I am excited to share that my video “The Farrier” has been posted on The Hoof Blog, which is a very well known site in the horse world. It is run by Fran Jurga, who publishes the Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. The Hoof Blog is currently a finalist for the 2012 Best Blog from the Equestrian Social Media Awards! The direct link to the story care be found here: http://www.hoofcare.blogspot.com/2012/03/friends-at-work-john-deans-is-farrier.html
Most Mainers vacation in the tropics…you know, places with warm, sandy beaches and drinks with those little umbrellas in them. The Bahamas. Hawaii. Florida.
Jessie and Emma Deans? They decided to adventure a little closer to home. To be more precise, ahem, right across the bridge in good ‘ol Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Fact: Portland Head Light, located in Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park, is the oldest headlight in Maine.
Fact: Portland Head Light is one of the most photographed lighthouses in America.
Fact: If you visit on a cold February day when the museum is closed, the sky is gray, and the waves are tumultuous…there won’t be too many folks around.
(However, there will be a group of young men in some sort of band from Ohio who scramble around the rocks, VERY stoked to see the ocean and use the phrase “dude” and “epic” approximately 225 times.)
We decided to take advantage of all the offerings of this seaside community, including leisurely strolls beside the rocky Atlantic and through Robinson Woods. Admittedly, we crossed the border to South Portland for bagels from Scratch Baking Co., and to peruse Nonesuch Books (I finished Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which is an action-packed story about former Olympian and World War II survivor Louis Zamperini. I also read a dystopian young adult novel called Delirium by Lauren Oliver, and a collection of short stories by Pam Houston called Cowboys Are My Weakness. We all have our guilty reading choices…).
At David’s 388 we enjoyed a positive dining experience with friendly ambiance and prompt service. Unfortunately, the night took a turn for the worse when I ate an entire clove of garlic, mistaking it for a French fry! Suffice to say, no vampires are coming around these parts anytime soon.
All in all, there’s nothing like indulging in a few treats. Just take it from Pepper, pictured in the gallery below, eyeing salmon-flavored Temptations.
We followed her lead and stopped by The Cookie Jar for a whoopie pie and cream puff.
Maine can, after all, be a fun place to enjoy…even in February…even if you’re a year-round resident…even if you have to make your “fancy” drinks with tap water and a couple lemon slices.
A typical encounter plays out as follows: I approach the coffee station anxiously. The choices bombard me—dark roast, light roast, Columbian, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, latte, mocha, cappuccino. I can order a specialty drink. I can pour my own. Do I want sugar? Cream? A sleeve for my cup? Where are the lids? The stirring stick? How do I get the half and half to pour out? The half and half won’t pour out. The woman behind me is breathing heavily. She’s in a rush. She knows how to properly pour the half and half.
So goes a standard coffee shop experience for me. It’s rather…nerve racking. Seems a bit ridiculous that so many decisions have to be made for a single cup of Joe…right?
Some days I simply just don’t know if the French Vanilla Latte is REALLY what I want.
And this leads me to the overarching question: how do the small daily choices we make affect our lives on the whole? The dilemma of having too many choices is said to be a very American problem, but especially as technology innovates the multitude of these options, it is rapidly becoming a global problem.
For instance, several writers have advised me that as an aspiring journalist I absolutely NEED Twitter. I held out for a long time, but after seeing so many raised eyebrows, I caved and created an account. I think I’ve logged in once since that time. I haven’t posted anything. I find that it’s rather redundant for me, having a Facebook account. Beyond these social networks, Google+ is breathing down my back to squeeze every last bit of information about my life out of me. I’m supposed to sign up with LinkedIn one of these days for further contacts. I have a website and blog, a Picasa account, and of course there’s iPhoto, iMovie, the updated Microsoft Software I just installed, the Final Cut program still in its box…
Whoa. Deep breath.
By the way, what the heck is an Angry Bird?
My point is there are so many choices we make without even thinking about them. They fall into our routines and simply become habits. The only way I can stay sane is by filtering through these choices, identifying what I really should be focusing on and bagging the rest. I don’t play video or computer games. I don’t have a Wii or any of those interactive T.V. systems. My cell phone is seven years old—it doesn’t have crossword puzzles or the ability to take pictures (which is a blessing…unfortunately I know its days are numbered).
Still, it’s a lot to think about when I actually…stop and think about it.
To get back to the coffee matter, last summer when I was working on a conservation crew in the woods, I had a coffee mishap that’s literally scarred me for life.
I didn’t drink coffee while on hitch in the woods and it always made that first cup when I got back to the city glorious. While I managed to emerge from six months of swinging axes and manning crosscut saws in remote backcountry wilderness settings unscathed, coffee was my one downfall.
We stopped at a gas station on the way home. I giddily raced inside, grabbed a cup, and started pouring. In my haste, I poured scalding hot coffee over my left wrist. My skin immediately peeled off. I gave myself a severe second-degree burn that took weeks to heal. It was pink and raw and hurt like hell. It’s left a permanent mark.
Sometimes, our choices burn us.
What do I take away from of all this? Well, I hope to be more conscious of the decisions I make and more aware of their consequences. I have to filter through the options at the coffee shop, just as I have to filter through junk mail and social network notifications and the 25 shampoo options at the grocery store. It’s about finding balance and staying sane.
I usually stick to the simplest order. Sometimes I opt for a smidgen of French Vanilla.
“Daydreaming represents a shift of attention away from some primary physical or mental task we have set for ourselves, or away from directly looking at or listening to something in the external environment, toward an unfolding sequence of private responses made to some internal stimulus. The inner processes usually considered are ‘pictures in the mind’s eye,’ the unrolling of a sequence of events which have varying degrees of probability of taking place.”
-From Yale psychology professor Jerome L. Singer’s book Daydreaming and Fantasy
The above quote comes from a little book I keep on my nightstand called The Art of the Daydream by Wendy Bristow. It’s filled with quotes and pictures of pensive individuals longing for elsewheres, lost in a world of their own thoughts. Admittedly, I am one of them. I have begun to notice that even though I love this state of being and find it necessary to my everyday life, it’s also burdensome. Sometimes I wish I didn’t posses a mind constantly looking for the deeper meaning behind actions, words, and events. Take for example, my daily walk. I live five minutes from the Presumpscot River in southern Maine, which I visit with my golden retriever, Annie, in all seasons. Annie is an example of someone able to fully live in the present. Her tail wags rapidly when I grab her leash from the closet, unable to contain her excitement. She spends the entire car ride whining with anticipation for a glorious hour of romping through the woods, sniffing territory, prancing along snowbanks, and encountering other canine friends along the way. When I let her off her leash, she bounds into the air, darts down the trail, then retreats, tongue flapping in the wind. Annie seizes this time…I think Thoreau would be quite satisfied that she is indeed living deliberately and sucking the bone dry. I, on the other hand, find myself lost in the creative place…that one where artists roam about with bemused looks upon their faces. I use the time for hashing out the stories in my brain, for constructing plots and framing essays and composing poems. It’s a productive part of my writing process and the best way for me to “pre-write.”
Still, I feel a bit guilty. After all, aren’t we supposed to be in tune to our surroundings when enjoying nature to its fullest extent? Isn’t that what all of these studies are showing us…that an imaginary divide between humans and the physical world persists, even when people are forced to make contact with their natural world? The best I can hope for is a little compromise. So, I’ve decided that sometimes I need to rein in my thoughts. I will stop periodically throughout my walk. I will let go of my daydreams. I will listen to the ice cracking along the river. I will feel the cold air on my cheeks, the sun on my face. I will take deep breaths and enjoy the moment.
Then, of course, I will continue walking and pondering and talking to myself out there in the woods of my imagination. After all, you can take a storyteller away from her desk, but you can never take those stories from her mind.
“Don’t let anybody tell you you’re wasting your time when you’re gazing into space. There is no other way to conceive an imaginary world. I never sit down in front of a bare page to invent something. I daydream about my characters, their lives and their struggles, and when a scene has been played out in my imagination and I think I know what my characters felt, said, and did, I take pen and paper and try to report what I’ve witnessed.” -Stephen Vizinczey
I’ve been to many concerts over the years. It’s hard to keep track how of many. 12 Dave Matthews Band shows…Tom Petty, Mason Jennings, Brett Dennen, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Mraz, The Counting Crows, David Gray, Xavier Rudd, Amos Lee, My Morning Jacket, The Goo Goo Dolls, John Mayer…the list goes on. There’s simply something about live music that is invigorating. For a few hours I can lose myself in a realm of words and sounds that serve as means of escapism, while at the same time causing me to relate the sentiments expressed in the music to my own life.
So, the other night I won tickets from a radio station to see the pop singer Matt Nathanson. While not a die-hard fan, I had heard some of his songs on the radio and I’m not one to pass up free tickets. Matt’s style is geared towards the teenage crowd…his lyrics are flirty and fun, he has a nose ring, wears tight jeans, and shakes his hips a lot.
Yet, as my sister and I shuffled into the State Theatre, an old, historic building in Portland, we looked around at the fellow concert-goers and noticed the median age of the people surrounding us was, well, rather high. We scratched our heads in confusion…why was a granny sitting a few rows in front of us?
Then, we figured it out: we were sitting with Matt Nathanson’s family.
While the typical young crowd filled the standing-only space close to the stage, the balcony seats went to aunts, uncles, cousins, and the like. During the show, Matt gave a few shout-outs to his clan, remarking that they “came out of the woodwork” and that he was glad to be playing in Maine, where so much of his family is from.
As I listened to their conversations and watched them interact with one another, I thought to myself: people are people.
Here’s a pop singer who’s played on Ellen, Rachael Ray, and The Bachelor. And here’s his uncle, sitting in front of me, wearing suspenders.
The entertainment industry is one that strives to make distinctions between the so-called commoners and the artists. Yet, it’s simply a matter of marketing one’s talent. We don’t celebrate teachers or secretaries or carpenters with posters and tee-shirts and glossy pictures. Can you imagine if we did? Can you imagine if those young masses, so eager to receive a signature from a pop idol, were just as eager to receive a signature from a person in their lives…who actually cares about them?
Just some food for thought on this rainy winter day. Here’s a little clip of Matt’s newest hit, for the teenage girl in us all.
We’ve all had to write it. That dreaded 5-paragraph essay. That standardized, formulaic, sequential prove your point paper. In elementary school it probably started off with something along the lines of, “I went to the beach. I got ice cream. I slept under the stars. It was grand.” By middle and high school it became longer and the events included more specific details. Whoever your high school teacher was, I’m sure they scrawled onto the chalkboard this general outline:
Paragraph 1: Introduction…start with a “hook.” Your thesis is the last sentence.
Paragraph 2: Body…use transitional sentence between paragraphs…discuss theme.
Paragraph 3: Body…use transitional sentence between paragraphs…discuss theme.
Paragraph 4: Body…use transitional sentence between paragraphs…discuss theme.
Paragraph 5: Conclusion…restate thesis, reword introduction, wrap up themes…
When it comes to practicing writing conventions, this structure is…OK. It allows for an organization of ideas, gets students to think about flowing from one concept to the next, and imparts the belief that the paper must say something.
However, this model is outdated. It hinders creativity, restricts freedom of thought, and disregards the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge. It suggests that one’s story can be molded into a fixed structure, which is linear on paper…point A to point B.
Over the past few years I have come to realize that such narratives are not so easily defined. While storytelling does have a general format (a beginning, middle, and end), the synthesis that emerges from that story is selective in its discernment. The easiest way to think about this structure is the typical campfire tale wherein the storyteller emphasizes specific points of interest. She will use her arms and body movement as social cues in order to elicit a response (i.e. raising her eyebrows following a can you believe that remark). She will lower or raise her voice at certain twists and turns. She will engage the audience.
While the storyteller believes she knows the “message” that will be imparted upon the listener, she can never be sure. This is because the listener comes to the campfire as a person whose past experiences have contributed to the collective conscience that creates meaning. Two listeners can hear the exact same story and leave with different impressions, illustrating one of the fundamental assets of art: it’s up for interpretation.
This active involvement between the teller and listener is largely absent from the 5-paragraph essay model. Why? The authorial voice usually reads as monotone, the sentences seem forced, and the appeal is drab. This is the essay you are forced to write and the essay you are forced to read. Your eyes scan the lines because they must, not because they are enthralled, and you are therefore not invested in discovering the story’s meaning for yourself.
So, how can we make this model work?
First, we have to get personal. To get personal we need details and the details must come from the quirky aspects that make the story and its teller unique. Let’s take for example the elementary mindset regarding that coveted summer vacation. When the teacher asks the class to think about their summer, the students will immediately go to the hyped-up events that made it so distinct. This is a good starting point, but the writer has to be cautious about not seeing the forest for the trees. It is not enough to say “Going to the beach was a highlight of my summer, because I like swimming.” We have to dig into the details and the deeper meaning. To do this, we must recreate that scene. The easiest way to make use of this is through asking questions via visualization. What was I wearing? How did the sun look against the surfboards on the water? What did the air smell like? Who did I go with?
It is usually easy enough to recreate the scene, but the tricky part is knowing which details are essential to the story. This requires an intuitive ability to sort through information in order to successfully impart that deeper message to the reader.
So…what does all of this have to do with everyday grace? It was Socrates who once acknowledged, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe that how we see our lives is how we live our lives. If we see our lives as the structured, formulaic, sequential prove your point paper, then we will be forever preoccupied with those restrictive definitions. We will set off in search of a linear path, instead of understanding that meaning comes from the details and the details are not always laid out in front of us like pieces on a game board.
Everyday grace insists that things that are seemingly unrelated are usually much more connected than first impressions might lead us to think. To demonstrate this concept, I have made a short video alternative to a 5-paragraph essay about my summer vacation in which I juxtapose tranquil, nature scenes with scenes from loud, human interaction. This was a central (to use the high school term) “theme” from my summer, as I would spend nine days at a time in the backcountry and then five days in the city. You can watch it below.
How does this video make you feel? Can you relate to it? What are some of the opposite ideas presented? Do they have a connection, even if they seem divergent? Take for example the movement of the dancers in Portland and the movement of the children on the rides at the county fair. Compare that with the deer moving up the hillside and the rushing noise from the waterfalls. What details are most important?
Remember Socrates…the unexamined life is not worth living.
“And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” -Viktor Shklovsky
Resolutions. Affirmations. Beginnings. It is a new year.
In 2011 I graduated from college, moved across the country, and learned how to use a crosscut saw. I rode a Greyhound bus from Missoula to Portland, Oregon. I rode an Amtrak train from Missoula to Portland, Maine. I touched my toes in the Pacific, jet boated to a remote location along the Salmon River of No Return in Idaho, and attended my first “big” college football game (free of charge, courtesy of a kind Griz fan).
But it wasn’t easy. I found myself playing a completely new ball game. I had been used to school. Liberal Arts. Essays. Characterization. Metaphors. Creativity.
Then, all of sudden, I was trying to figure out how the heck to sharpen a Pulaski. How to filter water from a creek. How to work with pack mules. How to go nine days without a shower.
There were mornings in the backcountry when I groaned at the sound of my alarm clock, wearily lacing up my heavy logging boots, fumbling to clean a small circle on my grimy pointer finger to stick contacts into my sleepy eyes. There were hot, dusty afternoons of pounding rocks with sledgehammers in exposed scree fields. There were exhaustive hikes and construction projects that I just couldn’t conceptually grasp.
But serving on a trail crew provided me with necessary insight. I think that too often we stay within the confines of our comfort zones. People with practical minds take up jobs that require hands-on skills. People with less-grounded minds take up jobs that allow for a more visionary, capacity-building power. If one does not have to take up a job in the opposing bracket, why should she?
Well, because sometimes you can’t write about something until you experience it firsthand.
In my final semester at Farmington I presented a research project called, “Exploring Environmental Imagination Through Creative Nonfiction Multimedia.” Through travel excursions during my college years, I discovered that I am intrigued and passionate about this innovative way of storytelling. What is creative nonfiction multimedia? It’s using words, sounds, voices, and visual aids to tell a story. It means utilizing the tools of technology for the benefit of information distribution. In my opinion, creative nonfiction multimedia has two main goals: education and empathy.
One of the biggest tricks to writing is finding balance between the demands of life experience and the demands of creating art that is profitable. In many ways it sounds absurd…after all, how can we commodify something as qualitative as human emotion? Most artists detest the business aspects to their work, and I have to agree that I’m not enthused about crunching numbers.
However, there are bills to pay and so one of my main goals for the coming year is to figure that balance out…how can I pursue my passion and be able to afford to live? It is a critical question not only because of the present economy and scary job market, but also because writers are finding themselves in constant competition with the multi-faceted technological stimuli pervading everyday life. How can the written word remain of value when placed beside photography, film, and radio? I am determined that these forms of creative nonfiction can work together harmoniously by offering up different perspectives to the stories we share. Multimedia really just means using more than one platform to present a story. And while we are a society that loves headlines, news clips, and instant “feeds,” it’s very hard to get anything other than surface-level knowledge after simply hearing a few tweets. Just as a bird’s song is rich and full, so are the lives of our friends, families, neighbors, and the strangers we pass by everyday.
So, here we go. There are stories to tell. People to know. Songs to sing. 2011 brought axes and hard hats and saws. I’m excited to see what 2012 has in store.
At the end of my AmeriCorps term with the Montana Conservation Corps we spent a couple of weeks carrying out weatherization projects for low-income homes. I wrote this prose poem for the MCC blog about one encounter.
It’s a vision. It’s a mindset. It’s seeing the world with an open heart.
As a storyteller, I am intrigued by the details of everyday life…observing them, capturing them, and helping others see them as artistic pieces of this interconnected universe.
A bear ambling up a mountainside. A wildflower by the sea. A small glance between two friends. These are the kinds of moments that inspire my work, my passion, my soul. I hope you…whoever you are…wherever you are…take time to find the everyday grace present in your own life. Appreciate it. Document it. Share it.
Here’s to celebrating all the upcoming wonders of the new year,