a whole world of sticky pigments


Several weeks ago, Venerable Hojin, an ordained priest from Zen Mountain Monastery, came down with Ryushin Sensei, the abbot, to lead a workshop on campus. Ryushin Sensei was giving a Dharma talk that evening, but Hojin was facilitating an introductory workshop to spirituality and art.

Ven. Hojin is a painter by training, and she continues to work mostly with paint. She started us out with a color exercise, intended to help us engage color in a more nuanced, and very importantly, attentive way. Working with watercolors on postcard-sized pieces of good paper, we were instructed to chose one color and fill the paper with it. The picture below is a close-up of that workshop’s first exercise.


I hadn’t played with a set of watercolors since I was in elementary school. Lots of the usual demons came out to play along with me: the “I don’t know how to do this” demon, the “Hers is better than mine” demon, the “I don’t want to do this if I don’t make something good” demon. Ah, demons. Always around, wanting attention. I try and think of them as small, hyperactive pets, or ill-behaved but basically decent children.

After the watercolor session, Ven. Hojin led us outside and instructed us to find colors in the environment. She showed a piece she had begun earlier on her way to the campus: splotches of deep maroon and violet occupied a corner of the paper. They were flowers and leaves she’d found on her way, and rubbed into the paper. Away we went, too, in search of color. That workshop opened me up to paint and to color in a radically different way. When I make photographs in color, I don’t consider the color as a quality of an object that I can draw out on its own and work with as a singular subject. I did an entire photo-poetic journal one winter around the theme of red, but red was the theme, not the subject. I was attracted to this practice of color, even though I wasn’t very pleased with my first results. I really enjoyed playing with the watercolors, though, especially with the relatively simply injunction to work with one color at the beginning.

Today, I needed to make some cards to send people. I tried painting a couple but really didn’t like what resulted (“too much thinking,” which turns out to be as much a problem with paints as it is for me when making photographs or writing; more intuition, more attentiveness, less artifice, is not only a very different process but also a very different piece). So I took paper and fingers and eyes out with me today, and found colors. I started with a tulip tree and some dandelions. I added pansies, daffodils, periwinkle, red maple, grass, forsythia, and more whose names I don’t know. The results are as you see here. The first picture is today’s exercises piled one on top of another on the kitchen table; the two photos below are close-ups of two different pieces.


In between making the piece above and the one below, I attended Friday prayers (jummah) with the campus community. In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, I’ve been struggling as I struggled 11 and a half years ago to make sense of things, and to find constructive and healing ways to address my own pain and confusion, as well as reach out to the greater faith community. I asked our Immam if I could attend Friday prayers, and he invited me to come. What happened in Boston—I’ll be honest. I don’t want to go into it. I went to jummah out of sorrow and hope and the belief that by being together and praying together something positive will result. The Muslim Students’ Association coordinator, a young woman, brought an extra scarf for me to cover my head, in a plain beige.

The call to prayer and the chants pierce straight through me, every time. I watched the women pray. The physical postures of prayer, so different in the details and so similar in the general attitude, moved me to reconsider and re-enliven my own physical prayer. It also delights me to no end to look at the various colors and patterns of their headscarves. I live in a largely monochromatic or at least visually restrained religious environment, and it fills me with a child-like pleasure to see the many-colored scarves the women wear, and to both watch them pray, and pray with them. I can’t be anything but a bit of an outsider, but they invited me in, made a space for me. Afterward there was a community lunch, and a small group of us (including the young Jewish classmate who emailed the Students’ Association coordinator, a friend of his, to find me a hijab!) chatted and nibbled. Then I left to go drop off my alumni auditing application for next fall, so that I can officially audit courses.

plant paint 3

All along the street were colors and more colors. A whole world of sticky pigments I’d never explored. What amazes me yet again in looking at the pictures is how textured and layered the pieces can become. In some ways, plants behave like pencils; in other ways, like paint. I mostly played around with “brush” stroke direction and layering colors, and working with my timidity and fear of making something “bad” by making big, bold strokes and creating large patches of color before filling in with other colors. The color of a petal or sepal isn’t always the color you get on the page. A lot of experimentation and discovery happened today, which was exciting. I’m incredibly grateful to Ven. Hojin for introducing me to this; it’s replaced the camera on some outings, asking me to understand the essence of something as not manifest through its form, but through its color. It’s also encouraged me to make journal entries that are color-scapes instead of notations, the various plants used in the making of an exercise serving as the cues for where I went, and what I saw or touched.


Today was the last day of classes; in honor of that, I composed a fu (賦). Fu, translated into English as “rhapsody,” is a genre of Chinese poetry characterized by ornate language and exhaustive cataloguing. The first fu began appearing around 200 BCE, epitomized in that period by Sima Xiangru. Arthur Waley emphasized the incantatory power of the language and rhetoric of fu; but frankly, while studying them this semester, I didn’t see the point to fu. They were long and bored me. If a stupor were equivalent to an incantation-induced trance, then…I guess so.

But then, for the last day of classes, to honor both the great seminar in which we read ancient Chinese literature and, in particular, to pay a satirical honor to the professor under whose guidance we engaged those texts, I decided to compose a fu of my own. And it was fun! In trying to compose a fu, I understood better the charisma it exerts on the writer, and possibly on the audience (remembering that this was probably an aural literature before it was a written literature). The context of fu was often imperial (ostensibly recited in front of emperors), and certainly the content was grandiose. Host and guest scenarios often provided the setting, and competition between two states or two capitals often provided the initial narrative arc. Our professor received his PhD from a certain unnamed Ivy League institution in New Jersey, and the current provost of another unnamed Ivy League institution in Connecticut was voted the next president of that institution this year, just to set the scene for you.

There are problems with my fu. The section on flowers in the “Poem on the Courtyard” is too fu-like to be included in a hymn, which is closer to what those two poems are. Furthermore, time constraints meant that I didn’t flesh out some of the other aspects of a typical fu. Nonetheless: “The Rhapsody on the Green,” a.k.a. “The Green Fu.”


When the State of New Jersey from its preeminent institution sent an envoy to the State of Connecticut to that latter state’s Ivory Tower, after having been enjoined to wade into the wilds of the Hall of Graduate Studies and there contend with undergraduates and graduates alike, on the final day of classes this Scholar was addressed by the Provost of the Ivory Tower. The Provost said, “I have heard that the libraries and halls of Princeton are rung round with prestige, and that the lawns and vales ring with good learning. But now that you have come to this haven and seen our Ivory Tower, our faux Gothic carapace, witnessed the assiduity with which we address ourselves to study, observed our skill in navigating Shopping Period and scheduling Reading Week, having seen our fervent wedding of the most profound theoretical frameworks with popular culture every chance we get, can you say that Princeton has anything as anachronistically grand as our architecture or as abstruse and recondite as our seminar discussions? Tell me; I long to hear your thoughts.”

The Scholar glanced at the Provost and said, “Good Sir Provost, I can’t see the point in comparisons. It is well-known that what for one is a balm may for another be a bane, what for one is a medicine may for another be a poison. For some, the Tigers, for others, Handsome Dan. And does not Harvard’s 2012 endowment exceed either Princeton’s or Yale’s? Would not the two then be united against the Crimson by virtue of that shared inferiority? A rival becomes an ally; if that is the case, then how should we measure each absolutely against the other? We cannot but come to see the differences as simply relative. Why sink into petty comparisons? Let me instead discourse on literature, and ancient sages, and expound for you the dao of scholars.”

The Provost said, “I would hear it.”

The Scholar bowed his head, and began.

Literature stands at the center of things, like a New England town green,
with the pattern of its form well-established and its boundaries clearly marked.
Across it travel the multitudes, the common freshman humming Taylor Swift
or the furrow-browed senior, rifling through the leaves for exemplary passages
and bolstering arguments. Graduate students refine themselves within its gates,
frequent favorite spots, gather to argue and discuss at peripheral coffee shops.
Professors and enthusiasts recline or stroll her paths,
knowing this turn and that, recognizing each flourishing species of text,
each delicate unfurling line, taxonomies of knowledge and art.

To the north,

White oak and bear oak, blazing maple and speckled alder,
towering willow flecked with spring’s green,
sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash, paper birch,
ornamental cherry, forsythia, ilex opaca with her red berries,
box elder, mountain maple, flowering dogwood,
New England magnolia, tulip trees, Possumwood,
American beech, green ash, mountain-laurel, black tupelo,
silky sassafras, sweet viburnum, and American elm.
These trees are the great foundational texts of literature,
the texts established before memory by the sages,
culled from the tangled wilds and chosen
for beauty and utlity, greatness of breadth and canopy
or delicacy and grace, and planted on the green of cultured literature
that we might learn, what is to be learned and transmitted,
how we are to form our own gardens and nurture the past
to bring forth seeds to bear fruit into the future,
that a sturdy and vibrant common of literature, lacking none
of the great examples but giving space for new growth between
those deep and gnarled roots, might be established.

To the south,

Union Station, with tracks leading to the Shore Line and Providence,
Boston, all points between, and on down to Stamford, New York, even
New Jersey, further south, to Washington DC, Baltimore,
from those hubs, other buses and planes depart,
London, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Calcutta,
Sydney or Seoul, Ullanbataar, Katmandu–
from the starting point of this green, all other places may be reached,
starting from those places, all may find their way here,
the arteries and veins of highways and local roads,
Boston Post, the Merrit, I-95 and I-90, Route 10, Route 8,
Zipcar or Megabus, a friend’s borrowed ride or one hitched,
airport shuttle and taxi, for the brave a bicycle and nerves of steel.
This criss-crossing network of roads and their modes of transportation
are the approaches to literature, the ways and methods by which
one may arrive at understanding. Some are ancient, following footpaths
the first scholars trod, and others are new, only recently paved
in PhD dissertations and prepared for publication.
Owen and Kern and Knechtges and Nylan,
Kongzi and Mengzi and Laozi and Zhuangzi, Derrida or Foucoult and others even,
roads not yet carved, asphalt not yet poured, the way not yet paved,
this further work the work of future generations, scholars-to-be,
who may affirm or challenge, reify or deconstruct, accept, question, or synthesize
the paths defined by those who came before. Only, would-be scholars
must lay out their arguments in two pages or less; brevity sharpens the meaning,
enforces the essence of thought and curbs prolix verbiage.
Only fu are exempt: they may wander like New Deal public works,
may cover vast philosophical grounds and unite parties disparate
in time, in place, and in attitude, a universe of thought.

To the east,

The Long Island Sound, an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean,
contains in its salt-water the taste of that larger body of water,
itself but one of the several great oceans and many smaller
which wash and water the continents and islands of Earth.
By its watery nature the Sound indicates the greater constituent of which it is,
by its particular animals, fish both marine and anadromous,
and sharks, which are fish too, mollusks, crustaceans, mammals,
reptiles, amphibians, birds, the plover and heron, sandpiper, mallard,
broadbill and egret, too numerous to name,
its own tides and shores, salt-marshes and cattail marshes,
moraine-formed beaches, river-mouths and islands,
with all these the Sound reminds us that particularity and universality
are but two faces of the same globe, alternating in turn,
the large and the small, lakes and seas, sounds and straits,
fresh and salt, like this are the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
Their essence is water, their activity the sublunar and antipodal tides,
their characteristics manifest in relative size, salinity, flora, and fauna.
These bodies of water are the languages of culture, the particular grammars
and alphabets or glyphs of states and countries and peoples, defined and located,
both bound to place and apt to wander, as currents wander, and travel,
as leviathans and whales, and transform and modify, arriving in new climates,
or be transplanted and translated. Their essence is consciousness, their activity
communication, their characteristics are Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Altaic,
Afroasiatic, or Dravidian. These waters of language circumference
literature, ringing round it like the Mill or West River, bordering literature
like the Sound and the Harbor, water the roots of its trees with the smallest drops
and translate its canons to distant lands.

To the west,

The University, the Ivory Tower, the crenellated carrillon and Sterling Memorial,
blessed by Sophia, its walls and walkways well-patterned,
the post-renovation undergraduate dorms and Bass Library,
cloisters to the liberal arts ringing with acapella, Science Hill
in inclined austerity making breathless those seekers, vaults with strange,
secret names, and the labrythine bowels of SSS, LC, WLH, Mason, Dunham, SPL,
Becton, Kline, and SCL. Here scholars and would-be scholars make their home.
They recline upon the University’s vast stores and take her amenities for good friends,
the libraries filled with rare print, select tomes, sheaves of gathered learning ripening
in the sun of liberality. And who does this collecting, selecting, gathering?
Who directs young minds toward first understanding, older minds toward critical volumes,
who, having refined her own knowledge first, is able to assist in the refinement of others,
or at the very least, signal the general path? Scholars are: they who have mastered
languages obscure and difficult, conducted inter-disciplinary research and can espouse
theories of material culture development and dragons, who find delight
in challenging the prevailing models, and can quote, in the original Greek,
the first lines of epics too numerous to list. These are scholars.
But do not think a scholar confined to the Tower. Literature does not lie within the campus,
is not to be found contained within a cloister or courtyard. Though stately
and well-cultivated, literature is properly of the public domain.
Scholars deep in wisdom know this, and though they live in the Tower
they abide in the world, walking the ways of ancient sages gone before,
standing where they stood, that present scholars and past sages
might be united amongst the glens and stands of literature in a single poetic view.
Wandering, scholars apply for fellowships, do study abroad, taste the strange salt
of other seas and smell the strange scents of other cities, and master
colloquial languages needed for secondary research. They then return,
to transmit what they have learned and to point the way. This Empire of Learning
extends beyond this one university, to embrace other lycea and scholars too.
Annual gatherings of academics will prove the breadth and height of this Empire.
From all over the land scholars will gather, to present papers and leave presentations early
to converse with old colleagues, to exchange and debate ideas.
Pledges and toasts will be exchanged back and forth, and these scholars
will step out virtue and sing forth benevolence. They will come
from every kind of university, and pay tribute to knowledge and literature
with offerings of scholarship exciting, wonderful, and new. Above all, the true scholar knows
that the University may serve as a protective pass, but that true learning
sets no external boundaries.

“Good Sir Provost, this is my discourse.” And with this, the Scholar bowed and stepped back, as was proper. The Provost, startled, at first looked pale, then he brightened, his countenance shining, and said, “Good Scholar! Profound and revelatory was this discourse! Indeed, such understanding of literature, scholars, and the University is rare to find, even more difficult to hire into a faculty. I would bestow on you the greatest honor to make your erudition known to all, and ask if you would join my bluegrass band when I am President of this University.” To this, the Scholar consented, and thereupon the Provost composed the following poems, to delight and instruct the entire faculty, administration, and staff:

The Renovated Hall Poem

Oh clean, well-ventilated Renovated Hall!
The Hall is extremely well-made,
replete with wifi access, Bluetooth, and iPad compatible projectors.
Classrooms arrayed like the nodes of a net,
guest students and host scholars traversing the corridors
like shining drops of dew sliding along filaments.
This is the resplendant Hall, presided over by Sophia,
where minds are banqueted and fed,
where cogent arguments are formed
and scything theories constructed, and subsequently
published. Oh Renovated Hall! Oh alumni giving!
Oh capital drives! Oh endowment, accruing interest!
Long will you renovate and house the University,
Long may your own lives shine on, for ten thousand years.

The Courtyard Poem

Here is the Courtyard,
the Courtyard with daffodils of many species, phlox,
rhodendron, slender vetch, lyre-leaved sage,
common skullcap, mugwort, early blue violet,
trumpet-creepers, sweet clover, white fringed orchid,
mudwort, foxglove and beardtongue, culver’s root,
field pansy, mayapple, trilliums and bloodroot,
wild madder, cow parsnip, seaside angelica,
hop clover, golden hedge hyssop, butter-and-eggs,
yellow iris, mullein, bellwort, celandine, evening primrose,
and pimpernel. And among the flowers, picking and plucking,
gathering and arranging, making garlands and crowns,
wreaths and curtains, go the undergraduates.
The Master of the College arrives–it is a Master’s Tea!
Dignitaries and luminaries arrive and depart,
guests are invited. Surely the Master has chosen well!
Surely the honored Guest will delight the audience
with sagely wisdom and profound knowledge, witty bon mots
and trenchant observation! The luminous wind of learning
scatters the darkness of ignorance throughout the yard!
Long will we remember the Courtyard and its brightness.


Cold, then colder. Barefoot in the zendo, shush of feet on the hardwood floors. No birdsong in the dawn, foretelling rain. Trashtruck dumptruck rattling up the street, somebody’s gotta do it, hear the bang of the lids, the shouts of the burly men. Imagine they are burly, on the cushion, eyes closed in the half-sleep, half-wake of meditation. Open. Close. The heart banging like a pair of heels drumming a floor, a toddler, someone’s kid, kicking against the rungs of a chair, maybe laid out with legs up a wall and pounding tiny heels into the wallpaper. Floral. Or stripes. No wainscoting. Point was, heart is banging. Poor tired heart, poor thing of flesh that can be crushed but not broken, said he, I want to stay grounded in biology, he said. Oh but the heart it can shatter, it can indeed be crushed like the tomatoes that come in cans and we add to sauces, porkchops Italiano, that meal Mom would make when we were kids. The heart. Up into the dawn hours, that second watch of the night, sleep so thin and unsatisfying, woke with a heart banging with exhaustion and that last 10 pm cup of coffee. I think the heart can break. I have no evidence of that to put in your textbook. Cold, then colder. The wooden clappers. When we swam there was this moment when the long, undulating ribbon of motion would break in the air as we surfaced. Shift. A different momentum. A sense of having been interrupted. How slow and patient was the heavy bent-light blue of water, and our bodies within it, all that otherworldly water-patience interrupted when we broke in froth and oxygenated fury. That’s those clappers, snap-clap-crack, the surface of meditation and the breath broken with a gasp. Life-giving breakage of each breath. Hours later, stepping out of the house, it was cold. Then colder, day the color of raw uncarded wool, or the milky quartz striating the rocks washed up off Puget Sound. Seattle. White when dry, thickly grayish when wet. The inside of the heart is at least a bit dampish, even at its worst, I hope, I don’t like to remember the days when the heart felt like desert sand, when it was cold as a dawn hearth in winter. Scraping out the flying ashes and flakey charcoal of the night before, scraped out, hollow, cold. Crushed charcoal for a heart, can you imagine, there would be nothing to take in your hands and squeeze, no, nothing to mold like a piece of bread pinched off and rolled into a ball before being popped into a mouth. The world chews, hearts are crushed. Wash us with a bit of that sanctified wine, you there, we are consubstantiated, there is both the mortal fleshy heart and that thing, that shattered broken luminous thing, banging like a lover on the door, like wings against air.