mary’zine #38 May/June 2009

Spring in the U.P. made it just under the wire. As I write this it’s almost June, and the leaves on the trees just popped green about a week ago, closely followed by a spike in temperature to 82°. I’m sure UP’ers were celebrating all over the place, but I was miserable. I thought, Oh great, spring has sprung right over into summer. But then it went back down to 48° and all was forgiven.

Can you tell I don’t like summer? I do have air conditioning, so I can stay relatively cool unless someone makes me go outside. But I’m still paying over $100/mo. for gas & electric ($300+ in the dead of winter), and it would be nice to get that bill down further before turning on the A/C.

jetsam, dreams, painting, death, the almighty $

I’ve been mildly depressed lately, mostly because this is the week of the May painting intensive in San Francisco that I had intended to go to, back when I didn’t realize that my little editing business would be affected by the global financial crisis (Think globally, lose money locally). Ironically, my best client, at UCSF, is getting so much money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that it’s making her “crazy” (I guess with grant applications? administrative details?) and she and her lab group don’t have time to write papers. A few jobs have trickled in from Italy, but nothing like in recent years. In the meantime, I sit here, the little birdie on the back of the hippo, and the hippo isn’t doing a damn thing for our symbiotic relationship. I forget what the birdie is supposed to do. OK, I looked it up [] and added a few editorial translations.

One version of symbiosis is the relationship of certain birds and hippopotami. In this relationship, the birds are well known for preying on [editing] parasites [errors] that feed on each hippopotamus which are potentially harmful for the animal [s career]. To that end, this hippopotamus openly invites the birds to hunt [edit] on its body, even going so far as to open its  jaws to allow the birds to enter the mouth safely to hunt [edit, sometimes very close to the esophagus]. For the birds’ part, this relationship not only is a ready source of food [money], but a safe one considering that few predators [credit card companies, mortgage holders] would dare strike at the bird at such close proximity to its host [client].

At the end of the first day of the intensive, Barbara e-mailed to say she missed me, and that made me feel a little better about it. In fact, I went into a flurry of activity and ended up taking most of the stuff out of my long walk-in closet that was literally stuffed to the gills (well, “literally” if closets had gills; let’s just say it was jam-packed right up to the door). I had the idea of digging out my old “Painting Letters” that I started writing to the group at the studio (CCE, nee Painting Experience) in late 1995. I’ve become obsessed with posting my writings on my website, For some reason there’s now a glut of books on the market titled “… Before You Die” (recordings you have to listen to Before You Die, books you have to read Before You Die, places you have to go Before You Die). I’m not generally paranoid, but it’s starting to get to me. So now my Before I Die project is to pour my thimbleful of outpourings into the ocean of literacy to be, in all likelihood, lost forever, or maybe to join the masses of flotsam (jetsam?—let’s just call it garbage) that is swirling over the earth’s watery surface. That (the garbage in the oceans) started out to be a metaphor but is unfortunately a fact, but at least my own teaspoonful of thoughts, stories, and rants will take up nothing but “bandwidth,” which I assume is very close to being metaphorical itself…. or at least can’t float on the ocean or wash up on desert islands populated with cartoon characters with straggly beards hoping for rescue. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker had one of these guys opening a bottle with a note in it and saying, “I wish they’d quit sending my financial statements.” Apparently no cartoonist has ever thought of putting a woman on that island—I guess because man is the default human and woman is only good for sexual or nagging-her-husband jokes. There are some excellent female cartoonists—Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel—but let’s face it, women just aren’t funny, or so I constantly hear from male comedians—whereas the Three Stooges and farting, now that’s funny!

Where was I? OK, so I started lugging all this stuff out of the closet, including eight large cartons and five portfolios stuffed (to the gills) with my paintings since 1979. I’ve weeded them out a few times, but there’s still a lot for my “heirs” to toss when the time comes. Over the years I’ve given several of my paintings away in the dim hope that they will outlive me. So maybe some of them won’t get thrown overboard with the rest of the jetsam. (Flotsam = “floating debris”; jetsam = stuff “cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress.”) I’ve asked my peops, should I die first, to put some of my paintings up at the funeral home in lieu of the photographic montage that reminds or educates the mourners about the one who has passed on. I would love-love-love to be hovering over that gathering, watching the shocked reactions to my shocking paintings (“Mary, we hardly knew ye!”)—but I’d rather not see all the crying, and I definitely don’t want to see all the laughing and chatting—I expect my death to be taken seriously!

Since I’ve stumbled onto this topic, let me go a little further. I’m curious to find out if painting will have prepared me for the spooky projections that the Tibetan Buddhists say will greet each of us in “the bardo” when we die. I don’t think I was aware of being born; I want to be awake for my death. And I dare my inner projector to find scarier images than the ones I’ve already seen on other people’s paintings and on my own.

I’ve had several lucid dreams over the years, when I knew I was dreaming, and a few super-lucid ones that felt exactly like what we call “real life.” In one of the super ones, I heard people walking up the stairs to my bedroom. It was a man and a woman, and I somehow knew that they knew M. Cassou (larger-than-life painter/teacher). The man said, “We’ve heard about you.” At the time, I was really into the “afterlife” (so much more appealing than the “duringlife”). So I clung to that dream/experience as some sort of guarantee that there is an Order to it all. I’ve since lost the need to feel immortal, if only in spirit form, but the one thing I truly believe I have going for me is that when Death comes, I will go toward Him, Her or It without reservation. I’ve somehow learned through dreaming not to shrink back from scary images (I push through them and they dissolve) or from falling (I fall even faster and then swoop up and fly) or even from death that I “know” is imminent. This is it, go-go-go, I actually dream-think to myself. And someday it will really happen.

Death… to be cont’d.

the stuff of memory

As I was taking stuff out of the closet, the cats were in heaven, especially Brutus, who has long wanted to explore the marvelous peaks and valleys and tunnels and crevices that make up my “not wanted now but someday…” accretions. I sweated and heaved and carried and pushed and pulled my way through the narrow passageway between two old bookcases that will henceforth be exiled to the garage. I knew that my old painting writings would be way in the back, in an unmarked box, and they were. So I hauled them out and spent hours going through them and selecting several pieces that I could conceivably post on my website (“In the bardo,” “Party time,” “The thief, the policeman, the devil & I,” and other oldies but goodies). As always happens when I try to “declutter,” everything I’ve dragged out of hiding is now very much in sight and under foot. If I didn’t expect my niece to come clean on Thursday, I could happily leave it there until inspiration strikes to put it all back. But she is my cleanliness/clutter conscience, so I will probably have to do something with it all before then. [Update: Didn’t happen; she cleaned around it.] There are still several large storage boxes of old books and feminist/lesbian magazines from the ‘70s in there, which I’m sure will be of interest to somebody, someday; I can’t bear to throw them out. There’s also a trunk containing old letters and writings  dating back to at least college—it’s the trunk I took to college—and I’m sorry, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should throw away anything you haven’t used or looked at in the past year. I will haul that shit with me until the day I die. It’s my life, man!

So I got all sweaty and tired doing that, and I had earned a rest, so I fell back into my big red comfy chair by the open window and inhaled the delightful smells brought in by the breeze and listened to the birds—I had just fed them that morning—and watched Brutus and Luther run from window to window to catch sight of the pigeons cooing (shitting, fornicating) on the roof. The temperature was a perfect 62° (San Francisco weather!). There are so few days like this, when I can have the windows open and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
(I’m not in nature, but I’m nature-adjacent.)

In Barbara’s e-mail she said I wasn’t “where [I] was supposed to be” (painting on a tripod near the door where I could get the occasional hint of breeze) but then hastened to add that I was where I was supposed to be, just not where she wanted me. And though I wished to be there too, I knew that if I were, I’d be dealing with physical privations and fears of people, process, and planes. And yet the experiences I have there are like nothing else in my life… so deep, so meaningful, so touching the core of the little me and the big I. The world within those painting walls is the whole world when 20 or 25 of us are painting all day for 7 days in a row. The energy and sublime quiet in that room, the giggles and the tears, Barbara’s words floating through the air (not at all like flotsam) as she talks to each of us in turn are powerful beyond imagining. It’s a place where strong feelings come up and you don’t have to pretend not to be feeling them. And the camaraderie—but more than that—the rapport, affinity, intimacy, affection, love—often with the unlikeliest people (“new” people, the impossibly young, those with whom you’ve had un petit conflit), but also with the longtime companions you’ve been painting with, exploring with, undergoing upheaval and change with, for 25 or 30 years. Of course, there have also been the strange, unwanted encounters with people who push your buttons big-time, or you theirs, and it’s all in the mix, the connections and the dysfunctions, the getting thrown back on yourself, whether in the group or on the paper. So easy, it would seem, to apply paint to paper, so complex and difficult in the execution, every painting a self-portrait in a way, but a self you barely recognize or, worse, recognize all too well and want to rip off the wall. But there’s no escape, and in that twisting, sometimes agonizing aloneness and confrontation with yourself, you find love underneath it all and a great expanse of spirit, a letting go. And when you turn and face your painting companions at the end of the day, you’re raw, you’re bleeding grace, but you’ve survived. That’s when you can look in someone else’s eyes and see that, beneath the differences of physical body, country and culture, age and experience, you are one.

I am so missing you right now. (You know who you are.)

some jog, some blog

It’s strange that I suddenly feel like writing. I went for how long—a year and a half?—without having the urge, or at least the stamina, to make a ‘zine out of a long list of half-told tales. And now I wonder if I’m going to overwhelm you—“oh God, not another zine! I don’t have time for this!”—or just deteriorate into telling you what I had for breakfast this morning, or that I’m just getting over a cold, like a Twitterer intent on announcing her every move. You could say I’ve always done that anyway, and you could be right.

I feel like I’m straddling two worlds: (1) the heartfelt world of little Midwestern (or West Coastern) stories xeroxed, stapled, and mailed to a few friends and (2) the vast, personal/impersonal, wasteland/gold mine/font of everything and nothing-of-value—the Internet, where I can post an innocent, throwaway comment about Stonehenge (they figured out it was a burial ground, big deal) and get back a response from the U.K. less than an hour later, by the author of a book on the subject, gently chastising me for buying into the media’s glib pronouncements.

The size of the Internet world seems way out of proportion to that of an individual sitting at her typewriter-like object plugged into the wall, in a small town in a remote part of the country where most of the residents are blithely unconnected to anything larger than their big screen TVs. It seems both as wonderful and as not-quite-believable as when humans were first able to cover long distances in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks, via the magic flying machine, the airplane—which is no longer magical but only tedious in the extreme, to the point where you wish you could hop in a covered wagon, hook up the horses, and get there already.

Like those first awed airplane passengers, I have easy access to a world beyond my local environment—I can communicate instantly with a writer in Seattle, a bookseller in Kentucky, a scientist in Austria, friends all over the country, and, of course, my sister a town over. I suppose the computer is just an extension (so to speak) of the telephone, which still feels like the original technological miracle to me. The car is like a faster and more durable horse, but the telephone is the sine qua non. Imagine telling your great-great-grandparents, We have this machine with numbered buttons on it that you touch and you can talk to someone who lives 5 (500, 5,000) miles away! It’s absurd that this is even possible… or that airplanes can stay up in the air, for that matter…. Am I dating myself yet? So the Internet is more or less a glorified telephone where you use the written word instead of voice  to reach strangers far, far away, and you don’t even have to specify (dial up) these strangers, they just see what you’ve written (or recorded or filmed) in the privacy of your own home and then can answer you, correct you, or berate you, as they see fit. (If you read the “comments” pages on most websites, you will despair of humanity, I assure you.)

As you know, I’ve been posting old mary’zines and some previously “unpublished” material (“best of the mary’zine that never made it to print”) on I see this mostly as a practical means to get my precious words out there to the masses who don’t yet know they’re dying to read them, like those scientists who broadcast Buddy Holly or Elvis songs into outer space in case Someone is out there receiving signals and simultaneously having the first clue what music is. (If those Someones are anything like most human adults in the 1950s, they’ll just cover their ears, if they have them, and wonder what that “noise” is.)

But I was looking at one of my postings the other day and realized that it reads differently on the screen than it does on paper. The paper version fits the way I ramble in a leisurely fashion while deciding what I want to say—and what I want to say is often just the build-up to the ramble; you know, the journey not the destination—she said, as if she knew what the destination was, let alone how to get there. When you’re reading online, the eye wants to go fast, skip over whole sentences and paragraphs, get to the gist, the grist, the meat of the matter, and click on to something else if satisfaction is not immediate. I suppose I could try to make the writing in the ‘zine punchier, have lead sentences for every paragraph, organize my thoughts like a pyramid and get them out there, BAM!, like a journalist on a deadline who expects most people to read only the first paragraph or two. But no. Instead, I will have to rely on the likes of you: my slow… old… perhaps bedridden… readers out there who are willing to curl up with some good old-fashioned prose on paper…. or read it on your electro-screen if you must. And if little green men start leaving advanced-civilization-type comments on my blog, I’ll know that my ‘zine-waves-to-nowhere have done their job.

condo made of stone-a

In the fifth grade we studied ancient Egypt. I loved learning about the beginning of civilization—the images, the strange writing, the pyramids. It was my introduction to world history, and to the concept of something outside myself—vast and mysterious—irrelevant to my family’s pain and my own. That was the year that I was shocked to read about the burning of the Library of Alexandria (in aught-1st century B.C.), for all the knowledge that was lost forever. It was the year of editing the class newspaper, of writing plays for me and my classmates to perform, of being chosen to sing “Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond” in the high school auditorium. It was the year I became a Girl Scout and dreamed of all the badges I was going to earn for tying knots and marking trails with little piles of stones. I loved playing basketball, football, and baseball with my boy cousins. I loved the woods and the shy little flowers. I read all the “boys’” adventure books—Hardy Boys, Jack London, deep-sea adventures, stories of proud Indian tribes—and I longed to own a typewriter and a desk and a bookcase.

Those memories from when I was 10 years old carry with them the innocence and hope with which I scanned the skies of infinite knowledge, expecting to learn more and more until I knew everything there was to know. Now, I look back through the other end of the telescope, and I see that I made my choices through time and never did get back to learning more about Egypt or so many other things. I’m a dilettante or, to be kinder to myself, a generalist. As I pore over the site, hopping and skipping from one recommendation to another, I end up ordering books such as Zero (The Biography of a Dangerous Idea); The Irony of American History; Decoding the Universe; The World Is Flat; Gödel, Escher, Bach; The Limits of Power; This Is Your Brain on Music. I’ve read some of all of these books, and all of some of them—you can’t read all the books, all the time. And yet, dipping my toe into the deep waters of quantum physics, U.S. foreign policy, biology of the brain, and globalization seems like too little too late. Why, now, go into depth on the big issues, the sciences, the histories? I loved Latin in high school… should I take it up again? Should I renew (or make) my acquaintance with Stonehenge and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims? I still have eyes to read and ears to hear, but now I’m on the other side of the immensity of all that is known—not because I know it all but because it seems increasingly pointless to learn facts.

At the age of 10, I wanted to know everything, but I had no interest in the unknown—what was there to know about that? And of course now I know that the unknown is the most important thing of all. It may be the only thing, because what do we really know for sure? Basically, we take everything on faith: gravity, birth, death, and our separate personhood, which may be the greatest illusion of all.

We are so small in the vast universe, so unschooled in the face of all that has come before and the more that will come after, so fully human and thus inadequate to the task of inhabiting, embracing, and containing all that life appears to offer. The view keeps changing, we see the big we cannot reach and reach for the small we cannot see. The hubris it takes just to write these sentences, as if I’m some Girl Shakespeare, reincarnated—and if it turns out that Francis Bacon wrote all those plays after all, I will be pissed: Who would aspire to be Girl Bacon? Maybe I’ll have better luck next time, or in the no-time, the whatever-it-is out there or in here.

Since it’s not something I can figure out, I’ll just keep following my little path and doing my little thing—typing my past and future thoughts into the computer and loading them up onto my blog so I’m no longer burdened by the need to disseminate myself personally, going from door to door or mailbox to mailbox. When I die, the books, the knowledge, the kudos, the joy and terror of writing, the connections, the ever-important follow-up and begging for scraps of praise will matter not at all; I will have been just one more little twig on the tree of life, one more ripple in the infinite river of humanity. So I try to be present, be alive, enjoy what I can and do what I must. That’s life, eh? On the TV show “Numbers” recently, one character says to his overwrought brother, the formerly boy genius who’s afraid he’ll never fulfill his childhood destiny: “Forget destiny. Just do what you want on any given day.” I second that emotion. The tree and the river don’t need me, gravity won’t remember me, birth and death will be behind me, and personhood? Poof.

epilog: Milk and more

The other night, the name of an old friend whom I lost touch with more than 20 years ago popped into my head, so I decided to google her to see what she was doing now. The first result that came up was her obituary. She had died a year ago. And while this was surprising news, it wasn’t exactly devastating, since I had been out of her orbit for so long. But it was odd to have her back in my thoughts again, to have all the memories of our times together right there, retrieved without effort as if it all happened yesterday—the glory days in San Francisco in the mid ‘70s, fighting for all the good things, observing and writing about the explosion of new political thought, the liberation of women and gay people, marching bravely (tremblingly) through the gauntlet of strangers in the Gay Pride parade. Back then I lived in the Castro (as did my friend), and we were all stunned by the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. That night, my partner and I and thousands of others walked the long walk to City Hall holding lit candles, and listened to Joan Baez sing heartbreakingly on the grand steps, a memory fossil that will exist through time.

I was touched by the movie “Milk,” though the story it told wasn’t mine—unless you consider that I was in the march scene (real footage, not a reenactment). But the memories that attach to the movie, to the old friend now gone, to the people from that time and place who are still in my life, those memories stir and stir, and the pot runneth over. In life there’s no neat ending, no credits rolling or director commentating, no special features, no previews, trailers, or conversations with the actors. No actors. Just one person stumbling along, half-blind and the other half blindfolded, no clue what’s going on until she reaches a ripe old age where some things are revealed and others will remain a mystery forever.

R.I.P. Celeste West.

Death does not matter, says Krishnamurti.  I look forward to finding out why not.

[Mary McKenney]

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