Friday, May 25, 2018

On Power Lines and Sense of Place

Last Sunday morning, I went to the 9th Annual Massasoit Community College Arts Festival. The festival takes place at the college's Canton campus--Massasoit also has campuses in Brockton and MIddleborough--and at its center are three shows for artists at different stages of their lives: The Annual Massasoit Students Juried Exhibition, the Regional High School Arts Exhibit, and the Open (to the general adult public) Juried Show. In addition, there's food, live music, a "Giant Steamroller Printmaking Demo," and plenty of local crafters, artisans, and Massasoit student groups from whom to purchase goods and artifacts. The day's concluding awards ceremony honors the creators of the three art shows' most outstanding works.

The student art shows particularly impress and inspire me--always make me hope the young artists will (continue to) enjoy, trust in, and develop their considerable talent. It's the former (always) teacher in me who loves looking at the art for flashes of insight into what these young artists are trying to learn and to say to the world.

I loved the high school show's Best in Show painting the minute I saw it--and became immediately curious about what had motivated Canton High School's Srimayi Chaturvedula to create "A Sense of Place, Painting."*

When I thought to myself that this particular landscape wasn't what I would have expected a high school student to want to paint, I wasn't at all focused on what might make it a wonderful challenge for serious young painter: the reflecting puddles at the roadside, the subtle variations in the muted cloud cover, the shadows accompanying the light of early morning or descending evening, the unity created by the gently sagging power lines.

What spoke to me was the way the humble elements of the street scene coalesced to convey pristine, gritty serenity. I loved how everything was gilded and consecrated by natural light--and also parsed and sliced by the abundant power lines in the foreground. 

I imagine that some might wonder why Srimayi Chaturvedula chose to include the power lines that could be viewed as standing between her and her subject: why did she not just paint the yellow light, the distant church, the still puddles, and the darkened houses? 

For me, though, those power lines are an essential element of that place, which represents not only all those places that can't afford to bury power lines underground for aesthetic or practical reasons, but all those neighborhoods that didn't begin as "residential." I live in such a place and neighborhood. Just beyond the living room and dining room windows of my condominium, which is located in a converted factory building, are thick power lines; you can easily see them in the adjacent photo I took last winter. Early on, it bothered me that they trisected my view of sunrise and storm; then they simply became part of the view from "home." When the squawking outside my window is particularly loud, I know the crows are perched on them.

Power lines were on my mind when I went to the public library the day after the Arts Festival. Browsing the poetry books, I came upon Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999 by Philip Booth, which I hadn't seen there before. Among Stanley Kunitz's words on the back cover were the ones Srimayi Chaturvedula had chosen for her painting's title: "In . . . [Philip Booth's] deep-rooted sense of place, the probity of his spirit, the integrity of his art, I find an essential beauty."*** I was reminded of Jeanne Braham's Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place, which inspired me to make a special trip to Castine, Maine, Booth's home, a couple of years back, an experience I blogged about. I recalled that in one of the photos in Braham's book, a veritable thatch of power lines spanned Main Street, Booth's usual route to and from the harbor and the center of town. 

Castine was/is lovely, enchanting and picturesque from many vantage points, but still real and functioning. Maybe it's the authenticity and solidness of such inhabited places that accounts for their heft as both anchors and forces in our lives. We may delight in and appreciate their photographic beauty, if they possess that, but what most settles and centers us, what makes them beautiful to us in a different way, is their functionality in which we participate and our sense of belonging to them, being "at home" in them (if we're lucky).

That idea of functioning in them productively is important: these places that we feel in our bones aren't just where we go to kick back, escape, or lick our wounds. They're also places we do things, or get ready to go out into the world to do things. In Wednesday's Boston Globe, before the Celtics won Game #5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, sports columnist Christopher L. Gasper referred to a Jane Austen statement as he talked about the Boston Celtics' return to home court after their road losses in Cleveland: "There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort."** Yes, home often "feels better," he acknowledged, but home by itself isn't enough, he cautioned: ultimately, the Celtics, not the T.D. Garden, were have to get out on the court and do what it would take to win.

The more I've been reading the poems in Lifelines, the more I've been appreciating that living one's life in a beloved physical place does not make life an idyll. In "Dayrise"*** from his collection called Before Sleep, Booth describes his and his wife's post-breakfast wood-cutting "before I try to home-in on today's unwritten poem": "we go out into winter to fell next year's wood:/ with her small ax and my stuttering saw, we cut near the bog,/ on the low spruce crown of the woodlot we call Cold Knoll" (155).**** First there's work to be done for home, and then there's work to be done at home. The word "home-in" makes writing itself an act of homecoming. "Try" reminds me that there's always effort involved in coming home in order to reach out to the world.

Let's face it: Castine couldn't write poems for Booth anymore than the T.D. Garden could play basketball for the Celtics. 

That said, our work--our most earnest efforts to reach our goals, pursue our dreams, fulfill the responsibilities we've chosen or others have chosen for us--often go particularly well in those places where we feel most in touch with our authentic selves, most in tune with the lives of others, and most alert to--and sometimes even in step with--the rhythms and ways of the world. These connections that create "a sense of place" are power lines of a different type than those Srimayi Chaturdvedula painted. But like her power lines, they provide energy and stability. As such, they can be thought of as lifelines.

We may hunger for beauty, but that's not the same as needing perfection by some external set of standards; we may yearn to strive earnestly, but that's not the same as needing to succeed. It's wonderful to feel deeply connected to a place that inspires and comforts more than it disconcerts and challenges. In fact, it's a privilege that many of us don't always recognize as such.****

So I leave you with a piece of advice: paint, record, or otherwise make note of what you see--all of what you see. Don't try to sanitize it, clean it up, improve it. Once you see it, sit with it for a while, get really used to it before you judge it (if judge it you must). And if it's your nature and practice to judge, try instead to love it or some part of it. You may be surprised by who and what becomes beautiful and comprehensible. You may feel eager to get to work. Or different. Or just plain peaceful and more connected. It's never bad to feel increasingly connected to the world and those in it, to experience yourself as taking your "place/ in the family of things."****** It's never bad to discover that what gently sags is lovable, beautiful, and very important. Even galvanizing and inspiring.

* I am worried my attempts to get this photo to capture the gradations of color in this subtle painting do not succeed. 
*** Booth, P. (2000). Lifelines: Selected poems, 1950-1999. New York: Penguin Books. 
**** SNote: it's not just the balance of these that confers privilege; it's also that some level of being disconcerted and challenged can lead to individual and collective growth and needed activism.creen Shot of part of Werner Tree Farm Photo:  
*****  Note: It's not just the balance of these that confers privilege; it's also that some level of being disconcerted and challenged can lead to individual and collective growth and needed activism. I also write this knowing that many people don't have places in their lives that support their dignity and physical safety, let alone their happiness and peace of mind. For this reason, we must learn to cultivate  to some degree in ourselves and one another a "sense of place" in connection to places that desperately need transformation and change.
****** Last line of Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese":