Find the simple & keep it close
Dispatch #2: “We're all the contemplatives of an ongoing apocalypse.”
It has felt like an impossible few weeks. I have gone from numb to crying to rage and back to numb again. Often, before I can truly access the depth of my sadness, I find myself immersed in color & shape, in beauty itself; I find that this subconscious act of immersion is a nourishment, a survival strategy. While holding in my body the brutalities of the last weeks, I felt a swirl of dissociation & rage. As I often do when I am speechless, I turn to artists - especially visual artists, who express without words the textures of the human condition.
In the past few days I found myself drawn to Etel Adnan. While reading an excerpt online from her incredible, meditative, and last poetry collection Shifting the Silence, I came across artwork of hers I’d never seen before (left, below). “Untitled” is a miniature landscape built from a flickering of black watercolor on paper. My eyes traveled its mountain shape, lingering at its loomful & darting sun or moon. Small as “Untitled” is, it nonetheless feels vast & full of motion. I can almost sense the life in her wrist as she decisively went for it, splashing the page. Effortlessly, my mind - like a projector from eighth grade math class - was suddenly layered with a transparency of an image I myself had created for Be/Hold: A Friendship Book years ago. Mine, too, was a miniature landscape. An undulation of hills, whose swell possibly jiggled into flight a small red stone.
Just moments before this little landscape appears in Be/Hold, the book’s voice empathizes, “Some afternoons the mailman / won’t bring a single letter. / It will feel like there’s nothing to hold.” A figure cradled by darkness holds the outline of a missing letter while all around them stones are stacked precariously high.
The page is turned to reveal that small red stone hanging mid-air above a curvaceous line. The book’s voice advises, “When this happens, find the simple, / and keep it close.”
Did Adnan, dragging black ink across white space, have the same impulse? Find the simple? Keep it close?
In the flick of a wrist, in a splash of black ink, can an insurmountable mountain in the distance be rendered as intimate, as mine?
Her miniature landscape was created in the 70s; mine, in 2018.
Yet across space & time, Adnan & I shared a very human urge, replicated nearly exactly on our separate pages.
Is there a cavewoman’s heart beating in both of our bodies which seeks from life’s messiness a graspable symbol? Mountain, moon, sun, stone.
Simple. Close. Mine.
Etel Adnan, born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925 and crossed over in Paris, France in 2021 at the age of 96, was a multi-hyphenate whose poems, essays, and paintings boasted an earthy, intuitive sensibility. Her work across the board is sensuously abstract & searingly alive; it lusts after color’s extremes.
Shifting the Silence, composed entirely in prose and of meditative vignettes, prioritizes the human body as a question mark: fragile, complex, easily affected, inconclusive even as it is undeniably present. Adnan’s self, the human-body-as-question-mark, is lit up by cosmic questions, by the joys & struggles of being mineral, of a core strength/vulnerability that even the German language doesn’t seem to have a word for yet.
Adnan poses timely, timeless questions: What does it feel like, & what does it mean, to rely on a shifting & magnetic landscape? With all of its villains & kindreds, its inescapable dramas & wars?
How to be human? How to be worthy of daily living, of unwrestleable death?
How to understand silence? To translate seeming-silence into a deeper listening? How to peel its rind & get to the fruit of the matter?
How to be undistracted enough to taste life’s unprecedented pulp & sun & possibility?
How to remain loving in a violent world?
The questions of a painter inundate the poetry collection. In her descriptions & meditations, there is deep, deep attention paid to color, shadow, hue, texture & viscosity. To sit with her thoughts, the thoughts of a 90 year old woman understanding that her time on this earth is ending, is to sit inside a painting - or more specifically, her paintings.
To sit with her poetry is also to sit with bodacious color. With riveresque wondering. With the curve of not-knowing. With earned beauty & innocent wisdom. When I step inside her work, I can breathe deeply, I can feel simplicity awakened in my bones. The simplicity of being here. & of having the spaciousness to wonder, how is it so?
I have found the last few weeks incredibly difficult to sit with. The wonder that I feel is my birthright folds tightly into despair, windowless. The violence & brutality in our headlines - specifically, the hate crime in Buffalo, New York & the Ulvade, Texas elementary school shooting - have left me cold in the chest, aching. There have been times that it’s been hard to put food in my belly, or convince myself to step outside. Perhaps you’ve found this true as well.
Adnan writes, “We're all the contemplatives of an ongoing apocalypse.” Every friend I speak to seems to be carrying this knowledge, its weight irrepressible & haunting. We had grown up thinking that the apocalypse was an event. & yet here we are, living it daily, the American headlines drenched with white supremacy, with carnage, with a sense of predictability - even normalcy - to the madness.
Above, in her own gentle handwriting, she writes, “The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.” I wonder, does it read as trite to you? Or is there a sensible copper wiring lining its infrastructure?
As rage finds me & I seem to ache without end, I believe Adnan. Without naivety, knowing the task of bettering the world is not for the faint or impatient, I believe her. Sitting down to meditate, no matter what, every day, I invite my consciousness in the direction of togetherness; I actively question separation down to the quantum physics of it all. I’ve found myself dipping into one of my favorite books, The Tao of Physics, lately, because I believe her. The world desperately needs an understanding of our underlying wholeness, sacredness, & unity - even as the most lost, deluded, & hateful among us try to prove it otherwise.
What does it mean to make a mark in the direction of beauty? What does it mean to want goodness, even as we continue to individually & collectively lose so much? I picture Adnan, splashing blackness across a small canvas with a wrist’s twist.
Below are some places where I’ve recently put my energy & money:
WAYS TO HELP THE RECENT VICTIMS IN ULVADE:
Donate directly to the families of the victims
Contribute to Everytown, the largest gun violence prevention organization in America
More ways to help via NPR
WAYS TO HELP THE RECENT VICTIMS IN BUFFALO:
Donate directly to the families of the victims
Contribute to helping victims & the surrounding Buffalo community
If you have further resources to help those affected by gun violence, please post them in the comments. They’re so important to continuously highlight & share.
Tonight, I sought to activate simplicity. During the quiet hours of almost-midnight, I got my old pastels out & tried my luck at some Adnan-inspired pieces. After an hour of judgement-free attempts at shape & color, I realized that my relationship to the pastels felt a bit uneasy. They felt temperamental in my hands. Accrued powder from pressing down hard streaked the white spaces & he lines I made blurred uncrisply; though playing around was fun, I longed for an assuredness in my own touch, a joy in the confidence of a mark.
So I grabbed a beloved pen & started off on a new endeavor. Something to please & soothe me, nothing more. In the beginning, I made small side-by-side marks, almost like a netting. I enjoyed marking down a line for the sake of a line, with no agenda. Soon, the netting, or webbing, started to build. I thought of what I’m reading about a la my recent quantum physics renaissance. I want to drop some musings from physicist Carlo Rovelli here without elaborative context. It’s a bit dense, but you don’t need to understand its grandiosity. The hope is that you’ll deliciously consider the words “fabric” & “web of relations” & “interactions” as you move into your own art-making process.
“Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines themselves are nowhere - they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.” – Carlo Rovelli
Here is a look at my process.
The netting develops. One might say, the web starts relating to itself. A fabric is born, torn, full of black holes. I keep flipping the square upside down, to the left, to the right - trying to glean a favorite perspective. When I flip it upside down, the black holes become a night sky, the white a mountain range. It pleases me. I create little black tears in the mountains, until a final gesture places a “door” in the semi-middle.
Sitting with my small creation, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite poems by Jean Valentine. It is never far away from my mind.
Door in the Mountian
Never ran this hard through the valley
never ate so many stars
I was carrying a dead deer
tied on to my neck and shoulders
deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest
People are not wanting
to let me in
Door in the mountain
let me in
It does feel, these days, that I am searching for a door in the mountain. An empathic haven. A place that will take me in - in all my rage, fear, hopelessness, & desire for hope. There is so much heavy on my chest, there’s been so much running. There is so much change to seek; & the news feels burdened with endless distractions, excuses, evasions. When “people are not wanting / to let me in,” what will it take to crack open the mountain?
I am always grateful to this poem’s ambiguous ending. It’s lack of punctuation opens up many possible readings. Is Valentine issuing a command, “Door in the mountain: let me in!” Or is she revealing the fact that the “door in the mountain let me in.” I’ve talked about this at great length with my partner, because we each read that ending differently & had never considered a possible other read.
How did you read it? What does it say about you? Did you intuit an embrace? Or did you intuit something yet-to-be-done; a desire turned command?
Stay inside the mystery of this small poem. Live in its multiple assignments. May we, all & each, keep walking toward what nourishes us. May we seek the door in the impossible. May it open & receive us, as we are.
With ample maple syrup,
"can an insurmountable mountain in the distance be rendered as intimate, as mine?"
Reminds me of a Georgia O'Keeffe quote: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me.
God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” (speaking of the Cerro Pedernal mountain)
I wept several times while reading your words and thoughts. You articulate so well our communal grief. May you be blessed..