Archive for February, 2010

what lies beneath and within

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Its been pretty quiet here at Brook Hollow the last few weeks. The raccoons have carried off the last of the bird seed from the deck and I’ve had some seriously quiet time to make some things and pay more attention to things that are less obvious.

I was thinking back on an early October morning at the bonfire memorial here at Texas A&M. The sun was just breaking over the horizon, and the ground fog neatly filled the memorial grounds. All I could see were the topmost parts of the portals memorializing each student that died that early morning, the fog filled the rest of the bowl, it was a space, but the fog had given it a visible form. That form had been there since the memorial was constructed, and though I had visited it a number of times, I never could see the form of that space.

This shouldn’t be much of a surprise as just a month or two later, a friend here sat with two students in my studio and rapidly diagnosed a missing design element that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on. He figured out that the physical hints, sometimes boundary walls, sometimes a lower portion of the ceiling, sometimes a pool of light, were describing a space that had very little form, and the design suffered from that lack of cohesion in the “invisible” part of the building design. I say this shouldn’t be a surprise because back in the Spring of 1987, when I interviewed for a teaching position, a senior faculty member, upon seeing a drawing I had done of the Pantheon in Rome, asked me if I saw myself as the black lines that defined the circular space of the floorplan, or of the whitespace defined within the lines. Without thinking I replied “the black.”

Some years later I chose to share half of my administrative position with a colleague I didn’t really know very well, but had an instinct that he would bring to the position, what I didn’t have. It turned out he had been asked a similar question by the same faculty member and had replied “the white.”

I’ve spent years, maybe decades learning about the visible things that make buildings, cars, organisms, streets and cities, how they work, why they don’t, and the visible signs of distress they exhibit before not working anymore.

As it turns out, what’s inside the things, be it wall, diesel, or street-front are evidence of an attitude, set of values, even beliefs. Its just harder to learn than the external appearances and components. The “way” of Volkswagen and Kia are different. They value different things, though both make similar four-wheeled contraptions. You only get a sense for the values when you actually look, maybe start to take apart whats under the skin. You find bolts that are inaccessible in one, and a sense the car was designed to be maintained in the other. Plastic bits that break and require replacement, and metal screws to remove and repair…all kinds of little differences that you can’t know with a first look at the appearance.

So the quiet weeks here have provoked some actions I wouldn’t have predicted months earlier. I’m painting, not anything a person would recognize, but enjoying the freedom of not having an appearance to imitate, seeing the form that results from the paint and brush, the weight or tremor in my hand, the stillness or energy inside me. I have no clue what it means, but instincts say to keep painting so I’ll listen to them.

When moving to Texas, I threw in some bits of materials that were the subject of skeptical comments back in Virginia. A great chunk of pine, some blocks of cedar, wire, a piece of 5/4 fir from the trim ornaments I carved over Erin and Maggie’s windows on Lee Street. I didn’t know why I kept them, or why I moved them, just that they were potentially something.

I’ve been combining those bits with some plaster cast in dollar store glass vases. I had chosen the glassware for some aspect of their external appearance, but upon removing the plaster (cook overnight and drip cold water on the glass…pop!) one can see some nuances resulting from the glass blowing or casting process that were invisible when just looking at the outside. Subtle peaks and smooth edge transitions that are inside the glass, are never really visible when we use these vases for their functional purpose. When filled with water and flowers, the vase surrenders any beauty it may have inside to the flash and attention lavished on the flowers.

So inside, there can be a complexity and nuance that might not be apparent from a first look…. I’m learning that, slowly, seeing what’s in the mirror may not be all there is to it.

Take a look at what’s inside of people and things around. I’m learning that what I thought I knew, I didn’t. And what I thought I didn’t know, some part of my inner form or instinct, kind of knew but somehow i kept looking at the flowers and so never saw.

These things make less sense the more one types so I’ll stop now.

Be good to each other, maybe a bit more tolerance will allow an insight the first look doesn’t afford.

Take Care

…at the end of the day…

Monday, February 15th, 2010

The days are sloooowly getting longer now. The sun is up to wake me each morning, but still not around when I get home.

Tonight the moon was pretty impressive. A brilliant small crescent was all that was visible of the moon, with only the faintest hint of the rest of its circular profile visible in the early night. It struck me that the moon was smiling, something I’d never noticed before.

It was too low on the western horizon to take a photo, but its an image I’ll long remember. I don’t have too many strong memories of the night sky, one other I remember is sitting with a group of people outside after Pat and Paul’s wedding. It was really dark, we were somewhere near Larry Byrd’s hometown not too close to city lights, and the clear night was filled with stars. What made it especially memorable was being able to see the ecliptic plane. This incredible alignment of the planets of our solar system appeared in the sky, making a connect-the-dots tilted arc. It was as if the heavens aligned for their wedding.

As I try to sleep, my mind seems to come to life at full speed. The list of things that need doing, things I’d like to do, things I must do the next day, things I didn’t get done today, all seem to scroll by in an endless loop. Sometimes I wake up and write them down. This often helps me sleep because by the time I get to the end of the list, its almost time to wake up.

The “to-do’s” don’t weigh on me too often. Tomorrow’s an exception to that rule…talking about negotiated settlements is pretty unsettling. But the “wish I hadn’t” list is one that weighs heavily on me. It’s kind of a long scroll, one that seems to increase logarithmically with age, an indication that I’m on the gradual downslope part of life maybe.

I’ve learned from some of the “wish I hadn’ts” on the list, but not as many, or as quickly as I should. Some go hand in hand with “wish I hads” mostly those are “wish I had seen then what I can see now” mostly those are decades-old but, they’re still around. I’ve had instincts, feelings about people, places, requests, demands and usually I shrug them off, being convinced I was over-reacting, and things will get better in time. They can, but only if a person works them out right when they occur. It’s true you can’t second-guess life. If I had put my foot down, acted on my instincts, some lives would have been very very different, which is to say, longer I think. I remember feeling that a high-school friend was working unusually hard to avoid me during one week. I told myself he was changing groups, from our nerdy lunch club to one of the more with-it groups of kids, and something about them didn’t seem right, but, I thought, who am I to say? I learned he had gone to a party with them, and then inexplicably, climbed a high tension tower and grabbed the wire. There’s been a few things like that, mostly between high school and a few years ago, that I remember on most nights, knowing, but not knowing, what would have made a difference? What would make a difference tomorrow?

A list of simple sayings scrolls through most evenings. They aren’t original, and I usually can’t consistently live them, but are usually my final thoughts before drifting off:
…when in doubt, act…
…as long as you fall on your face, you’re moving in the right direction
…the right thing is seldom the path to pleasure, but is still the right thing
…initiative distinguishes one from the many
…leaders are more interested in the success of their team, than their own
…know what you live for, live for your purpose
…if you don’t know the right answer, give three or more, then choose the best of what you have
…(this one is easy in design work, impossible in life for me) put your problems together to make a new question, a new possibility
…don’t hit “send” for a few hours…or days
…every once in a while, be the grasshopper, not the ant…

Some other things that scroll past, vividly good, and not so good, but on the same scroll: the birth of my daughters (incredibly good), missing the death of my father, touching an oak box on a cold windy hill and having it knock me down, a silent drift down a windless shoreline at dawn, seeing the first snow of the season, seeing the last snow of the season, shaking the hands of students coming off the graduation stage, not being there with my students on an early April day, being there when a poet lifted a university on her shoulders, watching someone laugh from their toes-when you never thought you’d see them laugh again, seeing the pain i’ve caused in others, finding a universe in a tidepool and infinity on a beach…

You get the picture, sleeping is hard, not just for me, but lots of us. I think we have to let ourselves off the hook sometimes…usually by owning up to what we did and what we felt. Others help us by standing by, standing up, sometimes standing in. Ok, I’ve lost the train of thought. It must be time for sleep!

Take Care, help each other off the hook, read the faces around you and do what you can, but let them do the final lifting to get off the hook, you can’t do it for them…

Smile to each other, like tonight’s moon did to us all.