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Two women, both very young. One fat and Latina, getting on the train; one skinny, butchish and white, with a hoop in her lip, bringing all the luggage. As we waited by the tracks in the dark after the train was announced five minutes away (two hours late). The thin woman was all over her friend, whispering and hugging, while the other one, much more reserved, tried not to give anything away. I heard the thin woman say, "I couldn't have peed faster if I were a boy." There was a palpable thrill in her voice as she said "boy," and she grinned at me after she said it.

Before they came, I was waiting outside on a bench in warm wind. Local cabdrivers seemed to hang out there having their supper inside the station with Jared from the ticket counter, watching tapes of old roasts of Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan on a tv high on the wall. I saw three people wait for the last minute to run across the tracks in front of a freight train. When I got up and walked around a little, I could see, down an abrupt hill, a lit window view from the backside of a building of people doing martial arts. In another window, a man piled up long foam tubes in a pool while a woman and a little girl swam in the water around him. I called my brother in Colorado, who was driving, and told him about what I could see in the windows, and he said, "Edward Hopper for the twenty first century."

I told him that the train had been due in at seven pm (it was almost nine), and that I wouldn't be to Alpine until 1:30 the next afternoon. He said, "Remember, this is the very same train that newlywed Elizabeth Taylor was on in Giant when she said to Rock Hudson, 'We've been traveling so long, when are we going to get to your ranch?' and he says, 'Honey, we've been on my ranch for the last two days!'" My brother said that every train ride was a narrative, and he wanted to hear the middle and the end of this one.
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So, yeah, I grew up in Colorado, with summer trips to Texas every year to see my parents' families. My parents moved back to Texas in the eighties, into my grandparents' house. Jonathan Edwards captured language for "an angry, unpredictable God," and, right now, I'm thinking, one of the things that is a legacy of the Calvinists and Puritans, more a function of their time than of their religion, although JB Jackson has written about about the specific Puritan landscape that they brought from Europe and reinacted in New England (each family allocated a homelot, grazing land and wood lands, along with the shared common and the gathering place of the meeting house; sometimes, by law, everyone had to live within sound of the church bell, which called people together, not just to worship, but any time they needed to be summoned as a group) -- that one thing Northampton, for instance, has as a legacy of the Calvinists is that it clusters on a human scale, with many needed things available on foot or by bike, as they needed to be when everyone walked or rode.

Another thing about Jonathan Edwards is that he was unusual for his time, European background and cultural position in reading the landscape as a language, the physical world as part of God's efforts to communicate with his people. Most stuck to Scripture, but he read the crops, animals, bugs, water, storms, clouds, too. (Hmm, although there definitely was a Puritan tradition of taking omens, portents and acts of nature seriously as messages from God, sometimes admissable as evidence in court and things like that.)

Here's Rebecca Solnit from Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics again, looking at The Great Basin. Western, desert lands:

Because wild creatures too are spread far apart and often operate at night, because the colors and changes of the plant life can be subtle, it often seems as though the real drama is in the sky -- not exactly life, but life-giving, the light and the rain. Summer thunderstorms in the arid lands are an operatic drama, particularly in New Mexico, where the plot normally unfolds pretty much the same way every day during the summer monsoon season: clear morning skies are gradually overtaken by cumulus clouds as scattered and innocuous as a flock of grazing sheep, until they gather and turn dark; then the afternoon storm breaks, with lightning, with thunder, with crashing rain that can turn a dusty road into a necklace of puddles reflecting the turbulent sky. New Mexico is besieged now by a horrendous multiyear drought, and, watching the clouds gather every afternoon as if for this dionysian release that never came, I felt for the first time something of that beseeching powerlessness of those who prayed to an angry, unpredictable God and felt how easy it would be to identify that God with the glorious, fickle, implacable desert sky.

The whole essay quoted,"The Red Lands," is available as a pdf at the link above.
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Northampton, the small city I live in, has a long history with both problematic and transformative ideas of itself as paradise. Jonathan Edwards had a role in that and suffered consequences from it, too. In 1992, we went through a media frenzy sparked by a National Enquirer story about Northampton as "Lesbianville, USA: 10,000 cuddling, kissing lesbians," which framed it as another kind of paradise and/or freak show, depending on your perspective. But, yeah, it's not alone in that. My brother, the landscape painter, gave me this book. The tension between idealism and the mess of human reality continues to fascinate me. I keep struggling to be able to make a whole out of experiences of both.

From Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscape for politics:

The fundamental desire could be described as the desire for paradise, or perhaps the demand for it -- for the city on a hill; for a more perfect union; for getting to the mountaintop, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s sense as well as Thoreau's and Muir's; for the peaceable kingdom that devolves into the gated noncommunity but is also this country's rich history of utopian communities and social experiments. )
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I just read in the New York Times that architechture critic Herbert Muschamp has died. He was fifty-nine.

Read more... )
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A fair number of folks have let me know that they're taking action in support of the fat bill. They're writing their legistlators, posting about it, getting touch with Rep. Rushing's office to offer to speak to media, sending out emails and otherwise spreading the word. It's a gorgeous thing, to actively move to resist fat hatred (and, by extension, any kind of hatred, says me), and in honor of that, here's this week Rob Brezny horoscope for Libra. (That's my sign, but I'm thinking it applies to all of us.):

When you see a shooting star, you're usually looking at a piece of cosmic debris that's 30 to 60 miles away and no bigger than a grain of rice. As it streaks through the atmosphere, the compression of air in front of it creates a shock wave, generating enough heat to send a bright light to your eyes. Sound like something you want to emulate, Libra? I believe that in the coming weeks, your smallest actions, like those of shooting stars, could produce dramatic, far-reaching effects.
Also, it's my beloved older brother's birthday. In his honor, here's a quote from "The Movable Dwelling and How It Came to America" from landscape historian JB Jackson:

The origin of a word often throws a new light on the way we use it. Take the word dwelling. If we are using it as a noun--if we are speaking of the dwelling as a house--we should really say, "dwelling place." The verb to dwell has a distinct meaning. At one time it meant to hesitate, to linger, to delay, as when we say, "He is dwelling too long on this insignificant matter." To dwell, like the verb to abide (from which we derive abode), simply means to pause, to stay put for a length of time; it implies that we will eventually move on. So the dwelling place should perhaps be seen as temporary. Our being in it is contingent on many external factors.


Sep. 25th, 2006 09:21 am
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In short, the light alone creates a unity not only in the recedings of distance, where differences become invisible, but also in the contacts of closer sight.

Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: essays on reality and the imagination
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I love my brother's painting, for its scope and its subtlety, for how the senses just give way to its intensity, and how it's haunted by ideas and always in conversation with the larger culture. I love the sureness of his work. I just looked at an image of one of his paintings, Changes come from all directions (if you want to look, too, you have to pick it out of the group on the left after you hit this link), and then clicked on the details. Wow. There is so much happening in his work that I miss, that reveals itself to me with attention over time. That is such a gift of art, I think, that it keeps opening and opening and opening and trains my attention, lets me see more. Everywhere. I so love that.
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  • Writing at [ profile] sallybelle's house yesterday was so productive and delicious. It's the third time we've done it, and I'm so in love with this model of writing hard for forty-five minutes, and then having fifteen minutes to chat and read her refrigerator magnets. Then working again. Plus, nuts and lunch and the world's sweetest pear from her mother's tree. It's so companionable, and it helps me get writing done.

  • I talked with my older brother yesterday. Love that.

  • In a couple of weeks, I'm going to read a short excerpt from the novel I've been writing about the family and community of Jonathan Edwards as part of a benefit in honor of his birthday at the church that was his congregation for 23 or so years in the mid-1700s.

  • Wallace Stevens gives a working definintion: Poetry is an unofficial view of being.

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In the evening, I had the pleasure of going to a $3 outdoor concert at Prospect Park in Brooklyn with my friends Sarah Van Arsdale (that's a great picture of her at the link, with info about her most recent book, Blue. She also wrote the wonderful Toward Amnesia) and Alison Smith (the link has info about her beautiful memoir, Name All the Animals, plus a picture of Alison, too). I wore my cherry sundress, and we had a picnic on a blanket on the grassy hill (Alison pointed out that the trembling of the ground was the subway passing underneath!) and ate chicken and salads and heard great, invigorating, moving music from Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely with Bernice Johnson Reagon and the band Juca, too. I was kind of swooning from contentment, except when rocking out. I ran into [ profile] stillwell and her partner on the sidewalk afterwards! And Sarah and I had lovely talks on the subway, and at her apartment with her partner over breakfast.

Before I had to catch the train home on Sunday morning, I went to the New York Historical Society and saw a great show, Legacies, in which contemporary artists reflect on slavery. This helps me in thinking about slavery in the novel I'm working on now. It was all powerful work, but the most intense, for me, was Ellen Driscoll's complex piece. It was a camera obscura inspired by the story of Harriet Jacobs, who, in escaping from her slave owner, lived for seven years in the eaves of her grandmother's shed, with only a small peephole through which to look out at the world. When the guard told me that I could open the door to the small space and go into the camera, I was disoriented by the total darkness, and then rivetted by the floating images from the peephole camera of the objects circling outside. I stayed so long that it was hard to find the door when I was ready to leave.

I also went upstairs to see paintings from the Hudson River School, including the series "Course of Empire" by Thomas Cole -- seeing those paintings help me thinking about my brother's work and the possibility of collaboration with him.


Jun. 19th, 2006 10:56 am
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This is a story I emailed to some friends this morning, but I thought you, dear lj, might be interested, too.

This weekend, I was at a small conference about historical New England diaries, doing research for the novel I'm working on now. It was very wonderful in a lot of ways, including the passion (sometimes complete with blushing) in people's faces as they talked about the long-dead people whose diaries they were devoted to. As I came out of one session, I saw a small group of women clustered together, then noticed that one of them was very carefully holding something on a bed of white tissue paper. It turned out to be an ivory colored linen baby's shirt from 1799, and at least some of the women were textile historians, flipping up the lace collar and admiring the fine stitching.

I loved this, and it made me think of Carline from Venus of Chalk. So did the woman with very passionate opinions about the invention of pantyhose who is writing a history of clothes in the 1950s, and the one whose friend's mother had collected thousands of home economics pamphlets... The combination of experiencing that moment, and reading some Tennessee Williams reminded me that one of the things I drew on in writing the scene in Venus of Chalk in which Mel unfolds his bundle of cloth to show it to Carline in the shed was a similiar moment -- in a boat, yes? -- in Night of the Iguana. Tennessee Williams again.

Other influences on that moment include Thomas Hardy, who had a character very devoted to his beloved's glove, and John Ford, an artist I met in Missouri when my painter brother, Don Stinson, was very generously driving me over part of the route of the road trip in the novel, taking photos. John unwrapped a bundle of a very old -- again, ivory-colored -- corset that he had found wrapped around a glass kind of photo negative with the people's eyes blacked out that he had found in an attic in Ireland. And, you know, old white nylon slips. (My brother did a drawing once of me in one of my mother's. One version is on the cover of Belly Songs.) And all.
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I was just in Colorado, where I grew up, to see a show of paintings by my brother, Don Stinson.

Today, there's a review with lots of praise for his work in the Rocky Mountain News.

I love my brother's paintings, which are full of ideas and made of gorgeous marks that parallel the marks that people and elements like wind, air, fire, water and ice make on the earth. He's written a little about that. I'm thinking about working on an essay for Suspect Thoughts Press that includes some of my responses to him and his painting.

I also got to have good conversations, be in the mountains, eat beautiful enchiladas and play a lot of jacks with his kids. It was very quick, but so good.


May. 26th, 2005 01:19 pm
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A twenty year old photo of me is now up on my website, along with the short story, Drink.

My brother Don, who is a landscape painter took it with his polaroid in his studio in Waltham in the early eighties when he was working on some drawings of me. The setting was so dusty and prosaic and family and every day, and it looks so elegant.

It's six days to the Benjamin Franklin award ceremony, and exactly one week to the Lambda Literary awards.
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My older brother gave me On Photography to read when I was nineteen or twenty or so. I remember reading it in Texas, talking about it with him in the den with the knotty pine and the orange furniture with horseshoes carved into their arms, where the television played all of those reruns of Mighty Mouse, Three Stooges and The Lone Ranger that were never on at home. The idea that putting a camera between your face and whatever you were looking at might be an act of separation, of seeing and experiencing less, of gathering evidence rather than being willing to actually go through something, was shocking and thrilling to me. (Writing that now, in front of my computer, I get uneasy – it's so cold, but it's probably time to go out again soon.) I think her discussion in that book about Freaks was the first time I'd ever heard of Diane Arbus – and there was something there that gave me hope, or at least a sensation of possibility.

I went to hear Susan Sontag give a talk at the University of Colorado once, after I already loved her work. I was mortified that people left the auditorium in large numbers as she lectured dryly and without energy about French literature. I was startled when one of my favorite professors spoke cattily about her afterwards.

I felt both envy and also the sneaky joy of being able to picture it when a beautiful and excellent writer I had met at a residency told me that when she was in grad school, she had gone somewhere with people from her department after Susan Sontag spoke, and Susan and a novelist I liked (was it Bobbie Ann Mason? Jayne Ann Phillips?) had a tiny moment of dispute about who got to sit next to her in the car. Serious fantasy material!

I read Against Interpretation at another residency, the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, where I spent enormous amounts of time alone and had a big burst of work. Her mind, so palpable in her writing, was such good company:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our sense, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

I loved Illness as Metaphor. I couldn't read a novel of hers, The Volcano Lover. I admired her political courage, and when I read her brief piece on the attack on the World Trade Center in The New Yorker immediately after September 11, I felt relief at her tight, sharp courage, at what she wasn't afraid to say.

And, it made me just so strangely happy to read an essay, "Reading," in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, by Larry McMurtry, an interesting, underrated thinker (and my older brother, once again, gave me the book), and find this description of her, whom he describes as one of three great readers he's known in his life:

Susan Sontag is a reader who can almost be said to sweat literature—it is in her juices, as basketball is in Michael Jordan's. With Susan, I think, the tug of literature is as constant as breath. A characteristic she shares with all great readers is that, however stern she may intend to be, politically or philosophically, when she begins to talk about her reading she reveals a broadly catholic taste. The thrill Susan experiences when she spots a desired book she has not been able to find is probably comparable to that of a bird-watcher who at last glimpses a long-sought species.

I'll miss her in this world, but am grateful that she left a lot of reading to catch up on.
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The reading in DC was very small, but it felt bigger because I was standing near the front door, and people shopping in the store stopped to listen, at least for a while, and some were rapt. All of that motion and intensity felt like reading under water – having the work listened to like that always gives me a kind of swimming feeling. Swimming in the ocean – buoyant, with currents, dangers, exertion, and exhileration. The store staff – especially Robert, who had praised the book so much in his staff pick -- were gracious and excited about the book. He asked beautiful questions and said he would condense his review to send to BookSense to try to get Venus of Chalk, to be one of their picks, which would help a lot. They asked me to read a poem and gave me the present of a book, Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs (haven't looked at it yet), and said what a good event it had been. It's rare for bookstore owners to be excited when there's a small crowd, but Robert said, "Your admirers are a small group, but we're dedicated." Who wouldn't love that?

I stayed with the wonderful, practical, down-to-earth V, and had a delicious time catching up with her. I rode with her to the conference after she got out of work the next day.

Descriptions and links to art I saw that includes 19th century western landscape paintings, with all their imperialism, racism and beauty, and photos with profoundly respectful but graphic images of death by Sally Mann. )


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May 2009



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