Category Archives: Rilke Project

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?

Alone, yet not alone

Today is Rainer Maria Rilke‘s birthday. I often turn to his writings, and have since college when I first read Letters to a Young Poet. Today I share with you a poem from his Book of Hours.

Advent Day Four, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day Four, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
or alone.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

I would describe myself like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I’m coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtimes;

like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

- From Rilke’s Book Of Hours translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy

RISK failure

Do you ever drag your feet when approaching a really big project? I am currently doing this. I have three big projects on my plate right now, and for whatever reason, I can’t seem to make any actual progress with them. Am I afraid of failure?

In times like this, I often turn to my friend Rilke, who wrote this to Countess Margot  Sizzo-Noris-Crouy on April 12, 1923:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted–yes even rejoiced in–what has struck him with terror–he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead. We must discover the unity of dread and bliss, two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it.)



Ruth Laxson. Biking. Rilke.

I just returned from 10 glorious days south of the Mason-Dixon Line in sunny Georgia. Doug and I drove the 1000+ miles with our bicycles through snowstorms for a week of incredible mountain biking at Mulberry Gap in the Georgia Mountain Bike Capital Ellijay. But before we took to our bikes, we spent a weekend with my brother and his family in Atlanta. What fun to see him and his two boys.

Country mouse in the big city, I had to make time to check out two amazing art exhibitions. Ruth Laxson–one of my favorite contemporary artists– at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and Frida and Diego at the High. I knew about the Laxson exhibit, Hip Young Owl, and learned about Frida and Diego from the billboards lining the highway as we drove into the city.

And not only was it a glorious day of art, when we arrived at MOCA, Ruth Laxson was leaving, so I got to meet and talk with her a bit before viewing the exhibit.

Meeting Ruth Laxson

Meeting Ruth Laxson

Laxson is a well-known book artist and printmaker in certain circles. I discovered her work in grad school. She came into her own in her 60′s. She’s now 89 and shows no sign of stopping!

Pasted into one of Laxson's sketchbooks.

Pasted into one of Laxson’s sketchbooks.

Text, texture, image, thread, mail, dots, paper and commentary on the human condition define her work. Her newest series, drawings entitled God Doll’s, drew me into her visual language. Her use of repetition, automatic writing as texture yet also an important part of her composition–a framing device, a ground, a form–the figure, not as we know it, but as it forms from the shapes, textures and marks she creates. There’s a freeness and openness to these figures that brings me to her world. When looking at her work, those who know my work understand immediately why I love this artist’s creations.

What I did not know was the role of mail art in Laxson’s career. In the 1980s she participated in numerous mail art exchanges and did so for many years. She even has a series of mail art post boxes that were included in the exhibit. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll be like her when I’m 89. I got my press at 41, she got hers at 63. So maybe there’s hope for me!

Here are some of my favorite images from the exhibit:

After a couple of hours of soaking in all that is Hip, we headed over to the High to see the Frida and Diego exhibit. Many of the paintings on view were ones that I had never seen. It focused a bit more on Diego than Frida, including many of his earliest paintings, paintings when he hadn’t found his own visual language and was still copying that of Picasso, Cezanne and other artists at the start of the 20th century. Many of the pieces in the exhibit were not only new to me but also zeroed in on Frida and Diego’s tumultuous relationship. In spite of their many ups and downs, she made this wonderful little piece for him in honor of their 15th wedding anniversary. It was one of my favorite images in the entire exhibit.

Frida's gift to Diego in honor of their 15th wedding anniversary.

Frida’s gift to Diego in honor of their 15th wedding anniversary.

Of course Doug and I had to take part in the camp that often surround Frida and Diego.


But regardless, this day of art, then time with my little brother and his family, followed by an incredible week of mountain biking keeps me thinking about this Rilke writing from March 14th in A Year with Rilke.

Praise the World
Praise the world to the angel: leave the unsayable aside. 
Your exalted feeling do not move him.
In the universe he inhabits you are a novice. 
Therefore show him what is ordinary, what has been
shaped from generation to generation, shaped by hand and eye.
Tell him of things. He will stand still in astonishment,
the you stood by the ropemaker in Rome
or beside the potter on the Nile. 
Show him how happy a thing can be, ho innocent and ours, 
how even a lament takes pure form,
serves as a thing, dies as a thing,
wile a violin, blessing it, fades.
And the things, even as they pass,
understand that we praise them.
Transient, they are trusting us
to save them–us, the most transient of all.
As if they wanted in our invisible hearts
to be transformed
into—oh, endlessly—into us. 
                                   From the Ninth Duino Elegy

Love Song

Piero della Francesca, Federico da Montefeltro with his wife Battista Sforza, 1472, The Uffizzi Gallery, Florence

Piero della Francesca, Federico da Montefeltro with his wife Battista Sforza, 1472, The Uffizzi Gallery, Florence

How shall I hold my soul
to not intrude upon yours? How shall I 
lift it beyond you to other things?
I would gladly lodge it 
with lost objects in the dark,
in some far still place
that does not tremble when you tremble.
But all that touches us, you and me,
plays us together, like the bow of a violin
that from two strings draws forth one voice.
On what instrument are we strung?
What musician is playing us? 
Oh sweet song.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Paris Bordone, The Couple, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Paris Bordone, The Couple, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Frida Kahlo, Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Frida Kahlo, Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Bed, 1920s, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Bed, 1920s, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Roy Lichtenstein, The Kiss, 1962, David Geffen Collection, Los Angeles

Roy Lichtenstein, The Kiss, 1962, David Geffen Collection, Los Angeles


…and everything matters.

Right now I am contemplating Ten Things that Inspire me right now for work that will be in an exhibit as part of Pittsfield’s 10x1o Festival in February.

Rilke continues to inspire me. He is one of my ten things.

Ten things, first brainstorm

Ten things, first brainstorm

I first encountered Rilke when I was in college. Someone loaned me a copy of Letters to a Young Poet. And then someone gave me a copy a few years later. I’m not exactly sure who, or when, I just know that I have a copy of it and I reread it from time to time. (Thank you mystery person out there in the world!)

But it wasn’t until I went to Tasmania to visit my friend Peter Adams that I started to read his poetry. Peter suggested I get the Joanna Macy translation. Macy is slowly sliding into first place in my latest role model list. She is an environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, and apparently an expert translator. She partnered with Anita Barrows to translate a number of Rilke’s works, and then spent a good amount of time going through all that work, harvesting out sections and compiling them into this wonderful daily reflection, A Year with Rilke.

What is interesting me most though, is her work The Great TurningThe Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. As a member of the first world I need to be part of this Great Turning–to turn to practices that will help create a more livable world, a world that includes clean air and water, food and shelter, access to energy. We in the first world know how to do all of this. The question is how to go about sharing this knowledge and helping others around the globe. Four guidelines in the Great Turning remind me of what I want to keep on doing in my own life, as much as possible.

  • Come from gratitude.
  • Don’t be afraid of the dark.
  • Dare to vision.
  • Roll up your sleeves.

Go HERE for more info on how she envisions each of these.

Earlier this week, A Year with Rilke, had the following advice on January 18th, from Letters to a young Poet, Worpswede, July 16, 1903:

The tasks that have been entrusted to us are often difficult. Almost everything that matters is difficult and everything matters.

I have many tasks in front of me, the things that help me make meaning in my life. Sometimes they stress me out, make me a little crazy, and stretch me to do things that are uncomfortable, difficult or challenging. But ultimately, it is these things, these things that matter that ultimately make a difference to the quality of my life, my family’s lives, my student’s lives, and the many random people in the world that I meet. Sometimes they don’t make me happy, but ultimately they help me make a difference in the world and meaning in my life. If this is the best I can do, than it’s gotta be pretty good.

Right now I am trying to figure out what to do for February 14th and ONE BILLION RISING. It will involve something at PRESS and creating a printed inspired poster/card for the kick-off 10×10 event/One Billion Rising event my sister-in-love Nina is coordinating at Spice Dragon. Let this and other things stretch me this year.

What are you going to do that matters this year?

Happy 2013!

I’m a little behind on the whole New Year’s thing, my intention setting got rolled right into the Haiti pre-trip, trip and post-trip, and now on the other side, life is slowly returning to it’s regular rhythms. Beginning tomorrow, I get back on the regular school schedule of getting up at some ridiculous hour to prepare and then head to work.

So 2013. My days will begin with A Year with Rilke: Daily Reading from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke Translated and Edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows. When I first decided to use this book as my morning inspiration, I was going to continue making a collage-a-day in response to the reading. So I bought my $1.99 Kindle edition that I can read on my iphone and have with me no matter where I find myself. But then I had this brilliant idea, why not do a visual response right in the book? Do my own Humement of sorts. So then I ordered a hard copy of the book and today I began.

I visually responded to both January 12 and 13th entries, honing in on the narrowing circles versus the widening circles, and completely focused on one of the lines from January 13th’s entry from Sonnets to Orpheus II, 13:

Be. And know as well the need to not be

This is the lesson I want to learn this year. To not always have to be doing something. To be okay with just being sometimes. This is my biggest intention. It doesn’t mean I will do nothing, but that I will, every now and then, really and truly rest and just be.

January 12 +13, A Year with Rilke and fabric circles from Onel

January 12 +13, A Year with Rilke and fabric circles from Onel

Onel discusses his work

Onel discusses his work

What you see pictured here is my visual response along with some fabric circles that I got in an exchange with the artist Onel while in Haiti. I gave him one of my Manifest cards, and I got the fabric circles. They will be in some collage soon. I’ll keep you posted.

I invite you to get your own copy of the Macy/Barrows translation and follow along/do your own altered book. If you do, let me know–we can share at the end of the year.