These days I am in Utrecht, the Netherlands, enrolled as a Masters student at the University of the Arts (HKU). A collaboration of logistics malfunctions and too much perpetual motion has stymied my attention to this venue…however it is still where I think out loud from time to time, and conduct experiments.
Just lost an hour of my life–
The leather-apron-clad girl climbs
a ladder and moves the hands of the clock forward
as I watch helplessly from a table,
where my coffee sits cooling by a sandwich half-eaten.
Is it an hour I have simply carried since received, last October?
Or did I use it well, somewhere along the way
not knowing I was spending it?
What happens to the accounts of those
who pass from this life between spring &
fall, when their hour is missing –
did it accelerate their demise?
For example: my father leaving this world
just at March’s close.
Or my mother, the same year, on the precipice of October.
A year of time contracting and expanding,
of life zooming into focus before vanishing altogether–
a wisp of saltwater dancing across your face.
A metal ball – visiting or bouncing? in the pinball machine
it is mating season, after all.
The ball rolls down, slows, then kisses off a bumper
sometimes it pauses for a moment, testing gravity
feeling for magnetism
then drops off, strikes another place,
or is flipped back to the starting point by the
realisation there is more to look at
no rest until it catches the “bard-hole”
That’s the problem with being round.
Since last writing I’ve been on a deep dive into studying art-making, studying myself as a student again, and studying myself in NYC again…
Intense, wearying, joyful, painful, sad, insightful, fattening, irritating, depleting financially, and overall very worthwhile.
I found a living situation that is at once incredibly fortuitous and awkward, and have had plenty of opportunities to watch my irritation and resistance get triggered by someone else’s irritation and resistance. It’s returned me to bodhicitta practice, which is the only way I feel able to short-circuit the churning mind that is reacting to situations instead of letting them go.
I also did further training as a dharma teacher (also helpful in the live situations), so I might be able to support the community of meditation practitioners wherever I land next year.
As far as the art-making goes…I love my mixed-media class, where I work on my own projects. Started slow, and have been working at a fury pace the last week or so to finish one large piece, and a few smaller ones. Meanwhile, I studied drawing full-time in October and part-time in November, which revealed a lot of limitations and pedagogical frustration. Perhaps after 3 years of drawing classes I might be producing things freshly, and as enjoyably as when I am making assemblages, painting, writing or singing, but it’s not feeling any more natural than before I came…in fact, less.
My first instructor had me focus on how I use line to describe the figure…so I gradually developed a bunch of beautifully-outlined figures, but no volumes, expressions, environments, etc. Then I switched to part-time and that instructor disdained the outline altogether in favor of structure, vectors, responding to the movement of the pose, including the background of the studio and how one uses the page. All useful things to think about, but now I had to completely rewire myself and produce very unsatisfying results, instead of building on what I’d spent a month developing. Like learning to play music, or speak a foreign language, the process of becoming masterful at drawing is mystifying.
What I confirmed through this process is I am interested in drawing as a way to capture human expression, the face, the experience of lives intersecting with the world at a given moment, and the qualities that make a beautiful drawing in general, whether realism or abstract. I made some advances in exploring these aspects of drawing, but realized finally that I have to do more work on the street without the formality of instruction shadowing me.
You can see some of the other drawings I liked in my sketchbook.
I returned from nearly 3 months in Europe to turn around and go to Colorado for a week of Qi Gong practice with my teacher. I also managed to attend my Aunt’s 80th birthday party in between. A crazy amount of travel.
While in Europe, I was hitting the pause button on the art-making, on the mental momentum of graduate school portfolios, so that I could spend some time re-assessing. I delved into exploring places and volunteering in various meditation programs, as well as doing a lot of my own meditation practice. I visited Vienna, Brussels, Berlin, and Copenhagen, investigating the livability of these places, meeting and making friends, and visiting a few art schools. I also explored with the support of the Shambhala community in Europe some improvisational dance, performance art, and began finding many more connections using my singing voice that I had abandoned for most of the last 30 years. It was a fresh and rich summer, everything you would expect a summer traveling around Europe to be.
Beginning next week I’ll be in NYC for three months. Upstate now at Eric’s, my resting place between places. Both here and the city generally are like my “home turf” where I feel “returned.” In this place, aside from continuing to explore the path to my future through classes at the Art Student’s League and elsewhere, I will be reflecting on what all the travel experiences have produced in my mind.
One very clear message I was receiving over and over is that I should be using my voice – people enjoy hearing me sing, and singing comes naturally to me. Further to that, I made a very strong connection to a women’s singing/performance group in Brussels that I met the director of last spring at Dechen Choling – the group called Patshiva that I posted about on Facebook. What they are doing – polyphonic choral voices performed with movement, contemporary dance, costume, light – is transformative and amazing work. It’s something I’ve looked for my whole life without realizing it. And they have been doing community work as well – a residency in a poorer neighborhood in Strasbourg, and teaching workshops at festivals like the summer festival at Dechen Choling. Empowering women’s voices. There is something very magnetizing happening there. And in Brussels, where they are based, also happen to be two university art schools. Still, I really want to use this return to home turf to give some perspective on everything I have been accumulating by way of “research” this year. I will have some opportunity to do some teaching this fall as well, which also usually helps me process things. Through this stage, my next move will become clearer.
At the moment however it’s Sunday, I’m here in Spencertown for the week. I venture into the basement to swap clothing and encounter again (as I do every time I return) the volumnity of my stuff. All the things I’d pulled out in June to sell now…plus luggage and boxes of practice materials, dharma books, art supplies…all my competing aspirations and artifacts of my nomadic life filling the whole of space. (At least, that’s how it feels). Although I shed a lot of possessions when I moved into storage, and have shed about half my wardrobe since then, there is still too much. I feel overwhelmed by the task of severely editing my possessions to match my current vision of my life.
Which is changing all the time, will change again and again. I’ve enjoyed the lightness and simplicity of living from a suitcase. Being without stuff frees up so much time and mental energy. As soon as I perch somewhere though, things begin to accumulate again. I have a lot of Ratna so it’s inevitable, even as a nomad. (One of the five Buddha families, Ratna appreciates the wealth of the world…and all of its stuff). Then my Vajra Buddha aspect (sees the essence of wisdom apparent in any situation, applies clarity and sharpness) takes a look around and says “enough! Wipe the slate clean!” So I put myself through the ruthless (but healthy) editing process and then the whole cycle begins again. Part of the “volumnity” is two piles of half-finished sculpture project began this year that I “should” return to. I began to feel the urge to torch the whole pile. Storage unit too. Freedom.
I also did my monthly bookkeeping…and felt the pressure of the next 3 months in the most expensive city in the world on my dwindling bank account. I’m not going to “really” run out of money for a while, but I definitely have gone beyond my budget for the “exploring” part of my transition…partly because I have been spending money on various forms of temporary housing pretty much all year. So I’m beginning to dip into the funds set aside for studying & its attendant expenses.
At the end of this grumbly, overwhelming day, Eric out of the blue asks…”after these two years of wandering, what vision do you see for your life? Just wondering – will you have money after you go to school? How will you make a living?” All kinds of DOUBT and panic swamped me. Not questions I can answer easily. While I feel (fantasize?) I have a clear sense of what I’m doing, on being pinned down I have to admit it’s all just a speculative brew of ideas I’ve collected from observing other working artists mixed with my various competing aspirations (time for some Vajra clarity there.) WTF am I doing? How did I go from being this person who worried about her 401K and spent years rehabilitating herself as financially “responsible” to someone who had faith that if she followed her inspiration things would work out? And now—moving to Europe to join an unpaid performance group? NUTS. I actually pictured myself (briefly) back at a desk at UBS with a steady paycheck, good health insurance, a regular schedule. But quickly saw that move as the one I’ve made repeatedly when I feel too overwhelmed by the panic I’ll not survive the perpetual uncertainty.
To find a livelihood in creative work that feels true and necessary requires living in this continual uncertainty. There’s no “safe” way to go about it – having money to live on the past two years while I’ve delved into what I care about most has inured me somewhat to the reality that I’m not some carefree world traveler with every curiosity an open door I can step through. In the next 2-5 years, I really do have to build a whole new life AND livlihood from the ground up and it is terrifying.
In Europe, living out of a suitcase, away from all the artifacts of the life I’ve led, everything seems so clear. And here, so complicated (is that any surprise?) I can continue to de-complicate, stuff-wise, but know I need to ask for some help – it’s a lot of work to go through everything and try to cut my possessions in half again. And realistically, life is complicated, no matter where I end up.
This overwhelm and panic is also where I’ve tripped in the past with relationships – it feels “safe” to make a haven in another person’s life and hide there (or try to), as many people do. I’ve written elsewhere that generally I don’t like life to feel too comfortable – I equate it with being asleep, in the cocoon – yet when I realize how exposed and vulnerable I am, I panic and long to jump into the nearest “safe” place, which sometimes is another person rather than situation. In either case, I realize there’s a key Buddhist teaching here (probably several) – the teachings on the Bardo or intermediary state between death and rebirth. In the Bardo it’s groundless – no longer with a body, mind is just flying wildly through some kind of space. It’s said that when we begin to panic in that state, we’re not trusting in the inherent wisdom-nature of our mind, sometimes called basic goodness, or buddha nature. From this doubt we feel the need for external confirmation – so we begin to look for what we think is a familiar (comfortable) situation. Rebirth is the accident that happens on the way to enlightenment (someone said that before me). We (formless, but with ability to know, hear, see) gravitate towards some couple having sex and boom – we’re conceived for another trip around the samsaric world. Recognizing this is what’s happening tames the panic a little for me, enough to take a few deep breaths and see just what is, in this moment, to trust that my inherent nature can lead me. And from that, maybe I see what to do next. As in today, this hour.
It’s remarkable to me that somehow this is now possible – all these years of practice seeing the thinking process of mind and (sometimes) recognizing how it rarely helps to just think my way through confusion. Confusion is another word for the panic. Not trusting that I have an inherent connection to wisdom, if I just allow it to emerge and illuminate. Practice has cultivated a tiny ability to withstand intense fear and see past it. I don’t know how it all turns out – and that’s ok. At least, I can remind myself of this from time to time.
It’s been nearly a year of traveling since my long stay at Karmé Chöling, after closing up my life in New York in 2013 and embarking on a sea journey to a more meaningful life and livlihood. I have some reflections about how my time there, and some years of dharma practice in general, have affected my life. Nothing earth-shattering yet it feels right to offer these thoughts. One aspect is meditation practice, which has developed more dimension and relaxation that filters into my days in subtle ways. I have more patience and appreciate myself and others more, yet have much less tendency to solidify identities. Especially in relationships, I am not as inclined to feel embarrassment or inadequacy when there is a misunderstanding of any kind, especially of the heart. I still experience potent periods of overwhelm, doubt, discouragement, confusion, desire, frustration – but they no longer feel endemic to my existence, as I see so much of it is in common with everyone. Although I have deep-seated habitual modes of protecting myself, I am more brave in how I communicate, most of the time, and see more quickly when I try to manipulate situations or make things “turn out” in some pre-conceived way. Most significantly, I am allowing myself to fall in love unabashedly, again and again, after a couple of decades of keeping the world at arms length. For all who have been a part, wittingly or not, of this fragile awakening, thank you for the tremendous gift of opening my heart. It feels good to know it is still alive.
Still, I wish I could experience this open heart with all of its inspiration and energy more. I lose contact with it a lot of the time. It seems to only be accessible when in honest communication, difficult and fear-inducing though that is, with another human being. When all pretense about hope, expectation or desire is recognized and let go, and we stop trying to protect ourselves. So easily seen in hindsight, so hard to achieve in the moment. The dance with vulnerability often seems crazy, unsensible, destabilizing—and yet the alternative perpetuates so much more pain.
I am writing from Vienna, my last day of a long visit here which included staffing the half Dathun in Hungary, a profoundly deep retreat for such a short time. I head to Dechen Chöling for the rest of the summer, which will fly quickly but promises more chances to dance and fall and evolve my understanding. My boat still has a lot of sea to cross before finding a port – see you along the way.
Back in the US for a month, at a studio in Stockbridge. Instead of boxboard I thought I would try to form wire mesh for the armature. I want to get to the point where I have the majority of the suit fabricated; then will respond to that with the surface decoration. The clips of windows from NY apartments taped on the helmet in the last entry are one idea – to have the symbolism of windows and light, especially on the head area, seems intriguing. But the overall suit, when complete, may call out a different scheme for its surface…
Side View, mesh armature
Back View, mesh armature
Front View, mesh armature
So, another beginning. This process is one of constantly being out of my league – I never studied sculpture and feel myself fumbling around trying to get my vision to manifest through my hands communicating with metal, paper, material. Both frustrating and thrilling when something finally works.
It began before I ever knew I would move to New York. It was a strange necessity, the unsettled disease. Except there was never any cure it seemed. Or more to the point, the cure was depicted, weekly, monthly, illustrated, described in detail, but obtaining this cure seemed elusive.
The story of ‘home’ has been weaving through consciousness my whole life – never any more intensely than the 20 years I lived in New York City, always finding a gap between the life I imagined and the life I experienced. In NYC especially, the story of this gap, fiercely felt by so many, finds itself told in the pages of the New York Times Home & Garden and Real Estate sections. Which recently were merged. Home is no longer it’s own story, but has been subsumed into Real Estate.
Examining my experience of ‘home’ as I’ve traveled nomadically the last two years I’ve felt that sense that it’s very hard to imagine the home without the environment – i.e., the home within one’s own basic being. Realized individuals in the different spiritual traditions have a strong ability to be at home anywhere, but speaking for myself, environment – home, town, community, earth – are entwined deeply with my sense of well-being. I’ve begun to parse some of the feelings of what the obsession with the material trappings of home both celebrates and obscures about living on this earth, at this moment – and have moved into mixed-media explorations to further this inquiry. Below are some images of work I began making during a winter 2015 retreat in Margaree Harbour – a small village in Cape Breton Nova Scotia.
In the many ways we think about “home”, I realized a strong yet subtle aspect is protection, armor. We armor ourselves through creating a home environment that protects us from the world. Or we armor ourselves through creating a home that supports our engagement with the world. So often the impulse (for me anyway) is to augment and tinker with the physical environment of home – to be in the ideal apartment, ideal neighborhood, with the objects that most reflect back to me some sense of accomplishment, or wisdom, or brilliance. It becomes a materialistic pursuit very quickly. Hence the easy, troubling alliance with shelter media – images of some ideal just out of reach, yet seemingly accessible, ‘if only’.
In making armor I’m exploring what it means to create a shield between myself and the world through a form that can display these images of desired “ideals”. I’m also interested in resurrecting the connections with the history of this armor and seeing what if any parallels there are between its function in Renaissance society and how I’m appropriating it now.
Armor – helmet. Papier Mache sculpture modeled on 16thC English royal parade armor. Decoupage pattern cutout from NY Times photographs of various homes
Armor – helmet, side view. Papier Mache sculpture modeled on 16thC English royal parade armor. Decoupage pattern cutout from NY Times photographs of various homes.
source material – 16thC English armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
“Mining for the elusive”, Larch wood kindling block, NY Times photo printed on Epson photo paper, colored pencil, charcoal, glue stick
Sketch design for “dream lightbox”
“Dream Lightbox” maquette. Cardboard, masking tape, plastic packaging window, NY Times photo printed on white copy paper.
Boerum Hill Apt Light <3<3 – wire mesh, kitchen string, NY times photographs printed on white copy paper.
“Every Chair I’ve Ever Wanted” maquette
Open Studio – space 4, photographs from “pictures from home” series and new “bird feeder” film
Open Studio – space 6, photographs from “pictures from home” series
Open Studio – space 7, photographs from “pictures from home” series
Open Studio – space 1
Open Studio – space 2
Open Studio – space 3
Open Studio – space 5
Found dog wood sculpture, “thinking and non-thinking” calligraphy, sketch of Margaree Harbour.
Open Studio Visitors April 17 2015 Margaree Harbour NS
Since working with Joel Meyerowitz, I’ve been mesmerized by the horizon. His classic “Bay/Sky” images inspired my photography both in the Hudson Palisades series and here in Cape Breton. I hadn’t intended to focus on photography during my time here, but as I looked through my casual daily shots, I realized there was something happening.
Winter on the west coast of Cape Breton is subtle in its beauty but sharp in its elemental push. There are hundreds here in the glory of summertime who vacate in September, leaving behind hardy souls who look at the intrepid visitor with surprise and not a little bewilderment. Winds whip through the highlands or off the Gulf of St Lawrence approaching hurricane speeds and drive continuously changing weather throughout the day. On those days, the temperature can swing 40 degrees (farenheit) in less than an hour. Once the sea ice fills the Gulf, however, the winds become tamed, the sun is out more, and there’s a quietude pierced only occasionally by the caw of crows, the whine of weekend snowmobiles or the relentless scrape of the snowplow on the Cabot trail. More images at www.susantylerjenkins.com.
I arrive in Margaree Harbour at a cottage with sweeping views of the Margaree river delta and Cape Breton Highlands. The arrangements were made in the fall so my firewood order (about 2 face cords) is “green” – meaning it’s not cured/dried for a year yet, and will not burn well. I begin to think about how to relate with this wood pile and come across the holz hausen, a European wood-piling technique. It creates beautiful conical or beehive masses. Some argue it dries wood faster. I decide immediately it will make a relationship with the land I am visiting for the next four months and embark on building one.
One of the downsides of “sweeping views” is there is little protection from the wind, which is extraordinary here. Many days have steady winds with gusts of 40-50mph from the west, and at least one day a week the winds are gusting 70-100mph from the southeast. They call this wind “Les Suetes”, which evolved from the Acadian French for “the southeasts”.
The holz hausen works best at drying if placed with maximum exposure to wind and sun. I find the place where my driveway forks into the field creates a natural bend that embraces the side of the cottage that receives Les Suetes, and is also exposed to sun throughout the day. Because the wind can feel like a tangible force shaking the house, this location feels like a guardian spot.
The dimensions for my holz hausen are to be 7′ diameter by 7′ high. This is described in the research I find as being approximately 2 cords of splits. I think initially that I have 3 cords to work with, but later realize that I actually only have 2 cords of wood to stack, and am burning about 12 sticks a day as I go as well, to keep the house warm.
I have no wheelbarrow; I carry the logs by hand, 3-4 at a time. The time I have to work on this is also limited as I spend my first 10 days in the cottage on a solitary meditation retreat to help create the space in my mind for what I’ll be doing here and after this. Also, the elements are something to respect, as well as my physical limitations, although I tend to respect these less than is probably wise. As I carry the logs, local crows and a squirrel observe my progress. I feel also that the valley is watching this gesture take shape.
My body becomes achy and I am tired each morning. I also notice my strength increasing. I buy a maul (a kind of axe with a sledgehammer thickness) and enjoy swinging the flat head into the sides of splits frozen hard in the ground. The feeling of creating something physical outside, placing each log carefully, feels purposeful and satisfying.
After I have been working for almost two weeks, and also burning my wood for heat, I realize I won’t have nearly enough pieces to rise to 7 feet. Since I have already placed the center pole, I feel a pang of disappointment as I know this will now be sticking up instead of hidden within, making the sculpture look like a caramel-dipped apple. I had been thinking “minaret.”
The wood supply ran out quickly. This morning (January 24) I took the maul and a crowbar and whacked out the last 20 pieces from the frozen ground and finished the roof. I added some of the old wood rounds on the property to close the hole at the top.
Tonight, the completion date, we are expecting 170km/h gusts (100mph), the heaviest since I’ve been here, as a big storm is carried in by Les Suetes across the Bay of Fundy. My friends who used to live in this cottage tell me to make sure to push all the glassware back on the open shelves, since they can vibrate off and break during these winds. Will the structure’s dome shape receive these winds easily? I sleep restlessly as they begin to pound the house around midnight, rising at 2am and again at 6 to check the stove. When light arrives around 7:30, I look outside. We’ve had inches of rain that washed away all the snow and filled the furrows with water. The air is damp and warm – almost 50 degrees! The holz hausen stands intact, undisturbed.
I have about 4 day’s worth of wood set aside to heat with, then I will begin to dismantle and burn the logs in the holz hausen. It will be gone by March.