3. Underground Garden by Leslie Seaton

previously:

  1. a bad year
  2. hubris

I’d planned 2014 to mirror the prior 2 successful years, and crammed it full of cheerful, wholesome, edutaining, stimulating activity. However, when an unblinking bleakness has begun squatting in your peripheral vision, cheerful activity becomes a chore.

So by late fall, with that in mind – and having learned an unrelated but relevant lesson on my prior year’s near-disastrous, novelty-seeking route – I decided to keep my annual road trip to Phoenix relatively simple. Straight down I-5 through Oregon, then over to Bakersfield. Two sight-seeing stops only: an underground garden in Fresno, and Slab City near the decaying Salton Sea. The whole thing seemed appropriately bleak. At some point you just have to lean into it.

I had to leave Ashland, OR early in the morning and drive with minimal stops in order to make it to Fresno in time for the last tour of day at the Forestiere Underground Gardens.

That name – Forestiere – with its connection to the idea of shade-dappled woods – and the two words “underground” and “garden” created in me a feeling of cool, cozy lushness.  As I parked, however, I saw that the reality was a bit more (yes, of course) bleak.

The gardens are right on a busy street, across from an In-and-Out Burger. There was a row of trees near the sidewalk, but because the attraction is, well, underground, my first view of the property was mainly just a beige and dusty-looking lot surrounding by a chain link fence.

This, the early rising, my rushed day, an unjustified sense of irritation at the perfectly innocent other members of my tour group, and – most problematic – my low blood sugar all merged to put me in an aggressively foul mood (a shade different, more acute, than the general malaise of this bad year).

So I’m not going to pretend that I felt anything but grumpiness as our tour guide led us around the underground complex. The tour, at the time, had no resonance for me; facts were delivered, and so I’m just going to set them down here like they plunked down that day.

Baldassare Forestiere came to America from Sicily in 1901 after a dispute with his father. He was fascinated by catacombs, and worked on underground tunnels in Boston. He came to Fresno with the hope of starting a citrus grove, but encountered both the hardpan soil and staggeringly hot summers of the area.

He went underground. He dug out rooms, a summer bedroom and a winter bedroom. He created skylights. He designed a structure that maximized beneficial airflow to keep his home cool in summer. He made planters out of the dirt he moved and planted lemons and oranges and kumquats and jujubes. He built a fish pond with a glass bottom so he could sit under it. He envisioned an entire underground resort as a getaway destinations for locals during the hot summers. Over the 40 years he spent on it, it grew to over 10 acres and three levels. He did this mainly by himself. 

After the tour, my bad mood and I drove on from Fresno to Bakersfield, where I was staying for the night. I settled in, then went out for a walk, trying to get in more of the ten thousand steps I’m supposed to be getting.

The La Quinta I was staying in was close to the Buck Owens Crystal Palace, but despite that regal-sounding neighbor, it’s not exactly the kind of area most women would feel an unqualified enthusiasm about strolling around solo at night. Normally that kind of environment doesn’t really make me too jumpy; that night, though – maybe it was that day’s bad mood or the year’s bad feeling – I was jittery as I made loops around the complex of sodium-lit hotel parking lots.

At some point, though, a song came on shuffle, and something about the rhythm of it and the angles and lighting of the external staircase of the La Quinta synchronized in my brain. It created an image of a character of mine – one I’ve been writing about on and off for almost 20 years with little actual result – in a new situation. The jitters left me as I continued the walk through the darkened parking lots, distracted by this development.

next part:

4. the big year

2. Hubris by Leslie Seaton

IMG_1121.JPG

previously:

  1. a bad year

I had been resistant to the idea that 2014 could be anything but another solidly good year. Of course, who wants to have a bad year? My resistance, though, wasn’t only out of natural human pleasure-seeking, the normal desire to feel good, not bad. My denial had the flavor of evangelical zealotry to it because I simply no longer believed in bad years.

Like many zealots, I was only recently converted. I had had many bad years, had nothing but them for long stretches. Then in 2012 and 2013, things changed for me, and I finally had the bright and shiny pleasure of good years. Years that were not devoid of challenges and sadnesses, but were, overall, full of solid, grounded, true happinesses. Friendships. Accomplishments diligently worked towards. Deep connection with nature. Progress on personal goals. Creative expression. I felt breathless with gratitude for this good fortune, especially because I knew that years aren’t necessarily always like that.

The night before my first (and so far only) half marathon, I sat in a hotel room in Leavenworth with that same friend Heather who had come to run it with me. (Aside: what great fortune! A friend who will come all the way to Paris to see you! Who will do a half marathon with you at your pudgy snail’s pace even though she can run it in literally half the time! Who’s your friend even after you petulantly, childishly, stopped speaking to her in your 20’s, who forgave you completely even though she had no reason to?)

I told her how the older I get, the more deeply I identified with the poem “Could Have” by Wislawa Szymborska. I pulled it up on my phone to read it to her and become a little weepy as we sat in our beds the night before the race.

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
speechless.
Listen,
how your heart pounds inside me.

My breathless gratitude for the holes in nets I’d slipped through, for the pleasures and little joys  I’d collected around myself, ones I’d not expected to have…this was what I’d begun to cling to with my zealotry.

I’d made it, shocked and speechless, through those bad years, and I felt certain that if I just maintained that gratitude, and focused on those small pleasures, I would be fine. I had inoculated myself against bad years.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d started thinking of this poem as a fixed point I’d passed, instead of what it is, which is the constant, daily truth of life: there is always a new net to slip through until you don’t.

I had convinced myself that I’d insulated myself from the kind of net of badness that had caught me before, that I’d developed tiny rituals of accessible happinesses, and that had created some kind of protective bubble around myself.

Our rituals can make us feel better; unfortunately, I forgot that I don’t believe they actually control how anything turns out.

next part: 

3. Underground Garden

1. A Bad Year by Leslie Seaton

 I noted on Instagram at the time: Like most ppl w/eyes, I came to like her work for the flowers & the colors but today when I wrote down my favorites, there were 6 of leaves, 1 barn, 1 lake and only 1 flower. Am listening to her bio audiobook on this trip. Think this is the bio I read as HS frosh. The details of her life made huge impression back then. The choices she made as a woman and woman artist, her resistance to over-intellectual art criticism (esp Freudian analysis), her statement that she always wore black because "colors do something to me."

2014 had a bad feeling. I wasn’t expecting it.

It started when I went to Santa Fe in January. I enjoyed the trip, but a vague and unsettled melancholy hovered around the edges of it. At the time, I didn’t focus too much on it, attributing it to what I often feel is the inherent vague and unsettling melancholy of the desert.

Sunshine is associated with happiness and cheerfulness, but – especially in the desert – it can sometimes be as oppressive as the gray clouds of Seattle. My friend Heather (who also grew up in Phoenix) and I use the beach scene in Camus’ “The Stranger” to each other as shorthand for that sort of disorienting, inescapable, obliterating brightness.

“The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable…the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under that flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move—it came to much the same.”

I left Santa Fe and put the bad feeling out of my head. I had no reason to suspect it was indicative of anything about the year as a whole, and I certainly wouldn’t have been receptive to that idea anyway.

 Last day: Venice Beach

The badness drifted back down on me again during an April trip to Los Angeles. Sunshine again, but, I would have thought, ostensibly less external bleakness, all those palm trees to block that thudding light. Nevertheless, I came back rattled.

The feeling kept running in the background during my regular life, like a mild but menacing rumble in Lynchian sound design. The volume turned up when I traveled.

At the end of May, I took a trip out to Grand Coulee. More unrelenting brightness.  I sat in my camp chair at the campground near Lake Roosevelt. I tried to read a book in the sunshine. I thought I was hearing an electrical hum at my campsite, then realized the tree above me was buzzing with thousands of insects. Fighter jets ripped across the sky during periodic training runs.  I was disquieted.

By summer, I saw it wasn’t just some sunshine allergy with a strong half-life infecting my life. A camping trip at the end of June brought the badness to the fore in a way I could no longer ignore, and that trip took place in the middle of torrentially rainy weekend.

The year was bad, there was no other conclusion. It had gone off, gone sour, grown mold, failed to thrive, become structurally unsound. At that point, I was only halfway through it, but it seemed like I had to face what 2014 was turning out to be, despite my resistance.

next part: 

2. hubris

Haiku / Dub / Shadow / Bokeh / Gesture by Leslie Seaton

For the month of February, I did a little project to use up my stationery by sending a haiku every day to a friend or relative selected at random.

Most of those people received a notecard or postcard that started nearly the same as this blog post (“As you might have seen on Facebook, for the month of February, I’m doing a little project…”) but after that boilerplate beginning, I did make each personal by picking a haiku specifically for them.

In order to find a haiku for each person, I spent a lot more time reading haiku than one might just in the course of a normal month. And, as one might expect, I also spent a lot of time thinking about haiku.

Some of these thoughts were as brief as a haiku, like: haiku is the original hashtag rap.

Some developed over time, like: wondering if all the haiku poets were somewhat constitutionally similar. The world view expressed in haiku can start to seem very specific, even beyond the prescribed structure. They often express a sort of rueful humor under an occasionally elegiac tone (although maybe it’s just that I kept returning to Issa because for one, I really like Issa, and for another, there’s a searchable online database with thousands of his haiku).

I wondered why I like haiku at all as it seems at odds with what I’m usually looking for in an artistic experience. I like to be immersed, I like to be, as I often say, conked over the head with the cast iron skillet of an inescapable work. I don’t want to watch movies, I want to watch 60 hours of The Sopranos. I don’t want to read short stories, I want to read The Magic Mountain even if it takes me forever.  To paraphrase Liberace: too much of a good thing is wonderful(ly obliterating).

So why haiku, the tiniest of tiny artistic experiences? Why have I been attracted to it for so many years?

I realized its appeal is separate (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) from what I like in longer narrative forms. What I like about haiku can and usually does occur in those forms. What I like is that it is elliptical, things referred to but only sketched out with the briefest of brushstrokes.

I like in haiku what I struggle with in my own work: confidence and a very specific type of economy. I always want to explain. I am afraid to ask the reader to see three dots and connect them on their own; I want to pick up their hand and insert the pencil and help them draw it and then maybe if they also need some help with any yard work or can I review their resume for the job they are applying for.

I also feel this need to provide every detail as though the reader is some suspicious cross-examining attorney. “HOW did the character get there? What flavor of LifeSaver was in her purse? When did she buy them? With cash? Well then WHERE IS THE CHANGE IN HER PURSE? We better stop this narrative right now and catalog everything.”

It is hard to get any momentum going when you envision your reader as a head-shaking, arm-crossed skeptic.

Like right now, as I write this post, I want to explain why I’m writing this post, to have it earn its right to exist. I feel like this is a common thing from the online world. We cannot just have a story be a story or a thought be a thought. There has to be a hyperbolic reason for it to exist or a Life Lesson to wrap it all up. Always a defensible why.

To not provide every detail, to not connect all the dots, to let something exist for no other reason than for it to exist as it is… I feel challenged to do that. But when I think of qualities other than the immersive nature of what I like, perhaps the more abstract or textural qualities…it is this elliptical nature that appeals to me.

When I first heard dub music – specifically the tracks on the album Dub Specialist - 17 Shots from Studio One  something in my brain just relaxed.

Here is a reggae song but oh wait, here don’t worry about a verse or a chorus or a bridge or if it gets anywhere in particular, we’ll just take this one bit of the guitar and just reverb it a bunch and that’s all we need. 

(Incidentally, the youtube uploader who put that song online is also one of my favorite video makers: every single one of his or her 100+ videos is just this same shot of a record playing. Who ever needs to make a music video again?)

A dub song could strip things down,sometimes making the song quite bare but somehow also so full and pleasing. 

And bokeh and shadow in photography have the same effect on my brain, this pleasing effect of showing just what’s needed. What more is gained from razor-sharp detail?

This all came together to me in the past once before, actually, when reading a description of Mikhail Baryshnikov that called him a “master of gesture.” (Or something like that. Now I am unable to google my way to any proof that this quote ever truly existed. This anecdote will never hold up under cross-examination!)

“A-ha!” I thought at the time, “gesture.

What is the minimum required to communicate the maximum? And how do you have the confidence to only set down that minimum?

A final haiku for February, this one by Nick Vigilio:

after the bell,

within the silence,

within myself

Halloween Season at Hell's Crossing by Leslie Seaton

Four women mushroom hunting in the woods, then camping at a deserted campground called Hell’s Crossing the weekend before Halloween: an excellent premise for a horror movie and also something I participated in last year.

I won’t create any unjustified suspense: nothing bad happened other than waiting too long for our French fries and being witness to some unfortunately boorish behavior by a few deer hunters at a local bar. No blood was shed, except maybe by the deer, but we didn’t see it. (Even if something bad had happened, I felt confident I was going to be the Final Girl for many reasons, including my unisex name and, I mean, what am I if not an “"investigating consciousness?”)

Nothing cinematic happened in the mushroom department for me, either. We were looking for chanterelles along Route 410, but I only found one, which I actually forgot about and retrieved days or weeks later, desiccated, from my trunk.

I didn’t really mind; this was my first fall camping trip so I was in the midst of First Time Fog. I am coming to accept this is just a state I go into every time I do something for the first time. Whatever the goal of the activity is, if it’s my first time, the only thing I can be guaranteed to accomplish is absorbing some sensory input from the new experience. No matter how trivial the newness is (in this case, just a change in temperature from summer camping), it nevertheless takes up some large chunk of my brain’s processing. So I wasn’t in peak mushroom hound form, nose quivering, senses focused. More in peak space cadet form, looking at clouds and forest shapes.

It was still an excellent camping trip, though. I actually got a little spooked walking around the empty quiet campground, and I don’t tend to get spooked under those circumstances. Being spooked when there ultimately isn’t anything to be afraid of can be fun, of course (ergo horror movies).

I emerged from my First Time Fog with an idea as to what I might want/need on future fall camping trips. Primarily: a balaclava. (I feel like that will also be useful if I ever am, in fact, the Final Girl. Putting on a balaclava seems like a good part of a montage where I finally decide I will NOT be a victim and goddamit I am going to survive this thing.)

Also the general feeling of the woods in the fall at night is a specific thing and now it’s a thing I’ve experienced, so I liked that. I just finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and I would say that once you get past the concern you are in the premise of a horror movie, the feeling of the woods in the fall at night is a very 1Q84/Colorless Murakami feeling. Quiet, still, mysterious, and with only a slight undercurrent of danger. 

For more images from the trip, click here for the full gallery here. Preview below.