E-mail to a struggling student

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Though I (we) have missed you on the last couple Saturdays, I’m not writing to guilt trip you or in any way to pressure you to come back if the class isn’t working for you. I just want to tell you what I saw in you, or what I believe I saw, partly because it reminds me so much of me—and, once upon a time, it would have meant so much had someone acknowledged what I was going through and made a place for it.

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The land of little rain

Madeleine drawing in the gardenIt was 102 degrees in Los Angeles one day last week, and 100 the days before and after that. Every year, between January and mid-May, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responds to an average of 700 wildfires in the state. The number so far this year stands at 1400.

These are the days I’ve come to dread during my nearly nine years in Southern California. This year they have come earlier. I rub down my dog with a wet cloth. I mix up a paste of apple cider vinegar and baking soda to soothe my son’s poison oak. My cats line the floorboards. In order to work (and cool my brain, says Wendy, my neuroscientist friend), I fill a Ziploc bag with ice, wrap it in a kerchief, and hang it around my neck.

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The will of God

To those of you who’ve stayed with me this far, since September, when I started the blog—many thanks. And my apologies for not posting as often as I said I’d hoped to.

I’m in the thick of a piece I’ve been asked to write about what it’s like to be an educated person who’s fallen out of the middle class. In order to write it, in order to break up the psychic hardpan in which multiple stories lie buried, I have to turn away from public presentation. I’m still answering the phone, but not much else. The stories themselves resemble nocturnal creatures who shun the light.

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Voices

CHARLES. Oh, your voices, your voices. Why don’t the voices come to me? I am king, not you.

JOAN. They do come to you; but you do not hear them. You have not sat in the field in the evening listening for them. When the angelus rings you cross yourself and have done with it; but if you prayed from your heart, and listened to the thrilling of the bells in the air after they stop ringing, you would hear the voices as well as I do.
—George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan

Most mornings, were it not for my dog, I would get up later than I do. But Cleo wakes up happy. I remember this—waking up happy. I was young. The serene light of early morning settling over the white chenille bedspread. The lilacs, in full bloom, drowsing against the screen. Later the same day I got on my bicycle and kept going after my sister had turned back. I was already trying to outrun something.
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Going to color, Part 2

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I am coming very close to what the soul will not permit the hand to make. And in the past I have done it—to pay the bills. But not here. I gave my heart to this small portrait, in watercolor, of Moses (aka Moe), did rough color study after color study on watercolor-paper scraps, until the difficulties began to make themselves clear.

In my haste to get another piece done and post it on the Etsy site before Thanksgiving, I brushed past my hard-won understanding of the laws of art, which are, to my mind, inseparable from the laws of nature. Nature has no use for objects in isolation, objects without shadows, only relationships. I had neglected this, going for the easy seduction of cat’s eye and striped cat face.

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Going to color

Though of weak faith, I believe in forces and powers /
Who crowd every inch of the air.
— Czesław Miłosz

I had a plan. The blog was going to be about art-making and survival, the one making possible the other. I had visions of an orderly chronicle that would take up in its turn each painting that had found its source in my community garden, each vegetable or flower. I wanted to tell you what it’s like to sit before a patch of marigolds or poppies, or to peer through the upright networks of tomato vines, putting pencil to paper, then brush. And then about the point when I can’t remain there a moment longer but I do—or, more accurately, looking back, I realize that I did. That I stayed. Held my seat, as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has put it. And in staying, I see: plants making smaller and smaller copies of themselves as they try to fill space and gather light. The figures of insects, the patterns of leaf, stem, and fruit—echoing each other. Getting a handhold on the infinite—the same thing I’m trying to do.

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Thinking about reading

The moral philosopher Simone Weil said this about reading: “As far as possible I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” It is the same for me. I wish it were otherwise, that I didn’t need books—the written word—the way that I do, or that I had also at my disposal the languages our tribal ancestors knew but that time has taken away. I will explain. The written word is my broad piece of armor, not to keep me from grief but to get me through it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that in the Bible, for example, he “found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness.”

But before reaching for the written word as armor I reach for it as salve against the tedium of my thoughts. For it can break their merciless circling and deflect me into the wider world, where there are huge and mighty forms I have forgotten or know nothing about, which hold us, and could hold me, to life. In theory, anyway.

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Dollars damn me

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One lives so badly, because one always comes into
the present unfinished, unable, distracted.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

In 1851, as Herman Melville struggled to finish Moby-Dick, he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Dollars damn me. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. . . . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

During his lifetime, Melville earned just over $10,000 for his writing. During his lifetime, my father never earned more than $15,000 a year, whether from feeding a coal-fired brewery boiler, driving a cab, or selling cars. My mother even less, from garment piecework and typing that she did at home and from a turn as a drugstore clerk. She liked to say, speaking of her girlhood in the 1920s and ‘30s, that her family didn’t know they were poor—even after her mother drove her scoundrel father from the porch with a broom and they lost the meager income he allotted them, even after her motherless cousins came to live with them, making seven children to feed. “In those years everyone lived the same,” she said. The wealthy were distant and theoretical.

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The undiscovered country of the nearby

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19th century French countryside landscape drawing, graphite on paper

Madeleine Avirov
Old France, Countryside (After Atget), (diptych), 1999
graphite on paper, 8 x 6 ½ in.

This world is a closed door. It is a barrier.
And at the same time it is the way through.
—Simone Weil

When I close my eyes, images of things seen resolve in watercolor, against rough-textured paper. Slowly, as in a darkroom, like an image emerging from photographic paper in its chemical bath. This alternate take on the things of the world, which makes me look, and look again, with a kind of welcome uncertainty, is partly because, after three years, I am drawing and painting again.

Take the strawberry plants (Fragaria × ananassa) that I watered this morning in the garden. Each detail surfaces in the mind as a separate, semi-transparent layer of color. Each detail draws up the next, overlay upon overlay, until the impression is complete. Leaf, stem, and fruit of variegated color crossed with sun and shadow—rendered in the mind as I render them on paper, not by mixing color on a palette, but by letting color come together in the thing itself. Much as, it has often seemed to me, mother nature might accomplish the strawberry if she had a brush in her hand—not before creation, but in the thing itself.
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Of porous borders and homegrown tomatoes

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Among primitive peoples (we call them “primitive” not because they are simpler than we are—their processes of thought are often more complicated than ours—but because they are closer to the state from which all mankind emerged), there is no difference between building and image-making as far as usefulness is concerned. Their huts are there to shelter them from rain, wind, and sunshine and the spirits which produce them; images are made to protect them against other powers which are, to them, as real as the forces of nature. Pictures and statues, in other words, are used to work magic.
                       — E. H. Gombrich

Down at childhood’s edge I found this out: images can “protect [us] against other powers which are . . . as real as the forces of nature.” Drawing Vicky Maratta, the girl in the chair opposite mine in kindergarten, who was singled out for privileges by the teacher. The morning sun filtering through the tall window behind her, filaments of hair standing out from her dark head. A girl with a Modigliani face and long braids, the sinuous turns of which I followed with my crayon, biting my lower lip. By the time the teacher called my name I had shrugged off my uncomfortable self like a jacket, had lost my coarse and curly hair for Vicky’s, sleek and dark.
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