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


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.



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

The capacity to be alone

From Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Rome, December 23, 1903, as translated by Johanna Macy in Anita Barrows in A Year with Rilke.

I often return to this passage, especially during this time of year when in the midst of all the celebrating there are these moments of pure aloneness. This passage often helps me through it.

Could there be a solitude that had no value to it? There is only one solitude; it is vast and hard to bear How often do we gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial and cheap, or trade it for the appearance of agreement, however small, with the first person who comes along. But those may be the very moments when your solitude can grow; its growing is painful as the growing of girls and boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But don’t be confused. ALl that is needed is the capacity to be alone with yourself, to go into yourself and meet no one for hours–that is what you need to achieve. To be alone, the way you were as a child, when the grown-ups walked around so busy and distracted by matters that seemed important because they were beyond your comprehension. 

Advent Day Eighteen, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day Eighteen, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Here and Now

In 2010 I was lucky enough to participate in Phase Two of Monstress Productions experiment entitled Here & Now. I don’t remember how I received the little envelope, but I did. The packet contained 24 stickers printed with the word NOW. I was instructed to distribute them along my usual daily path. And, when I would encounter them later, I was supposed to “use it as a cue to breathe and concentrate on the present moment for a short respite.” This testing eventually evolved into a line of products that you can explore here.

Advent Day Seventeen, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day Seventeen, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

I still encounter those stickers from time to time along my daily path, which has changed in a variety of ways since 2010. And whenever I do, I still stop and try to use that moment for a short respite.

Let it Breathe…

One of my first projects in graduate school found me making “prints” of my hands. I made detailed linocuts of my fingerprint pattern, digital maps of my hands as well as an installation of handmade paper hands that hung from the ceiling. (This last one was one of my first experiments with “print” or shall I say the multiple as installation–which still fascinates me.)

But the hand.

Advent Day 16, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

Advent Day 16, 2014, Melanie Mowinski

I love my hands. I could not do my work without them. I try very very hard to take care of them, protect them, respect them and express my gratitude for them. They have certainly gotten in the way of sharp and heavy equipment, but thankfully, nothing too, too awful.

Since that project in grad school 10 years ago, I often find myself returning to some words one of my cousin’s wrote in response to a call for thoughts about the hands that I put out to my email list. This is what she shared:

As for the hands…on my own hands (as well as at the corners of my eyes) there are several prominent lines formed by the cyclic pattern of trying to learn the main lessons of my life–the themes I was born with that I keep coming back to over and over. It’s as if I can’t learn the whole thing in one sitting. I learn some and walk away to assimilate. Once this is accomplished and further along the path I find myself before the same lesson, student to the next bit of information I can handle. And I walk away again to make it part of me. They are definitely life themes, and as I look back over my days I see the spiral of coming back deeper each time. It’s a pretty spiritual event for me…God definitely is an educator. 

These words sat strongly with me then, and again now, especially as I watch those lines get a little deeper and more abundant.

The text Let it Breathe, parallels what I often say to myself, Let it Go…wishing that to you today.