Author Archives: Melanie

Hello, owl?

This morning as I was waking up and performing my morning ablutions, I noticed an unusual mass in the birch tree outside the back of our house. It was still pretty dark, barely dawn. The shape hunkered on the branch, this was no graceful perch. Yet there was a delicacy that indicated it was either a hawk or owl or some other bird of prey. I went to get the binoculars, hoping it would not move. My reward–to see that indeed it was an owl, most likely a barred owl.

These kinds of sightings always feel like omens to me. Owls are linked to witches, deception, darkness and trickery, but also wisdom, truth and change. The owl’s eyes as seen through the binoculars looked kindly at me. What came to mind was the quiet love of an animal friend, coupled with the strength of a bird of prey.

Why owl, why? Four-color reduction linoleum print.

Why owl, why? Four-color reduction linoleum print.

I made a print about two encounters with an owl a couple of years ago–a memory that still stays with me. You can read about it more here and here.  Coincidentally this image is going to be appearing on a billboard in Berkshire County any day now as part of Pittsfield’s annual 10×10 festival’s 10 Spot exhibit. It will also be on view at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, MA, beginning February 6th, with an official opening on February 12th. I do hope you get to see it.

20 years ago I became a Peace Corps Volunteer

On January 3, 1995, I embarked upon “the toughest job I would ever love,” as I left the United States to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. We joked about it really being the “beach corps,” but truly, those three years of my life marked me in many ways. I highly recommend the Peace Corps to anyone of any age. It’s never too late or too early to dive into it. I’m sure it’s very different now that email and internet connect us so quickly–yet whenever one jumps into living in a different culture, change of perspective happens, even if on a tiny scale. PeaceCorps

 

What I didn’t know then, is that I was also beginning a practice that I continue today, my daily documentation in my Visual Diary. You can see me working on the second year of that practice in the above top right picture.

The bottom left I am pictured with Bridges, the St. Kitts Peace Corps director on July 4, 1996 discussing something very serious. The other pics are me with some of my students, including when we made a float for carnival one year, bottom left.

photo 2I celebrated this monumental beginning this week by meeting up with one of my dear friends from that time. There’s something about being on a 65-square mile rock in the middle of the Caribbean that keeps you together even years after the occasion. That, for sure, is one of the best parts of being a volunteer–the friends and the relationships that you develop during your experience.

Sometimes you need a pep talk

And the person who needs to give it to you is yourself. It could be for a number of reasons. Enter middle-age and you might be juggling a couple of things, some big, some small.

I needed such a pep talk today. So I made myself list the things that I have come to believe, and this list is so good it goes to eleven. In no particular order:

1. The past prepares us for the future. We can draw on our past in many ways. Try not to reinvent the wheel. If you are going through something, chances are good there is something in your past that has helped prepare you to handle this next challenge. Use what you learned the first time around.

2. Trust, or make your own luck. Future success and opportunities don’t just happen. You have to do your part through hard work, perseverance, and determination. And then you just have to trust that it’s going to go as it should. (Which may not be what you want.)

3. Be willing to revise/change. Rarely is the writing, the art, the whatever perfect at the first go. You must be willing to revise. Sometimes the suggestions for revision were not solicited, but you must still consider them. This can suck, and be quite annoying. But if you can sit with the discomfort, the work or whatever is usually much better.

4. The kingdom of God is within you. You decide every single day: do you live in heaven or hell? They are both here on earth in your choices and your attitude. You decide.

5. This too shall pass. You can endure. In the big scheme of your life, this is just a moment in time.

6. Avoid useless anxiety. Avoid it, it’s useless. Do whatever you must to snap out of it.

7. Forgive (yourself). You make decisions as best you can, and sometimes they could have been better. You hurt others, you hurt yourself. You must forgive, always.

8. Never underestimate the power of the breath. You have this power at every single moment of every single day. Use it. Take yourself to that mat, that cushion, that place of calm and quiet, even if you are on a subway. All you have to do is focus on the breath.

9. Exercise, and if that fails, go for a walk. 

10. Sleep. You know this is your best medicine, maybe even better than exercise.

11. Be your own best friend. Treat yourself, even if it’s two extra minutes in the hot shower before work, but better if you can have a spa day every now and then. Eat delicious healthy food. Indulge in a chocolate. Know what buoy’s you up in a healthy and positive way.

Bonus: Never, ever, ever, forget that you are loved, by many, many people, and also animals. You have a good posse of people in your corner who are your fans and cheerleaders. Focusing on your love and gratitude for them will help you get through many things.

I leave you with an image of my new year card, ready to post this week. May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live in peace. Happy New Year!

 

Vagabonds and Wanderers and Saunterers

Next academic year I will be on sabbatical, returning to creative research that while not dormant, definitely not at the forefront of my work right now: the role of walking in creative practice.

Walking as aesthetic practice first occurred to me while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer on the 68-square-mile Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1995. Upon my arrival, I walked two miles and two villages away to work, and everywhere else just for exercise. However, as the weeks passed, walking moved into the dimension of creative discipline.  Problems were solved, ideas emerged and certain details took on greater significance. What began as ordinary perception was slowly transformed into writing, drawing and photographs.By the end of my three year commitment, not only was I known as the white lady who walked everywhere, the simple practice of walking was elevated to an essential act of creation as well.

Now, nearly twenty years of walk-spawned projects later, this is still my practice and the time is right for more formal research and higher levels of discovery. As we transition into 2015 and the start of my sabbatical advances, I will be sharing more of my research and plans. Be sure they will include some significant walks.

Christmas, 2014, Melanie Mowinski, I will wander.

Christmas, 2014, Melanie Mowinski, I will wander.

I leave you with words from Thoreau that guide me daily:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word fromsans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Sitting in the center of the labyrinth

If you have come to my blog in the past, you might remember that I mow a labyrinth in the side meadow of our yard. In the winter, when there is snow, I make one with my snowshoes. I use the Chartres cathedral labyrinth as my guide.

I sit in the center after walking-in for a few minutes. Longer when I need to have a longer conversation with the universe. I found myself there today, after trying to find the path among the matted grasses of earth devoid of snow, but not even close to the spring of summer.

Looking through old commonplace books, this piece from Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris, seems to be what I need right now. It’s time to read her work again. 

Suddenly, fir trees seem like tired old women stooped under winter coats. I want to be light, to cast off impediments, and push like a tulip through a muddy smear of snow. I want to take the rain to heart, let it move like possibility, the idea of change.

and this one too:

One needs time alone under the sky to think, to grieve and gather.

Advent Day 24, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day 24, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Present

Ten years ago or so, I was an artist-in-residence at Windgrove in Tasmania. This month retreat provided me with psychic space to explore and discover the role of walking-in-making, especially when walking in wild and wild-like places, in my creative practice.

Throughout the month experience, I met different people who came to visit Windgrove. One gathering still stands out in my memory. A woman and her teenage children (?) came for lunch and conversation. She was about the age that I am now. She talked about how she had finally found the ability to not dwell on the past or worry about the future but to be joyous in the present.

I remember thinking (in perhaps not my best moment) she had to be one of those new-age hippy dippy people. But I remember it clearly. I can practically see the expression on her face.

Advent Day 23, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day 23, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

I wonder if this is something that happens to you in your 40s. There are all kinds of writings going around about the lessons you learn in each decade that you don’t realize until you are in the next decade. But I think I am starting to learn this lesson. Moments gather together more and more lately, where I am joyous in the present. Just as I continue to learn through running and yoga that enduring difficult runs and postures help you handle difficult life situations, so does being blissfully present to exactly what is in the moment.

I definitely fail at this, regularly and often, suffering from incredible amounts of useless anxiety. But right now, this second, to the tips of the little hairs all over my body, I am brimming with joy of only this moment. May you have it too, as much as possible in the days to come.

 

Practice

I made a set of cards for Doug once with the phrase, Practice takes Practice. This card was created in that sentiment. May you have all of this today and throughout the holiday season.

Advent Day 22, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day 22, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Hold Life Open

In Michael Pollen’s book Cooked, in the chapter on Fermentation, he makes some comment along the lines that people who are easily disgusted are often terrified of death. I maybe making that up. I will fact check that. But I am easily disgusted, and I am also terrified of death. I want to hold onto this life with two strong hands for as long as I possibly can. But, then I read today’s entry in my A Year with Rilke, and I have to pause.

Advent Day Twenty-One, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day Twenty-One, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Two inner experiences were necessary for the creation of these books (The Sonnets to Orpheus and The Duino Elegies). One is the increasingly conscious decision to hold life open to death. The other is the spiritual imperative to present, in this wider context, the transformations of love that are not possible in a narrower circle where Death is simply excluded as The Other. 

Letter to Nanny von Escher
December 22, 1923
How about that for something to ponder?

The willingness to stay where we are

The two lessons that continually circle back to me are learning how to be patient and how not to cultivate useless anxiety.

Advent Day Twenty, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day Twenty, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Henri Nouwen wrote this about patience in Eternal Seasons:

A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the fullest in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere.

The moment is empty.

But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Waiting, then is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her womb.

Most artists understand this concept of patience, the importance of waiting within the creative process for what will be revealed from the work, the making, the thinking.

My friend Jackie Sedlock recently unveiled a series of incredible bowls with various sayings inspired by the Shaker Gift Drawings and songs. She writes this about the drawings:

By the mid-19th century, Mother Ann Lee, the founder and spiritual leader of the Shakers had passed on to the next life and numbers in the community were dwindling. Around this time a small number of women and a few men, or “instruments”, began to make drawings based on visions and visitations by Mother Ann and other departed members of the community. These works were meant to inspire and reassure believers. The drawings were given only to members within the community and not meant for “the world”. This was likely intentional because some are almost psychedelic in nature and would surely have been seen as lunacy by some. Largely forgotten until recently, they are an example of the devotion of the Shakers to God and their spiritual leader. 

Jackie Sedlock Pottery

Jackie Sedlock Pottery

 

One of the bowls says Patience. It’s my bowl now. And I’m looking forward to what it will inspire in me. You can see other bowls like this at her pop-up shop in Williamstown, MA TODAY, or if you miss her, call her to make an appointment. Really great stuff. IMG_4009

Avoid useless labor

There’s a prayer in the Catholic mass, right after the congregation says the Our Father together where the celebrant prays Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. and then invites the congregation to share a sign of peace–a handshake, hug, kiss.

The part where the celebrant prays to “protect us from all anxiety” was always my favorite line. There was one priest, I think he had been a former Army chaplain, who used to say mass occasionally at Saint Raphael’s in Williamstown.  He always, without fail, altered that prayer to this: Protect us from all useless anxiety, with extra emphasis on the useless part. It simultaneously cracked me up, and inspired me. Today’s collage, while slightly different, is made with that intention in mind. May we all be protected from useless anxiety, useless labor, useless whatever.

Advent Day Nineteen, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day Nineteen, 2014, Melanie Mowinski