Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Lewis and Clark: Day 35, still no path
The air is cool, but pleasantly so; there's no sting to it. You step outside and it's refreshing, like the burst of fragrant breeze that wafts through a half-opened classroom window in late September. You're thinking football, and newly mowed grass, and caramel apples, and buttered popcorn.
Driving around this morning, I saw a woman stopped at an intersection, her hand poised in midair elegantly holding a lit cigarette. Women who smoke when they drive put me in mind of a cat ready to pounce. They hold their jaws the same way, and narrow their eyes just so.
Waiting in line at the bank for a teller to attend to me, I got the shakes. My head got light and I felt unsteady. It seemed to me my heart was beating too fast again, but maybe it wasn't -- maybe it just felt like it was. It felt too strong, anyway, like a Cadillac engine that's been put into a go-cart. I went back to the car and sat there a few minutes, waiting out the trembly feeling. Eventually it did go away -- and I went on with my errands.
I still have the hives. I kept scratching nervously at the left side of my neck as I drove, trying not to dig too hard, but the irritated, restless feeling wouldn't leave me and I couldn't quit itching at it. I kept changing the radio station, dissatisfied with everything they played.
I got behind an old man, an old man driving a dusty blue car in a haphazard kind of way, weaving from the center line to the shoulder in uneven swathes. He'd look in the rear view mirror every now and then and I'd see a heavily furrowed brow frowning over thick black squarish glasses, as if it required all his concentration just to hold on to the wheel. Then I didn't feel so much impatient as sorry -- how it must feel to be that old, to be so uncertain that even the automatic, rote motions of a driving a car could no longer be trusted, or taken for granted.
I woke up this morning thinking of how time sculpts a person -- how wind and water erodes, but time and choices carve a face completely. Why else do some faces look harder, more brittle than others? What is it that happens to people?
How does a person learn to give, instead of breaking? There must be a secret, some message that some of us got in a folded note when no one else was looking.
Then I went to my son's Halloween party at school and I was still thinking about this and another mother drifted past me and murmured kindly: "What's wrong?"
I jumped, startled: "Nothing!" I felt defensive, unexplainably so, as if I'd been accused of something. But really it was that I'd been lost in my own, private musing (and also thinking, irrelevantly, that I need to schedule my sons for haircuts), and it seemed to me suddenly I'd been exposed -- that instead of sitting there silently I'd been broadcasting my thoughts (however sober) to the rest of the room, and everyone was frowning at me for it. Or: that everyone else in the room was having a great time (dressed in costumes, faces painted): why wasn't I?
I made myself smile and laugh lightly and say something casual, and I determinedly kept a smile on my face (however forced it felt) until my face got tired (or until I looked utterly psychotic) and we left early.
I'm not good at parties, maybe. I should be better at socializing -- and I'm really not. And it's not like I could talk about what I was thinking of; but even if I am having a cath on Thursday, there's nothing anyone can say or do to help, and I just need to deal with it -- and shut up.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
once upon a moon
I met Joe Niekro, once. When they named a highway after Phil Niekro. I was there. I talked to them both.
I remember it, sort of. It was a sunny day. September 29, 1997. Warm. One of those assignments where I was more or less winging it; what do I know about baseball? Not much.
I'd gone to a few Oakland A's games, when I lived in San Francisco. Sometimes the Writers and the Artists in our circle had a baseball game against each other in Golden Gate Park. I didn't play for either side. I sat on a blanket and bounced my baby son on my knee and talked to him about the trees and the flowers.
So no, not a baseball expert. Certainly no one with a rabid enthusiasm for the game. And going to the highway dedication was like being at someone else's family reunion: everyone's real excited to be there, lots of warm welcomes and inside jokes, and you're just trying to keep up with it all. People were very pleasant, and I tried not to let my ignorance show too much.
The story made the front page. Not for the quality of anything I wrote, certainly. It was just news and I happened to be the one to pick it up.
Still, reading the headlines in the Sunday paper this morning I started thinking about all those articles I wrote, once upon a moon.
So then I had to go down to the basement and start looking through the old articles, the archives, which is just an elaborate word for a laundry basket bowing out at the sides with the weight of folded papers I threw into a stack when we moved, too tired to consider cutting each article out to file somewhere. When the pile on my lap got tall I gave up and took a sheaf back upstairs with me to read over more closely.
Yes, I was a journalist once. Yes, it appears that I wrote quite a lot. Among others, there's an article on teen pregnancy ("The girls in national teen pregnancy statistics are growing up in our neighborhoods. And the teens who end up as parents are ironically the ones who needed their own the most."), and education ("I think a community gets the quality of schools that it deserves," said a school superintendent). An article for The Gabriel Project (one of my better moments, I thought).
Yet I kept sighing. The longer I looked the more sadness I felt. Lots of crime stories in there. That was my beat too -- the courts. Lots of times I'd see other reporters cry at sentencings, confessions while I would keep writing, woodenly. Some of those reporters would ask me, later: how can you hear that and not get teary?
I don't know, I'd say. I just can't let it in.
Which was, and was not, true. Of course it gets in. Some more than others, of course. And then another of my articles fell into my hand: Judge Rules Rape Suspect Must Face Grand Jury.
I remember that morning too. A little girl on the witness stand, little, younger than ten, pale-faced and her back rigidly straight as the suspect's lawyer badgered her mercilessly. The courtroom was packed: the air was hot, uncomfortable. You had the feeling everyone else in the room was much too close to you.
"Do you think someone could tell you to say something and it's not the truth?" the lawyer put it to her -- too bluntly, I thought. "...Did anyone tell you what to say?"
"No," she said.
"You were a little weak on that," the lawyer shot back, with an accusatory heat that struck me as ridiculous.
Rage shot through me. My pen shook so hard I could barely write the words. A grown man picking on a little girl in front of all these people, a little girl who's surely, surely suffered enough.
Those are the stories that started killing my desire to do my job. I'd open my eyes at 3 a.m., three hours before I had to get up and start getting ready for work, and I'd think, Ah, God, help me; I don't want to do this anymore. Maybe if I quit this gig, I could start sleeping again. Stop thinking about what kind of world it is we're living in.
Then I thought, if I could just write about good things, write to put love into the world; maybe that would make the difference.
Or maybe it just got too hard to figure out what the good things are, or I just felt too depressed to try. Or I got tired of trying to beat the TV news for breaking stories, rushing to make deadline. What's the point, really? How much do people really need to know? Maybe there's some things they'd be better off not.
You'd go to the police stations, do the rounds, and it started to all seem so predictable. But then, something would come up that wasn't predictable, and then that was even worse.
So I shouldn't have been suprised when they made the decision to pull me off reporting and put me back on the copy desk for a while, a place I'd spent some time in the beginning. I'd always preferred reporting -- I had to write, or so I thought -- so it was an easy out and I took it. I quit.
Compounding the irony of all these reflections: an extra section in today's Sunday paper on Women in Business. Women in various fields intelligently discussing their careers. And all I could think of -- flipping through pages of overblown, professional photos of women in tailored suits and looking commanding -- was: I used to be this.
And now I'm barely recognizable, so that when I turn in a professional article people react with suprise: hey! Didn't know you could do that! Way to go!
Well. After a while there came a day when I woke up and found that writing wasn't as easy as it used to be.
It's not easy now, either.
The Fairy Calendar is finished!
Saturday, October 28, 2006
keep on keeping on
The treatment is pretty standard: pacemaker for the sluggish heartbeat, beta blocker for the overly rapid one.
There are things I've also learned to watch for to help keep the rhythm under control. Don't get dehydrated. Don't get exhausted. Pace yourself (no pun intended). Get enough sleep. (That's a big one.) No caffeine. Make healthful food choices.
So it was a huge suprise when, last night, out of nowhere, no warning, watching Batman with the kids, I felt my heart lurch out of rhythm. Big time. I could feel my pulse pushing through my throat. Some keening, too-high-pitched buzz started singing in my ears, the dying whine a fly makes spiraling into a light bulb. I felt lightheaded, breathless, sapped, shaky. My breathing got ragged.
I actually put my fingers to my throat as if to push the heart back down into the cage where it belongs -- as if it were no more than a wild bird struggling to break free and fly. It felt like that, anyway.
Then I tried to count it, the pulse, but it was too frantic and disorganized. Or I was; it's hard to tell. I just couldn't catch it. Steadying my focus on the large face of my Steinhausen watch, the watch with the chronometer and dials for the months and the days and a sun for day and a crescent moon and stars for night. My heartbeat seemed to be galloping ahead of the seconds hand and that didn't seem right. Most of all I just stopped counting to lecture myself sternly: STOP. STOP. STOP THIS.
It did, eventually. I say "it," like my body has nothing to do with me, but when it comes to things like this you do have the sense that actually, it doesn't and you just have to sort of sit there and watch it happen, like being the passenger in a car with an accelerator that has a tendency to stick (and I know what that's like, too).
In short, it scared me.
I've been out of rhythm before. It's really not been that big a deal. This was -- I just didn't see it coming. I was sitting on the couch, completely relaxed, enjoying the film noir style of Tim Burton; hadn't overdone it, missed a step, nothing. It just happened.
Which is pretty usual. Sometimes, it is just going to happen.
By the time I had the presence of mind to tell my husband so he could take my blood pressure, the pulse was even and regular at a vigorous 120. Not so bad. Even still, I felt a wary reserve setting in -- a certain caution in how I got up or sat down, after that, so as not to awaken the galloping tempo again.
I can't even say I've done that much today. I've not had much heart even for drawing; mostly I've just laid around in bed, watching TV and supervising offhandedly as the boys camped next to me and drew their own pictures.
The tachy episode must have bothered me more than I'd care to admit: I realized over breakfast (reaching for the box of pancake mix in the cupboard) that the back of my left hand is dotted in that familiar rash of hives that I've gotten under stress ever since the second grade when I felt overwhelmed and buried by my never-ending coursework (my teacher kept giving me more assignments as I turned them in, instead of rewarding me with free time like everyone else; she mistook my deep-seated need to please her as an enthusiasm for learning instead).
The heart cath isn't until next Thursday, not that a cath is really going to have much to do with improving a tachy rate. But at least I'll be able to see my doctor and tell him about it, anyway. That it happened, and that it was really unpleasant.
Even if there isn't much left to be done about it, it's the telling that helps you feel like there's still some control to be had over it, after all. And that you're not just being held hostage to some unalterable biological whim. I think it's very important not to get caught up in the tricks your mind can play in such a situation. Have to keep on keeping on -- whatever that means -- but rest assured I'm going to do it.
Friday, October 27, 2006
...fairy-baby sleeping in a flower. (click on image --twice-- to see the detail. The scan didn't do it justice this time.)
Again, this is last night's drawing. After sketching in the tree I drew in some knots and wormholes to make the tree look more animate -- to give it a face.
The fun part of drawing fairies is the poetic license it automatically gives you. Things don't necessarily have to be true or real. They just are. Because you said so.
Which is something I never got away with as a kid (I'm remembering when I made a dozen jars of colored water out of a watercolor set, then tried to sell the jars as "magic potions"). That's the fun part of getting older, at least for me. You get to play more, and hardly anyone ever tells you that your imagination is overactive.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
a little bit of magic
I started reading Shakespeare again. Just for the record, I don't like Shakespeare. I really don't. I think if most people were honest, they'd admit they don't really like it either. But every once in a while I seem to need to push myself through it again -- this time, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.
The other night I started to read to the children from The Tempest, as Prospero, in my best Irish accent (I don't know why, it just seemed to add greatly to the effect):
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase erring Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make...
As they shook their heads doubtfully: "It doesn't make sense."
No, I agreed, in a way, it really doesn't. In my opinion, Shakespeare excels in making the English language babble along in a pleasing melody, turning words to water tumbling over rocks in a stream. When I read Shakespeare it's as if I'm translating, not reading.
Yes, yes, he wrote every plot ever possible. He reinvented the literary wheel. He was genius incarnate, a master, so on and so forth, etc. Yeah, well.
So I read Shakespeare now and then, like doing situps or choosing skim milk instead of whole (yuck, yuck, yuck).
But Shakespeare also put forth a fairy and elven world of whimsy and caprice, and probably singlehandedly revised our views for ever of how a fairy would look and behave. Before that, fairies were regarded as old, ugly, cranky, dangerous.
So, I started thinking about that after reading The Tempest. And started drawing. Now I can't seem to stop.
Last fall, when I studied the Renaissance, I couldn't stop drawing angels and cherubs. Now it's fairies. I might have a fondness for winged things. Not sure.
When I write it's often to process thoughts or emotions; when I draw, it seems to be much the same, only (lately) it's ideas I'm describing, or the imagery triggered by something or someone else. And all week, man! I've seen faeries and elves everywhere I turn around. I woke up yesterday morning sitting bolt upright in bed sure there was a gnome perched on the sewing machine next to the bureau. (It was a bag of mini Reese's cups).
But (I thought yesterday as I waited in my car in the parking lot at the preschool, watching through the windshield as a crow flew alone across the cloudswept sky in a dizzying arc) I think there's a little part in all of us that longs for something otherworldly -- not necessarily supernatural, but just....magical.
And I think there's part of us that wants to know that Love (even if J.K. Rowling already wrote it; we want to live it and know it) is the strongest, deepest magic of all.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
I will write you a song
(Come away with me, Norah Jones sings, and I will write you a song.)
It's the story of a girl, an artist, a writer, a musician, who left home one summer afternoon with nothing to her name but a handful of promissory notes, like an inept, down-on-luck player in the Life board game.
Sometimes people start out with the best of advantages, and they are fortunate indeed. Others have to fight for them as they come, and they are somehow all the wiser for it, she believed. Enthusiasm and Hope and Determination can carry a person a long way. So she thought.
She did not reckon on Disappointment and Sorrow, those mortal enemies, the assassins who cast a deeper wound than any chess game queen. They wield not checkmate but stalemate, a formidable, intimidating block forbidding any other view than the one directly visible.
Unarmed for these foes she surrendered her Hope and without Hope she had no Determination.
She found that the graceful inherent carriage of these virtues, once surrendered, have to be earned back. That the gifts, once given, are not so easily reclaimed.
The loss of Innocence is not just that; it's a taint of Defeat and Desperation, a stain that hisses the self-fulfilling prophecy: "Your skills are lost; you are nothing special."
She could no longer draw, or tell stories, or laugh out loud, much less sing. Her voice was indeed, in every possible way, gone. For years and years, this was so -- so many years, in fact, that she resigned herself to living without it, and she spoke of her talents no more.
She did not reckon on the persistence of Hope, how it continued climbing, a determined ivy unseen and unrealized, outside her carefully built fortress of Self-Protection.
Or how Kindness planted it there, and Light and Love nurtured it along in the Silence, until one day the vine pushed through with a crumble and a silting spatter of mica (it was such a fragile tower, after all) -- and she found it.
Through grateful tears of joy -- almost laughing in her relief -- she breathed in the sun and the fresh air and began to sing. She sang, whispering at first, then more bravely, if trembly, and the more she sang the more she found, to her palpable suprise, that she'd never lost her voice at all.
It had only been an illusion, a transitory effect, as changeable as a prism.
I didn't lose it! She exulted. It has only been lying dormant, transforming into something stronger and more beautiful.
But who planted the seeds of Kindness? She asked wonderingly, beginning to understand at last.
But she already knew the answer:
Monday, October 23, 2006
Sunday, October 22, 2006
once upon a dream
Every now and then I dream I'm back in San Francisco, the city of my early twenties. I've flown there, in the dream, and I'm in a great hurry to see and hear as much of the city streets as I can before I have to leave again.
(For it is understood that of course I will leave; this is not home. It only feels like home. It's an illusion. One cannot trust it.)
Enough time has passed now to place the San Francisco stories in the "way back when" category. After having such dreams I often wake up wondering who I would have been had I stayed there. I do know that as much as I loved San Francisco (I did, I truly did) I sometimes felt struck, wounded even, by the impersonality that peoples its streets.
Where I came from, people opened doors for you when they saw you coming. And yet, where I ended up, you could fall on your face on the sidewalk and people just kept on passing by.
That wasn't me. I didn't want an anonymous life, detached from family and friends, living on the glossy surface of a page torn from a magazine, a still from a movie shoot.
I wasn't the person I thought I was. So I came back home.
What is the old Chinese proverb -- he who is truly hurt; says nothing. Maybe that's true; I don't like to talk much about my time in San Francisco. When I flew away, I placed it somewhere in the margin of the past. My narration takes a wide swerve around it.
All the movies and shows you see about time travel, about people going back in time to change something they thought they should to make the future better -- they always seem to end with the realization that it's best to keep things the same. That one chain of events leads to another chain of events that eventually leads to a perfect equilibrium; it just can't be seen readily, in the present moment. You have to stand outside the flow of time to realize it eddies in concentric circles. In other words, everything really is as it should be.
So in these dreams of the city, the ones that used to be so sorrowful and piercing, I now run like a child at a carnival from one street to the next, drinking in thirstily the colorful storefronts and diverse population.
There was a time when I left all I owned behind in that city, in some kind of half-desperate collateral.
Now I understand transience, the fog that lifts and settles again, the doors that open and close -- it's of the moment, always of the moment, and I can breathe it deep and then release it again, knowing this is the only possession we ever get -- it's internal, nothing else. I couldn't have done anything differently.
I can forgive myself this, because I learned more than I lost.
My hopes, my wishes, they all renew with each sunrise, where I can still find them -- once upon a dream.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
The littlest one will be five on Monday. The teenager is thirteen.
My children are aged in prime numbers this year.
I remember seven. When I was seven I had the same teacher my son has now. I also broke my leg. My baby brother was born. I wrote in a diary every day, a brown diary with a lock. I'm pretty sure I had a terrible crush on one of my big brother's friends.
I loved the song "Monster Mash". (Confession: I still sort of love it. Yes, I really do. Because my brother used to play it on his stereo and we'd sing it, loud. Good times.)
I heard "Monster Mash" on the radio as I drove into town for helium balloons this morning. (The kids love Mylar balloons. They just do.) I turned up the volume and sang along, just as loudly as I did when I was seven. I know it's a corny, goofy song. But it's so fun! It is.
The woman behind the counter acted confused when I asked for four helium Happy Birthday balloons.
"You mean...right now?"
As I drum my fingers a little on the counter, waiting.
She clears her throat.
As if I would drive into town and ask to buy some helium balloons for, say, Christmas.
"Yes. " She seems uncomprehending, so I add, more specifically, "Today."
"This minute..?" she says, like she still doesn't understand, or I have failed to make something clear. At this moment I want to lift my palms to the sky and cry, "God, why do you make it so easy for me to exercise my sarcasm? Don't You know I'm trying to cut back on that?"
"Well...." She looks around, then radioes her manager over the PA system. "Assistance needed at the front desk, please."
Now there are two people manning the fort. For this ridiculously uncomplicated request.
"I'd like #6, and #9."
They consult a list and shake their heads at me.
"We're all out of those."
"How about #11?"
"Backordered. But we should get them sometime...today," the manager says brightly.
I give up. "Do you have anything at all that says HAPPY BIRTHDAY?" I'm desperate. "It doesn't even have to be in English. Just something festive and cheerful, okay?"
"What color string you want?"
"I truly don't care," I say, and I mean it.
They tie white ribbons to the balloons and hand them over.
I walk out with a red star, a blue star, and two (not matching) HAPPY BIRTHDAY balloons. People look at me oddly as I cross the parking lot, like I'm doing something unusual.
I put the balloons in the booster seats of my car and they jostle each other in an impatient, unruly way, as if to say: I didn't get dressed up and ready to go just to ride around in a Buick, babe. There's a whole sky out there I need to be scoping.
Yeah, well. Deal with it, I say over my shoulder (swatting away the red star which has bobbled between the front seats, nosy and restless).
The man with big forearms driving the red truck behind me is looking at me quizzically, I notice as I peer into the rearview mirror.
"It's my birthday," my youngest son announces as I pick him up from preschool.
"No, your birthday is Monday." We've been over this. And over this. And over this again.
"Hey, Happy Birthday," the teachers chime fondly to the youngest as we walk out the door. Clearly he's been coaching them all day.
"It's not his---" I give up. "Thanks."
I bake a giant chocolate chip cookie while the youngest takes off his tennishoes and scampers about with the helium balloons. At 3:20 I pluck the closest one (a silver and red circle balloon, with a cake and candles and the script Happy Birthday floating over the cake) and wait for my seven-year-old to get off the bus and come to me.
It takes him a second to find me, but when he does he squeals joyfully and scrambles forward, and I can see he's wearing a yellow star sticker that reads, IT'S MY BIRTHDAY.
I am thinking of how, in the maternity ward, I could recognize his cry before he ever got to me as the nurses wheeled him down the hallway in his clear plastic bassinet; how I cradled him knowingly, as if we'd already been meeting each other for years, and he opened his sleepy eyes to study me, carefully. How accustomed I'd thought I already was to motherhood, with an older child already at home; yet here is this startling, if pleasant, realization-- each time, in some way, it's still new.
My son claims his balloon from me and wraps his fingers around mine.
"I won't let it go," he says. "I promise."
I know he means: the balloon. But what I hear is: your hand.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
I listened to The Mission: Gabriel's Oboe and then The Falls, from the same soundtrack, while drawing this sketch. I highly recommend both pieces. They are beautiful and inspired both the drawing of the girl, and the rain she's lifting her arms up into.
colored pencil on rag paper, 22" x 30"
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
yar, yar, yar
(no, I don't have CHF. I just like the explanation of a cath on this site.)
I sat in the cardiologist's office at 9:30 this morning flipping through a July issue of OK magazine reading about the 16 guys Lindsay Lohan's dated so far this year. Softly on the PA system Elton John was singing a song I hadn't heard in years:
One more set of boots on your welcome mat.
Funny thing about hearing songs you haven't heard in a decade or more. The other night, giving the youngest son a bath, I started singing along with a song I could swear I've not heard since fifth or sixth grade:
Here is my re-quest
You don't have to play it but I hope you'll do your best
I've been listening to your show on the ra-dio
And you seem like a friend to me.
Couldn't tell you who sang the song, or when, but I still remember every word of it now (and I sang it, in harmony, while shampooing the kid's hair). Why my brain recorded that and not the first eight digits of pi* (which I used to have committed to memory) is beyond me.
The nurse called me back (interrupting my reverie) and I dutifully submitted to the checkup. Breathe in. Deep breath. Again. Hold your breath. Breathe again. Any new swelling you've noticed?
Only in my brain; does that count?
Then (fast forward) after a question-and-answer session, and I'm sitting in another office agreeing to another heart catheterization. They suggested Thursday and I picked next Tuesday, because Thursday is my first-grader's birthday and I can't go having a heart cath on my kid's seventh birthday. Timing is everything.
I've had a cath before. I know the drill. There are less invasive ways to get a leg wax, but it's the way I like to live.
If I asked for anything for the procedure, it would be the kind thought in my regard that the first IV next Tuesday morning be a gentle one. I'd fail miserably at heroin addiction: I've never met a needle I particularly liked. Every time the nurse comes at me I have to confess (weakly) that I don't like getting stuck. And every time they nod understandingly, almost as if they expect it, and say, "You don't say," or "I get that a lot," or "Good, because I don't like sticking you, either" (that one makes me a little uneasy, somehow. I do want a phlebotomist with some enthusiasm for the job).
But it's sort of a rite of passage. I have to say it, and then I have to say, "I'm going to just close my eyes and not look," and then they sort of slap my clenched fist and urge, "Relax your hand now, relax, relax," and then they either slide the needle in the vein and start drawing, or they miss completely and blow a perfect bubble in my arm that pops and aches like a sonuva. The odds are fifty-fifty for a hit. Maybe less than.
It's been a long day, and one (I'm aware) in which I really didn't communicate very much to anybody. I didn't even tell my family until after dinner, hours and hours and hours after the fact.
I'm sorry about that. Tomorrow will be better.
*the first eight digits of pi are: 3.1415926
Monday, October 16, 2006
this and that
The dog ate the brains this morning when I wasn't looking.
My younger two sons have birthdays within five days of each other, in the next week. One will be 7. The other says he'll be 45. Subtract forty years from that and it'll be about right.
It's really the seven-year-old who's going on 45. He told me last weekend that "it's so much fun, Mom, spending time with you."
I don't think he was just saying that because I happened to be making his favorite breakfast at the time (pancakes). "We just have a lot in common."
"Like what?" This I have to hear.
He tapped his head. "For one thing, our brains work the same," he said.
"We're both creative."
"And I get the same kinds of colds that you did when you were my age."
I nodded again. Salient points, these.
He brought home his first report card tonight. Beautiful. A 4.0 GPA and percentages like 98, 99. Comments like: Submits Quality Work. Attentive In Class.
"Spelling is my worst subject," he said dismally.
I found Spelling on the list.
"You got a 99. You call that your worst?"
"I just don't know what I misspelled to get a 99," he sighed. "It should have been a hundred."
Yep, that's my kid.
There seems to be stages to this child rearing thing. The first five years are slow and painstaking: immunizations, haircuts, developmental milestones. Then you register them for school and it's as if you've lifted them up onto a much higher platform: for the next five years, they're getting school pictures, losing their teeth, making friends, bringing home papers you have to sign.
And at first you're so necessary: they really have to tell you each and every solitary thing that ever happens between the time you dropped them off and the time you picked them up. Then with each grade they seem to drift just a little further away from you and time seems to just accelerate: in no time they're teenagers and only asking for rides to games or movies or having sleepovers with friends; you're sort of a police officer type person, on perpetual duty, bearing an official signature, but still only there in a supervisory capacity, not so interactive as, well, advisory.
It happens so gradually you don't even really notice how it all comes about, until a neighbor comes out and says hello with her little toddler in tow, a child so tiny that when she says "Hew-woh!" it comes out in this scratchy, pleading little voice, a kitten's mew of a voice. How long has it been since you could carry your own child from the car to the house? And have to unbuckle the car seat out of the base first before proceeding?
Where do all the spent years go? Did the children store them up for later, catch them like dandelion wishes as they were passing by while I was distracted, worrying about how loud they cried in the supermarket and what people were thinking of my childrearing talents?
And will they remember, when they're grown, rediscovering them (those dandelion wishes crumpled flatly in their fists)?
When, if, they do, they'll open their hands and let the wishes float away once more, wishes helicoptering away to take seed and flower, over and over again. Because that is where the spent years go (I think I know). --They recycle.
Someday they'll know what is to be my age and what it is to see young mothers with children. And then may they know I, also, loved them this much; yes, this much and then some.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
a flower fairy
Where would I be if I couldn't kvetch about art school? And who could really blame the teachers for pushing me to stretch my repertoire? You don't go to art school to learn how to do the same thing over and over.
Yet I still feel guilty, even now, when I spend an afternoon like today watercoloring in a flower fairy. It's very stylized, many of the lines are rote -- I've been drawing girls like this since I was in first grade, wasting my one school notebook on pictures instead of class assignments.
She's not finished. But I really like her. I doubt you could call it fine art -- but I really like her, all the same.
Friday, October 13, 2006
the 2007 calendars are in
what's her story?
Writing is something I need to do to sort out my thoughts. Even when I'm not writing, I'm writing: most of the things I see and hear I'm silently, mentally translating into script. This is an old habit: sitting in the classroom -- six, seven years old -- I entertained myself by visualizing the teacher's words as text.
I learned to read when I was four. Kindergarten and first grade were more of a social exercise for me than anything else. I already knew how to read and write, and add and subtract. Once I read the story assigned me I waited -- not patiently -- in the lagging, awful interim while everyone else caught up.
So I invented more stories to "read" in my head: the teacher's lecture, the conversation between the janitor and the gym teacher, out in the hallway.
I'd rather watch people and listen to their conversations than actually talk to them, even now. I know that sounds awful.
When I'm really distressed (even now) I detach and see everything from the third-person point of view: everything around me is just another book I'm "reading". (Her mouth seemed to disappear in a thin white line. The birds refused, stubbornly, to stop singing.)
I can't remember when I started writing my stories down. I always felt dissatisfied with my handwriting: it didn't resemble the text in my head. It only looked sufficiently real, therefore, if typed, because I thought in typewritten font (on cream-colored paper, naturally).
My first investment was in a manual typewriter my uncle sold me for ten dollars. I relished in the thrill of making the thoughts, my inner, private text and personal entertainment, real.
Then is the moment of truth: when one realizes one's thoughts, if transcribed, must be offered up for public consumption. One feels horribly vulnerable, exposed, even betrayed somehow. (These thoughts were mine. Others will only trample them.)
Which, of course, happens.
I sat inside a restaurant this morning, looking out the window and watching, dreamily, the fluffy white clouds skate past: no one, I thought, ever really notices clouds, do they? (Other than weathermen, I mean.) How big the sky is, how delicately the wind carries the clouds along -- what else is this big? The ocean. When you're landlocked, like I am, the sky becomes your ocean. The wind is the tide, pulling and dragging everything on the surface along with it. I know I read that, somewhere. I just can't remember where.
Across the room, a businessman, obviously a traveler (with his crisp blue oxford shirt, overlarge duffel, cell phone strapped like a holster to his hip), flipped his cell phone open importantly and launched into an overloud conversation, seemingly only with himself. "Hey. How's it going? Awesome. Yeah, going to Boston next." Pause. "Always on the go. It sucks."
Rude of me to eavesdrop, but how can you not? When one, it's sort of habit. And two, when he's making it pretty difficult not to.
That is a disconnected person, I thought, still watching the clouds skim past. He's got that weird feeling you get sometimes when you travel, when you feel absent even from yourself, as if all that motion has subtracted more from you than sleep. Maybe it's from not being recognized; you're familiar to no one and the invisibility starts to get to you. You can't even get through a meal in a restaurant without calling someone on your cell phone, just to reassure yourself that you're still there.
Then I heard him say, "So you met her in Chicago....? So what's she do for a living? What's her story?"
As if anyone can be summed up with a handful of sentences! A person who asks such a question is a person who has barely lived. The absurdity of such a question! Suppose this question was thrust upon anybody, anybody at all?
(What do you know about this Sharon? What's she do for a living? What's her story?)
I don't have one. Or, I don't have just one story. No one does. I have a lot of stories; none of which have anything to do with what I do for a living. It's the same for everybody.
People are always wanting to know what your story is, though, if you've got one, (and they only want one) and then, if it's any good.
Who's to say if it is, or it is not? Does that matter? There are stories I want to tell and then there are stories I want to keep to myself, to savor and turn over and over like a polished gemstone, in an admiring, appreciative way. There are more that I want to keep than tell, actually.
Because anymore when I write down my stories I feel cramped and almost...wounded, somehow, like I'm about to give away more than I ever intended to.
I don't know that I was meant to be a writer. Sometimes I think, when my stomach hurts like this, that my writing is something I only invented to keep myself company, a long, long time ago. It was a private occupation, meant only for me. Share it and mixed blessings follow. I go to sleep nights wondering if it's worth it. Wake up again deciding -- maybe.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
idea book project
I needed a change from all the large paintings and drawings I just finished. Something with a sharper focus.
The left side of this journal is filling up quickly with collages, since I'm doing so many of them now; the right side, poetry, text, odd scraps of conversation I've been collecting.
My [self-imposed] project is easy: make a dictionary of personal symbols. If you had to interpret your life using pictures instead of words, what pictures would you use?
Everyone has a personal symbolism for things. Obviously, the easy ones would be dove = peace, heart = love, airplane = freedom.
Mine would be more abstract: my grandfather gave me two silver dollars before he died. I always pick up my feet a little bit off the floor when the car I'm in travels over a railroad track. I am repulsed by the sight of slugs. I sew without thimbles because the dead, insulated feeling of the metal over my flesh makes me physically ill.
That's a handful of trivia, useless trivia even, yet it's rich in associations. Metal and currency and sharpened needles. Bulging slugs' underbellies melted by salt; earnest unsheathed thumbs pricked to blood by a pin.
Then I cull images and words from magazines and newspapers, looking for pictures that conjure up those words, and others.
Playing with cut out pictures frees me up from the burden of laboriously drawing out what it is I want to see.
I'll post my own results when I get further along in the book's development.
I put this collage in my online store.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
There's also a pumpkin judging contest, with an award for the biggest (this year, one around a thousand pounds). Horse and buggy rides. Muzzleloading competitions. Archery contests. Lots of antique machinery running, tractor displays, women stirring great pots of stewing apples or somesuch.
The thousand-pound pumpkin was, as one might imagine, tremendous. It lay there prone on the grass, pitiable in its enormous, helpless girth. Put a TV in front of it and you could almost see it on welfare.
"How do you think they got it here?" I asked the children. I like for them to think about what it is they're looking at.
"They rolled it," the first grader said triumphantly.
"All the way here?"
"Maybe," he said.
We stood there looking a while longer.
Then we rode the horse and buggy. Well. A buggy pulled by two Clydesdales. All through the ride I kept pointing out how it must have been for the pioneers, setting out for the West on horse-and-buggy getups like these. How slow their progress must have been, what patience the parents must have had to endure as their children whined:
Are we there yet?
How much longer?
Two years. Shut up and enjoy the scenery.
My sons just rolled their eyes at me.
"How much weight do you think these horses can pull," I wondered aloud.
"I don't know," my kids said.
"I wonder if they could pull five sumo wrestlers."
"Mom," the teenager said. "Would you drop it already."
I dropped it.
After the painfully slow going around the field, I bought a pint of apple butter at a tiny stand, even though I make my own (I just haven't had time to, yet) -- because I'm going to make homemade rolls tomorrow and apple butter is delicious on homemade rolls.
I also bought two small tins of Watkins' salves, Petro-Carbo and Mentho-Camphor. With those in your medicine cabinet you can't go far wrong, and for bee stings there's nothing better than Mentho-Camphor.
A lady knitting behind a craft stand had several starter pots of cacti on a baker's rack ($1.50 apiece). I took one of each for $6, because one type in particular that she had, I happen to know, is excellent for burns; break off the tip of one stalk and the juice heals the burn almost magically. I know that it's aloe vera and I could buy aloe vera in a bottle; but somehow, undiluted and unprocessed, it's much more potent.
And anyway, I haven't had a cactus like that in years and it's time I had another one.
The knitting lady put my plants in a cardboard box. Then she offered to put my pint of apple butter in the box with the plants, just to make it easier to carry, and I thanked her for that, yes, that would be great.
Pretty soon some older women saw me toting around this cardboard box of cacti and wandered over to stick their hands in it. This put me off a little bit, I have to admit. But they wanted to see what kind of cacti I had, where I got them, and demand if there's any more where that came from. I pointed them in the right direction, but not before they told me sternly how useful that kind of cacti is on burns.
I know, I said. That's why I bought it for myself.
You'd think that would have been enough, but they kept coming back, these women. They fell upon me later on by the primitive crafts table and started touching the box again: "It's here! Here it is!" And again with the questions: "Where did you say these were?" I pointed, again. Then I led them to it and stood them in front of it: Here. It's right here. Help yourself!
And stop touching my plants! Because they're mine! Mine! Mine!
The kids and I sat on a stone bench while my husband ambled over to the muzzleloading competition; I pointed out the wild onion growing along the grasses. You could smell the onion in the air, mingled with the scent of hot golden sunlight dripping down on the turning leaves like so much honey. I showed them how to tell the onion from the grass (rubbery stalks, the slightly acrid aroma that wafts up when you break off the ends).
The teenager walked over to a nearby stands and bought three birdhouse gourds for a dollar each -- one for him, one apiece for his brothers. Then they asked me: what do we do with these? I said you can dry them out and use them as maracas; or you can carve them up and save the seeds to grow new ones; whatever.
I love this place.
When we drove home I rolled the windows down, as if to get our fill, as much as we could breathe, of this fragrant autumn air, this glorious blast of Indian summer's last, and it probably is.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Friday, October 06, 2006
oh, fishy fishy fishy! where's the fishy?
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Then this morning, driving kids to school. An old baby stroller has been thrown out into the street and it's turned over, up-dumped, onto the opposite curb. It's so unexpected as to be profane. Again the uneasiness: you want to know why. The mind rushes ahead filling in blanks that aren't provided: a man got drunk after work, tripped on the stroller, threw it into the yard? What happened, here?
I brake gently, peering over the dashboard as I pass just to make sure I can't see any arms or legs sticking out of the stroller. To appease my sudden possibly irrational fear that there's a person still inside it. No, it's empty. A worn dirty pink quilt draggles over one armbar, but the stroller is empty.
So it's vandalism, then. Just crazy, stupid vandalism.
(And just yesterday morning, I went out to start my car and found it spattered with the moist ashes of someone else's trash fire. Picky hanks of greyed and smoky white and charred black papers stuck like fussy dryer lint all over the hood and roof and trunk of my metallic tan sedan. I ran the wipers, squirting wiper fluid all over the front windshield, but still the ashes clung and that felt significant too. Stop it, I told myself sternly. This is how people drive themselves to distraction, with thoughts like these. Not everything happens for a reason. There isn't always a message in everything you hear and see.)
People do random, chaotic, unexplainable things. Sometimes I think our conversations with each other are just strains of distinctly separate symphonies playing out; that the bars ever merge or even harmonize is a miracle, every time. But sometimes it does. There must be a mathematical equation for this -- the seeking of harmony in most voices.
I start thinking of a song I liked in college, by R.E.M.:
I'm very scared for this world
I'm very scared for me
After everyone else goes to school I drive on with the middle child to the hospital, who has inflamed tonsils and a terrible upper respiratory infection. We watch TV as we wait in the lobby: an Amish grandfather of a girl who'd been killed in the Pennsylvania shooting stands with his back to the camera.
"Do you forgive?" the news reporter persists shrilly.
He glances over his shoulder, only for a moment, as if rudely interrupted from more pressing thoughts.
"In my heart, I forgive," he says heavily, and turns away again.
A large black cricket with a limp skitters around my feet as I sign the registration papers for triage. "That's my pet," the receptionist says with a little laugh. "It's been in here for a couple of days now."
Again the pang: a cricket inside a house is bad luck. A cricket inside a hospital must be worse. I cup my hand over it and catch it, easily. "You don't care if I take it outside, then," I say.
"Well...if you don't mind doing it, no," she answers, not hiding her suprise very well. I realize I'm not thinking how it looks: woman with an Etienne Aigner bag, picking up bugs off the floor of a hospital lobby. Oh, well.
The cricket bounces around lightly in my carefully closed hand. I let it go, just outside the front doors, depositing it not too neatly into the rock and fern garden by the parking lot. It doesn't feel like much of an amendment, but it was one I had to make anyway. Too much strangeness going on in the world.
You make right what you can, however pointless the gesture feels.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
after the show
Melonie and Laura got here with Heather a bit before midnight Saturday. Heather's right on the money when she says it's impossible to be bored with Melonie and Laura around.
Laura has that rare spontaenously eloquent wit that can not only roll with the punches but zing in a few volleys of her own before you even saw them coming. Laura is to humor what Maria Sharapova is to tennis. Laura is who you want to have with you when you're having a baby, a round of champagne or... an art show. I told Laura this weekend that although I truthfully haven't known her very long, I think I love her. She answered very seriously, "You had me at hello."
Then we busted up laughing.
Melonie, of course, was wide awake regardless of the late hour. Melonie was born awake and full of energy -- with fabulous hair, just to add insult to injury. At nearly midnight I very nearly resemble a stoner, because the night time is not my right time. The sun goes down and I take on a dazed, stunned look, murmuring things like "nighty-night, 'morrow wakey wakey."
Unfortunately at nearly midnight Saturday I was still murmuring similar doggerel and now I think Melonie and Laura are convinced I really am a stoner. (I'm not. Just for the record. Let's be clear. Because if I was, would I really worry so much about each and every little tiny thing? Think about it.)
And as for Heather, well....If you read Heather's blog at all -- and if you're not why aren't you? -- you already know she's from Texas. You could say my children are enchanted; they went into conference with themselves and voted to adopt Heather into the family ASAP. They fell upon her Sunday morning with clamors for stories about Texas and rodeos and whether cowboys really do exist in America. She indulged them with infinite patience.
And as a Halloween gift, Heather brought them gummy brains that delighted them no end, though to me it just looked like individually wrapped afterbirth, I regret to say.
I come from a long line of incessant talkers -- God help the descendant in this family born mute, for the sign language required to keep up would sprain their wrists for life -- so I tried really hard not to overwhelm Heather with a running commentary on the history of the town, the political significance of West Virginia's secession from the state of Virginia on June 20, 1863, or the influence of the agricultural base on the town's economy. It was difficult, but I did try to buck the genetics that are mine. Since I'd like her to come back again, sometime.
She did laugh a little when I muttered about having to wait at a stop sign on Main Street ("This is traffic?"). I keep forgetting that really I'm very lucky in a lot of ways to live where I do. She kept commenting on how green and beautiful everything really is, here. And she's right, it really is. The leaves are only just barely turning yet -- the hills look like bushels of prematurely picked apples; mostly green with some tinges of red and orange at the corners.
Heather had to change planes four times to get here. Four times!! You'd think I lived in Greenland. Then she had to ride three and a half hours in a car to actually get here! How punishing! There is obviously a conspiracy afoot to separate the Texans from the Yanks, is all I can say. Getting to this neck of the woods ought not to be a hurdle race. Honestly. But it is.
I'm just glad she was undaunted. Lifelong friends are hard to find. I'm so glad that she is one of them.
The show itself was incredible, wonderful, exhilarating. For the first time in over eleven years I showed my own work, my very own, no coaching, no instruction, no third-party interference, none. I admit it: I felt like the emerging goddess from Botticelli's Birth of Venus:
..Except, fully clothed and not grabbing my crotch like a rapper.
People actually showed up! And looked at the art! And went on looking at it instead of strolling on through. I couldn't stop watching everyone else -- fascinated by which pieces snagged their attention, wondering what it was they murmured to each other as they stood back analyzing and drinking some information unbeknownst to me out of it. It was as if I'd planted cacti and offered them a hollow tube sharpened at one end with which to tap the fluid. Or maybe that's stretching the metaphor too far. It sure felt like that, though.
Like I'd done something really good.
A woman walked up to me and shook my hand and thanked me for sharing my gift(s). I thanked her back instead of saying "You're welcome," like I was supposed to.
After a while I had to sit down because either it was all going to my head or my blood was pooling to my feet -- one or the other -- but the effect was the same: I felt lightheaded and clammy. It just didn't seem real, not any part of it. Part of me wanted to be so much more in the moment and not racing like a yippy little dog between past, present and future, but I couldn't seem to help it. It was all -- for me -- very, very exciting.
I felt so much gratitude for my friends, my family, for every single person who showed up that surely didn't have to on such a beautiful Sunday afternoon when there is so much in the world to do besides stand here with me.
Monday found me quiet and tired, and Heather and I spent most of it just talking and relaxing. It went by so fast. Before anyone could say how it was Tuesday morning and she was on a plane back home and we were all going back to our everyday, usual lives like nothing too momentous or extraordinary had happened.
Though for me, it really did, because I actually did what I said I wanted to -- I put my artwork out there, and people looked at it, and nothing horrible happened.
Art critics didn't leap like snipers from the bushes and pepper me with rounds of ammunition.
No monoliths rose with a shudder from the ground and split apart the temple with the Also Sprach Zarathustra theme from Space Odyssey 2001 keening menacingly in the background.
It doesn't do any good to ask: Why didn't I do this sooner? (I have a Zen answer: because then wasn't the time.) I had to go through the journey first, maybe like Homer's Odyssey. Or maybe not like the Odyssey, but it seems true that later you come to appreciate the things you might have taken for granted before, were they to come too easily at first: friends, affirmation, opportunities...I kept looking around me all weekend and thinking, I know it's a selfish thought, but I so earned this. And it's true. I really did.
Listening to: Sufjan Stevens, "Springfiel"
Monday, October 02, 2006
(Okay, the piano picture is from this morning when I gave Heather a concert. But what the hey.)