Yesterday a very brief announcement came out of Stockholm: “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel is given for a body of work, which in Dylan’s case spans 54 years and counting. From the response of both detractors and enthusiasts, however, one would think that this particular prize rewards a few songs written over a few turbulent years–or worse, that it is no more than a recognition of a symbol of a particular period in U.S. history. One can debate whether song lyrics are literature, a debate which is not my topic here. But to peg Bob Dylan immovably to a few years known as “the sixties” is an insult to him and a disservice to all who might be transformed by his work.

The detractors say “Will the Baby Boomers just get over themselves already?” and “He wrote one good song.” (I don’t know which song it is, nor whether the Swedish Academy is dominated by Boomers.) The supporters, such as the authors of an approving article in the New York Times, cite the same old few songs: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), “The Times They Are A-Changing” (1964), and “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), as if nothing he has produced in the past 50 years is worthy of notice. Even the Swedish Academy used the dread word “icon,” though it went on to note, more relevantly, “His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”

One can prefer someone’s early work without injustice. Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite writers; I have read almost all of her fiction and a lot of her poetry, and await each new publication with excitement, but it is true that my favorites remain two books she wrote in the 1970s. But she has continued to create marvelous literature, and I would dispute any attempt to label her a 1970s writer. Bob Dylan has written great songs right into the current decade (I listed some of my favorites from 1962 to 1997 here on the occasion of his 70th birthday). As Dylan fan Barack Obama said upon hearing the news, “All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth.”

I’m not denying that he is seen as an icon–who could? He is widely regarded as “the voice of a generation” (another phrase repeated frequently since the announcement), and unfortunately, that means that many people’s opinion of him is shaped by their opinion of that generation. So what if he was the voice of a generation? So was Wilfred Owen, I imagine. And yet I encountered Owen’s poetry 60 years after he died, and it spoke to me and for me. I didn’t have to be a young British man born around the turn of the 20th century, I didn’t have to have been to war, to be transformed by his piercing vision. If we consign Dylan to a basket of sixties memorabilia, we are cheating ourselves of that kind of transformation.

And we are dismissing art when we decide out of hand that it has no value beyond its historical moment. Icon though he might have been, Dylan kicked over the pedestal that that term placed him on, and resisted being pigeonholed from the get-go. Hailed by the folk music scene, with its attachment to acoustic instruments, he deliberately embraced electric music in 1965, knowing full well that it would rile the establishment that had made him famous. (One former fan famously yelled “Judas!” at the Albert Hall, to which Dylan responded by telling the band, “Play f—ing loud!” They did.) Called a political prophet, he stepped away from political themes with the album Another Side of Bob Dylan, and he declared with Bringing it All Back Home that his roots included surrealist poetry, rock, and the blues (which the white folkies of the time often did not consider folk music). For that matter, he has always been a blues singer, and guess what? His high school yearbook predicted he would be, not the next Woody Guthrie, but the next Little Richard. Once he had established that poetry belonged on rock albums, he went on to challenge himself and fans by converting to evangelical Christianity and preaching the gospel from three albums and the stage in the late 70s and early 80s. Then he challenged Christian fans by rediscovering his Jewish roots. All along, he has written great lines and immediately crossed them out because they were too much like something Bob Dylan would write. Anyone who goes to his concerts hoping to hear their old favorites reports bitterly that they are unrecognizable; he keeps finding new ways to perform songs he’s played literally hundreds or thousands of times, fearful, it seems, of falling into a rut. He has defied categorization, whether imposed by others or himself, and made and remade himself. In short, he is a truly independent spirit: an artist.

The Nobel pick is generally judged by whether the honored artist’s work can be said to transcend their place and time. By that measure, the Academy chose a good one.

I have written very little here about the things we’re doing in Oaxaca. In between art, Spanish, and writing projects, there’s lots of time to just be and enjoy this city. I’m going back through our months here to fill in some of the stuff we’ve done.

Only a few weeks after our arrival, we had the terrific experience of getting together with someone we know very well from home. J. is a member of our church, has traveled here with her family before, and if I recall correctly has had a teenager from Oaxaca come stay with her and her family in Palo Alto. In June, she came to Oaxaca on her own and lived with a family here awhile. We asked her for recommendations of places to go that she’d like to see again, and she suggested we meet at the Museum of Philately (MUFI). I’m really glad she did, because I probably would have delayed going there for months, maybe skipped it entirely. I mean, philately? But it’s a lovely museum. The building itself is a treat–like so many buildings in Oaxaca, it’s built around patios and courtyards–and the exhibits were interesting. For example, in connection with the release of a stamp about corn, the museum invited artists to submit pieces about Mexico and corn. Most took the form of a stamp (not actual size, but a good 30 x 60 cm or more, the way the designers of stamps draw their originals) and the themes ranged from transgenic corn, which is an economic and environmental controversy in Mexico, to the corn-husk dolls that are common folk art here.

Then we all went to Café Brújula, also at J’s recommendation, where I drank her hot chocolate and she drank my mocha for quite some time before we realized we’d swapped. I hope the caffeine didn’t keep her up all night. The café is in an indoor shopping center and office building that had an absolutely spectacular arrangement overhead of papel picado, cut paper, for the upcoming Guelaguetza.


photo by Joy Morgenstern

Spending the day with J. was really special. When I arrived at UUCPA she was three years old; I’ve watched her grow up and into roles like Sunday School teacher and Worship Associate, and to see her negotiating another culture, be shown around by her, and just chat together outside from the context of church and family is like being on a time machine and watching the years whiz by. She’s such an intelligent and independent person–it’s a treat to hang out with her for a while.

And of course, she’s known Mookie since Mookie was a bump in my belly. When I have a long Sunday at church, Mookie often goes over to their house–I call it babysitting and pay J. and her sister, but as far as Mookie’s concerned it’s a playdate at the house with the best climbing tree in the world–and there has never been a time that J. and her family haven’t been in her life. Here the two of them are in the museum courtyard, surrounded by illustrations from children’s books (I never did figure out the stamp connection), and looking uncharacteristically serious.


photo by Joy Morgenstern


Here’s another in a series. I finished it a few weeks ago and then took the ideas in a new direction, seen here. The common thread is the way forms show without outlines. They just emerge, presences that are undeniably there even without clear definitions. It didn’t work quite to my liking with this one, hence the new direction, but it was fun.



I’m taking a class on woodblock and linoblock printing. The first piece I made was this one. As I was working on it I was dissatisfied, and made this drawing also. The drawing is a more successful rendition of what I was going for, but hey, it’s my first woodcut. I don’t have control of the medium enough to make lines as fine as I was imagining, and there are places I went too light–once you’ve done that, there’s no undoing it. Really, I think the only print medium that could have captured what I had in mind with this image would be a lithograph. But here it is, anyway, the first proof.
The second piece was a linocut and much more successful. These are the seedpods of a kind of acacia, called huizache in Spanish, that grows here abundantly. I love them, and have enjoyed spending so much time with this one.

In previous wood- and linocuts it was very challenging to have drawn lines on the surface that signified the places I did not want to cut, i.e., that I wanted to print black. I kept feeling like I was supposed to carve where I’d drawn. So with this print, I made the drawing in negative, blacking in the places where I intended to carve, i.e., where I wanted to print white. It worked well.



Another pastel. One day I opened the door from our kitchen here in Oaxaca, saw this light, and knew I had to try to draw it.

Pastels are tailor-made for one of my challenges, which is to refrain from too much detail and trust that broader strokes, well placed, will convey what is there. I went looking for oil pastels in pencil form (not for this piece, but for another one) and discovered that they do exist but that I’d have to have them shipped to me, which is slow and expensive. Just as well, as they’d be my attempt to do an end run around this limitation of the medium, and thus miss out on its promise as well. (I will buy them when I get home, though. They’re right for some projects.)

I keep thinking this piece isn’t quite done, but I’ve put it on our art wall, a declaration of “done enough.” Call it “patio with orange bucket.”


I haven’t been posting most of the art I’ve been making, so over the next few days I’m going to post a piece per day.

This is a linoprint, about 4 x 4 inches. I was in the studio we all go to together most weeks, Ishuakara (I finally found out the origin of the name; it means “rebirth” in the owner’s native Zapoteco), with extra time on my hands, and no particular idea for a print. Armando had a field guide to shells on his bookshelves, and since my daughter loves cowrie shells,  I started in that section and zeroed in on this one, a measled cowrie. I’m going to frame one of the prints for a Christmas or Hanukah present for her (shhh).

It’s the second linoprint I’ve made. His methods are a bit different than those at Burro Press down the street. For example, rather than using a press, each was printed by hand, with the pressure applied with the back of a spoon. Nice to learn these different ways to do things.


There’s a passage in the novella “Seymour: An Introduction” by J. D. Salinger, advice from Seymour to his younger brother, Buddy, a writer, with which I have an ambivalent relationship. It has been sitting in my quotations file, mocking me, for several years. On the one hand, it seems very wise. And I don’t know if Salinger succeeded in following it (or even thought he should), but he was a very fine writer and so when his alter ego, Buddy, gets a piece of writing instruction, I listen up. I’ve rewritten it here to be advice to a visual artist:

You . . . sit very still and ask yourself, as a [viewer], what piece of [art] in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to [see] if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and [create] the thing yourself.

My ambivalence arises from the fact that I don’t think I have ever managed to make a piece of art in this way. I see art that makes me gasp and sigh with instant recognition: it has given shape to something in my spirit. And I’ve made lots of art that I like, that expresses something of what I perceive. But to have an image come to me that is just what I most want to see? . . . no. I can’t think of a time when that’s happened.

It’s not that such art would necessarily be better. What I seek is that fluid connection between the images in my mind and the longing of my spirit. And this week I felt that connection in a way I can’t recall feeling before. This is the piece I most wanted to see, or close to it:

img_7314Untitled, pencil on paper, 4.5 x 6 inches


Grief (with thanks to Denise Levertov), conte crayon on paper, 11 x 12 inches

Levertov’s poem “Talking to Grief” gave me this image that helps me to acknowledge and honor such sorrows; I’m so grateful. And grateful also to my spiritual director, the Rev. Sandee Yarlott, for the language of “acknowledging” and “honoring.”

While I was working on the drawing, I returned to the poem and decided to try to translate it into Spanish. Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, and it’s probably more than I can do to get a literal translation right, much less evoke the poetry of the original. I have a lot of questions for my Spanish teachers when we meet next week, such as “what’s the nearest Spanish equivalent to ‘grief’?” and which of the various terms for “mat” evokes the kind you’d be likely to give to a stray dog, and whether the tone is at all like Levertov’s. But here’s my first pass at it. Friends who are fluent in Spanish, I’d love your input on the translation, if you’re so inclined. The English original is here.

Hablando a Aflicción
por Denise Levertov

Ah, Aflicción, yo no debería tratarte
como un perro sin hogar
que venga a la puerta trasera
por una corteza, por un hueso sin carne.
Yo debería confiar en ti.

Yo debería engatusarte
para entrar la casa y darte
tu proprio rincón,
Una estera gastada para acostarte,
tu proprio plato de agua.

Tú piensas que yo no sé que hayas estado viviendo
debajo de mi porche.
Tú añoras que tu verdadero lugar esté preparado
antes de que el invierno venga. Necesitas
tu nombre,
tu collar y chapa. Necesitas
el derecho de ahuyentar intrusos,
mi casa la tuya
y yo tu persona
y tú mismo
mi proprio perro.

Today we went to a huge buffet with accompanying children’s activities: jungle gym, swings, slides, air hockey, and–the highlight for the Munchkin–a real, working, child-powered four-horse merry-go-round. The buffet features over 100 dishes, and three different musical groups take turns entertaining the crowd or serenading a table:  a guitar duo, a mariachi band, and a pop band up on stage.

The decor reflected the imminence of September 16, Mexico’s Día de la Independencia. So did the food: note the green, white and red spaghettis.


Even the dessert got in on the act. Gelatina is a favorite snack in Oaxaca. I wasn’t tempted, but it went fast.


There were plenty of desserts to tempt us, though. All three of us had delicious chocolate cake. I was curious what was in this dessert to make the bees love it so much, but didn’t try a slice to find out. Honey, presumably.


Naturally, people can celebrate their own culture in ways that would be frankly racist if an outsider did it. This leads to some jarring moments, such as seeing this decoration:


People were also having their pictures taken inside an enormous frame that put a Pancho Villa mustache on them and a black sombrero on their heads. And there was this . . .

“Cabrones” shows up in my dictionary as “not a nice thing to call someone,” but it’s true that one meaning is “guys.”

So, we tried this and that dish and seconds on the best ones, until I felt like this little guy.


When it was time to stretch, we walked out on the grounds. Munchkin, of course, had been doing plenty of running and climbing in the indoor playground; now we all needed a break. The grounds are enormous, clearly designed to host weddings and other such events, and also have another playground and a boat for kids to climb on, which Munchkin promptly did. They also had a fountain that reminded me of our trip to Teotihuacan in 2010. The munchkin, then three, had wanted to climb the Pyramid of the Sun. I told her we’d come back when she was older for another chance. Maybe today was it.


She identified this plant immediately, having learned about it in her summer camp last month. Its name is as lovely as its flowers: Lluvia de estrellas, rain of stars.


And we went back inside for hours more of sitting (the adults), climbing (Munchkin), and feasting (all of us). We decided to skip dinner tonight.

A couple of weeks ago, Joy went to explore the big Chadraui, one of a supermarket chain around here. A smaller (though by no means small) one is a few blocks from us; the big one is on the other side of town. She came back with marvelous treats, such as real maple syrup and plain Cheerios–we’d only been able to find sweetened ones. The plain ones contain plenty of sugar, too, but something in my parenting sensibilities draws the line at the Honey-Nut variety, and faints dead away at Chocolate Cheerios. Munchkin has been missing her favorite cereal.

Joy described the store to us: “It’s the size of a small moon.” watermelondeathstar3

“That’s no moon,” I quipped nerdily, and so we have called the store the Death Star Chadraui ever since. Today, all three of us went there for the first time. Munchkin was excited. “Are we going to see the Death Star?” she said. At that point I thought we might have gone too far. At this rate, we were going to be in for some serious disappointment when we got there. I was hoping TIE fighters would come spinning out to meet us. “Yeah,” Munchkin said. “All the checkout people ought to be stormtroopers . . . ”

As it turned out, we didn’t see any TIE fighters or stormtroopers, nor was Darth Vader stalking through the dairy section, but we did enjoy ourselves, especially on the moving ramp, a kind of cross between a moving sidewalk and an escalator. The Empire ought to consider installing one of its own. And the store is the size of a small moon. Later, not really thinking about my choice of words, I told Joy that the store was “impressive.” She said, “Most impressive.”


(Death Star watermelon by SilverisDead, (c) 2009)

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