“I Can’t Breathe”

chicago-1968

Chicago 1968, photo RW

          I feel like I can’t breathe, drowned by the tsunami that just befell my country and the whole world. All of a sudden everything is up for grabs, including a woman’s right to choose, steps to combat climate change, NATO alliances, trade agreements, immigration, just about everything. But I won’t talk about all that; so much has been said and is known by the reading public. Over the last eighteen months the brightest writers and thinkers had intellectually tied up Trump and thrown into the scrap heap of history. They were all wrong.

          What has been thrown out is an approach to life that is egalitarian, compassionate, and respectful, an ethos based on the humanitarian ideals of a liberal democracy. Not too long ago all political combatants could be found in the shelter of that umbrella no matter what their differences. No more.

          This debacle has been characterized as a “revolt against the elites” but it is more like revenge against “those who think they are better than us”, those who worked to improve their minds through education and got ahead using their brains. It comes out of deep anger and resentment and a serious sense of inferiority. How else could the populace turn their backs on Trump’s blatant disrespect for: women, Muslims, Mexicans, and those who prepare and do their homework, (e.g. Hillary and the debates). Our new leader thinks it is ok to grab women “by the pussy.” “When you are a star you can do anything you want,” he said. He laughs at the disabled and, well, no need for me to go through the long list. What kind of message does this send to young people trying to grow up? ‘Nice guys finish last,’ is what it says; it is ok to bully anyone to put yourself forward, to win the race.

          I get invited to certain occasions at the American Consulate here in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, the second biggest city. And today I was invited to witness the final day of the election. I prepared myself to answer questions about how I felt, never for a minute believing that Trump could win. I prepared my thoughts like this: ‘I am honestly disgusted that a man like Trump could actually have gotten this far in the election process. That fact itself discredits America and debases, if not annihilates, the idea of American exceptionalism.’

          Now what do I do? Our new chief has a majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Checks and balances are minimal. He also won decisively, very decisively. All of the bruhaha about every woman in America standing against him, the surge of Latinos voting, the blacks and minorities being involved and taking a stand, never happened. A lot of them voted for Trump.

          It is important to say something about Hillary Clinton beyond how she has been portrayed and the consequent vague or not so vague opinion of her. Even those who are dismayed by the existence of Trump often expressed dislike or suspicion about Mrs. Clinton. Based on what? Nothing, only lies and bullshit. She is of my generation, the idealists, the ones who dreamed of “open borders,” of everyone “getting along,” of equal opportunity and service. Her whole life has been dedicated to that. I witnessed it all, and not from so far away because of university connections. She is one of “us” the sixties generation that fought for civil rights, for women’s rights, for Vista, for the Peace Corps, for inner city programs. We fought against that ill-considered debacle, war in Viet Nam. And yet, through a steady campaign that would make Joseph Goebbels smile from hell, where he no doubt dwells, the ‘no nothings’ polluted the spring until they created “Crooked Hillary.”

          The email “scandal” was truth twisting for political gain. It never had “legs”. At a time when vagaries and pitfalls of email were still not well known, she opted for a private server that would guarantee her some control over her communications. No damage was done. There was no nefarious purpose. Colin Powell, that respected and gullible general, suggested she do it since he had done the same thing. It worked for him and he thought it was a good idea.

          With thirty years’ experience in government and having survived one excruciating battle after another, Hillary was the best and most qualified candidate ever to run for president. And she happens to be a woman. How is it possible for someone with those credentials to lose the election to a spoiled egoist who can’t speak good English and has absolutely no experience in government.

          The world has changed since I was a boy growing up in the glowing aftermath of WWII. And it was glowing in America. We didn’t have to be starving while we rebuilt our cities like they did in Europe and Japan. We were kings of the world and the white middle class was “comfortable” with appliances and new cars and kids going to affordable colleges. That is not the world we live in today. Now, for the middle class, the American Dream is further and further out of reach because of competition from immigrants, because of trade policies that have shipped jobs overseas, and because of wars we fight for other people and receive no compensation or thanks, only crippled and suffering veterans coming back and needing care. This is part of the stew creating the present moment. Throw in “that nigger in the Whitehouse,” a phrase I have heard many times, and you get a xenophobic, paranoid, proto fascist electorate, the “deplorables” who are stupid and proud of it.

          Ignorant people like simple solutions to complex problems. They may not be able to articulate their confusion and frustration but they feel it. And so, they follow the “big man” who seems to have the answers. It is remarkable that they think a billionaire who had never done anything for anyone other than himself will be their savior.

 

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia

November 9, 2016

 

Photograph by Ricker Winsor from the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968

 

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

    For a long time now I have wanted to write about how aging affects our appetite for life, how it constricts our activities and shrinks our comfort zone and our energy level. I have been thinking about it now and again, when I get around to it. Thinking about it seems like enough work even without the writing. The writing can happen, of course, between naps.

          There is an age zone that occurs like a whisper; you are not young anymore but not old either. But one thing is true; you know for sure that time is conspiring to eliminate you. It is no longer hypothetical as it was previously.

          Over years, watching friends age, sometimes with ten or twenty years between meetings, I observe a contraction of life, both physically and intellectually. The safe zone gets smaller, more precious, and the ability to accept and embrace new experience declines.

          A friend and veteran of wilderness adventure, a man in his seventies, is part of a breakfast group that meets once a week to “shoot the breeze”, to keep each other company, especially through the long northern winters. “I can’t get them to do anything,” he says. “I suggest a relaxing canoe trip down the Allagash river, (about as easy as it gets), and they looked at me like I am crazy.”

          The whisper in the ear, “Don’t take any chances. Just be quiet and stick to your routine. Maybe death won’t find you for a while.” The routines of our lives become ruts. Even a visit to a new restaurant or a drive through unknown territory, taking a new route, can produce discomfort, a mild fear.

          It is tempting to take a mocking, sardonic tone about this. One wants to separate oneself from the afflicted. But I decided to research a bit about it and very quickly read about how age coincides with almost every aspect of our physical system falling apart. It is a law of physics, entropy; all systems fall apart. It is a law.

          For the human body the result is that you don’t have the energy you used to have. That is an understatement. And why? Well your heart is not pumping as well, your arteries are not so clean, your kidneys don’t work great, and, by the way, neither do your lungs, your eyes, your ears, basically everything.

          My friend George is one hundred and five years old. When I was growing up we rarely heard about anybody reaching ninety and now more and more people live beyond that. I spoke to him on his one hundredth birthday and he was cogent, sharp as usual. We talked about the fly fishing we used to do on the Catskill Rivers. He said, “I get on my treadmill every day and I have a keyboard to play some music but I don’t have much energy.” At one hundred and five I didn’t talk to him but got the report that he is the “darling of the home” where they take care of him. They all love him and when they greet him in the morning he says, “Could I please have bacon and eggs for breakfast?”

          Mockery is not the appropriate tone for a consideration of aging but compassion is, since mostly this is beyond our control, mostly. “You can’t unscramble the egg.” my friend stated. And yet inevitable deterioration, in process from about age thirty, can be resisted to some degree.

It gets harder to push oneself. That is true. A younger teaching colleague of mine is a body builder. He keeps encouraging me since I already have a good base after a lifetime of sports and gym. He tells about and provides written material and videos of older guys who still “look great”. Because of him I am a bit inspired to push my gym routine beyond the lazy normal. I took some comfort in his telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger, about my age, says, “I work twice as hard for half the benefit,” which seems accurate. It does take twice the effort with half the energy, no small task. But he does it anyway. That seems to be the key.

I would not even have heard about Schwarzenegger’s senior workout thoughts if I had not said yes to teaching teenagers a couple of days a week. I am seventy-one. It is not easy to muster the energy to face twenty-five kids twice a day. but I do it. My teenagers help keep me fresh and I feel it is worthwhile because I consider that my experience is a benefit to them whether they know it now or not.

          There are a lot of cliches, adages, and homilies about old age. I suppose they are supposed to provide some comfort as we sink deeper into the couch and give ourselves up to the inevitable. “Old age is not for sissies” they say, as if saying it is enough to prove “they” are not sissies but well up to the challenge. Mostly they/we are not up to the challenge but we do the best we can.

          Recently I heard the term “mild depression” from a friend and I think that is more prevalent than generally known. A sense of defeat can pervade everyday life without being apparent except to our closest people. Even within the person it can go unacknowledged. And yet it can cripple us softly.

          Throwing down the gauntlet for yourself and picking it up is the hero’s path through the “dark wood” of age. More and more there are things I don’t actually feel like doing but I push myself through that barrier of resistance and am glad of it every time.

          So much for the negative aspect of aging. There are positives and they seem to be agreed upon by people researching and writing about this topic. We know ourselves better, are less neurotic, more confident, and more liberated, care less about what other people think, and have a great store of experience and knowledge to share. If we can succeed in maintaining our deteriorating bodies so they don’t bother us too much, we can enjoy what’s left of our life in a much deeper way than we could before.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

October 14, 2016

 

 

Root River Return, the poetry of David Kherdian

Root River Return_cover for blog

          In 1970, I was a refugee from Brooklyn living in a broken down old house in Lyme, New Hampshire. I came into the country for the same reason that many of my generation did, to heal the stresses of the lunatic sixties and to find a better way of life. Working as a low laborer with a local construction crew, I tried to fit in as best I could. I tried to decipher their deep New England way of talking. It seemed like another language that had developed without a thought  to the world beyond.

           My goal was to learn how to do a hard day’s work and I did, hoisting plank after plank onto the roof of the house the Kherdians had bought on the edge of the big forest at the foot of Bear Hill. We rebuilt their whole roof and in the process I understood that he was a poet. We got to know each other a bit beyond the landowner/worker relationship. It was probably obvious I was not a “local” and had my own story and reasons for being where I was, and it would be especially obvious to a perceptive and sensitive poet.

          Many years passed, about forty five, and then somehow I saw an announcement of David’s book of poems, “Living in Quiet,” Deerbrook Editions 2013 and it all came back and stayed back; I can see all the scenes of long ago in perfect clarity. Or as the poet says:

10 Years Later

Standing on the leafy bank

on my first day back

overlooking hills & ravines

and the river I fished,

I knelt, reached back over

the years, and threw a stick

that tumbled a wild green apple.

One bite and it all came back.

          And so, I wrote to him from Indonesia, from Bali where we were living, and we reconnected. I sent my check and received my autographed copy of “Living in Quiet.”

          As I do with anything that is “any good” I read every single word and sometimes more than once to capture the meaning, the essence of it all. His writing is not complicated except in the sense that there is such depth in the clarity and precision of his words. He grasps and is able to express the most important feelings, those that constantly escape the net of expression.

          It takes time and quiet to think deeply, to discover how one really feels about people, situations,  and the character of one’s life. Perhaps  it also takes the perspective of age to look back and clearly see what we most assuredly missed when we first saw it, whether it be our hometown, our friends, or the people we saw but didn’t really see.

          In his new volume, Root River Return, 2015, by Beech Hill Publishing Co. David Kherdian  continues his poetic reflections, focusing on the town of his youth, Racine, Wisconsin.

Below

The city’s smallest park

there behind the

downtown theaters

and below the street

that followed the lake

With a bench or two

a patch of grass

and a view of blue water

clear to the horizon

I had come from the busy city

to sit on the grass alone

absorbed in the life

of that place

that for the moment

was home

          David Kherdian’s poetry is evocative of past time, of a simpler world, of memory one can taste, and of feelings we all share as human beings but so few of us are able to express.

Dear Mrs. McKinney of the Sixth Grade

Hands down, you were my favorite

teacher at Garfield Elementary,

or at any school since:

your stern, austere face, that

held an objective judgment of

everything in charge;

the patient way you taught,

out of a deep belief and respect

for learning,

and the good books you chose

to read aloud –

in particular, Mark Twain;

and the punishment you handed

out (a twin cheek twist, just

once, with forefingers and thumbs)

embarrassed us only because

we had failed ourselves,

for we had wisely learned from you

the need for discipline and regard.

Long after I left that place

I saw you once waiting for a bus,

and though I returned your warm

smile, I hurried on.

Why didn’t I stop, as I could

see you wanted me to? I deeply

regretted it for weeks, and there

are moments when I remember it still.

And nothing, not poem, not time,

not anything for which I might

stand proud, can erase that seeming

failure of feelings and regard on

my part.

I loved you, I really did, and I

wish now that in stopping and chatting

with you for a moment I could have

shown it to you then,

instead of now, in this poem,

in which only time and loss, not

you and I, are the subject to be held.

          Poems like this,  short prose, and character sketches from his life follow one after another in consistent beauty. It is an experience of reliving the most important and delicate feelings of  one’s life.

          David Kherdian was born in 1931 in Racine, Wisconsin. He is in his eighties now and still vital, active, productive. He is an Armenian and grew up within that community.

          In 1915, during the first World War, the dying Ottoman Empire took advantage of the tumult of war to systematically destroy its Armenian minority. Millions died of starvation and execution. Kherdian’s mother and father scarcely survived; they landed in the promised land of America.

          Although his Armenian heritage informs  Kherdian’s  persona as it must, that fact does not define him. He refuses to be categorized either by that or by his association with the Beat poets. In correspondence I learned very clearly that he always wanted to be just himself, even if he wasn’t sure what that was earlier in life. He knew he wanted to be an artist but was not sure what kind of artist he wanted to be or what that even meant. He emerged as a fine writer of many books published in fourteen different languages. It is a long list reflecting great quality but, for me, his poetry is the heart of it all.

I didn’t want to protect myself

I didn’t want to protect myself

by seeking perfection against the

accidental onslaughts of time-

but instead to move imperfectly

through it all, not to be the best

or the only, or the one to watch,

but rather the beggar of mercy

and grace, finding new hope

in each disappointment

believing against reason

(against what the senses said could not be)

that there was an order beyond this

disorder, that there was

a truth beyond this lie,

and that I was included in its design,

that could not be seen or named

but could be believed in,

if one believed that one

was loved.

          On the back cover of Root River Return a testimonial by Aria Baliozian says, “…a Kherdian poem has this in common with a Bach prelude; it is not only beautiful but an explanation of beauty.” That is an exquisite idea and I have spent a good deal of time contemplating it. It goes to the heart of what I think art is.

          The attempt at art requires honesty, courage, sincerity, emotion, and energy. Nothing false survives in the realm of art which is why I think David Kherdian’s poems are so important. They reveal a truly authentic man exposing his heartfelt experience and the highly nuanced emotions that accompany that experience. The skill and artistry of finding the right words and combinations of words to express for us what we have always known and felt makes David Kherdian very special. By the magic of art his life becomes our life.  

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

February 11, 2016

rickerw@yahoo.com

 

 

 

 

 

“Dear Paris”

 

          notre dame du paris

         Notre Dame de  Paris by RW 1969

         In the aftermath of the atrocity committed in Paris I wrote a condolence letter to a friend there. He responded and mentioned other things but with no reference of my heartfelt sympathies. And, somehow, that seemed just right, like the sound of one hand clapping, like a fraught, existential, and blank idea balloon kept in the air of consciousness by our mutual understanding. It was appropriate, like a story about death ending in the middle of a sentence. Because there is nothing left to say and, of course, everything left to say.

          I am a New Yorker who remembers the thudding sound of bodies hitting the pavement as victims who, a moment before, were going about their business or talking to their loved ones at home in the suburbs, now suddenly found themselves airborne to oblivion in escape from the merciless fire. A friend living near the two towers got on the roof of her loft building and saw people jumping from the towers, some of them holding hands and one, she noted, actually doing a swan dive, taking his last moment to express a gesture of defiant poetry against death. It makes sense in the current context to remember that there was great rejoicing about this in the Muslim neighborhoods of New Jersey. We New Yorkers have not forgotten that.

          Our president, Barak Obama, said that the Paris murders were an “attack on all humanity,” a comment made more poignant because Paris, in many ways, is the cultural capital of humanity. And it will continue to be that. Somehow, in an unpredictable irony, New York became a much better place after 911. People were friendlier, more outgoing. The sense of comradery that has always been a part of New York identity increased in the wake of the disaster. I am not sure if that warm feeling extended to Middle Easterners. I expect this “espirit de corps” phenomenon to occur in Paris too. Those who survive an atrocity are bonded by grief, anger, and a certain pride they discover in the courage to carry on.

           Friday the 13th was a tipping point for the French and also for the rest of the free world. It is a different feeling now. We were angered and shocked by the Charlie Hebdo attack and by the murders in a kosher grocery but we also knew that the cartoonists, although within their right of free speech, so central to any democracy,  were pushing the envelope, asking for trouble. And the Jews, well the Jews have always been ground zero for abuse and tragedy; nothing new about that. But this new savagery had nothing to do with anything other than a warped sense of religiosity and a kind of nihilism that celebrates killing for its own sake.

           What kind of a God could accept the killing of random innocents at a rock concert or sitting happily in cafes as a good thing? What kind of people could believe their God would think that a good thing. How stupid, frankly, can a person like that be? And they do it in the name of Islam. To say that they, the perpetrators, have nothing to do with true Islam is a denial based in ignorance. As someone who has spent a lifetime investigating religions and contemplating spiritual questions,  I conclude, and so would anyone picking up the Koran, that there are fundamental problems with Islam that must be addressed. And those problems can only be addressed from inside Islam. A reformation of the religion must happen and it must be taken on by Islamic scholars and leaders whoever they are, another problem since they tend to be not present.

          A friend made a point to me that bears repeating, ‘that there is no central authority for Islam, that any freelance imam can create his own “holy” cult and not be accountable to anyone. In the organizational sense Islam is anarchy not religion. Add to that the almost incomprehensible hatred between Sunnis and Shia and it is a very nasty stew. Now is certainly the time for the reformers to stand up, stick their necks out, in the name of a religion of peace and equality, which, as a longtime resident of Muslim countries, Bangladesh and Indonesia, I know to be the guiding principles of most Muslim lives.

          Non-Muslim people are mad. The sleeping giant is still lying on the ground but with both eyes open. I don’t think it is necessary to paint a picture of what may happen if our cave man instincts overrule our interest in kindness and generosity. It is an ugly picture. Now, unfortunately, it is going to be even more difficult for Muslims to be assimilated by the democratic societies into which they are pouring by the tens of thousands.

          In America the attacks are a Godsend for the right wingers of the Republican party in the USA with an election year coming up. Until Friday the 13th they barely had a leg to stand on and now their message of revenge will find a very receptive audience. We have to agree, no matter what our political stance, that ISIS be annihilated completely, at least the fifty thousand fighters they have in action. The sympathizers and their twelfth century ideas will take a lot longer to subdue or change. The trick will be to hunt down ISIS by whatever means necessary and with no delay but at the same time to give the majority of decent Muslim people the chance to prove they can be partners in the diverse democratic societies into which they are moving. The burden of proof will be on them, a daunting but not impossible task.

          Like many artists and writers I love Paris and lived there for a year way back in 1979. We have planned to spend three weeks there next September and don’t want to be dissuaded by fear. I am an expat living in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world and the most tolerant, the subject of another essay in process. There are many reasons for Indonesia’s relative stability and peace but the core reason, so I understand at this point, is that the culture is more important than the religion. If culture means food, shelter, and the chance to take care of your family in peace, then that should be fundamental, the true fundamentalism. Everything else in the human community is secondary to that.

 Ricker Winsor

 Surabaya, East Java

 Indonesia  

Friday the 13th  

November,2015                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expatriation, Art, and Spirit

Standing on the edge of the highway I held a sign that said “London”. It was cold, early spring, and I was hitching from Newcastle. I was nineteen, and the year, nineteen sixty-four. At a pub that evening a Canadian guy told me, “You know, once it starts it never stops.” He was right and I knew it even then.

Expatriation is an inevitability for certain people. People with prolonged expatriate experiences due to work move through well-known stages of adaption: the honeymoon of excitement at a new place, the disappointment as the downside is revealed, and the final accommodation to it all. Eventually, surely, they go home. And what happens then? Most just carry on where they left off in their communities but others have a hard time readjusting.

We all know about “roots” and what that means in a personal way to each of us. Back then, at age nineteen, I shook up those roots, and if they were not yet dislodged, they also never returned to their original condition.

Restlessness attends the expatriate personality. What else could make a person leave for a strange place without friends and without knowing the language or the culture? That same drive sent Leif Erikson, Christopher Columbus and many others on their way into the unknown. It is in the human personality to want to know what is over the next hill but some people experience that tendency as a deep need.

Tetuan Dreaming - Ricker Winsor
Tetuan Dreaming by Ricker Winsor

I don’t even like traveling and I never had an interest in being a tourist. Yet here I am, having lived all over the world and now settling in Indonesia. I returned to my home in the northeast of the USA more times than I can count and every time I left again, not because I didn’t like it but because all my other foreign experience tugged at my heart and called me into action almost in spite of myself. It just seems so much more interesting “out there” wherever that may be.

Someone back home said, “Oh, I would never move somewhere I didn’t have friends”. But the expat knows that there are good people everywhere and new friends waiting for you. They may not be the old friends that are so precious but they are good friends and could be even better friends if you would only hang around, something that is always a question mark both for you and for them.

And up comes the down side. After yanking on those roots hard and long, they wither and die. You find yourself “out there” on your own. Back home the friends are huddled together around a fire of communal warmth and you are like the wolf circling from the bushes, wishing you could get closer. You are different and everyone knows it. And when you are with them they talk about their normal lives without much interest in hearing your foreign stories. And why? Because your stories have no connection with their lives or their experience.

Loneliness is a part of the expatriate condition and it is part of the artist condition. My leaving home had everything to do with two things: wanting to know myself better and wanting to know how I would meet the world and react to it. Those two ideas are central to the artist personality, the artist mind and character. When you are home with the people you have known your whole life and with the burden of their expectations, no matter how benign, you are in a box. An artist wants out of the box.

At first, I didn’t know what kind of an artist I wanted to be or even what that meant. I had the impulse and I had a few notions. I thought I might want to be a writer and doesn’t a writer need something to write about? That was part of it. What I did not know then was that I had plenty to write about even if I went nowhere and that the endless rambling and questing for new experience could actually be a distraction from that. But those ideas are distant from youth; they become clear with age.

Becoming an artist is a process and becoming an expatriate is a process; both can have a great deal in common. It is important to distinguish between the working expat who always has home in mind and the expat who can’t go home and knows it, the one who has accepted that as a fact. And there is a distinction too between the person who enjoys art of one kind or another as a hobby and the artist who builds his life around it and makes it the priority.

Recently a friend, who is a writer and a painter like me, published yet another book. They are good books but without getting the readership they deserve which is typical of the artist plight. In his book he tried to steer aspiring artists from that path with advice about a “practical major” in college so that they might have a “ practical career”. As a younger man I might have seen this as a betrayal of the artist quest and calling but as an older man I sympathize completely. The artist life is very tough, its rewards measured against poverty and loneliness, two heavyweight enemies.

Expatriation also cuts out its pound of flesh when you leave your friends for the third or fourth time, friends who depend on you for friendship, company, leadership, many things. They tire of your inconstancy and turn their backs. And who can blame them? This is the steep price paid for the expat’s new experiences and for a deepening or one’s artist life. And yet, for me, there was never much of a choice and I am sure that is true for many others like me.

I grew up with a lot of privilege and luxury and all it did was bore me and make me feel like I couldn’t breathe. For me there was no comfort in materialism. And if poverty has been a burden, at least it has finally made me appreciate what I do have which was not the case earlier on.

These lives, the artist life and the expatriate life, are ways beyond the metaphoric box in which most of us live. They point in a spiritual direction toward spiritual goals, and they are part of what ultimately is a spiritual path. To accept oneself as an artist, to accept oneself as a true citizen of the world, requires a deep exhalation, an acceptance, a letting go. When the supports of a “normal” life are taken away, humility, surrender, and trust fall on you whether you want them or not. Trust? What if you refuse to trust, just cannot? Then come the plagues of panic, terror, and depression.

But trust in what? Something, something to discover for you alone. Carl Sagan, referring to “that pale blue dot” of our earth from space said, “Every saint and sinner who has ever lived has lived on that mote of dust in a sunbeam.” Carl Sagan did not have a particular religious affiliation but his perception of creation, of our planet, our life, speaks of humility and awe. Ernest Hemmingway, in his short Nobel laureate speech said this about being a writer, “for he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

Ricker Winsor
May 2015
Bali, Indonesia

About Ricker Winsor

Ricker Winsor studied American and Russian Literature at Brown University and Painting and Drawing at Rhode Island School of Design where he received an MFA. His new book, The Painting of My Life, was just released by Mud Flat Press; his first book is Pakuwon City, Letters from the East. Both are available on Amazon. His essays and short fiction have been published at “Reflets du Temps” in France and at Empty Mirror Books. Ricker is an artist and writer living in Bali, Indonesia. Visit him at rickerwinsor.com, on Facebook and Twitter.

Wild Things in Our Indonesian Neighborhood

          We live in a Balinese neighborhood with Balinese people who have home temples, who make offerings every day. One can hear gamelan music and mantras, vendors, kids crying, laughing, playing, cats yeolling, motorbikes and piano lessons making their presence known all at the same time. It is a very rich fabric.

          And despite one house next to the other, there is a natural world that is also complicated and rich. In this part of the world, a small garden, even a few square meters of grass and plants, can be home to a variety of wild things. Adding to this is a system of drains on either side of the street, drains for household water if not sewage, drains to catch the monsoon rains. And these drains support a lot of life.

jalan kami_web

          Our maid, Tutus, found a snake skin shed which led to a snake hunt, which, unfortunately, led to a dead snake. I like snakes and might have been a herpetologist if things had worked out for me as a young naturalist. I don’t think I have ever killed a snake before, but the snake was in a hard-to-reach place and with 400 species thereabouts and me not knowing them all, and some of them, many actually, poisonous, and with cries of “kill,kill,kill” coming from my wife and Tutus, well I didn’t have much choice. The snake below is a garter snake since it was very similar to our visitors and since I haven’t been able to make a definitive identification yet.

garter snake

          This led to a Stygian effort by my wife, Jovita,  to close up any possible crack through which a snake might enter the house. I would say she might have overdone it but snakes scare her as they do many people in this part of the world where a lot of people die of snakebite. Worldwide the number of fatalities is about 100,00 so I heard on Nat. Geo Wild just yesterday. I think there are more than 50,000 in India alone as I remember, and I don’t know about Indonesia, which has spitting cobras, many, and king cobras too.

          So I was surprised to see a few days later, in the evening as we were closing up the house, another snake wriggling across the floor. By this time I had looked in my books and found that the snakes coming in were classified as “water snakes” of a certain species. They were like our garter snakes, which, by the way, swim very well and like to swim and also swim under water as I have seen myself. I thought I might deal with this snake without Jovita knowing, but she pays attention to everything so I knew that wouldn’t work. So I said there was a snake and for her to go in the other room since I didn’t want her to see it. It was about two feet long and had squirmed behind a trash can and was hiding there. The squirming and wriggling were caused by the fact of the smooth tile floor upon which a snake finds very little traction. It is an awkward situation for them who move so efficiently in their proper environment. Anyway, I put on a glove and quickly grabbed him and let him go in the garden.

          And then, as a tracker, I wanted to figure out how they got in, why they got in, and the first clue was that they were both found in the same area. Sure enough, at the end of the tile baseboard there was a gap just before it hit the door casing, a place you really cannot see, and sure enough there was a hole there. Underneath the house, in the crumbling slab upon which it was built, there must be a world of worms, frogs, toads, mice, rats and so forth and I expect the snakes followed a mouse trail since the hole most probably was created by a mouse or rat and those creatures use the same trails time after time, which is one of the things you need to know if you want to trap them. And then the snakes were stuck inside.

          In my house in Washington State years ago I found a similar rat hole. What amazed me at the time, and now again, was the location of the hole in exactly the only place where it would not be noticed. It had been there for a long time and so had this one. How do they figure that out? Do they scout and draw maps, have a meeting? Honestly, it is a mystery because there were not any  failed attempts in evidence, attempts from which they might have learned. I plastered up the hole.

          One more snake story and this is a special one. Last year not far from our house, where the huge Hyatt Hotel is being renovated on extensive grounds, a security guard was killed by a python early in the morning. That area has a lot of open land, open jungle would be a good description since you can walk through most of it, but there is plenty of habitat, hiding places. Snakes need a place to hide and something to eat. That is all. A snake big enough to kill a security guard is not eating mice. But there are uncountable street dogs having puppies all the time and also cats and kittens. I expect that accounts for a major portion of a big snake’s diet.

           They claimed the snake was about eighteen feet, but a ten foot python could kill a man. He tried to catch the snake; it had been seen before. People were around but didn’t know what to do, were scared. I learned as a young herpetologist that the key is the tail. It is the anchor and if you dislodge that the rest will follow. Nobody knew that. Few people do. Constrictors kill in an efficient way. When you exhale they tighten the grip until you can’t inhale any more. That can take a few iterations but not many. What they do is quite spectacular actually. Here is a link to the story which was covered worldwide. The snake escaped unharmed.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/27/python-kills-bali-security-guard-indonesia-hotel-snake

Another fabulous and unexpected reptile in the neighborhood defying all expectation is this:

water monitor

It’s a water monitor and they are a very serious lizard. We were driving home down our little street in mid afternoon when we saw one crossing in front of us. He went into the neighbors’ dooryard as if he were going to borrow a cup of sugar or a basket of rats. That would be more accurate. He was about two feet long, big enough but not like the one we saw swimming in a canal at Serangan Island near where we live, a place that is mostly undeveloped. When I saw that one I just saw the head and it was about the size of a beaver. I wasn’t sure what it was but we followed along in the car and then he decided to evade and clambered up the bank and into the underbrush making powerful striding movements, his big claws digging in. That animal was all of five feet long, maybe more. They kill anything they can overpower, a living dinosaur and very impressive.

          Dogs are everywhere in Bali. The Hindu Balinese love dogs but don’t take care of them. It is a generalization to say that, but it is mostly true. They let them roam without any control and after a while they are out in the world fending for themselves. Or they keep them in a cage all day not minding that they bark incessantly and are miserable. They have puppies and they dump the females in another neighborhood and keep the males. That is how we got our special dog- a real winner. She and her sister were abandoned that way and a man was about to throw them against a wall to kill them when our kind-hearted neighbor, Haney, rescued them. I think he and his wife now have about seven dogs at their house next door. Street dogs do quite well actually. Some are very impressive. The DNA is high test for the simple reason that if they are not smart and resourceful and tough too, they die.

          I took the picture below. The black one on the right is totally free, a man of the street. He is very impressive, strong, well-proportioned, and resourceful. He and his friends roam  late at night and go through the garbage making a big mess.

street dog

          Because of rabies, some years ago, thousands of dogs were eliminated by the government here in Bali. In Java it is not a problem. There are few dogs and no loose ones. Muslims don’t like dogs. There is something in the Koran about that. They like to eat them in some regions though, buying them in markets. This year there have already been ten human deaths from rabies and over a hundred dogs diagnosed, including puppies, and two diagnosed by our veterinarian who is my age and specializes in disease passed from animals to people. Another culprit is the fruit bat, probably because people eat them too. They fly overhead in the evening looking like a B52 bomber or a black kite that escaped.

Fruit Bat

          This fruit bat or “flying fox” is one of the coolest things you could ever see. I love them but they are blamed for being “reservoirs” for a number of diseases fatal to humans including Ebola, Hendra, Marburg and others.  The big ones, and  again there are numerous species of them, can have a wing span of five and a half feet and weigh three and a half pounds. Seeing one in flight at night is unforgettable.

          In the arthropod group , and finding their way into our bathrooms via the drains, are millipedes and centipedes. They are not dangerous but are  hard, tough, and a little scary. Centipedes can bite.

centipede millepede

          There is another character, my favorite of all, like the Chickadee for me in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, an animal that peps up your life and is a companion somehow. That is the gecko. Geckos come in all shapes and sizes. Around our neighborhood they are small, from tiny to about four or five inches. In the “country” I have seen them at  ten inches and weighing in at over a pound. I think I remember there are about one hundred species. They are in the house and especially in action outside when the garage light is on attracting flying insects. That is how they get most of their meals. They can walk the walls and the ceilings, everywhere. Scientists are studying how their feet and toes grip so well.  They look almost like people, some of them little homunculi, eyes, a head, little feet, hands. It is a pleasure to have them in your life.

gecko

          There is a lot more but I don’t want to go on indefinitely. What is so interesting to me is how much wildlife there is right in a densely populated city. This is important to me as my nature friends know. I am not deprived. And in Surabaya, where we have our new house, things will get even more interesting because of a lot of reasons. The one to mention now is that in Surabaya there is an extensive system of canals draining the giant flat plane of the city, moving water to the big river, the Mas, and into the sea at the port of Surabaya. Those canals, called kali, are prime habitat for a lot of life and are within walking distance of the house. 

Manyar House_web

Above, our new house- 2000 square feet of house inside plus garden,  3 bedrooms, 11 foot ceilings, and big painting studio…. We may have finally made it into the middle class due only to the power of prayer and the power of the almighty US dollar…..

Below, Lengkeng, or Longan. I have one started from seed doing well. Also, I have an artichoke growing. Lengkeng is candy on a tree…

Lenkeng

Bougainvillea, the heart of the tropics, is everywhere and in every color imaginable and not imaginable..

Bouganvillea

The evenings in the tropics are special… rw

Sanur Beach_web

Drawing and Wabi Sabi

bangla view

Laotzu’s verse says: “Be like an uncarved stone.”

Everyone can draw. It is in the genome. Drawing is one of the earliest things we know about human beings. We admire work they did on cave walls twenty five thousand years ago. Some of it is graceful and refined. Some of it is crude, raw, and expressive. I began drawing at age thirty. Before that, I didn’t think I could draw and I never got the permission or encouragement to try. But I knew about it because of artists in my family and also because of New York City, the center of our cultural life.

I got drawn into the world of drawing and painting as a teenager in a surprising way. I was learning to play folk music on the guitar in the 1960’s and Tom Paxton took my sister on a date to the Museum of Modern Art. Since he was a hero of mine, I wanted to see what it was all about. Over the next many years I spent untold hours looking at the paintings there.

Later, when I started to become serious about photography, an art director from an advertising agency, someone a good bit older than I, suggested that the way to become a good photographer was to study paintings for composition, light, and all the rest of the elements and principles of visual art. I took it to heart. It was another encouragement to study painting. At that point I still had no sense that I might do it myself. In those days painting seemed to be for the girls, at least where I grew up, but photography was ok, kind of macho.

I became a very good black and white photographer and from photography I learned about composition, contrast and the gray scale. When I was thirty I went to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design and spent three important years there. I was admitted because of my professional background in photography. In those days the curriculum was open, so beyond the required courses in photography, I was free to choose what I wanted to do.

On the first day of school, in the registration line, I was already talking about jumping ship from total concentration in photography. I wanted to paint, to draw. Next to me in line was an impressive-looking, tall classmate, Jenny Holzer, who was just another person at that time and not the major art star she became in the 1980’s. I talked to her about my secret desires while we waited on line to register for classes and she said basically, “If you want to paint, paint!” It was all the permission I needed.

The next day, having no experience whatsoever, I walked into a life drawing class and was welcomed by the teacher H. Lane Smith. “Yes, sure, come in. You are welcome here.” He became a close friend over the next three years and until his death.

I studied the French painters I already knew but now with a different eye because I was actually drawing and painting myself. Matisse, Dufy, and so many others including the Japanese and Chinese ink artists were important to me. But the point I want to make is that those influences did not change me. They did not change me for the simple fact that my crude approach and lack of conventional skill didn’t allow for much of their work to get into my work. My gift was, ironically, that I had no experience or skill in drawing at all. I was totally on my own except for the encouragement of a great teacher and with the unusual hyper-focus, energy, and discipline I have always had.

In class we practiced drawing from the model, and I did more drawing at home, still life, and landscape out on the rocky shores of Narragansett Bay. My teacher, Lane Smith, showed me how to make reed pens from the phragmites growing in the salty marshes. He was a fine painter, a great draftsman, and an excellent calligrapher in the Roman Hand.

My drawings were original and very good right from the beginning. Photography had something to do with that but actually it seemed like a miracle. No matter how awkward my hand was and still is, people could always identify what I was drawing. That is called characterization and I had it in spades and very much in my own unique way. That is what was so interesting, so cool really. I had the energy and the ability to try. Simply put, that was all it took.

The result was almost always exciting in one way or another and not just to me but to my teachers and to many of the students, but not all the students. My art school, RISD, was packed full with kids from all over the world who could draw anything and make it look like a photograph. Some of those students resented the attention I got for my primitive or naïve drawings as they would view them. I could sympathize with them but it didn’t make me doubt what I had. I have never doubted it despite a good deal of destructive criticism in the early years.

My approach to drawing respects the individuality of every human being. In the same way that everyone’s handwriting is different, so should their drawing be different and personal. That is how I think about it. I believe in a person’s sincere attempt to process the world “out there” and I believe that the honesty of that effort will be rewarded in a valuable and interesting result. This is a form of belief but one that is easily verified in the highly prized works of art history from Rembrandt to Dubuffet, from Matisse to Jackson Pollock, from Ingres to Cy Twombly.

Over the course of my teaching career I taught about a thousand students. The ones who were most awkward and seemingly the most hopeless were the ones who progressed much more than those others who were proud and sometimes smug about their conventional drawing skill, which was competent but often boring.

Drawing is totally natural for me. I don’t have to think about it and worry about it the way I do with painting. Painting and poems are both gifts as I see them, something that gets handed to you by your Muse after you struggle, ponder, and experiment with different ideas. The good ones happen mysteriously like that. But drawing is different. For me it is like taking a drink from the well of creativity, touching base with that mysterious power. It is the basic thing, the reliable thing. And the awkward aspect, the unrefined aspect, the mistakes, are all-important. That is a beautiful irony.

Recently, I learned about Wabi-sabi, an aspect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Wabi-sabi considers imperfection an element of beauty, something to be revealed, not concealed. It suggests that true beauty is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Thinking about Wabi-sabi made me remember a very significant experience I had at a school near Seattle where I was teaching. A gallery owner asked if a famous potter from Japan could use our new ceramics studio for a week to produce a great deal of work. They would pay for all expenses and make a monetary contribution as well. The students could watch. It was a good deal.

I don’t remember his name, the master potter. He was a national treasure and not old either, perhaps early middle age at that time. This was in about 1999. He got busy and over the course of that week, produced countless objects of all kinds, all hand built, nothing from the wheel as I remember. He just made things one after another and they were all considered important because, of course, he was a national treasure, but also because they all had the mark of his personality. That quality was embedded in each piece no matter how humble the object itself might seem to be.

I think about my drawing in this way; that it was a gift right from the start, a gift that I treasured and nurtured. I have gotten better at some things and can sustain my concentration longer but what was good at the beginning is still good. I know if I sit down and look out on creation and respond with ink and pen and brush, if I embrace the fear that always accompanies the first strokes, I will produce something good just like that Japanese artist. It is an ecstatic sense of artistic liberation to reach this point and worth the suffering endured along the way before that liberation is understood and accepted.

It would please me to think that these ideas might help an aspiring artist somewhere.

Ricker Winsor
Bali, Indonesia
March 2, 2015

About Ricker Winsor

Ricker Winsor studied American and Russian Literature at Brown University and Painting and Drawing at Rhode Island School of Design where he received an MFA. His new book, The Painting of My Life, was just released by Mud Flat Press; his first book is Pakuwon City, Letters from the East. Both are available on Amazon. His essays and short fiction have been published at “Reflets du Temps” in France and at Empty Mirror Books. Ricker is an artist and writer living in Bali, Indonesia. Visit him at rickerwinsor.com, on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Seventieth Year

The_Apostle_Paul_-_Rembrandt

 Just now, this month, I am seventy years old and it is a surprise to me. Sometimes I recount the many ways I might have died, the recklessness that tempted death. The youth of my generation didn’t think life after thirty was worth living and we hoped to be dead by forty, and some of us were. I survived the snares and traps somehow and I squeezed a hundred lifetimes into this seventy years. Remembering it all makes me tired. Noting the decline of my body makes me tired. And yet, despite the fact that skin hangs on my body in places where it once had a firm grip on muscle and flesh, despite my chagrin when viewing current pictures of myself; despite all that, this condition of time right now is in many ways the nectar of my life.

There is more subtlety, more nuance to my life now. Before, there was action, libido, and the excitement of taking risks. There was also failure and regret. Most of that has vaporized into the ether but not regret. It does not go away but time softens it. Time mixes it into a rich broth by adding nostalgia, melancholy, happiness, and the memory of clear days and the freshness of youth. Out of all that, time creates a unique cuisine, a bazaar of tastes and recollections experienced in the mind.

The mind has always been the locus of greatest entertainment for me. This might be an introvert trait; introverts generally tend to be happiest in their own company. Joy of mind comes from what imagination adds to what I experience as external reality, a reality I often find disappointing in one way or another. I have come to accept this as part of the human condition. Occasionally, I relax my judgmental sensitivity and experience a moment’s fleeting peace.

My memory operates at its highest level when experiences are connected to emotions. I have to care about what is happening to remember it. But the memories that stick are so vivid and solid that they blur the boundary between the conscious state and the dream state. And in my present stage of life this is happening more and more. It seems I drift between the two states of being like a sailor disappearing over the horizon only to reappear again sometime later.

At seventy I  am free to paint and read and write unencumbered by a job. There is little  to interfere with my musings. And so I can stare at the ceiling or the wall and be lost in thought. An hour passes. Maybe I fade into a dream and visit chapters of a dense and complicated life, experiencing  them so clearly, so vividly that they count for experience itself. Have you ever woken up crying from a dream or been so moved by one that it took you days to recover? Have you experienced dream visits from lost loves over many years? Have you had recurring dreams of places you have only seen in dreams? Can you see the latch on the barn door thirty years ago in crystal clarity, the grain of the wood, the solid planks on the floor?

In a letter to me the poet, David Kherdian, said, “Being a human being is the hardest job of all”. And it is the hardest job, even for the rich and privileged  who seem to have everything. But  they don’t have everything. Nobody has everything. If they think they do that would be a state of ignorance. We are incomplete, strangers in a strange land trying to come to terms with the eternal questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?  Our life here is very short whether we live eighteen years or eighty-eight. And the older we get the shorter it seems to have been. “Where did the time go?” we ask but it is an empty question. The mystery of this life takes questions like that and boomerangs them out into infinity.

Life works on us and hammers us into shape if we let it. We don’t have much choice.  If we resist too much, rebel and fight too much, we will pay a price. A wise man said, “By the end of your life you have the face you deserve.” I wish for us to have a face at peace, a kind face, a face that has finished resisting.

What comes next? The aforementioned poet, who is now eighty-four, says, “The evidence is everywhere.”

Ricker Winsor

rickerw@yahoo.com

February 2015

Bali, Indonesia

Air Asia Flight 8501

 

In a high rise hotel in Surabaya,

a quiet week, waiting like so much of life,

my wife makes miniatures of snacks in clay for jewelry ideas

and I download Nordic Noir.

A trip to the gym to stay the decline,

then I dream, more vividly than I live,

and solve problems there I couldn’t understand awake,

and feel stupid against it all.

Can a thunder clap blow you out of the sky, fair-weather friend?

On our daughter’s phone, I see the portrait

of four handsome young men in the virility of youth

whose bloated bodies, one by one, are now delivered up,

home for the holidays.

 

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia  Jan. 2015

A Bat

A Bat

 

In Bangladesh

He got in through the mesh.

It was a bat

A bat rolled up in a mat.

Was he dead or just in bed?

Estivating or maybe meditating,

He looked mummified.

I had to clarify.

He was quiet;

Too long on a diet.

No mosquito no fly

had passed by

while he took his rest

in that comfy nest.

I picked him up.

He felt cold.

He looked old.

I took him up on the roof

and, just for fun,

put him in the sun

to soak up the rays

of that equatorial day.

Slowly he woke.

I gave him a poke.

Crawling on little bat feet,

far up from the street

up there on the roof,

and then…….poof

He was in the air

without a care,

Flying in circles around me,

flapping his wings mightily.

I was with him entirely. 

Just a couple of feet off the ground

he flew round and round

round and round

with a flapping sound.

He got his bearing.

I was just staring.

He shot straight out.

I tried to shout,

“Hey, you were a wreck

And now you are just a speck!”

 

Ricker Winsor