Sunday, October 22, 2006

Public Dance and a Sudoku Confession

Yesterday, I went into S.F. to watch Elizabeth (Mendana) perform in Trolley Dances, a public art performance. There were four site-specific dances at various trolley stops around the city of San Francisco. Three of them were outdoors, Elizabeth's among them. With several other dancers, Elizabeth performed on the pier, dancing, rolling, leaping, dashing, etc. on concrete, using pilings and industrial-looking thingys as props. It was glorious.

I happened to know that she was sick with a cold during the performance, but if I hadn't known, I never would have been able to tell. She was radiant as she rolled and sweated and made a physical offering of her body to the onlookers, to the city, to the discipline of dance itself. It was very moving.

Now the Sudoku confession. This is all my 11-year-old nephew Noah's fault. He introduced me to it when I stayed with him and my sister early in September. Then my father gave me a few pointers on strategy, and I was off to the races.

Since then my addiction has steadily progressed. I've found a web site where you can access billions of free sudoku puzzles daily--hourly--minutely. I've been spending hours a day doing them. I've progressed from "Easy" to "Medium." It's beginning to interfere with my life.

For the uninitiated, Sudoku is a nine by nine, process of elimination, problem-solving puzzle. It's tedious and fascinating, a lot like writing. There's always a point in the process of solving a puzzle where I feel completely blocked and frustrated. My eye has travelled over the same terrain a million times and I can't find anything new in it. At first I couldn't tolerate these places, believed I had truly hit the wall, and would crumple the puzzle and throw it away at that point.

In time, I've discovered that if I hang with it, I always see some avenue I haven't explored yet. There is always some tiny opening. If you maintain strict discipline of process of elimination, and have faith that there is indeed a solution, slowly, with patience, one thread unravels, then another, and the puzzle opens up like a flower.

Annie Dillard wrote that she would sit up with whatever book she was working on, not in a fever of artistic inspiration, but more like a nurse sitting by the bedside of a dying patient. The book would seem to be an impossible failure. Slowly, a line of words would emerge--the right words. And then, Dillard says, she would tap them into place "with a jeweller's hammer."

I have worked on some poems for months and months, often making them worse with too many fussy drafts, only laying a recalcitrant poem aside after countless revisions. Years later I'd revisit it and find the ending, or cut the beginning, or see the solution to whatever spot had not been working, staring me in the face. There'd be a satisfying mental ping when it fell into place, like a solved puzzle.

Maybe I am learning something with my current addiction to Sodoku. As an artist, I create "problems" or challenges or puzzles in every poem, play, or essay. (None of them are as neatly solved as a nine-by-nine graph!)

I often reach a point in each work where it seems impossible to resolve. If I hang with the process, giving it time and mental air, the unexpected solution emerges. This is a subtle form of pleasure which haunts me with its greater possibilities...

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