Impressions

It turns out you can know what you want to say, and it can even be a relatively simple idea, but you can still have trouble finding the words to actually say it.  It turns out you can start and re-start a blog post at least seven different ways and still not find the right one.  It turns out that when trying to express a simple idea, wordiness is not an asset.

À propos of nothing, while I was composing those three sentences in my head, they looked like three drooping branch clusters of a weeping willow.

Something my new friend said to me on our choir tour is that she imagines one of the reasons people have a hard time getting to know me is because they have a hard time with the way I speak.  It’s the truth.  This, the way I write, is the way I speak.  It’s not helping me simplify this.

I’ve been trying to write about The Impressionists since I first watched it, back in late May (or was it early June?)  All I’ve wanted since then has been to express how clearly it spoke to me, how much of myself I saw on the screen.  All I’ve been able to do since then has been to fumble for the right approach to the topic, because every time I try to touch it with my words, I feel pretentious.

Me, an artist.  Me, comparing myself to the great trailblazers of art history.  Me, daring to speak of sharing the quest for their kind of artistic honesty as though I am some sort of iconoclast.

I’ve tried to come at the topic sideways, ashamed to admit to the degree to which I see myself represented in the characters portrayed.  Trying to brush it off and so maybe that way not appear so egotistical.  I’ve tried head-on, a straight-up review, but that doesn’t say any of the things that make talking about the film worthwhile for me.  I’ve tried being perfectly candid about my reasons for finding this so difficult.  Nothing has gotten me any closer to just saying what I need to say.

______________________

Three years ago, I was given a copy of The Artists’s Way by Julia Cameron.  I was in a particularly lost time and I needed something to show me a path, any path.  I’m not going to go into all the reasons why it didn’t work out for me (mostly because I already have, elsewhere.)  What I’m getting to here is an experience I had one day, when I was heading out on my “artist’s date.”  I wasn’t actually sure where I was going.  The major victory was that I had managed to get out the door on what was to me such a self-indulgent errand.  So as I drove along, toward no destination in particular, I asked myself what it was my “inner artist” most wanted to do for fun just then.  This meant trying to look this supposed inner artist in the eye and figure out who she is.

That was when I had this realization, in the midst of a pretty black and stormy mood.  I recorded it in my Morning Pages the next day:

1 June, 2010: Apparently I’m not as dark and cynical and hard as I like to think I am.  In fact, my photography portfolio reveals an entirely different story.  If you look at my view of the world as seen through the lens of a camera, I’m actually quite innocent and idealistic, even romantic, at heart…  I’m a child alive with the wonder of creation under all this jaded depression crap.  I cling to the hardness and the darkness because the romantic child underneath is soft and vulnerable.  And afraid.

______________________

My memory ate the context of the conversation a long time ago, but I distinctly remember that I was talking to someone once about my music and I said to them – with the kind of guileless self-absorption that only a teenager can manage unironically – that I played the same kind of music all the time because I had a certain feeling inside me and I was trying to find a piece of music that expressed it.  I remember feeling, as I said it, that by finding that one piece of music and playing it, I would achieve a wholeness of self that was not to be had any other way; I also remember not having any particular sense that I would ever actually find it.

I’m a musician, but not a composer.  I have nearly no understanding of how to construct a particular mood with chords or note progressions.  Key signatures?  I can play them, but I don’t really get why they work the way they do.  I only know how to interpret the sounds that someone else has written.  Looking to someone else’s work for an expression of my innermost self will always be a doomed quest, and I’ve always known that.  It’s the search, the ongoing experience of tasting musical flavors, that’s the important thing.

I have to admit that even today, I still feel a twinge of weirdness at calling myself a musician.  I was conditioned stringently in childhood not to “pretend” to talents or identities I had no right to (which, in hindsight, was anything I was ever good at because my siblings didn’t want to let me in on the fact that I deserved to be proud of myself, but it’s difficult to overcome those feelings.)  I can own up to being a singer, because I’ve been doing it for so long and so irrepressibly, and have received objective competitive confirmation that I’m better than average at it.  But calling myself a musician, I don’t know, implies a level of professionalism I never reached despite the fact that I was about two breaths away from majoring in vocal performance at college.  Also it implies, to me, that I’m better with instruments than I am.  I tanked horribly on the viola, and my skills on the piano are no better than casual despite years of practice because of the hard limitations imposed by my poor hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.

But I am a musician.  I make music.  End of story.

I’ve had even more of a struggle to call myself an artist.  I am the one sad outcast with no drawing skill in a family of talented sketchers, so I always felt that there must have been a certain artistic gene in the family that ran out by the time I was born.  It has taken me my entire adult life to come to grips with the reality that there are as many kinds of art as there are artists, and that lacking an ability to accurately render with a pencil has nothing to do with a person’s creativity.  I like to make things that are beautiful.  I’m still experimenting with all of the ways I can do that.  One of them is through photography.  The awkward part of me doesn’t want to call that art, but the logical part knows it can be.  So I tentatively, shyly, wear the title of Artist.

The one thing I’ve never had any qualms about is owning myself as Writer.  It’s been who I am since I was in grade school.  I didn’t know how to answer the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, because while the other children wanted to be princesses and astronauts and firemen, I already was a writer and I didn’t want to be anything else.  I’ve gone through periods over the years of thinking I’m a mediocre writer, but I’ve always known that I am one.

These are all tools with which I try to make sense of reality, and they each serve a different purpose.  I use music to explore myself, photography to explore the world, and writing to explore the people in it.

______________________

There were certain lines in The Impressionists that leaped out at me powerfully the first time I saw it.  These are a few.

Monet:

“For me, Nature is an end in itself.”

“…we will all draw him differently, and his feet will be different, just as we are all different, and the world is different in every moment of every day.”

“Nothing that makes me feel, nothing that art is for me even exists for [him]!”

“If we can’t paint what we were born to paint, then we might as well be doctors and tailors.  At least then we’d be doing something real.”

“No one can tell me there is no color in shadow, when I have stood here and seen it and painted it for myself.”

“I wanted to capture the impression of a moment.”

“For me, it was all about the moment… chasing the moment that will never come again.”

“Cézanne was a pioneer searching for his own truth.”

“How can anyone say that a landscape even exists when it changes so constantly?”

Cézanne:

“You are an inspiration to me, and you… you are Renoir.”

“I am trying to clarify the relationship between color and form.” (I thought I was starting to understand what he means by this, one night as I was drifting off to sleep, but when I woke up it remained as elusive as ever.  I suspect this may simply be a concept that is comprehensible only within the liminal spaces of my consciousness.  But it hits me somewhere.)

“Be good.  And if you’re not, you’re forgiven already.”

“It’s escaping…”

______________________

Even though they are never given a mention in the film, I came away from the story with an understanding of the Impressionist composers that has always eluded me.  I suddenly saw what it was they were trying to do.  Some music is story (a lot of music is story), some is a mathematical expression.  Some is a statement of theme.  I’ve always found Impressionist music beautiful but nonsensical.  I get it now.  They were trying to catch the abstract of the emotion of a single moment in time, never the same way twice.  And I realize that’s how I make music.

______________________

Whatever it is about the movie that speaks to me, it’s beautiful – an actual work of art on its own merits.  Real credit is due the cinematographer and artistic director, because every frame is like a painting.  It’s worth watching for the aesthetic value alone.  The performances are genuinely offered.  Richard Armitage as Claude Monet is charming, life and enthusiasm bursting from the brightness of his eyes, from every barely-controlled line of his body.

I’m not going to pretend that my work is in any way visionary, or that the landscape of literature will be changed by my contributions to it.  I write fantasy novels; they do what you expect them to.  I am not the Monet or the Cézanne of fantasy fiction.  I’m not at the forefront of anything.  Where I see myself in these characters is in the dogged drive to continue honestly making the kind of art they feel compelled to make, despite a lack of support from the outside world.  Sometimes the will to create sinks beneath the despair of being unknown and unappreciated, but in the end the art will out.  With Monet I share that wide-eyed wonder at nature.  With Cézanne I share the frustration of feeling unequal to the work (and also the poor manners, eccentric habits, and lack of social awareness.)

There is something larger here than I’ve been able to say.  Or maybe I’ve been able to say it in the empty spaces.  Maybe I speak best with silence.

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Yes

My idea of a good trip is one where I get to snap interesting photos. In that respect, last weekend’s choir tour had a bit of a rocky start. I spent the first half of Friday rushing to get everything ready for my departure and the second half in enforced immobility, sitting on a bus. I had some excellent conversations with some excellent people, and got a start on the weekend’s main work of growing closer to my fellow choir-members. But of photo ops, there were none.

Saturday left my camera almost equally cold. Between performance and bus transit, we saw very little that warranted photographic memorialization. This is largely because we spent the day enjoying the offerings of northern Arizona, and after thirty four years here I’m so tired of the Arizona landscape I could spit. I could have, I suppose, snapped some souvenir pics of my fellow singers, but I’ve accepted that when it comes to taking pictures of humans, it’s a job best left to someone else. I always bungle it in some embarrassingly artless way.

My friends back home in the Valley texted me that they were missing me at brunch. I told them I was busy touring like a rock star and hanging out with my new groupies:

random inexplicable goat, but I guess I shouldn't be picky about my groupies

random inexplicable goat, but I guess I shouldn’t be picky about my groupies

We concluded the day with a turn at the Safford County Fair — big-time doings, let me tell you. (I shouldn’t sneer, I know. It was fun, actually.) But given that I really didn’t see any need to photograph the endless — literally endless — supply of toy guns, purses and belts with guns on them, or other gun-related paraphernalia, there really wasn’t much to shoot there either. I did again spend some quality time talking to and getting to know my fellow travelers. Which, by this point, was conspicuously out-of-character enough for me that I was starting to feel weird and exhausted. The fact that I’d only slept a handful of hours over the last couple days also contributed to that, I’m sure.

Sunday was to be another long day on the bus, broken up principally by two stops before our final concert of the tour: the Titan Missile Museum and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Both, I thought, were pretty random choices for a choir on tour, but whatever. It was nice to get out and stretch the legs.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect at the TMM. What we got was an unnerving look into the realities of life during the Cold War. I think any and all joking done on tours down in that launch facility is done to keep the vague, pervasive sense of unease at bay, but it never goes away entirely. It’s quite literally a time capsule, a frozen moment from a time when we were expecting to receive the news at any moment that a nuke was incoming and we were all about to die of Communism.

the Control Room; it's so Cold War in here you expect to bump into Karl Stromberg

the Control Room; it’s so Cold War in here you expect to bump into Karl Stromberg

yeah, I can totally see how those little suits would save you from a nuclear blast

yeah, I can totally see how those little suits would save you from a nuclear blast

TMM2

this particular ubiquitous shade of green started to make me feel swimmy in the stomach area pretty fast

I can't even contemplate trying to keep my sanity and maintain a nuclear warhead while living in this hole

I can’t even contemplate trying to keep my sanity and maintain a nuclear warhead while living in this fluorescent-lit hole

Of course the facility tour is bringing you toward the grand moment: seeing the actual (decommissioned) nuclear warhead. Let me tell you, it does not disappoint. It is mind-bendingly large.

just a tiny glimpse of only the tip

just a tiny glimpse of only the tip

I really just can’t even.

Snapped on my way out:

I can't be the only one freaked out by a sign that says this

I can’t be the only one freaked out by a sign that says this

we were informed more than once what the response time was for these guys when the security protocols were breached

we were informed more than once what the response time was for these guys when the security protocols were breached

Up in the gift shop, I couldn’t decide which of these signs was most appropriate to buy for Tim:

signs

For my own souvenir, I settled on this book. Tim believes it signals a budding allegiance to Hydra:

Cut off one head, two more shall appear!

Cut off one head, two more shall appear!

Then it was back on the bus to mull over everything we’d just seen as we made for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. To be honest, I was and remained unenthusiastic about this stop. See above for my feelings on the landscape of Arizona. I had, however, acquired by now a perfectly lovely new friend. (And discovered that, however improbably, we have lived less than a mile away from each other for eight years. She’s wonderful and so very fun to talk to, about the kinds of things I don’t regularly get to discuss anywhere other than the internet.) We found ourselves a scenic spot on the café terrace and she did her required reading while I rather shockingly got some actual work done on the novel.

I did get a couple of photos here, though.

I'm pretty sure these aren't real

I’m pretty sure these aren’t real

I didn't realize we had seahorses in Arizona

I didn’t realize we had seahorses in Arizona

I was trying to figure out everything that's in this fascinating rock

I was trying to figure out everything that’s in this fascinating rock

some probably fake petroglyphs

some probably fake petroglyphs

I just liked the light and shadow when I looked down this corridor

I just liked the light and shadow when I looked down this corridor

the view from our terrace; apologies for the hipstery lens flare

the view from our terrace; apologies for the hipstery lens flare

And while this is not a quality shot, I can’t escape this post without adding this little gem:

you know you're in Arizona when you see this in a public restroom

you know you’re in Arizona when you see this in a public restroom

Back on the bus. Our driver was a maniac. I’m pretty sure she was trying to catch air as she navigated the hills into Tucson. We were all just a little seasick when we arrived at our concert venue.

And there, despite the lack of photographable material, I had my most memorable experience of the entire tour: one of those performances that remind you why you sing with a choir and not solo.  Where it may not be perfect, but you’re so inside each other’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and musical headspace that you’re not thirty people singing the same song, you are a choir, making music. You’re just, there. Together.

The ride back to the Valley was subdued, not only because we were all exhausted and so done with being on a bus. But for a little while after that concert, I felt, we were still a choir, not thirty tired people on a bus. It was the quiet of camaraderie, of not having to say much.

On Thursday, our first rehearsal together after the tour was strange. A little shy, like we all knew we’d maybe bared too much, a little giggly to ameliorate the awkwardness. But still touching the edge of that oneness we’d found. It will fade, I fear, over time. But we did get there, and we know in the backs of our minds that we can get there again under the right conditions.

The answer to the question “Did you have a good trip?”

Is yes.

Last weekend’s “Aha!” moment in reading

[Discussing the very real psychological and developmental benefits of parents making the choice to expose their children to fairy tales young and repeatedly:] 

“We know that the more deeply unhappy and despairing we are, the more we need to be able to engage in optimistic fantasies.  But these are not available to us at such periods.  Then, more than at any other time, we need others to uplift us with their hope for us and our future.  No fairy tale all by itself will do this for the child… first we need our parents to instill hope in us.  On this firm and real basis – the positive ways in which our parents view us and our future – we can then build castles in the air, half aware that these are just that, but gaining deep reassurance from it nonetheless.  While the fantasy is unreal, the good feelings it gives us about ourselves and our future are real, and these real good feelings are what we need to sustain us.”

– Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales 

Bon voyage (to me)!

Well I knew as soon as I typed it that I’d jinxed myself by promising I’d get to do a thing if I finished everything in time. It is literally the last minute and I’ve just now done the last of what I had to.

See you all on the other side of the weekend, at which time I will hopefully return with my sanity in much the state it was in when I left. I won’t lay another curse on myself by saying I expect to have time on the bus ride to do some writing, but hey. Anything could happen, right?

not as manic as I sound, I promise

We’ve been saying for a while that October was going to be an interesting month around here.  I don’t really know if that was the right way to put it, or if it was saying enough.  Tim is away, has been for nearly a week now, at his big yearly SCA thing in California.  The spawn left on Monday to join his grandparents in traveling to a family wedding in New York, gone until next Tuesday.  It was going to be more interesting, because I was supposed to be leaving on Saturday for eight days to tour the Midwest with my choir.  The two of them fending for themselves for a week was going to be… interesting.  And me in the constant company of thirty near-strangers for eight days, away from my safe zone and my routines and my decompression time – there’s another word for what that would have been.

As it is now, the tour will only stretch over the weekend and I’ll be back home just before the boys instead of nearly a week after both of them, but this is still a big deal and it has meant certain arrangements had to be ironed out regarding the pet situation (nothing so straightforward as asking someone to come by the house a few times and make sure they have food and water.  Not with our dogs, not under the circumstances.)  It also meant we had to spend money we could ill afford to spare renting a car for the week while Tim is gone, since the Mirage is sadly beyond repair and we haven’t yet come to a permanent solution to that.  But practical considerations aside, this is a bigger deal because, well.  I’m autistic.  Pretending that the whole idea of this trip isn’t freaking me the hell out for all of the reasons would be disingenuous.

To be clear, I’m excited about it in more ways than just the excitement of terror.  I do actually want to go.  There was a moment, in the beginning, when I could have said no, but I chose to opt in.  Back then (oh, August, how long ago you seem now!) I was enthusiastically blinkered to all of the ways in which this is actually beyond my coping skills, and was only seeing the tremendous experience-broadening and artistically fulfilling possibilities of the thing.  Now I’m just about ready to start hyperventilating.  And this is without even getting into the fact that I’ve never before headed into a concert feeling this unfamiliar with the material.

But in the midst of all of this psychic turmoil, there remains the germ of eagerness to get out there and prove I can do this.  All of this:

Getting myself together and out the door on an out-of-town trip without anyone else standing behind me to make sure I’ve got everything I need (even though I’m always the one performing this function for others and know perfectly well that my powers of organization are up to the task), and to push me if I balk; taking care of all of the administrative preparations necessary to leave the house unattended for a few days; bearing up under the strain and the demands of traveling with such a large group, with a rigid itinerary not at all dictated by me; being among people and their sensory output for so long without melting down; successfully performing this difficult and extensive set of music that I haven’t learned to anything like my satisfaction; belonging to and with this group of musicians in a way that makes me an asset rather than a liability to the whole.

And because this is simply the way my mind works, now that I’ve got too much to do to actually have the leisure to sit down and unravel my thoughts into words, I find myself turning back toward the piece I started outlining about my reaction to The Impressionists.  It’s because I’m preparing to immerse myself for the next few days, rather selfishly, in activities that are entirely centered around my art and my self-expression as an artist, and I don’t do that, like, ever.  Certain mental associations have been called forth.

Tomorrow, if I finish all of my preparations with enough spare time, there may just be an entry not about my thoughts on the film, which I am still sifting, but about my need to justify the right to call myself an artist before I can allow myself to talk about the film as though it says anything about me.