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29 October 2006

Don't export your best peaches

“The flat sound of my wooden clogs on the cobblestones, deep, hollow and powerful, is the note I seek in my painting.”– Paul Gauguin

Billycollins_4I had two brushes with greatness last week.

The first arrived in the mail. I was shocked to open a 9x12 envelope and find a handwritten missive to me from none other than Billy Collins, the poet I lust after whose use of the English language I greatly admire.

Imagine! A real honest- to- goodness letter from Billy Collins written on the front cover of the Dodge Poetry Festival! And I quote:

My dearest Patti, you veritable single golden sugar cube in my skinny latte, my painted pony walking across the Atlantic, my bread and my knife, my crystal goblet and—somehow—my wine… Imagine my surprise, dear Patti, when I was walking along a tiny path composing a poem about nature in my tiny noggin—perhaps something about one enormous sky and about a million empty branches—when all of a sudden, a man appeared from nowhere, lunging at me and thrusting this Festival program under my nose, asking for an autograph for some woman named Patti who adores me. And then it hit me—of course! That Patti! I read 37days every week; you are my muse, my inspiration, my everything! We really must get together and read poetry together in the desert, or go on a picnic and avoid the lightning. With my undying love and gratitude for your mentioning me incessantly on 37days, Yours - Billy

Billys_love_letter_to_meWell, I guess it was actually a Dodge Poetry Festival program with his name scrawled on the bottom right of the front cover, but I know how to read between the lines. Well, see for yourself—see? See?

That’s all to say this: a 37days reader, Steve Sherlock, when coming face to face with Billy Collins on a dirt path at the Dodge Poetry Festival, had the presence of mind to ask Mr Collins for an autograph so he could send it to me! What a wonderful gift! It is sitting prettily in my office beside the autographed photo of, well, someone else. My thanks to Steve. What a wonderful, thoughtful gift from someone I’ve never met!

Laurie_anderson6The second brush with greatness came last Thursday when I had lunch with one of my great artistic heroes, multi-media artist and musician, the brilliant Laurie Anderson. Imagine!

That’s to say that I spent my lunch hour in an audience listening to her speak. But there were only fifty of us there, so I was in great proximity and I did get close enough to her afterwards to hand her my card with a tiny note on the back explaining her impact both on me, and now, on Emma. I’m sure she’ll be in touch soon. Having been that close, I feel completely justified to pepper my conversation with phrases such as this: “What a coincidence! Laurie Anderson said that to me just the other day!”

Laurie_anderson_end_of_the_moonWith dimples to dive into, Laurie Anderson has long influenced the music world, and the world of multimedia performance. It started for me in 1980 with “O Superman,” from her album “Big Science,” then “Mister Heartbreak,” then her work with the über-brilliant Philip Glass, and who could forget her “Songs and Stories from Moby Dick”? Certainly not this American Literature major.

There are only a handful of musicians I would pay to see in concert. Okay, there are exactly 10: Philip Glass, Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Johnny Cash (before, well, you know), Doc Watson, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, the Kronos Quartet, and Laurie Anderson. Okay, 11 including Bonnie Raitt. Am I missing anyone? Okay, the Jethro Tull gang back in the day, along with the Talking Heads. I’d put Laurie Anderson at the very top of that list. I first saw her perform live in an intimate little theater in Washington, DC, in 2002. Laurie_anderson_2002_sm 

Yet when The Laurie Anderson came to my little tiny burg recently, I was not here. I was on a plane flying home from Somewhere Not Here. Sob. Sob more. Rant. Rave. Lament loudly. Whine even. There was nothing to do but send the fabulous Emma in my place.

I think it might have changed her life. I was meant to miss that show so she could go.

End_of_the_moonLaurie was playing “The End of the Moon,” a piece that emerged from her year as an artist in residence at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “How was it?” I asked breathlessly from the airport, cursing my fate at awaiting a delayed Delta flight while Emma basked in the glory that is Laurie Anderson without me.

“Awesome. It was just awesome.” Not one for hyperbole, or bole of any kind for that matter, I was struck by the enormity of Emma’s response. “The first notes she played on her electric violin made my seat shake and went into my bones,” she continued excitedly. “It was just awesome!” she fairly well shrieked.

She seemed transformed by the experience, by her proximity to Art, her experience of what one reviewer called Anderson’s NASA-fueled vision of inner and outer space.

The focus of the night’s performance — space — was especially wonderful for this teenager who has long dreamed of being an astronomer, who has watched the PBS series, “The Astronomers,” no less than 100 times, its boxed set worn from the constant use.

I needed more details . “I don’t really know how to describe it,” she said when I pressed for more information. “It made me think more about what could be turned into song, a poem, a piece of literature.”

Laurie_anderson_concertLike opening the whole world to art.

As Rolling Stone wrote, "Laurie Anderson is a singer-songwriter of crushing poignancy—a minimalist painter of melancholy moods who addresses universal themes in the vernacular of the commonplace." I think that is exactly what Emma was saying, in fewer words. Our whole lives are art, Emma realized, and ours—not just poets and musicians Up There On Stage—but every wee human, even us. Even a fourteen year old like her.


Shortly after having lunch with my new pal Laurie, a friend told me—apropos of nothing, it seemed at the time—that the best peaches aren’t found in Georgia. They’re grown there, but the best ones are exported to markets outside Georgia. A colleague from Florida confirmed the same thing about selected Florida produce. The best beer isn’t found where it is brewed; nor is the best caviar enjoyed at its place of origin. I found that fascinating. Isn’t that what we do when we act better for company than for our own families, when we spend more time pleasing strangers than pleasing ourselves, when we adore celebrities and not our own Selves?

In a recent training session we did together in L.A., David relayed to the audience a short experience he had on a cruise to Alaska on a steamship with his partner, Lora. As all the passengers watched in absolute silence and awe, a pod of whales gathered around their ship. Quiet, in that moment of encompassing respect, he wondered a big question: why do we reserve such reverence for whales? Why don’t we offer the same silent awe to our fellow human beings, each of whom (not just the Big Whales) is as fantastical and beautiful and wonder-full as these creatures?

I started by saying that I had two brushes with greatness this week, but that’s not true—it was far more than that. It included all those people I met in Iowa this week, and the man named Dennis on the plane from Des Moines to Atlanta who accounts for one of the Absolute Best Conversations I’ve Ever Had, and the kids at tonight’s Halloween party at the local recreation center (Tess won the best costume award!) and my family, and all of you. All those wooden clogs on all those cobblestones. The deep, hollow, powerful sounds of everyday life becoming art.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Whalebig_2My recent encounters with Billy and Laurie remind me of the time I had dinner with Garrison Keillor in Minneapolis. And not just in the same country, state, county, and town, but in the very same restaurant and in very nearly the same room.

Yet as much as I revere Billy Collins and Laurie Anderson and as much as I turn to look when Garrison Keillor walks in the room, perhaps it is the sound of my own clogs on the cobblestones that is my one true art. I shouldn’t abdicate that art to Artists; it is my own.

See the whales around you. That’s not to say we can’t dream of having a lightning picnic with Billy Collins, a pirate romp with Johnny Depp, or an electric duet with Laurie Anderson, but there are also humans all around us who deserve our awe, our silent and full and best reverence.

And don’t export your best peaches. Keep them for those close to home.

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Patti, you really had me wondering if the six degress of separation amongst your readers had actually done me one better and that Billy was indeed amongst your readership! That is the best thank you I could ever hope for in return for obtaining a Billy Collins autograph.

Wow--what a wonderful gift. What a great letter. You must be gowing. I was glowing, reading it. I love when worlds collide, just-so! And yet you're right--it is the sound of your shoes on the street...the little things... that matter most. Greatness is wonderful, but being a good purson, truly, is everything.

lovely and awwwwww. so damned gorgeous and so important and necessary to read right at this moment. thank you. you are my favorite writer, and i am a book wielding egghead nerd with an astounding appetite for books. thank you.

What a wonderful gift for Emma! And for you - - to watch that door to art swing wide open! Great post! Thanks for reminding me of the taste of the absolutely most perfect and juicy, the most delicious Georgia Peach I ever ate - after I bought it in a grocery store on Cape Cod!

Thank you. What I love about reading your posts is how you remind me to look inward at my life, to hold it like the finest pearl in my hand, to examine the rainbow of colors in what many would call a plain, off-white sphere.

And this post recalls a wonderful evening when I was in the same room with Billy Collins and Garrison Keillor -- of course, they were on stage and I was in a tiny seat, squished between my sister and my husband, but we were all breathing the same air, gladly.

Oh Patti - this morning I thought my heart would break with joy over the sheer, and terrible beauty of the English language - so tenderly handled by a master. I was also momentarily blinded with envy - that these words should be addressed to you and not me. On closer inspection, I realized your play, and adore you more because of it - that you could craft such loveliness! Applause! Kisses and bouquets of honeysuckle. You are a beguiling genius!

I think Billy Collins knew deep down when he signed the autograph that it was for you :-)

Patti, thanks for reminding us that miracles are all around us; we just have to be open to them. Congratulations on getting Billy Collins' autograph! Who knows where it might lead?!

The journey you take readers on in your essays is exquisite. Just when I'm thinking, "where is this going?", I turn another corner and come up breathless. Thanks you for this piece, this challenge and this reminder that we are all exquisite treasures to be valued and not exported. Much peace and love, Deborah

Maybe he'll google his name and find this!

I love the way you tied it all up and I find myself looking out my window to see if I can spot a whale or two!

The letter from "Billy" was exquisite for sure. You wield your craft with deftness and grace.
Growing up in Alaska, I remember the pods of dolphins that would gather around our boat everytime we were in the Prince Williams sound. It's breathtaking.
Every human being I encounter today will be gone from this earth by the next century...every life, every moment truly is fragile and precious.
Living in awe of it all is magic.

Dear Ms. Digh:

You'd be interested that (with its infernal way of recommending items based on what one has purchased) recommended the poems of Billy Collins to me because I reviewed "A Wild Perfection: The Letters of James Wright" online. It all made me think of you and Mr. Collins. At any rate, thought you would like to know :-)

Thank you for this beautiful, wise piece of writing. I don't think Billy could have said it better.

Patti, you made my day. I could read you forever!

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