Sunday, April 14, 2013

Day 15: Sunday, April 14, 2013, 11:45am on the Couch

Todd asked me this morning if I was going to do a blog post, and I realized that I had turned it off already: the need to write the first piece of the day. I decided that wouldn’t do. One last post on this journey.

I’m sitting on the couch, Todd journaling next to me, the day bright and blue outside. Thanks to my mom who brought us groceries when she picked us up at the airport, we had an easy food transition into the new day. (Thanks to the thai place down the street that delivered us dinner!)

Perhaps I’ve had so many “good-byes for now” moments in my traveling life. So many friends that I visit and leave, visit and leave, sometimes only a few months and sometimes years between face-to-face visits. The leave-taking at VSC yesterday morning after breakfast felt so familiar, and I didn’t feel too emotional because I knew that I would see many of these people again. Yet, as we passed through the beautiful mountains and Vermont terrain that we had seen upon our arrival, a sad contentment immersed me. That feeling that I didn’t quite see everything I wanted, but I saw as much as I could.

The two weeks at VSC made me embody my writer self more completely. I feel this calling again in my bones. I feel confident that the momentum gained these past two weeks will continue. I don’t doubt that because I watched a movie last night for the first time in two weeks, woke up late this morning, and am sitting here at noon still in my comfy pajamas, I don’t doubt that my writing and my projects will continue. I feel alive with them, feel their energy in my fingertips. Tomorrow, I will let this energy creep back in as I sit down to journal and read before my work day begins.

The new friendships and conversations I enjoyed at the VSC made me realize how important it is to do the work, to keep doing the work, to not worry about the “career” as much—the career is in the writing, playing, reading, and writing some more. I am confident in my ability to do the work and to play with my work. In a way, it’s how I felt after finishing The Artist’s Way in Northern Wales in March of 2006. I sat in damp castles, steamy tea rooms, and cozy pubs and found the courage to leave my secure job and pursue my writing and an MFA.

This moment on the couch feels similar. This time, I’m on the journey and breathing into it, reminding myself as Cameron once reminded me, I am a writer, and I embrace that. This other world, the world where I need a full time job to pay my bills, the world where time with friends and family is as important as good food, the world where I need date nights with Todd more than I need nights watching tv, the world where a good workout in the gym or a long walk or bike ride helps me value my body, where the balance of the creative, romantic, social, and working lives is a continual juggling. This other world is one that I accept. It makes these two weeks in Vermont seem even more precious because they are hard-won. As always, the challenge is in keeping this momentum alive, but that doesn’t worry me so much this time. It feels entirely manageable and already present. 

There's also another perspective omnipresent. My friend Keiya is dying. I have listened to my friend Tim, her brother and my dear, dear friend, tell me the details as her condition has worsened the past year. Today they hold a special gathering and celebration for her in Peoria. She won't be in this world much longer, and it makes me infinitely sad. Keiya's been loved so deeply by her family and her friends, both before and during this hard five year cancer journey. I think of holding Debbie Kampa's hands the night before she died, feeling so blessed to be there in Punta Gorda with her and Bill. I think of Mark Perlberg and how I didn’t visit him in the hospital when he was ill, and how much I have regretted that since his death. I think of my Grandfather and how I can still feel my guttural crying in the phone closet in Grahamstown, South Africa when my mother called to tell me he died. I think of my Grandma and how hard these past fifteen years have been for her without my Grandpa, and how her worsening condition causes her and all of us such sadness.

All these sadnesses build up, feel so heavy. They are also what motivate me to keep writing, to keep embracing all the complications of this juggling life. It makes me value the past two weeks, this moment right now on the couch, the leftovers that Todd has warmed and brought me on this couch, my ability to type on this computer, to see this screen, to see the blue sky filtering through the windows, to walk and smell the spring air. Today, I am thinking of all these people and presents in my life. I am sending Keiya so much love and wishing her a safe journey, and my friend Tim and his family who have become an important part of my life, I am sending them peace in this difficult time.

Eamon Grennan’s words to a fellow writer at VSC stick with me, Stop fu#%ing thinking and just write. So it begins. and so it continues.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Day 14: Saturday, April 13, 2013, 6:45am in the Studio

The studio is all packed up, empty corkboard, empty shelves. Suitcase once again filled to bursting with books and writing. My shoes are leaving some final evidence as the slush from my boots melts into the carpet. 

Eighteen writing studios in this building all lined up and facing the river, watching the meditative, steady rolling. This morning the ground is thick with snow and sleet we received all day yesterday. A gray day today, but we’ve had a mixture of skies the past few weeks: blue, grey, white, cloud-spotted, stormy.

Almost every day from 6:30am-ish to 7:30, 9am-12pm, 1-6pm, and maybe an hour or more after dinner, I would come to this office, open the blinds, turn on my computer and start writing. We’ll say 10 hours a day of writing or reading at the maximum. Take away 10 hours a week for work-study, and I’d say I spent 100 hours total in the past two weeks sitting in one of these two chairs. Of course, nap time in the plush chair is still “working” time—you know, thoughts turning into language when you wake up, rested and such… It’s a small simple room, but for two weeks this room, “the Grace Paley Studio” has been all mine. Like little worker bees, we’ve all been here at various times of the day and night working on our projects. We’d see the artists across the river with their studio lights on, worker bees in oils, acrylics, watercolors.

Yesterday was an incredibly productive last day. I went to Life Drawing one last time for an hour, watching Connie and Pirjo sketch and paint long poses. Then, I came back to the studio and churned out revisions, typed up new poems from my journal that hadn’t yet made it to the computer, and began putting together my genealogy manuscript. Eamon really lit a fire under me, giving me confidence in the direction I’m going. So, this morning and afternoon was well-spent organizing poems and straightening up my binders with revisions and drafts.

Then, at 5pm, slowly dismantling the office, waiting until the last minute to take down the photos, the poem character titles, and the poems I’d revised since being here. A sad moment of dismantling, but yet I know I will reassemble this board at home for inspiration. The key gift of this residency will be giving me the spark to keep up the work back at home.

The day was full of good-byes. Some month-long people were heading out for weekend excursions, so hugs, exchange of business cards, and promises to keep in touch, to visit each other in St. Louis, London, Maine, and elsewhere. I think I’m used to good-byes with all my traveling, but I do believe in keeping in touch, and nourishing important friendships.

Then, in the evening, all the writers gathered in Mason House for an informal reading salon. We sat around the electric fire and each read something. Only six of the ten of us read the other night, so there were new people to hear from. We listened to beautifully crafted short stories, novel excerpt, poetry, and we watched a short film from our screenwriter. It was the perfect way to end our last night, with almost three hours of conversation, laughter, and the fruits of our hard studio labor. They are all excellent writers, and I only hope we get to see their final works after these two weeks—though if they are like us, we’re going home with much done but much still to do. 

So, here ends my time in Vermont, in Maverick Studio #4. It’s time to heave these suitcases through the sludge to breakfast where a new round of good-byes will begin. For now, it’s time to leave this fruitful place and return to a home I love, and friends and family eager to hear our stories.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Day 13: Friday, April 12, 2013, 6:45am in the Studio

This morning, Vermont reminds us that April is a crazy month here, just as it can be in Chicago. A wet snow greets us this morning, the ground a pretty dusted white. Beautiful, big puffy snowflakes, mountain show Todd calls it. Yesterday I had a hawk kill a pigeon and eat it outside my window, which I thought was a sarcastic farewell sign from Vermont. Today, the snow feels like a farewell benediction, which I prefer to the hawk. 26 hours until departure.

 Yesterday started to feel sad, with people saying again and again, Oh, you’re leaving tomorrow! Two weeks went by so fast! Thankfully, we are not the only people departing. Three other people will be taking the shuttle at 8:45am tomorrow morning. Still, it feels incredibly bittersweet. So many great people, so much work done, so much work still to do.

I finished my work study yesterday, so that I could have my whole day today to play and work. In the afternoon, I played with more poems about Chicago, trying to soak in the flavor and experience of Canaryville and Back of the Yards in the early 1900s with three generations of Strohmaiers and Eisens. I listened to the audio of my interviews with mom from 2010 when I was collecting stories for Matt and Ashley’s wedding gift.

At breakfast I hounded Luke Elwes, the painter from England, and asked him if we could sit with him at lunch. I had read through his website and found out that he met Bruce Chatwin in the 80s before he died, and I wanted to talk to him about that experience. We had many pleasant conversations with Luke over the past two weeks, but for some reason it felt like we hadn’t seen him for days. At lunch I asked him a slew of questions about travel and painting. Bruce Chatwin came to Luke’s first show in London, and Luke had already read Songlines and been to Australia himself. He has also hiked (not mountain climbed) for a month through the Himalayas and Tibet, and he’s been to various parts of Africa. He loves painting the dessert, so he has gone several times to Morocco, and we both raved about the beauty of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. He is a remarkable painter, and you should check out his website and his amazing watercolors.

One of the best aspects of the VSC is the comraderie and conversation at mealtimes. Everyone comes back together after productive (or not) and quiet (or not) time in their studios. There’s this energy to chat and see how everyone’s work is progressing, to delve deeper into knowing people and their work with more clarity. It’s such a wonderful balance of respect for work time and need to take social breaks and eat. That being said, Todd and I ditched everyone for dinner, since there wasn’t really a vegan option, and we had a quick date night at the pub in town.

Last night was Open Studio night. After dinner, everyone walks from building to building to see the artist’s work. They can leave their door open if they don’t mind people coming in, or if they don’t want people to see their work yet, they can leave their door closed. I can’t begin to describe the varieties of styles, techniques, mediums, colors, and sizes of the work people are doing. I am in awe of the quality of people’s work, of the evolution of their work even over the past two weeks. Walls are no longer white, but full of done (or drafted) works, paint drips on the walls, and the studios feel alive with work. How fantastic to see everyone’s work up close and to talk to them about how they make their work. I took so many photos to show people the variety and the talent here. After two hours of walking from building to building, we walked back to our studio, cleaned up, and called it a night.

So, today, the last full day here at VSC. The snow has already stopped in the past half hour. I might visit the Life Drawing studio one last time. I have quite a list of poems that I want to draft  up today if I can. I’m trying to squeeze out every last drop of the day. At some point, Todd and I will pack up our studios and our bedroom. Tonight there is a writer’s reading in the comfy Mason library, as we’ll all share some of the work we’ve done these past two weeks and work we’ve done prior to VSC. It will be a nice cozy way to wrap up the time here.

Then, bright and early again tomorrow for one last blog post before heading to breakfast and departure. Have a wet or snowy or warm spring day wherever you are (or at least a warm late fall day if you’re south).

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Day 12: April 11, 2013 6:45am in the Studio

I’m letting the sun streak my face through the blinds. It’s a winter, blue sky day, and I just love having the sun bounce off the river. I’m going to miss having this river to stare at every day.

Eamon left yesterday morning after breakfast, and it made me quite sad. He was an unexpected gift of our trip. Both Todd and I had him sign his books that we bought from the bookstore. We skedaddled in there Monday, just in time to snatch up two copies. When Eamon left this morning, I missed him. He’s got these troublemaker eyes and a great laugh. He’s the kind of man and poet you hope to have the pleasure of knowing for a good long time, someone who you can meet at the pub and exchange stories. Well, perhaps we’ll make it through Poughkeepsie or western Ireland one of these days.

I spent the morning slogging through work study—only 4 more hours to squeeze in. I don’t want to lose the momentum of writing and reading today, but if I get it done, I’ll be free for my (gulp) last day.

Yesterday afternoon and evening I really immersed myself in the history of the Chicago stockyards and the surrounding community. It’s interesting how much you don’t know about your own city and family. Finally, at the end of the day, my research paid off with a decent poem. Eamon suggested that I contemplate making most of my poems prose poems; any new poems that I write are saved as both verse and prose, so that I can make up my mind later.

Yesterday evening was the next slide night, so at 8pm we went down to the dining hall to hear the next 10 people give presentations on their work. Some painters, sculptors, printmakers, mixed-media. Like last week, I enjoyed seeing the variety and getting familiar with the work of people we’ve been talking with at meals.

Tonight are Open Studios, so we can walk around and see everyone’s work in their studios. I’m really looking forward to seeing the variety of colors and styles. The once white rooms coming alive.

Today I have a list of poems I will try to write and a pile of books that I might begin to sift through. It’ll be a busy day. Time to go be a poet.