Once a week I teach a writing class to three women. I tell them of the muse, how she meets us where we are, and helps us make poetry from ordinary things. How the commonplace is beautiful, and even small incidents are worthy of recollection and witness.
Last week, imitating an exercise from a poetry writing workshop I took twenty-some years ago at the Loveland Museum and Gallery in Loveland, Colorado, I had my students close their eyes, reach into a paper bag, and pull out an object to write about.
In the bag were various whimsical items I’d gathered from around my house – a Russian doll, a small white starfish, a glass robin’s egg, a Christmas tree-shaped candle, an antique marble, an artist’s paintbrush, a two-inch high wooden birdhouse, a tiny blue ceramic cat. I’ve learned that the smallest and most ordinary of things, when used as prompts, can conjure unexpectedly rich stories.
One woman, inspired by the ceramic cat, wrote about a lonely childhood, and how she so desperately desired a pet and didn’t have one. Another, looking inside the birdhouse, wrote a poignant essay about creatures leaving home to go into the wilder world. It seems to be a common theme among writers to have experienced many lonely and solitary moments as children, and to have felt more connected to nature than to people.
I too was a solitary child, playing in my jewel-green and red-roses Seattle garden alone. I believed in mystical things and was quite superstitious. I tried not to step on cracks in the sidewalk, dreamed often of wolves, made magic formulas out of foamy-blue Comet cleanser, and thoroughly believed the moon was my personal friend. When I was five, I saw an angel.
Even now I look for heavenly signs everywhere – number sequences on clocks, moon phases and planetary alignments, butterfly sightings, certain birds. (There always seem to be swallows at pilgrimage sights, as well as in paintings depicting St. Francis.) I became an artist when I grew up, and eventually began to paint images of angels and saints. One of my favorites is La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, and I have depicted her over and over again.
I do the writing exercises along with my students. What I pulled out of the bag was the Russian doll. I recalled an art installation of Russian Icons I’d attended years ago, also at the Loveland Museum. There, I’d learned that the Russian word for red and for beautiful are the same word. I wrote about a Russian doll who lay in the blue snow-shadows outside of Tolstoy’s house and dreamed of blue, not red.
I always encourage my students to use color, scent, sound, and sensations, in addition to images, while writing. Like pictorial icons, stories also can be windows into heaven. Whoever or whatever the muse is, she is kind enough to meet us and help us weave all our experiences, senses, memories and emotions into evocative stories from the thinnest of threads. When I arrived home after teaching that day, several threads began to weave together in my mind, and I wrote the following creative non-fiction (very short) story…
My husband drives people to the airport. He gave me a tiny gold pin someone left in his car. Not real gold. The color. Upon closer inspection I realized it was a Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. I couldn’t see her face.
I have decided that if things are too small for me to see without my glasses, they are too small to keep around. But I didn’t want to throw away a saint. That might be bad luck. So I put her in a sack for the thrift shop.
A few days later, my cat, Hazel (the color of marmalade) played in the bag and left, scattered about on the rug, some things. Fingerless gloves. The pin. It stuck me in the bare foot, quite painfully, so I spontaneously threw it in the trash.
I didn’t know what it meant that the Virgin of Guadalupe stabbed me, but I thought it might be a sign.
The next day I went downtown. The door of the Catholic church stood open. I ventured in to light a candle, since I didn’t want bad karma from having become an inadvertent iconoclast. I was disappointed to see that the candles are not even real wax anymore. They’re red plastic.
After putting a dollar in a metal box, I pressed a button. One candle lit up. It looked very realistic. (I truly miss real things. The smell of candle-smoke and frankincense. The bending-rising yellow flame. The sorrowful virgin who cries real tears.)
Leaving, I passed an ancient woman seated on the last bench, nearly invisible in the muted stained-glass gloom, by the font of holy water. She stared through me with eyes the color of snow.
Outside, the weather had turned. The sky was the same color as her eyes.
I don’t know what any of this means. I try to be holy. I sometimes write things down so I don’t forget them.
(c) Star Saint Claire
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