Psychic Postcard Predictions

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This came in the mail yesterday, with an uncancelled Forever stamp in its upper right-hand corner. The text on the back reads:

XVI. THE TOWER. Stability. You may have lost someone or something but you will gain from it. Feeling stable in body and mind. Closure. Good stance. Solid. 

The message (not written longhand, printed on a sticker):

Psychic Postcard Predictions. Dust devils, brown belts, clotheslines, bland vanilla cookies, red cars, marble pillar. 

Along the margin was info on the maker, an Etsy seller named Madame Woo Woo. Sadly, looks like she’s no longer selling on Etsy, or making these postcards.

Oddly enough, this was not the only Tarot object that landed in my mailbox this week. I finally broke down and bought myself the only good-looking Tarot t-shirt I have ever found—it was handmade in Modena, Italy:

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You can’t see it in the photo, but it’s got those cut-n-rolled 1980s sleeves and collar—sort of Flashdance, mashing up dancer’s improvisatonal workout clothes and rock ‘n’ roll street style. The Tarot shirts I’ve found in the States are awful—Zazzle Beefy-Ts with a square card image slapped awkwardly in the middle. So I was over the moon to find this one. (The shop is drawflowers, and they have a lot of other great stuff, if you want to check it out. Looks like this was the last of their Tarot shirts, though.) I’ll probably only wear it on special occasions, so I don’t wear it out, and never on airplanes—I’m sure TSA would get wired about boobs on a shirt, even though they’re just circles on a woodcut.

So that is my tarot-by-mail reading this week. Very intense! Standing between the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the heart of the universe. The Tower I can’t help but relate to the Clemens Mansion Fire. The World, well, as a famous philosopher once said, the world is all that is the case. On Sunday, it was looking like this would be a trainwreck of a week, but somehow everything just worked out. And it worked out neatly enough that I was able to hit all my deadlines at work, churn out a freelance piece, finish my artist’s fellowship application for RAC, and get through final proofs today in time to take my Summer Friday and leave at 12:30. Of course I also got lost in the parking lot near Wal-Mart in Richmond Heights when I stopped on an errand. And in my desperate marching back and forth, vainly searching for my Subaru, I was forced to make multiple passes near a guy in a beat-up muscle car smoking the strongest-smelling pot I’ve ever whiffed. The car was red. And I’d bet money that this red-eyed guy in a red car was most certainly, most definitely, wearing a brown belt.

 

Tiny Mixtape for a Raincloud, and a Drop in Temperature

At 4 p.m. today, an AmerenUE bill slipped into my mailbox. I opened it, and what happened? I frowned. I might’ve cried a little. It’s been hot. My determination to get a grant from St. Louis City for solar panels just ratcheted up to 10. My motivation to apply the lessons of Sim Van der Ryn’s Integral Urban House just ratcheted up to 10, too. Maybe 11. At the very least, we need a new damn A/C unit.

It’s going to rain tonight and tomorrow night. The highs will hover in the mid-80s. Soon. Sky, my armpits thank you. Sky, my tomatoes thank you. Thank you for deciding not to be so hot. In gratitude, I offer you a definitely exuberant, slightly sloppy mixtape:

The Ugliest Possum on Helen Street

This photo will horrify a lot of people. C’est La Vie. Photo by Thom Fletcher, taken through the back kitchen door window at Casa Russell-Fletcher.

That’s the back of my head. And yes, that is a possum. I can imagine all the shrieking that is happening as people look at this picture—all the possum haters! You are the majority. This is what happened the other night when I went out to feed our feral cat, Devi. (I’ll save her backstory for another post.) Before Devi could get to the food, this very young opossum scrambled over the edge of the porch, trucked over and literally ate her lunch. Honestly, it happened so quickly it shocked me, and I was afraid to move. I feel charitable towards possums—I didn’t grow up with them, so they are exotic to me, and I’ve always found them to be gentle little beasts—but I know most people find them repugnant. This little guy has been hanging around our yard for a month or so. It’s pretty wild out there, with raspberry bushes and a bird feeder that drops a lot of sunflower seeds, so the possums show up uninvited. I actually find possums to be kind of cute (again, not a popular opinion) but I’ll say as a possum admirer, this poor little guy is definitely on the homely side of the possum spectrum. He is scrawny, has a patchy coat, weird-looking spots on his tail, and exceptionally beady eyes (and all possums have beady eyes, so that is really saying something). He is just magnificently ugly. Maybe that’s why I felt kind of protective of him and didn’t shoo him away. Next time, I will. At the moment, everyone on Helen is traumatized and feeling like they need to seize the day. You can’t blame a possum for wanting to seize the day, right? Even Devi agreed, sitting there frozen on the porch just like me, watching the ugliest possum on Helen Street devour what was rightfully hers.

After the Fire

Bird on a wire, a few days after the Clemens fire, temperature 101. Photo by Thom Fletcher

I was born on a Monday, which apparently means I am full of grace. (So much for the wisdom of Mother Goose.) That nursery rhyme further elaborates that Wednesday’s child is full of woe; maybe that’s why I have always been suspicious of Wednesdays.

On July 12, our neighborhood had a very bad Wednesday:

That’s my neighbor, Mr. Bell, being interviewed in front of my house. Those are my bushes, and my shabby-looking irises. (Hey, it’s been a hot summer!) Somehow I managed to sleep through that insane fire, and firemen pouring water on the roof, and mulitple emergency vehicles going up and down the street, and Fox 2 shooting in front of my steps. I woke up at 6 a.m. as usual, and smelled smoke. I panicked, assuming I’d left the stove on. But it was off. Standing in the kitchen, I saw a firetruck through the back window, and guessed it was a nearby house—we have an uncanny number of house fires in North St. Louis. Thom went outside, came back in, and said, “It’s the Clemens Mansion.”

Not a warehouse, as the fire department first thought. But a building about that big, for sure.

The odd thing: St. Louis Magazine (my employer) ran an in-depth piece on the history of the house a few weeks before it burned. Somehow I’d missed the fact that James Clemens—Mark Twain’s uncle—built the house for his late wife, Eliza, who’d died of cholera. Her face is all over the house: in the lintels, in the paster ceiling medallions, everywhere. Here are Paul Poiret’s images for the Library of Congress’ Historical American Buildings Survey, circa 1960:

As you can see, it was looking a bit scratchy and worse for wear even back then. Though the driveway into the grounds was at the end of my street, and was totally open and unboarded, I never went in. Though I saw plenty of little goth kids strolling in and out of there to get their UrbEx photos. The first time I set foot in there was after the fire, when reporters showed up after several days of neighbors agitating at the Health Department and Paul McKee—both had been mum about cleanup. Though the boiler and such had been remediated for asbestos, the roof had not; that’s why there are huge chunks of black, unburnt asbesots debris all over the neighborhood. All over. The EPA made a dispersion map, and my street, Helen, was right in the middle of an angry red blob that indicated we were ground zero for most of the debris, but the stuff blew over Highway 70 and maybe as far as the Mississippi River.

The Clemens Mansion was always a ghost mansion, a gothic tribute to a dead woman, every architectural detail a momento mori. Its burning feels like a cremation, Eliza Clemens’ ashes everywhere.  This new age person says that asbestos is a “spiritual vacuum cleaner,” absorbing negative energy, though it never discharges or heals it. My poor neighborhood has seen plenty of negative energy, and it is easy for me to imagine all of that bad energy concentrated in that toxic roof. Maybe Thom was more right than he knew when he said that the debris reminded him of the final (yes, truly awkward) scene of Time Bandits:

“It’s evil! Don’t touch it!” That’s the first rule about asbestos. Also: DO NOT WEAR SHOES IN THE HOUSE. I bought myself a pair of ugly mint green polka dot boots from Rural King, two sizes two big so that I can slip them off and on without touching them.

I don’t have a grass yard; there’s a serviceberry tree, an elderberry bush, mulch and more mulch, purple coneflowers, lavender, hydrangeas … I don’t know how they are going to truly clean up our yard, because they can’t just use a vacuum like on the lawns and grass lots. The men in moon suits are expected to arrive soon, but who knows if they’ll really get us back to the point where we have a clean, safe space. So I continue to go outside in my ugly polka dotted boots. I wear them when I step out on to the back porch to throw stuff in the recycling bin and the compost bucket. I wear them when I go out in the yard to feed the feral cat that has adopted us. I wear them when I fill the birdfeeder, as I wonder whether I should even be filling the bird feeder, should I be attracting birds to a yard full of asbestos ash? I watch dozens and dozens of bees visiting my mint and chamomile plants. I watch hummingbirds feeding off the pineapple sage flowers. I can’t pull the plants out to discourage the wildlife because it’s contaminated, so I can’t touch it. I can’t make the bees go away, or the hummingbirds. They see flowers, and they are going to visit them. There is a baby opossum living under our hydrangeas—he stood three inches away from me the other night. I am terrified for my neighbors and my neighbors’ kids. I worry for everyone and everything, down to the tiny little sweat bees swirling around my flowers, down to the weeds and the ants.

It’s hard to explain how awful it is to suddenly have your sanctuary turned into a SuperFund site. To have all the things that previously brought you delight—all the neighbors and birds and the butterflies and flowering plants—suddenly transformed into things that worry you and make you sick at heart. Not long after the fire, my purple coneflowers started turning brown and dropping petals. Is it because it’s 100+ degrees outside? Or are they being poisoned? What will happen to our outdoor cat? What are we breathing? Have we tracked this stuff into our house unwittingly? Is it all over our floors, our clothes, our bedsheets? We were told to wipe things down with paper towels, put those in a sealed plastic bag, and call the EPA to pick them up—paper towels with dust on them, suddenly toxic waste. I started the summer off by treating myself to tickets to Opera Theatre’s production of The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name. Little did I know that it was not just going to be a trip to the opera—that this summer, Kafka would become my Virgil, my psychopomp.

 

Lead the Way, Mimosa (Unless You End Up as Rorshach Bats)

In a little less than an hour, I’ll make the (insanely short) drive over to Firecracker Press, or rather Central Print, their nonprofit educational arm. I signed up for a letterpress class, and yes, it’s going to be really rudimentary. I have my hair pulled back in a ponytail, so that it doesn’t get caught in the press, and I’m wearing my grubbiest jeans. Tonight, we bring a picture of our favorite leaf – I don’t really have a favorite leaf, but one of my favorite trees is Mimosa pudica. If I had to pick a part of the plant I was most fond of, I’d pick the flowers, which are fuzzy and weird and bright pink, and smell like perfume and ginger ale. But the leaves are interesting, too – mimosa’s also known as sleepy plant or sensitive plant because the leaves shutter together when you touch them (they do the same thing when it gets dark). They are also ferny and prehistoric-looking, really beautiful, as you can see:

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EPSON scanner image

Mimosa pudica

I’ve probably set myself up for failure by picking something complicated with lots of tiny fronds instead of, say, a catalpa leaf, which is just shaped like an upside-down heart. We’ll see if what I end up with looks less like a leaf and more like one big ink smudge, like a Rorschach card.

Postscript! 

So here is my very first attempt at a woodblock (well, it’s a linoleum print; easier to carve than wood, so I got off easy). Yeah, I tackled something too complicated for a beginner. I was really panicking as we were all carving, because I couldn’t make the tools do quite what I wanted them to do. I didn’t get the background clean enough, ask there is a lot of what printmakers refer to as “noise.” Matty, our wonderful teacher, called this “rustic,” which maybe is a nice way to say “primitive,” but I feel happy that this actually turned out looking like something because I wasn’t so sure it would. I was trying to work from a drawing I’d brought, and got really frustrated because it didn’t look exactly like my source image. Then I realized I just had to trust my hand, and things went a bit more smoothly. I didn’t really like my final drawing, and so ended up almost re-drawing the image with the tools. Not ideal. I kind of lost my way, and I also wasn’t sure how my marks would translate to the final print. I have to say, though, as a left-handed person who mostly writes and hasn’t done any printmaking at all, I am very happy that my final prints did not look like schmutzy Rorschach bats. This looks more like a thistle or an Armistice poppy than a mimosa branch, but it looks like something, and a botanical something, too! So, I’m happy. My homework now is to track down linoleum blocks, carving tools, and to think up a big project and a little project. Getting the stuff will be easy. Trying to figure out what I want to do with those tools will not be easy…

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Sudden Fright Appears as a Faded Peacock Tail

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I could post for days about Public Domain Review. Yes, I’m a photo and art database nerd, and actually enjoy the treasure-hunting process of looking at thousands of tiny thumbnails, but that drives most people crazy. Like Open Culture, PDR’s editors do the digging for you, and post the best, most striking stuff from a number of really terrific collections in the public domain, including images, sounds, and film. PDR’s essays about the meaning of specific paintings, photos, films or pieces of music are beyond excellent, too. They are poetic in that they “tell it slant,” like Emily encouraged us to do, but they’re very practical in that they also explain cultural contexts that have disappeared over time (these recent posts on laughing gas and 17th century English coffee houses are great examples of that).

This Windsor McKay sketch for an animated movie about centaurs is magical:

And this post about the challenges of painting fireworks is another good one.

One of my favorite posts, though, is about Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s 1901 book, Thought-Forms. PDR’s essay, “Victorian Occultism and the Art of Synaesthesia,”  invokes Yeats, who was a member of the Theosophical Society with Besant and Leadbeter, and mentions Yeats’ movement to champion the soul over the intellect. It also traces this kind of work to Modernism, which is fascinating, and rings true. I also agree with the author’s opinion that “color is the biggest takeaway from Thought-Forms. While the prose is baroque, clumsy and hard to follow, the visuals that accompany it are simply enchanting, suffused with mellow blues, misty purples, and brilliant ochres and oranges.”

Here are few of my favorites (“The music of Mendelssohn,” above, is in that category as well):

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“Helpful thoughts”

fig38“Aspiration to enfold all”

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The Best Song About An Asthma Attack Ever Written

Roy Kasten played this last Wednesday morning, chased with some Jens Lenkman.  It’s a great little song, and after I heard it on KDHX, I ran to go look it up on Spotify. The video isn’t what I was expecting (a tennis match, umpired by a Bob Dylan lookalike) but it’s charming.  I think this song is about the epiphany that the mundane isn’t all bad, but as an asthma sufferer, I can also say it’s the most accurate description of an asthma attack I’ve ever heard. (Or maybe Courtney Barnett just has existential asthma attacks like I do?)