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“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”


Skirmishing Words

The blog of Lynn G. Carlson

These blog posts are me paying attention – to life, to writing, to whatever topic waggles at me. You’ll find that as a rule I’m irreverently respectful and am always digging into language crannies, looking for inspiration.


I’m always glad to hear from you, too. As you pay attention to our glorious, goofy, comedy-stacked-on-tragedy-layered-with-boredom lives.

Keep in mind, I’m more Carhartt than Cartier, so don’t expect anything too polished. But I promise not to posture and to do my best to stay authentic. You should call me on it if I get too big for my britches.

“One hundred percent of my work is to enhance my receptivity.”

- Jennifer Rife

I recently listened to a Wyoming Humanities Council podcast, What’s Your Why? in which artist Jennifer Rife of Cheyenne, Wyoming, was interviewed by Emy DiGrappa. Jennifer had recently landed among five finalists who are vying to represent Wyoming in the Women to Watch, New Worlds exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

The 2024 exhibit is part of a biennial exhibition series that features underrepresented and emerging women artists who create in any medium including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, print, drawing, photography, film, digital, installation, and sound.

If you’re imagining Jennifer’s art as paint on a canvas, or a granite sculpture, or some kind of performance art, then you’re wrong.

I was wrong. I learned that her art form is something entirely different.

At her website, Art in the Middle of Nowhere, Jennifer shows us what she creates and it’s a good thing, because otherwise we’d never see it. Hers is a leaves-no-trace kind of art.

Tough to describe so I invite you to go to her website to see for yourself.

Jennifer creates these “installations” by placing objects in a location, taking photos, and then noting the latitude and longitude of the spot. Before heading out, she erases all signs that she’s been there.

Hers is an ephemeral art.

“Ephemeral” is a term that usually describes “a work of art that only occurs once, like a happening, and cannot be embodied in any lasting object to be shown in a museum or gallery.”

According to Jennifer, the photos aren’t even the point. Describing herself as a “flow junky,” she says, “One hundred percent of my work is to enhance my receptivity.”

I’m paraphrasing now, but Jennifer said that while the art is ephemeral, she is changed by the creation of it.

Wow. Yeah.

As a lifelong student of creativity, I’m familiar with the term “flow.” I read and re-read a book about it: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. So, I grasp what she’s talking about.

“Flow: the creative moment when a person is completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’m fascinated by Jennifer’s approach and admire her unique take on the creative process. I could hang out at her website for hours.

But inevitably my thoughts turn to my own brand of creativity—writing—and I wonder, can writing be ephemeral?

My thesaurus spits out lots of words that cozy up to ephemeral: impermanent, transitory, delicate, short-lived, intangible.

But don’t we write for posterity, for our words to be published and read, making them permanent, in a way?

A recent experience makes me question that assumption.

Some background:

In 2017 I wrote a creative nonfiction piece titled, “The Pushing Fork.” It was an exploration of a recent phenomenon I’d experienced as I found myself being irritable at my then 87-year-old mother’s about her eating habits.


“Ummm… this is a good dinner,” my mother says for the fifth time in three minutes. Scratch, scratch… Mom’s fork pushes chunks of chicken into a mound with her mashed potatoes and green beans. Push, push… she slides her fork toward the mound and lifts. She can feel right away by the weight of her fork that she hasn’t got any food on it, that she missed again. “This is very good,” she says. Then she goes back to her mound.

Just eat the friggin’ food! I want to say.

I love my mother. It’s just that she’s making me crazy at the moment. My irritation blooms at every scratch and then guilt slams into the irritation like a snowstorm into a fog bank. See the deal is, my mom is losing her eyesight, slowly and incrementally, due to macular degeneration.

In the writing of this essay, in the flow of thinking about my emotions and trying to put them into words, I discovered that irritation was only the surface emotion. There was more underneath. A lot more...

Scratch at the irritation, and you uncover fear. Push aside the fear and you unearth love. I decide to let myself off the hook when the irritation intrudes. You’re afraid, Lynn. It’s understandable. It’s okay.

I followed the emotions, down to where I really didn’t want to go. The writing demanded it of me. And I discovered that there was a tough question down there.

What will I do? Can I wait with her while she suffers? Maybe that’s the awful, barely bearable challenge ahead—to watch her suffer and be diminished, by loss of sight and movement, or by increasing pain, knowing there’s little I can do, except be with her and manage the doctor visits and get the pills from the pharmacy.

I don’t know if I can do it.

In the process of writing The Pushing Fork, I found out I was afraid of being with my mother in her inevitable decline. I was terrified, to be honest. In that realization, I was changed.

Like Jennifer is changed with her art? Maybe.

I shared the essay with my writing group and submitted it to a couple of literary magazines, but they didn’t pick it up. It sat on my computer.

Fast forward to November of 2022.

Mom was at Davis Hospice Center here in Cheyenne, dying of congestive heart failure. All my senses were trained on her as one by one her systems shut down. A nurse, Sally, was masterful—not only in helping Mom, but in working with the family during this beyond-stressful time. She knew what was going on with Mom’s dying process, did all she could to make her patient comfortable, and explained to us what was happening and what to expect next.

At a crucial moment, she told me that she could relieve Mom’s agitation and pain with medication. “But she might not regain consciousness,” she warned.

“I just don’t want her to suffer,” I said.

Soon after the medication was administered, Mom slipped into unconsciousness. Her face lost its grimace. Her body relaxed.

It was then I remembered “The Pushing Fork” and that statement:

I don’t know if I can do it.

I was overwhelmed with the realization that in the end, I hadn’t had to do it alone. There were special people, in a special place, who could relieve suffering.

I went home and printed off “The Pushing Fork” and jotted a note at the bottom of the last page.


When I wrote this story I didn’t know—couldn’t have known—that Mom’s suffering would be relieved by a nurse named Sally in a place called Davis Hospice Center.

I am beyond grateful.


The next morning, I gave it to Sally the nurse. I felt sort of silly doing it, foisting my story on a relative stranger, but something in me insisted.

She took it to the breakout room to read later.

Her comment after reading?

“It made me cry.”

Now I think I know what “The Pushing Fork” was meant for. I think I wrote that essay as an ephemeral piece of writing that led me to discover what was going on with me internally, and then served as a thank you letter of sorts.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love to publish my writing—to share my words with many people.

But for now, I am grateful that “The Pushing Fork” changed me and then found its audience, even if it was an audience of one.

And while I’m feeling grateful, I want to thank Jennifer Rife and all the other ephemeral artists, for showing me that art is as much about process as it is about product.

Husband had a bad health blip recently and as he was being admitted to the hospital, I asked myself for a favor.

“Lynn, buddy old pal, can we not abandon creativity because of this hospital stay? Pretty please?”

You see, I’d really been on a roll, creatively, at home, and I didn’t want to lose momentum.

Don’t get me wrong, I was a good support to my husband. I fetched things he needed and listened in on medical conversations, so we’d have two memories to draw from instead of one. I texted everyone with updates—a crucial job when your spouse is stuck in a hospital bed.

But I wanted to be intentional about keeping my creative antennae raised.

So how did it go? (Husband’s home now, thankfully, blessedly.)

Well, it was interesting. During this experiment I was able to commit a few acts of creativity, including:


I watched the nurses carefully, looking for aspects of characterization that I might use for my fiction writing.

One scene stands out.

A pump wasn’t working—hadn’t worked for hours—and the CNA (certified nursing assistant, if that’s a new term to you) and RN (registered nurse) assigned to our room were just not getting it fixed.

The RN whispered to the CNA who made a call and soon a different CNA popped into Room 3224. She was short with strong arms, and had a badgerlike intensity about her.

Everyone stepped back while the newcomer worked. She muscled the pump into compliance, confidently and firmly, in a matter of minutes. Here, I decided, is a mechanic of medical appliances, on call from her regular duties to help her colleagues.

Thank God for mechanics.


In the past (yeah, too much time in the past year and a half spent in hospital rooms, with three different family members) I have been really annoyed and disturbed by all the beeping. Alarms everywhere! Announcing everything from empty IV bags to low oxygen levels to things even the nurses can’t quite identify.

This time I tried on a few occasions to listen differently. It didn’t work every time, but when I focused on the beeps and played with the idea of them as sounds and rhythms and not as annoyances, it was kind of fun.

A beep coming from the room next door syncopated with one in our room for a while—felt kind of reggae-ish. Throw in the whoosh from an oxygen tank and soon my foot was tapping along.


I was grateful for all the usual reasons: thankful for insurance, access to medical staff (artists in their own right), for friends and family.

But I also found myself being grateful for the simple ability to text.

People used to have to rely on phone calls—remembering who to call and then keeping track of who had been updated.

During this hospital stay I had about 7 text threads going. (I hate to lump everyone together and end up annoying people with all the notifications.) With this texting system I could always check and see who had been updated, and when—very handy when stress has tangled your brain.

Best of all, the love coming through the replies to my texts was palpable. I felt connected and supported by this invisible clan, and I think they could sense how much they matter to us as I filled them in on my husband's progress.


So, yeah, an intentional lean toward creativity worked for me, and helped pass the time until the doctor said the magic words, “We can go ahead and release you this afternoon.”

Creativity. Here in the hospital, even here. Maybe especially here.

Because creativity is healing. Creativity is life.

The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write is an effort toward wholeness. —Madeleine L'Engle

I lived in Los Angeles for three years back in the 1980s.

Fish out of water is an understatement. It might tell you something about how much I missed Wyoming when I tell you that I got all teary one time when I saw a Christmas card portraying a snow-covered pine tree.

I missed pine trees. I missed snow. I missed home.

But there were some really good things about LA also—like whale watching.

When you go on a whale watching tour you climb on a boat with a lot of people. You jockey for position to claim a good viewing spot. Then you hang on while the boat churns out to sea. The leaders of the tour have ideas on where the whales are and they also have rules on how close they can get, but all that is invisible to the folks on the tour.

As soon as the captain powers down the engine, everybody starts looking around.

Then you wait.

And wait.

The boat lurches side to side. You sip on your water bottle and wait. You scan the ocean, training your binoculars on the wavy horizon until your arms are shaking from the effort, so you lower them, and wait.

You think maybe you should have gone to Disneyland instead.

While you’re waiting, you notice the salt on your lips and lick them repeatedly. You gaze into the water and wonder what fishy things are lurking down there. You listen to the calls of the sea gulls as they crisscross the boat’s wake.

You check the horizon again. Nothing.

You watch a couple who are standing a few feet away and notice how the young woman is trying to keep her hair tidy in the wind by patting at it. She keeps swiping her finger under her eyes as if she’s afraid her mascara is running, which it is.

First date, you decide.

Somebody points and yells, “Spout!”

You turn in that direction just as a fountain of water spatters the surface of the sea. Then the maw of a blue whale rises up out of the liquid floor, followed by the massive barnacled slide of a whale body. Then the tail, etched with white scars, flips way up into the air and back down, slamming the surface.

A curtain of water splashes the crowd on the boat. Everybody laughs and applauds (as if the whale were performing a stunt). You giggle with your friends as you wipe the salty water from your face. You show off your photos and look at theirs.

Then you wait, again. And wait. On a two-hour tour, that might be all the whale you see. Sometimes no whale appears at all.

Waiting for the creative muse to show, I’ve decided, is a lot like a whale watching tour.

The ratio of waiting time to the arrival of creative insight is a lot to a little. Sometimes nothing worth anything arrives. Delete, delete.

But still, you’ve got to get on that boat. You’ve got to stay alert.

You’ve got to go out to sea if you want to see a whale, and you’ve got to show up to the page if you want to write.

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