[T]he goal is to create a world, a window, a threshold. The goal is to get at something real, pared down, honest, to make a connection, a place in which souls can meet. To make something honest, I have learned, create an illusion.
Calm Things by Shawna Lemay
For the past six months my evening routine has been made a million times more wonderful by a nightly visit to the poet Shawna Lemay’s blog, Calm Things. I find that transition hard, the shift from nagging about tooth brushing, changing the littlest one, warming milk and singing songs, to being alone for an hour before B gets home. There’s so much action, so much adrenalin, & often more than a little frustration in that last half an hour of my day with children.
Frustration that someone won’t put their pyjamas on, or someone else has forgotten that they need to practice the clarinet, or someone else has lost the special toy they can’t sleep without. And then someone is calling me back because they’re thirsty & someone needs a tissue & someone realises that they’ve left their book downstairs. And on & on it goes, until — so suddenly! — it’s over, and I’m tired, and there are a thousand things I should do, or could do, but nothing that I want to do. This is where Shawna rescues me.
Calm Things is also the title essay of Shawna Lemay’s collection on still life painting. In eight fluid mediations she takes us behind the scenes of her suburban life, into the world of painting and writing that she, her artist husband, and their small daughter inhabit. There’s such pleasure in this exploration of the quiddity of things, the precarious balance of an artist’s life, and the persistence and stillness necessary to see art in the quotidian.
There’s beauty in these essays and balance, and a depth of inhabitation with the questions Lemay returns to — these questions of what it’s like to live with still life, what it’s like to live poetically, are clearly things that she has attended to long and hard. References to writers, to painters, to works of art, are shot through the essays — trails of golden thread to be followed. And Lemay is great on the small details — the quest for unusual, imperfect flowers and fruit to paint, the long photographic sessions her husband sets up to record the tableaux he will later paint, the two days of drawing with pencil that will be covered up with oil paint, the secret threads & pieces of tape that hold the elements of the still life in position.
I also enjoyed the strange, dislocating doubleness of having come to Shawna first through her blog. Because I believe that a blog too can be a work of art, a commitment to a way of seeing, a way of living. And in this work of art, through Shawna’s photography and words, I have already come to know her ‘bower’ of a garden; the Tibetan bells a friend gave to her; her daughter Chloe, no longer five, but sixteen and beautiful, with hair the pink of candy floss. I found a strange comfort in this knowledge; despite the precariousness, despite the financial uncertainty, the way of life, the art of living she describes has endured.
Why is it so hard to write about the experience of reading something? To capture its texture and the way the language makes you feel? I want to tell you how Calm Things slowed me, and calmed me, and made me feel like I was being taken into someone’s confidence, shown the secret life behind the suburban normality. I want to tell you how Calm Things is beautiful at the level of each individual paragraph, how you can take a paragraph at random and enjoy it for itself alone.
A week later, the essays of Calm Things are still reverberating through my thoughts. Some of them I’ve read again and been seduced by anew. And I keep returning to this piece by Dani Shapiro, on thinking of art and life as an integrated whole. Shapiro says she’s often asked questions about teaching and writing or about motherhood and writing, which basically come down to ‘Is it possible to have a life and be a writer?’ Her answer?
I’d like to answer a resounding yes to that question, though with the caveat that this requires a daily practice, a daily awareness that perhaps we need not delineate between life and art, draw a line down the center of our days and put our work on one side and everything else on the other.
Shapiro also quotes Louise Glück, interviewed by William Giraldi:
WG: You once said to me on the phone, “Follow your enthusiasms.”
LG: I believe that. I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.
I like this thought. Who with a houseful of children & all the distractions they bring wouldn’t? And it seems to me that it’s about constructing a life in which there is space for art. A life which on the outside might look like any other life in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs but is really a life dedicated to paying attention. And that is perhaps both as simple as it sounds, and oh-so-very-much harder. I’m glad anyway to have Shawna to show one way in which this might be possible.