First Days at Art Farm

June 2nd, 2017

I arrived at Art Farm yesterday late afternoon. I claimed my studio—a square hut at the edge of the property—and cleaned all the raccoon poop and old junk from the previous resident. My hut has no electricity or internet or water or a bathroom, but it’s a good hut. I’ve been trying to write and I realized I didn’t have any coffee this morning. I’m considering walking all the way back to drink some, but then I’ll have to walk out here again. The walking isn’t really what I’m worried about, it’s needing to use a bathroom and being so far away. Getting old is like that. I’m happy to get down to writing business again. How long has it been since I produced a complete story? A year? Six months? Too long, but the graduate school application and rejection ordeal had me thrown way off course. I thought by now I would have chosen a school and started to prepare to leave for a new city to focus all my energy on writing. But nothing is happening the way I pictured it.

I sat down to write in my hut and I listened to the birds and rabbits chirping in the grass. Women’s voices muttered outside the walls and I turned to the new residents coming to check out the hut. Nobody was there. I looked out the windows, the grass stretching for acres before meeting another landmark for civilization. I turned back to the computer and a half-baked sentence I was working with when I heard the muttering again. I stood and walked to the doorway to prepare for visitors, but again nobody was coming my way. I walked around the hut to see if there was something I had missed. Only empty birds nests, a white sheet hanging from a tree, and a machete stuck in the wood. Could it have been the wind rippling the thin metal blade? The empty gown in the tree? Was is coming from the walls of the hut?

I left to make coffee to prevent a withdrawal headache and burned my hand on hot water as I cleaned the machine. Mold grew from the filter left in over the winter, white and blooming like the cotton tufts that decorate the driveway. I ran clean water through and washed the entire thing again. There were no filters, so I tore off a piece of paper towel and tucked it in the funnel. I carried my coffee carefully back through the tall grass, the sun now burning the dew off the farm in the late morning, and sat back down at the laptop. The open door rattled against the brick I set out to prop it open and birds chattered in the tree outside my window. It is windy on the prairie. No women sang.

When the sun appears on the other side of the hut, I pack my things and head back to the farmhouse. I’m too slow to see the animals that dart off the path into the blanket of grass, but they are small and timid and, obviously, very fast. I think they might be rabbits. It gets dark in a way I’m not used to. The sky is everywhere, unbroken by buildings or tall trees or highways. When the sun goes down it takes a long time for the light to go with it. When it is finally dark, it is prairie dark, rich and infinite, the door to space flung wide. I forgot what real dark is like. It’s coming back to me. This last year I thought about Anne Boyer’s Not Writing poem a lot. What is not writing when you’re a writer? Does it make you something else, even when you spend all your time thinking about writing, and studying it, and feeling your way through it? I also thought about productivity and guilt. I have discussions with art school friends about this. When you are not in studio you are not moving forward, and when you are not moving forward you will be left behind. This was our mantra in college. Every moment of spare time, no matter what your personal environment is like or what life changes are happening, must be spent in studio making things. I am always writing, but I am not always producing great and interesting work. This is a hard ongoing reality for artists, because we compare our worst work to other artists’ best work, then admonish ourselves for not being brilliant on the first try. Does this ever change? So if I spent a year not being brilliant or attentive in the work I was making, it’s still a fairly small amount of time in the big picture. You can be not writing or not creating for as long as you need to get your thoughts in order, but it doesn’t make one not a writer or not an artist.

 

June 3rd, 2017

This morning I got up at 7:30 and had cereal. Nobody else was moving around the house until I was almost finished, then another resident came down and we listened to the news together. I walked to my hut and spent 30 minutes watching birds through the binoculars. There is a brilliant fire breasted Baltimore oriole that sits in the nearby tree. I watched a male brown-head Cowbird try and woo a female. How lucky! Then I watched three Cowbird’s try their luck at the same time, standing in a row on a T-post behind the female. They groomed themselves, puffed out, and tiptoed with backs straight and their heads tucked into their chests, and made high popping calls for attention, which I have been practicing with my cheeks to confuse the flock. When the female turned to look at them, they all pointed their beaks up and stretched up tall, flattening their wings against their iridescent bodies. She wasn’t impressed, or perhaps the mood was all wrong. When they fly, they produce an alarm clock rattle that is hard to ignore.

Starting to write again is strange–both new and familiar. I have good energy and willingness to sit down two or three times a day and work, taking short breaks for lunch and to recharge my laptop. Whatever is coming out of this is mixed, but at least I’m working those brain muscles again. Honestly, the months leading up to this have been difficult, and my energy was all caught up in not writing affairs. It’s good to have time, space, and a routine. Everyday I get up, eat breakfast, got to the hut and write, come back to the house and eat a sandwich, charge, go back to the hut and write, come back for dinner, and sometimes go back to the hut and write until the sun pierces the windows and bakes my brain.

Send good thoughts if you have some to spare. I’ll take what I write in the next two weeks to my writing group and have complete fiction up here again in no time.

Unwanted Gifts: Quilt

One Christmas, after I had grown up and moved away and started and then ignored my own traditions, my best friend gave me this blanket. It’s made from used saris and hand stitched in India. The fibers came to me already worn and handled, containing a personal history of all its previous wearers. Reincarnation, rebirth and regeneration are common beliefs in Eastern religions, and this blanket embodies the ethics of this code. My friend found it and thought of me, and I know she didn’t over-think it. If you look close, you can see the places in the fibers where the seamstress made a mistake and, instead of starting over, used a patch of cloth to cover the flaw.

When I met my best friend, we were both starting over in Kansas City for the same reasons. We both came from the Midwest and from divorced parents. Both our mothers started living with a woman. Both of us fought with our fathers about the same things. We had all these things in common, but one thing made us very different: she was amazing at giving gifts and I was terrible at it. This blanket hits me right where all our words never could, and even though we stopped speaking to each other about a year ago, I still have it. Maybe it’s the cold child in me that can’t let go of something that keeps me warm, as if I am still sleeping pressed up against the wall over the heating vent in a bitter Wisconsin winter, waiting for the breath of hot air that kicked on for five minutes every hour.

I don’t like getting gifts because one year I ended up with two of everything. “Why do you have two moms?” I remember the unintentionally cruel question from the other middle school students. “If your mom is gay does that mean you’re gay too?” I didn’t have an answer to that question, thinking my mother’s gayness was a phase that would recede when she was done being angry at my father. Instead, she and my step mom moved into a house together, interlocking our lives, and all of our things. My mother’s house reflected her newly uncovered sexuality. 2000 was a glamorous time for two women in their 40s. We had two dogs, two couches, two televisions, two cars, two sets of knives and two sets of pots for two moms to ignore while they went out to places with names like Juniper and Gads.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the zip code, our father’s house became a museum. He kept close the hand-crafted objects collected from his travels around the world, things that couldn’t simply be duplicated or replaced. He’d downsized to a ranch with a dark interior, where he curated the rooms to reflect the kind of single man he could finally be. With a cigar hanging from his lips, expensive black caviar under his fingernails, and a useless hunting dog sighing with his head on my fathers lap, he presided over this home where he could sink into the natural state of his shibboleth. His house slowly transformed into the colors and odors of a Flemish painting, where it always smelled faintly like Limburger cheese and it was somehow always winter.

Bedding is a powerful thing. When children suddenly have to choose whose house their beloved bed and covers and pillows go to, the other parent goes out and hastily finds a small creaky frame and scratchy wool blankets that smell like dust in an attic. The second bed is never as nice as the first. It’s always a little too small, a little too old, and lumpy in places a ninety pound child can feel poking into her ribcage. Blankets can ruin a perfect bed, and they can make perfect a ruined bed. A blanket is the ultimate symbol of a new beginning.

My best friend knew these truths, because she lived through them too. She knows the value of a blanket. It must be warm enough to make it through the winter when one parent was cheap with the heat. It must be pretty enough that friends who sleep over will be jealous of it. It must be light enough to wrap around our shoulders and walk to the kitchen like that on a Saturday morning.

I ask myself: how can a person who knows so much about me one day not be a part of my life? The end of our friendship left behind all these textures I don’t understand but am now responsible for mending. Were her gifts a way to cover up the holes in our friendship, and did I hold up my end by providing the patches we could use to mend it? Or did we avoid talking about what made us tick because we have the same emotional guards that characterize children whose parents made them the weapon?

So how do we face unwanted gifts without facing our own history and our own shortcomings? The comfort of the objects we seek out only serve to reaffirm who we believe—in our most generous way—we really are. It’s easy to do what my parents did, to fill our homes with objects that reflect our ideal self back upon us. It’s easy to gloss over our faults and flaws with things that keep us bobbing on the surface above our chaotic emotional depths. To disrupt this dream is to be a better human. We must find some objective flaws to remind us we have them in the first place.

Obviously I kept the blanket. I sleep with it every night and I wrap it around me when I eat cereal hungover on my couch. I finger the threads and trace the patches that cap a hole to protect the delicate insides. I think about my friend and where she is, how she’s doing, and if we’ll ever really be friends again. What else are we supposed to do with the parts of ourselves we have a difficult time facing?

This is how you deal with an object given to you by someone you love who is no longer part of your life: hold it closer. Recognize the parts you haven’t patched up are not broken, but simply incomplete. An unwanted object, one with patches and stitches in the places that were torn, can remind us to do the only thing left to do after something is damaged: repair.

quilt

Listen to the live version from David Wayne Reed’s Shelf Life series.