1.23.2015

this is a postlude: New Geometries

(originally posted on the New Geometries blog)

In 1991, a twenty-something Swiss man named Hans Ulrich Obrist hosted his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. Over the course of three months, thirty people visited. In a New Yorker profile of the now mega-curator, D.T. Max writes, “the idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special.”

Later, Obrist went on to curate and install art shows in other unusual locations, including a country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a hotel restaurant in the Swiss Mountains, a hotel room in Paris, where nine artists created clothes for the closet, and finally, in and around the Zurich sewers, featuring art about lavatories and digestion.

Though this particular segment of Obrist’s biography was unknown to me when I conceived New Geometries, the idea of his first show—to make ordinary spaces of human life special—was certainly one of mine as well. And many of Obrist’s convictions and passions resonate with me: his view of curatorial work as “junction-making between objects, between people, between people and objects;” his interest in unfinished and incomplete work; his fondness for interactivity, participation, and ephemeral aesthetics. Max writes: “The art [Obrist] is most passionate about doesn’t hang on walls and often doesn’t have a permanent emanation. It can take the form of a dance or a game or a science experiment, and often leaves nothing behind but memories and an exhibition catalogue.”


The three-hour stretch of the New Geometries show that I hosted and curated on Saturday night was a frenzy: in total, over 150 people passed through. At one point, there were over 70 people in my apartment, and we had a line going out the door. Friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers mingled in one room. The work of twenty artists, of all different mediums and forms, was on display, including: a multi-colored quilt, a yarn drawing on canvas, photographs of Devil’s Gulch in Montara, a three-dimensional painted sculpture in glowing neon green and yellow. A performance artist danced in a corner near the upstairs bathroom, scattering dirt, fire, and water on the hardwood floor. Food installations entranced and delighted show-goers: kimchi waffles, post-modern lunchables, sugar cookie rounds amidst hundreds of tea light candles, and do-it-yourself geodesic grape structures. A live terrarium in a half-dome provided an immersive escape into a wild environment of mosses, leaves, and bark.

At 9 PM that night, after all the candles were extinguished and the grape structures dissembled, after what was left of the food was swept into the garbage and guests had trickled out, after I had used up every last bit of energy in conversation—I wanted only silence and experienced only exhaustion. That night, despite gnawing hunger pangs, I was too tired to chew any food, and drank Nyquil to fall asleep. Real talk.




Now a week later, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience. Weeks of preparation, work, installation, and collaboration—What did I hope would come of it all?

First, I hoped for CONNECTION—connections between artists, connections that would lead to creative opportunities, connections between people who otherwise would not find themselves in the same room. This happened! Even in a small city like San Francisco, there are so many disparate worlds. and often the gaps between those worlds are far and wide. They remain unbridged without effort, and so they go on, in their separate ways, ignorant of each other. I want to change this. Above all, I believe physical proximity fosters meaningful relationships that can create positive, social change for a fragmented community. I am passionate about an economy that supports and sustains creative work while bridging socio-economic differences. I hope that connections with artists and their art would be a first step for people to make both emotional and financial investments in creative work.

Second, INSPIRATION. One of the most gratifying emails I received after the show said this: “I get down on SF more often than I care to admit, but last night reminded me of why this city has so much to offer—both artistically and spiritually.” The in-person experience of art is strikingly different from disembodied encounters with it online or on Instagram, but in the constant stream of productivity we’re tethered to (especially here in San Francisco), seeking out art can be difficult. By providing a novel artistic experience that was at once intimate and accessible, I hoped that people would see that art can be awakening, challenging, and worth thinking about. In his book No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton writes that in response to art, “one finds in himself totally new capacities for thought and vision and moral action . . . his very response makes him better and different. He is conscious of a new life and new powers, and it is not strange that he should proceed to develop them." This is significant!

Third, CONTINUATION. My hope is that New Geometries is only the beginning. In the introduction to Obrist’s book do it, a compendium of artistic instructions from over 100 artists, he writes: “Do It rejects the notion of the original in favor of an open-ended conception of the creation of the work . . . Unlike the theater, Do It has neither beginning nor end. No two versions of Do It instructions are ever identical when carried out. Via the list of instructions, the specific profane daily environment flows into the exhibition space rendering porous the limits dividing interior and exterior space . . . Each exhibition is yet another truth.”

The intention of Do It is, in part to inspire a never-ending chain reaction in which artists continue to create work based on the artistic instructions given to them. I too hope that New Geometries would spark a chain reaction—that in seeing the possibilities of creative, communal gatherings, in knowing that, even on a small scale, art in its many forms can be dynamic, fluid, responsive, non-institutional, and transcendent, others would feel compelled to host art shows in their own homes or embark on spontaneous, artistic endeavors.

My point is this: anyone can put on a show like New Geometries. You just have to DO IT.

1.15.2015

"If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature—and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution— is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species."
-Joseph Brodsky

"Why would anyone write a poem in this wrecked world? And really, how could they? Massive doubt, failed love, shitty thoughts, empty spirit, a dead history compelling a transfixed vision, these are devastations that might overwhelm and silence anyone; and silence, for a poet, is a prison. It's where the descent hits bottom, it's where the poet either faces or does not face all the risks of failed comprehension."

"Answers are as transient and foolish as we are, and poets generally aren't in the solution business. In fact, if you're a poet and you're going to pose questions, they'd better approach the unanswerable. Why? Is it that only questions without answers are worth asking? Is it that the muse needs courting and doesn't usually go with know-it-alls and wise guys? Is it that questions salt and preserve life, keeping the mystery fresh?"

"If rock bottom, if total bust for a poet is silence, then the questions must be unanswerable, without remedy, to provoke the central event, which is language. Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning, and if language is the main draw in poetry, silence is the occasion for it, the ground of renewal. Questions precede speech; they're language tensely coiled, expectant."

"How can one write poetry after Auschwitz?"
-critic Theodor Adorno

"And how can one eat lunch?"
-poet Mark Strand


All of the above is excerpted from Charles D'Ambrosio's fantastic explication of Richard Hugo's poem, "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," which was published in his collection of essays, Loitering. Highly recommended.

1.03.2015

this is a new year's letter

Happy 2015!


I sent out this New Year's letter to friends and family a couple days ago. Writing an annual letter has become a decade-long tradition, and it continues with this one. Enjoy.


---

Dear friends and family,


I am sitting on the floor of a friend’s one-room cabin in Mendocino with a gash on my right knee. It’s a red ridge with blue, bruised edges—nature’s brand upon my body, proof that earlier today, when we were hiking through Russian Gulch, we went off the trail and found ourselves on the wrong side of the river in a fern canyon. There were fallen trees all around us, and we kept climbing over them, swinging our legs over their slippery, fungi-speckled trunks. We were heedless, determined to make it through the forest on a mere semblance of a trail with treacherous and muddy, leaf-swamped ledges. Losing ourselves in the wilderness was not a loss; rather, the experience was intimate and serendipitous, as we embedded ourselves deeply into the forest folds.

Somewhere along the way, a sharp nub of a branch scraped me badly and dug into my skin—I was careless, but sufficiently carefree. And no matter, you can’t blame nature for your pain when you collide with it, or when, like a storm, it heaves itself upon you. You cannot question the logic of the seasons, or coerce the rain into watering the earth. These are matters of fact, the mysterious ways of nature to which we ascribe beauty (a sunset) or catastrophe (an earthquake) on our own terms. The same waves that collapse boats also thrill surfers. When a tree falls, the earth grows over it, and life flourishes on it and through it and within the hollow cavern of its trunk. The sun that brings life also withers, also burns up.

This past year contained so much grief—that is what I remember most clearly about 2014, despite its many moments of shimmering joy, because tragedy echoes loud and long. Its afflictions spread surely because grief has no bounds, and it permeates, without losing its intensity, in the spaces where affinities are deep and bonds are strong—where there is love and empathy. Within community, grief is amplified, but healing is also easier. Community makes grief less terrible to bear because no emotion is possessed in solitude; true community refuses to alienate.

But still—as family members fell sick, as friends were taken away, as loved ones passed, as relationships were broken, as bigotry begot slaughter, as death followed and haunted us, as tragedy befell and uprooted us—, we asked, How could this be? How does the world rage on this way? How do we live in this darkness? I am reminded of a sorrow-filled scene in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in which 11-year-old Cal Trask is praying and crying in his bedroom: “Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be,” he says. In agony and desperation, he pleads to God, I think, not only because he sees darkness and evil in himself, but also because he sees in the world what he sees in himself, and he hates what he sees. The brokenness in him is the brokenness around him. Where is the light in all this?

I’ve tried to make sense of these passings. At first, it seemed as if understanding the logic of tragedy would offer some consolation, but when I looked for logic, I only found pain. Among the few consolations I find to be true—the ones that don’t diminish or write off sorrow—, one is in nature herself, which helps me to see beyond the immediate without dismissing the present. These systems, cycles, and phenomena that we witness in the natural world—so intricately wrought, nuanced, and complex—are in fact, in all things—they must be! Surely our human lives, so short and fleeting, are mysteries we cannot solve, mysteries that abide, mysteries by which we must abide. Mortality, however, reveals itself: in our freedom, as well as in our limits. Perhaps our helplessness is revelatory.

In the hidden gulches and throngs of mountain trees, let me not forget I am so small, walking among giants! Let me remember how grand and majestic this universe is, hidden and revealed according to God’s principles. If light can cast itself differently everyday, if the ashes of wildfire can nourish the soil, then there must be some hope of renewal to cling to. “Salvation might ache before it heals,” wrote Leslie Jamison. There is more here than what my eyes can see, rhythms that I still cannot hear. Because there is more than I can take in and understand, disavowing resolution can be a relief. Letting go of my compulsion to know and understand requires humility and willingness. The all-embracing arms of nature demand that we let go of all that is petty and unimportant. As such, every hike, every seaside sojourn, and every forest wander has felt like a sigh. Every rain and every arrival at a mountain peak has been a reminder of hope, that there is a better world to come. The world whispers, Forget not my beauty, forget not God’s grace, in spite of it all.

Nature is sorrow. Even when it relieves sorrow, nature does not transfigure sorrow the way grace, I think, transfigures all things, all people. I have seen grace in practice most clearly in my community this year, a community of friends—of brothers and sisters, really—that bestows grace upon one another. In 2014, I found a rootedness in San Francisco, which means that for the first time in my life, I feel the possibility of longevity in a place. Early in the year, I moved from one side of the Mission District to another, and now I live around the corner from four of my best friends. This has been a strange and surreal blessing. We share so much, both tangible and intangible; we possess in common; we have committed our lives to one another.

The greatest joy this year, by far, amidst all the sorrow, has been deepening these friendships: rejoicing and mourning together, seeking to understand who we are in relation to each other, and inviting others to partake in our sweet communion. We feasted on tres leches cake, we made granola, we cried so much, we planted fava beans, we hiked, we wrote letters, we climbed Bernal Heights, we collaborated on art projects, we went succulent-hunting, we took nightly strolls—every minute of all this strengthened our ability to love one another, especially when sorrow descended upon us.

To be rooted in a place, I have learned, is to be rooted in its people. It is community that grafts together the broken branches. Regarding grafting scions onto trees, I read: “When roots make physical contact with each other, they often grow together.” In what I have seen among my community this year, I believe this to be true.

In 2014, I quit my steady tech job. I traded a sheltered and bounded office life for the possibility of more meaningful work. No more than a month after I left, the founders of Edition Local—merely an idea then—found me, and I began writing the stories of craftspeople and artists living in West Marin, which was a serendipitous privilege. If my own community of friends helped to plant my roots in San Francisco, then learning the history of these towns, surveying the geography of hope in these landscapes, and discovering the narratives of the people who have lived here for decades has surely fortified and anchored those roots, stirring in me a deep sense of belonging and sensitivity to the land. These words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s diary resonate: “I feel that I am on the way to become an intimate of everything that beauty preaches; that I am no longer a mere listener who receives its revelations, that I am becoming more and more … someone who heightens their answers and confessions with discerning questions.”

Yet despite the feeling of rootedness in San Francisco, I am still wandering, as I think we—pilgrims on this earth—are always doing. Quitting my job was an explicit point of departure, but I think, whether physically or metaphysically, we are departing and arriving everyday. In these comings and goings, we can choose not to be complacent; we can choose how we want to live, by which principles we will conform our lives, instead of conforming to the cultural narratives and ideals that have been thrust upon us. We can see beyond the illusion of parameters. We do not need to know where we are going, but we can choose how we will walk.

Even without a destination, wandering is not without a sense of direction, for you can orient yourself around what is good and true and constant. Stephen Prothero suggests that wandering is not exile, but rather an opportunity that fosters new ideas and creative insights. The essence of wandering, he says, is “moving without destination into the unknown and opening yourself in the process to surprises.” No matter how daunting and unknown, the wilderness is rich in beauty and hidden glories; do not dismiss the possibility of miracles. Know this: you do not have to travel the world to see it. It is right here before your eyes. You only have to commit to seeking, and surely you will find. You will find what John Haines calls, the “hidden [places] obscured by what we have built upon it … Whenever we penetrate the surface of the life around us that place and its spirit can be found.” So go on, seek and find. Know and unknow. Root and uproot yourself. The new year lies ahead, and in its wake, I am hopeful. Happy 2015.

My friends, I hope to continue to tell the stories of where I pass through and how I walk. I started an email newsletter this year, and I continue to write on my blog. I would love to hear from you. Thank you for listening, thank you for reading, thank you for responding.

I leave you with this line from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, one of my favorite novels of 2014:
“So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”


With love,
Natalie

12.20.2014

this is the rain that came as grace

I'll dig in,

into my days, having come here to live, not to visit. Grey is the price 

of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen.

-Denise Levertov


"You're as stubborn as I am!" yelled a woman in an electric blue rain jacket, coming down the trail. We laughed and replied, "We are!" We thought we would be the only ones in Sutro Forest this morning, and for the most part, we were, except for this one woman, whose spirit (and resolve) was not unlike ours. We had parked the car and walked up just a few steps when we encountered the first demarcation of caution tape, wound haphazardly around two trees. "CAUTION. DO NOT ENTER" read the tape, blocking off the path, weakly urging you to turn around. Crys and I looked at each other, shrugged, and kept going without any debate, holding up the caution tape for one another as we slid underneath and into the forest. The caution was lost on us, mainly because we assumed that what might be a slippery inconvenience for most would be a private haven for us. And we're stubborn. I was adamant about hiking this morning, rain or shine, so we crossed at least three more of these barriers. At one point Crys peeled a slimy wet sheet of paper off my shoulder that said "Area closed. Do not enter." I must have swiped it as I ducked beneath the tape. We laughed and kept going.

The ground was muddy of course, reddish like terracotta. The logs were smooth and slick, cylinders perfectly shaped like musket barrels, rounded and dark and shiny. Not too far from the trailhead, a fallen tree lay, swathed in vine branches that hugged the trunk like a hundred serpentine limbs. The eucalyptus, we assumed, had been knocked over by the wind from the storm last week, whose intensity of the wind and water shook up the earth and the trees, compensating, like a long-lost lover, for its absence this year. Extreme begets extreme. The fallen trunk had split open, and now soggy with rainwater, the innards of the bark glowed a pale orange. From faraway, we could smell it. Crys bent down for a deeper whiff. "It smells like a candle," she said. Funny isn't it, how we try to bring wilderness into our homes instead of going out to it. The replica becomes the first point of contact, our access to the original: we first experience, if it can be called that at all, nature in a convenient, bottled and condensed form, as a reminiscence, a fragment, a purified remnant. Less wild, more domestic.



Sutro Forest, is of course, merely a remnant, a hundred-year-old, 80-acre forest first planted by Adolf Sutro, the remainder of the 1100 acres of eucalyptus trees that used to cover the western side of the city. Sutro Forest is strange and magical because of its location, an island of wilderness surrounded by an ocean of urbanity: asphalt, Victorian houses, cars parked parallel, and perpendicular streets around its perimeter, no buffer, really, between the wilderness and the city. But wander beyond the houses and up into the hills, and you will find yourself wandering not lonely as a cloud, but wandering through a cloud, in the majestic canopy of fog that hangs over the entire hill, the midair suspension of water droplets that enshrouds San Francisco even in the summer months, the dense thicket of vapor compacted into the spaces between trees, exhaling its breath through every turn of the city.

That Sutro Forest rests in the city's fog belt, wrapped up in a low-level cloud, creates a lush ecosystem that fosters abundant understory growth: mosses, lichens, ivy everywhere, Himalayan blackberry bushes, funguses growing like flecks of dandruff on the bare wet logs. Cloud forests, of which Sutro is one of the very few in the world, are also called "elfin forests," which, in a very impressionistic way, makes sense: the brush is so electrifyingly green, so layered with its histories of secrets, its dark crevices, its burrows, its passageways; there must be mystical creatures hiding out here somewhere.

A cloud forest is a self-sustaining ecosystem, a micro-climate whose life depends on its own watershed: the tree leaves first absorb moisture from the fog, then drip fog condensation down onto the ground, watering the plants and life below it. As you walk through Sutro forest, you are traversing multiple spheres, stratified into layers. The growth at your feet, new grasses and ivies, has just sprung up from the rain, among lithe branches and prehistoric ferns, dark and waxy. This field of green recalls a cushy, verdant Irish knoll; it is the color of life, the color of a blessed land, the color of sufficiency. Beyond the path on which you tread, you can hardly see any ground, for green overflows. It is as if the forest has finally awakened, and it awakens you with its abundant life. Your eyes move upward along the rigid trunks of the eucalyptus trees, and now you are in the clouds, which keep you here, rooted in this place. There is too much to see, and yet, the fog precludes your seeing beyond the forest. The fog is its own presence, not a disappearance of the things beyond it. This is a good thing because the forest contains itself, and it contains you in it. It holds all your attention today.


Today it is raining, streams from the sky creating small streams on the ground. Everyone is hidden away inside their homes, but we have chosen the forest as our hiding place. We have chosen to dwell here this morning. In the city, the rain is made out to be an inconvenience, a hindrance, a barrier between you and the next place you need to go or the errand you need to run. But for a farmer or a gardener, rain is life, as it has been forever, a cleansing of the earth as well as a revival.

The other night, Crys, expressing her gratitude for the rain, said, "Our food comes from the earth, and the earth needs rain to live. So rain is life. We can't exist without it." This is the truth spoken by a woman who spends her mornings kneeling in the dirt, sifting out rocks and fallen fruit so that the soil is rich and pure, ready for new seeds. It would help us all to listen to those who move with the earth, who tend to its wildness. It would, perhaps, be salve to our wounds, to be more attentive to the life that springs from ground and reaches up into the fog, for in it, we see light and grace. We would know so surely that rain is, in fact, a way of grace, a gift that precedes our existence, and a gift upon which our existence depends. And if we understood that it was grace being poured down upon us, we would dance expectantly, pleading for rain, and dance again when it came. For when it rains, the ground, the flora, the eucalyptus trees, the mushrooms, and the grasses are as they should be, joyful, exuberant, teeming with life. Growing upward, shooting sprouts, revealing new leaves. We, walking through Sutro Forest on this rainy day, rejoiced with the rain, celebrated the way it resuscitates, resurrects, revives. Among us there was no silence, though we did not speak or clamor; life, even what was invisible, even what we could not see or grasp or understand, was singing a hymn, saying over and over again, amazing grace, how sweet the sound.


The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.  
-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead 



12.16.2014

this is the back of the world

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

In high school, after we got our drivers' licenses and could finally, with the obsessive exercise of newfound freedom that defines adolescence, roam the Bay Area beyond our parents' houses, we used to go this secret spot we called "the back of the world," a lookout in San Carlos that opened up into a spectacular view of the entire Bay Area. The entrance to the lookout was unassuming: merely a passageway between two houses in a very average-looking suburban neighborhood, albeit, a little higher up in the hills than most. But you had to know where to look to find the back of the world. After someone took you once (and it was, like any local spot, shared through word of mouth and random late-night visits), you made sure to remember how to get there and what the houses on either side of it looked like, and then, when you wanted to impress someone, or stay out past curfew, you'd go, re-discovering it, again and again. For its beauty and its mystery, it never got old.

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

The back of the world. We found another little corner of it in Geoff Evans' Bolinas backyard this past Saturday, where I celebrated my birthday with a gathering of friends, a crab boil, a bonfire, and a whole lot of food spread across (Geoff's hand-built) 32-foot-long table (the wood was found swept up on the shores below). I wanted my friends to experience the Bolinas that I have gotten to know over the past few months, the protective and somewhat mysterious little coastal town with its shark-infested waters and artsy denizens. You only get a first impression once, that overwhelming deluge of sensation in which you're taking in so many new sights and smells and sounds, not separately, most of the time, but as a superabundant stream, and you're seeing the glacial tip of a place, not yet understanding its full spirit, or essence. Even the tip of a glacier, when you see it for the first time, is so magnificent and extraordinary and incomprehensible (Where did it come from? How did it get there?) that there is enough to take in for now. Plumbing the depths will come later.

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

The back of the world. This implies a place hidden beyond. You must find it; it is not in the path of tourists and dabblers. It is not public; it does not make itself known. The front is easy to see; the back is somewhere else. The back is intimate and familiar once you arrive, tucked away from the noise and buzz of swarm out there. It was serendipity, then, a privilege really, to gather in a backyard, a private and personal corner of the world whose view of the Bolinas Lagoon, where it siphons into the Pacific Ocean. has been passed through generations; to hide away together for an afternoon; to be among friends, instead of a crowd of strangers; to be in someone's home, but still feel uncontained, free; to eat the food our hands had made, off a table and among ceramics and vases created by Geoff; to see out into the wild, where the infinite tides move in and out, and the strands of light, the first sun after days of rain and storm are purer and stronger, full of spirit like freshly cut rope, more incandescent than before. Re-emergence demands glory, after all.

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil


Thanks friends for celebrating with me. Audrey, Evan, Jaron, Paige, Janette, Viv, Phil, Jared, Nnena, Channing, Andrew, Andrew, Justin, Emily, Jess, JJ, Josh, Jackie, Jacob, Matt, Carlos, Steven, Zack, Roxi, Ryan, Shannon, Sam, MM.

Thanks Ben, for orchestrating the crab boil. You are the man all men strive to be.

Thanks Geoff, for your generosity and kindness, for your artistry, which was woven through every crevice of your house and backyard. You inspire and bless all of us.

Thanks JD, Rob, Crystal, Jia Min, Jonathan, for your extra culinary and emotional support. You are the best friends a lady could ask for.

12/13 Bobo Birthday Boil