Life is like a game of chess
The Game of Chess
Then another chess coincidence happened that week. While I was working at my sewing machine, I pushed play on Radiolab, one of my favorite podcasts. It just so happened that they were rebroadcasting an episode on games, which included a whole lot of interesting information about chess. My ears piqued.
As I listened, I learned the chess term "out of book". This term quickly caught my fancy. If you don't know this idea - as I didn't - here's the background: there exists a "book" of all the chess moves that have happened throughout the history of the game. Although it's not a real book, in Moscow there is an actual library of all these recorded moves. This library has been kept since the 16th century and, like most things, it recently has been digitized. Basically, during a game of chess, most of the moves players make have already been made before in past games. (The digital book can even tell you how many times before each particular play has occurred!) But, not all of the possible variations of chess moves have been made before. When a player come to the point in the game that isn't in the book, the play is now considered to be "out of book". The way chess analyst Fred Friedel explained it on the the Radiolab episode is my favorite. He says when your play is out of book, "you have a position which has never occurred before in the universe."
Wow. Consider that!
The Game of Life
Traditions are the life equivalent of playing by the book. The book of life says: go to school, get a job, get married, have a family. Traditions can be great; they provide quick and easy answers to basic life decisions.
In the game of chess, it's easy to tell when players are playing by the book. Their moves are quick and decisive. These moves are easy because the players have them memorized. They've been done so many times before that no thought is necessary. It's when play reaches the point of being out of book that the game becomes a challenge and slows down. Now, players have to think about each move they might make. They have to consider all the possibilities and all the consequences of each move and can no longer rely on what's been done before.
We humans can be really hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up when we feel we did something wrong. But life isn't always predictable. If we learn anything from the game of chess - and the unfathomable number of possible plays there may be in a game - it's that not everything is in the book. Not everything has been done before. There are times when you may "have a position which has never occurred before in the universe."
For me, the pandemic created a whole slew of things that never happened before. I didn't know how to make money as an artist. My two teenagers fell into depressions. Tradition was no help, life was out of book. And just like the game of chess, everything was slow and challenging at this point. It makes sense to me now: my brain needed time to process absolutely everything. At the time though, it was awful, exhausting and terrifying. I felt incredibly guilty and constantly felt that I wasn't doing enough. The problem was, that I didn't know what I should be doing.
Here's my art interpretation of the chess concept Out of Book.
"Out of Book"
16" x 20", cut and sewn cotton fabrics, thread. Sold.
© Mary Pow. All rights reserved.
Spring comes slowly
Spring comes so slowly in Minnesota. It forces patience upon you, however unwilling you are. Every morning you wake up to another sprinkling of snow, no matter how much you long for the flamboyant beauty of your crabapple tree in full bloom. You are tired of the waiting. You say, “I can’t take it anymore. I cannot handle this for one more day.”
Especially after such a long winter. A long, bitter winter filled with trials and tribulations that scraped your insides out and left you raw.
Don’t you deserve some easy beauty? The hot sun on your shoulders, flowers blooming, butterflies floating through the garden.
But the world owes you nothing. If you want to find beauty, you’re obliged to notice the simple, subtle beauty of spring coming slowly. So, fine. What else can you do? You take your walk in the cold, blustery day and you notice the loons are on the lake. That’s spring. And you see that the fat robins have eaten every single berry on the tree since the last time you looked. That’s spring, isn’t it. And by the time you walk around the entire lake, and your thighs are numb with cold, you are entirely sick of trying to notice the simple things.
The subtle beauty is actually making you angry, because why does it have to be so hard.
Then you see something, a stalk of dead grass blowing in the cold gray air, waving to you, holding a beauty so understated that it makes you want to cry. And you walk past it, thinking, “no I won’t stop and acknowledge this. I want the gaudy in-your-face-ness of summer.” But it comes slowly. And the simple beauty is so touching that you retrace your steps to try to capture it in a photo.
Of course, the photo cannot capture what you see, what you feel – but it is there; you cannot unsee it. You must continue your day being grateful for the small things, because what else can you do. There is no forcing spring. It owes you nothing. You take what you can get.
I keep them in my bathroom.
For most of the summer there it is: a mason jar filled milkweed. Caterpillars in various stages of their life-cycle, munching away. I have them in my bathroom so I can shut the door - to keep them in - and the cats out. But the door usually gets left open.
I tend to count them whenever I go in the room. Has a new one hatched? Are they all here?
I discover one is missing, and a heaviness settles in my heart. I count and re-count. It's not there.
Several days later, I find a caterpillar on the stairs. Quite a long journey from the bathroom for such a small creature. I gently scoop it up and bring it back to the milkweed. When I set it on a leaf, it curls up. It doesn't move.
Starved to death.
My heart aches.
I could have done more to prevent this from happening.
Your White Fragility
by Mary Pow
Are you fragile –
Will you break?
An ooey gooey egg.
Ooze into a hole,
And hide away.
Or is it possible –
Perhaps I’m wrong?
Your fist raised high
You find you’re strong.
And you uncurl.
Your shell is cracked,
You stand up tall.
That precious shell,
The pieces fall.
Thank God, they fall.
Released from shame,
You say his name
Again, “George Floyd”
And you move forward.
Look at you –
You’re in the street.
That shell is crushed
Beneath your feet.
And your eyes open.
Silence does harm,
You see. You warn,
“I won’t stay silent.”
You are reborn.
Cracked is a painting that I completed in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, which happened only a few miles away from my home. While I worked on this painting, I simultaneously wrote the poem Your White Fragility. These two works are entwined.
The poem Your White Fragility, along with the painting Cracked equals a third work entitled Your White Fragility, Cracked. This artwork is intended to be a piece about the promise of change.
I am an artist and designer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My specialties are textiles and pastels.