Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Life is what happens...

... while you're busy making other plans. At least that's what I've heard.

My sabbatical this semester has not gone at all like I had planned, mostly because I was so ill with the mystery whateveritwas. Sick for weeks in January became sick again in February, which then became "what the hell I'm sick again" in March. I haven't gotten as much done as I'd envisioned: cleaning out offices (home and on campus), reading, writing, reporting my goings-on in this here blog. All was halved, it seems, while I tried to figure out how to take care of my body, how to just be still and rest, how to forgive myself for not being able to perform to expectations.

So I haven't gotten as much done as I'd hoped or planned. BUT I'm just back from the west coast, where I visited museums and talked to people about their work. I've had moments that make me stop in my tracks to admire beauty, or marvel at words. I've seen and heard how making art, sometimes the kind that comes in everyday objects, connects people and place and time.

A display of Native-made baskets at the Portland Art Museum--
among them, a contemporary piece made out of film
rather than plant material!

Some meetings have gone as planned (like talking with poet Trevino Brings Plenty, whose brilliant work led me to the Portland Art Museum, and talking with Janine Ledford, executive director of the astounding Makah Cultural and Research Center); some have fallen through (Deana Dartt, curator at the Portland Art Museum, was out sick on the day I hoped to meet her, but we will talk by phone); and some have happened purely by luck (I dined with Makah carver Greg Colfax at his family's restaurant, where I got to see his latest sculpture and we talked about making art, writing, travel, and transformation; and my friend Kent Smith, an art expert and artist and former museum executive, opened my eyes to things I had overlooked). All in all, I have felt very grateful to be doing this work, and very lucky that travel funds from my university made all of it possible.

The welcoming figures
outside the Makah Cultural & Research Center

I don't think I can share much yet about what I'm researching and writing about; those pieces are still somewhat fragmented--scraps of ideas living in different pages of my project notebook as I wait to see what kind of structure might emerge to connect them. There's a chunk here, and another chunk over there, and another a ways off... how best to tell the story so that you feel them as part of a whole? We'll see.

A giant display of Wendy Red Star's art
on the outside of the Portland Art Museum

In the meantime, a smaller side-story: Last night I went down to the Columbus College of Art and Design to see Sherman Alexie give a reading; they had invited him because their first-year students read his book War Dances as their common text. (What an unusual choice!).

What he shared with us, though, was not really a reading; it was more like an evening of standup comedy through storytelling. I was smiling and laughing so much that my face hurt.

And the strangest part about his story producing face-hurting laughter? He was talking about having surgery to remove a brain tumor. He was telling us about the moments of fear, and anger, and shame, and ridiculousness that go along with such an episode, and how he found so many things hilariously funny (like when he found out his bladder was unusually large, kind of with an extra section to it, which he decided was his bladder's "man cave"; or how he had to cancel his family's "bucket list" burro ride down the Grand Canyon because they just couldn't, so some other family's vacation photos have four empty burros in them; or the way steroids made him horny and angry at the same time, so he was mad at his penis). We'd be laughing, and then he'd tell a detail about the surgery that made us gasp, and then we'd fall into silence as he talked about the kind of health care he'd received as a kid on a reservation.

He is a brilliant storyteller who had every person in that auditorium eating out of his hands; and he is also the chubby (his word), middle-aged guy walking back and forth on the stage with a kind of rolling gait, telling us about how he almost died, and what it felt like when he realized he'd survived. He was so very human. His story was funny and sad and awkward and scary and wondrous. It was a lot like life.

My face hurt. But I sure was happy.

I hope you hear a good story today--one that makes you glad to be here.