Two weeks into this pandemic with fear and uncertainty persistent, UnderMain reached out to the arts community in an attempt to reconnect. Since then, we have partnered with various organizations to help provide emergency grants to those most in need. We have encouraged regional leaders and many of our writers to share their views of the world Post-COVID. We have invited various constituents to join our weekly meetings as we revaluate our mission and our role.
Pressed into unbearable corners physically, emotionally, and financially as the landscape continues to tilt, UnderMain supports efforts to enact systemic change to our fragile industry. Balance and sanity also direct us toward the small gestures that seed change in each of us.
This is that.
Near the end of March, we reached out to Jim Betts – a contributor to UnderMain whose words always soothe – and he shared his project, Notecard Essays. The cathartic nature of his pen to paper was clear; so, we thought it might be nice to share. Below is Jim’s methodology for making these notecards – it’s a kind of process that incorporates a ritual and serves to gently reveal personal truths and, for Jim, unlocks something even more universal.
I sit, usually following a walk, with a notecard spread blank before me. Hopefully on the walk I have come up with a topic, a “through line” which I will pursue. Sometimes I am particularly writing to a person, sometimes he/she is just next on the list. I address the card, date it, address the envelope and, thus committed, I approach the pure white canvas. I try to have a point. I try to broach the subject from a specific example, expanding out to some universal or at least personal truth. I embellish with flowery, poetic, philosophical language depending on topic/reader. I do not write the letter to him/her, but the person receiving it colors the presentation. And that to be presented colors the recipient. I do not/cannot edit, it is a one shot deal. So like zen calligraphy, I sit down, gather myself, write and emerge somehow transformed from the practice. That is what is known as a good day.
None of this matters. It is how I do it. It really can be revelatory. I am frequently surprised by what comes off my pen. I copy them on my printer, seal the envelope with a wax seal (Why not? It heightens the drama, gift wraps the card and lets me play with fire. By the way, the dripping and stamping is also part of the zen practice…), stamp them and put them in my home mailbox with the little flag up to announce their merry presence. All in all it is a good use of an hour.
Here are a few of Jim’s notecards:
Dearest Mother, 3/11/2018
I watch with some amusement and lots of amazement as the mockingbird patrols the back yard. We have a line of feeders spaced 20-30 feet apart. The mockingbird zooms back and forth from feeder to feeder, flaring his wings and strafing any bird bold enough to transgress. And of course they do. He is only one bird and when his back is turned, they whiz in for a quick seed. He of course cannot allow this, so back he goes, over and over again. I can’t imagine the energy demands on both body and spirit that kind of selfish behavior must exact. The little birds still sneak in and gain a crumb and whatever joy is present in the pastoral life of a bird, seems denied the mockingbird, save that of a bully. And despite his stingy dominion, I don’t see him overrode than anyone else. How much simpler it would be, from my non-avian perspective, to sit in the gathered trees, sing the joys of spring and share in the bounty available to all. I’m sure there is a metaphor for my life glaringly present. Suffice to say, in a land of plenty, sharing with open heart would seem the path towards greater peace.
All my love, Jim.
I’ve discovered the joys of notecards. This little rectangle of open promise provides a perfect warp for the weft of words a moment in time inspires. Not short and thoughtless like a text, not interrupted by “Get Well Soon!,” not endless like a sheet of paper (why stop at the end? Just get another sheet!) this untrammeled snowfield invites a quiet stroll, a thoughtful communion, a short exploration of an idea or occurrence. These cards are the haiku of essays; succinct, evocative, pithy yet playful. They are tailored to an individual and informed by a moment yet, if properly realized, address a broader, deeper examination of topic. Perhaps I am being overly significant, saddling this pretty stock with greater weight than it is comfortable. But I view them as a wonderful conversation with a close friend, say, like after the second glass of wine has been poured. When, while your partner takes a sip, you are free to expound on some matter of great import, to her delight (hopefully) or to the unburdening of mind. They are a short, one-sided exchange which allow me, the writer, to share the process of fleshing out an idea with a kindred soul. This little rectangle frames the thought, shaping beginning and end, allowing for creative middling. Thanks for understanding.
We watched a movie the other night, a lovely, brooding film called “The Hours.” In it, one of the characters, the Poet, says something like “I spent my whole life trying to describe a single day…and I couldn’t do it!” I’ve been waking a lot, reveling in the glories of a Kentucky spring. After a bit of grumbling about the weather, I have adopted a no-expectations mantra, breathed rapturously at the start: “Show me the glories of this day.” And each day is magical. Whether it is the unexpected sighting of a Scarlet Tanager, whose bold red and black mimic the appearance of our typical Cardinal. Or the wind-driven, sun-dappled sway of the spring maples, suffused with an almost holy light. Or the buttery warmth of the sun as it wrestles it’s way through the morning’s clouds. I could brush over all these, paying sensuous tribute, but I could not begin to factor in the manifold years and years of magic sun, crisp crescent moon, summers, fall, hard frozen winters which yield with gracious tenacity to the moment I am breathing in now. And all that everythingness that informs my experience of the world is mine. It shares a passing glance, a moment or two with yours, but the vastness of your life escapes me. I feel an honest embrace of that which moves me, with gracious allowance for what moves you, is a life well lived.
My daily walks have invigorated me such that I regularly take evening walks. And this very familiar landscape takes on an ominous hue with the coming of the gloaming. This is a different space, evoking an implicit threat, a time of stealth and shadow, Dark Magic. The sounds carry further and quicken the heart. This is the time of raccoons, opossums, owls, elves. A time of scheming, quick treachery and surprise. I contrast that with the day’s magic. Light, airy, inviting, joyful. Equally capable of seducing you from your appointed path, but with the tinkling of little bells or the gentle waving of gaily sun-dappled flowers. The birds sing lustily from the tree tops, the wind playfully rustles the gossamer and chenille of the spring wardrobe. This is the time of faeries, a glad sweet time. I find myself loosening my winter’s jacket and lengthening my stride. My spirit soars in communion. At night I huddle more, tucking myself in, still the open perception but this one more wary. During the days wave to fellow travelers as they pass in their cars. At night, I slide behind trees, shy of the headlights but more, husbanding my invisibility. As a creature of sight, I cleave to the day, savoring the visual feast surrounding me. As a creator of adventure, the night pulls in visceral ways, a Siren promising wild beauty but also potential rocks.
The day broke mottled, cold winter grey punctuated by spring’s golden glory. The sun-washed the nascent green leaves and caused one to loosen one’s jacket. I got to the road, preparing to enter the courtly secluded neighborhood next to mine when a car drove by. My eyes were drawn to the liquid cardinal flights all around me when I heard a sound much like a fast-food cup being run over. I looked and saw a squirrel on the verge of the road, clearly run over. I stood, shocked, silently hoping the car had run over an already dead squirrel, when I saw it feebly twitch its tail a few times, then nothing. The speed with which spring’s joy was stifled was stunning. A certain luster to the day faded. In this time of unseen rapid death, the peace with which I walk deflated and I was once again afraid and sad. Uttering a prayer for vision and wisdom, I pressed on grimly. Birds sang and chased, squirrels gamboled, the delicate seedpods of the maples swang in the breeze like a flapper girl’s dress. A hawk groomed himself atop a light pole, blossoming like all else around. Yet not from sun and rain but flesh and blood. He was a harbinger of death, beneficiary of such like the vulture or the maggot. The roundness of life emerged, the symbiotic grace of it. From the perspective of the individual, the ego, life begins and ends, has a quality of fairness or not, but from the universal, the aggregate is beautiful.