Vine Charcoal 

It was not smoke rising but powder from the vine charcoal I was laying across the page. I always covered the whole sheet first then lifted off what I wanted to reveal. I was not good at drawing  things but I could sense how much space they took up. This seemed like a minor miracle and  mitigated my lack of drafting skill. Place was blotted out by the object in it. Edges were soft.  Most things don’t stay still—well sure, a large xerox machine appears to stay put—but I’m not much interested in things that don’t move. You move, the landscape moves, rocks move. Nowadays I think that if anything seems to stay still, it’s because I’m not looking long enough. 

Cover the paper, obscure laid lines, leave a gritty surface trembling with the sheen of charcoal. Be careful as you work not to blow it away. No huffing or puffing. Don’t let your pinky drag. Constantly knead any superfluous material out of the kneaded eraser. At the very end, add a few highlights, precise marks of white, and the whole will snap into focus as if it were real, but remember, underneath that moment of clarity, everything is soft and malleable. 

Be careful when you add fixative—the microscopically-faceted grains of charcoal lose their edge and are dulled, subtle textures degrade, moments of precise detail are lost. Sometimes pinprick sized droplets mar the velvety surface. The whole enterprise is shifty. 

I learned this the hard way. A museum bought a large drawing of mine that I was proud of. But before delivery, I sprayed it with preservative and ruined it. I never told them it was ruined. Maybe they couldn’t spot the difference. But as far as I know, that drawing disappeared into flat files and was never shown. Even a museum can’t preserve what’s already been blown away. Lesson: don’t add fixative. It’s a vanity to avoid. 

When I tried to draw things not by their absence but by their presence I couldn’t get it right. I understood perspective, grids, structures and so on, yet edge, shape and scale would change  every time I looked. The more I focused on any part of the whole, the bigger that section would  become. Sometimes I’d start by drawing bones and then put skin over them, but my knowledge of musculature was rudimentary, and I wasn’t interested in muscles in the first place. (Here I refer to bones, muscles and skin both literally and figuratively.) But this ploy was leading me  astray. Finally I agreed with myself to just start with the part that interested me and work out from there. 

I could replicate what I saw well enough if I drew it life size, where I could feel the proportions as measured by my own body. Or in ersatz 1:1 scale, as in drawing myself while looking in a mirror. The mirror would fool me into believing its half-size me was my real size. I have some excellent self-portraits; they are all large.  

Eventually, I learned that if I copied images from two-dimensional sources I could skillfully mimic three-dimensionality. There is some metaphor there I don’t quite understand. I did some fine work and some less fine. After 25 years or so, I gave up painting and drawing and became a choreographer. I got me some real space. 


The issue of shiftiness carried into photography as well. I used to develop my own black-and white photographs. I’d go into the darkroom and slip paper into chemicals and there, coming out of nothing, an image would appear, a miracle, but one I couldn’t pin down. I’d print the same photograph over and over trying to nail down the definitive print. I could make sixty, each minutely different from the last, waste vast amounts of expensive paper. By the next day, I could not see the distinctions that had driven me to distraction twenty-four hours earlier. 

I was not made for that medium. I was incapable of the dispassionate consistency necessary to be  a good photographer or printer. The camera never became part of my arm or my eyes. The darkroom remained torture punctuated by housekeeping. I hated being in the dark; I hated being  trapped in small windowless spaces; I hated the search for perfection. Much as I was invested in  the work, I got out.


Prosopagnosia: “A neurological condition characterized by the inability to recognize the faces of  familiar people.” No one seems to agree on how to pronounce the phenomenon. A sampling of American English pronunciations: praa·suh·pag·now·zhuh, pros·op·ag·no·sia, prä-sə-pag-ˈnō zhə, pɹɑsoʊpæɡˈnoʊʒə. There are more online and on YouTube. 

In some ways the shiftiness of charcoal is similar to how I see faces. In a certain way, I don’t. I can’t picture faces. I can’t call up features. This is especially true with people who have regular features. Sometimes, depending on when we met or the circumstances, I can’t absorb a face no  matter what. I rely on hair or size or shape or gait or character or voice or by remembering specific photographs of the person. This last is strange to me—I can often retain images in two  dimensions but not in three. Here is one face that eluded me completely. Though I recognized  him each time, I was always afraid that I wouldn’t. 

Portrait of DL: 

Round face, slightly puffy, white skin, narrow asymmetric bluish-brownish-greenish eyes with slightly turned-down corners, a nose I can’t remember, indistinct lips, teeth that could have used some better childhood dentistry. Balding so you could see his scalp. Hair soft, fine, pale, fluffy as duck down. A light breeze would stand it on end, little spikes  separate and erect as porcupine quills. 

His face was hard to see, non-descript. I looked at it many times and even then, when we were still together, I could not have described it any better unless he were standing in front of me. When he made love though, he was transformed. His head tipped toward mine, he looked at me from under a brow thick as a bull’s, his eyes, turquoise with amber flecks, as focused as lasers. His sweat fell in my eyes. 

My inability to resolve his face into features I could grasp was disconcerting. Once, the  only time I was in his home, I saw a photograph of him and his wife. I stopped to study it  hoping that the simplification to two-dimensions would help. But I still couldn’t walk away with an image; all I could see was the face of a man being held by a woman who  loved him. It was the only time I ever got jealous. 

Later, I turned to drawing trees, rocks or fish because no one would know or care if a fin was an inch too proximate to snout. I could focus on color and shape and light and feeling and making marks. I could respond to the delicious complexity of reality without being up in anyone’s face. 

Smoke Tree 

The blossoms of the purple smoke tree are elusively immaterial, more dust ball, more air than there. Their color—smoky, coppery, pink, magenta, purple and green—take your pick and it is so. 

The Color of Night 

I haven’t gone out at night this last year of Covid, but in any case the best part of night is just  when I’m ready to go to bed and I’m too tired to go out. Then the night sky is an admix of blue and black that extends forever deep into the sky. (In my childhood we called that color Prussian blue. As a teenager I had a sweater that color; up close you could see it was knit from two colors of fine yarn. A similarly beautiful color was that of my velvet wedding dress—a wine so dark that in certain lights it was black.) 

My neighbor, a prep school, just built a new complex directly behind us. The dorms, faculty and  staff housing, lawns, parking lots and dumpsters are all protected by security lights. Now my  house is never dark, even with the blinds shut. If I wake at 2 in the morning, I cannot tell whether  dawn is coming or it’s nowhere near. I used to know exactly what time it was if I woke at night.  Even if the room were pitch black, I could tell the time to within ten minutes. I thought this  accuracy signaled how extraordinarily attuned I was to my body. But when I got off  antidepressants I discovered that really all I could tell was how long the chemicals had been in  my body and how much they had worn off. As soon as I stopped taking pills, I lost that ability. 

Now at night my rooms are filled with dispersed darkishness. People speak of night as “inky” as  if the color were fluid, but in my bedroom I experience it as almost particulate. The color is discontinuous; even with my eyes open it jumps around like an after-image. Is that my fatigue or poor vision at work? Is it akin to my mild tinnitus? 

This time of year, summer, it is so bright out by 5am I can’t tell when the security lights go off in the morning. Two nights ago I woke up at 3 and thought it was dawn. Last night I woke at 1:30  and thought it was dawn. Then I took a sleeping pill, slept till 8 and missed the transition. The  light of day had already come and gone, replaced by the dark of heavy rain. 

Standing Rock  

Morning, at the cold part of dawn, a thin vine of smoke rose from the campfire. The elders sat in camp chairs. The rest of us stood facing them, closing the fire circle. The elders said prayers, slowed everything, used up our nervous energy. Decisions had been made before the rest of us gathered for the day’s instructions; these were imparted with scant detail and were hard to hear. The elders announced we would all walk up the highway together—no “actions”. They did not want to tie up more money in bail. “Today,” they said, “no one is going to be arrested.” 

They led; around them, a cluster of warriors walked protection. Several hundred of us followed. We moved slowly along the shoulder, at the elders’ speed and under their authority. None of us were armed, not even with pen-knives. Each of us had a buddy to keep track of at every moment,  and, in case we got arrested, the phone number for “Legal” in permanent marker on our forearm. Those who were risk-adverse were advised to stay to the back of the line. Monitors offered low-key encouragement and reminded us not to cross onto the road. We processed, 6 or 8, now 10 or 12 abreast, sometimes arms linked, sometimes singing. Along the fence-line to our right, several youngsters rode horses, saddled and bareback. 

Police helicopters circled overhead. Our camera-equipped drones were shot down. Ahead, we faced drawn weapons and armored vehicles. All our fragile bodies walked toward them, a thin trail of smoke, an irritant, unextinguished.


When I think of a thin vine of smoke, I picture an old woman drawing wisps of hair away from her head, rolling the skinny strands between her fingers, almost like tobacco. There is no real  meaning in that gesture; it seems to me a placeholder for a yet unarticulated thought or action. A tactile pause or caesura. I think, Don’t rush me. I, who always moved quickly and decisively,  don’t want to hurry anymore; maybe I can’t. I can’t tell. There is nothing I need to do. I just want  space–literal, figurative, and temporal. My husband fingers his old-man wattle instead of twiddling his hair. Maybe neither of us is thinking anything at all, not quite blank but  unconsciously stalling, dawdling. Time attenuated, foggy, smoky. 

Addendum: Circle of Confusion 

I’m not sure exactly how this fits, but I’m certain that it does. The day before yesterday I was out walking along a stream. In a notch of moss at the foot of a tree, something tiny was fluttering  rapidly in one place. I took it to be a small moth, but it caught my attention sufficiently that I leaned over for a closer look. I couldn’t make it out, until finally, there was a pause in the faint breeze rippling the air. There, stuck on a single filament of spider silk, was a leaf fragment less  than half of the size of my baby fingernail. When the air started moving again, the suspended  leaf chip resumed twittering unbelievably quickly, swiveling along the single axis like a pole dancer. Almost doubting my perception, I pulled out my camera and took a video of it. I hadn’t made it up. Then I took a still. At the center of the frame was a dot of confusion. It was the only  part of the photograph that was out of focus; the central blur reminded me of macular degeneration. The trace of action was a smoky splotch.