Writer-illustrator Betsy James, in conversation with older readers.
I watched a charcoal garter snake with two brown stripes navigate the puddles of a rain-soaked road. Sometimes it crawled, sometimes it swam, fluid either way. I understood why Puebloan water deities—Kolowisi, Avanyu—are serpents.
It lay still while I stroked it with a grass stem, then slipped away.
Standing in the middle of a dry field, the last blue-purple light in the sky, I thought: The world is round. The horizon is a circle, with the sky bowl over it like my grandmother’s domed paperweight of clear glass.
Wherever you stand is precisely the center of the world.
At Zuni Pueblo, a storymaking workshop for 3rd, 4th, 5th graders. Writers can’t be restrained from doodling while they think, so we covered the new library tabletops with yellow butcher paper. When we cleaned up on Friday—the kids long gone—among the smudgy misspellings and graffiti was this drawing, unsigned.
Her quiet face.
My family was anxious about labels. (“What’s your major?”)
To my ancestors—who according to the Zunis are dancing for eternity, though it’s hard to envision those inveterate Presbyterians dancing at all—I say: What I am is me. I am the one who writes, paints, works, sings…and dances.
How to do it all—time allocation—is another question. Honest, guys, I don’t know how. I dither and fiddle and get cranky. I put in a good work day, but sometimes that means lying in the grass staring at clouds, or walking around an Asian store trying to guess what the hell some dried object is.
I try to distinguish my family’s slightly hysterical work-ethic voice from the deep, driving voice of what actually wants to get done. Sometimes one is louder, sometimes the other. But as I accept my own mortality I have less patience for the hysterical voice. More and more I cleave to the voice of time, nature, peace: the voice of earth, where we are one of the gang: very unimportant, very much a part of the world.
For more on the double life, click here.
For walks on this earth, click here.
Who am I? A writer or an illustrator? Which? Both?
For years I drove myself insane with that question. Sometimes quite theatrically. “Is there a name for somebody who isn’t just an artist and isn’t just a writer but is something that doesn’t really have a name? How do I tell people what I ‘do’? What am I?”
Many a 2 a.m. distress session there. Until a friend clarified things.
He said, “Your nouns are fighting each other: artist vs. writer. If you used verbs instead—I’m painting or I’m writing—then it’s just a question of time allocation.”
For more on leading a double life, click here.