I’m delighted to be included in this spotlight Vermont Arts Council gallery running from February 16 through April!
Our friend Rebecca sent over a book she found in the cast-off pile in the St. Albans dump. It is Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver. After dinner, we settle our dog on the couch between us and read her poems. One begins, “a puppy is a puppy is a puppy.” She looks off to the distant kitchen. Our dog has not heard of Gertrude Stein, I can tell.
We try another poem. Here’s how it goes:
Percy by Mary Oliver
Our new dog. named for the beloved poet.
ate a book which unfortunately we had left unguarded.
Fortunately, it was the Bhagavad Gita
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,
“Oh wisest of little dogs.”
Our dog, a little rescue lab not named for a famous poet, put a paw on my chest and said, “When I (unfortunately) ate your new Folio collectable edition of Moby-Dick, you were not so generous.”
She’s amazing, beautiful, effective, fearless and from the Bronx, right?
We’re heading East on pot-holed roads to raid a friend’s perennial garden. A quietly lovely afternoon, all the trees are green, the lake is high and rippling, the mountains drop backwards in perfect pespective, old orchards bloom white, as if covered in moths. Vermont is at its most perfect. We’re hurrying through the poorest county in our little state, one of the prettiest, wanting to get back before the evening’s predicted rain and wind, and we’re talking about the future, or rather that grim possibility of the world without us. Actually, I don’t know if it’s grim. Our species is doing a terrible job.
So I ask; At this particular moment, this exact instance in which we believe humans have gone over the tipping point to the downside where ruin is inevitable, who exactly would you pick for the Democratic candidate? And when he looks at me sideways, like who cares, it doesn’t matter, I said, I’m disgusted with Biden, that he’s Hillary Redo and yes, maybe she won the popular vote but lost the electoral collage, and Biden will do the same, Trump will win, and I hope…Yes, he said, putting a hand on my knee. We will be dead and you know what, that’s OK with me.
I still am hooked on Bernie, I say, squeezing his thumb. I love the guy, although we’re the same age, he reminds me of my leftist, moralistic, intransigent, dad. So right now at this ridiculous moment I would pick Bernie, with Elizabeth Warren as his Vice because she needs to be President. She will yell and taunt billionaire white men, biding time for AOC to grow up. AOC will win by a landslide with Mayor Pete as her Vice. By then, one half of humans will have murdered the other half plus viruses and who knows, plagues, fascists, Trump Jr., elephant extinctions, Fox news, anti-vaxers, twitter wars, Cabinet members who believe in the Rapture, black holes, Match.com, and if the planet can still sustain us, who knows…my voice trails because I will be long dead so really, who cares who I vote for. My future is now while the Millenial futures unspool in scenarios yet unknown..
We were turning into the first St. Albans exit now and heading towards Fairfax. Past McDonalds and the Hannaford Mall, the Dollar store, TJ Max, Guys Farm and Yard, The Veterinary Service. On the left is a huge and well maintained, possibly new and very red barn, with a clump of cows waiting patiently at the door dreaming perhaps of a nice quiet stall, certainly not of slaughter.
The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.
This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.
I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.
NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.
On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.
One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go? Houston? Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.
The cats, however stayed and multiplied. You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.
My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.
You noticed the twitch, right? Left upper lip triangulating towards the nose, eyebrows arched and rapid eye blinks? Looks like a snarl, but of course, it’s not, because our nominee is just a regular beer drinking basketball playing judge who went to YALE.
Susan Orleans once said she was sick of old dead white men. Too bad, because new ones keep getting born.
The twitch bothers you, right? You wonder about the odd facial tics, the tongue in his cheek, the tears squeezing out when he’s talking about football camp. Like how old is he? The pursed lips, staring eyes. He looks like Mr. Potato Head on crack, a raving teenager someone should send to his room. Something really weird in the mouth. He wants to talk over everyone, shout, make his sniveling points and go home for a beer. You think this guy is having some trouble with the truth. The judge is a liar and a smooth one, the kind that deflects questions, knows the value of a righteous rant and above all deserves the job because, well, he is Brett. He was born for this job of a Supreme Court Judge! Mamma was a lawyer, Daddy kept up his calendars. Didn’t his very own daughter ask to pray for the woman? That woman who is destroying his life by her accusations which no way should be investigated? Somebody screwed that lady up but wasn’t me. A guy without blemish, gosh, everyone has told him so, even women have remarked on his fairness, and all he wants is a FAIR PROCESS that will get him the career plum he absolutely deserves. If it doesn’t, it’s because of the conspiracy: “Thanks to what you on this side of the aisle have unleashed” ….. I may never be able to coach again. Jesus. Never mind that we don’t want this guy as our coach,
Is he not showing us what a despicable judge he will be? Consumed with paranoid, partisan rage. The ranting Lear. Weren’t you the were the pornographer on the Starr team who asked Bill Clinton if he’d stuck a cigar between Monica Lewinsky’s legs? The guy denying a refugee the abortion she begs for? Your body isn’t yours, woman, it’s mine.
Yes, Brett. You blew it for me, but you’ll likely be nominated because you’ve spent the last four days being briefed at the white house by Donald Trump. Be my Donald clone on the Supreme Court. The judiciary is MINE. the house is Mine. the FBI is Mine. Congress is to do MY bidding, We are not going to vet your character because character is, as we know, overrated; what is important is stopping the other side from usurping our power. The entire Republican party just wants to stay in charge by lurching behind the flapping feet of a contemptible, stupid, illiterate, blasphemous, raging pitbull even though at any moment, in a bad mood, he will kick open the doors to the zoo and blow you away by lions, even though he’s a disaster and you, by impliction…..
When I first began to comprehend how Empire that rises inevitably falls, I thought, OK, that’s not so bad. Let America back off already, it’s time. I thought we were making progress, spreading horizontally towards decency. That our goodwill, incredible resources, diversity, and astonishing landmass would let us settle into becoming a generous place to live and flourish. We had only to let go of our exceptionalism, learn how to spread the wealth, give up the myth of The Greatest Military Power On Earth because really, it is ugly. I thought we would shake off the oligarchy. That the Empire would fall gracefully as a landing seabird when its time came.
What fools we are, spooning around the soft spines of this dream, hoping to keep warm and dry while out in the real world, our elected raging, paranoiac spews seeds through our laws, courts, safety nets, decencies, hope, and here’s one more fungus ready to fatten himself off of me.
10:45 washing dishes at the sink. I look out the window and see a doe walking slowly across the lawn with her fawn. The fawn runs a few feet, while the mother waits, then the fawn stops and the mother takes a step, In this way they are proceeding across the lawn. I see the dog at the edge of the porch looking at them, but looking in the way she has of not seeing, of seeing over or through what is directly in her vision. So neither of us wants to startle the doe. It is a lovely sight, this obviously bonded family taking a morning stroll across my lawn. Robins are hopping through the grass, a red tailed squirrel suddenly lept off a fence and disappears behind the greenhouse. I’m know the iphone shot through the window will be awful, but I don’t dare go outside, so I shoot anyway. The image is poor but sweet, the washed out colors convey a certain lack of authority, as if it is a photograph of a photograph.
At 4:45 I take the recyclables to the Grand Island Dump. The huge room is immaculate. All the bins are empty, tons of plastics have been squashed and packed on palettes waiting to be shipped. Two attendants, one who’s a volunteer fireman and the other a selectman, greet me and ask if I want help. I’ve been coming here for 10 years now, but I don’t know his name. I don’t need help. I can’t stop staring at the compacted structures and I walk around, shooting on my phone. The selectman looks amused.
Many years ago, I lived on Canal street in New York City. On Wednesdays, the few small sweatshops left in the neighborhood would bundle up their unused fabrics, drag them out on pallets for the night time garbage pick-up. By the time the trucks arrived, neighborhood artists trolling for found materials would have picked the pallets clean.
It’s interesting, this impulse to reclaim garbage as art, as if by turning our trash into “art” we are doing something for the environment, while in truth we’re only postponing its suffocating release into our environment. It’s a kind of recycling, only not as a useful object, but as a cultural comment, as art. For about a year, I collected every bit of plastic that circulated in my house and studio, and after a year, I had a big closet stacked with tubs filled with bottle caps sorted by color, can tabs, plastic bags, medicine bottles, ties, garden containers, dried contact lenses, packaging sorted by shape, packing peanuts – everything unsuitable for the recycle bins. I had no idea what to make with this stuff. My mind was filled with images of birds and marine life dead on beaches, their bellies slit open, revealing batteries, caps, netting, fuel canisters, milk cartons – suffocated by the litter humans discard in daily life. Reworking those images seemed exploitive rather than helpful, and I wonder what it takes for humans to turn their grief into constructive action. Chris Jordan has already broken our hearts with his images of dead albatross in the Midway Islands, where the birds fly out over the oceans, collecting plastics as food for their young, who fill up with batteries, bottle caps, syringes. What image is more powerful than that of a mother unknowingly poisoning her child.
Another option was to use the garbage, like this Nigerian sculptor to create new art. But his work takes a village and is conguent with the life of that village, and conveys a condition that I have no business appropriating, the bottle caps are the relics of a dark story where liquor was an agent of exchange in the slavery market. I could imagine building reliefs and sculpture, but that would entail additional toxic material, like resins or glues, which would negate anything constructive, so finally, in a grand purge, I throw it all out, with full understanding of my failure and announce, when I get home, that we are never going to buy anything that comes in a plastic bottle. To no avail.
I find this article tracking the Journey of a Plastic Bottle in the Atlantic Magazine.
The refuse associate at the town dump told me that a truck would arrive soon to pick up the pallets. He doesn’t know where they’re going, only that the name on the truck begins with CAN. Canada then? The same Canada that begins 12 miles north of my house on Border Road? It doesn’t seem right that Canada is eating my trash, but then this is the day that my country screws the G7.
So what am I left with? A healthy doe moves across my landscape with her infant at the beginning of the day and at the end, a vision of garbage laden barges plying the oceans.
So, say the perpetrator returns the rock to its rightful owner, the river. Does the river owe her $17,500? Does Yoko owe the river for the rocks she took? If she took 200 rocks from the river, that makes $3,500,000.00 minus gallery rental, transportation, labor, taxes, adjusting for inflation. Still, not bad, for a river.
A painter friend visited a cemetery in Egypt. She was walking with her family when she saw in the distance a robed woman who seemed to be throwing something from a bag on the desert floor. She hurried ahead and saw that this woman, amongst others, was tossing handfuls of ground pigment into a tomb, or maybe into several tombs. The pigment color, a dense, bright blue, was extraordinary against the muted neutral tones of the desert landscape. The photos she took show an open, domed beehive structure, a tholos tomb, the floor saturated with layers of this intense pigment, also with dried corn kernels. In one photo, a man stands to the side with a broom. At one point, he offered my friend the broom; for her to do some sweeping? Or perhaps for him to sweep for her? – she has no idea.
The history of the color is intriguing. It was developed around 2600 as an alternate pigment to the rare and expensive mineral lapis lazuli, made from sand, copper, and sodium-carbonate, CaCuSi4O10m, a testament to the skills of the chemists of antiquity who understood how to control the temperature needed for successful synthesis. Amazing too was its consistency over time until it was “lost” during the dark ages. Lost and found again, when in 2009 it was discovered that Egyptian blue shows exceptional luminescence (it has since been made into a crayon), indicating its possible use in imaging devices.
But here’s what really intrigues me: new research shows that Egyptian blue produces infra-red radiation like that used by TV remotes. In other words, when compressed into infinitesimally thin sheets and compressed, the infrared quality of Egyptian Blue makes it a communication device.
So, back to the modern Egyptian women spreading layers of artificial blue pigment embedded with corn kernels in desert tombs. Assuming my friend hasn’t happened on a performance piece, maybe we can consider this scene a ritual having to do with decorating a tomb as Pharaoh’s was decorated and also providing the dead with what it needs in the next world, in this case, the color blue, which we now consider a medium for communication. And isn’t this a universal desire, as witness, for example, my dog Bandit buried under a tree with his bowl.
I also like to think that in some cellular way, the ancient world understood that this exquisite color is capable of communicating through layers of existence.
This afternoon, on NPR’s On Point, I’m listening to a conversation about Trump’s idea to feed low-income people meals in a box. Trump wants to tell us what to eat? How crazy is that? Look at him, listen to him – do we want to eat what he eats? We know that he likes food in a box, that he eats MacDonald’s because the food is in a box so no one who wants to poison him will know it is his food. The box will keep him safe. Does it follow that by giving poor people their food in a box, they too will be kept safe?
I don’t think so. I think they’ll be kept malnourished. There’s tons of food waste in America, and he wants children to eat, what? A box of what? No choice of fresh vegetables, fruits. Instead, how about canned peaches, Kraft cheese; remember when Reagan tried to convince us that Ketchup was a vegetable?
I’m thinking about the Republican war on poverty, which more accurately means a war on poor people. The rules are: don’t build affordable housing, take away fuel assistance, refuse a minimum living wage, make sure health care and pharmaceuticals stay unaffordable, get rid of food stamps, legal abortions, contraception and keep them in jail.
I’m standing in front of the stove listening to this conversation, scrambling eggs when Robert walks in. He’s the director of a community action program. He runs the food shelf, he knows about poverty, he’s at the heart of our regional conversation about food. The conversation goes like this: when people are hungry, we have to feed them, but feeding them also encourages people staying in poverty. If we don’t feed poor people, the argument goes, they will have to work, even if the work offered is dead end servitude without a living wage and they will be hungry anyway,
Do we have to ask why people self-medicate? Opioids? Alcohol? Junk food? Suicide? Prison? Join the military? Become twitter trolls?
What if we offered all our people a decent life? We live in Vermont. Here, we encourage gleaners, we distribute organic eggs, we give away chicks to families to raise, chicks turn into chickens who turn into pot pies. At the food shelves, there’s meat in the freezers, whole grains in bulk, food that otherwise will be thrown away. This delicate, crude system depends upon volunteer labor, supported by taxpayers with help from the federal government.
This system is shameful, difficult, unreliable, self-perpetuating – but this is what we have. People – more and more each day – come to the food shelves, and sometimes the food is fresh from the farms because we produce more food than non-poor people can eat. Why would it please us to make it worse?
Robert has brought me a Valentine’ gift. A recyclable jar of CBD Gummies in a bright red package. Let’s watch a movie, I say. Let’s eat them all.
Dog evolution, a dream:
I brought home a dog from the pound. He was large and dreary, with a matted coat the color of slush. We lived in a border town, on a long dirt road.
The dog’s name was Oscar. The town was at the edge of the ocean. A Dollar Store, some second hand clothing shops across the street from the rocky, littered beach. A desultory craft fair had set up under a tent. Oscar trotted along with me, ignoring what few people or other dogs we encounter. When we arrived at the craft fair, he stopped, composed himself in the grass and fell asleep on his back with his feet in the air.
So I thought, better get him some exercise. We went down to the beach to swim. He seemed to like swimming underwater, rising up now and then to look around. One time, he came up, paddled over and started talking to me. For awhile, we’d bob along discussing Kierkegaard or Samuel Becket, cooking shows or dress making, When the conversations lulled, we would swim, and when we ran out of things to say, he would disappear under water, staying there for longer and longer periods of time.
The last time he came up, he had turned into a turtle, also named Oscar.
As a turtle, Oscar had little of interest to talk about. Mainly eggs. I found it hard to follow and soon lost interest. Then he started shrinking. I grew worried, and brought him ashore. On the beach, an Israeli couple were setting up a concession with some jewelry and parts of computers. They called me over, quite agitated; they knew my turtle and were concerned for his well-being. By this time, Oscar had shrunk to the size of my palm. The woman said she could fix him, so I handed him over. He kept shrinking. First his flippers fell off, then his body fell out of his carapace and he was gone.