I've been to art festivals, jazz festivals, strawberry festivals, logging festivals, Polish festivals and festivals whose themes were hard to figure out. At every single one, I've found something beautiful, engrossing, strange, entertaining or tasty. Yet nothing inspires me like a book festival.
Thousands of people, all gathered to celebrate the written word, to listen to favorite authors read from their work, to discover new authors, to have conversations about books! In this age of quick-hit info-bits and constant distractions, it's good to know that so many people still choose to engage deeply with a 300-page tale.
I found abundant evidence of that phenomenon at the Tucson Festival of Books earlier this month. My main reason for going was to participate in a masters workshop for winners and finalists in the festival's literary awards competition (I was a finalist). I'll share more about the workshop in a moment, but first, a few impressions of the festival, which itself was worth the trip.
The two-day Tucson Festival of Books attracts more than 130,000 book lovers to the University of Arizona Mall and nearby venues, making it the nation's third-largest book festival (behind the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Library of Congress National Book Festival). And the event enriches more than minds: visitors pour at least $3 million into the local economy.
Some 400 authors participate in presentations and workshops on topics ranging from current events to zombies, and still more authors are on-site, selling and signing books at their booths.
A legion of 2,000 or so volunteers assists with the event, welcoming festivalgoers, greeting and escorting authors, selling books, carrying boxes, managing lines, posting signs, answering questions and giving directions (especially in that one wacky building where all the odd-numbered rooms are on one end and the even-numbered rooms are on the other!), and making the ubiquitous announcements inviting attendees to become Friends of the Tucson Festival of Books.
Consider this: the whole festival—readings, lectures, panel discussions, musical entertainment, kids' activities, even a literary circus—is free of charge to the public.
And this: All proceeds from the festival go to sustaining the event and supporting local literacy programs. Since 2009, the festival has contributed more than $1,450,000 to groups that work to improve reading and writing ability among children and adults in Southern Arizona.
That's only a small sample—the tip of the saguaro, if you will. I couldn't even begin to hit all the sessions that appealed to me.
With sixty performances taking place during the festival, there are ample opportunities to give your brain a rest and listen to music instead of words for a while.
During one mid-day break, I feasted on blue corn tamales to the accompaniment of the most indefatigable yodeler I have ever heard. Honestly, she went on for what seemed like half an hour. And she was good. (So were the tamales.)
By far the most entertaining hour of the whole two days, though, came courtesy of author Michael Perry. I mean, how can you not laugh at a guy whose website is called Sneezing Cow? I had bought his book, Truck: A Love Story, when I came to the festival and masters workshop two years ago, and I enjoyed his funny and tender accounts of life in rural Wisconsin (kinda reminded me of another rural community I know well). So when I saw his name on the program, I made sure to get to the Arizona Daily Star tent early enough to nab a seat.
Oh, was I glad I did. Perry had the audience cracking up—and occasionally tearing up—for the whole hour. My favorite was his piece on farmer yoga, from his new book, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and off the Back Forty (which I couldn't resist buying in spite of limited space in my luggage).
Want to know more about Arizona insects? There's a tent for that. Take a virtual tour of nearby National Parks? There's also a tent for that. Learn about self-publishing? Yep, that, too.
Meanwhile, the indoor lectures offer tips on writing and publishing fiction, poetry and nonfiction; getting your book reviewed; promoting your artwork; navigating the entertainment industry, and other helpful topics. I took advantage of three of these free workshops: "Nonfiction – Finding an Agent," taught by Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias; "Telling Your Story – Biography v Memoir," by Lisa Napoli (whose memoir, Radio Shangri-La, is a favorite); and "The Ethics and Personal Issues of Writing," by Joyce Maynard (whose memoir, At Home in the World, is another favorite).
Striking up conversations is easy—after all, you can always talk about books. And you never know what else will surface. I shared a lunch table with a Tucson couple who, I discovered, were originally from Kalamazoo, had relatives in Fremont, and used to spend summers at Diamond Lake in White Cloud, all close to my Michigan home.
At another mealtime, a lively bunch of strangers saw me eating alone and invited me to join them. All members of the Western Writers of America, they enlightened me on a genre about which I knew nothing. Among other things, I learned that western novels are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Plus, the authors get to wear some mighty fancy duds.
Outside the booth of a Muslim organization, several young men put a different spin on friendliness. Smiling, they held signs that read, "MEET A MUSLIM. ASK ME ANYTHING." I stopped to talk to one pair and asked what kind of response they were getting. Their smiles widened. "Overwhelmingly positive."
As the festival wound down, the masters workshop warmed up with a Sunday evening get-acquainted reception. Monday morning, we got down to business with a full, two-day schedule of craft talks and readings by the faculty, poets Dana Levin and Monica Youn and authors Joyce Maynard, Michael Tolkin and Mark Beauregard.
I have pages and pages of notes from their talks, full of gems that I will return to again and again. One comment stands out as especially relevant these days. In her opening remarks, Joyce Maynard noted that, at a time when compassion is lacking, it falls to writers and poets to be "the holders of empathy."
Each day we also split up into groups of ten, sorted by genre, and spent two to three hours discussing the pieces of writing we had submitted. Joyce Maynard led the nonfiction workshop, and she wasn't kidding when she warned us she'd be tough. She zeroed in on misleading lead-ins, flabby prose, irrelevant details, rambling sentences, sloppy structures, vague and timid language. Ouch, ouch, ouch. She counseled us to write with intention, spending as much time thinking as putting words on the page. She told us to throw out writing that isn't working, rather than trying to patch it up. Most of all, she urged us to write our most difficult stories, honestly and shamelessly.
"Go to the nerves that are alive, the dark places, the things that don't work out, the odd things you're obsessed with."
I came away with a freshly-sharpened set of writing tools and the determination to use them on the essays I've been struggling with. I also came away with nine new writing friends. I've been in workshops where participants developed a strong rapport and others where the group just never clicked. This one clicked, perhaps, as someone joked, because we bonded like trauma survivors after enduring Joyce's critiques. Whatever the reason, I look forward to trading work and encouragement with Kelly, Gerry, Jane, Sara, Steve, Lee Anne, Arlyn, Roz and Kirsten.
Not ready to leave Tucson? I don't blame you. Come along on another walk through the festival and its surroundings.
In January, Ray and I spent a delightful hour or so viewing the latest work of photographer Tim Motley at an exhibit and reception at Artsplace in Fremont. Tim, who has made a living as a commercial photographer for thirty-seven years, recently changed direction to concentrate on fine art abstract photography.
As I listened to Tim discussing his inspirations and techniques with gallery visitors, it occurred to me that HeartWood readers might also be interested in what he had to say. Though I had already peppered him with questions the night of the reception, he graciously agreed to answer still more questions for this Q&A.
I'm always fascinated when someone who's been successful following one path decides to take a chance and turn a different direction. You mentioned that your shift from commercial photography to fine art photography was something you'd been thinking about for a while. What made you decide it was the right time to make the move?
It was one of those things where you're kind of gently pushed. I started out in fashion in back in the eighties, moved into high-end weddings, and then when the economy went down, my weddings went from fifty a year to four. Because of the economy and so many other photographers out there, I decided to go into fine art world. I had done some fine art work back in the nineties, but it really didn't go anywhere. This body of abstract work that I'm doing now, I'm very motivated to get it out there, get into galleries and museums. I look at this as my legacy.
Was your previous fine art work similar in any way to the work you're doing now?
It was very different. Quite a bit of it was travel photography—a lot of images from Italy. The rest of it was just fine-art things that I'd shot off and on through the years, like Tibetan monks. I have photographed events all my life, and after a while, with the events, I started getting little fine art pieces. And in the nineties, I was in an artist's co-op. We had a gallery in South Haven and we all sold our artwork. That kind of dried up when my weddings took over.
Where did the initial idea for this new work come from?
About three years ago, I was photographing a dance rehearsal. I was starting to get really bored with it, because the dancers would get up and move around, and then they'd sit down and talk about it. You could be there for four hours without much happening. So I started shooting abstracts of the dancers in the dance studio under fluorescent lighting and getting some interesting results. That's where it really took off. I thought, if I take the concept to my own studio where I can the control lighting and background, I bet I could get some remarkable results.
How much experimentation did it take before you arrived at a process that would produce the results you're after?
Actually, I'm still in the experimenting stage. But probably about a year into it, I started feeling confident and knowing I had something here to really treasure. After that, with each shoot, I continue to learn something. It just evolves. There's really no hard-and-fast rules that I use in this, with the exception that generally I use one light and one person, and they have to move. Those are the only requirements.
I've been doing this for about three years, and as I go along my techniques shift and change a little day by day. One of the really neat things about this is, I felt like I had learned everything there was to learn as a photographer, and now all of a sudden this abstract world has opened up a whole new world for me. I'm learning much more about photography.
For photography enthusiasts, can you say a little about the techniques you use in this work?
We set up one light, and I have the model standing on the floor under the light. We put some music on. The music is very important; we try to put on music that they love to move to, dance or yoga or whatever, and then we start to shoot, using low shutter speeds. Usually the shoots last an hour only, because after that the model is exhausted and so am I. It's a real short time, but it's filled and compacted with energy like crazy.
Every model that comes in brings something different to the shoot. Some are professional models, some are dancers, and I've had a number of actresses come in. Each person brings a little something different each time, be it through their personality or through their talent. That contributes to the difference in each shoot.
How many images do you typically take to produce one of these pieces?
In one session, we will shoot anywhere from 500 to 800 images. There's a whole lot of shooting going on. Usually out of that 500 or 800, I can come up with five or six really good pieces. Then I'll narrow that down to maybe one. The rest of it is just exploration.
You mentioned that your wife, Patty Caterino, does the printing and any post-processing that's involved. Can you say a little about that process?
Oh, absolutely. Being that I shoot everything digital, there's a lot of latitude with any of the images. Basically all we do with the images is what you would do in a traditional darkroom. The lights are darkened, maybe a little contrast and saturation, but that's it. All of the abstract work is actually done in the camera. After we shoot, quite often I'll spend a few days evaluating the images, and then I'll pull maybe 20 or 30. My wife will sit down with me, and then she and I will go over them. Her knowledge in the computer is far beyond anything I could ever do. She starts making little adjustments, and she'll see things in her mind's eye, and from that all of a sudden other things start coming out of the picture.
In fact, the one picture that was like the main picture of the whole Artsplace show showed a blue body walking out of frame. That was a picture that I just breezed right over. My wife found it and said, "Oh, let me take a look at this," and she made a couple of minor adjustments and all of a sudden the picture took on a whole new life.
I'm basically a photographer. I work the camera, but I don't work the printer. I don't have experience in that field. My wife and I really make a very good team. We've been together since 1995, and we have a good cohesion, where with what I shoot, she makes my images so much more beautiful.
She's an artist in her own way. Anything she has an interest in, she can pick up some books, read them for about two weeks and then master whatever she wants to do. She's done everything from welding to glass mosaic work. She used to do a lot of oil painting on my photographs, where she'd take a black-and-white image and hand-color it. She has a phenomenal touch. She's very, very artistic. The things that we do together let her use that talent.
What do you feel you're expressing in this new work?
These abstracts kind of parallel my life. In the old days, when I was out there photographing events, my life was wide open to everyone, and people knew what was going on in my life. Now I'm much more reclusive, and my work is shifting with my personal life as well. Part of the idea behind the abstracts is, the body will have no clothing, no jewelry, simply because I don't want to depict this society. I would like those images to be as timeless as they can be.
My personal feelings are, the more I see of society, the less I want to be a part of it. So the abstracts kind of play along with that, and are something different that no one else does. And this work speaks to me. It really does.
And it stimulates me. I had reached the point a while back where the work just did nothing for me. All I did was make pretty pictures, but I couldn't feel anything coming from it. When I do these abstracts now, there's a feeling I get, a sense of accomplishment, definitely a sense of mystery. Sometimes I don't even understand what I'm getting, but I love what I'm doing. So I just continue down that path and see where it takes me.
Every piece that you see of my work is a part of me. I feel that connected to it. I think for the first time in my life, I truly do feel like an artist, and I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything in the world.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the early days when I was shooting a lot of fashion, some of the fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon inspired me. Nowadays my references that I use for studying are Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning. I really do see life in an abstract way now, and this is all I really see photographically, too. I study art all the time. If I'm not shooting or working on pictures, I'm studying other artists' work just trying to be inspired by it, analyze it, see how it can come into my work.
How did you first get started in photography?
Back in the 1970s, I got a camera and started photographing my sons. One day I was shooting one of my sons in the living room, and I did something different with the lighting, and it was the most different picture I'd ever made. That really inspired me. I was bitten by the bug then, and I took off with photography. I started reading everything could get my hands on about photography. I was a magazine junkie. I bought every magazine I could get on photography and devoured it.
I dabbled in it until about 1985, when I met a guy at a camera shop who had a little studio in a warehouse in Grand Rapids. He said, "I'll tell you what, you come in and help me with my rent, and I'll teach you how to use studio lighting." I was with him for two months; then he took on a couple of other photographers because he wanted to lower the rent even further, and the place was too small for all of us. So in the same building, I built my own studio. I had close to 2,000 square feet that I only paid $200/month for. I was there for fifteen years in that building, shooting fashion and weddings and portraits. Then my wife and I met in '95 and the place we live now came up for sale in '97.
Where we live now is in a little area called Tallmadge Township, about fifteen miles outside the city of Grand Rapids. We actually own an old town hall, and that's what my studio is in. In back of the town hall is our house. One benefit of shooting the abstracts in the studio is that it keeps me home more often.
What suggestions do you have for anyone who's starting out in photography or who's been dabbling in photography for a while but wants to get better at it?
The one thing I could suggest is, you have to have a very strong drive. You have to be dedicated to it and you have to be focused on it. To go the route that I've gone, you have to work at it 24 hours a day. Once I got into photography and started professionally, it was like there was nothing else that went on in this world to me except my photography.
Are there other directions you'd like to take this work in the future?
One of the ideas we're kicking around now is tying my abstracts in with cancer patients. One of the models who's been in probably three or four times to do these abstract nudes is a breast cancer survivor. She's 57 years old, and she's got scarring, and it's obvious what she's been through, and we made some very beautiful artwork of her. Further down the road, if we can find a patron to bankroll this kind of project, I'd like to make beautiful abstracts—nudes or portraits—with cancer survivors and have them displayed in a hospital.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The show at Artsplace led to a contact in Ludington, and I'll be putting on a show at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts in 2018.
If the news of the day has been getting you down, here's one bulletin that's guaranteed to inspire:
FAIRYLAND, Newaygo County (March 1, 2017)—In spite of last year's housing boom in the Enchanted Forest (also known as Camp Newaygo), officials report a serious shortage of sprite-sized housing.
"Thanks to the artistry of local supporters, the fairy homes that sprang up in our forest last year were so attractive, they were all immediately occupied by pixies, gnomes, sylphs and all manner of tiny creatures," says Elvira Elf, housing coordinator. "We’re expecting an influx of fairy folk soon, as they return from their winter homes down South. We're asking everyone to pitch in again to create a forest full of houses to welcome them back."
After receiving the news, fairy-house builder Wildwood Ray was spotted heading for his workshop with an armload of mysterious materials. "This is one call to action it's impossible to ignore," he said.
Bet you can't ignore it either! So start gathering twigs, moss, stones and anything else that strikes your fancy, and get busy creating. Houses are due April 15 (you can drop them off at Camp Newaygo or call 231-652-1184 to schedule a pick up). Guidelines are listed below.
The fairy houses, gnome homes, pixie palaces and elfin abodes will be hidden in the forest surrounding the camp, and during the Enchanted Forest Event, April 29 and 30, visitors can wander the woods with a trail map, searching for the houses and trying to spot their secretive inhabitants.
Cookies and punch will be supplied for house-hunting fortification, and for an additional fee, young visitors will have a chance to create their own handiwork at a craft table.
All the fairy houses will be auctioned on eBay afterward, so you can pick out a favorite to take home. (Don't forget to make a wish for a fairy to come along with it!)
Camp Newaygo is an independent, not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan. In addition to offering a girls' residential summer camp and a coed day camp, the camp provides year-round community events: dinners, girlfriend getaways, winter sleigh rides and more.
Last year, organizers hoped the first Enchanted Forest event would bring in twenty-five to thirty little dwellings. They received forty-two houses, and a total of 627 visitors toured the forest over the two days.
Here are this year's guidelines for building your fairy house:
The Enchanted Forest tour is April 29 and 30, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost is $7 per person or $25 per family of four. The make-and-take craft table will be available from 10 a.m. to noon on the 29th, for an additional charge. No advance registration necessary; please pay at the door.
Valentine's Day is over, but can't we all still use some love? I think we can, so I'm offering quotes about love in this installment of Last Wednesday Wisdom. And because HeartWood and I both celebrated birthdays this month (guess who's older), I'm throwing in some about age and experience, as well.
In the spirit of love and celebration, I'll even give you a treat at the end: photos from a recent concert and exhibit by local luthiers (stringed-instrument makers).
There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.
-- John Lennon
Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman's Odyssey
The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.
-- Madeleine L'Engle
How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live 'em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give 'em.
― Shel Silverstein
Trust in Experience. And in the rhythms.
The deep rhythms of your experience.
-- Muriel Rukeyser
No matter what you're feeling, the only way to get a difficult feeling to go away is simply to love yourself for it. If you think you're stupid, then love yourself for feeling that way. It's a paradox, but it works. To heal, you must be the first one to shine the light of compassion on any areas within you that you feel are unacceptable.
-- Christiane Northrup
Imagination has no expiration date.
-- Paula Whyman, author, in article on debut authors over age fifty, Poets & Writers magazine, November-December 2016
Love is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination.
We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
-- Paul Bowles
If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.
-- Maya Angelou
If I had known when I was twenty-one that I should be as happy as I am now, I should have been sincerely shocked. They promised me wormwood and the funeral raven.
-- Christopher Isherwood
What do farming and art have in common? A lot more than you might think, say Mike and Amanda Jones of Maple Moon Farm in Shelby, Michigan. To underscore the connection, they're sponsoring a FEED THE STARVING ARTIST contest with the theme, "Local Food and Local Farms" and a prize of a $250 gift card to the farm.
"The idea was really born out of a desire to increase community connections," says Amanda. "One of the reasons we farm is, we really enjoy having that direct relationship with the people who eat our food. Another element is, we feel that we ourselves bring an artistic element to farming. We wanted to draw on that bond with other artisans, whatever their art form, to create connections and a stronger community."
Artists and artisans have until March 4 to register, either by emailing Mike and Amanda at firstname.lastname@example.org or by stopping by their booth at Sweetwater Local Foods Market in Muskegon, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Anyone planning to enter needs to let the Joneses know the type of art and the size of the piece, so they can plan for enough display space at the market on March 11, when voting will take place. If registering by email, please send a photo of the entry.
The entries themselves may be dropped off at the farm or brought to the market on the 11th, when market shoppers will cast ballots to select a winner. "We just ask that anyone bringing their art on the 11th have it there by 9 a.m., when the market opens," says Amanda.
Entries of all sorts are welcome, she adds. "When someone is practicing something from the heart and really putting an element of themselves into what they create, we view that as being an artisan. We wanted to leave the definition broad to be as inclusive as possible." The only criterion is that all works should be related in some way to the theme of local food and local farms.
The winner will be announced at the market's close on the 11th and will also be featured on Maple Moon's Facebook page.
"The winning piece, we will keep in exchange for the gift certificate," says Amanda. Other entries should be picked up at the market after results are announced on the 11th.
For budding artists and coloring enthusiasts of all ages, there's a coloring contest, too! Coloring pages are available from Mike and Amanda on market days at Sweetwater Market. Market shoppers will also vote on coloring contest entries on the 11th, and the winner will receive a generous gift basket from the farm.
The couple hopes the contests will forge new connections between local food producers, artists and other members of the community. "We're hoping this will draw in people who haven't been connected with their local farmers market and that others who identify as artisans will connect with this local resource and see the parallels in what we do. Our community thrives when people are able to do what they truly love. It makes us happier people and benefits everybody as a whole. If we are able to support each other in doing what we love, it's a win-win for everybody."
Love is a big part of Mike and Amanda's approach to farming, says Mike, who grew up in Newaygo County family that gardened and raised animals. "We believe growing plants is an art form more than a job. We treat every plant with respect to get the best-quality produce . . . Everybody talks about their grandparents' garden and how they raised the best-tasting tomatoes. There's a reason for that: the plants were getting all the love and attention they had. When you're putting that kind of attention into the food, you get the best quality."
Maple Moon has used organic growing practices from the beginning and is currently certified organic. Though the farm's output has grown in the seven years since its beginning, Mike and Amanda want to keep it small enough that they can still be hands-on, rather than hiring other people to do the work.
"If we stay small, we can have more control over how plants are loved," Mike says. "Our primary goal is to grow things that taste the best."
The Joneses grow "most vegetables you can think of," including "lots of heirloom tomatoes," but specialize in greens and herbs, both culinary and medicinal, says Amanda, who grew up in suburban Detroit, but took an interest in food and farming in her late teens. She arranged to work for six weeks on Nothing But Nature farm in Ohio and ended up staying more than three years.
Consumer interest in organic and locally-produced and foods is on the rise, but with those foods increasingly available in supermarkets, many shoppers don't visit farmers markets. Amanda wants to remind them there are still good reasons to buy directly from growers.
"You're not only getting fresher food, but you're also creating a relationship with the person," she says. "I know our food has to be good and clean, because I know the people who are going to use it. I see their children. I've watched babies grow up on the food. Sometimes when I'm out in the field, harvesting or working on a crop, I think of the people who come to the market who love it. That creates better connections and better health for everyone involved."
Sweetwater Market operates at the Mercy Health Lakes Village, 6401 Prairie St., Norton Shores, and is open Saturdays from 9 to noon.
Maple Moon Farm is located at 1224 S. 144th St., Shelby, Michigan. Phone: 231-861-2535
Photos courtesy of Mike and Amanda Jones
A year ago this week, HeartWood's first post went live, so this is our blog-iversary, and we're celebrating!
Come to think of it, we're big on celebrations in general, I realized as I looked back at the past year's posts. One of our earliest posts was a wide-ranging rumination on celebrations—of special occasions and special people, of big events and small moments that are just as deserving of a hooray!
We didn't have to go far at all for some of our experiences. We stopped in at local hangouts and even went on a writing retreat without leaving home.
When HeartWood launched a year ago, that same yoga group was central to many of our lives, and our teacher Ellie Randazzo was central to the group. Her death in August was a shattering loss that still affects us deeply. I'm happy to report, though, that we continue to honor her memory by practicing together weekly at the same time, in the same place where we practiced with Ellie. Her spirit still guides us.
All of these experiences over the past year have given us plenty to think about, and we've taken time to reflect on such topics as serendipity, slowing down, home, expanding our social circles and the importance of striking a balance between on-the-go activity and solitude. We've embraced our bodies! And we've embraced our creativity, too, considering the roles of chaos and boundary crossing in stimulating imagination. And because this has been a year of divisiveness as well as harmony, we've given some thought to how we communicate with people whose opinions differ from our own.
That's a look back. Now it's time to look ahead. When I started this blog, I vowed to stick with it for a year, then reassess and decide whether to keep going. How to decide? Feedback and figures are one measure, and on both counts I'm encouraged. The comments I get from readers and the growing numbers of page views and individual visitors tell me this endeavor is worth the time I'm putting into it.
What's more, I'm enjoying this undertaking way more than I expected to. It's satisfying to have an outlet for my own writing and a place to share guest posts and interviews and to know that someone is actually reading this stuff and maybe getting something useful from it.
So here's to another year of HeartWood, and here's where you come in. I'd love to know what kinds of posts you most enjoyed in the past year and what topics, events, places and people you'd like to see featured in future posts.
Oh, and I know it's not polite to ask for gifts, but if you're wondering what to give HeartWood on this special occasion, a few more subscribers would be really terrific. My goal is to double (or more) the number of current subscribers over the next few months. So if you haven't subscribed, please consider signing up (see form at right side of page). And if you're already a subscriber, please encourage one or more friends to subscribe.
Now, on with the party!
We've all seen them: before-and-after photos urging us to try new diets or body-shaping products. In the before shot, the woman (the subjects usually are women, it seems) looks not only doughy, but dejected, slouching and spilling out of her too-small bikini. In the after, she's lean and hard-bodied, beaming as she strikes a triumphant, look-at-me pose.
While those photos may be designed to encourage us to care for ourselves (or to buy products that will make us believe we are), just as often they reinforce our negative self-images, especially if we happen to look more like the "before" than the "after."
That's what led an Australian woman named Taryn Brumfitt to post unconventional before-and-afters of herself online: a trim and bikinied before shot and discreetly-posed nude photo of her plump, soft—and smiling—after-self. The photos went viral and touched off a flurry of media attention, giving Brumfitt a platform for telling the world how she learned to love her natural shape instead of trying to force it to fit someone else's idea of attractiveness.
Television interviews gave her only a few minutes to make her points, though. She wanted to say more. So Brumfitt raised money on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to create a documentary film, EMBRACE. The film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival last year and now has made its way to Newaygo County, where it will be shown at Camp Newaygo on Friday, January 27.
I'm especially excited to spread the word about this event because it's being sponsored by Ellie's Yoga and the Wander Women hiking club—the groups of strong, positive women with whom I begin and end most weeks.
The film was a natural for Camp Newaygo, says Jalisa Danhof, the camp's assistant director. "When we watched the trailer and looked into what it's about, we thought it fit perfectly with our mission of teaching empowerment and self-worth and building confidence."
Body image is a topic that comes up often at camp, especially among early adolescent girls, Danhof says. "They're more comfortable talking about it at camp because there are no boys. It's a safe place to express fears and concerns that they might not otherwise express." Camp Newaygo counselors are trained to respond in ways that are supportive but not intrusive.
In EMBRACE, Brumfitt travels around the world, talking to everyone from actor and former TV host Ricki Lake to a burn survivor and a celebrity photographer about the impact of body image.
"The media and advertisers so often present one singular body type as being the standard," says Brumfitt. "In truth, hardly any person on the planet looks like that and the images are often digitally manipulated anyway. But so many perfectly healthy normal people are left feeling inadequate. We should all be empowered to just not buy into it."
Producer Anna Vincent hopes audiences will leave the movie "punching the air, feeling good about themselves, and understanding that they don't suffer their problems alone."
As for Brumfitt, "I want people to walk away after watching EMBRACE believing that they can embrace and love their bodies unconditionally. I know from travelling around the world that this is a real problem that's affecting people's lives every single day. I hope the film will start a more positive conversation about body image and that audiences will be inspired by the stories they'll hear, and the people they'll meet through the film."
In addition to creating EMBRACE, Brumfitt founded the Body Image Movement, which advocates natural aging and beauty and aims "to uncover the true beauty that lies within each and every one of us, the beauty of a person you can't physically see: one's humility, kindness, humor, respect and generosity."
Now, that's a beautiful mission.
EMBRACE will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on January 27 at Camp Newaygo, 5333 Centerline Rd., Newaygo. Doors open at 7 p.m. The event is free, but please register to reserve a seat (and let organizers know how much popcorn to pop!). The film is recommended for ages 10 and above. A parents' guide, available on the Camp Newaygo website, is designed to help parents decide if the film is appropriate for their children.
When I was a kid, this time of year was about one thing only: Christmas. All Christmas, all the time. Decorating the tree with ornaments that were comforting in their familiarity; writing detailed missives to Santa; visiting John A. Brown department store in Oklahoma City to ogle the dolls, trains and games; sitting on Santa's lap and refreshing his memory about the contents of that letter I'd sent him.
I wasn't the only one who got swept up in the holiday spirit. My parents did Christmas big. They crafted candles that looked like snowballs, whipped up batch after batch of cookies, fudge and divinity (a confection that belied its name, as far as I was concerned—I never could stand the stuff) and filled nearly every horizontal surface in the house with elves, reindeer, sleighs, crèches, holly and other icons of the season.
Then there were the outdoor decorations, my dad's territory. His was no blow-out-the circuits Griswold family Christmas display; his style was more subtle, with tiny white lights outlining the bay window, topiary flanking the front door, ribbon candy-striping the lamp post, and candles floating on poinsettia-shaped rafts in the courtyard fountain. One year his artistry even won the city-wide house decoration contest, besting showier arrays with rooftop Santas and plywood carolers.
Everyone we knew celebrated Christmas much as we did, except for the one Jewish family in the neighborhood, and even they engaged in some Christmas customs. But as the years went on and my world expanded, I met people who celebrated Yule, Kwanzaa and other holidays at this time of year. Everything I learned about their rituals enriched my appreciation of the season.
Recently, I learned about still more traditions from—of all places—a mail-order catalog that had descriptions of winter celebrations from many cultures sprinkled among its product offerings. In the spirit of giving, I'd like to share a few tidbits about some of the special days that captured my attention.
Bodhi Day—December 8
On this occasion, Buddhists commemorate the day when Siddhartha Gautama, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, attained enlightenment and became the Buddha or "Awakened One." Buddhists consider Bodhi Day a time to renew their dedication to wisdom, compassion and kindness, keystones of their spiritual path. They celebrate with meditation, chanting and performing acts of kindness.
Winter Solstice—December 21
In prosaic terms, winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marked by the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, this happens in December; in the Southern Hemisphere, in June. But since ancient times, people have attributed deeper significance to this event. While interpretations vary, many cultures consider it a time of rebirth and new beginnings—an opportunity to examine the deeper parts of one's being, to reflect on untapped potential and bring it into the light.
Among the many celebrations that coincide with winter solstice are these:
Pancha Ganapati—December 21-25
This modern Hindu festival honors Ganesha, lord of success and remover of obstacles. The festival focuses on mending past mistakes and making a new beginning. Each day, the whole family engages in a different sadhana or daily spiritual practice, centered on creating love and harmony in relationships or in the world. A statue of Ganesha is placed in a shrine in the living room, and children dress or decorate it each day in different colors representing Ganesha's five powers or shaktis.
As I read about these observances and consider what we can learn from each of them, I notice not only their rich diversity, but also their common threads. No matter what or how we celebrate, there's value in taking time out to gather with people we love, to share stories and wisdom, to reflect on days gone by and days to come, and to rededicate ourselves to kindness, compassion, love and harmony.
Some information in this post came from:
"Celebrating Bodhi Day for the 21st Century," by Lewis Richmond, The Huffington Post
"Soyal Ceremony: Hopi Kachinas Dance at Winter Solstice," by Jack Eidt, WilderUtopia
"Celebrating Yalda Night," by Firouzeh Mirrazavi, Iran Review
In the 1988 movie "Funny Farm," Chevy Chase's character Andy Farmer—hoping to make a good impression on prospective buyers of the property he's trying to sell—bribes local folks to turn their town into a cheery, Christmas-y village worthy of Norman Rockwell and Currier & Ives. Carolers, sleigh rides, guys in Santa suits, the works.
If only he'd bought that property in Newaygo instead of Vermont, he wouldn't have had to go to so much trouble and expense. Newaygo's annual Christmas Walk, part of a multi-day holiday celebration, comes complete with twinkly lights, horse-drawn wagon rides, roasted chestnuts, carols—and crowds!
The first time Ray and I attended the event, just after moving here, we weren't expecting much. While Newaygo had a lovely little shopping district, we'd never seen it exactly bustling, especially in winter. We figured we'd join a few other hardy souls watching the Christmas tree lighting, wander into a shop or two to snag the free cookies we'd heard about and call it a night.
Imagine our astonishment when we turned onto the main street and found ourselves in the midst of a traffic jam. Cars were backed up in both directions trying to get into town, and people were already spilling onto the streets. When we finally managed to park and join the crowd, we were swept up in the festivity.
I guess that's what keeps drawing me back year after year. On the face of it, it's hard to explain the appeal of shuffling down the sidewalk with several hundred other people, jostling to get into shops that are usually easy to access but are mobbed on this night, taking in sights, smells and sounds—the tree lighting, the roasted chestnuts, the holiday songs—that change little from year to year. All I can say is, it's a night that blends memories of long-ago Christmases with anticipation of the coming season and makes the ordinary seem special.
A big part of the pleasure is running into friends on the street, in the shops or in the churches and the historical museum, which have special events and exhibits. So what if I just saw those friends a few days earlier—or that very afternoon? Everyone seems even friendlier at the Christmas Walk.
After our first experience with Christmas Walk traffic, we've made a point of arriving early and grabbing a bite in a local eatery. This year it was Newaygo Brewing Co., which was decked out with Christmas ornaments artfully hung from the chandeliers and wait-staff wearing embellished holiday sweaters (including one with "Ugly Christmas Sweater" knit right into the design).
Then, the slow procession down the street, but with a few new twists this year. The home furnishings store, Sui Generis, had just moved into its big, bright, new location in The Stream building and was holding its grand opening. Seeing the long-vacant corner of that building lit up and lively made for an uptown feeling. Down the street, Fuego, a new-ish fusion restaurant in nearby Grant, had set up a taco stand. When we stopped by, about an hour into the evening, they'd already sold 180 tacos and had to send out for more ingredients. It was heartening to see these local businesses—as well as others up and down the street—attracting customers.
A highlight of the evening was the photography exhibit and contest at Newaygo United Methodist Church (and not just because I had two photos in the show). I loved seeing the variety of artistic approaches and subjects—toads to tools, landscapes to loved ones. Apparently a lot of other Christmas Walkers did, too: more than 1,000 people came through the exhibit.
When I look at our calendar for the rest of the month, I see days filled with gatherings of family and friends, the local library book sale, and a smattering of meetings and appointments. It'll all be over so quickly, which makes me glad for getting an early start with Newaygo's Christmas Walk.
Do you have can't-miss holiday events and activities, or do you try to do something different every year?
What difference does a difference make?
At a recent memorial for a friend and teacher, the speaker posed that question for all of us to consider as we thought about the person whose death we were mourning and whose life we were celebrating.
The question came to mind again last weekend when we attended "Leaving a Legacy of Art: The Jansma Collection" at the Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts in Fremont, Michigan. The art show and sale commemorated the lives of longtime Fremont residents Ray and Phyllis Jansma, whose lasting influence on Newaygo County's cultural scene is incalculable. Phyllis was a cellist and music teacher, Ray an architectural designer and artist who painted, sculpted and carved wood. As a tribute to this remarkable couple, their family offered some of Ray's artwork for sale, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Newaygo County Council for the Arts-Artsplace.
Before the sale, I spent some time with Lindsay Isenhart, program coordinator and curator of the Ray and Phyllis Jansma Gallery at Artsplace. A good friend of the Jansmas, Lindsay worked closely with Ray Jansma to produce a book, Ray Jansma: Designer (Blurb, 2011), that chronicles his career and archives many of his artistic works.
"The Jansmas were a pivotal influence on my life," Lindsay told me. "I started going out to their house for Tuesdays At Ray's—a Tuesday night drawing group—when I was fourteen years old. At that point in my life, I was a latchkey kid. I could have gone a very different way, but once I started drawing, my whole direction in life changed."
The weekly gathering wasn't a class; there were no lectures or formal critiques, just a bunch of local artists and art enthusiasts getting together to practice life drawing and share their creative energy.
"I had never seen a cluster of artists working together. Just getting together to do art," recalled Lindsay, who went on to be one of the first recipients of the Ray Jansma Scholarship for Visual Fine Arts, through the Fremont Area Community Foundation, and to study fine arts and graphic design at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids and Accademia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy.
"Through the Tuesday nights, I got to know Phyllis, and on a regular basis went out to what they called Tea Time at the Jansmas," Lindsay said. "People could show up from anywhere at their house during tea time. Phyllis would regale us with stories and talk about politics, and Ray would take me out to his studio afterward."
The Jansmas' talents and personalities drew people to them, but their home was an added attraction. Located on a winding road north of Fremont, the house—which Ray designed in the early 1950s—started out as a modest 975-square-foot split level. But as Ray's career grew, so did the house, with additions reflecting the varied styles of his architectural design projects. On one end is a master bedroom suite where the centerpiece was the magnificent carved angel bed offered for sale at the recent event.
A tower rises from the middle of the house, looking like something from a storybook. Indeed, guests sometimes felt they were "visiting another world," said Lindsay. "It was like Alice in Wonderland. I got to go to this fairytale place where we were surrounded by art, music, and everything you could imagine to play with."
Like the house, Ray's studio was out-of-the-ordinary, decorated with architectural elements from some of his design projects. One side of the studio was originally used for building a sailboat—a 32-foot Tahiti ketch christened the Maid of Ramshorn, which Ray and Phyllis sailed around Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (and Ray sometimes used as a floating office for design jobs in port towns). Once the boat was finished and launched in 1975, the former boat shed became a working space for various art projects, both Ray's and other artists'.
"He'd share whatever he had going on, share his studio space, encourage others to come and work there," said Lindsay. The list of working artists who have been influenced by Ray is long and varied and includes Ann Arbor potter Autumn Aslakson; Stratford, Ontario-based illustrator and graphic designer Scott McKowen; ; New Mexico painter Jack Smith; multimedia artist James Magee of El Paso, Texas (who also paints as Annabel Livermore) and many others.
"He inspired so many artists because he was always working," said Lindsay. "His work ethic was amazing. He didn't watch TV, didn't golf. He'd be in his studio, working on a project or out sketching barns or downtown businesses or putting in time for our organization. He would come here to Artsplace at least once a week and participate, whether it was just helping paint a sign or helping teach a class, he was hands-on involved."
Meanwhile, Phyllis inspired a long line of musicians, not only as a piano and cello teacher, but also through the Chamber Music for Fun program she initiated at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan.
The Jansma children, too, benefited from the creative environment their parents provided. Tim became a violin, viola and cello maker, Jon a chemical engineer for GE, and Jennifer a piano technician who decorated her Ray-designed home with ornamental trim she carved herself and paving stones she hand-cast.
"I've never met a family that has made such an impact," said Lindsay. "And to be found in such a tiny little community is a rare thing."
The Jansmas made a difference. And what a difference that difference made!
Who has made a difference in your life? In your community? What can you do to keep their legacy alive? As you consider these questions, take a look at more of Ray Jansma's artistry.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.