Viva La Vida

Frida Kahlo and Pet Hawk

I have been in radio silence now for quite a while; there are various reason for this, but mostly life just keeps getting in the way of delivering my musings to you here. I have a slew of stories to tell about sailing the Caribbean in Panama, as well as reflections on the ending of my second winter in Maine, as well as new developments in the art-sphere, namely a new studio in a magical place that has been a stomping ground of mine since I was a little girl.

But, for today, for all we have is today….some musings and ideas from two of my favorite artists, that will propel us all forth this second week in April, in the year 2014, my thirtieth year of spending time on this small island that I know call home.

fridabrush.19

The Portrait of Alicia Galant (1927) was the first painting of Frida Kahlo’s that made me pause. I was a very young girl of maybe 10 when my best friend’s mom dragged she and I to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibit of a painter who, before that moment, was unknown to me. I remember spending many minutes gazing at this painting because it felt, to me, as if it was alive and glimmering: velvety and viscous, dark and deep set in the night.

tengo alas

“Feet, for what do I need you, for I have wings to fly?” has been a motto of mine, especially during the metamorphosis of the last two years. I find that holding on to dreams, and trusting that when you  leap, you will land somewhere far better than where you started, and of course, just keeping going, one foot in front of the other, is what will propel you forward to a happier life that is full of intentional actions versus reactions to simple circumstance.

Today, I read this quote from another of my inspirations, Anais Nin, and thought to include it here as a musing on the doubtful part of the creative life: those dark corners of the psyche or even your apartment, when the doubts or fears or seeming impossibilities of what you are doing seem overwhelming. It seems to me that anyone embarking on the creative path will discover these dark corners of themselves; the trick, I think, is to channel those into more making, more artwork, more writing, more pause to understand the temporary nature of each passing moment, so that the creativity can continue, rather than be stifled by the “shoulds” and “should nots” of our cultural world.

“You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and feelings. It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them. If it seems to you that I move in a world of certitudes, you, par contre, must benefit from the great privilege of youth, which is that you move in a world of mysteries. But both must be ruled by faith.”

Lastly this morning, as I wrap up this scattershot of musings on a Wednesday, gazing outside the window at an early spring day, daydreaming of this afternoon’s visit to the new studio, and thinking about planting pear and black walnut trees on a 5 acre swathe of land on the Breakneck Road, my feelings keep coming back to the idea, that without the sense of love for yourself and others, that no dreams or beauty or art or peace or sense of tranquility is truly possible. May we all be lucky enough to have people that encourage us to find this feeling each day, in those temporary, fleeting moments. They are, after all, what ties us to our earth-bound experiences, and to each other.

frida quote

 

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Taking a Tumble or Two…

dice

It was on a dark Sunday night: winter, February, in Maine. We skidded on black ice, shot to the left, then to the right, hitting a guardrail head on. We launched into the air, spinning and flipping, skidded along the guardrail, landing on the driver’s side, stopping, hanging half off and half on the road. I remember a moment of silence, and then the sight of the windshield shattering into a thousand pieces, and landing, quiet, and we stopped.

I remember asking my friend if he was ok and he asking our other friend if she was ok. Our driver, our fourth friend, stayed quiet for a minute and we worried, but then she too spoke to us. Somehow that first friend opened a car door, pushing himself upward. He unhooked our second friend from her seatbelt, she fell, and he helped her climb out. Our fourth friend climbed out, too, and then I stood up from my crumpled position, fell once, and clambered out onto the road. We all looked back at the truck, on its side, hanging, and all said something to the effect of: “Look at the truck!”

Standing there in the cold we were accompanied by two strangers who had stopped to help us. They called 911 as we stood, dumbstruck. A policeman and an ambulance arrived, and both skidded to a stop in the ice. We were asked if we were all okay, and we said,”yes.” “How are you all okay?” asked the EMTs, random strangers, our kind policeman, the firemen. One of them said to my friend who had been driving, “Here you’ve been having a go of it.” She nodded.

My friend and I who had been sitting in the backseat were not wearing our seatbelts, and were surrounded by the tools of a long-standing landscaping and stone business: wrenches, saws, a chainsaw sharpener. None of them had flown and hit us, and even the careening of the truck had not shaken us too badly. Somehow we made it out onto highway 198 with not even a scratch, despite the glass that we kept shaking out of our clothes.

I have had a bit of a go of it in terms of driving in winter this year: this was my second accident in two weeks, both due to icy roads. I now consider my first wreck a fender bender, and not serious at all, despite my hitting two trees at low speed. This crash, this tumble, was a big one.

For the last two or three days, we have been talking about it a lot together. It seems as if we were given a new lease on life, or at least an illustration of how it can all be taken away so fast. The accident took, probably, less than ten seconds to happen.

As an ex-science teacher and avid lifelong lover of anything science-related, I can explain a couple of things that happened in terms of survival and physics. I believe that the spinning action of the truck kept enough centrifugal force (the spinning force that keeps our planets in orbit, and our bodies in place on that crazy carnival ride with no floor or ceiling) to glue myself and my backseat companion almost still, and also held the tools that could have hurt us against the walls of the truck. This “sticky” force was probably what kept us from hurtling all over the inside of the truck and becoming seriously injured. The moment of silence is explained by our fight-or-flight survival response that causes us, in times of serious threat, to feel as if time slows down or stops. This is because our brain is seeking any and all possible escape route and our awareness is heightened to recognize a way to survive. There is a wonderful Radiolab episode on falling that explains this much better than I can here. I believe we were all silent at that time because we were attempting to process what was happening, not knowing the outcome, and preparing ourselves for all those potential results.

This huge, intimidating, frightening, and death-defying tumble was the scariest experience of my life, and I think my friends would agree with that. It is hard to imagine a large truck like the Tundra being launched into the air, spinning and flipping, by something as simple as a patch of ice, but that is what happened.

When events like this happen to us, traumatic ones, they often cause us to re-evaluate our lives at the moment and what we are doing with life at any given time. For myself, this accident made me think about things that I have put off, problems I am ignoring, goals that I am not 100% engaged with. I have, unfortunately or fortunately, had quite a few traumatic events over the past couple of years. I have had my house broken into, wrecked my car, and then a horrific accident with three of my closest friends here. We are neighbors and friends in a very small town: we have been, for a time, each other’s close social group due to living in this very tiny and quiet place. This drive was our last drive back to the Northeasy, our neighborhood, because three of the four are moving out in the next few days. When we left the party, it felt warm and as if everything was melting in the short thaw of a few days previous. Never did we think that it was cold enough to freeze all the water on the road, but, it was.

I have spent three days wondering what this accident means to me, what the other accident also meant, and then remembering my home invasion. I find that all three events make me very tired when I think of them too much, and that they make me feel confused as far as what they “mean” in terms of my life. I know that the events themselves mean nothing in and of themselves, but the effect on my life has been profound. When my house was broken into, almost two years ago, I decided to sell most of my possessions, my houseful of furniture and accoutrements, and move to Maine. The last two are too recent to really understand what the effects will be, but all I can say, as I have discovered during times of duress before, that the only thing that crossed my mind was how much I care for the people in my life, and that love is the strongest human emotion. Everyone that helped us was so kind, and so delicate with us on that roadside. There was nothing but smiles and care and quiet jokes. I remember thinking, in Philadelphia after the break-in, how thankful I was for my friends and coworkers at that time, who simply came over and helped and brought pizza and tried to be understanding and giving my roommate and I time to mull it all over. She chose to sell everything and go to South America, where she is still is, somewhere, living an amazing and colorful and educated life. I chose to move to my childhood summer home, went through some hardships, and now, also live an amazing and colorful and educated life. Clearly, the benefits of the break-in greatly outweighed the costs.

I am choosing to try to look at trauma as an opportunity to live the attempts at a realized life that I have been cultivating since moving here. Trauma is physically and mentally painful to us all, and can take quite a while to process, digest, and release. But holding on to it like a crutch is the wrong way to deal with it, and I know I have been guilty of that in the past. The reality, to me, is that I am quite a sensitive person who is highly emotive. I can choose to let things affect me personally quite deeply, but am beginning to discover that if you make it out in one piece, with just a few bruises for the experience, trauma is like a window into the universe, and it can help you hone your thoughts, sharpen the blade of your approach to living in a highly beneficial way.

I wonder, oh readers, whether any of you have had experiences like this one and how those experiences changed you? Did a “new lease on life” inspire you to greatness? How did you manage the upheaval of it all?

If we choose to see them this way, do all of our tumbles manifest great and good changes in our lives, or do we just recognize them as moments passing in time?

tumbling jack

Conversations with…

march 2013 4Somes Sound

I had a friend who I will call M. M was 52 when she died about three years ago, after a very short battle with a very intense cancer. M was my ex-husband’s best friend’s mother, and when we met, about ten years ago, we instantly became friends. At that time, she was living with her husband and youngest son in a wonderful bungalow in the Heights, an older neighborhood of downtown Houston: one of its oldest suburbs. The house was filled with artwork, and old furniture, trunks, animals, coffee cups, ashtrays, and M.

M was an acquired taste to many people. She could be difficult, she was snarky, she was wickedly intelligent, and had a wry smile that instantly communicated how she felt about any situation. She was genuine, she didn’t beat around the bush, she struggled, she never knew what to do, but always tried her best.

march 2013 8Precipice Trail

When I learned that M had cancer, it was about a year after I had split from my husband and about six months after we had divorced. I hadn’t spoken to her in quite a while because of the divorce, and I sort of felt like she was part of my ex-husband’s family, and so assumed that I wouldn’t see her again. But, when I learned she was sick, my heart was hit with what felt like a rock, and I realized that I needed to see her. I called her the next day, and told her I wanted to come over. It was near the end of the school year that year; the heat of the Texas summer already beating down on me as I walked through the parking lot of her apartment complex in South Austin.

When I walked into her apartment, she said something very simple to me. She said, “It is so good to see you.” And it was true; it was great to see each other. What was not great was that she was so sick that she was having a hard time using one side of her body and could not use one arm at all. Her apartment was a mess, and her younger son who used to be precocious and seven years old, was now sixteen and scared out of his mind, and expressed that fear by withdrawing and flunking out of school.

march 2013 5In the Woods

Over the next four months, I saw M almost every day, and tried my best to wrap my head around cancer, families, relationships, fear, death, illness, our failing healthcare system, courage, acceptance, grief, denial, and a host of other emotions. I took her to the doctor, I took her to the emergency room, I took her to a man named Francis the Healer, who let her lie on a bed and relax. It was at Francis’s that we had our most profound conversations. We spoke about love and life a lot. We spoke about the temporal nature of life, about what it was for and why it was important. We spoke a lot about me, and some of the time about her. M was an adopted mom of a sort, but she was more like that aunt that has always done her own thing, is irreverent and uncategorizable, who makes you uncomfortable sometimes, but who you are drawn to, like a magnet of life inside her just pulled you in.

M was tough. She was demanding, and most importantly, she was intensely protective of her three sons and how the situation impacted them. Denial is a serious and complicated emotion, and has a very important place when you are dealing with cancer. Denial comes in the form of your ex-husband showing up with $300 worth of organic groceries despite knowing that his ex-wife can barely eat anything. Denial comes in the form of renting a house with a crazy, winding set of front stairs knowing your mom is in a wheelchair, and planning on building a ramp so that she can get in an out of this beautiful house in a beautiful place. Denial is late night phone calls and emails begging someone to come and see his mother because she is dying, and him not listening. Denial is looking at your friend’s dead body in a hospital room, knowing she is gone, and not being able to leave her body because she hasn’t been alone, not even for a moment, for four months. Denial is fighting, from all sides.

Acceptance comes in strange ways, too. Acceptance comes in the form of arriving on the doorstep, even for two days, from across the country. Acceptance is not being able to speak in the emergency room of a hospital when your mom has to have an emergency blood transfusion. Acceptance is listening to a nurse explain to you that you should take your friend to France because there is no care for her at her age, without insurance. Acceptance is sitting on the stairs in that same house with all the steps, looking at photo after photo of your friend smoking cigarettes for her whole life, all the while touching her youngest son, just to let him know that he and you are physically here, in this moment.

I came up here, to Maine, for about two weeks, during that summer when M was dying. I called her one night, it was July 4th and I wanted to see if someone had taken her to the fireworks. We had this hilarious conversation in which she told me she wanted to be taxidermied and stuffed so that she could still come to all the important events in our lives, and that we could just carry her around to holidays and weddings. In this same conversation, as I was sitting on my friend’s brick patio, in July, in Maine, she told me that she understood what death was, that it was a crossing, but that she would be able to cross back sometimes and communicate in some way. She was in acceptance of what was happening and knew where she was going.

The day before she died, she was very in and out of her body and of time, she was traveling all over the world and through different eras. She said a lot of funny things, but the thing that she kept repeating was how much she loved her boys. There was no doubt, to anyone, about how much she loved them. No matter how much morphine she was on, or how much pain was racing through her tiny little body, she kept communicating that she loved them, she loved them, she loved them.

march 2013 11Looking Back at Mount Desert from Islesford, from a very tiny boat!

What does this have to do with me, now, today, in Northeast Harbor, Maine, after my two week hiatus, when I house sat in the woods with ten cats, and made jewelry, and mulled over my life? Tonight, I sat out on my deck for a while and stared at the stars, and watched the moon rise over the harbor, and talked to ________ (whatever you want to call it) for a while.

march 2013 10Moon Rise over the slowly melting Snow Mountain

While speaking to __________ tonight, on the deck, I asked the question: “why do I feel so lonely here? Why is it that this place is so lonely, so alone?” I love this place, but the sense of solitude is Great, and I mean great as in size, not value or experience. I feel, in my heart, that the loneliness here is part of the place, meaning that it is somewhat inescapable, and therefore, must be accepted into your heart as not a negative aspect, but just another part of the environment, like the wind off the ocean, the sculpted granite, the six month long winter, the call of seagulls from the roofs of buildings. My question of loneliness was more related to my own fear of closeness with others. In cities, there are so many people and restaurants and cafes and museums that you are never confronted with that truth of our own isolation, our aloneness in the world. You can be so easily distracted and meet so many people to have friendships with that you never have to confront the deep thoughts that come in winter, in Maine, on a wooden deck, on the edge of a harbor.

march 2013 1Somes Sound from Sargeant Drive

Coming back to my friend M: when I first saw M in that tiny apartment, when her arm didn’t work (Francis and M and cancer treatments fixed that, by the way), she told me that she knew how she had gotten cancer. I looked at her and asked her, “how?”. She told me that every morning she poured a cup of coffee and went outside to smoke her morning cigarette and asked the same question: “Well, what the fuck am I going to do now?”. She told me that she believed she got cancer because that was the energy she put out every morning, and the thought with which she started each new day. Whether you believe in that or not, she believed in it, and it resonates with me to this day.

One of the things that I have learned from winter, from Maine, from Northeast Harbor, is that this life, this time, is all about perspective. Sometimes the tininess and the loneliness of this place scares me, like tonight. And sometimes, the loneliness, the solitude, is utterly joyous because you feel like your slice of the world is wholly yours, and that the beauty of the moment is happening to only you, as if you can hold on to beauty and awe in your hand, heart and mind, for pure moments of time.

march 2013 3Somes Sound

Today, for the first time in months, I sat on the grass, with a cup of coffee, a book, some chicken salad and some french bread and had a picnic with myself in the spring sunshine. I had just spent two hours digging out a path to my new house, from the road. The path will be lined with rocks, and filled with grey pea stone. It will be a lovely start to my first garden in a long time: the first garden, really, since I sold my house back in the fall of 2009. So, perspective comes with time, and the memory of those who have impacted our lives in myriad ways. Perseverance comes in the last dregs of winter, knowing that change is on the horizon, that the sun is coming back, that green things are almost ready to peep out of the ground, and the warmth on the back of your head isn’t from a knit cap, but from the warmth of a new season itself.

march 2013 7The Tarn

Time Capsules

cowboy boots

I have been many things in my short life. I have been a camp counselor for young students at the Museum of Natural History in Houston, as well as a genetics lab research assistant (I mostly did what I was told and spent a lot of time inside a giant freezer cataloguing little vials). I have been a bead- and oddities-seller in Austin, as well as a middle school science teacher. I have been a gallery girl in central Mexico, as well as a governess who conducted class on the brick patio of a beautiful hotel. I have been a gardener in New York City, as well as the personal assistant and later business manager of an art dealer. I have been a cross-country-traveling event planner. I have been a middle school teacher in Philadelphia. I have been a gallery girl in Maine, and now a jeweler, seamstress, drawing model, dog- and house-sitter, tutor, teacher, and writer.

ice melting 3

The ice is melting: winter is slowly coming to an end. Water is seeping and sometimes rushing out into the landscape. Little Long Pond, scene of so many early morning ice skates, is now covered with sheets of ice and water all around the edges. Gone is the deep cold, replaced by mud and water, by slush and a landscape that seems to spit up onto your clothes, your car, your everything. There were no deafening cracks or booms as the ice cracked and melted, as I had hoped, just a slow process of light returning, the path of sunlight expanding onto our landscape as if the beam of light was being pulled back, further away, its path widening as each day passed. The sunlight breathed life back into the wilderness, as if finally, after many months, the land began to exhale and inhale again, no longer holding its breath, steeling itself against winter.

grandpa

I received quite a gift today.

In my bedroom for as long as I can remember, I have hung a picture embroidered by my great Grandmother. It depicts two owls, one smiling sweetly at the other, in the tops of grapefruit trees. The colours are green and yellow and brown, and it is something that makes my bedroom feel complete: without it, something is missing. When I moved to Maine last June, the glass in the picture broke due to the overwhelming amount of stuff I had packed into my VW station wagon. My mom took it to the frame shop a few weeks ago to replace the glass, and hidden inside the frame was a note written to me by my Grandpa, for my 1st birthday:

“Canvas done by Mrs McDowell (Grandmother’s mother) between 1940 1942 during the air raids on Liverpool. For P.M. Blythe With Love 1st Birthday” (Also inscribed is 1981 and his name, to the right)

Neither I nor my mother knew this note was hidden inside the frame, and had the glass never broken, we would have never known. Discovering time capsules, like this one, is a bittersweet gift that comes around not often. My Grandpa died in 1994, when I was in 7th grade, the year my parents lost all their money and our family life significantly changed. I remember being a latch-key kid for the first time that year; our front door had a terrible stained glass design of a duck flying through cattails on it. The entryway was linoleum, beige in colour, and the rest of the house was carpeted in drab brown. I remember, when Grandpa died, when we all couldn’t go to England because we couldn’t afford it, and I think were probably limping along quite a bit in those days, being so sad because he was one of my favorite people in the world, if not the favorite. I hadn’t seen him, at that time, in four or five years, and had missed the ending of his life. Those days were hard days for many reasons, and I remember sitting on the linoleum floor by the front door, after school, alone in the house as my brother was outside playing, crying desperately with the knowledge that I would never see him again.

salisbury cove

Once, when my grandparents visited, we went to Galveston as a family and walked around The Strand. I think that my Grandpa really liked the States; he always found humour in our culture here no matter where we took him. After he died, my mom and brother and I went to Galveston one day, and I was walking around my favorite store there: a junk and antique shop full of curiousities. I looked up and saw an old man with bright white hair, a button down shirt and glasses, with a camera around his neck. It was him! I turned to tell my mom, couldn’t find her, turned back around, and of course, he was gone.

ice melting 2

Later, I had a dream that we were all together at the church yard where he is buried, where also my grandparents were married. It is a tiny church, built of old mossy stone, with a yard of graves around three sides. In my dream, our whole family was together: grandma, aunt, cousins, parents, children. We were walking through a churchyard and Grandpa appeared to us, only he was very young: as he was in photos of him during the war. He was smiling and happy, with his strong jaw and bright eyes. We spent time together: the time you can only spend in dreams, when you are not exactly sure how much time has passed, whether it is mere moments, or days, or months. We were all so happy just to be together: my Grandma especially (he died months before their 50th wedding anniversary). Then, suddenly, an array of white stones, set out in the pattern of an English cross, the St George’s cross with its even arms, began to hop up and down, tapping onto the flagstones but keeping their arrangement. He turned to us all and told us he loved us, but that he had to go. We all said goodbye. I haven’t seen him since, haven’t heard from him either.

That is, until yesterday. Love survives: I shall never doubt that again.

breakfast with grandpaBreakfast with Grandpa in 1987 in Formby, Liverpool, England…I would sneak downstairs to have breakfast with him before anyone else was awake.