Practicing in the Open


Recently, I was volunteered to do some photography that I really did not want to do – in a setting where I have little practice and typically produce poor images.  I don’t mind admitting my inadequacy in this area, and if anyone had asked me, I’d have said no.   I couldn’t bow out and – well, it was every bit as bad as I thought it would be.  I tried to take it as lightly as I could, but the promise someone else had made on my behalf added a solid 5 pound brick of awkwardness to my camera kit.

No skill improves without practice — a fact more painful in some domains than others.  Musicians (followed by dancers in an intentional pun) take the most pragmatic attitude – at least in my observation – to the necessity of formally facing the gap between what they know and what they can do.  They meet in private places to caterwaul and mis-measure time and no one is allowed to complain about the distasteful noise — unless those complaints result in improvement.  Indeed, in some sense, practice is really the only thing that distinguishes musicians from non-musicians who tried.  If you are not willing to endure the pain of repetition, instruments will not reward you for very long.  I’m not saying that sour notes aren’t often taken personally, and musicians have plenty of other screws loose – a topic we can compare notes on another time.

At some point, practice may become play — but you can’t count on it.  Red Smith — or Gene Fowler, depending on where you cite your attributions — asserted that “Writing a column is easy.  You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.” It doesn’t matter which of them said it, because both men published well crafted words by the millions — and for money — enough to authenticate this observation for the likes of me.

Most of us must practice in the open — and almost all of us with an internal audience of the undead scolding and scowling over every letter or pixel or gesture.   We bring this audience with us wherever our hearts and eyes and pens and ears may take us.  This makes the wounds we experience due to these mean onlookers seem self-inflicted — but that is true only if we can’t some how manage…and it is very hard…to learn to practice while they watch.  We are complicit only if they succeed in stopping us.

For almost 7 years, if I’ve done nothing else with my camera, I’ve practiced in the open — and for the most part, I’ve played hurt, to paraphrase Steven Pressfield.  If I’d had to cheer up first, I’d have nothing to show for this time.  But I do.  I do have something.  I have here to show for it, where if you want to know what is true in me, you have only to look and read.


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I took a screen printing class this spring (or silk screening, if you like to be understood by people born in the 60s).  The print lab at Madison College is no joke.  The hardware-store smell of oil and metal saturates the air as you walk past vintage presses and dozens of wood trays crammed with metal type – all in good working order, all churning out crisp, thoughtful design in the service of print tech and graphic art students alike.  The screen printing area seems ad hoc by comparison, but all you really need to turn a screen stencil into a print are clamps, a sturdy table, and a desire to get ink all over yourself.

Our teacher seemed to be everywhere she was needed, and each student got individual help with their mistakes as they made them.  It was a very wise approach.  From design to stencil to printing to clean up, creating a print is a long process with apparently infinite points of potential failure along the way.  It makes sense to respond when things go wrong, and let what is working take care of itself.

I learned something at every turn.  Which does seem an obvious thing to say, especially since I really didn’t know anything about silk screening (or screen printing, if you like to be understood by people born in the 90s).  But I’ve gotten into the habit of learning things again, and its good to remember that there’s a give and take on the edge of what you think you want to do and the unknown places to be discovered by simply following a new discipline.

On the very last day, in fact, I learned something.  My prints were coming out unexpectedly muddy, the details coarsened and soggy with too much ink.  My teacher took one look and said, “You need more ink on the screen.  Quit flooding it, just print.”

It sounds backwards, I know.  Too much ink going through the screen?  Add more, that will clear up the problem.  But I didn’t argue.  I stroked the flooded stencil onto scrap paper to clear out the excess. Then – to my dismay – Teacher poured my entire supply of brown ink across the end of my screen.  “Now, flood it once, and from there on, just print.”

Of course, she was right.  The slender lines and tiny half-tone dots re-emerged as the paper gobbled up the pigment I squeegeed through the screen – and my precious ration of ink barely lasted to the end of the print run.

For someone whose childhood was tensely monitored for over-consuming everything from art supplies to soda crackers, here was a big lesson.  You need to use enough ink to print.

But – what if there isn’t enough?  What if I use too much?  What if I run out?  Every member of my family knows the origin of this scarcity prayer – a curse and blessing founded in the deprivation our parents endured, and not to be lightly ignored in some affirmation fantasy of abundance.

It’s tricky to hold the pain of wanting – without holding on to it.  To let anxiety move you and yet, move on. It takes need, desire and sufficiency – all three – to both construct the little boat that carries us and simultaneously drive the storm that rages in us.  We can’t excise one without disabling the other.

You have to make room to need what you need – even if there isn’t enough.  Especially when there isn’t enough, and may never be.  Even if it means you run out of ink.


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Hello from Beyond the Lilacs


“I’ve said everything I know.  I have to go to the unknown to speak.”

That’s Natalie Goldberg on arriving where she finds herself now, as an older writer.  But I think it more or less says how it is to struggle with wonder, to crave discovery and yet love the comfort of satisfaction.

Can there really be something beyond the lilacs?  Yes.  Keep going.

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Go along with me, dragging – if we must – the heavy words that cover our
feet like cement shoes —

Let’s see what spring reveals to us —
A joy that will not wait until we feel better, feel ready to carry
sad news and pinkness in one
human heart.


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I admit that sometimes I use photography as a means to not see.  I don’t know if taking pictures is really the best way to let magnolias get inside the springtime part of me.  Like almost all love in the real world, I have to endure the tension between the dream I want to experience and the magnetic imperfection of the beloved – and, it follows, my own self.

This pair of images seems to illustrate an answer to that riddle – yet they really only frame the question: Which is the dream and which is love?  That answer is not to be found anywhere, I think — except in something yearning, and yellow and too slow moving to be revealed in 1/1000 of a second.

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I hope your Spring is here


It’s almost too damn pretty here right now.  The late magnolias chased the early magnolias by only a few days and the flowering crabapples have come too far to turn back, even for temperatures in the 30s this morning.

It’s lovely.  Stay tuned.

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Contrary to appearances,
most everything takes longer these days – but not Spring.

All of a sudden, it was Easter before my eyes, and it only dawned on me —
as the sky turned blue behind magnolia buds —

that whatever Earth thinks of your sacrifice,
She is always ready to be reborn.

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Obviously Daffodils


You can buy those daffodils, still sealed tight in their buds –
Ready to find their way to yellow –
“Oh, but they do last longer!”
I don’t have time for that.
Give me the daffodils that couldn’t wait.
The ones who burst their long, green cocoons
and drink and drink from grassy straws –
lushes luscious with stored up ruffles and wings.
I need them right now, not their
promise for tomorrow.
Show me everything.
Each opens only once,
until it’s Spring again.

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So True


When I was 4ish, I dreamed about where I had lived before I was born.  A sylvan place, open and sunny – warm and soft and green.  You were there, and we were planning something.

That we are together is a fact, not just something to remember.  I say this as much for myself as for you.

In the dream, I lay on the grass, in open shade beneath a massive apple tree.  The hard tree roots pressed into my back, but I felt they knew me so I didn’t mind. I looked up at the blue sky through the leaves, and wondered.

You must have wondered, too – because I think that was when we began.

Happy birthday, darling.  I love since before beginning, and I am sure there will be no end.

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