What is this book?
What is anything?
Who am I?
Who are you?
Stop it. Forget it.
This quote on the front of my current journal is a direct lift from the inside flap of Maira Kalman’s book, The Principles of Uncertainty, in which Kalman gives equal treatment to trash cans and flower arrangements, bedrooms and bathrooms, and the hats, coats and shoes of strangers walking down the street. As long as its form interests her, any object can be worthy of notice.
I’m following her example, taking her words as an imperative to observe the trivial in my own world, finding meaning in insignificance.
In the backyard, I take note of the bare lilac twigs woven together, and the fringe of pine needles against branches, against sky. Looking up through the skylight in the kitchen in the middle of the day, a perfectly framed fingernail of moon greets me.
I observe the tiny cobwebs that have formed on the top of the plastic Chinese lanterns hanging in the studio. My lesser self says I’d better get up there and clean, but my more expansive self wonders how these gossamer strands get there, and marvels at the coating of dust that makes them shimmer in the sunlight.
One winter twenty years ago we spent ten months in Madison, Wisconsin. Our Flagstaff house rented, we moved a much-abbreviated version of our household into a two-bedroom townhouse near Tenney Park. The living room became my studio. Our boys shared the bedroom next to ours, and we crammed the rest of our lives into the kitchen. The sky rarely breached anything brighter than a mid-toned grey. The snow came early and stayed late.
Our youngest attended all-day kindergarten, so I worked days in the studio. Once or twice a week, we went to the children’s museum or the herpetarium, even though we’d seen all the exhibits a number of times. The boys ran off nervous energy chasing the resident ducks at the park.
All winter, I listened to Iris Dement’s CD Infamous Angel over and over, feeling myself slide into a deep and brooding depression, powerless to stop it.
This year seems different. I’m holding the sadness at bay, or at least am able to step back from the melancholy and ask why I feel sad, and wonder what can I do about it.
Though Kane Ranch seems a million light-years away, I can still conjure up the sensations of restful study and the expansive possibilities of those open vistas from our days at the ranch. There, we dedicated ourselves to creative work, and that devotion has spilled over into my days this winter.
I do worry that I am becoming dull with routine, with household concerns. Then I consider the work of creative people who dally on the most mundane subjects, knowing that even – or perhaps especially – those things can be fodder for storytelling, and for art and poetry. Minutia becomes the means for discovering and expressing big ideas. The natural world, especially, can be “a theater for more than fair winds,” as Mary Oliver once wrote.
The dog follows me to the backyard, thinking it’s playtime. I scrub the loose fur off her back and chest, and let it fly away, hoping that some neighborhood bird will work it into a nest in the spring. I take time to notice the outline of a bare twig against the blue sky, the silhouette of a seedpod against the snow, and the way the angled sunlight catches the edge of the stalks of grass that poke beyond the snow.
Some objects do still hold special meaning. I’ve had a folk art angel on my writing desk for many years, purchased in Mexico or maybe Tucson. One day, I took the staff out of its outstretched hand, and replaced it with a stellar jay’s feather I’d found in the back yard. The quill turned it from an object into a muse.
The icon falls over regularly, though, causing the wings to snap off, which I think is a perfect metaphor for what happens at my writing desk. I always hope for a permanent fix, but suspect I will have to make the same repair again the future. I reattach the wings, and carry on. So many falls from grace, large and small, so many opportunities for redemption: this is the story of my life.