Quest #1: Beauty in the Central Valley

So first, a collage poem, made from ingredients found in my neighborhood:

What is beauty in this Valley?
That’s hard. What kind of beauty?
It could be any beauty you’d like.
The mountains. Say more about why.
You have a property there, so when you go
it’s your quiet place to get away. Or,
you can go for a short drive. Blossom
Trail, mountains, rivers, creeks,
everything between. You don’t know.

You know. Beauty is a nice person,
someone genuine. It means not littering;
that’s a mentality you can’t believe.
Beauty means … beautiful. Everything’s
beautiful! The first step towards beauty
would be to solve the ugliness. Give me
some examples of what you like most.
Dogs are beauties. When they’re fluffy,
it’s beauty. Beauty comes from within
because you can be very pretty and still be
very ugly. Attitude has a lot to do with it.
Personality, character. Is this you?
You’ll be okay. Can we re-do this? Sure.

You think the people are beautiful. You love
the art, the culture. Beauty … is culture.
The Valley is like a mixing pot of all
different types of cultures and people.
Because you see and understand different
backgrounds and holidays and meanings.
Yeah. You like it when you’re shopping
and you see a woman with her children and
the children just run and scatter everywhere.
The woman’s trying to get them all together. You
find that a beautiful thing. You know, family.
Why is that? Maybe because it’s the trust
and love they have in each other. All in all,
it’s one of the most decent places you’ve seen.

And wait! One of the most beautiful aspects
that we have to offer is the food. We have the very
best fruits and vegetables. It’s the food! Absolutely.
You’ve traveled. You’ve traveled many places.
We have the best. There’s your beauty!

This collage poem is inspired by my first “creative quest” for the 2017-18 Masumoto Family Fellowship, a yearlong opportunity I’ve been given to make place-based art and share creative practices in collaboration with the Masumoto family. It was a real joy to work on.

Here’s a collection of portraits I made of the dozen people from my neighborhood whose stories and ideas inspired the collage poem:

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In response to my desire to make more time to “wander and wonder” in my everyday life, Nikiko Masumoto set up my first fellowship project as a “creative quest.” She designed it as an opportunity for “courageous spirit” with the tools of creation: 4-5 hours of time (I dedicated about 10 hours, by choice); a simple recording setup (I used my iPhone 8 Plus, iOgrapher case, Røde video mic, and a patch cable); a computer with Internet (I used iMovie and YouTube); some form of transportation (I chose walking); and a generous commitment to allow myself to wander and wonder and create. “You already have all the tools you need for this adventure,” Nikiko said in her instructions. “We designed this especially for you, with no expectations. Think of it more like practice or a free-write; it’s a beginning and a process to explore and create. … We hope you will find both generative space and fun as you complete this quest!”

In addition, Nikiko limited me to collecting up to only 20 photographs and up to only 15 minutes of total video or audio footage. She didn’t want the editing process to bog me down too much, so she set some hard limits in that area. (Although, by Nikiko’s guidelines, the finished product was only supposed to be a prose piece that was 1 minute in length when read aloud and a multimedia piece that was 1 minute in length; those limits actually felt like they’d take me more time to comply with, to cut everything down so far, so this blog post runs long and my accompanying video runs about 3 1/2 minutes.)

So the prompt for my first creative quest, in case you didn’t catch it from the start of the collage poem, was: “Beauty in this Valley is …”

Kind of a huge topic, right? Where would I even start?! But not to worry. Nikiko gave me a meditation exercise, then a free-write exercise, and then a focused free-write exercise (which she called “sifting”). At the end of the sifting, I had a list of words and phrases to keep close by as I completed the quest. The list:

Get inside beauty
Craggy, lined, up close
Get close

One of the things I’ve long struggled with — as a journalist and as a storyteller — is the impulse to stay inside vs. going outside. Since I was a young journalist, I’ve faced the scary uncertainties of reporting in the field. There are so many unknowns, and those unknowns have always heightened my social anxiety. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced as an interviewer, and as I’ve moved more into what I consider storyteller territory, rather than traditional journalism, I’ve surprised myself more and more when I get myself out the door and out into the world. Talking to random strangers is still not easy for me and it probably never will be. But my 100 Days, 100 Portraits project and my long-form Q&A interviews for my communications job at Fresno State — especially including this wide-ranging interview with the poets Peter Everwine and C. G. Hanzlicek after the death of their friend, Philip Levine, that I’m particularly proud of — all serve to remind me that talking to people and asking them to share their stories and ideas is always a good thing to do.

This creative quest could have easily been me driving to a place far away, sitting on a bench and watching and thinking, and then writing poetry or a short essay from what I collected. That approach would have been fine, of course. But after doing Nikiko’s prep exercises, I felt an urgency to do what was already in me: get outside and immerse myself in the beauty of others.

I went for a 2-hour walk around my neighborhood. I carried my multimedia gear openly as I walked the streets and randomly talked to strangers. I only “knew” one person — one neighbor on our street that I don’t know well — and everyone else was truly a stranger. I asked them if they’d help me with a project. I made their portrait. And then I filmed them responding to Nikiko’s prompt.

Here’s the short video I made, linked below. I hope you enjoy the beauty I saw in what these 12 beautiful people had to say:

For reflection, Nikiko asked me to complete three very short focused free-writes. (What I’m “sifting” for with these, I’m sure, will reveal itself to me later!) I’m finishing this post by including the free-writes here, with light edits. They feel, in an odd but wonderful way, like a conversation with Nikiko that I haven’t had yet. Or perhaps, it’s an ongoing conversation with the Masumoto Family that has many beginnings and endings.

What happened in your body when you encountered beauty?

At first, I was hesitant in walking up to people. I probably always will be. But I also felt a rush of excitement in approaching people I wouldn’t normally approach. I punked out several times, most notably with my neighborhood donut shop guy, with the first homeless man I passed, with several people coming out of the Fresno/41 Starbucks, etc. But overall, I did walk up to a dozen people that normally I wouldn’t have, and I asked them about something I wouldn’t normally get the chance to ask. I felt joy in the creativity of the moment. Skepticism about who I was and what my project was about seemed to disappear pretty quickly once the subject learned the topic. And I think that immediate honesty and trust also gave me a jolt of joy and confidence. I could tell immediately that this moment of connection meant something, at least to me. Best descriptor of what happened in my body: transformation.

How did the experience of beauty manifest in you?

This is a question that I didn’t really think about before, during, or right after the quest. Not until just now, more than two weeks later, have I considered it. Reflecting, I think my own confidence established a connection with these strangers. It reminds me that we often don’t have a lot of trust for strangers these days, especially random people on the street that maybe don’t look like us. I think opening myself up to the quest gave me an opening into the world around me. The beauty of many of the stories and ideas the subjects talked about was revealed in those moments and felt very present in my own life, as the stories and ideas were being spoken about in theirs. For me, the collection of beauty statements from others created its own beauty, in the assembling and also in the final video. Beauty, I guess, manifested in me simply as presence.

How did you know you found something beautiful?

To be honest, I feel like I kind of knew that every person would share with me something beautiful, no matter what they said or how it all fit together. Even the ones that seemingly didn’t say much, or the ones who may have seemed shallow or simple at first, really shared something immediate with me. There’s a true beauty in the sharing. A few people, I immediately sensed, in walking up to them, that it was going to be a beautiful encounter, even if difficult. Some, I knew as they were speaking that it was beautiful. For some, I think they were trying really hard to say something profound and meaningful, and in trying to do that they cut themselves off from being fully present; those moments I mostly left on the cutting room floor. The video camera can turn us into actors, you know? But for the most part, there was a moment, a spark, a glimpse, a nugget of beauty in all the footage and in all the encounters. Even the uhhs and umms had beauty, to me, both as humor and as laughter, but also as a reflection of real humanity and uncertainty and presence. In brief: I think I found beauty with every stop, every subject.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the results of my first creative quest with the Masumotos!

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