In honor of Black History Month in February, I listened to The Warmth of Other Suns, the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic by Isabel Wilkerson covers the previously poorly examined great migration of African-Americans to the northern and western cities to escape the racist Jim Crow policies of the southern states from 1914 to approx 1970.
The author follows three true characters during different times and from different areas of the south as they move north and west seeking better opportunities as well as a safer environment. She also includes a multitude of interviews from the thousands she conducted in the making of this book.
What this book did for me was to illuminate the racism of Black Americans in a way I never understood before. Growing up in the liberal Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s and remaining in liberal areas (predominantly white at the time) I never understood what all the fuss was about. The Civil War was over a hundred years back. Hadn’t people moved on? Jim Crow? What was that?- Maybe a paragraph in my high school history book? Fast forward to Donald Trump and the murder of George Floyd. Talk about a wake-up call.
After reading this book I realized that enslaved African Americans never were truly freed in the south. Jim Crow laws enacted after the civil war ensured that they still had few rights. They could not vote or often could not earn enough money to buy land. Black citizens were intimidated, harassed, and often lynched. Even a move north could be life-threatening. It was difficult for me to read about the horrors inflicted by whites on black citizens.
The irony is even though the ones that escaped the South had more opportunities they dealt with their share of racism in their new homes that left many in a state of poverty to this day. The hate and frustration still bubble- on both sides affecting policy current policy- especially in conservative states and the Republican party.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a must-read no matter what race or color you are. It’s forced me to look at the USA in an entirely different context. It’s very readable and well worth your time.
Sometimes when there is a tragedy in a far-off place, the only thing one can do is perform symbolic gestures. My family had ties to Ukraine until they fled violence 200 years ago. Today people continue flee. Since the invasion of Ukraine, I find solace in drawing, writing, and mending forgotten tears with a needle and thread.
“The Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with a single step”- Lao Tsu
This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s been a mantra for my life. I would add to that “keep going.”
Sitting down to a blank canvas or piece of paper can be daunting. Procrastination takes over. but it’s action that inspires creative energy not necessarily the other way around. Risk is inherent for a full life and with that risk comes failure. Any type of artist will tell you that you have to be willing to fail to learn. Just check out their recycle bins. Only their best work goes on display.
I just finished planting my native plant garden. It looks very sparse right now as the plants are still sleeping awaiting the arrival of spring. I’ve been rather awed by how this project manifested in relatively a short amount of time considering my lack of knowledge. Like the rest of my pursuits, it started with an idea followed by one action after another. I’m sure I have made some mistakes. So be it. Completion is my preference over perfection.
Commitment is a powerful force. The hardest part is starting and getting past the fear. I wrote this poem about it.
Refuge- it’s personal where one feels a sense of peace and security. In the last few years, numerous of my natural refuges have been destroyed by wildfires, development, and clearing for agriculture. There is no stopping it. Climate change marches on despite my best efforts. I live lightly, donate money, and write letters without the satisfaction of seeing much change. Thus I’ve taken to the one thing I do have control over which is my own backyard. I mean that in a literal sense.
I’m starting to take one section of my yard at a time and rewilding it by putting it into a native plant garden. I really don’t know what I am doing but thus far determination and a boatload of good advice have been enough despite my fears. It was a big deal to have a dump truck arrive and deposit 5 yards of soil in the middle of my driveway then the following week spend over a thousand dollars on native plants. Vison is a strong force when you act on it.
An excavator appears at the hazelnut orchard down at the corner. It begins to push the orderly rows of nut trees down effortlessly shoving their abused bodies into great piles- a mass grave of sort. After some acreage of trees is leveled, the towering piles are lit on fire. The fires burn on into the night, great tepees of combustion throwing sparks and smoke into the sky visible from my kitchen windows. It takes about 10 days to burn the five acres of trees to ash.
It was a scene of mass destruction like a battlefield – wisps of smoke dotting the landscape when the fighting was finally completed, the troops in retreat, the dead removed. All that remains now are tractor tracks crisscrossed in a field of ashen mud.
In the leafy months, the five acres of hazelnut trees offered a dark, cool refuge. Beneath their crowns, the soil was swept clean like a pioneer cabin dirt floor. Thus the orchard was an ideal place to play in the heat of mid-day. My young son would ride his bike among the trees while I walked the dogs off-leash. I would play hide-and-go-seek with them. The dogs would experience a moment of panic when they noticed me missing and then gallop back to proudly sniff out my still form hiding behind the trunk of a tree. On moonlit nights the orchard was especially good for spooky walks, the deep shadows creating mysterious passages to explore.
We were trespassing of course. The property belonged to a farmer who later I was told had the trees removed as they were diseased and well beyond their prime production years. They were his to take whether the neighbors grieved or not.
I sigh. The trees in that orchard had been steadfast neighbors for going on 30 years of my residence in this house. I miss them just as I miss the once quiet roads and the woodlands that have been cut down for the vineyards that now cover the rolling hills in their place.
Change follows me like a shadow that blocks the sun. It comes and goes at will through a door with no lock. The fires of the orchard’s demise still burn in my memory. Sky now meets ground unfettered where the orchard once stood. The hills in the distance are oddly naked. I light a candle at my table to keep myself steady.
Authors note: It’s been a time of great change these last few years for all of us. Covid, climate change, social and political divides have all taken a toll. Then there are the changes we face in our everyday life How do we cope? I write, meditate, make art, listen to music, and light a candle every evening.
Every now again, one of my doodles becomes the star of a greeting card- or even a zine. I’ve been making my own cards for years now and have found an amazing amount of material by mining my sketchbooks or my doodle journal. Animals, especially cats, are prime subjects but then I’ve also focused on teapots and Isosceles triangles. Anything can be copy in the right context.
Lately, a series of valentines morphed from my sketchbook. I decided to sell them to help fund the native plant garden that I just started in my yard. I took a design from my sketchbook, copied, cleaned it up, photographed it, put it into my graphics program, and then printed them four per sheet of paper. From there I cut them out and glued them onto good quality kraft paper card stock.
See them or even buy them on my Etsy site. You might be too late for next year (even though I can put a note from you inside and send them on) or be uber prepared for next year!
My only big regret in life is that I didn’t take the time to document my experiences more. I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was 16, which is admiral, but I wish I had expanded my entries to snippets of sensory experience and fascinations other than just emotional spew. But, in my defense, I was a teenager and I avoided language arts classes finding them tedious.
Looking back even recording one thing that made my day would have been such a precious collection to look back on. No one told me then that those little vignettes from my life in Alaska, raising my son, and those hilarious “kids say the darndest things” moments teaching 6th-grade science would be so longed for. Of course, I have hundreds of photos but without some words as accompaniment, they are incomplete memories. I was always too busy, thinking I would remember everything. Then “poof” those clear memories vanish like steam. The same goes with some solution to a nagging problem or those creative inspirations I get as I drift off to sleep.
From my journal. After a few years I’ve realized that the “new abnormal” is the new normal. As if the old normal wasn’t challenging enough! Here are my strategies to navigate this ever changing world, subject to change of course.
I enjoy working with clay bodies other than white (see my post The Color of Clay). In my work, mostly sculptural, glaze functions as an embellishment rather than the main attraction. This comes from my aesthetic and my dislike of the glazing process! I find the contrast between the glazed and the unglazed piece quite interesting, especially with a toasty or reddish clay. Two years ago I started working with this black (actually a deep chocolate brown toned) clay body.
Clay gets its color from certain minerals and pigments. Iron oxide is what makes terra cotta clay red. In the case of black clay, the color is from burnt umber. It is a pigment in short supply these days so a bag of clay will cost you a few dollars more. Any highly-pigmented clay is messy to work with and this is like working with black mud. Wearing a good apron is key. Regardless, the end result of this clay is worth it.
Two years ago I started a daily doodle practice after challenging myself to do something artful every day. I’ve written about this before on this blog but I thought it worthy to bring around again being the New Year .
I decided about the only thing I could successfully commit to doodle in the 2” square of my day planner since it wasn’t being utilized for anything else. The ground rules I made- use pen, no erasing, no self-criticism, go back over it later and add to it if you want. Be spontaneous and just see what comes up. Often I only see the merits of an entry until I let it sit for a day or weeks later. Sometimes I take the previous day’s idea and make a different version of it.