In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, thirteen indigenous languages are spoken. (This in addition to Spanish.)
In Oaxaca city, working with a group of preschool teachers who were making handmade readers for their students, we posed a question: How, in your various languages, would you express quantity: words like “lots,” “a few,” “some,” “a bunch”?
They grinned and asked us back: What are you referring to? Because in our languages it depends whether you’re talking about a lot/few/some/bunch of:
Long, skinny objects
Stuff that is neither close nor far away
Things we used to have
Things we might have someday
and so on.
I was humbled. Until then I had felt smug about the precision of my prose.
“If you ask: Why spend time on a writer of escape literature? please consider for a moment the position that the literature of fantasy and science fiction provides more direct functional access to reality than any other modern work of the intellect. When experience is rendered ineffable by a rate of change that undermines the meanings of language, a literature that has evolved to speak out from the middle of the waterfall of ideas can continue to engage and to convey the most important meanings. And this is not a new discovery. The oldest roots and origins of literature, the epics of Gilgamesh and Innana, the Odyssey, the Iliad, all are either fantasy, if you do not believe in the Gods, or science fiction, if you do.”
Margot Adler, Heretic’s Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution
To Homestead Canyon in the Cebolla Wilderness. A glittery fall day.
At the wilderness boundary hunters had driven off-road, broken down the fence, and taken a truck in. We parked and sloped off on foot through prickly year-end weeds; my socks are full of stickers.
On the mesa top are the stone-heap remains of little pueblo. (The area was heavily settled in the 1300s.) On one sandy ridge the wind had exposed the four yellow-and-red sandstone slabs that made the half-moon edge of a storage cist. The whole ridge was sand-scoured, ventifacted, all wind-worn surface.
Nearby, also wind-scoured, were the sparkly bits of a metate (grinding basin), Archaic and thus hundreds of years older than the pueblos, that had been ground clear through with use. Human stories, one on top of another.
The piñon nuts were ripe and falling out of the cones. We kept stopping to eat.
Winterfat had the low winter light behind it, blazing silver. Spider guy wires were strung juniper to juniper; we broke those fine, elastic barriers as we walked.
To Cañoncito. A fiercely windy day. My ears, teeth, hair are full of grit.
The harsh, huge wind. Immense peace.
The day was spent in classic hunter-gatherer country: piñon, sandy hills, sandy bowls and corries, the burned earth that marks Archaic sites. I came upon fragments of a smashed Puebloan bowl that had been painted with stripes and checks, still sitting right where it broke. Right next to the bits was a tidy burned spot, quite round, perhaps twelve inches in diameter: the fire at which the bowl had broken. Growing exactly out of the center of the burned spot, happy for the nitrogen, was an eight-inch cedar trunk.
Mountain bluebirds, light-bellied in the wind, reminded me of fish swimming in the sea.
Windy. Took shorts, but it was too cold to wear them. We drove way far out in the Ojito and hiked down to the place where there’s scattered white-yellow-green petrified wood, below hoodoos among the ponderosas.
Archaic firepits. The crew kept getting ahead of me; I was dogging back and forth, trying to keep them in sight, now and then frantic as the others got farther and farther away and I had to run after them.
Found a large dinosaur bone on the ridge by following its fragments up a wash. It was falling apart; we dug some of the sand away from it, then covered it back up without ever having located both ends. Jan taught us the lick-stick test: If it’s bone, rather than another type of rock like agate or petrified wood, it will stick to your tongue when you lick it. (The porous vesicles left by cells and capillaries wick up the moisture of your tongue.)
Windblown grass draws circles in sand, as in snow.
Oak bushes have brown leaves around their bases, bare grey twigs on top.
Back in Bernalillo we went to Silva’s Saloon, which was full of bikers in leathers, a billiards game in progress. We shared two pitchers, ate Kentucky Flocked chicken and came home happy.
I forgot to say that on an Archaic site on the ridgetop was a broken mano, a hand-grinding stone: pretty, crystalline, red and white and yellow, with a slanted natural edge of white quartzite along one side. The edge made a perfect place for the user of the stone, probably a teenager, to hook her fingers. So I hooked my own fingers there, thinking: After five thousand years–fifty centuries–this stone remembers the grip of a hand.
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 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.”
One would think that if “Show a child deciding it is unwise to stick a pickle fork in a light socket” is considered a spot illustration, then more cash and elbow room might be offered for “Show thirteen multi-ethnic children, two of them in wheel chairs, with their multi-species pets, deciding by concensus not to stage Chinese New Year (with dragon) on a transformer.”
Interestingly, this is not always the case.
We writer-artists—those in the arts in general—have interesting stuff happening in our brains. Which is why we can do the cool stuff we do…and why we can’t speak coherently when, in the middle of a paragraph or a painting, we have to pick up the phone.
And why we’re so often late bloomers. Most people have to learn only one system—the culture they were born into—but an artist must learn two: the culture they were born into, and their own idiosyncratic brain/psyche. They must then, on their own, invent a third: a system which, like a bilingual ambassador or a car’s transmission (choose your metaphor), mediates between the first two.
No wonder it takes a while to sort it out. If you’re in a creative calling, or working your way into one, be patient with yourself. You’re inventing a new world.