Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)
“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg
Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.
The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.
After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.
The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.
Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.
Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”
And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”
Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.
“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot
I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.
But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.
In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.
I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.
But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.
Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.
And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?
Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso
We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.
I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?
I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.
Before I touch blade to branch
I walk around the tree,
stopping every step to study
the relationships of the boughs.
When I have gone round twice,
and know what I know from the outside,
I climb into the tree and memorize how
the branches emanate from within.
So when at last I begin my cutting,
I know how I will enrich
the tree with spaciousness.