, a ring made from a doll’s teacup, a pair of earrings from light-catching dashboard fuses. Take a look. I’ve learned not to gush too much over Nikki’s jewelry, because she is prone to take it off and give it to me. She won’t take my money, and I know she depends on jewelry sales as a portion of her income. I keep my mouth shut so she can sell it to someone else later on.

Over coffee she told me about how she was prostituted by her mother as a child, and subsequently abused by her stepfather. In the same paragraph she talked about her life in the suburbs, her wonderful husband and two small children, and her jewelry-making, how the ability to see beauty in odd objects and discarded broken things came to her as an unexpected gift.

The necklace I wear whenever I fly these days is the one she wore that day. It’s made of nuts and washers, pieces of something else that were formerly left for dead. It has become my talisman for survival, for the triumph of life and hope over fear and death. The hex-nuts hang down like a bunch of perfectly ripe grapes and are irresistible to play with mid-flight, their satisfying weight and shape as reassuring to hold onto as any cross.

Today’s Cup: Extravagance

Today I went to my current favorite latte shop with the best barrista ever. Sometimes he makes my drink with an ornate leaf in the foam on top. Sometimes a heart. Today, a heart and a leaf. (How do they do that??) All I could think of was: what extravagance!

Extravagance is a favorite word of mine, especially in these times when scarcity is creeping into so much of our daily conversation. I use the word all the time, so I decided I better look it up. (Mostly, I was wondering where “vagance” comes from.) Lo and behold, channeling Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, and “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride, an initial dictionary survey showed that the word doesn’t mean what I have always thought it means. The common definitions are all about spending too much money. Spending a few extra seconds and one’s own natural talent to create latte art, destined to be destroyed in as many seconds, would not be a good example of extravagance according to Webster or many others.

It’s a great word nonetheless, and I refuse to accept the limits of all those common definitions. I finally found a dictionary that gave me the etymology I sought and taught me something new: extra, outside of (and I extrapolate beyond) plus the present perfect of the latin vagari, wandering, or vague. Wandering beyond expectations. Who knew that extravagance was about vagary?