I forgot to tell you, in my post from earlier this month (though if you went and looked you would have seen it). In that piece about Georgia O’Keeffe at Skinny Artist—the one by Thea Fiore-Bloom. I forgot to pull in and tell you here, about that O’Keeffe quote that Fiore-Bloom mentions at the end of the piece.
Listen, it’s this:
The days you work are the best days.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze | mercoledì 13 ottobre 2021 ore 14:10:23] [¶]
Only this today, via Layli Long Soldier, for today:
WHEREAS the word whereas means it being the case that, or considering that, or while on the contrary; is a qualifying or introductory statement, a conjunction, a connector. Whereas sets the table. The cloth. The saltshakers and plates. Whereas calls me to the table because Whereas precedes and invites. I have come now. I’m seated across from a Whereas smile. Under pressure of formalities, I fidget I shake my legs. I’m not one for these smiles, Whereas I have spent my life in unholding. What do you mean by unholding? Whereas asks and since Whereas rarely asks, I am moved to respond, Whereas, I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates, cloth. Without the slightest conjunctions to connect me. Without an exchange of questions, without the courtesy of answers. This has become mine, this unholding. Whereas, with or without the setup, I can see the dish being served.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze | lunedì 11 ottobre 2021 ore 12:10:12] [¶]
[Layli Long Soldier]
[anger] [empire & settler-colonialism] [language] [other ways of knowing][race & racism] [whiteness]
Every day the Poetry Foundation makes me a gift of a poem. Some days it feels like a gift of saffron. Some days, a pair of warm socks. This one by Tino Villanueva, coming as it does so soon after yesterday’s encounter with Melissa Febos (about finding it possible, after all, to train my mind to act in accordance with my beliefs)... This one maybe, is a robe or a wrap—in a fabric that feels already familiar:
you, who gave yourself
your own commandments,
know better than anyone
why you turned your back
on your town’s toughest limits.
I think of something else I read by Febos yesterday (because after those lines from Girlhood, of course I went looking for more of her...), about the art and the science — about the absolute necessity — of understanding that “no” is in fact an affirmative statement:
Stop thinking of “no” as “no.” [...] You are not saying no to an event where you might make an important connection, you are saying yes to your work. You are saying yes to the sleep you need to make good work. You are saying yes to the real relationships you already have and need to nourish and enjoy so that you can be strong enough to withstand the very hard parts of writing and living. You are not saying no to an opportunity; you are saying yes to the revolution. You are not saying no to that person who might be disappointed in you, you are saying yes to a life in which you are not in bondage to the fear of other people’s disappointment.
And it’s true isn’t it? It’s no that feels really revolutionary, not yes. Yes is everywhere. Everywhere you look there are people — women especially — saying yes. Often enough because they assume they want to. Too often on top of that, because it doesn’t occur to us in the moment, that no is a response. An option on the table. A door that does in fact, open.
A space then, that you can step into.
Earlier in the Catapult piece, Febos talks too, of the importance of declining invitations. And every time I read that (because I have read it three times now, since yesterday), I feel all my inner introverts exhale (yes, all of them — for there is a coven of introverts inside the dark and quiet bedroom of my heart...). I think of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that I have long loved:
If they say We should get together
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
And another poem too — this one by Jennifer Moxley — that I have loved maybe not quite as long, but that I always think of ormai, whenever I think of that Nye poem:
How nice not to hope that something will happen,
but to lie on the couch with a book, hoping that
nothing will. To hear the wood creak and to think.
It is lovely to stay without wanting to leave.
The blue of the room seduces.
The cars of the occupied sound the wet road.
You indulge in a moment of sadness, make
a frown at the notion you won’t be missed.
This is what it is. You have opted to be
forgotten so that your thoughts might live.
(I remember that I have talked here already, of those two poems. I go to look, and find that it was five years ago, this month.)
Elsewhere in the week, I wind up reading an essay by Destiny O. Birdsong, whose poems I loved through so much of this past August with the Sealey Challenge.
I find much in this essay that resonates (the boyfriend who bristled, accusing me of being controlling; the employer who acts like I owed him money; the doctor who sees my questions as an affront to her expertise...). But it’s the part about how we desperately need to be asking the questions — those questions that remind me how monumental each of my actions is, and of the power of my yeses and nos in a world where everyone around me is telling me I don’t have the right to decide... That’s the part that feels a certain kind of familiar, for here.
Questions like the one Birdsong’s friend asks her, when she complains about an employer whose expectations for my labor far exceeded the number of hours I’d agreed to work: “Why would you devote your whole life to building someone else’s dream, and leave nothing for yourself?”
For Birdsong, it was a question that changed the way I thought about my writing life:
I had never given myself permission to treat it like a job, one for which I need to be both fully present and protective when others demand more of my energy than they deserve.
So no then, not only as a response that is both revolutionary and affirmative. But also protective.
I think of earlier this month, when I woke to a long-wanted “alone day” at last. Andrew had just left, and would be gone for ten whole hours... I made tea and sat down at my desk, ready to feel like the mistress of my own space and time. Except that instead, I felt utterly overwhelmed by how much I wanted from this day, and how impossible it already felt, given everything else that was crowding already at the door to tomorrow.
It’s possible it had been too long. Andrew and I used to try to give each other these days at least once a fortnight, but in this year-and-a-half of pandemic-infested lockdowns — of debilitating grief and of plain old doldrums — many things have fallen off the wagon... Whatever the reason, I found that I could not stop my mind from drifting over and over again toward all the things I almost always need to do — like responding to Client X so I have work for next month, and writing to Client Y so I get paid for last month; like responding to the aunt who is grieving and the friend who is lonely; like finishing the thing I need to finish and starting the thing I need to start... And on and on and on.
And so, as I often do when I feel overwhelmed, I tried making a list.
Usually, this kind of list involves thinking through all the things there are to do, and identifying the one or two or three things I really want or must prioritize, and writing down only those two or three carefully chosen things... But that morning I found myself, for the first time, continuing on after those two or three things, to list alongside, one by one and explicitly, each of the things I would not be doing that day. “You will not respond to Client X today—you can do that tomorrow.” “You will not call Y today—that can wait too.” “You will not handwash those gloves you’ve been needing to handwash.” “You will not make that batch of chicken broth.” “You will not use any part of today to catch up on emails, or chores, or mealplanning.”
And you know what? That was the part of the list that left me feeling at last, like I could breathe. Like the day was not only mine, but meaningfully and magnificently mine. That was the part of process that felt actually and finally freeing.
I had made a list of the things I would not be doing that day. I had taken each of those things, and written it down, and written down next to it too, that I would not be doing it. I had said, one by one to each of those things, no.
Listen. I cannot tell you how monumentally liberating that felt.
I think too, of a long time ago, in the years when I worked in-house for a certain international development organization, in a culture I knew even then was rotting with apathy, entitlement, and the opposite of integrity. I had a sign on the door to my office, with the word “DESERVE” in very large letters, and below it, in a smaller font, “what you want in the world.”
(I used to collect quotes back then too, but that was one was all mine.)
Years later when I was sorting through some old papers, I came upon that sign again—scotch-tape still hanging off the top of it like a tattered flag. And the wordsmith in me had a little flash of an idea — a kind of update or anyway a variation, maybe more important if not just as important — of what I might put up now if I had a door (if I had an office...). How it would need only the smallest of modifications, like those games in which you change one letter in a word, and you end up changing a world... The words on the bottom would stay the same, and the word on the top would even sound the same. Except instead of “DESERVE,” it would be “DISCERN.”
I think, finally, of a story I stumbled on this summer, about Georgia O’Keeffe. It is a story so good, you might think that I contrived to tell you all these other things I have told you so far, just so that I could tell you at the end, about this one. But “contrived” is not quite right. It’s true I saved O’Keeffe for the end. But there have been all these other things too. A collection of ways in which the universe seems to be telling me time after time, how important it is to wield this one word.
Anyway. The O’Keeffe story is in a piece at Skinny Artist by Thea Fiore-Bloom, and it goes something like this:
According to Roxana Robinson, author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, O’Keeffe was “living out in Abiqui in the 1950’s,” and although she was “by then one of the most famous women artists ever,” she was going through a kind of slump. She had no dealer in New York City, and her work was “no longer in the Edith Halpert gallery which [had] closed.” As Robinson put it, “Life Magazine [used to have] a column called Where Are They Now, and they [had] included O’Keeffe in that column...”
In short, she could probably have used some publicity.
Just then, the Louvre Museum in Paris contacts the painter to ask her to do a major, one-woman show. “At that time, O’Keeffe would have been the only non-French artist ever offered that honor,” said Robinson. “She responds to the Louvre with: ‘No, it would be too much trouble. I live in Abiqui, New Mexico and I would have to work to get all the pictures crated, I know how much work that means—so no.”
And that’s it. That’s the story of how Georgia O’Keeffe said no to a one-woman show at the Louvre.
Because it would be “too much trouble.”
The fucking Louvre.
Earlier in the piece, Fiore-Bloom describes O’Keeffe as someone who chose art over personal drama. Someone who protected her art practice by consistently saying no to anything that didn’t serve her truest creative goals of the moment.
“I know how much work that means...”
[Santo Spirito, Firenze | sabato 09 ottobre 2021 ore 20:10:15] [¶]
[Destiny O. Birdsong] [Georgia O’Keeffe] [Jennifer Moxley] [Melissa Febos] [Naomi Shihab Nye] [Tino Villanueva]
[boundaries] [no] [making art] [alone-time]
This today, via a ‘look inside’ Girlhood by Melissa Febos—from an excerpt of Adrienne Rich’s “Sources”:
I make up this strange, angry packet for you, threaded with love.
It jumps out at me for the “angry”: because of what feels like — almost always and might as well be — all of these days.
For the “packet” and the “make-up” of it too: shades these days, of Diane di Prima and Rebecca Solnit and Deborah Levy—how you are constantly making the person you are becoming, and becoming the person you are making...
(For the love: ditto.)
And for “threaded” especially, both metaphorically (how I think always, of that poem by Merwin...), and not (except maybe still, maybe always metaphorically...): these days of bookbinding and bookmaking, of pages pressed and sewn into signatures of something to come, something to fill. Something at once both made, and waiting to be more made.
The difference between emptiness, and invitation.
Back in Febos, I keep reading. I stop to snip a section from the Author’s Note, and post on FB. But really I want the bit before and after it too, for here:
The story went like this: I was a happy child, if also a strange one. There were griefs, but I was safe and well-loved. The age of ten or eleven—the time when my childhood became more distinctly a girlhood—marked a violent turn from this. Everyone knows that adolescents rebel, girls in particular. Still, my own girlhood felt tinged by a darkness that the story of adolescent rebellion did not suffice to explain. In the years since, I have worried the question: What was wrong with me? I did not deserve to have been so tormented.
Despite how unspeakable it felt at the time, I no longer think that the pains or darkness of my own girlhood were exceptional. It is a darker time for many than we are often willing to acknowledge. During it, we learn to adopt a story about ourselves—what our value is, what beauty is, what is harmful and what is normal—and to privilege the feelings, comfort, perceptions, and power of others over our own. This training of our minds can lead to the exile of many parts of the self, to hatred for and the abuse of our own bodies, the policing of other girls, and a lifetime of allegiance to values that do not prioritize our safety, happiness, freedom, or pleasure. Though mine was among the last girlhoods untouched by the internet, I have found many of the same challenges among those who’ve grown up since.
For years, I considered it impossible to undo much of this indoctrination. Knowing about it was not enough. But I have found its undoing more possible than I suspected. The same way that I have taught my mind and my body to collaborate in a habitual set of practices that eventually coalesce into a skill that can be strengthened, such as throwing a softball, singing, jogging long distances, or writing—so I have found it possible to train my mind to act in accordance with my beliefs (and sometimes to discover what those are). Like any process of conditioning, it is tedious, minute, and demands rigorous attention. It cannot be done alone.
The idea then, that this undoing is possible. And the sense too, of what it entails... Look again: It requires the teaching of the mind and the body to collaborate in a habitual set of practices that eventually coalesce into a skill that can be strengthened... (And here I think, again and of course these days, of bookbinding...) The training of the mind to act in accordance with my beliefs (and sometimes [I would add sometimes crucially] to discover what those are). It is a process of conditioning.
The idea therefore, that you can own that process. You can chart, map, and plot it. You can decide on the destination and you can steer the course. And in fact, this is what you have been doing, these past years. Trying to do anyway. Failing a lot.
And failing sometimes too, better than other times.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze | venerdì 08 ottobre 2021 ore 16:10:15] [¶]
[Adrienne Rich] [Deborah Levy] [Diane di Prima] [Melissa Febos] [Rebecca Solnit] [W. S. Merwin]
[anger] [other ways of knowing] [patriarchy] [selfhood] [unlearning]