The Written Word

Just received word that my poem “Hill Country Fossils” will appear in an upcoming issue of Southwest Review.  

 And just a couple of weeks ago, I opined thusly about the merits of writing poetry over fiction:

How freeing it would be … to write without the words needing to earn their keep….  How freeing it would be, to write without worry that the race is always to the swift….

Those lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.  

 

 

A Picture’s Worth 1000 Words…


But because I’m a writer, I’ll include the 1000 words.

This past weekend I was in Austin* — although not for SXSW, which means I am either less cool or more cool that SXSW-attenders — you can be the judge. (Just don’t tell me what you decide.)

I was there for a reunion of writers who have held residencies at the Dobie-Paisano Ranch in the 40 years since the program’s inception. Over the course of the weekend I had the chance to wear Ropers, hike in the cedar and caliche scrubland I love, eat Mexican food and talk writing. (Is it clear from that how often the Lone Star State tries its best to convince me that Texas and Heaven are comparable locales?)

During the course of the reunion, I also was given a commemorative mug printed with a photograph of the Paisano property.

Interesting thing is, three years ago The Husband’s mother gifted us with a coffee mug probably from the same source (Shutterfly) which sports a picture of our little family of four, sleep-deprived and not quite photogenic, that was taken soon after Younger Girleen was born.

Now, when I pour my morning coffee I can take my pick:

Parenthood …
or…
The Writing Life…

I have drunk from both this morning.

*The number of times I’ve been in Austin in the past few months may lead folks to believe I have a secretly interesting life: Not True.

Is it Art or is it China Painting?

When my maternal grandmother died in 1994, one of the things passed along to me was a sagging corrugated cardboard box. Within, nestled in yellowed wads of the San Antonio Express were at least twenty-five china plates, cups and saucers rimmed all with gold and painted with a sort of blowsy bloom unknown to botany. A cross between a rose and a peony — let’s call it Late Victorian-Era Floral, and examples of it gather dust in every single antique store in the United States. I didn’t know that then; all I knew was that the set of china had been painted by some vaguely-related female ancestor — a great great aunt, a cousin thrice-removed as is the wont of old southern families — who had been quite skilled with her brush.

How artistic! I thought, picturing some rebellious, bohemian artist type making do with what she could get in Mexia, Texas in 1902 (canvas and oils seeming unlikely).

Fast forward a few more years to the death of my paternal grandmother, and I’m bequeathed the twin of that self-same sagging cardboard box. Only this time the newspaper the china’s wrapped in is the Dallas Times-Herald and the blossom is leggier; a cross between a columbine and a violet, maybe. Same level of execution (pretty darn good), same gold rimming the edges.

And so I learned about the fad of china-painting, the scrapbooking of the early 1900s. And once I knew about the kilns women bought, the boxes of blanks from Europe shipped by the boatload and the gatherings to paint them in Victorian parlors, I started seeing examples of the fad everywhere: practically every female friend I have has at least one piece done by some ancestor shoved to the back of their kitchen cabinet.

Is it Art or is it Craft?

Apparently I have very complicated, mixed feelings about these two states— in fact, you might even say that along with Bad Mommy Spectre and Bad Writer Spectre, Art and Craft tend to duke it out pretty often in my mind. Snobbery, cliches, elitism: I am embarrassed to say that I’ve fallen prey to all of them.

Interestingly enough, Art vs Craft wasn’t much of a debate I had with myself pre-motherhood. Sitting down to write a short story was clearly engaging in the pursuit of art (let’s set aside, for the moment, how pretentious that might sound). The fact that around the holidays I bought a bag of potatoes and made potato stamps and created my own Christmas cards while I watched TV was Craft, pure and simple. And what made it Craft? The fact that I could do it while watching TV? The fact that I hadn’t gone to grad school in potato-printmaking but had in short story writing? That I wasn’t very good at it? I didn’t even care, I just did it.

Last year, during one of those life-periods when the family boat has a brand-spanking-new coat of glossy paint and is riding high and pretty in the water, I took a Collage and Assemblage Class at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta campus), and after years of putting any creative energy I had into words and text, I loved doing something visual. Was I good at it? No. Could I do it while watching TV? Yep. Clearly Craft, then.

The whole debate would be like wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin except that apparently I have set myself a fairly stringent criteria for any free time I might ever have. Novel-writing? High art. Or if not high art, at least a productive expenditure of time. This Blog? Collaging a canvas for a Christmas present or to adorn Elder Girleen’s room? Craft, pure and simple.

Those poor Victorian matrons, I used to think. Sitting around painting china when they could have been striping canvases with manly bold strokes of oil. History has clearly seen them for the sad joke they that they were (or so I told myself).

Or has it?

The other day I ran into my favorite coffee shop (small, not bitter) for a latte. The baristas (so quick to offer me a Large Special Friend) clearly take their calling seriously: the cup handed across the counter to me was adorned with a lovely, leafy fern composed of striations in the foamy crema.

Art or Craft? They could probably do it while watching TV (if they had an espresso machine in their living rooms). Heck, they do it in thirty seconds while they work. So it’s craft, right?

I dunno. It looks like art to me.

American By Accident of Birth, Texan By the Grace of God

The Husband and I have a long-running argument over who’s the real Texan of the family. Leaving aside the question of why bother wasting time on this argument, it goes like this: My mom’s got a framed piece of paper certifying her as a descendant of a member of one of the first 100? 250? 500? families in the Republic of Texas, and let me tell you, that and four bucks will buy you a cup of coffee. My trump card is always that I lived in Austin as a card-carrying working adult (if that’s what you can call someone under thirty); his is that, though born elsewhere, he spent much of his childhood shit-kicking around a seventies version of the Last Picture Show. Plus, he had to learn how to castrate cattle in Ag Class. And he can two-step, and I cannot.

This past weekend we finally settled the question. I get to keep Texan bragging rights as far as Austin goes, he wins, hands down, as far as experience with the rest of Texas. Which, like it or not, is the real one. Not Austin, that Disneyland for Hipsters whose California-ization is finally after lo these many years of complaints about the LA transplants complete.

This weekend we got to experience both states: Austin and small-town TX. The wedding was held on the banks of the Llano River, and we were lucky enough to have lodging in a house-turned-B-and-B right across the railroad tracks from the wedding site, not more than staggering distance away.

Even this particular small TX town has realized that tourism may be the only thing that’ll save it from complete oblivion (it long has had a reputation for being slightly chilly to furriners), and in service of boosting the local economy, a local business person moved four 1920’s bungalows to a prime location next to the depot, where city boosters swear that someday soon day-trains from Austin will pull in, disgorging Californians with dollars burning holes in their pockets. This means the house we rented had a lovely view of caliche parking lot and Virdell’s Drilling, plus as a bonus a space that can be rented out for wedding receptions.

Two weddings for the price of one — Austin and smalltown versions both! I fell asleep (pillow over my head) before the local wedding ended, but the Husband had a ringside seat (the reception taking place about 50 feet from our front door). Black Stetsons, Wranglers and down jackets. An inebriated wedding guest fumbling to hook his horse trailer to his pick-up before he headed home. A deejay (“yeah, he’s a talker,” a guest outside our window opined) playing Kid Rock singing “Cowboy”. The bride swigging from a long-neck in the parking lot as she announces: “I’m standin’ out here in a freakin’ sleeveless wedding gown!” The Husband says the newlyweds left in separate cars, the bride shrieking “get in the car, bitch” to a friend before she sped off.

It’s probably not this small-town version of Texas I love, but the Husband’s eye for detail and ability to recount it. Twelve years ago this month I was the one standing outside in a freakin’ sleeveless wedding gown.

At the Austin airport, there’s a bootjack at the security check, so folks can get their boots off before being screened for weapons.

Love, for place or for person — it’s inexplicable. Who knows how exactly our hearts fill.