Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mabel Dodge Luhan, Taos and the Inspiration of Place

Lately I've given more thought to the "Why Taos" question, and the phrase "sense of place," a phrase I connect with D.H. Lawrence and his writing. Earlier this week Skip and I met with two remarkable women from California, Linda Lambert and Mary E. Gardner, and with Linda's remarkable husband, Morgan. We talked about the history of Taos, about D.H. Lawrence, about Taos Pueblo as background for Linda's latest historical novel. In the course of our conversation, Linda handed me  "Lawrence of New Mexico," an undated typescript written by Mabel Dodge Luhan.*

Right then, right there--synchronicity at work--I received fresh, new information around Lawrence and sense of place. I share with you two paragraphs from Mabel's typescript:

Of all places where he lived I know he loved Taos best for did he not tell me so, and write it many times, too, when he was far away? How he longed to come back here, and had he been able, perhaps he would be alive today.

Cloudscape by Mort Sheinman, © 2010
He called this country "pristine" and no other word describes it so well. There was a quality in the air, in the spirit of the place, that was more congenial to him than any he ever found in Europe, Asia, or Australia, and it is a strange thing that this genius loci that he loved has much the same effect upon individuals who come here that Lawrence's spirit had upon people? For it also awakens them, stimulates them, makes them more essential; it reveals their buried life, and show them up; it excites them, making them realize the color, taste, sight or sound of unspoiled natural life, almost forgotten in cities.

This seemed the perfect context for a piece written by Mort Sheinman in response to his stay this past summer at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House while taking Harvey Stein's photography workshop. When I put out a call for photos from Harvey's students, I also asked them to comment on their experience at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, on Taos, and on what inspired them. Mort wrote a beautiful, thoughtful essay. With his permission, I am pleased to share it with you.

Have you ever been to a restaurant, enjoyed something you thought was one of the best things you ever ate, then gone back and ordered it again, only to find it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as you remembered? I have, so when I thought about returning to Taos and to Mabel’s this summer for another of Harvey Stein’s photography workshops, it was not without some caution. I had been there for a workshop in the summer of 2008 and it was a rich and rewarding experience. So when I signed up for the 2010 version, I wondered how it would stack up against that memory.

I needn’t have been concerned. The second time around provided even deeper returns. I felt more centered, more at home, entirely at peace. It was great to be back.

I can’t really define the spirit of Taos and the feeling of being at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, but I know this. Whatever it is that’s special about the place — and it is a special place — helps unlock my creative urges. I’m not talking just about the breathtaking landscape and that immense and ever-changing sky. In New York, where I was born, raised and continue to live, there is constant stimulation, an ever-present wave of energy created by the number of people almost literally banging into one another while seeking some piece of personal space — whether it’s space for dwelling or parking a car or simply walking on the sidewalk. If you can deal with it, it’s a high-intensity energy that often fuels creativity. Mabel’s is different. Mabel’s is not Manhattan. My skin seems to fit better out there. At Mabel’s, a great feeling of calm and spiritual well-being suffuses everything, from the way the staff takes care of business to the look of the rooms to the communal dining to the shapes and earth tones of the adobe buildings. In the most basic sense of the word, it is organic. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that one senses the presence of the great artists who are so much a part of the Mabel mystique. They are all around you, and, yes, they inspire, and, yes, they feed the creative flame.

I have been with Harvey for three workshops (one was in Mexico early in 2008) and I can see the differences in the pictures I made then and those from this summer. Perhaps more important, when I pick up a camera now, I feel different. A wise man once said, “Trust your gut.” I’m learning to do that, to have more faith in my own intuition, to risk taking new approaches, to have more confidence about my decisions. The most valuable part, of course, is that this isn’t limited to photography. These are life lessons and they have been learned from Harvey and from my fellow students, and from Mabel, and from all the great ghosts that continue to live in that very special place.

Mort's experience exemplifies how the "genius loci" of Taos continues to inspire people who come here. So too do words from writers like Mabel Dodge Luhan and D.H. Lawrence.

In my latest research, I've come across other writings by Mabel and her circle, some forgotten, some published in obscure places. This material will soon become essays and parts of profiles for future postings.

How has Taos or Mabel or D.H. Lawrence inspired you?

Adios for now. Be well. Write often.


* Mabel's typescript in the  D.H. Lawrence Papers, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S.A.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for the post. It is true, all true, Taos is a great place to learn great "life lessons." And there is a unique sense of place, that you feel there, and miss when you go away. If you are new to Taos, you will be awed, and if you are old to Taos, same thing.