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After several years of drawing almost entirely with charcoal, I decided to take the plunge and try two new things: color, and a brush. I have a couple of brushes, but I couldn’t find them this morning, and just grabbed one of my eight-year-old daughter’s, with plastic bristles (Poor child! We must treat her to some proper brushes). I recently bought a few bottles of ink in shades of reddish brown for another project, so I brought those, and also the watercolor tubes I haven’t opened in five years.

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I brought my box of charcoal just in case, but I didn’t use it. But I was tempted. So tempted, because . . .

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. . . This was hard! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was figuring out the media as I went: how does ink spread? How do you judge the color when it’s in the dish? How much liquid does the brush hold? What happens if you paint over a place that’s already been painted and dried? I felt like I was back in kindergarten. It was less playful than scary.

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That fear was a humbling reminder of something I wish were not true of me, but often is: I do not like to do things I’m not good at.

imageHuh? What am I in the studio for, if not to do something I haven’t done before? Am I really playing it that safe most weeks? I hadn’t thought so–each session is certainly challenging and exciting, just trying to draw with the charcoal–but the way I felt today was unmistakable. It was what I feel when I’m doing something new and scary.

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As a result, it was also the most exciting session in a long time. The drawings are messy but (rather, and) full of novelty. In every one, I was trying something I literally haven’t done in decades, if ever. I even got my playfulness back.

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As Munchkin was looking at the drawings, she said, “I like these. You can tell you were really looking at the light.” I demurred, saying, “Sometimes I was, but mostly I was just making it up as I went along.”

imageShe looked at me and said, “That’s what art is.” My daughter, my teacher.

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Every Sunday my eight-year-old daughter asks, “Is today a Navigators Day?” She loves church and Children’s Religious Education, but the best Sundays of all are the weeks she puts on her green kerchief and goes to Navigators. She wouldn’t have those if it weren’t for Nathan Harris.

Nathan started coming to our church three years ago when he and his then-seven-year-old daughter, Sage, were new to the area and looking for a community they could call home. They found it at our church, and what they didn’t find ready-made, Nathan helped create. He started a unicycle club, and we soon saw UU Unicyclists all over the parking lots and paths of the church. He learned about Navigators USA, a bias-free, co-ed scouting program, and asked our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, how to go about starting a chapter. It wasn’t long before Chapter 42 was born, and my daughter and a dozen other kids were camping on the church grounds, hiking, learning how to split wood and build a fire, geocaching, cooking, sending up rockets, you name it.

Now Nathan is about to leave the area. He doesn’t want to; he likes his job as a school psychologist in East Palo Alto, the church community, the friends he and his daughter have made. But the rent on their tiny apartment–he calls it “the hotel room”–is rising by 10%, and he can’t find anything else.

When he moves away, someone else will have to co-lead Our Whole Lives (OWL), our sexuality education program for middle schoolers in and beyond our congregation—or maybe we won’t be able to find a replacement. Someone else will have to lead the five-mile hike, if they can keep up with an energetic bunch of 7-10-year-olds. Sage’s friend who looks so much like her that we call them doppelgangers will have to say goodbye to his twin.

This has happened in our church more times than I can count. Someone who is a small-group leader, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a singer in the choir, a Board member, reluctantly pulls up roots and moves to somewhere with affordable housing. It happens to property owners, though more often to renters; it happens to professionals like Nathan, though more often to those with lower-paying or part-time jobs. They want to stay, and we want them to, but they can’t. Our public policies are forcing them to leave, hitting our community with loss upon loss.

In our church, our big annual fundraiser is an auction of goods, services, and hosted events. An auction makes a great fundraiser. It makes a terrible system for delivering the necessities of life.

Yet that is how we sell and rent housing: to the highest bidder. And the highest bidders around here have such deep pockets that those who manage to offer what the seller is asking have little chance of winning the bid. Think of all the times you’ve heard of a would-be buyer offering considerably more than was asked, yet losing out to someone who could pay cash. And renters: when has your rent gone down, or even simply kept pace with inflation? In the past year, Bay Area average rents have risen over 14%. Those of us who didn’t get a 14% pay raise, such as Nathan: where are they supposed to live?

The answer we’ve given is clear: they’re supposed to go away.

And when they’ve gone, who will be the psychologists in our schools? Who will be the teachers, the police officers, the store managers, much less the gardeners, the cooks, the janitors? Who will create our scouting programs or volunteer in our schools?

With our housing-only-for-the-highest-bidder system, we have made our community increasingly hostile to anyone in the mere 99%. That is not sustainable for our families, our earth (many people burn fossil fuels for 20 or more hours every week driving to work here from their affordable homes in the Central Valley), or the quality of life of our communities.

These market forces aren’t all to the bad, and in many times and places, they have served most people. They aren’t serving us. They are ripping us apart. We need cities to stabilize rents and preserve enough housing that’s affordable to the people who make our communities run—who are our communities.

My daughter was hoping Nathan would teach her to ride a unicycle. She’s got a few more weeks to learn. Then he and Sage are off to Sacramento. I wish them luck. And I wish us luck too. But we’ll have to make our own luck, by summoning the political will to make some changes, now, before the next Nathan and Sage are driven out of our lives.

Note: I wrote this in May, 2015, and submitted it as an op-ed piece to various newspapers in our housing-strapped region. I’m sure many other local communities, from workplace teams to PTAs to altar guilds, experience similar losses and stresses as their members are forced to be transient, but alas, none of the papers chose to run it. So here it is, a bit past the time. Nathan and Sage are now settled in to their new lives in a home they can afford and that has a lot more space; our loss, Sacramento’s gain. Someone else will have to teach Munchkin to ride a unicycle, if they know how.

I was walking around a pond in a development in Louisville, Colorado, yesterday afternoon when I saw a fluffy black and white flag wiggling above the foot-tall grass. Then another appeared. Before I caught a glimpse of the bodies that went with the tails, I knew they had to be skunks.

I hesitated for a moment, thinking of their reputation even though I know it’s exaggerated, but reasoned that even if they noticed me, they wouldn’t be frightened into spraying, with me several yards away and easy escape routes all around. So I watched for several minutes as they moved between partial and complete concealment. I am not sure I have ever seen a living skunk in the wild, and I wouldn’t have expected to see one before dark. As best as I could tell, one was larger than the other and both were nosing along the ground or close to the roots of the grasses.

They disappeared into the high reeds closer to the edge of the pond, and I watched for another three minutes or so but didn’t see them again. I reluctantly headed back to the house, feeling so elated that sighting a rabbit hop ahead of me and across the road a few minutes later seemed ordinary.

I said I would be happy to read a shopping list written by Harper Lee. I might have gotten my wish. This is not a novel: a story. It is an essay trying to become a story and not really succeeding in being a story or an essay.

I’m sure a lot of new writers have manuscripts like this in boxes under their beds, which is where they should stay. You have to write a lot of dreck to learn to write the great stuff, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of–don’t I post my own drawings here, bad as most of them are? You can see a common phenomenon here: a talented, deeply thoughtful novice has some ideas she wants to explore, and by God she’s going to explore them, and story be damned.

I was going to describe what happens to the story after Jean Louise discovers that her boyfriend and, far more crushingly, her father are members of a Citizens’ Council, but I can’t improve on Adam Gopnik’s concise summary in The New Yorker (July 27, 2015: 68): “Shocked, she confronts [Atticus], and starts on a series of static and prosy debates–first with her uncle Jack . . . and then with Atticus himself–about integration, the N.A.A.C.P., the Tenth Amendment, and other fifties-era subjects, all offered mechanically as set pieces, accented with oaths and ‘Honey, use your head!’s to make them sound a little more like dialogue.” Gopnik left out the boyfriend and aunt; she goes a few rounds with them too.

There are interesting ideas in there, even 60 years later, though they’re most interesting to me as a window into that period of our racial struggles–they are social history. But, as I said: not a novel. At this point in her writing life, Lee hasn’t figured out how to embody ideas in plot and character yet. They’re just air.

It’s a joy to see her terrific descriptions of characters and places. You can tell that this writer has a lot of talent. She has a lot to learn about dialogue and pacing, but those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird know that she will quickly learn it, and superlatively. Reading Go Set a Watchman, though, is like skipping along through a meadow of interesting characters and then suddenly finding oneself knee-deep in mud, unable to move. The characters stop talking to each other and start lecturing the reader through each other. The drama of their relationships grinds to a halt as we’re forced to listen in on an improbable family dispute that reads like an op-ed page. The most interesting dramas from the point of view of a Mockingbird reader–the confrontations with Calpurnia and Atticus–don’t make much sense because we don’t know these characters well enough to have a context for the conflict. (As readers of the previous book, we can interpret them as the characters by the same name–but, as I wrote in my previous post, that doesn’t quite work; the backstory is too altered. We don’t know this Cal or this Atticus–but, not to dodge the central issue raised by this book, I’ll write more about him in my next post about this book.)

The best parts of Go Set a Watchman are flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, and you can see the seeds of Mockingbird there, in incidents that didn’t make it into that book, such as the revival and baptism she, Jem and Dill put on in the yard, or her countdown to suicide when as a hopelessly naive twelve-year-old, she is sure she’s been impregnated by an unwanted French kiss. Lee’s astounding ability to convey what’s in the mind of a young girl comes through even in third person, and even with an omniscient narrator, which is used as clunkily here as inexpert writers do tend to use it, the reader popping suddenly into a secondary character’s head and popping out again. By the time she writes To Kill a Mockingbird, just a couple of years later, she is in masterful control of voice and point of view, and those portraits of places and people have become the verbal equivalents of Constable landscapes and Rembrandt faces. Sadly, that book remains her only successful novel.

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