WORK. It's what we do, what we obsess over, celebrate, complain about, get paid for. We may call it Art, but it's still work. Particularly for creative types, where we do our work must have something to do with how it turns out, for better or worse - yet we rarely get to see behind the curtain.

We would like you to share something about your special place where creativity blooms. So where do you work?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Poet's Circular Retreat

Overhead, the Fire Hole

Perfectly round path of light

Rafters descending, rays of pine

Blue sky above, infinite puff of clouds

Coast raven in old walnut tree calls

Morning enters the place and theribs

Of the big top breathe with joy

©2009 Viola Weinberg

It’s a long way from Kazakhstan, where, so many years ago, I first stepped into a yurt. The Kazakhis called it a “ger,” the Mongolian word for this welcoming, highly portable structure. Round, covered in a tent top with a fire hole at the apex, it was lined with heavy rugs and hung with musical instruments and wolf skulls, a backdrop for a state-sponsored cultural exchange. I was there as a journalist on the high plains with a delegation that included a U.S. senator’s wife and many others. The USSR had yet to break apart; we were officially the guests of a desperate government of a failing federation.

My first impression of Kazakhstan was desolation, a high desert swept by winds that carried dusty air off the forbidding mountain tops of the Dzungarian Alatau— the range dividing the Xinjiang area of China and eastern Kazakhstan. Once the high clouds lifted, you could see the Dzungarian Gate, the pass that served invaders from Central Asia for many centuries as they attempted to take China for their own.

There, on a distant plain, with dirt devils and low-growing weeds rose a colony of gum drop-shaped yurts. It was like a dream. To this day, I have the same sensation when I step into my own yurt, which I named “Gert,” slightly after my first ger.

My yurt is modern—no yak hair, buttered with unspeakable lards—and no wolf skulls and rugs decorating the interior, although I wouldn’t mind it. I ordered it online, after touring a smaller yurt in a neighboring county. And to be honest, the idea of a yurt wasn’t my first concept of a special place to write. I wanted a little writer’s cottage that could be landscaped to look like something out of the French countryside.

We live on the remnants of a primordial swamp, a marsh, that once belonged to my parents. I had my eye on the back corner of our acre for a long time. My father had first devised a “park” there for my children when they were very small. He laid in sod and roses and irises around an old walnut tree, where they swung on funky swings and sang silly little songs to the neighborhood wildlife—deer, foxes, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, and bullfrogs. Years later, he refashioned the area into a meditation garden with a bench, a crude Torii gate, yellow roses in memory of my mother. At the center was a three-foot high Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, to whom he would tell his troubles.

As Dad grew increasingly frail, unable to go to his space to meditate, he suggested we might want to build my study out there, an idea I loved. Where I wanted to put my space, the water table is about a foot under the soil and the county simply would not allow a permanent structure. Our search for a solution was frustrating, until we found a magazine article about the beauty of modern yurts. Research of county codes found nothing to prohibit a temporary structure. My idea was born in February. By March, the wheels were in motion.

Modern yurts no longer have fire holes, but they do have an option for a crank-open acrylic dome. Ventilation and beauty! The yurt kit contains other options which I ordered—windows with matching covers for shade and protection against the cold; double doors with windows, also for beauty and air circulation. And the colors! I lingered over a deep green, a sand brown, and a terra cotta earth color. With our adobe dirt, it seemed that terra cotta was the only choice.

We ordered the yurt kit and called friends to join us in a yurt raising. By October, we had a platform for the deck. A couple of weeks later, about a half dozen folks showed up; without them, there would be no yurt! It was a fascinating and simple process, which quickly became complex, given the eccentric nature of our friends.

The yurt went up quickly, and we spent the next couple of weeks tightening cables and bolts. By now, formerly agreeable neighbors were calling to express, variously, “the invasive nature of that thing,” or my personal favorite, “it looks like the circus has come to town.” Eventually, everyone came to accept the yurt, and I can best describe their emotional reactions as yurt envy.

I’ve spent four years writing in this sacred space. I’ve only allowed my daughter, her husband and their kids to sleep in it once. I prefer to separate the dreams of others from my own. As a creative writer, I need all the flights of my own imagination that my sub-consciousness can hold.

Writing poetry in a yurt is mystical. One of my first big projects was in collaboration with the painter Mario Uribe—a Buddhist tea master who paints the Zen circular symbol called an ensô. Mario brought 24 paintings he had created in 24 hours and asked me to write on them. I was sure I would be sent to hell for such a thing! I kept them quite a while, laying them out in a circle, meditating on them, arranging them as I saw fit. As time went on, I started to whittle down the bloated poetry (which had grown to over 30 pages by that point) to 24 lines, one for each painting. The simplicity of this exercise was cleansing, beautiful, intelligent.

Viola Weinberg is a poet laureate, a lifelong traveler, mother and grandmother. She resides in the Valley of the Moon.
A longer version of this story can be found at Rugs & Bones, Viola's inimitable blog.

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