SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why”

Don’t focus on the “what”. Focus on the “how” and the “why”.
What’s it made of?
This used to be my most dreaded question to answer. Until it wasn’t.
Recently, Cynthia Tinapple, a long-time polymer clay artist/teacher/writer/curator, told about a recent visitor who said she “loved polymer clay.”
Cynthia was caught off-guard. Usually, we polymer clay users jump “defend” our choice of medium. This visitor acknowledged it, respected it, and praised it, all without prompting.
Polymer clay is an amazingly versatile, adaptable, and accessible art medium. And like any other medium, you can use it to make crap, or to make something astonishingly beautiful.
It was originally used in Germany as an art doll medium, and well-respected.
But when it was originally marketed in the U.S., it was framed as a simple clay for children and amateurs to use, especially Sculpey: Supersoft, easy to work, quick to fire in an ordinary toaster oven.
Those of us who worked with it soon found ourselves constantly judged as “less than”…. Less than “earth clay” artists. We worked in “plastic”. It was cheap, and it broke easily. I remember my first little craft fair, featuring pens I’d covered in patterned mosaic polymer, selling for a few bucks. A couple stopped by, and the guy picked one up. “What is it?” his partner asked, and he responded in disgust, “A cheap pen covered in plastic.” He put the pen down and walked away.
I felt flatter than a pancake.
Innovators like the late Tory Hughes (who inspired my faux ivory work), City Zen Cane, Kathleen Dustin, and many others, soon showed us what could be done with this material.
Still, the stigma remained.
Years ago, I noticed a disheartening phenomenon: Whenever a booth/studio visitor picked up my work and asked what it was, I’d reply brightly, “It’s polymer clay!”
And they would put it down again and move away.
I realized I had to reframe what this material meant to me, and why I chose to work with it.
First, I created a few small “sample” card of things I’ve made with the clay. There are faux bones and pebbles, mosaics and buttons, pieces of turquoise, coral, and amber, tiny fish and other wonders, all arranged attractively and attached to a piece of poster board.
Then there is my “Welcome to my world!” sign next to it.
I’m much wordier when I talk about it. I show them the little sign-with-samples that’s now an instant attention-getter in my studio and at shows.
I remark on what a miracle it is to have this material in the world at the same time in history that I’m in the world.
I put a little horse, or bear, into their hands, and tell them the story of a customer who chose her horse necklace based on how it felt in their hand.
I show them the grain, and tell them about the guy I met at the Boston Gift Show years ago, who owned a company that makes artifact reproductions for museum gift stores, who said they can’t make a scrimshaw reproduction that so beautifully mimics ivory like I do.
I share how important it is to make “bones” and “ivory” without harming animals, a choice that better reflects our modern times.
And I always add, “It’s not what the material isit’s what you do with it.
So once again, I am grateful to all the innovators and early-adaptors of polymer clay, for curators like Cynthia and others, new teachers who share their expertise and knowledge about this amazing medium, and the amazing, talented, unique artists who have chosen it to work with.  Thank you!!!
I would show you the sample card, but I’m not sure where it is right now. I’m moving to a new studio in a few weeks, and my space is filled with boxes, packing tape, and boxes marked like this:
moving studio box
Yes, I have a small collection of puppets in my studio. I LOVE THEM!!!
Which reminds me of when we packed for our move to California four years ago, and Jon labeled THIS box:
moving
I love this man. He always makes me laugh!

It is the fourth time I’ve moved my studio in four years, and we also moved our home twice times in four years.  I’m a lit-tul bit exhausted. But I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel!

We Are Enough (and So Is Mary Oliver)

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.

It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?

But a book arrived in the mail that day, Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Blue Horses. As always, it’s an unpected gift at just the right time.

I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.

I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.

And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:

Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.”[13] In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.”[14] In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

I had to stop reading.

Who are these people??

Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?

My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.

I think it’s more than that.

Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.

They are saying she is not enough.

Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?! “You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.

Or how about “Summer Day”?

Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.

If I Wanted A Boat
by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses

“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe?  Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”

What do I hear in this?

It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.

Or this one:

WHAT GORGEOUS THING

by Mary Oliver

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.

They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything. 

But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.

Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.

Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.

I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.

When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.

(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)

But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.

There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.

My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.

But I choose to look for the light instead. I choose look for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.

I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.

I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.

That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)

I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.

Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:

“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”

So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.

The sun shining, for the fourth day in a row.

A flock of bluebirds in the California winter.

A murmuration of starlings in the evening.

Another poem by Mary Oliver.

Hey! A new year!

Now I feel like can can deal with it.

baby goat
A baby goat!
rocks on a beach
Rocks on a beach!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park!