The Vulnerati

There is a pervasive myopia, and it is, that talent and success come to fruition solely by the genius of the person in question.

No one has ever done anything that is worthwhile alone.

There is always someone or someones who maintain the foundation of—lets call it that incubative stuff they put in petri dishes—that matrix, so that the cells can grow, unimpeded. There is always someone who provides one or more of the following: financial support, child care, housework, emotional support, intellectual support, physical support.

Leaving out this other half —and it is at least half—of the story in a profile of a successful person perpetuates the tired, and let’s face it, untrue trope of the solitary genius.

Walt Whitman had, not only his sister, but a wife to wait on him and take care of his every emotional and physical need so that he could create in petri dish splendor. Edward Weston had Tina Modotti. And so on.

I am looking forward to the day when a profile of a successful person—of any gender—includes the other half of the story, which is, of course, the whole story.

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The Night Sky

One night not long ago, I woke up at 2:00 am. I lay there listening to Richie and Buddy breathe. I listened to my brain rushing through all its thoughts of what to do, when to do it, and what has been done. Our window looks out on the water and for the first time in at least a week it was a clear night; I could see stars reflected in the still water and Orion dangling.

Stars. They settle me—settle my restless brain with their steadfastness. A long time ago, I read a poem by the nineteenth century English poet, Matthew Arnold. It had me at the first two lines:

              ” Weary of myself, and sick of asking

                What I am, and what I ought to be,”…

Ah, isolation, confusion. I could relate.

 

…”ye stars, ye waters,

On my heart your mighty charm renew;

Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,

Feel my soul becoming vast like you!

 

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,

Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,

In the rustling night-air came the answer:

“Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.”

 

Live as they. Calm and belonging in the universal sense.

It was the answer I was looking for those many years ago and it was the answer that renewed itself to me that sleepless night.

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The Firebird

I am in Tucson now for a bit, and the other day I decided to try to do a watercolor of the mountains at sunset. With their vast swaths of deep blue shadows it seemed, visually, like a simple image to capture. I retrieved my travel watercolor kit, 3 x 5 watercolor block, HB pencil, and squishy eraser and walked to the park where there was a view of mountains beyond the highway and power lines. I balanced my cup of water on the rough and not terribly flat surface of the wall, poised pencil over paper, stared at the mountains hard and tried to look artistic, rather than suspicious to any passersby.

When I opened up the watercolor set to begin painting, I noticed that the popular colors—and the colors I would need—were mere scraps of paint clinging to the sides of the pan. Oh well, I thought, it’s only a 3 x 5, surely I’ll have enough paint for that. I unsheathed the tiny travel brush and dipped and dribbled water into each cake of dry paint. But when I started painting, I quickly realized that brush was way past its sell-by date as my husband is fond of saying. It had lost its spring and now resembled, more than anything, a tiny dispirited scrub brush. I plodded onward, painterly speaking, but the deep dark blues of the mountain shadows looked anemic on my paper. I let the painting dry before folding everything back up, because sometimes a painting that I think is awful doesn’t look so bad, given some time and space. (This one didn’t, so you’re not going to see it.) I had began my disappointed trudge back to the house when a flash of hot-coal caught my eye. I stared. What kind of bird was that? Much too red to be a cardinal. Disappointment forgotten, I followed the bird from tree to tree, weaving from one sidewalk to the other. I certainly looked suspicious now, but I needed to see that bird. Back at the house I went on the internet and learned that it was a vermillion flycatcher.

Vermillion–now that’s not a word you hear too often outside of painting. It’s a pigment, made from ground cinnabar and it’s a brilliant, nuanced red. The saturated color of the vermillion flycatcher contrasted, in my mind, with the anemic colors of my watercolor attempt to capture the rich beauty of the mountains–and my dissatisfaction about it.

And then I got it. There is transcription, and there is the thing itself. And that firebird had just reminded me not to forget to rejoice in the thing itself.

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Big House Thursday

I talked Richie into going to the Biltmore House today, since no one on our team was racing. What a treat that was! Of course I had seen photos of the house, and I thought I knew what it would be like inside: cold, drafty, overwhelming in an I’ve-got-tons-of-money sort of way. But it wasn’t. It was actually—and this is hard to comprehend for a two hundred fifty-room house—cozy. We took the audio tour (which I recommend) and I’ve come away with a different idea of rich. More in the noblesse oblige way and I’m not being ironic. Biltmore did, and continues, to provide employment for hundreds of people—today eighteen hundred people work on the estate.

Back in the late nineteenth century, when Biltmore was being constructed, workers were paid well. Stone carvers were paid four dollars a day in an era when four dollars a week was a typical wage. After the house was up and running, each servant was provided with a private, furnished room—unusual for that time. The Vanderbilt’s treated people so well that it was not uncommon for generations of the same family to work at Biltmore.

So maybe you’re thinking that if you’ve inherited millions of dollars, it’s not exactly hurting you to treat people well, but all the same it is a choice. And the fact that these uber-rich people made the choice to promote and nurture rather than to exploit says something about wealth that you maybe don’t see often enough today.

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Looking for Likes in all the Wrong Places

I like it when lots of people read my posts, something I know by looking at my stats thingies. But I am not comfortable with it. It’s not that I don’t like that lots of people are reading what I’ve written—after all, writing needs readers. It’s that I don’t like liking that lots of people are reading what I’ve written.

Recently I found an archive with all the interviews with writers The Paris Review published through its decades. William Styron, before he was WILLIAM STYRON and just a young author with a first novel, found the writing life wrought with self-doubt and therefore very hard work and so he usually wrote in the afternoons with a hangover, because what he really liked was to stay up late and get drunk. But Styron, despite insecurity and self-doubt, despite hangovers, despite the not knowing whether his writing was any good or not, wrote.

Because if you’re a writer, you write. And you do this on trust, and especially without validation. Your insecurity is the knife-edge that pierces the self-complacent ego and allows the honesty to emerge.

These days with social media, we have the opportunity to post clever drivel that panders to a culture of “likes” and get instant validation for it. Human nature being what it is, why put yourself through the agony of writing and reaching for your non-validated best when you can be “liked” for a quick and clever effort? That’s the problem for writers, and there’s no solution except to be aware of it.

If you want to create the good stuff, you have to suffer in a vacuum of non-validation. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

 

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Website Launch!

Exciting news for me! My website, debpaulson.com is up and running. Although a website launch is about as noteworthy these days as a new memoir, when it’s your own, it’s special.

My web designer Adam Stemple, took my vision of a clean, spare, but not “which way to radiology” look and turned it into an awfully pretty, uncluttered website. In it, you will find a great many of my watercolors, searchable and organized in a drop-down menu, a little biography, and my “other” writing—articles, thoughts, and literary criticism pieces that appeal to a specific audience, rather than general (but I encourage you to read them anyway, even if you don’t think you want to know why the children’s book, The Borrowers, may be an affirmation of British colonialist mentality, or how photography was invented. You never know.) “Writing” will update monthly, so check back regularly. In the queue: liminal and mythic time in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (Admit it. You can’t wait.) And of course, I will add new paintings as I complete them. (I’ll be doing the illustrations for my picture book, The Prunes, over the winter and will show them first on the website.)

My blog also lives in the website, although I will also continue to publish it under my word press site, so my followers don’t have to migrate over.

So take a look. Share. Stop back often. And thank you for reading.

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What Makes a Life?

Recently, Richie has been posting, on Facebook and his website, pieces of ephemera from his bicycle history with his reflections and backstory. Since his involvement with bicycles, bicycle racing, and frame building dates back to the early 1970’s this project, taken as a whole, has become a testament of sorts to his life—his choices, his experiences, his observations.

Tonight, we go to my parent’s sixtieth wedding anniversary dinner party. To give them something, my four siblings and I have been combing through photographs. There are lots of photos of sailing—comfy coastal sailing and gritty ocean sailing. There is one of my Dad hang gliding, another of my Mom horseback riding in the Grand Canyon (looking none too thrilled), a lovely one of her resting on a Swiss mountaintop à la Sound of Music, and one of them in Russia with a young Russian couple they met when they were stuck there for a bit.

Reading the ephemera and perusing the photographs makes me think, what makes a life? Is it adventure and experiences—new places, travel? Is it people—those you’ve met and interacted with within your passion? Or is it something more fundamental?

The common denominator in Richie’s ephemera and my parents’ travels is connection. Each of them has lived—is living—a life filled with connection. Connections to people, places, adventures, experiences, words, ideas, nature.

So what makes a life?

The courage to connect is what makes a life.

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