Mail Art

What is it?

So much of the time, we feel helpless in the face of what is so big…like a declaration of war or climate change or personal events in our lives. We can feel dwarfed and ineffectual.

Lately, I am asking myself a few questions:

  1. What’s going on? i.e. What’s the problem? or What’s bothering me?
  2. Is there anything that I can do about it?

An elderly friend was given notice to vacate the rental that he has occupied for over twenty-five years. He started putting the word out to his friends, acquaintances and clients. In this small community, there aren’t that many housing options for seniors. The two senior housing apartments have two-year waiting lists. He had a friend post for him on Craigslist. He also called me to be on the lookout for a room or apartment for him. As spring approaches, housing becomes even more limited with the arrival of tourists.

So to answer the first question, I could easily see the situation. My friend needed to find housing. I asked myself if there was anything that I could do. There were a few things. He is computer-illiterate. I told him that I would post his rental need on a local hub online. I also inquired at the local Community Center to see if they had any ideas or leads. I reported back to my friend what I found. Whether or not those things bear fruit is irrelevant. I could be satisfied that I did something to help a friend in need.

On a larger scale, we are faced with being witnesses to war (probably throughout human history). For me, this brings up a lot of feelings–everything from sadness, to anger, to frustration, to feeling inadequate in the face of it all. Then, I try to sit quietly with it, allowing the feelings to be fully felt. And I do what is called Focusing as drafted by Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D. in the 1950’s. I try to find a word or a few words that distill what I’m really feeling. I try to deeply describe it and go beneath the layers of my initial reactions. When I feel somewhat satisfied with what the word or words are, then I sit with them quietly.

Checking in with myself in this way, I ask if there is anything that I can do to lift myself up and feel like I have something to contribute.

That’s when I remembered Mail Art, also called Correspondence Art. Mail Art is flooding the post office with handmade or painted art in the shape and size of a postcard. The origins of mail art can be traced “back to the Dadaists and Italian Futurists in the early twentieth century. However, the New York artist, Ray Johnson, is considered to be the founder of contemporary mail art. In the 1950s, he began sending out small-scale collages he called “moticos,” some of which included simple instructions for the recipient.” (Wikipedia)

My most recent mail art below was intended to bear witness to the war in the Ukraine. As this little postcard travels to its destination through the system, others who handle it see it along the way.

photo of woman and sunflower

There was one other time when I did this. It was following “911.” When that feeling of helplessness swamped me, I bought several postcards, wrote little poems on them and sent them anonymously to family and friends. This act/action helped me and I hoped that the the recipients felt comforted like receiving the benefits of a prayer.

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I’m curious to hear how you respond to challenging things in our world. Do you have a go-to resource to guide your process in instances where you feel helpless?

Pablo Neruda–Is He Ageless?

Discovering Pablo Neruda in every new generation is an adventure in interpretation and application. Sometimes wise words seem specific to a time and place, dated. Then, other times, they seem to be so present that we think they were written for us just yesterday–addressing our current circumstances. We might think that the specific quote or poem must belong to us–our generation, our culture, our humanity as we are today–it is so right on.

I’ve noticed that the most read-across-the-globe of all of my many blogs, the ones featuring anything that mentions Pablo Neruda get the most hits. Why is that I wonder? Is it because he was a man in exile from his native country and others can relate to him? Is it that they too know what it is to love one’s country and to be banished from it? Is it that his words strike a chord of truth and depth that humans share in common. (Poetry can do that.) Is it the emotional impact that is innate to poetry that twangs that emotion within us?

This little poem written by Pablo in his Book of Questions…what feeling does it raise in you? For me, when I pause to sit with a poem, reread it several times, that’s when it reveals a deeper meaning to me.

If the butterfly transmogrifies
does it turn into a flying fish?

Then it wasn’t true
that God lived on the moon?

What color is the scent
of the blue weeping of violets?

How many weeks are in a day
and how many years in a month?

from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions

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We can only wonder what prompted Pablo Neruda to write this poem. We can take any one of Pablo’s questions and receive them like a Buddhist koan (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment…Wikipedia).

What is your interpretation of these, Pablo’s questions, within this poem? What was his intent as the poet? Is he pondering the inadequacy of logical reasoning in this human existence? Is he tongue-in-cheek, teasing the reader to think outside the box of logic? Is he tickling the mind to go beyond what we perceive as the truth of anything?

And then, why not? Why doesn’t a butterfly become a flying fish? Anything is possible in the realm of imagination. Where can you go if you expand your thinking and become more inclusive of that which seems preposterous? Then, where can you go if you expand your mind to be inclusive of another culture, race or creed, another perspective, a greater universe?

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I’ve had days, like yesterday, that felt like a year in a day. My daughter and her husband have been fighting covid. A family member had a stroke and ended up in ICU. My Aunt Marie, my mother’s youngest and last living sister, died. And I found out about it on Facebook!

How can we translate the nonsensicalness and inconveniences of life into something that makes it less personal and more palatable…or at least not suffer so much over what is inevitable?

Pablo, for every question you ask, I have at least fifty more to toss at your feet…wherever you have landed. Have you, Pablo, turned into a mushroom or are you a planet that we haven’t discovered yet out there in the vast and unknown universe?

Paying Attention

How come we elect leaders who don’t know how to effectively lead? How come we don’t elect leaders who embody the higher values of humanity? Why do these men (as they are mostly men making these big decisions for the whole planet) have the idea that to over-power is real power? Where did the notion that conquest equals power originate? What has lead them to believe that war, a show of physical bravado and military invasion, somehow lends them an air of superiority? As they force the submission of others with less defenses, they assume that they gain respect.

Why we vote for leaders who don’t value human life, planetary health and who disrespect the rights of all is beyond my way of thinking.

I wrote this poem on September 7, 2020 when the world was facing into the unknown of the Covid virus. So much has happened since then. Sometimes, poetry is a way to manage the confusion and emotions that we experience.

Paying Attention
by Christine O’Brien

One daughter thinks that the world
might be coming to an end
The other daughter focuses on
getting her daughter to her 8th grade Zoom classes
I paint a painting of a clouded leopard
indigenous to Southeast Asia
He was believed to be extinct
not yet, not quite, but they’re rapidly
taking away his hardwood forests
Before that, I painted the Spirit Bear
who lives in sector five of the
coastal rainforests on the islands of
British Columbia
His forests were designated to be decimated
by lumber companies
It was proven that this bear is a unique species
neither albino nor mutation
For now the forests are saved
What havoc humans have wrought
who can forgive this?
How are we communicating with one another,
as human beings?
When one says one thing
and the other hears something else
what hope is there?
And then, there’s the debate about wearing a mask
Meeting friends, one wears a mask that slips
below her nose frequently
the other doesn’t wear a mask at all
I wear a mask, pulling it away from my face
occasionally
so my words aren’t muffled
What are we doing?
In 1918, there was no vaccine research
People either died of the virus then or
they developed an immunity
The man who came to sand and stain the deck
has a crush on who he thinks I am
He says that he doesn’t want another woman friend
he wants a girlfriend and his blue eyes pierce my own
Slow down, way down
The lizard I photographed
the one that posed on the boulder beside the lake
I read that their pushups are meant to show
prowess
or to claim territory
the little studs
Native Americans perspective is that life goes
in circles
not linear
I like to think as my sister-in-law suggested
that we are in the continuum
Forget numbering your years
Be in it, this life, this continuum, this unknown
risky place

The Roots of Story

A garden cannot be hurried. It needs watering–daily, in hot, wilting weather like we’re having. Again, the desire to move is surfacing. There aren’t any likely places available at this time. So, I worked in the garden most of the day, planting herbs in the redwood planter that Philip built for me. It is full and beautiful! It is three square tiers angled one above the other giving me thirteen little plots for herbs. It’s a lovely sculpture for the garden. Now that it’s planted, it’s immoveable.

When I work in the garden, my mind meanders. Today I thought about stories. Have you noticed how stories have a way of sticking with us even after they have outworn their usefulness? Stories upon stories, layered, so sticky thick and that we’ve made seamless through the retelling. We think they are necessary, even the ones that are redundant, like the necessity of war in order to keep peace. Such a multitude of stories all woven in upon the other. Throughout time, we’ve created a whole logjam of stories. Was it because we couldn’t stand the wondrous, bare bones truth of a mysterious existence? Is story intended to protect our vulnerable selves? We do seem to crave complexity. We’ve taken a perfectly fine planet earth and twisted and contorted it into a Disneyland of another sort showing how very difficult we can make things given little or no incentive!

Roger Housden, author of Ten Poems to Change Your Life and many other books, tells a story about visiting Iran to gather information for a book he was writing. As he was about to board a plane at the airport in Iran, he was detained by security. Up until that time, Roger had believed a story that as an Englishman in these times, he had an inherent superiority of sorts…that he lead a charmed life and was exempt from harm. Upon being detained by security, that belief was shed as they took his passport, tossed it in the garbage and told him that it was worthless there. He could die and no one would ever know what happened to him. They offered him two choices–he could work with them or spend the next five years in prison. His long-held story fell away and was replaced by the awareness of his own real vulnerability, creating in him a humility and compassion that has remained with him.

In my own life, there has been an ongoing quest. I try to figure life out or, when I can’t, I might latch onto a story that satisfies me momentarily. Someone once called earth “the planet of story.” Stories in flesh and bone, is that what we are? Drop the stories and then, are we flattened like a steam-rolled cartoon character?

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I’m alone tonight, although I called Timothy at the last minute to invite him to watch a movie–a story to escape from thinking about my story. I was about to say that I’m glad he’s not coming over when he called to say, “Yeah, I’d like to watch a movie with you.” No longer lovers, we both state clearly (with a little longing and then definitely not on my part). I guess, I wish he was a platonic friend, a playmate. Can we transform our relationship into a mild flirtation short of temptation?

While outside, the garden stands, persisting through my naivete or ignorance. The garden. Tomorrow I’ll plant some flowers along a fence.

Goddess of the earth, help me to let go of the stories that aren’t helpful so that I can see the path forward clearly.

88 Degrees in the Shade

It’s nearly 2:00 p.m. It’s hot–almost 88 degrees in the shade! I turned the hose upward to rain down upon me a few times. Now, I’m eating a piece of my famous chocolate cake as I write this. I planted two tomato plants and an Anaheim Chile Pepper. I watered everything. I won’t plant the herbs until my friend, Philip, is finished building the three-tiered redwood herb bed for my garden.

Today, it seems, I’m aware of choices–choosing for myself. I chose not to go to improv at Rochelle’s. I chose to go to Mary’s with Polly and friends to write poetry tonight. I chose to walk a wooded path up and down Stellar Way for over an hour. I then came home, grabbed a bite to eat, made phone calls and yes, gardening. Maybe I’ll paint the fence for half-an-hour and then take a bath. I have chosen to dismiss Timothy as my lover. I think that it’s right; however, there’s a big blank space where he once was. I have longings to create home and family. How would that look at this time of my life, I wonder. The garden is my teacher (and life is my teacher).

A deer thundered through the brush when I got too close on my hike. A big, tawny, beautiful, strong, watchful deer. Gentle is the word attributed to deer. I would say they are a powerful form of gentle.

What is the garden teaching me? The soil is volcanic, red, softened slightly with watering and soil enhancers. Weeds grow easiest when the soil has been watered over several days. Is the soil clay or is it only very dry? Why do humans crave family and solitude simultaneously? Who do we live our lives for in solitude? Is it enough to keep a garden and live for oneself? And yes, we need to know how to be alone, yet… I received an invitation to Jana’s, my niece’s, graduation. These special times. These special, dissolving times. Is my life over before I realize why I’m here? What is the secret to this every-dayness? How do we carry on despite the wars that are being waged around the world?

The garden is so lovely in this season, in Spring, lavishing its beauty on me, on Sara the cat and any friendly birds and insects. The garden is welcoming. I’ll continue to plant here until I move somewhere else. It’s not only Timothy I miss, it’s the loneliness of not having a daily someone with whom to interact. Why not Timothy? He’s not partner material. I wanted him to be as I don’t enjoy the search for a mate. However, he’s not the one.

The garden is patient and it trusts that it’ll flower and fruit at the right time. It doesn’t have a mental process. It takes in nurturance and preens in the sun and waits for what’s next.

A Day of Flow

A day of flow
© by Christine O’Brien

Her face
finely chiseled ivory
a porcelain rose stashed
above her right ear
hair woven into braids and curls
piled high
tattoos traced her arms
and any bare skin
her clothes were a draped rainbow
soft and flowing
her expression
lost in another time and place
her fingers pressed the keys of the accordion
while she pumped the bellows
gracefully
the soft
insistent melancholic music
forcing its way into the heart’s land
I placed a dollar in the accordion case
and she barely nodded
as I said
“Beautiful” and
“Thank you” 

I walked into the park
the loud tones of a man’s voice
rose over all other sounds
as he swore
and beat on another man
curled fetally on the ground
his arms and hands
sheltering his head
as a circle of young men
gathered
and held back all at once
I hurried two curious young girls
along the path
catching them up
to their mother
who finally said
“They didn’t need to see that”

I found the park bench
in the shade by the duck pond
on this over-heated day
I marked the rentals
out of habit and hope
and then watched
the mother duck
herding her nine ducklings
“Here, no here, no there,
keep up!”
the fluffy-headed
wide-eyed ducklings
“Yes, mother, oh yes mother, oh!”
they do respond to every barked order
survival is a serious business
and this duck pond
for better or for worse
is their home

The old woman–
I heard someone say
“She’s part Cherokee”
she weaves baskets out of pine needles
her old fingers
such fine work
and she’s proud
her daughter says
“She only learned two years ago
She outdid her teacher
it’s in her cells
this knowing how to weave baskets
“Teach a class?”  I ask
she nods “$50.00 a person”
I want to learn
it’s obvious she knows how to live
a fulfilled life
teach me that
please
she touches my arm
like a touch
can impart such knowledge
her eyes show neither humble senility
nor prideful superiority
a quiet wisdom emanates
“Yes, teach me soon.”
while her daughter, Leona
files her own fingernails
as we wait
in the hair salon

The pianist
in the ice cream parlor
trying to sell me
his latest cd
and I tell him
“I really just came in
for an ice cream.”
I buy a cd
finally
for two thirds of the price,”
he emphasizes
a good salesman

This day
which held all a day could hold
all that life could hold
beauty
violence
connection
creativity–
beauty prevailed

PAUSE

Good Morning! Another beautiful morning when I pause to notice. The pause to notice can be the difference between a good day or a crunched, not-so-good day.

I’ve wasted a lot of time over the course of my life with worry, strife and pressure to conform. While all the time, my ever-patient soul stands on the sidelines waiting for me to pause, acknowledge it and move in the direction that I need to go next. It’s no longer about waiting for a better time or set of circumstances. The soul stands there, hands on hips, frown on its face, tapping its foot impatiently (not literally), reminding me that time is short and I need to get on with it.

“With what exactly?” I inquire. “The life you are here to live!” of course.

There have been times that I wanted to divorce myself. Because…I’m too sensitive, It’s too difficult, I’m afraid, I don’t have what it takes, I’m not talented enough, I haven’t had formal training, I’m not focused. This sweet and familiar litany of excuses.

Life is short and I want to cram everything in which becomes another distraction from what I’m here to do at this time in my life. I can’t remake the less-than-perfect-past. I’d like to set a strong boundary with that! Try as I might, it’s not re-makeable. “Have I learned from it?” is the only question worth asking. Can I move forward now?

Morning Pages

Turning towards this singular day is where the power lies. The morning pages is an exercise that author Julia Cameron named. I’ve mentioned this process in earlier blogs. It’s a sort of “blurting” on the blank page. This helps to clear the stage of yesterday’s stuff and make room for what’s here and now. I don’t always pause in the morning to write the morning pages. I find that when I do, it’s helpful…like removing a clog from a stopped up drain, things flow better.

Apart from pausing to write the morning pages, I do recommend pauses throughout the day. We get on our personal treadmill, driven by our to-to-list. It can be merciless! That’s when I realize I’m enjoying life less. I choose pausing as a practice, a conscious choice to stop and notice how I’m feeling, where I’m at, who I’m with, what I’m doing in this moment. Yes, even and especially our mundane tasks invite us to pause. As I write this, I notice the pen moving across the page–yes, I write with a pen on paper versus tapping at my computer keyboard (that comes later). I watch these words flow across this lined page. I look up and out the sliding glass door and beyond the deck to the Eddies capped with snow. A pause to notice reminds me what is right with the world.

Taking a Risk

“Risk nothing and you risk everything.”

Erica Jong

I came upon this piece of writing from a Creative Writing class that I took a few years ago. It posed the question, “What are you risking?”
“What would life be like if you risked doing those things you have put off doing, but deeply desire to experience?”

With the advent of Covid 19, so much has changed. These days, we risk by going into a market to buy our groceries. This was written in 2009 when my parents were in a care home together.

The word “risk” has been at the forefront of my mind of late. I watch my parents at their present stage of life–ages 89 and 92. What’s done is done for them with little chance of autonomous change. The next risk they will take is their leap into the hereafter. I’m here now and I’ve felt overly cautious, limited and stuck for awhile. I feel a dissatisfaction which ranges from vague to imperative. I’m not sure what the risk is that I need to take. I do know that it’s time for a shift. Is it a stronger commitment to writing and getting published? Perhaps–why not devote one year to that effort and see where it goes?

I think that if I began taking risks, I might feel more self-fulfilled. Happier, less frustrated. Risk involves a certain daring. I’m a Leo, a fire sign, and this has been somewhat dormant in me. It’d be nice to allow the part of me that loves center stage, fun, playfulness to express herself. I’d travel some and try myself out in new situations. I’d speak my mind more. Be ridiculous at times. Ask the questions that I’m curious about of my diminishing parents. Not hold back affection.

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As life goes, I didn’t publish a book or devote a year to writing. My parents continued to decline over the next two years and they required a lot of attention from the family. They died six months apart. Their departure was followed by a period of grief. I documented their final years. I rarely ever stop writing. Most of the time, writing is within my comfort zone. Except that I did initiate writing this blog about three years ago and that has felt risky at times. I took a big risk when I interviewed a man, over a period of three months, about the male perspective in relation to women. Formerly, he had been an abusive male. I also signed up for a theater group and wrote several scripts which they performed. That was definitely outside of my comfort zone. In 2014, I started drawing and painting. This was something I never believed I could do! So I guess I could call that a risk. Since then, I’ve had two art exhibits and yes, I risked and leapt on both occasions. With the first one, I was so nervous that I got laryngitis and couldn’t speak to the visitors to the exhibit (yet, I showed up!).

Today, I have redefined what risk means to me personally and how it applies to what I desire. If my desire is to be a whole person and live from that wholeness, then what is the risk involved to live this way? I think it involves confronting fears and stuck places as they arise. I also think it’s about recognizing that I have taken many risks over the course of my life and I only recognize them as such in retrospect. Should I chart them on a piece of paper to remind myself, to honor that I don’t always hide under a rock? Covid time hasn’t supported some of the things I’d like to explore.

Recently, I was listening to an interview on Sounds True with author, James Hollis. He was ninety years old at the time of this interview and he passed away shortly thereafter. The thing he said that struck me was that each stage of life has its task. That’s up to you and me to figure out–what is the task for me at this stage and within the circumstances of my life? And once you have named it, take the risk and pursue it. I think that’s good advice.

In Covid time and at the stage of life you are in, what does taking a risk look like to you?

The Moon

Being a woman who seeks or quests, I wonder about many things as I go through this life. This year, I’m following a process with the moon. The Moon is My Calendar with April McMurtry is a study of the monthly journey of the moon across the sky and the influence it has on one’s life. It emphasizes a woman’s cycles as she embraces the cycles of the moon. Throughout history, humans have invented various calendars. The moon as a calendar was used long before the Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar system. I am not going to chart the history of the various calendars that societies have created. What I am wondering about is my own relationship with the moon.

I remember, years ago, looking at the moon on one of those rare clear evenings in San Francisco. I was missing my sister who had moved to Hawaii. I remember thinking that “we all share the same moon.” With that realization, I felt a connection to her through seeing the same moon.

In 1995, I had a some big challenges and a moon fascination it seems. In recounting a journal passage:

If the moon could talk to me, what would she say?
“I love you” would be her first words. ” My wisdom is your wisdom. I dwell within you as the light even in the midst of the dark. I will never fail you. No need to fear. I am constant as the sea. We work together harmoniously. There is a good and true purpose for you, for me. I am a reminder that all is right. Don’t look at the smallness; see the vastness, the bigger picture–it’s all around you and within. Within of itself is too narrow–consider the whole, be inclusive. Cultivate an awareness of me–study me; work with me; play with me. Then observe us together as a team. Let me be your light through all of the dark nights. Remember even when brother sun shines, I’m with you. Even then. Rest now.

1995 Journal

I must have needed her, the qualities of the moon then. Her mystery, her darkness and her illumination. Her retreat and her full expression. I must need her again today. The dreamy state that she creates as she journeys through her cycles. And yet, the grounded quality as I unite with her in her waxing and waning. In our culture, we are steeped in artificial stimulus–bright lights, big cities, eternal television and media influences. There is the consumer mindset–I need more to be happy. The moon helps one to see what is necessary in the present time. She returns us to the cycles of initiation, gestation, fruition; finally, retreat and diminishment. Then we begin again and with each new cycle there is the opportunity to deepen our connections to ourselves and all that is.

As I write this blog, the moon is a waxing quarter moon in the sign of Taurus. As the door opens wider for creativity, we find that the moon is exalted in Taurus. “Astrologers describe the Moon as “exalted” in Taurus, which means the qualities of fecundity, nurturing, sustenance and fertility are most easily expressed.” In my life, I see fecundity as many new ideas coming my way…and the ability to nurture some of them into being while caring for myself. Isn’t that most important for any one of us? We care deeply for ourselves so that we can birth, sustain and share our gifts as we move more fully into the wholeness of our being.

Moon blessings to you.

Put the Kettle On

This snowy morning, I rise and one of the first things that I do is to put the kettle on. I had the fleeting thought that people throughout time and in present time likely do the same thing. Whether it’s placed on an electric or gas burner, on a campfire, on a woodstove or whichever, I’m sharing a tradition that people have done ever since the discovery of fire!

“Honey, put the kettle on.” Sometimes that translates to a coffee maker or an electric teapot. However, it signifies a ritual that we share and understand cross-culturally and around the globe. It’s a unifying ritual.

In the morning, this morning, I take my cup of tea and return to bed, placing the teacup on the nightstand beside the bed. I place my notepad on the pillow on my lap. I take a smooth writing gel pen and I write. I write to clear a space. I write freely anything that comes to mind, the pen to the page. Expressing something in this way moves stuck energy. It doesn’t involve a thought process. This and my morning cup of tea are helpful and healthy morning rituals.

Any feelings that rise, I give them recognition as Rumi suggests in one of his poems, The Guest House.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
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This morning, I feel a low-grade anger and wonder if anyone else wakes up with this feeling. I don’t want to analyze it, only recognize that it’s there. Gently. With my pen, I catch the thread of feelings, the inner unrest and pen them to this paper. The paper has become the container over the years for that which puzzles, troubles or tantalizes me. The paper–the scads of journals collected over the years, my personal texts–the sacred texts that chronicle this woman’s inner and outer pilgrimage. There is a certain irony…I want to write a book. These cumbersome and unwieldy journals tell my story. It has been harrowing, wending, winding, convoluted, gone forwards, backwards and sideways, inward, outward and upside down.

My confidantes, these journals when none others can be so present and non-judging. Gratitude for writing, for the journal and for today.
So, that is sometimes the way I begin my day. I do love beginnings.

I wished the mailman a Happy New Year yesterday.
He said “We’ll see.”
I said “I guess that we will.”
He answered: “Let’s see what unfolds.”
I agreed…”and then flow with it.”

So happy new year to my readers. May your new year unfold in a loving way. May you find the rituals that support your being. And may we discover more unifying rituals across the earth.