I was thinking this morning that our bodies are nature and our souls (thought? spirit? soul? mind?) live in them and over time adjust to the seasons of our physical life. What’s most shocking about this idea is that…
I’m not the first person who has had it.
Yesterday morning I got up to let the dogs out at 4:50 and then, uncharacteristically, didn’t go back to sleep. For some reason I HAD TO GET UP. Not long after I had begun the turn on the lights, make coffee, moment, I was hit by a migraine. My migraines are mostly of the visual kind, no throbbing pain on the crown of my head, no nausea, but they leave me pretty trashed once they pass. Yesterday’s was no different. I just push through and emerge on the other side feeling like a train wreck.
So whatever the spirit/mind had planned for the day didn’t happen. Wasn’t going to happen. Couldn’t happen. But, migraines can sometimes bring me vivid dreams and last night I dreamed I was in modern-day China (with a migraine) and talking on the phone to people who didn’t identify themselves (inscrutable orientals, right?) and ended up with a job as an art historian at the Guangzhou Museum of Western Art. I asked the unnamed voice on the other end of the “line” “What kind of art?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we’re hiring you. None of us know what they are or what they mean or where they came from.”
“So like the things around me at home that I brought back from China so long ago? The survivors of time?”
Good grief, Martha, GET UP!!!
So here I am. No migraine, only lingering tiredness. Those things are truly STORMS, but the trip to China was great.
The big canvas on which I painted the crane came to me from a friend who lost his vision to macular degeneration. He wanted to be an art teacher when he “grew up,” but when he was still pretty young, it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. A lot of his paintings hang in in house, and one of them hangs in mine. I have some of his brushes, too. He still likes to talk about painting. Though it’s hard to imagine the conversations make him happy, they seem to. That’s a testament to his resilience and courage. When he couldn’t paint anymore, he went after his other love, music.
I like to talk about painting. I like to talk about artists and pigments and all that stuff that some of you have “had” to read about on my blog over the years. I guess it was around this time last year I invested money I didn’t really have in a set of natural pigments and was completely enthralled by them. I still am. It’s all a big miraculous wonderful thing to me that you can pick up some dirt, pulverize it, mix it with oil or water or eggs or acrylic medium and you have paint.
Finishing the big painting yesterday left me with the bereft feeling I had when I finished writing my first novel. I poured a lot of life and time into that canvas. It sat in my garage until three years ago or so when I thought I knew what it was supposed to be and painted the underpainting. That idea never “jelled,” and the canvas just sat in a corner of my studio, partially painted, all Indian yellow and blue, waiting.
The image of the crane is something I saw briefly in the winter part of March this year. I passed the crane as he walked in solitude between willow saplings on a gray day with lifting fog. I thought, “That’s beautiful,” and kept going. I didn’t know at the time where it would lead me, that it would end up the painting on the big canvas, that I’d find an easel, that I’d drive 100 miles to get it on a glorious early fall day. I didn’t know anything about where that solitary gray image would take me. Now it’s there, no longer furtive and brief, but held as if in amber by the miracle of minerals and linseed oil, a different geology.
Doing a serious painting takes the artist somewhere. This year I’ve gone a lot of places in paintings, via paintings, in paintings. The weird part is finishing and re-entering daily life. You’ve done this THING, difficult and transformative, and when you emerge — not just from the work but the idea — and you’ve succeeded, you wonder, “Where is everybody? Where’s the parade?” 🙂
There will be some small touch-ups but it’s done. I was a little intimidated by the crane’s feathers/body but once I started it was just so much fun. This is a rendering from memory of a scene I saw in early March this year. The painting is 48″ x 36″ (121.92 x 91.44 cm), oil on cotton canvas.
My phone counts my daily steps, if I’m carrying it around. I had never heard of such an abomination until sometime in the early 2000s when I had my first cell phone in the pocket of my REI cargo shorts. I was running hills with my dog when I got a call from my boss.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m out at Mission Trails.”
“Mission Trails? Why? Is there a meeting?”
“No, I’m running with the dogs.”
“I bet you have no problem getting in your 10,000 steps.”
It was then I learned were “supposed” to walk 10,000 steps every day or something. Since my phone keeps counting, I researched the famed 10,000 steps a little while back. Here’s what I learned (found the article!):
“I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the lead author of a new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, began looking into the step rule because she was curious about where it came from. “It turns out the original basis for this 10,000-step guideline was really a marketing strategy,” she explains. “In 1965, a Japanese company was selling pedometers, and they gave it a name that, in Japanese, means ‘the 10,000-step meter.’”
Based on conversations she’s had with Japanese researchers, Lee believes that name was chosen for the product because the character for “10,000” looks sort of like a man walking. As far as she knows, the actual health merits of that number have never been validated by research.
To me the QUALITY of the steps counts more than the quantity. My steps are now pretty lame ( ha ha ) but my feet are just part of the equation. What I SEE and HEAR? Even when I was running that was the point. I didn’t have much time between school and dark and that was one reason I ran. The others? I loved running for its own sake and liked the endorphin kick that had the power to add a lovely quality to the light. On top of all of that I loved being out in nature alone with my dogs.
A friend recently asked me why I “work out” in the afternoon and not the morning. I explained that it’s not something I want to “get over” before I “get on with my day.” It’s the reward for whatever the day has blasted through my life. It’s a lifetime habit, I tried explaining. As soon as I got home from school when I was a kid I was out the door and into the woods or hills at top speed. After teaching all day? “Here you go, Martha! Good job! Play Kate Bush, leash the dogs, load up the truck and GO!!!! You’ve earned it!”
After speaking to my boss that day, I wondered about those 10,000 steps. I finally shook my head and said, “C’mon Punky (Ariel),” and we took off up the slope where once we’d watched a doe watch us. I have no idea how many steps that was.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama
Compassion is the key to everything, but as I had to learn the hard way, it doesn’t always feel good. I always thought of compassion as being nice to people, seeing their side, walking a mile in their shoes, but at a certain moment in my life I realized it might not mean “being nice” at all.
Being nice is easy. You do the nice thing and walk away feeling good about life the universe and everything — and ones self. But then…
My alcoholic brother.
“You think you’re being compassionate by taking care of him, paying his bills, listening to him on the phone, all of that, but it’s taking a huge toll on you, or why would you be here?”
“But I have to help my brother.”
“Who said? Are you helping him? Is he better because you pay his electric bills? Maybe you’re hurting him.”
I had a whole week to think about that — or hike and run about that.
I got my therapist’s point, and I even saw what I had to do, mechanically. I even saw that my “help” was just helping him NOT recover from alcoholism, and that if I really wanted to help him, I had to stop “helping” him. After that, it wasn’t just me mechanically not “helping” him any more. I had to deal with myself, and that has taken decades. I’ve thought a lot about compassion. Ultimately, compassion is self-care.
We live in a historical moment where compassion is simple. It doesn’t demand therapy or making the excruciating decision to let one’s glorious, talented, beloved little brother go wherever he has to go on his own. It just means we wear a mask when we’re around others to inhibit the spray of germs that issues from our mouths when we speak or breathe. Just this could keep businesses open, could keep people out of hospitals and could save lives. Heroic. But NOoooo. It’s political. Wearing masks inhibits our “freedom” and tramples our rights.
We call people heroes when they pull someone from a burning car wreck, save a child from drowning in a pool, give a kidney to a stranger, but here we are needing government officials to enforce behavior that would make all of us heroes if we just had the compassion to strap a stupid fucking piece of cloth across our nose and mouth.
“Australians, Bear. People in Patagonia where we were going if Trump had been re-elected.”
“Patagonia. Down there. There IS a Southern Hemisphere.”
Women who talk to their dogs end up with conversations like that. Yep, up here in the Back of Beyond Colorado summer is far from our minds. And whether summer is fun or not? It’s not our favorite. You can ask the skiers. Ski areas are beginning to open, cautiously, and with many rules. The one with the most snow so far is the one just an hour away from me. So, while the Australians and others are having fun in the sun, Coloradans will be trying to find open areas to ski.
These geographical niceties are beyond Bear’s comprehension so I never burden her with them. I’ve thought of taking them up with Teddy — who is more imaginative — but considering that in 10 minutes with me in the front yard yesterday, Teddy found the one small and nearly invisible hole in the fence, through which my neighbor’s little kitty comes to visit, I think he should maybe be tutoring me on geography…
I wonder what will remain of my brain at the point in which we are all vaccinated and wandering around out there doing all the stuff we did before. I wonder how that will be. I wonder if we’ll think, “Wow. I missed this?” I wonder if we’ll even dare bitch about being stuck in traffic as we drive a long distance to see our families. I wonder who we will be. I’m afraid I’m permanently altered. I’ve always been more interested in dogs than in people but I think I may have crossed a line… “Teddy, what do you think?”
“Just give me that coffee cup, Martha.”
“But I’m not finished.”
“Oh, OK. I’ll wait, patiently staring at you from down here on the cold floor.”
The virus chugs on, the president denies he lost an election, 15 counties in Colorado go to the arbitrarily (?) designated “Level Red” which, when I looked it up only means:
According to the state, ‘level red’ indicates severe risk and is reserved for counties with high levels of transmission, hospitalizations, and positivity rates related to COVID-19. Under this level of restrictions, most indoor activities are prohibited or strictly limited. Among major changes with the shift to ‘level red’ includes a drop to 10 percent capacity at gyms and fitness centers, an 8 PM last call for alcohol, and the closure of indoor dining.
Surprised that this “Level Red” wasn’t much of a “thing” I saw that we now have an additional level which is “Level Purple.” At that point people would be told to stay at home. It is “a level of more extreme risk than ‘level red’, reserved for counties where hospital capacity is at extreme risk of being overloaded.“
I also learned yesterday that scientists have discerned that the virus probably DIDN’T originate in Wuhan, but somewhere in Italy. Va bene.
Such is life in America this morning, November 18, 2020. On a visceral level, since the beginning of this shit show, I’ve “thought,” “Avoid people as much as possible. Wear a mask if you must be around others.” Seems obvious to me, but for some it’s easier said than done.
That said, yesterday my neighbors and I took our little two-car caravan out to the Wildlife Refuge for a saunter. More cranes have arrived. It was a cloudless day with no wind. There was a couple there with a leashed dog so part of our walk was spent taking detours to avoid them. Bear really does not like other dogs. My friends are so amazing that they just went along with the bizarre little circuitous wandering we had to do at the beginning of the walk. It’s not like it was really punishment. We walked in splendor wherever we were.
As always, my neighbor’s husband and I were far behind the girls. We’re just slower. We noticed the girls had stopped ahead of us and were staring into a field. I knew why. There’s a big field with a small pond and the cranes LOVE it.
It was the time of the afternoon when the cranes go from the refuge to a barley field across the street so we were regaled with many large swoops of cranes taking off from this field, flying around us and off. We all stood there a long time watching the magic and talking about life right now. It was a beautiful afternoon, the kind you know belongs in a glass globe on a shelf so whenever you need a good day you can have it again.
I heard a lot about “Qi” during my year teaching in China. Everything involved Qi. In a way, it’s “breath” or life. I interpreted it as “life force.” A person’s Qi could be blocked because their house was too cluttered for the Qi to move. On New Years it was very important to clean the steps in front of one’s house and to wear new clothes to attract the best Qi of the new year. Qi is constantly in motion.
Qi exists in our minds, too. If you’ve ever puzzled over something a long time only to have an epiphany, that’s Qi being released and the mind clearing. Tears at something beautiful, music, a painting — Qi releasing, the heart opening. The complicated graceful motions of Tai-chi? Designed to help Qi move as it should, as it wants to.
I like the idea of it, but a lot of my Chinese friends considered it a superstition. I don’t really think so. I think there are a lot of complicated “micr-forces” that act on our well-being and not all of them are supernatural or even out there. People often have a higher self-esteem when they’re dressed well. Light coming into a house has a cheering effect (because we can see better?) Neatness and orderliness in our homes makes life less frustrating because we’re not perpetually tripping over stuff.
After I finish projects in my little studio I clean the surface I’ve been working on. I’m not thinking that I’m opening it up so the Qi can flow, but any Chinese would. Sometimes (and this is Qi, too) I discover things that challenge or lighten the Qi in my mind. This happened the other day.
I had cleaned off the surface of the table that is the “table of all work” in there and I found a little pile of treasures I’d set aside and hadn’t dealt with. I picked up the treasures and put them in the Big Envelope of All Small Treasures I Cannot Throw Out. All of them went into that envelope but one photo that I missed. It is a photo of my brother, his wife and me in 1979 working on a giant snow bear behind my mom’s condo in Denver. My mom took the picture.
It was my niece’ first Christmas. She was just a 6 week old baby. It was a very happy Christmas for all of us and it was improved by a massive dump of snow.
My mom really hated the fact that my brother and I were artists. “My children are NOT going to be artists,” she said. “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But my brother was an artist and I am an artist and there really wasn’t anything she (or Kirk or I) could do about it. Her attitude was one of the things I’ve had to overcome in my life, and I’ve only succeeded in fits and starts. I guess the support and approval of our parents (duh, Martha) is important, but not everyone has that, or even parents for that matter. We have to do our thing without it, but there is a gnawing ugly thing inside that messes up our Qi.
I’d seen this photo many times but I had never turned it over. I didn’t turn it over this time, either. I dropped it. On the back I saw my mom’s handwriting…
I’m never going to understand that very complex woman, but that she wrote this, expressing wonder over what her two strange kids were doing?
Forgive me, this is a hard post to write and I’d like to do justice to both the joys and the sorrows in their turn. It is a post about discoveries and magical thinking–the good and the bad involved in both. This is about a book–and a boy who will probably never read it. I would separate them, but the two things are inextricably linked for me. It would be like dividing the sun from the moon.
Be warned, as it is written on ancient maps past the edge of the known world: Here be dragons!
It’s been an amazing fall out there at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. I might want tons of snow, Bear might want tons of snow, the farmers definitely want tons of snow, but the transient cranes have found so much joy out there that they’re not leaving. I saw the first of the fall migration in August. There are still large number of them hanging out in their favorite spots.
Large flocks of winter birds are beginning to arrive, and yesterday when Bear and I headed out we found Canadian geese standing and lying on the nearly frozen pond. On the banks to the north, away from the road, hundreds of cranes chatted calmly among themselves. Another group hung out on the over grown back road to the Refuge buildings.
The big ditch is running high right now which means that the Refuge is able to fill all the ponds and channels before winter emerges, and it will.
I love snow so much and want it down here in the valley where I can “have” it easily, conveniently, without driving, but there is something to be said for an open winter under these vast blue skies. If I’d known back in 2014 how little it snows down here, I might have looked for another place to live, but as the whole adventure has proven so magical, I have a feeling that down the road ( ha ha ) I might be glad to be living in a desert.