We were on the BART train when he turned sideways toward me and leaned back at the same time and smiling that quirky-goofy smile he asked me, where would I go if I could go anywhere in the world right now and I said, I’d go somewhere where nobody’s ever been. Where nobody’s ever seen before, ever known. He asked if I was sure there was such a place and I said there must be. It all popped out of my mouth automatically, without really thinking like I already knew. Not sure if it needed to be a geographic place or any kind of a physical place although that would be nice… but trying to conjure up and describe one right then seemed feigned or misleading just for the sake of giving an answer. Maybe some island or like anywhere that’s been undiscovered, I said. I think it was more about my attraction to poetry and art. There’s the kind of adventure where you go places and then there’s adventures of the imagination.
The person who asked me this question became my boyfriend. He was a painter. With him long gone for many years, it’s now me who paints. I was only nineteen so I didn’t know you’ll get lucky sometimes and find people to go places, but almost no one to take the second kind of trip with you. So, so few.
Work, the news, political debates, problems of the world, money and appearances, critiquing and criticizing everything – so much to suffocate life. It all seems to get enough attention, I don’t think any of it needs me. I want different things to be important.
On a date in my thirties I usually find that the first thing someone wants to know is what you do. How about another question I think, anything but that. I want to know why work is so important compared to the chip in your tooth, the way you kiss, the colors in your individual strands of hair, the placement of lines in your face, your point of view, the map of your town, what kind of fruit you like, what makes you happy, what kind of dreams you have, how you move and the way you think, whether you’d enjoy a mysterious piece of art just for the imagery or the musical quality without worrying about the meaning, or pitch a tent somewhere in a rock shelter in the pouring rain and watch the storm pass on an extended trek in the high mountains, or if you’d rather turn back, and yet it’s so few people I feel so deeply curious about when I look in their eyes that it would hurt if they’re not very curious about me.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with work. I work for a living too and damn well appreciate it. As much as it supports my needs my job doesn’t reflect my actual reality inside, which could be something that doesn’t have to connect to events, something to choose each day no matter the scenario. Work for me has become more like a fact of life than a statement about worth or perspective or values. And what happens when you don’t have that job anymore, or when you don’t have that stuff any more, then what? I don’t like to ask people what they do for a living. I want my experience of you to be free from all that. Maybe one day, tell me what you do. For now, I just don’t even want to know. I want to know you in this moment, now immediately.
“But what you do is pretty much what you are, right?” I’ve heard. I can’t answer anymore, only giggle.
At the moment I am single in this world and I take journeys by myself every day. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes for ten. Sometimes it’s a lonely journey. Sometimes it’s so wonderful I forget I’m alone. Maybe even most of the time. Even as I yearn for more road trips and new cities and beaches and trails and peaks, I’m still going places I’ve never been without even leaving the house. Seeing in new ways, having new experiences, creating something new as well as consuming it. I don’t have everything I want or even everything I need sometimes, but this might be the happiest I’ve ever been.
Listening to the strange music of stained glass rip and crack with each score and break into quirky, imprecise shapes dropping down onto my worktable, those first couple of lines from Cumming’s poem “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond / any experience” rings in my ears also. “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond / any experience”… This is today’s ride, having never done this before this fall. Mosaics have fascinated me for years and I’ve long wished I could make them myself. There’s been so many things I’ve wondered how does anyone do that, but having turned a corner I don’t wonder anymore, I just go find out how and then do it. I’m not sure why it had never occurred to me before, that it could really be that simple. Like I had this idea that people just magically know how to do things already. They must have started a long time ago.
A logic (not really) that so clearly doesn’t follow here. It’s doubtful we’ll hear any stories about young mosaic prodigies who were just born with the natural gift, unless there’s anybody out there who finds it perfectly acceptable to sit down a five year old with piles of glass, cutters and pliers and encourage them to cut out a hundred triangles and then mix some cement. No, it’s a pretty safe bet that this is something most commonly learned as an adult. Setting aside artistic instinct or some skill in design or color, each one begins with the same level of technical incompetence.
It was the painter -also otherwise employed- who first inspired my interest in mosaics, although I never asked him how he’d done those few ceramic tile pieces he made. Even though words and pictures have always gone together for me, and even though I’ve turned cameras into instruments and occasionally painted or sketched or collaged almost as long as I’ve been writing, I had this story for a long time that I could only really “just” be a poetry writer and also that it was the most I could afford. For a genre elevated to the extent of being called “the highest form of art,” poetry’s also the cheapest form as all you need is to take out a pen and paper. And not even that much paper. With poetry your art is always portable too, which I gratefully celebrated on a different kind of journey in whichever guest room or bus ride or camp site or hotel bed I found myself in years ago while convinced I was running toward something new rather than away from essays, debates, the news, politics, problems and appearances, and my friend the painter who left not only me but this whole world. It was worth it, is all I’m saying on that for now.
And, imagination is a force, as the poet Barbara Guest suggests. Or sure can be.
My first mosaic early in the process. So happy to have found a local artist who teaches. In future I’ll remember to protect my laptop also, not just my eyes.