Story Chairs – an invitation

I’d like to invite you to participate in a project I’m working on. For a show at the Missoula Art Museum several years ago with Jeffry Mitchell, and with the help of talented craftsman Ben Oblas, we made two story chairs. I had long had a vision of settling in to a chair and having stories told to me automatically. Jeffry and I made the upholstery together and recorded some audio and the experience was much as I had imagined. Comfy. Surprising. When you sit your weight triggers audio that is played through speakers concealed in the wing-back upholstery.

There were a few technical issues to address, and additional feedback let us know that more and varied audio was needed, so that return visitors could hear something new. Jack Straw Productions has awarded me an Artist Support Grant for studio time, and a place to site the chairs when the audio is ready, in their new lobby, at least for a time. So I am collecting stories to record, and challenging writers and storytellers to submit a story of about 600 words or less for the story chairs. You may record them or I will, and there will be credit within the audio and in a posted author sheet. I will have an online presence for the work as well.

The following story is an example of a series I am working on right now, on my own experiences with animals. It is 560 words and takes about 3 minutes to read aloud. I am aiming to keep these animal chronicles shorter, under 500 words. Let that be your guide. I will be recording in August, so let me know if you would like to contribute. I’d love it – fiction, poetry, song, non-fiction, old or young audience. I intend to mix it up.

It’s hard to see a hummingbird’s nest, even when you know where it is. I’ve seen very few.

One spring some years ago my friend Suzette and I drove up to Bodega Bay to visit Audubon Canyon Ranch, an egret and heron sanctuary where these water birds nest together in a stand of pines. The visitor can hike up the hill of the canyon and look down on the rookery. Depending on when you arrive in the nesting season you might see courtship behavior, nests being constructed, eggs being incubated or carefully turned, or the mated pairs feeding their young. It’s all good.

The Ranch was closed – we hadn’t thought to call ahead – so we parked by the entry gate and sat in the sun eating our sandwiches and looking at the bay. The Ranch has a garden at the house, which is set back from the road, and wildflowers grow by the gate. The hummers were busy and one made repeated trips to an oak tree.
Suzette, a great naturalist, got up and went to investigate, wrapping her sandwich carefully in its napkin. “It’s hard to see a hummingbird’s nest,” she said. “You hardly ever see one.”

Suzette is the type to turn over a rock in her spare time. She always knows what wildlife is in her place, and what that wildlife might be up to. Once, when we both got duped into going to church sleep-away camp, with deadly food and deadlier programming, the two of us snuck off when we were supposed to be participating in a treasure hunt. We climbed the hill behind the cabins, our feet quiet on the pine needles, greatly relieved to be heathens alone in the woods. As usual, Suzy started looking under rocks and very soon turned up something fast and reptilian.

Also unusual. A small lizard with an electric blue tail paused on the ground, alert, frozen.

“It’s a blue-tailed skink,” she said. “When it gets scared it sheds its tail.”

“Really?” I asked. The idea made me queasy. Plus, neon colors in nature never mean anything good. “Is it poison?”

“No,” she said, reaching out a finger to touch the tail. “See?” And just as she said the word the skink rushed off, leaving its tail writhing on the ground behind. It was thrilling and frightening and unexpected, the disembodied thing moving bright and shiny against the needle litter. I had to talk her out of taking the tail back with us.

Underneath the oak tree we both stood a respectful distance away and waited for the hummingbird. After awhile it reappeared – it had babies in the nest and was feeding them. If we hadn’t followed the bird’s flight we would not have seen the nest, so well was it concealed, with bark and lichen covering its exterior and the nest itself seeming to grow out of the branch it was built upon. We watched it for awhile and then looked out at the bay in time to see an egret cut its wings at an angle in its descent, change direction and cut them the other way, zig-zagging down to the water’s surface, showing off for us. The bay sparkled under an onshore breeze and the egret fished the shallows, stalking the reeds at water’s edge. We finished our sandwiches and drove home, content.

Skink photo: icon_all_rights.png All rights reserved by Ron Wolf
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Wendy Wahman & Snowboy

Wendy Wahman, author illustrator of Don’t Lick the Dog and A Cat Like That has a new book, written with her husband, coming out this fall. Check out the trailer. Wonderful!

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Walt Whitman – Poetry Monday

Walt Whitman for this Monday, in his vigorous and brave spirit of the self as celebration of life. I was obsessed with Leaves of Grass in high school and with Whitman’s life, his service in the Civil War, his regard of Abraham Lincoln and the gorgeous prose he wrote alongside his poetry.

Through his writing Whitman helped me to imagine life at that time, and to feel that in myself lay the power to create, to express my vision and have it reflect both myself and my time. At a time of war and its loss, I also identified myself as an American through his work, independent, observant, reverent and vigorous.

Laws for Creations

By Walt Whitman

Laws for creations,
For strong artists and leaders, for fresh broods of teachers and
perfect literats for America,
For noble savans and coming musicians.
All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the
compact truth of the world,
There shall be no subject too pronounced–all works shall illustrate
the divine law of indirections.

What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the soul, except to walk free and
own no superior?
What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but
that man or woman is as good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach creations through such laws?

You can download Leaves of Grass from  Project Gutenburg.

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The Fault In Our Stars and Ruby Lhianna Smith

John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars deserves every bit of the praise and attention it’s received since its publication. If I’d found this book as a teenager I would have seen myself and hugged it close, even though I’ve never had cancer.

Hazel Grace Lancaster has cancer that has reduced her ability to breathe – she must be on oxygen at all times. Her lungs ‘suck at being lungs’. Her world has been reduced along with her breathing and, concerned about depression, a “side effect of cancer”, her mother makes her attend a weekly  a cancer support group where she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor who has lost part of one leg to his illness. The book tracks their relationship as they share books, play video games, talk about ideas and struggle with how to seize all that life has to offer even as people in the support group die and their own health is compromised. This is a love story but also a story about the power of ideas – and of books – to inform and anchor our lives. A central character is a book, Hazel’s favorite novel that she shares with Augustus and whose ambiguous ending sends them both on a quest for the answers to questions left hanging by the author.

The Fault In Our Stars is funny and sad and beautifully written and you won’t find spoilers here.  I listened to the excellent audio version, narrated by Kate Rudd. In the author interview included at the end, Green talks about his experience working with young cancer patients over a decade ago, and how it informed his writing. This NPR interview addresses his point that young people with cancer want to live while they are alive – all Hazel wants is to be herself, to read, to love and to be loved, to have a creative life.

While I was listening to the book, right about the time that Make-A-Wish came into the story, a request for exhibition venues came into my day job at 4Culture: Ruby Lhianna Smith, a young photographer, wanted to display her work, undertaken with the mentorship of an artist-in-residence at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Working with the family and the hospital, our curator arranged to hang the photographs facing the street as an additional show for the month of June. That work was being installed the day Ruby died. It’s a beautiful group of photos that express her illness and her impulse to life. In the midst of life’s reduction she chose to be an artist, to look outward, to create a legacy. I thought of Hazel and Augustus as the work went up, and the vibrancy of the lives that Green created, with death a side effect of cancer, and life the central point.

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What the soul is supposed to be – Poetry Monday

I have been shockingly neglectful of Poetry Monday this last month, but health scares in my family and needless deaths in my community have sent me to poetry, as trouble always does. Mary Oliver is a favorite and this poem is a good one. Have a soulful Monday.

Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks

Mary Oliver

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,

not the inside of stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I’m fooled-
I’m wading along

in the sunlight-
and I’m sure I can see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead-
I can see the light spilling

like a shower of meteors
into next week’s trees,
and I plan to be there soon-
and, so far, I am

just that lucky,
my legs splashing
over the edge of darkness,
my heart on fire.

I don’t know where
such certainty comes from-
the brave flesh
or the theater of the mind-

but if I had to guess
I would say that only
what the soul is supposed to be
could send us forth

with such cheer
as even the leaf must wear
as it unfurls
its fragrant body, and shines

against the hard possibility of stoppage-
which, day after day,
before such brisk, corpuscular belief,
shudders, and gives way.

from What Do We Know, Volume V, Number 3, Summer 2001
Perseus Books Group

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Golden Gate and Memorial Day

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and today is Memorial Day. I was home with my sisters at our mother’s house when this incredible fireworks display took place. We might have tried to hike up the hill and try for a glimpse but we never once thought of it, partly because our mom was in hospital (home now and cleared of worrisome complications) and partly because we lost a sister off the bridge many years ago. We’ve got those mixed feelings.

I am fond of the bridge. The summer after my freshman year in college I took a walk onto the bridge with a friend who had just been treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He talked about how it seemed like the hospital made him sick – he’d felt fine when he went in. It was cold and windy on the bridge and we didn’t walk out too far, but we looked back at Berkeley while he told his story. A gifted photographer, he would go on to become a doctor. I loved this boy and never told him, and I was so scared and grateful all at once about the cancer and his getting through his treatment. Standing on the windy deck with the cars racing by I felt so close to him. There was no internet then; you went off and left people behind unless they were the sort to  write letters. It turned out we weren’t.

Here is a beautiful post about the head of the bridge painting crew that is always working on the Gate. I felt that sense of its being alive that day with Daniel.

Several years ago I was visiting my best pal Laura at her family’s lake place in Wisconsin over the 4th of July. Her dad, who flew over 35 missions as a navigator on B29’s in the Pacific, gathered the kids and conducted a solemn flag ceremony. It was so lovely and simple and really passed along his sense of country and duty to his grandchildren’s generation. Later during that visit, he told us a story over dinner that Laura had not heard before, about the end of the war.

Doug was on his way home when the war ended and so was stuck for a time in the Pacific theater as the armed forces worked to move all the returning soldiers at once. Mail from home reached him on the boat to the west coast via plane, including the front page news of the GI Bill. When they arrived in San Francisco they steamed under the Golden Gate, which was draped with a welcoming banner and were greeted jubilantly on the docks. Kissing. Food. Home.

All the trains had been commandeered for the return of servicemen, and the train to Chicago stopped in every little town. The stations had been set up with field telephones and Doug called his mom all along the way. At every station they were greeted with food and love and welcomed home. A remarkable way to return and the only place I’ve heard that story told. Of course as he told it there were tears in his eyes. All the friends lost, an old man in his early 20’s. But he started a life, went to college on the GI bill, and had a family.

So I think of him when I see the bridge, and the surprise of seeing the welcome waiting for them.

A tip of the cap to all those who have served and lived. They carry the memories forward of those who never got to make it home and of the war. It’s a great burden and an honor too. Here is a video of Doug talking about his time in the war.

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Return to Evergreen

I’m still trying to get my mind around my experience at The Evergreen State College over the weekend. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the college, The Return was organized not so much around the chicken dinners and salad lunches and tearful embraces of old friends and colleagues – though these were all in the mix – but the seminars, lectures, panels and far-ranging inquiry that are the hallmarks of learning at Evergreen. Panels and keynotes studded the days but the seminars were at the heart of our time and all of them ran full. The experience was deep, it was funny (Matt Groening was the anchor draw to the comics and animation panel on Saturday afternoon but everyone else on the stage more than held their own), and it was provocative. The ongoing conversations were about the founding generation of students; the ethic of venturing forth, doing one’s work and making a difference; the changes in our lives and in education that technology has brought, and how to preserve the crucial mix of individual initiative, collaborative and interdisciplinary inquiry, and diversity in the student body – all while saving the world.

I enlisted my best pal from Evergreen, Laura Millin, who ran the gallery her senior year, went on to found On The Boards, COCA, Art In Form (a business selling artist books and an early outlet for ‘zines and comics), and ended up at the Missoula Art Museum where she oversaw the expansion of the museum, created a dedicated gallery for First Nations artists and has established the art museum as central to the life of the community. Laura is typical of ‘Greeners we met and saw again after many years. The accomplishment factor is awesome, but the quieter stories are impressive as well, the college professors, librarians, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, doctors and scientists, dancers, and those who have explored a number of fields, continuing in the interdisciplinary tradition of their time at Evergreen.

At an evening of wine and conversation with our mentor in the arts, Maralyn Frasca, Laura was recounting her undertakings after graduation and I said that I thought I’d been flipping pancakes that whole time, but truthfully I was writing and making artwork, working away at the 10,000 hours that hopefully lead to mastery, still a task I work at every day.

The notion of passion married to responsibility and underpinned by service was evident in all conversation. Having been a student in the first ten years of the college, when the founding faculty, newly minted PHD’s all, were still refining and inventing the mode of learning that would serve us all so well in our lives, I realized how lucky and how unique was the experience of my education. Lynda Weinman of, the online learning site with over a million subscribers, gave the final keynote we saw during our stay, on education of course, and the challenge going forward of integrating our digital lives with the intense, in-person learning that has served us Greeners so well in life. This subject, along with a lunch time conversation with professor emeritus and environmentalist Oscar Soule about the future of the planet, have been occupying all of the free space in my thinking ever since.

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