The Making of an Artist

Monkey see, monkey do.

I am going to copy you.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Until I've had enough of you.


July 2, 1937

Fly Amelia Earhart Fly,

To Howland
To Howland.

Fly Amelia Earhart Fly,

1000 feet high.
1000 feet high.

Fly Amelia Earhart Fly,

The ocean rushing towards the sky
The ocean rushing towards the sky.

Fly Amelia Earhart Fly.


While Hanging From the Tailgate

I daydream about how I used to daydream on the trip between Bangui and Carnot nearly two decades back, in the western quarter of the Central African Republic, four degrees north of the equator. On transports we were crowded like cattle, jostled and lurching over the unpaved roads, choking on billowing clouds of orange earth, scorching under the brutal sun or freezing in the hours before dawn. No one knew how long the trip would take or what we might encounter: rain, police, herds of goats, flat tires, delays in towns where the driver inexplicably disappears.  For a while, I suffered.  But then I noticed that the Central Africans were trance-like on these journeys.  Women's heads gently swayed, their eyelids half-closed over their fierce gaze.  Children watched with wide eyes until they fell asleep against their mamas.  Men sat, their eyes slitted at the road.

They inspired me to daydream.  For hours I watched my mind wandering forgotten paths, foraging new ones. I reminisced about old loves, recalled the details of winter, contemplated the strange reality of being an American woman born in 1971 Omaha, Nebraska, the odd coincidence of finding myself again, smack in the center of a continent.  I must have dreamed about the future, about someday marrying a man I love, about having children, writing books, traveling the world.  But what lingers is the sensation of diving under a warm sea, swimming without goal or destination, without needing to come up for air, floating with the currents, humming with the wind, marveling at the clouds above until we reached our destination.


Bigsley and Bernadette: What's the Deal?

"You know, it really seems like you're ignoring me," said Bigsley one morning, "and I want to know why.  Don't tell me it's Herman.  The guy got tagged!  Do you realize what that means?  Besides the fact that he's an ignoramous, it means they are watching us.  Listen to me Baby.  I'm talking about the DNR here.  They probably got their binocs trained on us right now.  If that doesn't make you paranoid, it's time you visited the shrink."

Bernadette said something in reply but Bigsley couldn't hear what because of the chipping chicks.

"Don't you think it's about time they fend for themselves?" Bigsley continued. "When I was that age I was stealing worms from fishermen.  I was setting booby traps for tom cats.  I was staging jail breaks at aviaries.  How are these kids ever going to amount to anything if all they know how to do is whine?"


Assignment #19 - The History of the Sacred Object

We never think about it, except when we need it.  Then it is never where we think it should be.  We curse it, saying things like, "Where did it go? Why is it never where it's supposed to be?"

We have stepped on it, kicked it, thrown it in the trash, retrieved it, laughed at it, carried it, forgotten it.

No one remembers where it came from.  Undoubtedly, it was once new and shiny, though now, cracked and dirty, why bother recalling that?

Behind glass, a thousand years from now, when it is no longer useful, it will finally become the sacred object we never knew it to be but that it always was.


Assignment #18 - Discover What Goes in the Box

Small figures, small foxes, small dreams I can't remember.  
Small odors. Small feathers. Small sirens from the corner. 
Small hungers, small aches, small changes in the way I think.  
Small minds. Small bodies. Small makings for small funerals.
Small books, small pencils, small accomplishments, small failures. 
Small families, small streets, small flies in my drink.  
Small houses, small talk, small cities, small frowns.  
Small specks of dirt on my thumb.  
Small countries, small planets, small universes, small worries. 
Small itches under my arm.


Entering the Marketplace - Ten*

She is no longer fettered.
One place is all places.  
Her wanderings are purposeless.
What she encounters, she does.
What she discovers, she loves.
She is free.


*John Cage is one of those names that repeated emerges, so one day, I looked him up at the library. One of the books in the stacks was John Cage: Zen Ox Herding Pictures.  The book is illustrated with the paper towels John Cage used at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia to test his brush and practice new watercolor techniques.  His friend Ray Kass found the resulting test sheets appealing and saved them for almost 20 years.  In 2007, Kass met Stephen Addiss, an artist, musician, and historian of Japanese art.  Addiss had studied with Cage, so Kass showed him the paper towel collection which they decided to use as illustrations for a zen ox herding series, something Cage liked and related to. Addiss then chose text from Cage's writings to accompany the images.*  

In the introductory pages to the book, Stephen Addiss writes:

While the ox has long been a symbol of fertility in China, in Zen it also represents the heart-mind unity.  In Chinese and Japanese the same character (for ox) has both meanings, so searching for the ox can be understood as searching for one's own true self.  As a metaphor for the path to enlightenment, the ox-herding poems and paintings form a spiritual narrative, making them part of a great tradition: the journey outward that leads to a journey inward.

*I talked to my mother today, and she insisted I clarify that John Cage's paper towel collection and accompanying text appears in the book I checked out of the library (and returned late).  The ink marks and text that appear here are my interpretations of the zen ox herding pictures.  10/25/12


Bigsley and Bernadette: Nessum Dorma

Opera?  Face it Herman.  You're a cliche.  Why don't you try something a little more avant-garde? Like John Cage's 4'33, perhaps?  It's not as easy as it sounds, staying silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. You'll have to practice.  How about you start right now and in about six weeks or so, I'll let you know how you're doing.  Trust me on this one Herman.  The chicks go gaga for dada.  


Deep Thoughts?

I woke myself up the other night,
with a definitive conclusion. 

In the dark,
on the back cover of an old magazine
I etched these words with a dry pen.

"There is no test.
   Everything is a test."

 Now I can't figure out,
As with so many projections of the mind,
Is it profound,
Or complete nonsense?


on breaking up with e.e.cummings

Take the sky and wait a while

When it blooms

Fly long miles from here inside
A beating heart
Close enough
Lives myself and me
And someone else
Who shares nothing

But death

And breath

And all those things we've forgotten.

He, me, she; we are they,
Him (us are them.)


Don't forget.

On way to the foreclosed bookstore,
To the dying doctor's, what's ailing you?
What's breaking inside of you?

Let go.

In the never end
what is control
but a panicked rushing towards
an eternity of nothing?

There is nothing as essential as what I find when I stop and see your smile


The leaves in their forever falling.


Transcending the Ox - Eight


The ox is everything and nothing.  


No divisions of time.  




Bigsley and Bernadette: There Goes the Neighborhood

Before Bernadette could explain to Bigsley that she had no plans of moving from her nest, a splash of color swooped between them and landed on the new house.  Here sat Herman "the Chirpster" Strutterbird, first in his aves class, four time winner of the annual Chirp-a-thon, best overall plumage as voted by local females three seasons running, universally admired for his congeniality, altruism, and sense of smell.

"I see you are looking beau-tee-tee-tee-ful as always, Berna-detty-betty-boo," chirped Herman.

"Are your eyes glued shut or what?  She's a mess, digging for worms day and night.  I'm not much better myself just having to listen to those spoiled chicks.  Everything is me, me, me. I'll tell you, kids these days."

"Nice to see you too, Bigsley."

"Fit to be tagged, eh Herman?"

"It is a great honor to be part of scientific survey."

"Is that the spin coming out of the DNR marketing department these days?"

"Bigsley, let me take this opportunity to forgive you for all the injurious defamations you have slung at me over the years.  As your new neighbor, I want you to know, I do admire your obstinacy, though perhaps you could work on your--"

"Did you say new neighbor?"

"Didn't Bernadette tell you?"

"What hasn't she told me? All she does is gab, day and night.  I can't get her to shut up.  There's no subject that chick won't broach, you know what I mean? She's an absolute gas. She tells me everything going on in that mind of hers. Fascinating stuff, I can assure you. But you?  No, come to think of it, she's never mentioned a peep about you."



I was feeling strange, 
anxious and feverish with sudden bouts of euphoria 
followed by debilitating self-doubt.  

Menopausal, said my friends at the coffee shop.

A full time job will cure you, advised my husband.

I was easily distracted, 
Prone to attacks of wild inspiration,
Followed by days of boredom and lethargy.
I jumped from one project to the next,
Beginning everything, finishing nothing.

ADHD said my friend with OCD.
OCD said my friend with ADHD.
I got the spins contemplating
This eternity of dead-ends.

Finally, I went to see the doctor.  She was kindly, beautiful and solid.
She took my blood pressure, pressed on my abdomen.
She looked in my ears and down my throat and asked me a myriad of questions.
Finally, she put her hand on mine and cinched her brow with concern.

"There are a few more tests I'd like to run, but my first instinct is that you have
a terminal case of whimsy."

Terminal? I asked. As in, there is no cure?

I'm very sorry, she said.  I wish I could give you better news.


Forgetting the Ox - Seven

She returns to all her daily tasks,
Keeping home, spinning yarns.
She no longer hears the ox's bellows,
No longer worries where it roams.
She watches the leaves falling.


Road Maps

Along a road I walked this morning,

I met a welder on a bridge.

He told me how 
he had once worked for a man 
who made him work so hard, 
That even while asleep, 
he kept on working in his dreams.  

At the time, he hated this boss,
And told him, he didn't need to know how to weld.
But the boss just laughed at him, 
and handed him a torch.

This morning, 
the man on the bridge picked up his torch 
ready to start the day's work.
"Now," he said, "I'm thankful."


Bigsley and Bernadette : Seeing Stars

"Of course, I would have preferred if you had just moved in upstairs," said Bigsley after realizing what had so rudely interrupted his euphoric flight.  Bernadette asked if he was okay. "I'd be okay if you'd get those chicks of yours to sleep. All that squawking is giving me a headache."


Riding the Ox Home - Six

She returns again and again to the ox,
Finding peace in the heat of its breath, 
Deriving strength from its stubbornness.
One day, the ox invites her to climb upon its back.
She does.
Playing her flute, the ox carries her home.
She is an old woman now.


Ode to a Rastafari

If Bob Marley,
Would have loved soccer less,
Would have loved dancing less,
Would he have let those doctors,
Cut off his melanomic toe?
Was it death that gave him peace,
Or peace that gave him death?

If Bob Marley
Would have never been teased,
Son of a white man,
Who he never did see,
Would he have found the truth
In the company of love?
Would he have found Jah,
Without Trench Town?

He smoked his ganga
To find a way to the lyrics.
Sang his reggae songs,
Word of the prophet.

What's a man to do,
When he loses his identity
To a terrifying root,
Braiding through his body?

When his dreadlocks finally fell,
Into the hands of grieving friends,
He lost his grand courage,
And fled his native island.

In fear he went to Germany,
In search of a cure,
A small frightened man
In a giant field of snow.

That man who found his strength
In the teachings of his god,
His Jah, our Jah,
All the world's Gods,

The people of Jamaica,
Begged for his return.
When he did, they hailed him
As if he were the king of Ethiopia.

Dear Bob Marley,
How we exalt you,
Planting in our hearts
The rhythm of the word,
Dancing to your music,
Singing your holy songs,
The movement of your love grows
Forever wider miles.