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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Punk Poet's Birthday

"In my way of thinking, anything in possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all." —Patti Smith, M Train


I turned 60 years old last November. Last May, Bob Dylan turned 75. Today, December 30th, Patti Smith turned 70.

I'm really starting to like old people.

Bob got a Nobel Prize. Something he certainly did not need for me or anyone else to admire him more. He is the poet of American song. Always will be. Patti, meantime, has been called punk's poet laureate. In the 1970s when she came on the music scene, Smith didn't do much for me. I idolized Stephen Stills and the folk heroes of the time. Patti was not that. But her heart was much like those folk heroes, opening up her soul to the world. Deep inside, she was truly a poet in the traditional sense, a writer waiting to be born again. It was when she put her writing in book form that I fell in love with her. Just Kids is magnificent. That's a silly thing to say, isn't it? Like I'm praising a child's drawing. But the book honestly is magnificent. It's a poetic love letter to her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe and to art itself, the creative process, the deep and soulful ache of opening up a life.

In her book of essays, M Train, Smith furthers her deep and insightful legacy. Some say the book is full of too much navel-gazing. I disagree. Smith uses her life and the tiny details of it to give the reader a truer look at the artist's mind and soul. Like Rainer Maria Rilke or Marcel Proust, Smith kicks open the doors of her existence, exposing the intimacy that all of us crave in order to create something meaningful. Artists of all genres and skills have been navel-gazing for centuries and if you believe Smith is doing that in M Train, then I contend she does it exceptionally well.

It might take a lifetime for some of us to gather the guts to be vulnerable enough to open our hearts. Some find it easy and can do it brilliantly when they are young. Others, like Smith, do it more elegantly and more artfully as they grow old. Time and practice shape the artist, massaging the creative impulse and process in a way that youth does not permit.

I like being 60 years old. I think I might have some things to share. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

To Honor Carrie Fisher, Read

"I don't want life to imitate art. I want life to be art." —Carrie Fisher


I saw the original Star Wars movie when it was originally released. The first one of the continuing series. I stood in line outside a theater in Allentown, Pennsylvania with my college girlfriend. I liked the film but I wasn't crazy about it. My girlfriend, however, loved it and she really loved Princess Leia. A lot of other people did, too.  

I never saw another movie in the Star Wars collection and never again saw Carrie Fisher on the big screen, but I read Postcards from the Edge, and boy, could that girl write.

Forget Princess Leia. Fisher's legacy should be her books. She did dysfunctional memoir better than most anyone who has ever written in the genre. She was funny but poignant. She was sweet but edgy. She was real as real can be. Most of all, she was honest.

In a New York Times opinion piece on Fisher, Lawrence Downes wrote of her books, "They are works where misery and brilliance commingle with wit, the creations of an actual person who had many layers and is worth getting to know, as opposed to Princess Leia, who has none and is not." Maybe a little strong on criticizing the Princess but dead on when it comes to Fisher. 

Downes also questioned whether we might liken Fisher to satirist Dorothy Parker because of Fisher's brilliant wit. But Fisher may have been better. The reason was the interior goodness that emerged from the depression and heartache. One of my favorite quotes from Fisher is not only appropriate for the season but also says a great deal about who she was: "Christmas is not necessarily about things. It's about being good to one another, it's about the Christian ethic, it's about kindness." That's the Carrie Fisher that rose from the cracks of her wisecracks and it is what made her writing so special. It was the light in her darkness and the vulnerability she so genuinely embraced. 

"I'm very sane about how crazy I am," Fisher once said. That mixture is what she brought to her writing and it may have been her greatest gift.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

There Before Me, a Writer's Shed


I step inside and smell fresh cut wood, the raw aroma of sawdust. It reminds me of my father, who loved the scent. He was a craftsman who made cabinets, built fences, and patio decks. My mother also loved the smell. When my father died, my mother said how much she missed the distinctive fragrance of newly sanded and shaved woodworks. 

This is what I think as I walk into the shed, my writer's shed. 



After months of research, studying designs, longing for a space like Thoreau's or Dylan Thomas', the wooden shed is delivered. It has been painted. The roof and flooring have been redesigned to meet building permit standards for the village. The shed is placed at an angle in the yard to allow for a perfect view from the shed's door to the main house, still permitting a level of privacy. The northeast-facing window looks out to large old trees and the wooden property fence, a good spot. Still, getting it to its new home was not easy.


The 8X10 unit is squeezed between the house's south wall and the towering trees. "Squeezed" may not be the best word to describe how a fifty-foot trailer has to be twisted and turned to avoid a ditch near the street, and how gradually and methodically it must be backed in to the property to escape six-inch thick tree limbs and power lines. The crew has an inch of room to maneuver away from the trunk of a tree and a ridiculously heavy and immovable garden barrel.


At one point, the shed's roof scrapes a large limb and the trailer's driver must back up and out, over and over again to wiggle through the opening. Eventually the trailer's hydraulic lift lowers the shed to let it slip to the gravel base. It appears it's about to topple on its side and I am reluctant to say anything to the two-man crew. They are experts after all.

"Bet you've never had a delivery this tough before," I say.

"This is nothing," one of the men says, shaking his head. "Try dealing with one of the 12X16 sheds. Nightmare."

I take his word for it.


Once the shed is on the gravel, they use what is called a j-bar to lift and shift it square to the wood framing on the ground. It is oddly delicate work, twisting and pulling the shed in minor adjustments to fit it into its base.

When the trailer carrying the shed pulled up to the house, I seriously doubted my plans, worrying it was never going to get to the rear of the property. But it did and and what remains the work of tender loving care. Interior painting, flooring, and barn wood siding will finish it off. My Leslie will paint the front door the color of green apple like the entrance door of the house. My desk and books will be arranged, and a chair my son Graham made for me will be placed in the corner. My son Casey's photography will hang on the wall and a wonderful drawing from Jen O'Hare will be right beside it.

For now, I watch from the kitchen window and smile at the holiday wreath Leslie has lovingly hung on the shed's door, a wreath my mother first created years ago, and every now and then I will stand inside, take in the perfume of sawed lumber, and think of what's to come.


Monday, December 5, 2016

Soon Before Me — The Writer's Shed

The fence on the side of the house is down. The gravel base has been leveled to perfection and framed with 2x4s. The space is angled slightly so the shed's door will face the back of the house and not the garage. And sometime in the next few days, the shed, the real thing, will be lowered on a large forklift-style vehicle and slowly moved over the lawn, beyond the fence opening, and on top of the gravel. It will have been painted—coppery brown with a lime green door to match the house's entrance—and the work on the inside will soon begin, a shaping of space that I hope will give me peace and creative solace.

So how does one do that?

You fill your space with the things you love. The first is a pen drawing of flowers in a vase. It's the work Jen O'Hare, a talented artist, teacher, and the daughter of my lovely Leslie. I will add my son Casey's photo of the wild and remote beauty of the Pacific Northwest will hang on a wall. My son Graham's handmade pen—carved and lathed with his tools—will sit on the my desk, awaiting my words, and the handmade chair he designed in a high school woodworking class will accent the far corner. And of course there will be books. Many. They will be tucked on a shelf, spilled on the floor, piled on the desk. I have my stones, rocks of unusual color and texture collected from the Lake Michigan shore, the Puget Sound, and the Irish Sea. There's energy in the hardened earth, and I find some something special in how it's sealed inside ancient petrified dirt.



Why is this important? Why are we compelled to fill creative spaces with...things?

I think a lot about simplicity. I believe the less we have, the more we have. But I'm not always on point. Books, for instance. I try to stick to the "buy one, give one away" practice. But it doesn't always work. Still, I try hard not to fill my space with tchotchkes or nostalgia. A feng shui expert, Karen Kingston, wrote about this: "When all your available space is filled with clutter, there is no room for anything new to come into your life." As a writer, a creative, one wants new to "come into your life" as often as possible. But, that said, there are some items—old things—that trigger new thought: Casey's photo, Graham's pen and chair, Jen's art.

The shed will need a lot of love before I move my creative life inside. First there's the practical hard work: insulation, painting the framed ceiling, barn wood style walls to nail, flooring to put into place. I must purchase a space heater and move my 1940s replica desk fan inside. Then, there are the books. All those books. And of course, the desk. But I'm ready to begin the work, my mind and body are primed to take it on, and prepared to own this space and the simple energy it will offer.