For Christmas in 1962 I got an oil painting set that contained narrow tubes of Grumbacher oil paint, brushes, turpentine and linseed oil, a canvas, an easel and a pallette that had disposable papers. I wanted to start right away, and did, but my mom didn’t really like me setting up a “studio” on the dining room table, so at some point I had to pack it all up and take it to the basement. Based on this photo, sometime in the summer I got back on it.
I remember really liking oil paints. Acrylics had been invented but weren’t available easily. My dad had painted in oils at some point in his life and he gave me some instruction. He explained that I cleaned my brushes with turpentine and thinned my paint with linseed oil. I didn’t enjoy watercolor back then because no one in my house had been initiated to the wonders of watercolor paper on which watercolors DON’T pool up and bleed into each other (unless you want them to).
There was a big tree in the middle of the big meadow at The Mission — a mission of Columbian Fathers that was essentially across the street from our house. Their land was mostly untouched deciduous forest, the kind you find along the Missouri River in Nebraska. I decided to paint that. The tree in the painting doesn’t look anything like that ancient oak tree, but a 10 year old painting half-way from her imagination using a new medium is probably not going to be the soul of accuracy. Besides, even though they appear static, trees AREN’T static and I never found them particularly easy to paint.
Finding this painting yesterday, my heart went out to this little girl, painting in her basement, at night, so earnestly, while her dad pointed his 35mm Kodak camera at her. I don’t even know if she’s really painting or if her dad posed her because, in all the pictures of her and her brother in the basement, she’s wearing the same shirt.
When I scanned ALL the slides that were in my house last year, I found the “cycle” of striped t-shirt photos. Thinking about the little collection of photos, I wonder if my dad hadn’t been inspired to take pictures of his kids and their ordinary life. He knew he wouldn’t be around for us later on and maybe he wanted to show us something later, when he was gone and we were grown up.
Photos were a lot more complicated in 1962 than they are now. They involved film — which no one ever remembered to buy — and then the whole thing of developing the film which, at that time, where I lived, meant taking the film to the drugstore and handing it to the person working the “film” counter. Since that was also the cashier, it could involve a long wait. Then, it took forever for the film to come back. Polaroid cameras eliminated some of this, but the photos just weren’t that great, the film was expensive and you still had to remember to buy it.
What struck me about the painting I’m doing in this photo is that I finally succeeded at it this year.
The tree is in the same spot. There is a road (path) not that visible in the 1962 painting, and this year’s painting, too, depicts sunset, though more in the metaphorical than pink-cloud sense.
The coolest thing about this, though, to me, is how well my dad knew what I would like to see in a photo some 60 years later. I love the little girl in this photo and I’m grateful to my dad. It’s not all glittery, but neither am I.
Christmas is jumping down my throat and I still have a present to mail. No, no, no I haven’t been procrastinating. There were just a lot of snafus involved. First, I ordered it from Amazon a month ago but forgot to change the destination address so I am now in possession of two large gift-wrapped containers of horse cookies that would cost more to mail to their REAL destination than they cost to buy. THEN…
I designed and ordered notecards featuring the big crane painting. Originally they were going to get here three days ago and now? Maybe today. Maybe the 22nd. They are part of the present that is now sitting in the “room of all cool things”. Seriously. For a person who had “finished Christmas” Thanksgiving weekend, this isn’t going well…
Sigh. Other procrastination? Dog poop in the frozen yard. New batteries in the motion sensor lights. You know. The stuff we don’t do.
Yesterday my friends and I went to the museum in Del Norte to see the Christmas show. The museum has had slow but steady business during this month. I could tell that because 1) the grab bags are mostly gone, and 2) Louise, who runs the museum, told me. 🙂
My paintings look good on the wall, still (no change there) and one of them is sold along with a garden sign, some cards and a small tree ornament. Not bad. My friends posed in front of my paintings and I told them to smile. This really IS history, though I think we might be wearing masks into perpetuity. I actually thought about whether the mask I planned to wear yesterday went with my outfit. Seriously.
It wasn’t a long adventure, but, on the drive home, I got to talk about something that’s troubling my mind. The talk was so needed, and she was so helpful. One thing about this bizarre moment in time is that it’s a little difficult to have those helpful, needed, conversations. I treasure my friendship with these two women.
Now I’m going to put on my puffy coat and head out to the frozen waste (ha ha)…
Last year — or any other year — I wasn’t walking out at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. It never occurred to me to walk there until this past March when Covid hit. My usual walks were at the beautiful Shriver/Wright Wildlife Area and Rio Grande Wildlife Area, but when Covid hit, the trails at Shriver/Wright became too often frequented by people who let their dogs out of the car at the parking lot to run, and the Rio Grande Wildlife Area closes from February to July so birds can nest.
I’d gone out to the Refuge to walk once when the cranes were at their peak and saw that it would be a GREAT place for the dogs and me. Well enforced leash law. Wide trails so rattlesnakes would be visible come snake season. Animals. Few people and most of them in cars. Wide, soul-filling vistas.
It took a little while for my Big White Dog to accept it. Livestock guardian dogs don’t like change, but I knew the more often we went, the more content she would be and soon she would turn it — with its smells and landscape — into her territory, and so she has. I’ve written a lot about it on this blog because it’s been one very good thing in my life during this time. I’ve (obviously) loved every moment I’ve spent with the cranes. Endured the deer flies and mosquitoes of summer, the admission price to summer sunsets. And best of all (so far), fall with chill days, cranes and beautiful skies. At one point this fall my friends became interested in going along and that has been very nice. Once in spring, my next-door neighbor and I took a long walk out there and talked about so many of the things that were troubling us.
Still, winter is my favorite season, and I’ve been anticipating the experience of the Refuge in snow and cold, in winter’s angled light and often silvery skies.
The migraines have been a little worrisome and the approaching holiday? Well, as it happens, I’m not crazy about Christmas as a celebration anyway, but it still has a quiet and important place in my heart and life. Over the years, as many of my Christmases have been solitary since all my family has died, I’ve experienced some miraculous Christmas Eves, so many that I no longer plan anything. I just let them happen. One year my stepson and his wife showed up with German Christmas (my step-daughter-in-law is German) and suddenly I was celebrating Christmas Eve exactly as I’d celebrated it growing up — dinner and a gift exchange. Sandi, who’s from the area near Dresden, brought all the foods she was used to on Christmas Eve. I baked mince pie. It was a warm and lovely evening spent with two people I love dearly. Another year I was surprised to find myself riding a horse when I’d thought there was no way I could get on one.
Lately, in the midst of this strange year, I’ve felt (as many of us have) the melancholy of the holidays combined with the sad statistics of Covid-19 and lurking dread of 45 who just won’t stop. And so…
This morning I was finally feeling brave enough to face the glare of snow, and I took Bear to the Refuge. It was the first time I’d walked there in winter and it was magical. Silent and immense with the infinitely varying sky that’s a feature of the San Luis Valley. Bear was blissful — snow holds smells to the ground the way grass doesn’t — and I was happy that animal tracks told me something about what she was smelling. Hundreds of ducks had taken flight the moment we arrived and I watched them circle and dive and land back on the pond. Walking on snow is dream walking. I felt like I could go forever. I saw how great this place will be on X-country skies and felt a lilt of anticipation. When we turned around and the angle of the sun changed, I watched a hawk circle in the silvery winter sky.
“Spend Christmas with us,” said the Refuge. I looked around at the few trees and bushes, thought of the hungry birds, and of putting suet balls on one or two of them on Christmas Eve.
“I will. Thank you for the invitation,” I said, excited to be spending Christmas Eve with someone I love.
People asked yesterday so here’s the low down on the little show at the Rio Grande County Museum. The opening is Saturday — I have no idea how that’s going to work, only that the woman who runs the museum is as concerned about C-19 as I am. But, I’m pretty sure there will be no crowds of people and it will not be a super-spreader event. Masks are required.
Today I’m hanging my stuff. I’m the first artist to hang (ha ha) so in a little while I’ll head into the snowy world just west of Monte Vista.
I’m hanging 3 oil paintings, taking three garden signs, some tree ornaments and Christmas cards. Yesterday I put a price on the tree painting. I thought, “I can’t hang it in this tiny house, and I need a new computer and phone.” In the middle of the night I woke up realizing I can’t sell it. A little voice said, “Not for sale!” I don’t know why, still if your painting is going to talk to you you either call the men in the white suits or do what it says. I’m hanging it but NFS.
Along with me is a very eclectic group of people and art, including two children. I think that is very cool.
I’m nervous, honestly. It’s the first time I’ve shown my work along with that of the people who gave me so much shit five years ago. Long story, but when I first moved here I joined two artist groups and an art co-op. Being the new guy, and from “outside,” it was a little tricky (ha ha use of understatement). I read recently that in this valley of 40,000 people there are 500 known artists. I think that might be a high percentage. But maybe after my being here for six years, they’ve accepted I’m here to stay.
I finished all the relevant tasks yesterday about 4 and loaded the car.
Apropos of other news, I wonder if we’re so inured right now to the daily crisis that we’re going to have a little trouble coming down from all that angst and adrenaline.
I didn’t believe this was real. After saying, on Twitter, that I didn’t believe the War on Christmas COULD be real, I learned a lot. Maybe it’s an urban thing or a Southern thing, but there’s no war here in the Back-of-Beyond. It makes me very sad that people would believe what Fox and Offal say and weaponize something that is, intrinsically, so good. So, here is my stance on Christmas and religion in general.
There is, IMO, nothing more personal than an individual’s faith. I grew up in a church that stressed that each of us develop a relationship with a “personal savior.” I took that on face value. Of course, back in the day, I called that entity “Jesus” but it turned out that Jesus was just a way to say that which I still can’t say, don’t have words for. Moses and the bush? One of the funniest things I’ve ever read yet profound — “What’s your name?”
“I am. That’s all you need to know.”
“Yeah, but what’s your NAME??? Those guys down there are not going to believe a thing I tell them without a footnote and a source.”
That bush was very wise. It knew that when you start naming God, you get wars. Oooops. I named him. My bad.
My town is in a very red part of Colorado, still the holiday banner across my street (a national highway) says, “Happy Holidays.” It goes up a few days before Thanksgiving and is meant to comprise ALL the wintery holidays. It faces west so anyone entering Monte Vista from that direction is greeted in this inclusive and gentle way. Most of the time this time of year people wish each other Merry Christmas, but often I hear “Happy Holidays.” I see no war on Christmas or anything else. The opposite.
Just now, as I was walking home from the golf course with Teddy, a delivery man leaned out of the open window of his van and said, with his whole heart and whole soul, “Merry Christmas!” and he waved. He wasn’t starting a fight. He was giving me the best he has on this day, Christmas Eve.
But, apparently, in some places, Merry Christmas is uttered as a provocation. I have thought about that. It seems that half of provocation is the willingness to be provoked. I think this is a war we — each of us — can choose not to fight.
As for me — Christmas begins at the beginning of December when my friend Lois comes to visit for all the holiday markets in the valley. This year I had the opportunity to read from the China book. That turned out to be a wonderful thing. I teeter through the month — bad days and good — but usually good. It’s impossible NOT to reflect on the past if you’re 67 years old and live by yourself. Impossible not to remember Christmases you shared with family that you loved and can never see again. I learned some time back just to surrender to whatever emotional rollercoaster shows up. That stragedy has proven to be a great way to live through the holidays. Every day for the past two weeks some lovely thing has happened as a result of my just being receptive and looking at it not only from the actual perspective, but also the metaphorical.
Yesterday, I took the skis to the golf course (I drive because the skis are awkward to carry and no one can walk in those boots). When I got out of Bella I saw a guy approaching that I know, Fred. Dusty loved Fred and Fred loved Dusty. Whenever we met, I let Dusty loose and he ran to Fred as if Fred were the realization of all Dusty’s dreams. I told Fred I’d lost Dusty this past year.
“He was a great dog,” said Fred. “Whenever he saw me, he hugged me.”
It’s true and Dusty didn’t hug anyone else. We shared some Dusty stories, reminisced about their first meeting on the golf course. Dusty was barking his head off, scary, at Fred. I said, “Do you like dogs?” Fred said he did, if they were friendly. Dusty didn’t seem friendly, but Fred held his ground while I let Dusty go. Fred spread his arms in welcome and Dusty ran some 50 yards and hugged Fred who hugged him back. Now Dusty was big. If he stood on his hind legs (which seldom happened) he was taller than I am, over five feet.
Fred and I remembered the first big snow last winter, in January, and how we were out there post-holing and Dusty almost knocked Fred over because the snow was so deep. Telling Fred about Dusty, I felt like the circle of Dusty’s life was now completely closed. It was a kind of memorial for my barky black dog that I still miss.
We talked about how we never see anyone else outside walking in the snow.
“What’s wrong with everybody?” I said. We laughed because, honestly, it’s kind of nasty out there. Today is the first day in two weeks the temperature has gotten up to freezing.
“It’s great here on the Valley floor,” he said. “It never warms up. The snow stays.” Both he and I think that’s a good thing. Then Fred said, “What are you doing for Christmas, going to family?”
I said I didn’t have a family anymore, or, rather, that I did, but I’m at the point in life when I can choose my family. “I have a great family, but we’re not related to each other.” I laughed.
“Thats the way to do it,” said Fred. But I could see he felt sorry for me. Fred’s Italian and, you know, la famiglia is everything. “You mean your parents and all your siblings are gone?”
“Yep.” Then I decided to tell him a little about my brother and how, after he died, many of his friends and I became acquainted and some are now family to me.
“Some people wouldn’t see it that way.”
“Yeah, well, I lost my dad when I was 20. I’ve had a long time to get used to it.” I laughed.
“And you’re happy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Why not?”
“Lot’s of people wouldn’t be.”
“I miss my family,” I said, “But I’m glad for the times we had. They were precious. Anyway, how could I not be happy with those mountains,” I motioned toward the Sangres, “this sky, the snow, living here?”
“Lots of people can’t be happy.”
Somewhere down the road of my life I had decided that happiness is a choice, just like, for me, believing in “it who shall not be named (aka God)” is a choice. I chose that, too. I’m happy with anyone’s celebration. I’ve learned that people seem to need something when the days are at their shortest. I understand that I’m a little different in that for me this is the BEST time of year, dark and cold.
We talked a little more, he wanted me to remind him what I did before I moved here, then he said, “Merry Christmas!” whole-heartedly, warmly, sincerely.
“Merry Christmas to you, too!” I said, equally heart-filled. Is it possible to MEAN that without being a Christian? Absolutely. Its meaning is, simply, “I wish you all the good things, peace, joy, love and beauty.” Because that is what that little baby in the manger symbolizes, what we all hope for whatever faith or non-faith we follow.
SO, from Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog, Teddy Bear T. Dog and I…
Scrooge crawled off this morning when I looked at photos of the step-grandkids on Christmas Eve opening presents I had sent them. I was hard pressed to do gifts this year, hard-pressed financially and emotionally, but I assembled a big box and the presents were set under their tree.
My step-daughter-in-law is German, and her tradition of Christmas is like that of my family’s. Open gifts on Christmas Eve. She has endured the custom tug-o-war with her husband’s mom, but reached the same compromise my mom did with her in-laws. Open some gifts on Christmas Eve. The rest on Christmas Day.
Last night the kids were taken for a walk around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights, and the room with the tree was set up with the presents. The kids came back to a surprise Christmas wonderland, and opened only the presents sent by Oma Martha (that’s me). When I saw the photos of them wearing the caps knitted by my friend, E, my Grinch heart softened. Maybe that’s the whole point. ❤
A long time ago in a faraway land known as Omaha, Nebraska, I went to a private school. I was in the 6th grade, studying Spanish and a member of the Spanish club along with my best friend, Mary N.
Christmas came around and the head of the foreign languages department, Dr. Espinosa (known as Dr. Halitosis because kids are both young and cruel) wanted to organize a Christmas music event for the Spanish Club of Omaha. What this meant was that we learned a lot of Christmas songs in Spanish, some just the usual carols and some songs from Spanish speaking countries.
The big night came and because Mary and I were the only two middle-schoolers in the group, we had to dress like the other girls who were in high school. It was the first time I wore nylons, and I had to borrow a red blazer. Middle schoolers wore sweaters.
My dad took me and dropped me off at the Spanish club, and Mary’s father volunteered to bring me home though Bellevue was NOT on the way from downtown Omaha where our school was located to Council Bluffs, Iowa where Mary lived. From there we’d ride the school bus to the Big Event.
My mom’s nylons felt creepy on my legs, that plus my mom felt that 11 year old girls should NOT wear nylons. They were also cold. It was December in Nebraska, damp, biting cold hit my essentially bare legs. Both Mary’s mom and my mom drew the line on heels. Neither of us were going to wear them. Dr. Espinosa accepted that. We didn’t really look like high school girls anyway, especially for 1963 which was a lot of bouffant and hairspray, blue eye-shadow and orange lips.
We arrived in an old building in downtown Omaha. We were ushered into a room which was filled with old people, all dressed up, women all in red lipstick. There was a table filled with cookies and punch. As it was 1963, people were also smoking. They sat in three or four rows. We assembled ourselves in front of them and Dr. Espinosa introduced us.
It was an interesting introduction because he didn’t just introduce us girls to the group of well-dressed old people, but he introduced them to us.
They were all refugees from the fascism of Generalissimo Franco’s regime. Our songs — especially those that came from Spain — meant a lot to the people sitting in that room.
The only one I remember is this one, “Arrurru, Arrurru.” As I remember, it’s a song from Mexico, one often sung during La Posada, a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s attempt to find a place to sleep.
We sang it much more slowly than this version, but I have no idea what’s the right way or wrong way to sing it or if there is even such a thing.
The people attending the concert that night were very touched by our music. One woman said, “Thank you for bringing a little bit of Spain to Omaha tonight. Bless you, girls.”
My friend and I were silly pre-teenagers, caught up in our own passions (hers was horses, mine was Lawrence of Arabia) but we got it.
It was an important experience for me, unforgettable (obviously). It was the first time I fully understood how people could be forced to leave a country they loved, a culture to which they belonged, because of politics.
I’m sorry but what? My family? Two dogs. A couple of cousins in the wilds of Montana (one of whom flirts with me, very creepy) and a couple others here and there. Family is not all it’s cracked up to be. Some families are just fucked from the getgo. Some fall apart over time. This joyful holiday get-together-with-family BS is just an added pressure this time of year, and I’m at the point in life where I get to choose my “family.”
Last Christmas I spent with some of my chosen family in Colorado Springs. Providence brought me a sister not long after my brother Kirk died from alcoholism. “Here,” Providence said, “from Kirk.” We thank Kirk from time to time because without him dying we wouldn’t know each other. To learn about that, you can read my post on the Kindness of the Gods.
The Christmas Eve get-together of family and friends was hilarious and grim as only family Christmases can be. The “brother-in-law,” we’ll call him “M,” got drunk and spent the evening sitting on the “going to the basement” stairs of the split-level house my chosen sister (CS) had borrowed from her second brother (who was not there) because it had a dishwasher and more space than her house. Probably 30 people attended. I knew most of them, but didn’t get to talk to everyone. I was in a lot of pain from my hip and couldn’t stand for more than five or ten minutes, so I had to spend the party sitting on a comfy chair (“No, no, not the comfy chair!”)
My “son-like-thing” was depressed and mildly inebriated, in a bad relationship and lost in life. My nephew, one of the sweetest people on the planet, a developmentally disabled guy in his 30s, sat with me on a small sofa with his head on my shoulder staring at my tits. My CS’s oldest brother and his piece-of-work wife interviewed me about my education and credentials to see if I merited their attention and conversation. I passed, but that didn’t mean we had anything to say to each other.
After about a couple of hours, my CS noticed that “M” was MIA.
“He’s on the basement stairs. He’s been there all night.” “Is he OK?” “He doesn’t look so good.” “I’ll take him home,” I said. I’d signed up for that job early in the day.
Some friends helped “M” to my car. No one knew if he (blind and arthritic and drunk) could walk on his own, and the thought of him falling was not to be borne. “I’ll meet you there,” said one of my CS’s friends who was there with her son and his new girlfriend. I was pretty stove up at the time, needing hip surgery and unable to easily climb stairs, so I wouldn’t have been able to help him into the house. We’d have sat in the car godnose how long.
“Great,” I said, relieved. On the way “home,” I dropped off my CS’s very pitiful ( 😦 )alcoholic musician friend, then took “M” home. The friends drove up, ready to help, but “M” was fine. He went in by himself, headed directly to the basement, his hangout, with the mini-fridge and the 20 pack of *PBRs.
“You going back to the party?” asked the friend.
I shook my head, thinking how amazing life is that even with everyone in my own dysfunctional blood family dead, I could still have a Christmas Eve like that. ❤
*PBR stands both for Professional Bull Riders and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.
I’m trying to figure out why I’m so depressed, and I’m hoping there is an external cause, like maybe it’s just the holidays. If there is no external cause, that sucks. Time will tell.
I honestly have never liked Christmas. I’ve tried to like it. I’ve liked aspects of it. I have had some really nice Christmases in my life with beloved family and friends and even alone. I loved my Christmases in Zürich with my Swiss family. I loved my Christmases with my Montana aunts. I loved a very special Christmas when my stepson, Ben, and his wife, Sandi, brought German Christmas (Sandi is German) to my house in the mountains of CA on Christmas Eve. We took a hike in the afternoon to decorate a pine tree with bird seed. Sandi didn’t. know it had snowed in the mountains and that was the best Christmas present she could have gotten. That night we exchanged gifts and opened presents — that was the tradition in my family as well. With my family mostly gone at that point, I’d never expected to participate in that custom again. I could (and maybe should?) write a long list of happy Christmas memories. Maybe that would fix this, but I doubt it.
The closer it gets, the more I wish I could escape to a non-Christmas place. I’ve tried this year to just sample the meaningful things that have come my way — and I’ve enjoyed them — but it still seems to go on and on and on and on and on and on and on.
When I was a kid, Christmas was happy if we went away. Otherwise, it was often horrible and maybe that’s why I dread it. One year (when I really really really really wanted a long flannel nightgown like the girls wore in Little Women) I bugged my mom about it (as kids do). Suddenly my mom said, “You only think about yourself. You never think about other people. Come here.” She grabbed my wrist rather brutally, sat me down hard in front of the Christmas tree and opened my presents. I kept my eyes closed, but really? I was 8.
Usually I’ve gone away, but this year there is no money for that — $700 for car insurance, $400 for new tires, $150 for car registration all due in the last two months on top of a year that was filled with lots of expenses.
Any-hoo, in other somewhat less self-indulgent news, I made a Christmas ornament for a tree that a family puts up downtown in memory of their family members who have died. They write the family member’s names on ornaments and invite others to do the same. I lost my last two aunts in the last year. A dear friend of mine lost her two sons in a car crash 5 years ago and the lawsuit has (thankfully) just recently come to an end. Her son and his wife (who also died in the crash) were good friends of mine. Out of that disaster I “got” his mom who’s a very inspiring person, a fine artist, and a kind and vibrant soul who’s lived an adventurous life. I love her very much. My friend Lois always misses her mom and then there’s my brother about whom I have intensely mixed feelings but he’s still my bro. I decided to make a star and write their names on the points.
The dogs and I got in the car, drove the star down to the tree and then we went for a walk at the slough. Because Dusty is somewhat stove up, we couldn’t go far so we went to the place where I run into the Icky Man. He wasn’t there. We walked fast because I expected him to show up any time, but we were lucky. As we were driving away from the spot — already on the road — his truck passed us. Perfect timing and a great Christmas present since Dusty and Bear really had a lot of messages to read and leave.