Lucky’s Last Flight

You could see in his eyes the wild gallops of his past,

his lush mane streaming and his glorious tail wind-whipped in his wake.

Eight years in the wilds of Utah, a stallion, maybe with his own band,

maybe running in the bachelor herd, a life on the move—

grazing, finding water, rutting and running on stony ground.

 

But then his flight was thwarted. Capture, castration and servitude.

Scars on his dark russet hide, scars on his heart, a wariness filming his eyes.

I imagine a brutal breaking to the will of man, and then years of packing

their stuff deep into the mountains, trussed and hobbled.

 

Luckily, Lucky’s luck changed. A slight and tender woman and her daughter

decided they needed a mustang to round out their hearts, gentle to their hands,

rub and admire and fuss over, sing their love songs to, bandage and woo back

from sickness, and to leap upon in wild flights through the field, Lucky’s short legs

pumping through the long grasses, his long back cradling them both.

 

I missed all that and only know of it through Carol’s tales. By the time I met Lucky

he was an old man, sway backed and dull-coated, losing his teeth and graying.

But I saw how lucky Lucky was to come into another sweet time in his life,

to feel Carol’s gentle hands on his neck as together they faced the sunset.

 

I rode him only once, ever so briefly, during a wounded time

when I needed a steady old horse to help staunch my leaking confidence.

I knew him better later, from the ground, mixing his warm mash of senior feed,

watching him slurp and gum it with gusto, scratching the itchy places

along the dip of his spine, guiding him from corral to field and back again.

 

And my mare knew him, Esperanza the young and sassy, bossing Old Man Lucky

around, herding him in front of her with her ears laid back, and biting his butt

if he didn’t move fast enough. Carol said he needed another horse to tell him what for.

He didn’t mind that she was bitchy to him. He was smitten, and they were inseparable.

 

Esperanza has taken time every day this week to stand in the sandy spot by the fence

where Lucky last laid down, where he tried to rise but couldn’t lift himself further

than sitting on his haunches like a dog. That’s how I found him last Tuesday morning

bringing his breakfast. No telling how long he’d been down and how long he’d been

trying to rise. His breathing was already slow and ragged, his back legs played out.

 

Our favorite vet shot the euthanasia drug into Lucky’s vein, two shots it took

for Lucky to breathe out his last, and for his big head to finally slump down

on Carol’s lap and for his great heart to cease, her hands smoothing his graying hide

as she cooed her last love song and his spirit flew up from the husk of his body.

 

We cushioned his head and blanketed his body against the summer flies. All day Carol

kept vigil, even snuggling under the horse blanket as if napping with him, and then

Esperanza joined them, standing over them both, shooing the flies with her tail, lipping

the blanket and pushing it aside to snuffle Lucky’s fading scent as she waited for him to rise.

 

Esperanza is neighing into the sky, a full throated and plaintive bugling. I wonder if she

still sees Lucky’s last flight the way I did, hoisted into the air with a neighbor’s front end

loader, chains wrapped around his front and back legs, hanging upside down against a cobalt sky,

head thrown back, mane and tail flying in a strange swaying gallop. I wonder if she will

recognize the hollow in the field where we buried his body deep in the sandy earth. I wonder

if she realizes that we’ve saved enough room her to lie down next to him when her time comes.

Old musings upon the Muse

When a sculpture is going well, I feel as if I am in a dialogue with the emerging form, with each tool used, and with the material itself. My hands and eyes are listening, responding, exploring, coaxing. Sometimes what comes out is a complete surprise to me, as if a combination of my unconscious, the life of the material and the spirit of the form are being reflected back to me.

When a sculpture is not going well, I have ample opportunity to observe my impatience and insistence to push or hurry the process. Oftentimes this is when something breaks. In that clear moment of destruction there can be incredible insight and the chance to see/feel what the form/material is really all about…

I owe much of my training and inspiration to several teachers: David Park, my uncle, a Bay Area painter whom I never met, but feel akin to nevertheless. I grew up surrounded by his large, moody figurative paintings. He died when I was nine, but lives on through his work and lately a modest fame and recognition. Perhaps as part of this legacy, when my own talent emerged, my family strongly encouraged and supported me.

Edith Truesdell, my great aunt, a painter of landscapes and figures, and David Park’s mentor. She painted well into her nineties with excitement and devotion.

Judith Simmons, a potter and sculptor who with gentle hands and voice showed me how to feel the life of clay, the miracle of transforming fire, art as a private act of listening/feeling inside.

Gordon Newell, my uncle-in-law, a sculptor of wood, stone, clay, bronze, plaster, good friend to David Park back during the WPA days. Upon seeing my ceramic sculpture when I was eighteen, he catalyzed my own desire to move myself along the path of an artist. His Sculpture Center in Monterey became my home and workplace in 1971. Gordon introduced me to carving, to the beauty of the California desert, and to the fellowship of artists. My affiliation with Gordon, who at eighty-something is still robustly carving stone, continues to this day…

excerpts from my artist’s statement, Deer Run Art Show 1990

The Oxygen of Love

Not just the words, but the compass they offer…

That’s what I want, what I need. The ability

to  keep balanced as humans wobble the earth

on her axis, insanity inflames, and demagogues

spin their lies  in a thick and sticky web, ensnaring

true vision, feeding on ignorance and fear, offering

easy answers all tied up in a pretty bow.

 

The drumhead tautens, threatens to tear

while the drummer sets a rhythm too fast,

too tight to hold, and the beat dizzies, erratic,

out of control. How do we stop feeding the madness,

prune the shallow roots and suckers that seek out

sustenance where there’s none to be found—

that can’t be sustained—

that can never really satisfy.

 

How do we sink down our taproots beyond

the hard and rocky layers, the ones

that seem hopeless and impenetrable,

the ones that make us face our loneliness

and longing, the ones that actually require work,

until we break through the deep into fecundity,

the moistunderworld of la tierra sagrada.

 

Only there can the taproot marry the rich earth,

entwine and intermingle, inter-depend,

each feeding the other. Only then can

the trees of our bodies spiral upward,

our arms extend into the heavens,

beautiful, balanced, belonging. Only then

can we breathe in the madness, transform

the poison within the universe of our cells,

breathe out the oxygen of love.

Getting Out of the Corner

Image

It made no sense to back him in a corner. I could see him stiffen and flare his eyes as he went on the defensive. How she could not have seen it too is beyond me. But no, she pushed him even harder. Any trust and sense of belonging he’d had up to that point was on the run like a spooked horse that shits on the fly to lighten its load.

Yes, he was exactly like that. A spooked horse, possibly one that’s been mishandled, dominated, forced. Horses generally don’t want to kick or bite; sure, they’ll knock each other around in the herd some, but basically they’re grass-eaters, peaceful, more prey than predator. They’re not looking for a fight. But they’ll become predators if you push them hard enough, if you force your hand, and they’ve got nowhere to run. Any creature would. It’s a matter of dignity.

If you continue to pressure and push a cornered, scared horse that has already shown it’s willing to bite or kick to defend itself, then in my book, you get what you deserve. The solution? You have to back off, give the horse some space, remind it that it’s not cornered. In fact, encourage it to move off away from you, a much safer and more peaceful option than flying hooves or lunging teeth with ears pinned back. Only then can you begin traveling the long slow road to re-establish trust and make a connection.

Same with this student. Tattooed, atti-tooed, jailed, paroled, trying his best to not fuck up again. A young man who could swing either way, and it wouldn’t take much. He’d already passed one test towards his GED, something he thought he didn’t have the smarts for, something that surprised all of us, but him most of all. He didn’t know he had it in him to pass a really hard test, to succeed at anything, to actually possess the capability to not continue down the wrong road. He was starting to open up. To dream. Little dreams, at first. Then medium sized dreams. Maybe even big dreams.

But then he’s shamed and pushed around. She does it in front of the rest of the class. To his credit, he doesn’t blow a gasket and come out swinging. He pushes it down for later. Smart move, but it costs him.

I want to defend him, stick up for him, protect the trust and connection we’re building as teacher/student. I want to make her wrong for interfering. I want to find out exactly what’s wrong with her so I can explain it to her in great detail and make her back down.

But that road doesn’t feel right either. Maybe she’s feeling the same way he is. Pushed into a corner. Pressured enough to let the snarl get a hold of her. Scared. Isolated. In survival mode. And oblivious to the contra-indications.

I have to back off from both of them. Launder my agenda and hang it out to purify in the sunlight. Reconnect my own self so that I’m calm, consistent, patient. Only then can I give them space to remember they’re okay. They can move their feet. They’re not cornered. Just like with a nervous horse, I need to release the pressure as soon as I feel just the smallest try.

Asking the Right Question

Let’s call her Alice, a chunky woman (chunky by her own definition) who sometimes comes into class with makeup I wouldn’t begin to know how to apply—thick penciled eyebrows, heavy eyeliner, multiple shades of eye shadow, mascara that makes her eyelashes look like caterpillar fur. Other times she just looks like the worn out single mom that she is, doing good just to get up and get her kid off to school, living with the reality of being an ex-offender on probation, and eating a big slice of humble pie by coming to the Center for Adult Learning to study for her high school equivalency. On her diagnostic entrance test, she scored only about 9th grade level in reading and writing skills, but we both have theories about that. As her teacher, my theory is what I call the rust factor: being out of school for a while can set up perfect conditions to rust the machinery of the brain, and it simply takes time to wear it away. I joke that I’ve got a can of WD-40 in my backpack just in case. Alice’s theory is that her reading and writing skills have atrophied because of texting on her cell phone. I think we’re both right.

I’m very interested in why adult basic education students couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t make it through public school, and I’m working on another theory: public school doesn’t cater to kinesthetic learners, those students who can’t quite absorb information or gain understanding if they can’t experience it tactilely in their bodies. Since public school is overwhelmingly geared towards visual and audial learners, kinesthetic learners get left by the wayside. A big factor is controllability. Visual and audial learners are much more likely to be content sitting still; meanwhile, kinesthetic learners are so frustrated that they’re acting like they’ve got ants in their pants, and not surprisingly get targeted as troublemakers or daydreamers who are not able to focus their over-active attention. Maybe public schools have caught on to this fact and achieved a better balance of teaching to different learning styles, but until they do, our little learning center will be packed with disgruntled, shamed, over-active, stymied, and self-doubting kinesthetic learners.

Alice is a self-doubter; we stumbled upon this discovery because I noticed that when I gave her a second chance to answer those questions that she missed on any given test, she did quite well, and she would say “Shoot, that’s the answer I put down first, but I didn’t think it could be right, so I changed it.” I hear that a lot. Students’ first instincts are often right, but they don’t trust them. So I asked her, “Do you doubt yourself often?”

“All the time.”

“When did you first learn to doubt yourself?”

She looked at me with her beautifully flecked amber eyes and when I saw them tear up, I knew I had stumbled on the right question, because the answer was right there, crowning, ready to be born. I suggested that she write a narrative beginning with the phrase “I first learned to doubt myself when…” She nodded, took paper and pen, bent her head and began to write.

The next time she came to class, she had typed her narrative into four pages that detailed how she had been sexually molested by her uncle when she was a tween. When she told her mother about it, her mother had believed her, but her father, an intimidating drunk, had not, and neither had anyone else in her family. In fact they were so angry that she would make such an accusation, they shamed her. I’m not sure what the mother’s response was; Alice was vague on that point. But her paper was very clear on the anguish of realizing that maybe she had gotten it wrong. Maybe she had misunderstood what had happened between her uncle and her. Maybe her perceptions weren’t right. Maybe she couldn’t trust herself. Maybe it would be safer to hang back in self-doubt.

I suspect that that’s how Alice became a bad girl, failing high school, seduced by the wrong road, and eventually landing in jail. Now she is sitting across the table from me, amber eyes open and sparkling with tears as she gladly hands me the brutal facts of her life because I happen to be the first teacher so far to ask the right question.

On Turning 65

Why is it that when I was younger, pining for the day when I was older, time shuffled along, mulish and obstinate, but now, about to turn sixty-five and feeling like there’s still so much I want to do, create, see, touch, hear and give, the days gallop by like the jet stream touching down in the valley on a windy March day, and my list of projects blows helter skelter like tumbleweeds?

And why is that wisdom comes late in life, when the body begins to break down, when sometimes the hands lose their grip and the eyes refuse to focus, and the heartbeat loses its place and drums madly to catch up? Why can’t I have my thirty-five-year-old body, buffed and slim and bouncy, AND my sixty-five-year-old mind, which might actually have learned a thing or two along the way?

But no, apparently that’s not how it works.

Then again, what do I know? I’ve only been here sixty-five years, and I’m still learning. As Henry and I often quip (insert Yiddish accent here), “What we don’t know is a lot.”

I think about the prisoners in my distance classes, how time must feel to them, how some of them came to prison young and are growing old within its cold walls, how they learn to use the ponderous progress of time to their advantage so that what they write is layered, mulled over, probing and pared down. How ironic to have Great Wisdom arrive intact in a prison cell, but to live in an environment where the list of creative projects and desires is daily redacted.

I think about the students in Adult Education who are struggling to get their GEDs, unlearn bad street habits, manage their kids and iffy finances and broke-down cars and parole officers, who never bothered to learn their times tables or the classic structure of a five-paragraph essay but who know at a glance who’s telling the truth and who is full of bullshit. They know that years can go by wasting time, and that life’s wisdom can be frittered away as if it grew year-long, drought-tolerant, thriving even in a desiccating wind.

I think about the horses in the field: Esperanza right at the balance point of gaining wisdom and sensibility while still young enough to enjoy a supple, strong body, and Lucky on the far end of the fulcrum, dented and scarred, limping and quidding his hay, but wise beyond his years, his spirit a steady flame in this eyes.

I think about Henry and our marriage of thirty-three years, how some of it has flown by and some of it has stumbled, how much time we have put into nurturing it, maintaining it, even rescuing it, and how the marriage itself has become an expression of time, and the gathering of wisdom. We met each other when our bodies were still strong and bouncy enough to survive the stupid mistakes we made; now we are witnessing, and reveling in, the story of how time, and a little wisdom, makes it mark on our bodies and souls.

And last, I think about the stones waiting for my chisel, or, if not mine, some sculptor’s hand who comes after me, someone who will see and feel how unimaginable time has compressed itself into marble crystals, their dense, accrued wisdom patiently, silently, waiting.

Killer writing: prisoners speak

Incarcerated students are back in my life, thanks to teaching through Adams State Extended Studies. Their words and wisdom hearken back to the 90s when I was a volunteer teacher and administrator of the Prison Integrated Health Program at FCI Dublin, the West Coast federal prison for women. I never thought I’d be doing prison work again, but here it is, and I am immensely grateful. So instead of my words in this blog post, I want to share the words of two who have given me permission to do so.

excerpted from R. Stewart’s Introductory Paper to The Prison Memoir, ENG 279:

Who are you? is a question that most people would answer with simple facts such as name, date of birth, occupation, marital status, and geographical history. Yet from my perspective we are all more of a river, a flow of cause and effect, a continuum from the singularity and the subsequent Big Bang, to the universe becoming conscious of itself in you and me. I am poor choices, good choices, genetics. I am the manifestation of circumstance. I am who I am at this moment, different than who I was, or will be. The raindrop falls into the sea, the sea evaporates and becomes the cloud, the cloud condenses and becomes the rain that becomes the river, I drink of the river and it becomes me.

I spent fourteen years on death row. I had met the clinical definition of addict by twelve years old. In 1989 at twenty-five years old, after sixty sleepless days on a meth run, I snapped at what someone said, at what I finally saw, and a juggernaut of rage burst forth, and in seconds, I shot three people. It was as if I was taken over by an external force. I never intended it and couldn’t believe what I had just done. I ended up telling a jury to execute me. It just seemed easier than living with it all. My death penalty was reversed on a technicality, a Fourth Amendment derived voir dire error that would be named after me, a “Stewart Error.”

I went from death row to a Security Housing Unit, because of gang validation. Six years later I was released into the mainline.

During close to twenty years spent in solitude, three quarters of it was spend in litigation for my life. Writing was my means of expression, salvation,and catharsis…

 

excerpted from R. Tiran’s Introductory Paper to The Prison Memoir, ENG 279:

My status as a criminal seems to always enter a room before I do, infecting any true introduction. The scars on my wrists bound from the past and my ball and chain of regret are of little help. Furthermore, explaining who I am is difficult due to who I was. I have regretfully discovered that the greatest mistakes are eternal, and this fact of forever ruins any meaningful “nice to meet you.”

I was once a young man who killed another. Providing a “why” somehow cheapens the gravity of my actions. While some reasons are more digestible than others, taking someone’s life should never hold a “because.” Yet while I will always be that person, he exists so far off in the distance; he is distorted and unrecognizable. This year I am 36 years old. I am from the snow capped mountains of Lake Tahoe, California. For the past 12 years I have been serving a life sentence, and I will likely die lying in this bed I made.

Before recently, I was on a crusade of discarding anyone who showed me love. However, upon stepping under this incarcerated sky, I found the skeleton who whispered to throw away love, and other lies. While I have evicted him from his closet, I find that today I still wear a mask. This armor protects an unemotional man who walks within fences littered with razor wire, protecting himself from all this battleground has to offer. Yet within such Kevlar lies the authentic me, struggling to shed such a shield, but terrified of the sky falling. To be human while under a gun tower is spilling blood while sharks circle.

I enjoy writing because when my pen moves, masks no longer hold value, and I feel no pressure of having to be anything else. I’ve found that paper holds little judgment, and loves me like a mother. When surrounded by fences, writing provides wings…