of all the horses, it is a paint that corrals my eye, my heart.
he stands alone, on a patch of grass twenty yards from his nearest bandmate. his stance is perpendicular to the herd, the eye that faces the others wide and deeply aware. muscles bunch under smooth hide as he shifts from one foreleg to the other. there is just enough of a breeze to dance his mane against his neck, his forelock across the far eye.
what pulls me to him I can only ponder. I many not know the truth for hours, or during my lifetime. is it his outsider role, or his patience? perhaps his inner wisdom. or maybe he is a rebel. a denounced stallion. one who wielded power in an earlier life. I supply a backstory, I infuse him with traits I wish for myself. if he is my mirror, I could be a sinner, a has-been, a separatist, a pacifist, a former pugilist, an underdog, the unloved.
one hundred fifty or so other horses drink from the watering hole, tug at grass, nuzzle flanks and shoulders, instigate or respond to what may or may not be playful attacks. I’m curious, I absorb the experience, but I remain fully committed to my paint and know that as I settle in bed this evening it is he who will visit, he who will remain in my mind’s eye, he who will become the backbone of a story that begins to weave its way from head to heart, from heart to head.
[barb richardson, a writer friend of mine, is aunt to jim schnepel, who is the president of the Wild Horses of America foundation (catch that acronym), and jim was kind enough to invite me out to see the Onaqui herd. the photo here was taken by jim.]
in conversation last week, a friend bemoaned the fact that he was recognized in the community as an exceptional physician and educator. he felt narrowed, constricted, by this validation from society.
I, in turn, bemoaned the fact that I was likely seen as more scattered: business school graduate and retailer, small business owner, writer, social worker a dozen years ago and now again, mom of three college students. at this stage in my life, I told him, I wanted to be a master of something, not simply someone who was quite good at a number of things, who had spent time here and there, done this and that.
my friend was envious of what I saw as a shortcoming. he wanted to be known as someone with more depth and variety in his experiences, gifts, and desires.
I wanted to be queen of something.
and then I remembered my skate skiing boots.
last winter I took up skate skiing. this same friend gave me a pair of his old skis, and I bought new bindings, poles, and boots. I took lessons. I eventually learned to stay upright (most of the time), to ski up and down gentle hills, even to glide gracefully for moments at a time. after just a few sessions, I looked at my shiny new boots with an extraordinary sense of pride and validation. I had learned to alpine ski as a child, and didn’t completely stop until shortly after having my second child. then came a dearth of ski days–almost 20 years of them–up until last winter. those skate skiing lessons helped me reclaim a long lost aspect of myself. I could once again consider myself a skier.
those boots are a symbol of just how complex and varied a person I am. which, as I reconsidered our laments, is exactly how my friend wished the world would see him.
few of us wish to be pigeon-holed, forced into narrow descriptors of our capacities. I don’t truly want to be labeled and categorized, yet I am pulled into that desire by society’s tendency to focus on what one does instead of who one is.
my friend is multi-faceted, curious, engaged with life, a thinker, a philosopher, a fisherman, cyclist, skier, runner. who happens to practice and teach medicine.
and I, well, I am multi-faceted too, a queen of many small things, a person who is validated by reminders of how richly diverse her life is. who may not have yet reached mastery of anything, but is a life-long apprentice of many things she loves. and those ski boots remind me, each time I see them, of potentials and possibilities and the fact that I am not yet done creating myself.
terry tempest williams wrote her book finding beauty in a broken world in an attempt to increase understanding of our world’s staggering suffering. she writes of spending time in rwanda working with a small group of americans, known as barefoot artists, to create a memorial to those who lost their lives in the horrific genocide of 1994. surrounded by refugees, rwandans trying to reestablish families and communities, she employs her myriad gifts to connect at a spiritual level, the level of deepest need.
in describing the people, many of whom have little more than the insufficient clothing they wear, tempest williams brings them to life as dignified yet devastated, compelling yet staggeringly naked in their vulnerability. the people are achingly human, existing in inhumane circumstances. yet life continues, and the will to not only live but to thrive is demonstrated by the desire to participate, to engage, and to create.
the children she spends time with are arid soil begging for moisture–knowledge–to instigate their sprouting. and when terry leaves the community, the children call out to her, when you come back, bring us more pens and notebooks!
not food, not clothing, not candy, not money: pens, and notebooks.
for it is with those tools they can draw and write, they can create something from nothing, they can hold on to it and have both record and proof of their creations. their existences.
I, too, crave pens and notebooks. I, too, desire record and proof.
and I wish the same for everyone on earth.
When we make something with our hands, it changes the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes the way we act. ~ Carl Wilkens
I am surrounded, here, by art—natural, and human-made, and human-created collections of the natural. To my left, photographs of trees, a tortoise, a spider’s web of Amazonian girth (which, I’ve learned, one can use to staunch the flow of blood, heal a wound). Behind me, a painting of two arctic graylings surrounded by a thousand words–three hundred more–a commitment, a project of inherent tedium and unending, painstaking, attention. Across the street, framed and hung on a wooden wall, fly two trumpeters painted upon an abstract background that captures every minute and extravagant aspect of the beauty of this singular place. I am in Montana’s Centennial Valley.
I, have only words. Made of spindly lines and curves, each one, like a single brush stroke, carrying little significance. There are more words than colors, more words than tools to place color on a canvas. Infinite, meaningless words, that wander across mind and page and only by sheer luck or through great fortitude tell a story nearly as purely as a painting.
I want to paint the trees and birds, the flat lake and its impossible line of light, the bulging clouds, the rainfall during the night. The moon, growing fat, yet full of dips and holes, places I risk being swallowed.
A brush in my hand, plump caterpillars of color on my palette; anything but dark pen, white paper, the shapes I’ve carved a million times, will carve a million times more.
My desk, in this cabin, is a hingeless door, black metal table legs bolted to its belly, propped on seven-inch blocks of wood to align its height with the window ledges, rough gray boards knotted and chipped, dry and splitting further with each shift of wind. My tall chair, a throne. Gentle brushstrokes, the paint green, indicate the place where someone here before me painted–a small piece, the size of my own paper–on the left side of the desk. The green tells me only of its border, and I am left to imagine the rest—the vision, the story. For what we do is the same, we ache to tell a story, it wrestles us until it wins, whether by paint, by pen, by pencil, by arrangement of rock, feather, moss.
If I could only paint, use my hands to do more than wield a pen, I’m certain my stories would sing.
I would paint a grayling, a tamarask, a cormorant–sleek and black and curved of bill. I would paint on wood, let it dry and crackle and tell a story all its own.
I would sketch my story, trap my words inside the paint, daub and brush and seal them all, and with this, change the artist herself.
I am impatient.
there are writers who spend five or eight or a dozen years writing a novel, crafting each sentence, paragraph, and chapter with the dedication and precision of a Bernini. I would be bald and fat if I worked that way, having pulled every hair from my head and eaten everything I could get my hands on.
this past week I took Word and Excel training sessions, eating an entire (large) bag of jelly bellies while doing so. I pulled only a hair or two.
but to worry a paragraph to perfection takes more patience and love than I can seem to find.
I love words, I enjoy playing with sentence structure and rhythm. I close my eyes and feel for what’s underneath the words. I read what I’ve written, I’ll niggle with words, clauses, the swooping of lines. I’ll fix redundancies, repetitions, recurrences. (that was a joke.) I read for clarity and interest. I chop the unnecessary, unless I’m too attached to it to do so. I strike articles and “that” and make sure to refer to people as “who” and animals as “that,” unless an animal needs to become a “who” because of the story.
but I craft very few perfect paragraphs.
Orion magazine has an online column named the place where you live, and there, this week, I discovered a perfect paragraph. caught midway between envy and appreciation, I acknowledge that I could try harder. I could quell my impatience–somehow–and focus more deeply on each word I write and how it behaves around those surrounding it. but no matter how long I write, how many hairs I pull or jelly bellies I eat, no matter the years under my belt, the volumes to my credit, the number of tweets I’ve carefully honed, I will always, always, be awed by the perfect paragraphs of other writers.
this one, by jaren watson, can be accessed by clicking the link above, but I’m also including it below. enjoy, be awed, be envious, be encouraged.
Posted by Jaren Watson | September 17, 2014
My home lies in the shadows of granite giants to the east, limestone pilgrims to the west. The plain between was carved by the Yellowstone caldera a hundred thousand years ago, and now lies as flat as hammered brass. In the hills above my home, my ancestors shook the shoulders of Hin-mah-tu-yah-lat-kekt, the wisest and gentlest leader this land has ever known, and chased him from the belly of his lover, made his home their home. As now I sleep I hear his voice in the whistle of the elk, my neighbors. I feel his hands about my ankles as I wade the waters of the Teton River, my mother. My brothers are juniper and pine, and the wind through their needles is the whisper of our Chief, saying, “Rest, my son. Rest upon my bones, your bedstead.”