Thoughts Released Like Birds

I have too many ideas fluttering through my mind all at the same time and they are playing tug of war with my attention to establish which one will receive the prize of my concentration. Currently none of them are winning so this post may be a little scattered. I am going to release them all in a flock.

I awoke this morning with lines of poetry flitting like sparrows at the edges of my dreams. Must deal with the poetry. I wrote a few yesterday that did not greatly impress me, but the poetry nags at me sometimes until I work on it. Poetry can be worse than a spouse and much harder to clean up after.

I was thinking on art last night and decided that I like the idea of art in the here and now. Something that takes on value for the uniqueness of being placed in a particular context and at a particular time. If I draw a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, it has a certain interactive life that a museum masterpiece will never have. It is by its nature temporally situated. Not timeless. Because even as a memory it will change and fade. It can only be actively encountered by someone who takes the time to observe it and remember it and maybe photograph it. It has to be experienced in some ways. If it rains, the art changes. If it is smudged by foot traffic, it is a new piece. If it is vandalized, it has been co-opted or enhanced. It becomes potentially a dialogue in any of these situations as opposed to being static communication. Further, does it change the sense of geography? I am not sure.

Is culture a function of geography or mind? I live on the North American continent and consider American culture part of Western culture as opposed to Eastern culture. But American culture is certainly not European culture and American culture is certainly not remotely like any of the tribal cultures of the native people that occupied this continent prior to the invasion of people from Europe. So what defines culture and where is it derived from? How long does it take for a distinct culture to arise in a geographic location?

New Orleans and New York have distinct personas and a sense of unique cultures. Writing from the American South has a unique regional flavor so to speak. The Midwest of America is really only unique as a region in its sense of blandness. So is this Midwestern culture? Recently I was reading about Theodore Roethke who grew up in Michigan and how his poetry has a definite sense of nature about it. Michigan, outside of Southeastern Michigan, is very rural. Would writing that comes from Michigan then have a rural, natural aesthetic? Or a gritty urban feel because of the factory culture and the automotive industry? What defines and creates culture?

Over the weekend I was in a discussion about cultural appropriation. It occurred to me this morning that as an American I am not sure that I can do anything but appropriate other cultures. The US is such an infusion of different cultures I think it is unavoidable. I live in Ann Arbor. We have a huge international community in Ann Arbor. There are several Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores. We have Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and every conceivable religion in our small Midwestern town. I have met people from every continent on the planet in Ann Arbor and heard many different languages. I don’t know that I could describe succinctly the “culture” of Ann Arbor. Which part of Ann Arbor? Which subgroup?

I came to the conclusion over the weekend that for the purposes of writing fiction, I am nervous about the idea of cultural appropriation with the intent of creating a certain flavor in the fiction. I still feel this. I think if an author is creating a piece with a certain theme or intent and pulling a trope from the folklore of a culture it needs to be well thought out, respectful, and done in a quality way to preserve cultural meaning or expand meaning. Creating something that is shoddy is derogatory to the culture of origin and does damage. A superficial treatment of cultural elements does not introduce that culture to a wider audience or broadened anyone’s understanding, it creates misunderstanding. It also could lead to a type of overexposure and non-caring dismissal of the trope. As in the case of vampires.


Beauty.  What makes something or someone beautiful?  Is there some sublime graceful element that underlies beauty or is it simply a culturally defined notion based on comfortable associations or more crassly on an economy of supply and demand?

Last night I was reading some poems by a poet who has been a long standing favorite of mine.  The name of the poet is Gary Snyder and he won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection entitled Turtle Island. He is considered one of the beat poets and his poems are infused with a type of zen aesthetic and natural images.  One of his poems entitled Charms describes a state of awareness wherein the viewer comes to see the Delight at the heart of creation that is evident as a general presence in all that is female.  And all that is female attains a deva presence of beauty.  It is an interesting poem and I recommend that you look it up if are curious.  I am not certain of copyright restrictions and so I don’t know that I can post it to this blog.

Another curious thought that I had about beauty was that in different cultures beauty is defined very differently.  Western culture has a narrow view of what women should look like in order to attain beauty. In our culture beautiful women are supposed to be very slender with round breasts– and youthful.  In other cultures and in other time frames, the notion of female beauty has been that a woman should have more weight on her frame because this shows that she has come from abundance. But I have to express that I consider this to be a meaningless notion of beauty and state that I think it will continue to grow more meaningless.  I consider it meaningless in part because it is fleeting and a matter of winning the genetic lottery. Recently I read a short story that was originally written for Nature magazine entitled Oscar Night, 2054. It was written by Syne Mitchell and is a fictional reporting of the events on the red carpet on Oscar Night in the future.  Some of the celebrities described have been biologically reengineered and have features such as antennae and dragonfly wings, snakeskin skin, leopard spots, etc.  Some of the other celebrities are AI specialists who are there because they have been nominated for an award for the creation of a digital actress who portrayed a part. In this reality, beauty is whatever fashion dictates and it is attainable by anyone who has the means to pay for it.  While I like the concept that this moves beauty away from being the genetic lottery assignment that it is and takes the creation of beauty into the artistic and creative realm, it is still a fleeting notion and very superficial.

Another curious thought is that often the notion of beauty is only applied to the physical appearance of women.  But, I think beauty should go far beyond this limited definition.  There is a grace in a well designed piece of equipment or a machine that can do what it was designed for.  There is an elegance to a well written computer program.  There is harmony to a comfortable chair or a cozy room.  Consider the color and curve of a red pear.  Is it not gorgeous?  The glowing warmth of well oiled wood is heart warming. The spiraling flight of a flock of birds as they rise up on a thermal is breathtaking. Form, functionality, elegance of design, simplicity.  All of these notions I believe should immediately spring to mind as part of the associations attached to the word beauty.