National Poetry Month, April 2014

ALPHABET-letterpress-wood-printing-blocks-wooden-letters-font-type-letterformsFlyingBookPages

Rapid technological development has led to a constant flood of visual and acoustic bits and bites – emails, text messages and Facebook updates. For most of us it has become a habit to react, one that often leaves us frazzled and detached. Single-tasking has become a luxury in the 21st century. To sit down and simply read a poem, so to only focus on one individual piece of work, can feel as if we’re not doing enough, or even wasting time. Besides, especially poetry can seem very inaccessible. It is not easily consumed; it does not offer clear-cut outlines, neat bullet points or answers to your most urgent questions in life. Poetry demands from both the writer and reader attentiveness and reflection, moreover, intellectual and emotional engagement.

I am writing this on April the 2nd, two days into National Poetry Month 2014. First launched in 1996 with the support of the Academy of American Poets, the month of April was declared National Poetry Month.[1] Some literati like to argue that the celebration of poetry should be a daily and not an annual event confined to a month. But this is not the discussion I want to engage in at this point. I am taking this event as an opportunity to reflect upon the role poetry can play in our lives.

Anyone who engages in poetry – or in any kind of art form – is most likely both curious and highly sensitive. Our attention is usually not drawn towards the general or the spectacular but towards the singular, with its nuances and notions, shadows and shades. Those of us who write poetry must often follow the invisible; we hunt after illusions, traces, and wisps of things. With the patience of field archaeologists we excavate vague impressions we are sometimes barely able to grasp, often agonizing over every word and phrase. Our reward is when this „tantalizing vagueness“, like Robert Frost called it, takes on forms and meanings that lie beyond our expectations, like hidden little gems waiting to be uncovered.[2] Aristotle wrote of poetry as, „a kind of thing that might be“, in contrast to history as something that was.[3]

Both reading and writing poetry demands of us opposing virtues; we have to be both intuitive and logical, heart and head strong, playful and disciplined. Poetry teaches us an awareness of the wonders of the world, of mankind and of language. Through poetry we take in others, their universe, their views, anxieties, beliefs and emotions – snapshots which can even mirror our own.

Poetry „cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint“[4]. Poetry facilitates reflection and compassion. It connects us not only with others but also to ourselves. My maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It was painful so see how every day she seemed to be vanishing a little bit more into this inescapable thick fog, like a ship with once billowing sails, now deflated and torn, lost at sea. But even when she couldn’t recognize most family members anymore, she could still recite poems from her youth. The poetry she loved and had mostly learned by heart still enabled contact with her own identity, with herself.

National-Poetry-Month-April-2014-poster-design-chip-kidd

Twitter-page-Poets-Academy-of-American-Poets.org

National-Poetry-Month-2014-official-poster-poetry-quote

 


[1] The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who with the help of W. H. Auden was living in American exile, had declaimed that poetry should be available everywhere. In 1993 together with the student Andrew Carroll he founded the non-profit organization American Poetry and Literacy (APL). Three years later the movement was flourishing and over 125,000 books of poetry had been distributed for free.

[2] See my blog post “The Pomegranate – On Finding Poetry“.

[3] “The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  ~ Aristotle, On Poetics.

[4] Czeslaw Milosz, A Book Of Luminous Things. An International Anthology of Poetry, San Diego, New York, London 1996, p. XVI.

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

~ John F. Kennedy

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey-mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of a night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experience it though his interpretation of it. I would like to add however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflexion, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

Golden-Pomegranate-by-Illumne-gleaming-Isla-candle-square
Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our work space we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent much needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. Which is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but at the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of writing that served exhibitions or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable or practical thing to do. Which is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslav Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – it was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

Or, if you liked this post, why not 

Coffe cup laptop tablecloth with leaf pattern darkness
@ Frances Livings
songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

When Love Falls Apart ~ The Beauty of Melancholy

 

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”  ― Percy Bysshe Shelley

Songwriting about something painful can be cathartic but it also means revisiting pain. After the initial spark for the song When Love Falls Apart, it felt odd, even paradoxical, to want to write something beautiful about something so sad. Which is however, ultimately, what melancholy is all about and that was the core emotion I wanted to express. After all, When Love Falls apart is about a break up, which was very difficult and painful at the time. To this date, the song is still very emotional for me to sing. It can be like being transported back in time. So writing the song became quite a process.

How Co-writing Became A Way To Unburdening Pain

I had almost completed the lyrics. I had a hook and was pleased with my melody for the chorus. But the verses were still incomplete. I was obviously procrastinating, trying to avoid getting in too deep. That’s exactly why I needed some support, some structure to build on. I needed to unburden myself from some of the pain. So I asked the classical guitarist and jazz composer Greg Porée for help.

Greg came up with some lovely additional chords. So using them as a base to lean upon, I wrote the rest of the melody. Rather, it then just wrote itself. Suddenly, the song was finished. Ironically, however, the song marked both an end and a beginning: “When Love Falls Apart” was the very first song Greg and I wrote together.

The next step was therefore to notate everything in a chart. Here’s a copy of the original:

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

The Magic of Handwritten Charts

Handwritten charts are per se something very personal and are frequently of sentimental value for songwriters. I always keep an original, handwritten manuscript of all of my songs, whether it’s one by a co-writer or one of my own. It’s like keeping a baby picture of your child although it’s already grown up. For me, a song has “grown up” when it has been professionally recorded. Once the song is on Spotify or iTunes that kid has basically moved out and has started a life of its own.

Collections of Music Scores and Charts

If you’re interested in music notation, I found a lovely visual collection of other composer’s music scores. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York houses one of the finest collections of music manuscripts in the United States. In addition to a large collection of musicians’ letters and first editions of scores and librettos, its collection of manuscripts (by classical composers like Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss) spans six centuries and many countries.

There are many other archives and libraries with collections of original scores worldwide but also some that have been scanned digitally and are available online.

Hand-writing music has been a tradition in jazz for many, many years. With Finale, a powerful and involved music notation software, a handwritten look using special fonts can even be emulated! Have a look at this article, which explains the principle.

Recording When Love Falls Apart

But I digressed slightly. The next step was to record the track as a demo, with voice and guitar. That’s where I kind of left it. It wasn’t until playing an unplugged show at the famous singer-songwriter venue Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles, that I felt I needed to also release it. Maybe because that evening, accompanying me on classical guitar, was my co-writer. We performed the ballad for the first time live.

The way the song came to life and people connected to it, motivated me to record it as a single to just “get it out there”. Although I was already working on songs for my solo album it just felt right to release that version as a single – just with voice and classical guitar.songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

After recording it in the studio, I started designing the cover. I felt very much inspired by a very tender and touching quote by Virginia Woolf.

“The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight.” – Virginia Woolf

Melancholy is one theme that runs rampant through her writing. Her image of a singing bird amidst a moonscape depicts this pensive emotion so well. It is interwoven with both sorrow and joy, profoundness and beauty – which is exactly what I had attempted to create in the song.

My ballad “When Love Falls Apart” grew out of exactly these feelings of deep sadness, which via beauty, gave way to melancholy.

Listen to and purchase an mp3 of When Love Falls Apart here:

 

Donating = Loving

You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, would you like to provide additional support? Please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. I will deeply appreciate it.

 

Or, why not 

Museums Paris, Contemporary art photography, black and white photo, clock

Funeral Blues ~ Songs & Poems about Death

 

Another friend of mine recently died. He was far too young to leave life behind. We will always miss him. Now, after a few weeks I have started working on a new song called White Angel’s Café for my new and soon to be released album The World I Am Livings In“. Writing about death is hard. It not only hurts but is one of these topics that can easily slip into worn-out clichés, which end up meaning nothing. Especially since every person, every life and therefore every death is so individual.

The stages of mourning are however, universal when losing someone and summarized by psychologists as the five stages of grief. So while doing some research on the topic, I came across this poem by the English poet, playwright, critic, and librettist W. H. Auden who exerted a major influence on the poetry of the twentieth century.

His piece Funeral Blues touched me a long time ago but it had slipped out of my mind. In my opinion, W. H. Auden deals with the despair and shock of the first phase of grieving. And like so often in his pieces, he paints versatile and inventive but also somewhat “anti-romantic” images, which have even more impact on the reader because they are closer to these everyday circumstances, these seemingly banal situations, in which we often miss loved ones the most.

 

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W. H. Auden

 

Another very touching short piece is by Henry Jackson van Dyke (November 10, 1852 – April 10, 1933), an American author, educator, and clergyman.

 

Time is Eternity

Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice,
But for those who love,
Time is Eternity.

Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)

 

Excerpt from the poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath.

“…These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

 

Did you find inspiration in this post?

If so, why not  

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

"black and white photo" "gloves"

I Just Lost It

 

I couldn’t find it anywhere. “What? Is it this size?” my husband asks, holding his hands about two inches apart. “Nooooo – much bigger! It’s more like six, seven inches…, leather, it’s thick and heavy and worn, you’ve seen it – or not!!??”

I start searching, yes speed-searching through knicker-drawers, magazine-piles, food-stocks, bed-clothes; I look in the laundry pile, in the dryer, under the dog food, behind the fridge, in the freezer. In total frustration I ring up my girl-friend, who is very sympathetic about the whole situation and recommends staying calm. I cannot stay calm. Yes, I admit, I have hidden things before; things in quite unusual places; keys, money, jewellery, letters, gloves, anger, thoughts and feelings, even memories – mostly from others, sometimes from myself. But this is serious. Where is my diary?

I have lost my diary.

Mentally too overwhelmed to think clearly, I let myself sink into our thick velvety sofa, grabbing a cushion to hug, for comfort. I try to think back: Diary! Where are you? I almost feel guilty, like a bad parent whose child has been kidnapped: Have I neglected you that badly?  Is it all my fault? Oh, forgive me! Pleeeease! Where are you!

I slump back, my neck is killing me. I close my eyes and try to focus: I suppose, I have been overspending lately – to be honest, almost daily. Perhaps I just haven’t had enough verbal supplies left for you. Am I some kind of verbal traitor, spending my daily female allowance of forty thousand words whining away in the isolated scope of a therapist’s womb? What a fool I am! Who am I to think it would matter – just a slot in someone’s appointment book? I’ve spent far too much time blah-blahing, swirling thoughts through mid-air. Truthful, thoughtful and agitated words that have nevertheless been aimlessly drifting, only to be sucked up by the greedy grey vents of a rattling air-conditioner!

I should have known better! I should have known that only with you my thoughts can thrive! That with you, whiney and superfluous midget thoughts just shrivel away to make space for grand and thriving musings laid out in proper order, ready to become valuable memories. That one by one, in proper sentences, on clean and crisp white pages, row by row…. bound in soft leather, embossed with my name… my thoughts are something – just because of you! I am so sorry. I should have trusted you. Although, I do have to admit to myself, that lately, there haven’t been many neat rows of carefully composed words and symmetrically stacked paragraphs. I know, I should have confided in you.

There haven’t been that many neatly composed words lately because of my anger. Dear diary, I know… I have bruised your pages with this anger. My pen has been in rages, chicken feet scraping and scaring your delicate white skin, leaving blue tattoos with bleeding and blustering edges. Like those of criminals, rudimentary and raw, crude jail-house tattoos. I am sorry. I have hurt you; I have hurled you up and slammed you down. I have grabbed you, opening you up like the legs of a whore, bending your spine with a vicious crack.

Perhaps you have just had enough. Have you walked out on me? Diary, have you left me?

I cast the cushion aside and get up from my velvet enclave and start pacing again: What if it is just gone, I debate with myself – as in lost and someone finds it…?! A whole tsunami-worth of panic suddenly grips me, rides me and holds me hostage, stuffing my knickers into my gaping mouth. Then a deep feeling of shame rises from my crotch through my stomach, flushing my cheeks on the way. Shame ferociously spreads over my skull that has turned into a blowfish, only to perch like a goblin behind my ears, making them ring like bakelite telephones. The thought is so unbearable; similar to the memory of unexpectedly bumping into that guy you had really bad sex with. But now he is the one who doesn’t remember you; at all.

Where are you, diary?

My husband joins the action again. He is tired and has already shifted into twilight mode. He lifts a somewhat guided hand, half in limbo like a dangly puppet – or rather like a circus seal: “Perhaps in the dining room…”, right hand flap-flap signals. “Perhaps in the bookshelf…”, left hand flap-flap signals. Of course not! Books sit in bookshelves, ready to be read! Books have a cover, an index… As if, as if – it’s literature. “It’s my diary” I mumble, exhausted.

I realize; he really doesn’t have a clue – neither of what my diary looks like nor of the painstaking logistical manoeuvres I get involved in to hide these very private thoughts from anyone. And yet, I have been careless at times, have left you, diary vulnerable and exposed to the eyes of any intruder. But was I really worried that he had sneaked a peak or was I secretly disappointed that he hadn’t?

It hits me like a dump truck, that perhaps, my diary isn’t just gone as in absent or misplaced, but that it has actually left, as in never-coming-back-again. Suddenly, I feel as if I am walking with naked feet and wobbly knees through deep snow, so icy cold that my toes have turned from a deep beetroot red to corpse-blue and are going to drop off like plump raisins left for the ravens. In my mind the scene is playing in slow motion: I turn my head and look back and realize – after a brief moment of dizzying shock – that there are no imprints. I haven’t left a single footprint, no marks. Nothing. I am a nonentity. But like in a bad floaty-type drugged-out dream, I then stare down at my open hands, at the swirls of my fingertips which are blank and flat like molten wax.

© Frances Livings 2012. All Rights Reserved.

(c) The Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

Candy’s Caravan. A Song about a Prostitute

 

I released my single Candy’s Caravan in December 2010 in my jazz label Moontraxx Records. Stylistically the song is a blend of Nu-Jazz, electronica and pop – reminiscent perhaps of artists like Portishead and Annie Lennox. It features two characters with different perspectives: myself as the narrator and the prostitute Candy who is the main character – like the title implies. Atmospherically it sounds slightly theatrical, like a short and dark Burlesque piece.

I had completed the lyrics for Candy’s Caravan long before I had even started on the music, which fell into place when I was experimenting on the piano along with a simple pre-recorded trip-hop loop. The structure and arrangement for the piece I then further developed on live gigs.

It marks one of my first pieces that evolves around another woman’s very specific fate. I focussed thereby on a very narrow window of her everyday life and struggle. I have since then explored an array of typical female topics from different socio-economic statues and cultural backgrounds. Some are in song form, other are spoken word or musical poetry pieces. The paths of women, their stories and their dreams, have always intrigued me. In a patriarchal society, we face completely different challenges than men. As a writer and a woman myself, I have experienced many traumatic events, unexpected changes and terrible losses. So even if I haven’t made that exact experience personally, I try to deeply empathise. Often through images I then research and reimagine what those struggles may be.

 

Listen to a full-length recording of the song here:

Although I have never worked as a prostitute, the lyrics of Candy’s Caravan actually mirror a combination of different experiences, made during my student years in Hamburg, Germany. Another influence is my theatre background, most obvious in the usage of dialogue. I worked for two small theatres on the famous Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, Hamburg and these experiences definitely coined the piece.

Slightly Unusual Student Jobs

Like most students getting themselves through college, I took on a vast variety of jobs and gigs. These jobs not only varied in certain skills I had to quickly learn and apply but also in their social environment.During the summer holidays before I started junior college, I worked in a tile factory. I was intrigued and sometimes intimidated by the gritty working class women. Many even had children to care for and households to run. But they stood there every morning at 6 am on the dot from Mondays to Fridays for a physically strenuous 8-hour shift. The parallel universe was later working in an office, a proper office with buzzing computers, a synthetic carpet, bad coffee, fashion magazines and lots of gossip, where I helped translating technical terms.

Another interesting experience was being an extra on TV productions. During those years, in the nineties, Hamburg was a huge media metropolis before a lot of production companies moved to Boomtown Berlin after the wall came down. So there were lots of well paid TV jobs. I did have a hard time sometimes, being the impatient and curious person I am. I found all of the waiting, the “hurry up and wait!” hard to endure, which is why I so loved the theatre and love performing live because it’s all about being in the moment. Anyway, for two episodes of a German evening TV series I played (or rather posed as) a prostitute which turned out to be a very interesting experience.

Livings as a Prostitute?

One of the gigs was quite well paid because it was not only in the middle of the night and absolutely freezing cold but we were also, naturally dressed in the most skimpy clothes you can imagine. In retrospect, it would be fun to have a few photos but that was before the selfie-era. My friend and I were hardly able to stand in the patent leather boots we were strapped into, the fishnet stocking were cutting into the flesh of my toes and the layers of thick make-up seemed to be the only form of insulation we had against the freezing cold. Although we flirted with the role, it did in a way feel uncomfortable that the mostly male technical crew changed the way they looked at us the moment we were clad in over-sexualized, skimpy mini skirts and revealing lace-up tops.

It seems as if we stood under this dark and eerie railway bridge in a barren industrial area near the train station in Hamburg-Altona for hours, pretending to chat up the drivers cruising by, until finally, I suppose, the lead actors got their lines right. Daylight was already lingering on the horizon as we fled home with numb toes, chattering teeth and blue lips. I realized what a terrible and humiliating profession this must be: exposed to the cold, to investigative stares, like being live stock on a meat market. Despite working on the Reeperbahn, I had never really seriously thought about these women before. But I needed to pay my rent too.

Fishnet Stockings and Lonely Tissues Boxes

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman reflection dim light window blinds
© Jane Burton, The Other Side, 2002

It was a pure coincidence but the next gig I took on was playing a prostitute in a bar. But at least it was indoors and warm.  The most interesting part was the location: The scene was actually shot in a real bordello in Sankt Georg, a very seedy area of Hamburg, like often districts in close proximity to central train stations tend to be.

After a wardrobe person handed us each a hanger with our skimpy costumes, the production assistant showed us our dressing rooms: They were the actual bordello “bedrooms” (for lack of a better term) and we were supplied with one each. Mine was a fair sized room with red padded walls, sporting gigantic gold-framed, mirrors. It was dominated by a gigantic king sized bed that was stripped bare of bedclothes, revealing a smooth red plastic sheet that covered the mattress. Even the tall standard lamp with a pleated silk shade was protected – against body fluids – by a fitted plastic cover. The humungous bed was flanked by two night stands, each crowned with a singular, lonely tissue box.

It was extremely weird to get undressed and changed in that room. There was a bed – but nobody ever slept there. Was anyone watching? What was behind the mirrors? I panicked for a second thinking, any moment some John would be arriving. There was even a small extra room we had first entered before proceeding to the “bedroom”. It had a window and was sparsely furnished with two chairs and another tissue box – I think anyone’s imagination would have been triggered by this situation and it definitely delivered some interesting inspiration for my writing.

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely Window with lace curtains beaded red lamp female legs shoes dark
Image on the left © Jane Burton

The Famous Reeperbahn.

It was around this time I got a job at the St. Pauli Theatre, which is located on the famous Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn (also known as the “sinful mile”) is absolutely unique. To someone who has never visited, it could be described as a hybrid of the old strip in Las Vegas, London’s Soho on Fridays, the red light district in Amsterdam and the sex-tourist’s strip in Bangkok. It’s atmosphere alone has certainly influenced some of my writing (and many others before me) and coined reflections on topics like prostitution.

The German crooner and actor Hans Albers is strongly associated with St. Pauli, and wrote the neighbourhood’s unofficial anthem, Auf der Reeperbahn Nachts um Halb Eins in the 1940s. In the 1960’s The Beatles had stints on the Reeperbahn early in their careers. And in the first lines of his song Down The Reeperbahn the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits captures an a-typical scene:

Around the curve of The Parrot Bar
a broken-down old movie star
Hustling and Easterner
Bringing out the beast in her

I love Tom Waits as a writer and enjoy reading most of his lyrics. A lot of people recognize him by his distinctive voice that the critic Daniel Durchholz described most accurately as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.[1] Exactly like a sound track of the Reeperbahn…

Short Memories and Long Tales…

I have always been drawn to the Reeperbahn. It’s simply an extremely interesting and seductive place. Because indeed, like Waits writes, “the memories are short but the tales are long, down there in the reeperbahn”. As a visitor, it is a fantasy-world full of false promises and illusions – like a theatre. I’ve also been to some of the best parties at great clubs there (like the legendary Mojo Club) when the European Electronica movement first started. I sang regularly at a dive bar called very suitably, Die Rote Laterne, where my co-writer and I practically founded and musically developed our band  4UrbanArtists. I often partied and sometimes sang atAngie’s Nightclub, where my singing coach Roger Cicero, performed regularly, playing piano and singing jazz, soul and pop songs before he had his big breakthrough as a German jazz singer and sadly died prematurely in 2016.Quote Tom Waits at piano smoking prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque

Often, after the curtain had fallen and we had wrapped up the show, I would step out onto the Reeperbahn, the air filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol and it would take me a while to adjust. Especially when you actually work there the contrasts can sometimes feel very strange. For the longest part of the evening I had been enveloped in the safe and abstract world of a theatre. Then after the show, I would walk out onto the street and be confronted with crowds of testosterone driven guys seeking sleazy sex and drugged twenty-somethings on their way the next hip club, crazed to dance, to drink and flirt.

So afterwards, my co-workers and I would often have drinks at the house bar. But on one of these slightly insane evenings even the bar was so crowded that some of the crew members and I decided to go somewhere else.

My Encounter with “Candy”

We went around the corner into a dark alleyway to a small, unknown (well, unknown to the tourists) bar. I had my bike with me that I pushed along side while we all chatted and then absent-mindedly decided to chain to a lamp post (yes, literally, Unter der Laterne…). Suddenly this raging fury shot out of the dark. Hobbling towards me on her neck-breaking high heels, violently swinging her handbag she yelled: “Du Schlampe…! Du…” (You bitch, you) I understood immediately. I fiddled with the lock as fast as I could, muttering, “‘Schuldigung! ‘Schuldigung!” (sorry, sorry) under my breath and then humbly entered the bar with my bike. The image of that woman was forever burned into my brain and lastly coined Candy’s wig and the high heels. The owners of the bar, a lesbian couple were gracious and let me park my bike in their dingy back yard. It was a tight and dingy space, where once a week, boxes of liquor and the large barrels of beer were delivered to. I have always been quite a street wise person and am also respectful of people’s space but this one time I did almost get beaten up by a hooker, whose territory I – in her eyes – hadn’t respected.

The Rhythm of the Reeperbahn

Especially at the weekends the energy on the Reeperbahn can almost be explosive. Depending on how much the crowds drink, which football team has lost or won, on how warm and humid it is (the colder, the calmer) and, I suppose, how business in general is going for the street girls. There’s a strong feeling of hierarchy. As a “normal” working woman you stay out of their way, mind your own business. In the ecosystem of the Reeperbahn the street girls are at the bottom of the ladder: Not seldomly are they heartbreakingly young, runaways and drop-outs, barely the age of eighteen. In neon-coloured hot pants, snow boots and fur-trimmed jackets and thick make-up they line the street, hustling the men and boys in front of Burger King. Street prostitution is only legal during certain times of the day on the Davidstraße. It’s the most curios sight at 8pm to see them suddenly all pop out of their rabbit holes to then later suddenly vanish again. But it is also very absurd for most tourists to see them lined up exactly opposite the historical Davidwache, the district’s main police-station located on the South side of the Reeperbahn, on the Spielbudenplatz.

It was always downright fascinating to watch the gaudy but also desolate nocturnal activities of the crowds. But working almost daily at the theatre at night and sometimes in the daytime, is very different. Despite the chaos, there is a certain rhythm on the Reeperbahn. I sometimes had to go to the theatre during the day to hang up washing, repair costumes or attend rehearsals. Often I could almost hear a big and long sigh, a feeling of general relief when the tourists and party animals had left during the daytime. This void is used to nurse hangovers and guilty consciences, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol for the night. The rhythm of the street then elapses into slow motion. What lingers in the air is the stale odor of beer, bad breath, sweat, fried onions, cigarettes and vodka – like the trail of cheap perfume or cologne women or men, void of any style or taste, leave behind. The buffed and mean looking door men suddenly deflate, look tired and tame. The sleazy, crooked eyed drug dealers slouchy, and coffee-thirsty and run-down, catty prostitutes look cold and worn.

Yet the closer it gets to dawn the more the pace speeds up again: Having barely recovered, the cobbled streets and the musty bars are hastily swept. Synthetic wigs are brushed and plucked and laddered nylon tights are the subjects of emergency cosmetic surgery. Once the revealing daylight has vanished the illusions are born again – luring and seducing, like Candy…

© Frances Livings. All Rights Reserved.

 

Did you enjoy reading this post? If so, why not…

 

 

prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely half naked woman topless dress smoking black and white photography art Bordello
© Vee Speers, Bordello series, 2001
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque bed satin heart shaped pillow
© Weegee, Bed with Heart
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely mirror naked woman sandals dim light window curtains half light
© Jane Burton, The Other Side #8 2002
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque 1920's 1930's art photography bordello naked woman black mask
© Vee Speers, Mask (from the Bordello series)
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque women mannequins bubble wrap art photography
© Richard Kalvar, Women in Bubble Wrap
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely woman dim light blonde
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan Burlesque lonely naked woman satin bedspread white face make-up
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008
prostitute song Candy's Caravan naked woman blonde curtain blue top
© Ziv Ish, Untitled 2008

 

Livings In Los Angeles. Public Parks and Gardens and their Impact on Mental Health and the Creative Mind

 

The title of my poem Evaporated may not suggest it, but I drew its imagery draws the different contrasting botanical areas at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. It has been one of my favourite place to visit ever since I first came to Southern California in 2005. The 207 acres of space, of which 120 acres are landscaped, showcase a variety of botanical areas. One of the most fascinating ones – probably for any European or East-coaster – is the ten acre large desert garden which features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants.

The Huntington Desert Gardens

Succulents have always fascinated me, their shapes and characteristics and their ability to survive on so little and yet be able to bloom and flourish in the most extraordinary ways. As a teenager I had a small collection of cacti: My room faced South so out of thin planks of wood I constructed swing-like benches for the large window for them to sit on and relish the sun rays. They were small and very common species but they sometimes even bloomed. But never did I expect to see such alien monstrosities or small insect-like clusters of cacti like I did at the Huntington gardens years later.

After having completed the poem I started to think about how, throughout my life, the experience of different landscapes and topographies has influenced my perception and awareness of my surroundings. Especially when living in a city, visits to gardens and urban parks have not only sometimes saved my sanity but also influenced my work as an artist and writer. The following piece for instance, which I recorded on my first solo album, I wrote after a visit to the beach in Santa Barbara. It’s short and melancholic, almost like a tone poem:

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

My personal experience is that nature, even in contrived areas like in parks, can evoke emotions in us that are often not released otherwise. And it is a wide-spread and well researched fact that nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development.

It was only after I had moved to Los Angeles that I became aware of how vastly different not only cityscapes but also landscapes can be, how much the climate can hinder or support certain activities. On the whole, I realized, I had been lucky to have spent the first three decades of my life in very green, fertile and geographically non-threatening environments – no black widow spiders, earthquakes, mud slides or mountain lions. But I can also see that not everyone in this city is able to make these choices and therefore experiences.

In most parts of the city of Los Angeles there is no alternative to street culture. The city has paid little attention to small urban green spaces that should be available for all members of society, either in walking distance or at all times fully accessible by public transportation and an integral part of daily life. Some studies even show that “there is an obvious correlation between poverty, food access and lack of open space” like stated in a blog entry posing the question “Is the lack of recreational space making us fatter?”.

Having grown up in England as a child, the long history and culture of the English garden and park and my family’s interest in their natural surroundings influenced my relationship with and awareness for nature, whether in a natural or a contrived state. With my parents we visited some of the most interesting estates, strange sculpture gardens and vast parks, like the famous Hyde Park in London. My Nanna was a passionate gardener and cook, who made jam from her home-grown black currants and pies from her apples and even managed to grow some figs and tobacco on her large allotment in Suffolk.

After I was literally “deported” to Germany as a pre-teen, I felt that the flat and boring landscape, dotted with stoic, grass-munching cows, was a hard contrast to the hilly and lush countryside of East Anglia. I have tried to convey some of these emotions in a yet unfinished piece ‘Wasteland’, playing with these landscape features as synonyms for my interior landscapes. Nevertheless, nature was accessible and if it hadn’t been for the trauma of being moved away from my family, it would have been a theoretically non-threatening experience.

As a student I then moved to the city of Hamburg. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that Hamburg ranks as one of the top ten greenest cities in Germany and was awarded The by the European commission in 2011. But I truly enjoyed the fact that even although it rains a lot of the time (which can be depressing on another level and obviously helps the vegetation to flourish) there are so many green spaces, rivers and canals accessible from all parts of town, mostly in walking distance.

Los Angeles’ National Parks

During my time here in Los Angeles I have therefore sought out many of the parks the County has to offer, like Griffith Park, situated in the Eastern Santa Monica Mountain range, in the north-eastern part of the city.

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA

With over 4,210 acres of both natural Chaparral-covered terrain and landscaped parkland and picnic areas, it is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. Two famous landmarks are the recently restored observatory, opened to the public in 1935 and the Greek theatre, the famous music venue.

Represented in Griffith Park – in a similar way to Topanga State Park in Pacific Palisades – are California native plants and in small quantities even some threatened species.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had already seen the health benefits of national parks and became an energetic supporter as president. He wrote:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.

He obviously also had a strong nationalistic agenda: Even in the midst of the Depression, national parks were being dramatically improved by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and highly publicized and therefore politicized. I doubt whether the city of Los Angeles is currently really interested in designing and financing green urban spaces in low income zones.

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA

In middle-class neighbourhoods, like West Hollywood public parks, if existent, are tiny and still rare – like a small oasis nearby out home on King’s Road (very much the opposite of King’s Road in London…).

It features a beautiful small waterfall (I doubt whether from a natural water source), a Gingko tree and tropical shrubbery, like banana plants and Bird of Paradise. It would, at the most, hold 50 people, tightly seated attending a one-woman flute concert. But on my almost daily dog walks it is a small oasis where I often sit down on one of the park benches, switch my iPod off and can find tranquility.

Historical Parks and Gardens

Other communities that have long histories of parks surround Pasadena, a small college city about twenty miles north-west of Los Angeles that is famous for the annual Rose Parade, its craftsman houses, like the Gamble house by the architects Greene and Greene and the Millard house by Frank Lloyd Wright from 1923.

Nearby, in La Canada Flintridge are the Descanso Gardens which are well worth a visit throughout the year, but especially in January and February when the Camellias are in bloom.

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA

Located in the city of Arcadia, the Arboretum is home to plant collections from all over the world, including many rare and endangered species. The Arboretum also houses some interesting outdoor historical landmarks, like a Victorian Queen Anne cottage, representative of the major phases of California history. And like mentioned above the Huntington in San Marino whose desert gardens I am so fascinated by.

But unless you live in San Marino, ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 63rd most expensive area to live in the United States and where the median list price of a single family home is almost 2 million US dollars you will always require private transportation to these places (unless you can afford a taxi).

These national parks and historical gardens are exclusive and excluding suburban oasis. There is no train and hardly any busses. The entrance fee per adult (without an annual membership) is at the Huntington’s a staggering $20. So especially with a family these trips involve a steep budget, planning well ahead and/or making reservations for the one free day of the week.

“It Never Rains in California”. The Problem with Urban Heat Islands

Most people tend to perceive the Southern Californian climate as extremely friendly. They think of the beaches, of blonde and bronzed surfer dudes, of a place where it never rains. How often do you see tourists in an open tour bus without sunscreen and a hat – we all know that they’ll be close to a sunstroke by the time they’ve passed the 28th villa in Beverly Hills in which Barbara Streisand is supposed to have lived.

‘Sun Screen’ (c) Mark Boster printed in the L.A. Times, Sep. 9, 2011

Being here all year round has made me realize that the sun can be very cruel and relentless. In August and September I find it almost impossible to walk anywhere – it is desert sun.

Unlike residential areas close to places like Griffith Park or the Huntington Gardens, the poorer parts of the city, like Compton or Torrance, offer hardly any escape from the desert-hot sun or relief from every day problems and anxieties in a rejuvenating environment.

Not only green areas are missing but a large part of the Los Angeles’ inner cityscape doesn’t even deliver much shade. Partly because a lot of areas lack trees with foliage (palm trees grow best) and, because of earthquake danger, the buildings are mainly low-rise complexes and strip-malls. The wide streets are barren and dry, dusty and often excruciatingly un-embracing, uninspiring and insular.

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

When the sun most violently smacks down on the dark asphalt and heats up its environment up to four degrees Fahrenheit more than in green areas, so-called urban heat islands are created.

Urban heat islands not only decrease the air quality but have an impact on nearby water bodies. But not only does Los Angeles lack public green areas that could be integrated into our daily lives and routines, but sources of water.

The only  canals I know of are in Venice beach, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate. The L.A. river is less picturesque with its concrete beds which act as water basins for melting snow gushing down the mountains in the spring. In the hot summer months they are mostly dry.

Unlike in places like London with the river Thames or Paris with the romantic Seine, these areas are also not offered as spaces of contemplation or restoration in the middle of the city, mainly because they completely lack natural vegetation or wildlife.

It is a known fact that enclosing shrubbery and foliage of trees in parks can foster crime which is why some city planners have argued against them. The Central Park in New York has (perhaps falsely) become a synonym for heinous acts of crime, like often depicted on TV. But studies have also proven the opposite: Next to the urban study departments of many Universities, the APA, the American Planning Association, an independent, educational non-profit organization has conducted research programmes that show:

Time spent in natural surroundings relieves mental fatigue, which in turn relieves inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity, recognized by psychologists as precursors to violence. Green spaces also support frequent, casual contact among neighbors. This leads to the formation of neighborhood social ties, the building blocks of strong, secure neighborhoods where people tend to support, care about, and protect one another.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

 

Did you enjoy reading this post? If so, why not…