Recently, I received a letter from a lifelong friend whom I haven’t seen in 10 years. Just the thrill of receiving an unsolicited note was a treasure, and I savored that surprise for hours before opening it to read what words she had shared with me on the page.
Receiving gifts from loved ones and strangers alike are just as powerful as what we might find inside. It is a validation of love, that someone out there is thinking of us, remembering us especially at a time when we are isolated, scared, and concerned about an invisible illness that threatens each and every one of us.
This is what I imagine children with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses feel every day.
Alone, isolated: will people remember me?
If the Covid-19 Pandemic has taught us anything in this unprecedented year, it’s that isolation and the fear of illness is very real, and sometimes the remedy we need is a reminder we are not alone.
Since 1981, I have been working with children who have battled illnesses, supporting them any way I can by bringing a little happiness their way, particularly during the holidays. But this year, with the pandemic affecting so many of us, I am concerned our children in need will be forgotten.
It’s understandable. I know in my own family, there is great concern about staying safe – not just for those of us who are in a vulnerable category, but also for others whose livelihood requires wellness.
And, I know many of you have been touched by Covid-19 directly, and some with heartbreaking consequences. We have been separated from being with our elders; in some cases, we have said goodbye to them over cell-phone calls and final facetime moments.
We cannot forget that the children in our hospitals, battling illnesses that we fear ourselves, need our love and compassion more than ever.
Thanks to my partners at The JAR Writers’ Collective, we have breathed new life into my collection of seasonal stories and essays, featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts,” the story that kicked off our most recent annual drive for toys and art supplies for children spending the holidays in the hospital.
I am offering this ebook collection, which includes a never-before-published story, for free during this holiday season. All we ask is that you consider an Amazon Gift Card donation to our Gretchie’s Gifts campaign. Your donation of $5 or more will help us reach our goal of purchasing $500 of gifts for each hospital we are supporting. This is, by far, the safest way to make sure the children receive the same gifts and art supplies that we have given them in the past.
Our first goal is to help the children at the Children’s Hospital at Sinai and the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, but if we are fortunate enough to receive donations exceeding our $1,000 goal, we will use that money for other children in need at other Baltimore-area hospitals.
Unlike other campaigns or drives that need to use some of the funds for operational fees, 100% of your donation goes to the children. Our purchases made through Amazon will be delivered directly and safely to the hospitals, without any additional processing or delivery fees. The JAR Writers’ Collective has waived all fees for the publication of this collection to ensure the children receive every penny of your donation.
You can make your donation in two ways.
If you prefer to mail a gift card that you purchase in a store, you can send it to Rus VanWestervelt/Gretchie’s Gifts, PO Box 19081, Baltimore, MD 21284.
If you choose to purchase a gift card online, you can order it at Amazon and send it directly via email to me (rus.vanwestervelt(at)gmail(dot)com).
All donations, which are audited and verified, should be received no later than December 10, 2020, to ensure we can purchase gifts for the children in time for the holiday season.
Please know, as well, that the donations we provide the hospitals are used throughout the year.
The feeling we get when we receive that unsolicited letter or gift in the mail brings us such comfort, even when we are healthy but concerned about the unrelenting and invisible tendrils of Covid-19 swirling around us. Certainly, the letter I received from my friend continues to bring me smiles and energy during these challenging times. Just imagine the joy that you can bring to a child during the holidays whose fears are both real and life-threatening. We cannot neglect the children who never chose to spend the holidays in the hospital. As we have said so many times about Covid, these diseases know no boundaries; they don’t care who you are or what time of year it is.
We ask that you join us here with Gretchie’s Gifts to let them know they are loved, they are not forgotten, and they have a community of supporters rallying around them in their hours of greatest need.
I hope you enjoy this collection of stories offering faith and hope to all during this time of year, and I thank you for your donation in bringing that same faith and hope to our children in need.
Dear Reader (or future investor in words and magick),
This would usually appear at the beginning (or end) of the book, but Shades of Paradox was originally intended for an audience of three (one of whom is writing this to you) and therefore wasn’t created to have something like this in it.
In August this year, I put together the images and poems from Shades of Paradox (the May-June chapter of The Daily Breath, my poem a day subscription service) as a present for an old friend (who has been staunch champion of all aspects of my creativity since we reconnected in 2013). The intention was to print three: one for Kim, one for Kaolin—who graciously gave me permission to work with his photos (who many of you know, but perhaps are new to me!) and one for me. The thing was, as the book took shape, well a book took shape. A book that took the physicality of the original poems and the pointy beauty of the words and turned them into something else. Something more.
It is hard to articulate.
When I was younger, I would arrive at a certain destination in my thoughts (often late at night when I couldn’t sleep) and I would wonder how I got there. Then with a meticulous kind of reverse dissection, I would move backward through each permutation to arrive at the seed of the train of thought. It was often a strange revelation—long before I knew about phenomenon like seven degrees of separation (though my thoughts travelled in similar kinds of kinks and ripples). While Shades of Paradox was set into the form you’re holding (or considering holding) in August 2020, it actually began in 2015, with my dog eating Calvino and later, trying to find respite from shingles pain with paper weaving.
MY DOG ATE CALVINO
I had taken Kim’s copy of Calvino’s Six Memos for The Next Millennium on a day’s outing to the Gold Coast and ended up stashing it in my satchel with a peanut butter and chocolate biscuit. I’d eaten the biscuit when I got home, left the book on the kitchen table and gone out to a QWC event only to arrive home and discover Smuppy had eaten through most of the cover and had got about eight pages in before he realised it only smelled of chocolate and peanut butter. While it was abundantly obvious I was going to have to replace it, I didn’t have the heart to throw the book out. (I can’t tell you how relieved I was that it wasn’t a special marked-up copy, with brilliant observations pencilled into the margins!).
Fast forward several months later to early August; I was weaving paper for a handmade postcard as a form of pain relief for the shingles which had begun blossoming across my back and down my left side. The postcard looked pretty special but it also felt kind of empty. So, I dug out the chewed copy of Calvino and cut into it; retrieving words and phrases, reassembling them, pasting them down…and my first cut-up was born. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d made in a long time.
From then on, I was somewhat transfixed with building poetry from cut-up books. It was the lowest point of my creativity in terms of writing fiction, and cut-up gave me an unexpected outlet. From single pieces created for birthdays, I started to explore longer runs of poems in series loosely umbrella-ed beneath thematics related loosely to the texts they were taken from. I cut up Kelly Link. I cut up Audrey Niffenegger. And yes, I cut up more and more Calvino. I cut up Jeanette Winterson. I even cut up some of my own writing.
The poems were often odd. They formed up in ways my natural thought processes and creativity would never have found their way to organically. And I loved them for that. Bowie said in 1995 of cut-up:
“…if you put three or four dissociated ideas together and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes, quite provocative.”
I marvelled at the way creativity could flourish in such small spaces with so few words. I cut up the pages of zentagles I drawn for sleep therapy and pasted micro poems to them. And to my delight and surprised, when I listed them for sale, they sold! I alternated between 10x10cm origami squares and small standard postcards as my canvasses. I used at least three separate Post-It Note Poetry months to go deeper. I went from pasting words onto existing postcards to making my own. I experimented with sample paint swatches from Bunnings. I played with the form and shape the words could take. For several years, I let it be a creative survival space and when I was ready (though I would actually say I wasn’t ready, but when you’re called, you go!), I surrendered into the flow this style of poetry and creativity opened to be a space to thrive in.
THE DAILY BREATH
In 2019 I launched The Daily Breath: a poem-a-day-for-a-year project. Several things were fundamental to The Daily Breath. The first was it would honour my creativity in a way I hadn’t been quite brave enough to ask for: it would be a private, paid subscription service. In this way it generated a small income but also gave me the freedom to come and go from social media as I chose, which was the second important element. Lastly, it challenged me to show up every single day for 354 days to create (the number of days in a lunar month) regardless of how I felt, how inspired I was or whether I thought I was making a difference in the world (or not).
The Daily Breath, for the most part, was a physical project: where possible, I made everything from scratch. I sometimes used commercially produced postcards, mainly for a particular aesthetic and there were also the occasional digital series (chapter), again mostly because it allowed a flexibility that analogue items couldn’t give to that idea.
Across the 18 months of The Daily Breath, I made more than 500 poems, a large proportion of them actual physical pieces which now reside in the many corners of the world.
THE PARADOX OF A SECOND LIFE
I had considered creating collections from the poetry I was building, but reproducing cut-up poetry in digital form is tedious as fuck (I know, I’ve tried). I considered just the words without the pictures but that felt empty because there was always an interplay between the words and the pictures. I considered creating a hybrid but the photos had been chosen to make postcards and were not all in uniform orientation needed for a book.
Shades of Paradox was a perfect storm in so many ways for reproduction. It was the most ambitious series I undertook. They were created as longer, thinner pieces, where the photograph was only pasted at the top and was lifted to reveal a longer poem behind. In the space below the photograph, a short poem appeared. It took me more than two hours to make these every day. While the world hunkered down mid-pandemic and then howled with injustice and erupted in violence across late May and into June, I turned up and found solace in the daily practice as my own trauma bubbled to the surface and ate away at my desire to be here.
All my poems mean something to me, but the poems for Shades of Paradox were more. They were my anchor to stay here when my tired heart really wanted to leave. And as others urged for me to give these particular second life, it was almost a way of inviting myself into transforming the difficulties I’d found in making them: of putting the world ‘trauma’ around my experiences since late 2012.
It was early August, late one night and there were so many reasons why the words and photos I started to assemble in Indesign could have been a hot mess, but there is magick in this collection. It created itself. And when I got parts of it horribly wrong, it pivoted itself into a better fit. And then again, when I returned to my (disappointingly imperfect) proof copies a few months after they arrived. I dug into the poems in a new way so they could be the best possible poems, letting go of the need for them to accurate reproductions of the original, and in doing so, releasing them to be what they wanted to be. So, for anyone who owns an original Shades of Paradox poem, you are more likely than not to see your poem in a different rendering here. Or perhaps yours is untouched.
If nothing else, 2020 has shown us how the concreteness of stability, order and structure is an illusion. The world we live in is far more complex and simple than we thought it was. It is freer moving and more stubbornly resistant than we gave it credit for. The words of Shades of Paradox held me in the most patient and comforting of ways when I was falling apart. The words, the poems and the images exist in the light and the dark, and I believe there is a mercurial nature to them, so they are in no way firmly fixed in either, but have the capacity to morph to be what they need to be for you, in any particular minute of any particular day.
For that reason, it is a wee book, perfect to be tucked away in handbags and satchels, to be ready to hand when you might need it most. My hope is you too find a gift in these words as I did; where they can hold a space, and hold you, in the extreme of times and in all the shades between.
Kaolin Fire for giving me access to his photos and then bringing his friends to the part to find this book.
Jeanette Winterson for writing the original text of Art and Lies which provided a rich and varied pool of words to work with (and now that I have thoroughly gutted it for my art I can get a second copy and actually read it).
The Daily Breath Subscribers who made it possible for me to build the poems.
Devin Watson who many, many, years ago sent me a wiki article about block-out poetry (and its variants) saying: I think this might interest you.
Christina Hira and Kim Roberts who agitated (successfully it turns out) for these to find a wider audience than the original one they were created for.
Kate Wildrick and my group of magickal women who have helped open new ways of thinking, feeling and dreaming to allow this work to move out into the world in vastly different ways.
Adam and Rus, for their love and support which creates the unique container here at The JAR Writers’ Collective to put works like this into the world and who are quite simply exceptional humans which I have the very good fortune to call friends and collaborators.
And finally Dave, Dylan and Smuppy who are the best home-base a creative soul could ever ask for, especially when they (well, those with opposable thumbs) take the inevitable deluge of word fragments across the house with the good grace of an opportunity to make their own ‘floor poetry’.
As writers and artists, we have always valued our time alone to work on our latest creations. In fact, we often complain that there isn’t enough time in solitude to really get in the zone to work on our writing, music, or art.
My, how things have changed in the last few months.
When I first found myself without a brick and mortar school to be driving to on a daily basis, I thought that I would be absolutely sick of all the creating I was going to do in that “down” time. But the sudden void was filled with pandemic-related needs and concerns. I, like millions of others, had been displaced; our routines had been disrupted, if not destroyed.
It took a good three weeks for me to establish a different routine that was antithetical to any practice I had established over decades of teaching in a school building, and I started to rebuild a creative practice that is now a part of my new, still odd, daily routine. At least for the foreseeable future. I have found that solitude to write once again.
What this pandemic has created, though, is an equal demand for community. We are wrapping up an 11th week of isolation here in the United States, and we seek out moments shared in a creative commons, virtual or otherwise. We long to share our experiences, emotions, and works-in-progress with others. We also seek out support, even a tandem play period as we continue our work side by virtual side, separated not by the space between our chairs, but by the number of clicks and scrolls as we connect through technology.
What’s tough is establishing our work in that virtual art world as something entirely different from our daily Zooms, Meets, and digital connections that were hardly a part of our lives just three months ago.
Jodi, Adam, and I have been fortunate as this is all we have ever known as a Collective. I have never met either of them in real life. Through our own virtual community, we have published two novels (with more on the way), countless blog posts, challenges, and shared ideas in creativity and writing. But that was all done in a carefully constructed balance with our busy worlds.
As a result, even we have struggled to maintain that drive; the toll this 24/7 isolation is taking on all of us is deeper than we could have ever previously imagined.
Still, there is great value in understanding that, just like we found time in our busy, pre-pandemic schedules to create – write, draw, compose – we must define and separate our virtual time as creatives so that it holds a unique energy that we may accept for ourselves and lift up to others.
A few weeks ago, while giving a virtual book reading for a community literary group, I was so inspired by talking with, and learning from, other creatives. The experience continues to lift me today. What they offered me (and others) is that we’re all still creating, even from a distance. The energy is out there, and we need our communities to share that with each other.
This is what we hope our June Writeathon provides the creatives from all over the globe: a sense of community in a time where isolation and video chats consume our days and evenings. For the 20+ writers who have made the commitment to focus on their personal writing goals for these 30 days in June, we are excited to create – side by side – with you.
And, we encourage all of our readers and followers to take time for your creative selves each day. You will always have a community right here at The JAR.
We wish you the space and community to continue your creative expressions, both for you and for the world to cherish.
As we ease back into JAR blogging, and while uncertainty and profound change swirls around us in eddies, we have decided to explore the maxim: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Today, something old.
There is comfort in the old and I like that (even when I am always wanting to rush forth into the new or novel). I was reminded of that this week when it was finally cool enough to pull out my favourite jumper. But this isn’t an article about how much I love that jumper or how it drags up memories which have not been entirely laid to rest.
My “old” is two fold; both are forms of retreat.
The first is my poetry; a retreat in terms of space for daily moving meditation. My tools of quiet are scissors, glue, fragments of book text, cardboard, photos and a willingness to let go and allow poetry to form up through the text. This is where I can be most free and held at the same time. Where I can be true to myself but also in service to others.
Spark and Essence #19 Jodi Cleghorn 📸 Michael Rogers 📖 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
My second retreat is a formal commitment to silence and withdrawal. This has been a decision to delete my social media and messaging apps. I am in digital seclusion and I have not been more at peace in a long time.
Silence has extended to music, podcasts and recorded classes. There has been nothing but bird song and the intense symphony of multiple small children in my corner of suburbia and their emotional state in any given five-minute block.
Digital seclusion is a stillness, solitude, silence and simplicity I know well though it has been more than a year since I have retreated like this. I am not at all surprised to find myself here.
Spark and Essence #13 Jodi Cleghorn 📸 Chu Son 📖 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Both are old, but unlike my jumper, neither are worn or pulled out of shape, no matter how much time I spend in them.
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief All kill for inspiration and sing about the grief.
So sang Bono in “The Fly,” the first single from the album Achtung Baby, an album which, in sound, was a radical departure from The Joshua Tree, the album that made them stratospheric rockstars. Both albums are brilliant in their own way.
I like the old for the anchor that it can serve in our lives. The old can be a sense of certainty, a foundation, a building block. The old can be the rituals and traditions of family, the liturgy and recitation of beliefs forming the locus for who we are and what we are. The old becomes the central tenets we adhere to.
The old is what we are an apprentice to. We learn from the old, the ancient, the wise who have travelled before us and said, “This is what I have found” in their voices of poetry, music, dance, philosophy, faith.
When we have learned enough to not be ignorant, but too little to be wise, we draw the anchor, relocate our position and fix ourselves to a new point to see how far we have travelled, or moved away from, in our own individual transformation and development, perhaps seeing those fixed points we used as our focal point in a different way. As another constellation to map our progress.
And in all this we return to the maxims and mantras of the masters, the proverbs and parables of the prophets, and understand them in a new way. It means returning to what was our first love, our awareness of what some would call vocation, or ministry, or calling, the idea that initially sparked our pilgrim’s progress.
I like tradition for the symbolism and meaning it conveys but I look for ways that the old can be communicated for the new, in order that I may point them back to the old. As a teacher, I teach not to draw attention to myself, but to help students focus on what has come before them, to help them understand how to create their own foundations.
Our lifetimes provide us with more moments and memories than we know what to do with. Sometimes, we hold on to the older moments that keep us prisoners to our past, where we allow regret or desperation to grip us in our present. They are tempting, though, aren’t they? They lull us into “what-ifs” that make us believe the past is still attainable.
It is not.
What we are afforded from our past, however, are moments of great strength that serve us in different ways now. For me, that’s time spent living in a cabin along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Instead of letting the “what-ifs” grip me, I embrace the still-present smells of the cool brackish waters mingling with the clays of the ancient cliffs around me, the sounds of a low-flying heron looking for a sunrise snack, the feeling of cold grains of wet sand formed around my feet like customized, natural sandals protecting me from the pin-pricks of fossilized teeth, lost millions of years ago by the sharks that inhabited these waters.
When I first experienced these things 33 years ago, I savored them for the moments in which they were born, and sometimes with the people with whom I so graciously shared them; today, though, I cherish the tranquility and solitude they bring me in the most hectic of hours; they bring peace to a present that is often far from the days living in a hand-built cabin in southern Maryland.
From this that is old, I do not wallow in regret; I bask in the glow of experiences gained to sustain my balance, my peace, on this long journey that carries me decades beyond those first hours spent along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where I pondered my own existence among the cliffs that held fossils millions and millions of years old.
We are gifted with what is old; we are lifted by what we take from it.