Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pooh Sticks at Slack Tide

The tide was very high and slack the day after Thanksgiving when we arrived at the "jiggly bridge" where the Mill Pond meets the York River. About ten of us--sisters, spouses, cousins--were out for some fresh air and our annual day-after-Thanksgiving walk to the Jiggly Bridge following lunch together at my mother's. (We walkers were her daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and something like a great niece.)

Over the years on walks to the Jiggly Bridge, my sister's family and mine have carried on a tradition of playing "Pooh Sticks" at the bridge, where we have almost always encountered a significant rush of tidal current in one direction or another--either from mill pond to river and out to sea, or the other way around.

Pooh Sticks, for the uninformed, is a game described in one of the Winnie The Pooh books. It is played by dropping sticks off of one side of a bridge into the moving water beneath, then rushing to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick "wins" by coming out from under the bridge first. When the tide is moving fast under this particular bridge, there are hazards of various kinds--eddies that toss lightweight sticks in not so straightforward directions or even hold them captive a while; rocks and rock weed that complicate matters at the edges of the passage, especially at lower tides; and sometimes also the wind playing tricks.

While I'd like to claim that veteran Pooh Stickers play with skill and finesse, making careful calculations to fit the circumstances, it's really not true, at least not for us. Winning is basically a matter of luck--luck both in finding a good solid stick or two and in dropping the sticks serendipitously. And winning isn't nearly as important as simply playing.

This year we walked to the bridge knowing it would be our last such day-after-Thanksgiving walk. My mother will be moving soon; at age 91 she is somewhat resigned to this next "adventure" (not her word for it!) that will relocate her to an assisted living facility near my sister in Connecticut. For my daughters and my niece, who were young children when we first launched our Pooh Stick tradition ten or twelve years ago, this was an important ritual to enact one last time. Anna and Hannah began scouting for sticks as soon as we turned onto the path to the bridge. It felt important to me, too, to play this last game of Pooh Sticks; my heart felt full anticipating this simple ritual.

The high tide was noticeable immediately. In all our years of post-Thanksgiving (and also some summer- time) Pooh Sticks, we have never encountered such a high tide. Nor such a slack one. Meaning, there was virtually no current moving the water either into the millpond or out to the river and the ocean.

In other words, there would be little force to move our sticks under the bridge. It was even hard to tell which direction the water was moving, so negligible and subtle was the movement. This was not going to be one of our more rollicking games of Pooh Sticks!

Indeed our sticks dawdled and drifted their way under the bridge, barely making forward progress. It was like suspended animation--the slowest, laziest Pooh Sticks game imaginable! That's just the way it was, and there wasn't much to do but . . . go with the flow, what there was of it.

After two rounds of lazy sticks, we started to turn for home. And I was seized with a desire to mark this occasion some how--this last of many years of Pooh Sticks together at the Jiggly Bridge. We'd forgotten to bring a camera, so there was no way to note this moment with a photo. The best I could think to do was to gather us into a group hug just where the bridge meets the footpath, which is what we did, honoring this tradition and this gathering and this marker in time. With hands in mittens and bodies in thick winter coats, we threw our arms around each others' shoulders and huddled together briefly.

More recently it has occurred to me just how fitting the slack tide was for this particular game of Pooh Sticks. The tide itself was marking time for us, inviting us to pause there between flood and ebb. A calm, quiet moment before we would all be swept up in the turbulent, troubling force of the current of all that has to be done to move a 91 year old woman. And perhaps even more than the tasks to be done, there are the strong undeniable yet undefinable currents of emotion and memory--some very old and some quite new--and the challenges of four adult siblings juggling interpretations, desires, opinions, and different ways of sorting things out and getting things done. Someone recently reminded me that each of us carries with us a slightly different memory of the very same woman who is our mother, and no one's memory is any "truer" than another's.

Some days now it seems as if all five of us, my mother and her four children, are being carried along into a strange birthing process, a "birth" that is a dying and being born anew in some as yet unknown way, that we are being carried on a current that allows for no turning back. I would be glad for a moment of slack tide calm here and there.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I've been haunted by a story a heard the other day, about someone (name and identifying details withheld to protect the innocent) who had been a professional musician before being ordained as an Episcopal priest, who gave up playing his instrument of choice when he took up ministry. Something about the story got a hold on me, or me on it, as if I knew there was something there to be learned and  perhaps spoken aloud. And when I tried to wrestle and write about it, what came out had the force of a manifesto, more or less as follows.

I want to say in the name of all that is holy, do not forsake these things you may do (like playing a musical instrument, gardening, painting, cooking, etc.) that are life-giving for you, that keep you connected to the wild, living, untamable life-force, to "Whatever it is that's out there and in here," as someone I know chooses to call this. That's what I want to say.

And again in the name of all that is holy, please do not confuse all that is "religious" for all that is holy. I see now how thoroughly and terribly I mistook what's religious (and even more narrowly, what's Christian) for what's holy and sacred, and in the process did grave injury to my own self and my creative energies and inclinations, not to mention those of others.

I suppose the story of the priest who gave up music-making reminded me a bit of myself. For most of my life I've been a poet of sorts, at least I've been an occasional writer of poems. I took poetry workshops in college, even won a poetry prize, and carried on writing poems in seminary, though really, it's possible I kept writing in seminary largely because of the inspiration and encouragement of someone who loved both me and my inclination to write poems.

By the time I got to seminary I had already shown a troubling (though I thought entirely "holy") inclination to ditch my allegiances to activities and even writers who weren't explicitly "Christian," as if truth couldn't come to me and the world through such channels. Never mind that I loved the works of these writers, poets, musicians, etc. For whatever sad combination of reasons--immaturity, a slightly stoic New England upbringing, and the overly heavy influence of some conservative, somewhat Calvinist Christian colleagues whose judgments I feared--it didn't occur to me to trust what I loved, to pay attention to what gave me delight. As if sacrifice and suffering and seriousness were the only reliable tools for discernment. (Yuck! Heaven help us!)

About ten years out of seminary, an encounter with the person who had inspired and encouraged my poetry shook me at my core. Acting from instinct, I did my best to write about this encounter, and without ever deciding to, I started to write a poem. And the act of writing a poem got my attention.

"Oh..." I found myself musing. "I used to do this; I used to write poems on a regular basis."

I didn't remember stopping writing poetry in any sort of intentional or official way, but I knew it had been a long time since I'd written any. Naturally I wondered what had happened and went looking back in my journals. Here's what I found:

Ordination had happened. Parish ministry had happened. Writing sermons and directing my creative energies toward church stuff happened. By the time I had been out of seminary for about a year and had been ordained and employed in parish ministry, I had stopped writing poems. I didn't mean to stop; I just kind of stopped.

I had allowed one of my most personal of creative outlets to dry up from neglect and non-use. In so doing I had also lost one of the best ways I had had (though I may not have put it this way at the time) for staying in touch with a voice that was truly mine, authentic to me and most certainly not shaped in any particular way or toward any particular topic or occasion that was required of me, like preaching a sermon, writing a newsletter, leading a discussion or teaching Sunday School.

And what I would say now, from the vantage point of another fifteen years, and from the place of freedom gained by renouncing my ordination and stepping well out of church life, is that in giving up that creative outlet I had also given up one of my best and most open channels between me and "all that is holy;" between me and the great creative force that infuses, animates, and sustains the universe and everything in it; between me and "whatever it is that's out there and in here," within me and within you and between us, too. (Though it leads to a huge new topic, one might even say this was for me a way of "prayer" though it didn't seem to bear much resemblance to all the ways I had thought I should pray and had tried--and basically failed--to pray.)

Somewhere in the days of my musing on the story of the priest-musician, I happened to have a conversation with Raye Tibbitts about this, which resulted in her asking me to be a guest blogger on Gatehouse.

"Sure!" I said.

"By December 1st?" she asked. "Sure!" I said (it seemed so far away at the time).

As the date drew nearer, my recollection of our conversation grew vaguer and vaguer, so that I honestly began to wonder what on earth I could have possibly said that Raye found so intriguing. All I could remember was the Episcopal priest who had given up his music-making.

That, and my new understanding of "the unforgivable sin." What? Have I lost it? Why would I care about "the unforgivable sin"?

As I talked to Raye ("ranted" may be a more accurate verb) about this whole matter of recognizing the "holiness" of all forms of creative activity (and really, all of life) and of reclaiming the word "holy" from the religious sphere, I spun off a sudden new insight into a not-so-favorite Bible verse, in which Jesus is reported to have said: '"Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin'--for [his critics] had said, 'He has an unclean spirit.'" (Mark 3:29-3-)

Of all the "blasphemies" against the "Holy Spirit" (a.k.a. great creative force, Life, and other wide inclusive names), the one I've come to see as "unforgivable" is that of so narrowly defining and trying to limit what is holy that one overlooks, undervalues, squelches, and and dams up the flow of the creative force through each of us. And what's unforgivable about this is that every time we undervalue, demean, and refuse to play along with this creative force, not only do we harm ourselves, but also something of great potential value is lost. Something that wants to be expressed through us is left unexpressed, perhaps forever--"an eternal sin."

I'm not talking only about "creative works of art" although it's easy to see how this operates in that sphere. I'm talking also about whole lives and the capacity each of us has to live more fully, more creatively and authentically, not as someone else but as ourselves. That, it seems to me, is the holiest obligation each of us has for the time that we're here. (Not to the exclusion of things like compassion, and justice, and kindness, mind you, but those "virtues" get expressed through you in your own way.)

I will end with a very short, favorite story and a favorite quote. The story is of Rabbi Zusya (a long ago rabbi), who nearing death, declared to his beloved students, "When I stand before God, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' God will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'"

And the quote, from Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian: "Do not ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive and go do it. For what the world needs is people who are fully alive."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

These Golden Bees

"And the golden bees 
were making white combs 
and sweet honey
  from my old failures."

Antonio Machado

I don't know Spanish, but ever since hearing the poet David Whyte read this Machado poem in translation, these lines have been among my favorites. I know the poem by its first line in English, "Last Night As I Was Sleeping." Or something like that.

I've been thinking about them a lot lately, and I want to write a series of posts about "the Golden Bees' School of Art"--or how these golden bees seem to operate in my own art-making (and life-living). 

But because I'm up against a serious deadline to be ready for an Artisan Fair on Friday afternoon, for today I am only going to leave you with these lines. Let them wash over you and into you, and see what happens. 

Here they are again, with a few more lines that go with them:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt--marvelous error!--
that I had a beehive
here in my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Sneaky Guise of Selflessness: Part 2

At the risk of beating this particular tired, nearly worn-out horse past the point of usefulness, I have a couple more thoughts to add. One was a moment of self-understanding (that may border on self-justification) about my desire to blog what I feel like blogging without having to worry much about whether I'm being helpful to others.

"Ahhh, yes," I thought in a flash of recollection. "Writing sermons all those years (22, to be more precise), I was altogether focused on what would be helpful, elucidating, enlightening, encouraging, or challenging in a positive way. No wonder I not only find it hard to allow myself to do otherwise but also have a burning desire to follow a different (i.e., self-determined) path of inspiration!"

I suppose this bit of awareness should have been obvious to me--I'm sure it has been clear at various times. It's just one of those slippery fish that easily wriggles free of my grasp. I have put in my dues in an other-focused profession. Even if the stuff I wrote was drawn from within myself and the quirkiness of my own creative process, the writing and speaking of all those sermons took place within externally determined boundaries and a fairly set liturgical framework, for a clear purpose that had little to do with free personal expression.

Preaching is an an art form, for sure, but one in which the goal of the particular religious inclination can clash mightily with the hungers and longings of an individual creative person. My soul has borne the brunt of that clashing of agendas, goals, longings.

"But you can exercise your creativity in your sermons," people used to say.

"Yes, but..." I used to try to respond. Often as not, I would give up trying to articulate the struggle, the intensely felt clash of forces, because no matter how I tried to frame it, my desires for true creative freedom to express myself however I chose (meaning, in whatever medium or language I chose and on whatever topic I felt moved to speak) always sounded

How can the fires of individual self-expression ever come off sounding as morally or religiously legitimate as the ideals of serving others? Especially from within an institution whose stated goals and norms are the service of others in the name of and in the spirit of Jesus?

I remember a poet leading a poetry workshop I attended while still in seminary, who took a rare (among the rather bohemian poetry world of that workshop) positive view of my religious affiliation. He suggested I read one or two poets who wrote what he thought of as "religious poetry," even if not overtly religious poetry.

I'm not sure I could have said so very clearly at the time, but I think I knew even then that I didn't want to write "religious poetry!" Over the years my poems, when I wrote them at all, were a means (or at least kept alive a hope for such a means) of keeping alive some other voice within me, a wilder, truer, sometimes even a deliberately irreverent or skeptical voice, a voice outside the boundaries of the church.

And my pursuit of other art forms over the years sprang from a similar motivation. My forays into drawing, painting, knitting, dyeing yarns, weaving...

"Oh, wonderful!" at least one parishioner said after I had learned weaving during one of our sabbatical breaks, "you can weave new altar hangings for the altar!"

I remember how suddenly and totally my heart sank when I heard those words (and the moment was at least seven years ago). And I remember how a fiery, feisty energy had risen up almost as suddenly, ready to defend my creative pursuits as my own, to mark off a place where my own quirky, peculiar, authentic to myself as possible self-expression would be guarded from that seemingly insatiable hunger of the church to own it all, to own all of me, and for parishioners to want to claim my creativity for themselves.

As you can imagine, there's still more to tell of this story. But right now I'm off to deliver some paintings to the church where that very same exchange happened seven years ago. For the second year in a row, I will step into that building (that I still love very much), not as a priest but as a painter. Somehow I think I would do well to repeat that last sentence to myself many times over, and to savor it.

And then to keep telling about the "sneaky guise of selflessness", and especially about the time when I finally saw it for what it was and dared to choose a different path.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Sneaky Guise of Selflessness: Part 1

This post is really a sequel to yesterday's about "Waiting for Permission". It's where the permission issue hooks up with the selfish vs. selfless (or at least altruistic) issue. What do I mean by the selfish vs. selfless/altruistic issue? You know the one, I'm sure.

Usually the things we wait for permission to do are viewed by some super-ego part of ourselves as "selfish," self-centered, for ourselves and our pleasure alone.

"What good can this possibly do for others?" we might ask. Artistic, creative, and self-expressive endeavors seem particularly vulnerable to such accusations.

Of course there are numerous leaps of false assumptions and false thinking that take place in our minds along this path, and sadly, our particular culture's bias toward the pragmatic and away from the aesthetic and creative is of no help at all.

And since most of us, and especially most of us who are women and girls, are encoded--perhaps hormonally, and certainly culturally--toward serving others, being praised and feeling rewarded for doing for others rather than for ourselves, to choose to do something that appears to be primarily for one's own pleasure or simply because it's who you are is difficult. More than difficult. Terrifying even. I have been stopped in my tracks more times than I care to count.

Enter then what I call "the sneaky guise of selflessness." Under the cover of darkness (in this case, the darkness of your own lack of self-awareness, your disconnection from your self) your own personal dream or desire finds a guise of selflessness. You find a way, in other words, to offer up your personal "calling" toward particular creative endeavor as something for a whole bunch of people! You get to do it because you find a way to do it for others; thus, it's no longer selfish of you!

And believe me, life hands you countless opportunities for doing so. (Being in a helping profession ensures that you will have an endless supply of opportunities to bite the bait. My years as an Episcopal priest in parish ministry are riddled with examples. I could get very specific about some of them, and how I came to recognize what I was doing--another day, another post.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that there's something dishonest or distorted about all altruistic activities, nor about all creative endeavors offered to others. Not all of them are really your own private yearnings in distorted disguise. Sometimes you really do want to teach others how to paint or draw or write or sing. Sometimes it really is a part of your calling to lead groups or to share your own knowledge and love of a particular field or craft with other people. And thankfully some people really are called to the visibly altruistic professions--to be healers, nurses, doctors, teachers, librarians, you-name-its! It's what makes their hearts sing (at least some of the time). Thank God!

That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something much more insidious, precisely because it happens beneath your own radar. And after it happens enough, it becomes a rock solid habit that is both hard to notice and hard to break.

It has even been a part of my struggle around blogging! Is it really and truly OK for me to blog what I feel like blogging, to spend a little time at the keyboard putting my thoughts out there for others to read, simply because I enjoy the process of doing so? To choose whatever topic seems to want to be written on a given day, or whatever words or ideas I seem to want to play around with, without regard for whether it might do anyone out there in cyberspace any good at all? (Ah, there's the rub!)

Could it be enough simply to tell a story because it's a story that I feel called to tell, driven at times to tell, partly because when I scratch deep enough down I discover that part of who I am, part of my DNA, is a writer and teller of stories?

More times than I wish to relate or you probably wish to read, I've steered away from an expression of simple joy or a quirky observation in my blog in favor of something that might actually, if I'm lucky and say it honestly and well, help someone else. Who's to say that the expression of simple joy or the quirky observation wouldn't have been just as "helpful" as my attempt at wisdom?

I even had a small tussle with a reader of one of my blogs early on (one since abandoned), a reader who really didn't like even the slightest hint that I was going to write what I felt like writing and wasn't all that concerned about what she and other readers might want me to write about. I held my ground, but it really got under my skin. I fretted and worried for days that I was a hopelessly self-centered and self-serving blogger. (Maybe I am! And if so, well, so be it. Might as well stop pretending.)

Suddenly I'm aware of what a huge topic this is. And how much I could say about it, how many stories I could tell. Let's just say, there's more to come, and call it a day.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Waiting for Permission

Remember how in grade school (maybe even in high school?) if you needed to go to the bathroom you had to raise your hand and ask permission from the teacher? And of course you had to ask your parents for permission to do things you wanted to do if they required money or a ride or you just plain knew they were a little too big to do without asking.

Such as when I took a semester off from college after the fall of my sophomore year (that was the first really big permission thing--I remember what my dad said: that if I was as unhappy in school as I said I was, then perhaps I'd be wasting my time and his money to stay, so his answer was "yes").

And then I tried to find a job somewhere away from home for that semester, and I was interested either in doing some kind of service-oriented work (like a short-term Peace Corps kind of thing) or working on a boat in the Virgin Islands (like a short-term totally NOT Peace Corps kind of thing).

And when I received by mail--it was all done by mail in those days! How slow!--a rather vague job offer from the male captain/owner of a yacht who took paying passengers for week-long vacations, my dad said, "No way are you going to the docks on St. Thomas to meet some strange man who may or may not actually offer you an honorable job." I think I was secretly relieved to have that permission denied.

In any case, I've been aware these days of how often I still act as if I am waiting for someone other than me to give me permission--to try out an idea, to paint a certain way, to spend a whole day painting rather than doing something else, or to ignore all the rules and suggestions for successful blogging and just blog what I feel like blogging.

And do you know what happens when I wait for someone else, some mysteriously unidentified other, or else some poor innocent who happens to cross my path, to give me permission? (And not only do I wait but I don't even ask, because of course to ask for permission for such things at age 56 is nigh to ridiculous!)

What happens is that I notice other people who appear to have their acts together enough simply to do what they want or think best without waiting for permission from someone else, probably because they give themselves permission without even having to think about it!

And when one of those self-permitted people happens to do something I'm still waiting for the aforementioned vague permission to do, boy, does that trigger me! I might feel betrayed (how could you steal my idea?), or like a victim (you didn't tell me you were going to do that!). And on an even deeper level there's a part of me screaming, "NO! Wait! That's what I want to do!"

I get to see things more clearly--about myself and how I operate; and even more important, about what there really is within me that wants to be expressed, created, honored and acted. And of course to be given my fully self-authorized permission to do just that.

P.S. Thanks, Beth, for nudging me yesterday by saying you'd noticed I hadn't been blogging much of late.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing but not Blogging

My, how time passes. It's been nearly two weeks since I last blogged.

Something about that last sentence sounds like confession. Even though I didn't grow up Roman Catholic, there are enough confession scenes in popular culture for me to know the formula: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been (fill in the blank) weeks since my last confession."

I know what they say about the best ways to blog--being regular, letting your readers know they can really count on you, and all that. And still, sometimes it just doesn't happen. Seems as though I am still working out something about the relationship of blogging to the rest of my writing, or maybe it's to the rest of my life.

I have been writing over these days when I've not been blogging. I've been writing but not blogging. Among other things I've been reacquainting myself with the practice of Proprioceptive Writing, which I first encountered (and practiced for several months) about thirteen years ago. And as with other practices I've been returning to, such as yoga, I find I am coming at this writing practice quite differently. More holistically. With (somewhat) less of an agenda.

I see a parallel between the two "returns"--the one to yoga and the one to proprioceptive writing (or PW for short). When I tried yoga years and years ago, I thought of it rather narrowly as primarily a form of physical exercise for flexibility and I don't know what else. Now I am embracing it in a spirit closer to its heart (and to my heart, too, I suppose), that is, as a means toward greater wholeness and a fuller, healthier interrelationship between my body and my mind and spirit. I like very much that yoga practice often seems to operate on many levels at once--thoroughly grounded and attentive to my body, and yet also with powerful metaphorical force.

Nearly every time I'm at my yoga class I can imagine two or three or sometimes a dozen connections that are worthy of writing about. I am grateful that so often it seems to be exactly where I need (or want?) to be, hearing exactly what I need (or want?) to hear.

With proprioceptive writing, I came to it those thirteen years ago primarily because I thought it would help me to write better--perhaps both because it would provide me with a weekly group to be part of and because it is designed to help you drop down underneath your surface thoughts to stories and memories held perhaps in hiding, held also of course in the very cells of your body.

Now I am discovering its gifts of connecting me more clearly to myself through writing, but not necessarily with an aim toward an end, like writing a book, or writing a better blog post. This time, too, I've read the definitive book on the practice--Writing the Mind Alive--which suggests that the practice is at once an aid to stronger writing as well as to the healing that comes with slowing down and listening to yourself more fully. And the authors offer it also as a "modern day secular spiritual practice". Totally nonsectarian, nondenominational, and non-doctrinal, which was something I was already intuiting about it this time around.

So there's lots going on in my life right now for good, even though I haven't been blogging. I guess I'm still (and always?) negotiating my own terms with blogging--what's my primary purpose in blogging? what's my goal, my aim, my end? (Is it primarily for "business" or for pleasure? and if for business, what business--painting? writing? coaching?) And what are my own "rules" for doing it? How often? and with what range of topics?

When I put it that way, it would seem that blogging is pushing me to figure out my life! Maybe it's time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Clearing Space: Stuffed Animals

On the large chest of drawers that's in my small study (because the chest is too big to fit through the strangely angled, narrow hallway to our bedroom) I've had two baskets of old stuffed animals that I've decided to put away. By "old" I mean nearly all of them are from my childhood and even some from my older siblings' childhoods. That means many of them have been my companions off and on or at least have been in my possession for an average of fifty years. And the animals that belonged to my brothers might be sixty to sixty-five years old.

As you can imagine some of them do not exactly look too spiffy. There's Jocko, a ten-inch chimpanzee who is now blind in both eyes (missing the glass), with only one hand and no feet intact. There's a lovely tiger, still pretty handsome to look at, who sports an Arthur and DW band aid around his broken tail (and I notice that even that repair needs repair). The "pink" bunny I loved well, now mostly without any fluff save for the secret patches of blush pink hiding in the folds of her limbs and ears where they flop forward.

Many are small Steiff animals, including three from the African plain that inspired my first, still unfulfilled, longings to go on safari--a lioness, a zebra, and my favorite, the gangly yet graceful giraffe. (I did a report on giraffes in elementary school, with photos clipped from a National Geographic. I still remember the shot of a giraffe bent low to drink water, forelegs out wide, and the caption about her resulting vulnerability.)

But of course most of the animals in the collection is are bears. There are eight very small bears--good for putting in dollhouses and houses built of blocks, sometimes even dressing the designated girl bears in skirts made of fabric cut in rounds with a bear-bellied hole in the center--and there are five larger, though still very modest bears. One was my own--she's white with blue felt eyes that still remain stuck on her face, though her pink nose and mouth are gone. One was made for me at an older age by my mother--a lovely piece of craftsmanship.

And one bear belonged to my brother Dicky, if I remember right, my brother who died before I was born. That one, perhaps as much as sixty-eight years old, has lovely velvet pads on all four paws. His glass eyes are still in place though a bit askew and dangly. The short nap of his fur is patchy and barely there, and his now silent squeaker protrudes from his belly like a very large and misplaced hernia.

Why do I have all these animals (and a few more that I haven't named, thus breaking one of my cardinal stuffed animal rules: to treat all of them the same and never, ever leave any of them out)? Somehow as the youngest in my family at some point I appointed myself the guardian and collector of the abandoned and the cast off, especially when it came to animals. When I was ten and my parents had a new wing added to our house, I moved from a smallish bedroom to my parents' former room, complete with a window seat and bay window. That window seat became the gathering place of my animal kingdom, sometimes even to the point that it was difficult to find room to sit on the window seat.

(Though sometimes on hot summer nights I  would clear off the window seat so that I could sleep on it, or attempt to, imagining that being that close to those three windows would cool me off. I remember once being awake late at night and seeing a skunk cross our lawn to or from our neighbor's garden.)

About my cardinal rule. I believe there was a part of my heart, perhaps even a large part of it, that was moved by the plight of overlooked, forgotten, abandoned, or unwanted things. (And people? Yes, later I also tended to ache for and sometimes even to advocate for the ones picked last for games at recess, or the kids who were the brunt of others' teasing, or later, the boy who was broken-hearted for having been rejected by the girl he loved.)

So in gathering up these left-behind and outgrown stuffed animals, I made a silent pledge to myself never to let any of them "feel left out" by me. It was my work, my solemn and holy responsibility, to treat each one with kindness and loving attention. Which got to be quite a job as their numbers grew. For a time this became a piece of my bedtime ritual--to say goodnight to each and every stuffed animal on my window seat, perhaps touching my hand to each head as a shorthand for saying their names aloud. When I got older or lazier, I think I nodded toward them from my bed--but still, I could not let any of them down by leaving them out.

I am sure that on some level I saw myself in those left behind and seemingly unwanted animals. I identified with them, and not wanting any of them to feel left out or unloved, I was unconsciously expressing my own deepest wish not to feel that way myself. I imagine it's not just sentimentality or nostalgia or the thought that one or two of these animals might be valued antique specimens that has caused me to keep this many stuffed animals well into my sixth decade!

But for the moment, though I do not plan to toss them or give them away (being as old and dusty as they are, I'm not sure who would want them), I am clearing space for something new. And I am trying to decide on just how to pack them up for storage in order to spare them the ravages of rodents in the attic or mildew in the basement.

And you can be sure that wherever I do put them, I will be sure to give some sort of blessing, once again making sure that none is left out or has any cause to feel unwanted, though just what stories of neglect or abandonment are locked inside their own heads is really beyond the scope of my control.

Monday, August 30, 2010

And Then There Were Clouds

Trio of Clouds, c Sukie Curtis, 2010, 5x5 each, oil on wood

What can I say but that I love clouds? Unapologetically. 

After all, I am a certified member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. And I find clouds endlessly fascinating and entertaining in their variations of form, color, density, changeability. 

Sometimes I wish I could hold them from shifting shapes quite so fast, and yet that's part of the nature of clouds to be always changing, fleeting, transitory, impermanent, ephemeral. And thus, fun to watch!

(Did you know that word "ephemeral" is built of two Greek words--the preposition epi meaning "on" or "at," and the word (h)emera meaning "day"? So ephemeral means on a day, or fleeting, etc. That was one of my brightest, most exciting "aha" discoveries taking New Testament Greek in seminary thirty (gulp!) years ago.)

A few weeks ago on a random morning, I happened to look at the sky over our neighbors' house across the street and saw some great cloud formations, and I decided to paint them as quickly as I could. Fortunately I had three small (5x5") wood panels all primed and undercoated with a rosy tone, so I brought my paint, my brushes, solvent, and the three panels out to the small stoop in front of one of our doors. Spread some newspaper on the porch beside me, just in case, donned my apron and went to work. 

Quick work. You have to work very quickly if you're trying at all to paint what's before your eyes when it comes to clouds (or nearly any other weather-related or sunlight-related phenomenon in a place like Maine). 

Of course there comes a time when you are no longer painting the cloud itself, which has morphed through several new stages in the time it has taken you to mix a color of paint. But some concoction of the actual cloud as it was, the way it remains in your memory and imagination, and the actual cloud as it is now and is fast becoming (I will resist saying--well, apparently not!--"as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be..."--what a preposterous idea of changlessness and immutability.)

But I don't set out to paint exact likenesses when I paint anyway. If I were after that, I'd take a photograph, and even with photography there's lots of choosing going on to make up a photo--a kind of editing of subject even before the photo gets taken.

As a more experienced painter once said to me, "All paintings, no matter how representational they aim to be, are abstractions." Fictions, we might say.

Especially so if the painter in question is as much interested in her/his own response to what is seen and to the amazement, delight, elation (or, legitimately, sadness, longing, poignance) stirred up in the one seeing. 

Which reminds me of something I've read attributed to Alexander Calder: "My method of working? I begin with elation." To which I say, count me in.

PS. I had intended to sell the three cloud pieces as a trio, but I have since sold one (the one on the right) to someone who admired that one. The others are still available. And I plan to do more.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Day after: how it turned out

"East End Rocks, Shadows, Seaweed, " c Sukie Curtis, 2010, 10x10, oil on canvas

When I finally got outside that day (which is now many days ago, four whole weeks ago, July 25, to be exact), I loaded up my car and drove around a little, trying some of my former outdoor painting haunts to see how things looked--tide, sky, clouds, etc. 

I didn't want to waste a lot of time driving around (and I could see that it might help to decide where you're going to go the night before, and just deal with whatever conditions are there), so I ended up near the boat ramp at the East End of Portland, looking northeast toward Falmouth and Cumberland and the islands of Casco Bay that lie in that direction--Mackworth, with its causeway, then some smaller ones I don't know the names of, then Clapboard and Sturdivant.

It was around 8 am, if I remember right; the sun was well up in the sky, there weren't many clouds. The sky was a pale milky blue, nearly cloudless, and there was no wind to speak of. In other words, the sky and the water were . . . boring. No variations, no fun clouds to capture, no wind ripples or stretches of rough water.  I honestly didn't want to paint what was in front of me--at least not until I noticed what was really right in front of me.

The shadows among the tumble of rocks and boulders along the shore, and near the water's edge, splotches of exposed seaweed. 

Remember, this was the first time I had painted outside in over a year, so I was feeling a little bit timid. I wanted to enjoy myself, and I really didn't want to end up frustrated and disappointed with my painting experience. I didn't even get out my easel for starters, but instead found a flat expanse of rock on which to sit, with my paint box beside me on the rock, my bag of paint, brushes, and assorted equipment on the ground by my feet. I put on my well-used apron and held a prepared canvas in my lap. 

"Keep it simple," I might have coached myself. "Just start somewhere." I had a feeling that once I got started mixing colors, or something, anything, I'd be OK. I just had to get started.

It was the deep, velvety shadows in the rocks that held my attention the most, so I started mixing colors for those, not really trying to be visually accurate, but to enjoy the process and see where it would lead. The painting up above is where it led. I worked for over an hour, I think, though I really don't remember the details any more. I worked until I felt I was finished, was satisfied with what I had done, was hungry and ready to get out of the sun. 

When I got home, happy to have broken through the mixture of fear, self-doubt, and inertia that had kept me from painting outside for a year, I put my painting up on my wall to dry and rather quickly decided I'd like to paint a variation based on it, to change the composition a little bit and just play around. 

Which I did a day or two later. Which produced the following:

Rocks, Shadows, Seaweed Variation, c Sukie Curtis, 2010, 10x10, oil on canvas

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Day after Stopping by Fields to Draw, part 1

It is now a little over a week since the day I wrote "Stopping by Fields on a Sunny Morning," and I've been meaning to write what happened next. That is, what happened the next morning.

Inspired and energized by sitting in the sunny field drawing two very quick sketches (that really don't even look like much), I was determined to go out the next morning to paint. Honestly, I'd been thinking of doing this for several days if not weeks, but just hadn't really pulled myself together to do it. Partly, I am guessing and confessing, because of a subtle undertow that had kept me from painting outdoors since the fall of 2008--something that might sound silly and insignificant, except for the fact that it really did keep me (or became an excuse I used to keep me) from doing something that I had really loved doing from April to October of that year.

I am almost embarrassed to admit this--and only do so because perhaps my being honest will help someone else not to get so stuck or caught in a similar way--but I put the brakes on painting outdoors largely because I had had the brilliant idea of showing my outdoor paintings to a noted landscape painter whose work I admired, and he wasn't exactly highly complimentary. He did say some positive things about my sense of color, eventually, after having spent quite a bit of time critiquing (or was it criticizing?) my totally favorite painting, the one dearest to my heart that I dared to put out there first, and then showing me images on his laptop of famous artists' work to illustrate what he was trying to say. I really couldn't hear anything positive after the not so good stuff he had said up front.

And did I mention that I paid, and paid good money, for this privilege? Oh well. (I had recognized, and David had asked me about, the potential for investing too much authority in this guy, not trusting my own felt sense of delight and vitality and passion for painting as guide enough for my work at that time. What did I expect of myself, anyway? I had squeezed oil paint from a tube for the first time in my life only eight months before! )

Because it was November, when the weather in Maine is rather cold for painting outdoors, I probably would have taken a winter break anyway. At least that was my "cover" for the month going on two, even three months, in which I refrained not only from painting outside but even from painting at all, other than showing up for the last few sessions of a class I was taking at the time. After which I cleaned up my brushes and shut down, not with any sort of conscious decision to stop (how could I possibly have explained that?). I just stopped painting and told myself, if I told myself anything at all, that I was taking a break.

Perhaps this didn't sound so strange, especially given that there were Thanksgiving and Christmas to attend to, and one thing and another, and soon January became February. But given that the undeniable high water mark of the previous seven months had been my falling in love with oil paint and my subsequent steady yet passionate devotion to painting outdoors, simply to stop really was rather odd and highly questionable behavior. An outsider looking in might easily have smelled a rat; I was a little too close to the matter to observe or think about it with clear eyes.

All of which is to say that it was no small matter that stopping by fields on a sunny morning finally provided sufficient fuel to get me outside to paint the next morning. And in the process of getting ready to head out, I remembered just how much work it really takes to do just that: all the steps and pieces that are essential to being able to paint somewhere (paints, solvent, brushes, a surface to paint on, rags, a palette knife), plus others that might not be essential but assist greatly, like an easel, a hat, sunscreen, bug stuff, water, a snack, and a car. And then there's deciding where to go to paint and hoping that the conditions are interesting enough to get your creative juices flowing.

So before I even left the house, I was marveling that I had done this very thing so many times two summers ago (many times I simply painted what I could see in my own back yard, or in our neighborhood). And I was appreciating all the devoted outdoor ("plein air") painters I know who do this on a regular basis. It is no small commitment.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stopping by Fields on a Sunny Morning

This morning while driving home from Freeport, after leaving Bekah for her summer job at J Crew, which was after leaving David in Pownal to embark on another trip to Labrador, I made an impulsive decision to pull over beside a meadow full of Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod, clover, and other assorted wildflowers and grasses.

For weeks I've walked by the blooms in various neighbors' gardens-- daisies and daylilies, bee balm and coneflowers, Siberian and Japanese iris (way back in June and early July!), and I've thought about coming back without the dog and equipped with pen, pencils and a sketchbook to draw.

And have I actually gone back to draw? Not once.

So today when I noticed myself yearning toward the meadow and thinking, "Hmmm, I'd love to come back here and draw--or find some other similar place near home," I caught myself. Why not just stop and draw, right now?

At least this time I was a little bit ready. I had hastily stuffed a bottle of water, a sketchbook and some water soluble colored pencils in an old backpack, just in case I decided to go somewhere to draw and doodle. So I pulled over, parked, and got out to draw.

Never mind that I hadn't thought to put in any sunscreen. Never mind that I couldn't remember where I'd left my favorite sun hat and had grabbed one of David's many hats that didn't really fit me. Never mind that the pencil I had tossed into the backpack came out with its lead broken and I had no sharpener with me.

Sitting on a log on the edge of the meadow just off the side of the road, with my paper on my lap and broken-leaded pencil in my hand, I remembered what I've always loved about drawing outside. I remembered a big part of why I had found so much delight in painting outdoors two years ago, my first summer painting with oils. (And yet I haven't actually painted outside since the fall of 2008--for reasons that both embarrass and sadden me.)

To state what may seem obvious, when drawing or painting outside, there's so much more going on than what I see with my eyes. So it's not just about "capturing what I see." There's the sun's heat on my skin, the movement of breezes on the back of my neck and the hairs on my arms and legs. There are all those little noises of insects and the chattering and callings of birds, mingled with the sighings and stirrings of leaves and branches. The shifting of light and shadow, the swaying of blossoms on their wiry stems. The whole dynamic symphony of life that's way bigger than me and yet that encompasses me and sets my heart singing, delighted to be alive, "a bride married to amazement" (Mary Oliver). So there's ecstasy, too. Every day garden variety nature-inspired ecstasy.

As I write this, I am reminded of something I copied down from an article about the Maine painter Lois Dodd: "Nature is a wonder," she said. "There is nothing more wonderful than going outside and being outside all day, and just watching stuff. It's just a good way to spend time. It's probably the way fishing is to people who go fishing. Just go out there. You are working, observing and thinking, and you feel like you haven't wasted the day because you have been in it."

An active, grateful participant.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Suze Orman and Me

OK, so I lied. But I didn't mean to. At the end of my last post I said that in my next one I would share something I wrote recently about drawing. But now there's something else I want to write about. I am sure I will get around to the drawing post some day.

Meanwhile, I never thought I would say and say truthfully what I am about to say: yesterday I actually picked up and voluntarily started to read a book by Suze Orman. I don't even like Suze Orman! Not that I know her personally, of course. But I don't like her perky blonde perfectly put-together appearance beaming successfully on TV or from the covers of books. And I suppose I don't like her sort of know-it-all ways about money, either, even if she has learned it the hard way.

I've read one or two of her articles in O magazine, and without fail I feel worse after reading her advice than I do before. (Ignorance is bliss?) Without fail, she leaves me feeling inadequate. Like a failure with money. Ashamed.

Let me correct my language here: she doesn't leave me feeling that way. I feel that way in response to reading what she has to say. Sometimes because I don't even have or don't think I have even ten spare bucks, let alone the quantities she talks about saving or investing. I feel inadequate, like a failure, ashamed when I read what she writes.

No wonder I'd rather avoid seeing her perky, blonde, perfectly put-together face and body. I suppose I could close my eyes and listen to her, but I've never even tried to listen to her. I have no idea what her voice sounds like. I'm happy with this arrangement.

But this morning I actually felt a small tingle of excitement when I picked up her book Women and Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny. A teacher of "The Basics of Starting a Business" in the Women, Work and Community program recommended the book highly, saying: "It will change your life."

So even though I don't like Suze Orman (I mean, really. Is her name pronounced like Suzie or is it Suze, to rhyme with snooze?), and even though just seeing her face on the cover gives me the creeps, I did get a copy of her book through my favorite local library at the University of Southern Maine. I felt virtuous for doing even that much--looking up and requesting the book on line, then driving to Portland a few days later to pick it up.

I think I may have opened the book slightly in the first week I had it--not a full-bodied opening, but a casual kind of lift the cover at an angle and glance at a page or two sort of thing. And then I rested on my laurels, con gratulating myself for being willing to obtain a book by Suze Orman and to hold it in my hands. And that's all I did with the book for more than a week.

So what made me decide to pick it up yesterday and start to read it?

Two words: Cash Flow.

Cash Flow? Yup. Cash Flow.

Wednesday in the Business Basics class, for the first time in my life someone actually explained to me how to create a cash flow projection and how to track actual figures in a ledger. You read that correctly.

I am fifty-six years old; I have reconciled my bank accounts for most of the years I've had them; I have stared at (and sometimes asked questions about) countless church budget reports at countless church vestry meetings, and this is the first time that anyone has ever explained to me what I was looking at and how one might arrive at such numbers. And I suppose it's only fair to add that I have never asked anyone to explain it to me, either through embarrassment at not knowing or simply from not wanting to know.

So when the teacher of the class said, "It's just like when you set up your family budget, same idea," I laughed a little to myself at the strange humor of it, which was better than simply hanging my head in shame.  "What family budget?" I might have quipped but didn't.

The teacher, full of enthusiasm for her subject, even waxed poetic! "The numbers in your cash flow record are singing the song of your business! They are telling you a story."

"How nice," I thought, "if you know the language."

Best of all, when it came time in class for us to do the numbers ourselves with the fictitious example of Sue and her Threaded Needle sewing business, Eureka! I got it! I had a chance to flex my underused math muscles and give it a whirl, and in the process I discovered two things:

First, it wasn't half as distasteful as I thought it would be.

And second, instead of feeling ashamed or like a failure, I actually felt empowered. I felt competent, or at least sniffed the potential for competence in an area I had never imagined I would. I had learned something new (often a pleasure in itself), and I had experienced the exhilaration of hope.

Hope that I might actually be able to do this, to make this happen for myself as I get clearer and clearer about what kind of business I am offering, and perhaps some day to help make this kind of empowering shift happen for other women.

I felt as if I had been to the gym (I don't often go to any gym) and had had a good workout. As if I had used muscles in a good way and had released a flood of endorphins and was now basking in the afterglow. And I was ready for more.

So with the exhilaration of hope I opened a book by Suze Orman and started to read it. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Jump Starting

Looking at the date of my last post, I can see lots of time has passed. Two whole weeks, in fact. Wonder what I was doing that kept me from blogging for two weeks. . . .

At first I was absorbed in getting some work ready to hang at the Freeport Community Library, part of the group "Artists and Artisans Contributing Together." We hung our work last Tuesday, the show's opening reception was Wednesday (thanks for coming, all of you who did!), and the paintings will remain on view through August 28.

And after that? My blog silence was certainly not for lack of ideas of things to write (if anything, just the opposite--so many times during the day of thinking, "Oh! That would make a good blog post!" or, "Oh! there's another great first line for a blog entry," often not anywhere near my computer, then losing track of these momentary flashes of potential genius, and . . . . You know the rest.

Actually, much as I hate to admit it, I've also been struggling with a relapse into Big Blog Project kinds of thinking. Thoughts like, "OK, you have to decide and decide right now whether this is an "artist's blog" or a "potential pieces of a book blog" (a sure way to kill the ease and delight of blogging with a primarily playful spirit) or a "whatever odd thing you feel like writing blog."

I guess for the time being it's the last one in the list--some days primarily an artist's blog and some days primarily a "whatever I feel like writing today" blog--the blog of someone who is still finding her way.

I finally decided it was time to jump start the blog by simply writing something, anything, just to get going again.

And in my next post I am going to publish something I wrote for my friend and fellow writer (also writing/creativity coach and writing teacher) Raye Tibbitts to use in an on line newsletter. My piece is about drawing. Just so you know.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Yellow Wall

"The Yellow Wall", c 2010, Sukie Curtis, acrylic on sheetrock

A few days ago I started to beautify a really gross, never-been-painted sheetrock wall inside our garage, one that we and visitors to our house pass by numerous times a day going in and out our back door. From the start I decided that I wasn't going to worry about the "rules" of proper wall-painting (things like taping and "mudding" over the sheetrock seams, for example). Since it was just a wall in our garage, and since it was seriously grubby, stained, gross, and ugly, I felt totally exempt from having to do things really well, because no matter what I did, it was going to look better than it had.  A perfect project--no fail!

I did scrub the wall, twice even, and primed it--even that was a huge step in the direction of attractiveness. I added bits of sample yellow paints to the primer to tint the wall so that I might need fewer coats of paint. And it worked.

So first there was a somewhat mottled yellow wall of various hues. Then I decided on which of the yellows I liked the best for the primary color and got a pint sample made. It was way more than enough to cover the wall, so now I'm looking around for something else that wants to be yellow!.

When I first dipped the roller in the pan of yellow paint (Benjamin Moore's "Amarillo") and started to roll it on, I felt a surge of elation! It was so much fun spreading that deliciously happy color on the gross garage wall. I found myself imagining being a therapist recommending yellow paint as a cure for melancholia, and a shrink taking out her script pad and actually writing out Benjamin Moore "Amarillo" ("Sunshine" would work well too, and "Yellow Rain Coat," and ...), perhaps even with the pigment codes. Finding a grubby old wall might have to be part of the prescribed therapy, too.

The second day I painted on some large and small rectangles of other colors, adapting a design I had seen in a book but not really feeling excited about what it looked like. Plus I didn't really know why I was copying someone else's design rather than trusting myself to come up with one that I liked. So day two ended with me feeling not so excited and elated about my yellow wall project, and day three I didn't try to do any more to it. I suppose it was something of a furlough day. I did think off and on about painting over the rectangles from the day before--reverting to solid yellow.

Yesterday, being the Fourth of July, I opted out of some of our neighborhood's traditional Independence Day activities and chose instead to stay home and paint. I wasn't sure if I was going to paint the yellow wall or a smaller painting on canvas. But when I found myself alone in the house, the wall beckoned. The wall and a small flower arrangement that David and I had bought at the Farmers Market on Saturday.

With a combination of impish delight and a noticeable confidence in my drawing abilities (as if all the sketch book drawing I've done has led me to feel pretty "sure-footed" with a drawing implement--at least when I'm in the right frame of mind), I took out one of the new Sharpies I bought recently.

"I can draw on the wall with a Sharpie, a permanent marker!" I noted to myself. (And I could have added, "And there's no one to tell me not to!"

I don't remember if I ever drew on a wall when I was little. I think I did some unauthorized scribbling in books, but walls? I doubt it. To take out a permanent marker with the clear intention of drawing on a wall gave me another burst of delightful energy! Like a second childhood, or the childhood I never dared to have!

I held the vase of flowers in my left hand and drew quickly with my right hand--not every single stem and leaf and bloom in the arrangement, but enough to give the sense of a bunch of flowers. Sometimes the lines were mere squiggles, not really flower-shaped at all, but I could feel the flowers, leaves, and stems none the less.

When I'd finished drawing, I took a short break, then returned with colors of paint and some smaller brushes to jazz things up a bit more. I stopped when I felt I was finished (and I might do one or two small things, but for the most part, I do think I was finished yesterday). So I took up the blue Sharpie again and signed my name (deliberately largely) and dated the wall, July 4, 2010.

I had such fun, I think I'm ready to do another wall.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Little More about Painting Flowers

A couple of months ago while visiting a recent exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art, I was swept off my feet before I even got to the third painting among the dozens of still life paintings, drawings, and collages that made up the exhibit. But it wasn't even a work of art that stunned me; it was the written text that accompanied a 16th century Flemish (I think) painting. I know I took out pen and paper and wrote the quote down, but I've not been able to find where I wrote it, so this is from memory.

The text said that the painter of the particular, very detailed still life had been a monk in a Flemish monastery. (I just had to look up Flemish--I was feeling unsure whether it was another word for Belgian or for Dutch--in fact it refers to the people, language, etc. of Flanders. It is in fact the Dutch language spoken in Belgium, one of Belgium's two official languages. The other language I believe is French, because my college boyfriend and I were once given a ride in the Loire valley by a Belgian couple in their tiny Citroen. We managed to converse via my French, but they spoke Flemish to one another, while Jeff and I of course spoke English. I am certain that their knowledge of English was far better than our knowledge of Flemish.)

But I do digress, rather far. Back to the text with the painting at the museum.

It said something about how the close observation and rendering of flowers was seen to be an aid to the contemplation of God. Well, that got my attention! Not that I haven't felt or experienced that myself, but to read that some male religious authority, even a whole religious order or institution believed and declared that four centuries ago, and even supported it (read on)--that felt different to me! 

I wonder if I was staring at part of the divide between Catholic and Protestant spiritualities, or the chasm between the pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment relationship between science and religion, particularly Christianity (as well as Islam and Judaism). Science, one expression of the close observation of nature, was for centuries seen as a companion of religion, and all pathways of deeper knowledge about the world we live in--botany, astronomy, medicine, even mathematics!--were honored as ways of knowing the ultimately Unknowable. Art also has a stronger, more honored place in Christianity before the Reformation, with some forms of Protestantism so suspicious of imagery, music, and the like. (Think Chartres Cathedral vs. a plain white-walled Congregational meeting house.)

Without going too far down this path this morning, I will only say that human love and contemplation of the created world has not always enjoyed a central place in Christian theology, liturgy or practice, particularly in its American expressions. In my experience, love and contemplation of the created world have usually gotten a kind of a sideways nod--"Well, yes, dear, that's all very nice, but...what does it have to do with Jesus? what does it have to do with the cross and salvation? What does it have to do with this week's Scripture lessons?" (We might ask, what does it have to do with the oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and begin to get somewhere.)

When I still had a practice of going on silent retreats, the best part for me usually had to do with being outside, talking to trees and sometimes even "dancing" with them, drawing ferns and wildflowers, wandering in woods and meadows, conversing with birds. But somehow that's now what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be having three sustained "prayer periods" a day, or meditating on some passage of Scripture and letting it illuminate some heavy issue in my life. 

"Have you asked Jesus about that?" a retreat director might say. And I would shrink inside, crumple with a little more guilt and shame. "No," would have been the honest answer. "Why would I?" No wonder I stopped going on "directed retreats" and started "directing" myself--hanging out in the silence and the natural world, sometimes with art supplies. But always with a nagging sense that I was supposed to be doing my retreats some other way. Not trusting myself. And certainly not trusting delight.

To be fair and balanced, I did once long ago, when still a very new priest, tell my bishop that I had talked to and danced with some spruce trees while on a retreat. And he confessed his own "closet pantheism" in reply. I remember leaving that official meeting with effervescent joy and buying an ice cream cone on the way home to celebrate.

But I do digress again.

I didn't think about all of that while standing in the museum. I only registered viscerally that that little piece of text and what followed were chipping away at something in me, maybe even blasting holes in some armor of mine, or at some sort of wall.

The text continued by saying that the painter of the painting had been "employed by the monastery as a painter of flowers." 

"No way!" I thought.  "What a deal! Sign me up! I want to be employed as an observer and painter of flowers!" 

A whole cascade of similar sentiments tumbled through my mind and body. I felt breathless, dumbfounded. I had "glimpsed myself" in a piece of text on a museum wall--a bit of print I can imagine lots of viewers passed right over. 

I have been a close observer and a delighter in the close observation of flowers, fruits and vegetables, plants in general, for a long long time. In that sense it has been an "occupation" of mine. But it has not been a primary source of income for me, has not been my paid employment. A primary, though perhaps largely unacknowledged, source of sustenance and of great joy, yes; a natural way of getting out of my head and into a more focused, present attention; and an avenue for being "a bride married to amazement" to use Mary Oliver's lovely phrase.

To imagine that such an occupation was once upon a time truly honored as a way of contemplating God and was supported with financial reward (meaning, I assume, that the selling of the monk's paintings was a source of income for the monastery that fed, housed, and clothed him)--well, that just set me humming. 

And the humming continues. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flowers, Flowers, and More Flowers

Cosmos, c 2009, Sukie Curtis, oil on canvas

"I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers," declared Claude Monet. I know this because David gave me a twelve-inch tall, soft Claude Monet "doll" for my birthday. He currently sits on my desk, cheering me on, decked out in a blue painting smock over his white shirt, with black beret, black tie, and grey pants. He is clutching a paint brush in his right hand. This is an elder Monet, sporting pince nez glasses and snowy white hair and beard. His "identification tag" includes the above quote about flowers.

As you may have noticed, flowers do tend to be a regular feature in my paintings. Years ago, before any art classes, I often drew and dabbled in water colors while on retreats. Often the subjects were closely observed wildflowers and plants (I remember unfurling ferns, in particular). Now fruits and vegetables have joined the line up, but flowers are always inspiring companions, sometimes muses, even when not the subjects themselves. Even withered blossoms can be fun to draw. (That's one of the fun things about drawing--at least the way I draw--it puts me in a sort of "toddler mind" in which a dead flower is as interesting as a fresh new one, sometime even more so!)

This painting of cosmos stems and blossoms is one that began as a drawing. When something about the drawing really got me excited, I decided to use it as the starting point of a painting. This one, like many, was done over an earlier painting of trees that wasn't so successful. The original painting gave the newer one some interesting texture and depth. Many of the glimpses of green, especially in the left half, are part of the original painting.

I am delighted that this painting now lives in the bedroom of one of Anna's best friends.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Except you radish me"

Except you radish me, c 2010, Sukie Curtis, 24x24", oil on wood

Here's an image to help you welcome summer! It's a recently-finished painting called Except you radish me, which is a playful borrowing of a line from a poem by John Donne. The poem is his Holy Sonnet XIV, one of two John Donne poems that occupy some space in my memory bank. 

In the poem Donne begs God, in powerfully personal and sensuous terms, to make God's presence felt and known. The poem begins with the line, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" and ends with these lines:

          Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
          Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
          Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

There's not always an obvious rational or reasonable explanation for why lines of poetry, hymns, or childhood songs  suddenly float up to consciousness from the recesses of memory. In this case, when I knew I was nearly finished with the painting, or perhaps even long before that, I found myself playing with the words, "Ravish/radish my heart, three person'd God," mixing up Donne's first and last lines.

Why radishes, you might ask? Simple!

I often feel "ravished" by the sensory world we live in, by the shapes and colors (oh, and yes, the flavors too, though I confess that is often a secondary consideration) of vegetables, fruits, flowers and trees. Last summer I was won over by a bunch of radishes I had purchased from a local farmer. 

I drew the radishes a few times, then started and nearly finished (members of my family thought it was finished) this painting, then put it aside for many months because I found it boring. I didn't even come close to conveying my true delight at the actual radishes from the farmers' market. A few weeks ago I decided I was ready to see what I could do to jazz it up a bit. And I'm very happy with the result!

If you or someone you know loves radishes (or not) and would enjoy being ravished by these glowing beauties, let me know! (I will also have new notecards available soon.)

In the meantime, enjoy some local fruits and vegetables of your own to welcome in the summer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Another Kind of Letting Go

Yesterday I found myself in the right place at the right time to assist a trapped bird. Digory and I had just enjoyed an evening walk on the beach, and I was savoring the luxurious length of the day and the perfect (to me) temperature in the low 70s. Just plain feeling full and content in a basic kind of way.

As we walked past a currently unoccupied summer house, I heard an erratic rustling sound--I first thought squirrel or chipmunk in old leaves and undergrowth, but the sound wasn't coming from the direction of the trees. It was coming from the house. I looked at the house, though I couldn't imagine how that sound could be coming from the house itself (and I guess I didn't want to think of possible sources for the sound).

A bird, I think it was a pine warbler, was struggling to flap its way through a cellar window with chicken wire on the inside. It would flap desperately, then grab onto the wire with its feet, rest briefly, then try again. Its wings never fully rested between escape attempts. The bird seemed to be exhausting itself.

"Buddy," I said to Digory, "I might just be able to help this bird. You stay here." I told Diggie to sit and stay, dropped his leash, and headed through the open cellar door. Think creepy, dank, old smelling New England cellar.

I was surprised to discover that the bird and the window were in a distinct room, to my left after I entered the cellar. Through another door I went into a small room stuffed full of junk. I didn't take the time for even a casual inventory. I headed for the window.

"OK," I spoke aloud, as calmly as I could, hoping to convey trust and compassion to the struggling bird. "Here goes."

All I could think to do was to cup my hands as gently as possible around the bird, wings and all--trying to time my embrace with a moment of less wing movement--and ever so slightly close my hands. I didn't want to startle the bird into more panic and more struggle, nor cause it to fight against me and possibly hurt itself. It took a couple of tries to get it right.

Soon enough I was holding the bird, cupping it gently around body and wings, allowing its head and beak to rest free of my fingers. I moved as quickly and carefully as I could, hoping the bird wouldn't try to escape when I was still in the house. He or she was a perfect passenger--no struggle.

One step out the door and I held up my hands and let her go. She flew off without a pause.

Having spent many years thinking of myself as a trapped bird, I took all the more pleasure in aiding this bird's escape. And Digory was still waiting patiently for me when my task was complete. This letting go was unambiguously celebratory.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On Letting Go

Lilies and Books, c. 2010, Sukie Curtis, oil on canvas

When this painting was hanging in Starbucks in Portland last month, I wasn't ready to sell it. It was my unrivaled current favorite painting, and it may be I was even a little worried that I might never paint another one of a similar quality and strength and confidence.  

It felt like some sort of landmark painting for me--perhaps a marker of my arriving at a new painting phase of some kind. It was at least a more successful attempt to integrate my drawing (this began as a drawing of an actual lily stem and blooms against our bookcase and window) with painting. Including my frequent tactic of painting over an unsuccessful painting. (There's an aspect of letting go in doing that, too.) 

Maybe it's too much to claim that this painting marks a new "phase" because I don't know how long it will last and if I will approach lots of paintings this way. Perhaps it is simply what worked this time.

A neighbor of ours saw the painting and expressed an interest in buying it, acknowledging disappointment back in May that it was marked as not available for sale. He asked if I might paint more like it some day, and I answered that I thought most likely I would (knowing of course that creative endeavors don't always end up the way one imagines they will). But his clear interest in this particular painting kept poking me and prodding me. 

Does it make sense to get so attached to a painting that you're not willing to sell it? Maybe it's not rational, but I am sure it happens. Other painters I know certainly choose to keep some of their work. How do they decide? I wondered.

What was making me want to hold onto this one? Was I clinging to something? Clinging to what I felt it represented for me? (An observer of the painting back in February, when I spoke at St. Luke's Cathedral sharing some of the stories of my midlife journey, had commented that she saw in it who I am now, boldly expansive and joyfully stretching my limbs in paint, while my more restrained, book-oriented past was in the background.)

I never really zeroed in on an answer. Nor did I ever lose the sense of being needled by the knowledge that someone wanted to purchase this creative endeavor of mine, and I was resisting.

When I put new paintings in Starbucks in June and brought this one home, I was excited to have it on our living room wall for a while. To enjoy seeing it more often (though I had enjoyed seeing it through the window of Starbucks from the street) and to feel its companionship. And I did enjoy it. Some days I even talked to it, looked closely at it to remember how I had approached painting it, to revisit the process as well as the result.

And I continued to ask myself why I wanted to keep it. And whether I might change my mind. And when? And soon enough I noticed myself thinking the painting was really too small for the space on our living room wall where I had put it (the most natural option). Rather than look around for another place to hang it, I found myself imagining that it might really belong somewhere else entirely. That having enjoyed its presence for a while, I was ready to let it go. 

Really, what more could a painter ask than to know that someone else really loves one of her works? And isn't the point of it all to create not just "private things" for my own private enjoyment but also to let my work be seen, wondered about, sometimes appreciated and enjoyed? To do my best to share my enjoyment of painting as well as my delight in the objects painted--to communicate and offer up to others my own quirky curiosity, amazement, wonder and delight at this world we live in? Yes, and to let my paintings speak to people's eyes and minds and hearts however they may, with whatever blessing they may carry.  

I let my neighbor know that I was ready to let my painting go if he was still interested. Which he was--he and his wife and their adorable young boy. They were all quite excited, which made it seem all the more right and good to let go. 

Though it was not without a tug, mind you. I said my own private goodbye to my painting when I took it down from our wall. Even kissed it (is that really corny to admit?) and gave it my blessing and my thanks and wished it well. 

My neighbors, not knowing the twists and turns of my inner drama, graciously offered to me to come "visit" my painting from time to time. I might like that. And in the meantime I am comforted to know it has been welcomed into a loving, appreciative family. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cliffs of Fall

"O the mind, mind has mountains" declared poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889). This poem, one of his "terrible sonnets," continues:

"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there."

Hopkins wrote from an experience of depression and intense internal anguish (and yes, in other poems, from an ecstatic celebration of his senses engaged with the natural world).

But those lines about the mind and its frightful, sheer cliffs came to me this weekend when I was contemplating and experiencing (in mild form) the turbulent currents of an elderly woman's mind suffering from dementia with a long tendency toward anxiety thrown in, plus recent dealings with low sodium and doctors meddling with her medications.

There were wide swings of mental ability--from not recognizing the face of a beloved family member to being quick to recall appropriately and speak the name "temporomandibular joint disorder." From being connected to her sense of humor to lamenting her continued existence on the planet, transitioning between these two poles seemingly in a breath.

The doctor suggested that in speaking with her, we begin again every moment as if from scratch--not counting on her memory of what has already been spoken, even a minute before. Every sentence is a new experience. It's not hard to see the spiritual wisdom and practice in that! Begin every moment as if from scratch. See things new. Let go. No agenda. Begin again and again and again.

The backdrop to this inside drama was an equally dramatic and turbulent outside one, as waves of sooty, dark clouds, torrential rains, winds blowing leaves inside out swept through the area two or three times in a matter of hours. I tried unsuccessfully to bring my mother's attention to the weather out the window, thinking she might enjoy it, thinking it might distract her from her aches, pains, and fears.

To me the weather out the window was a kind of solace, a fascinating piece of physical reality, forces way bigger than me, easily appreciated from the warm, dry safety of a hospital room. A little recharge for my spirits--to watch the weather outside while doing my best to stay present to the weather inside the room.

The mind has mountains indeed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Unanticipated Consequences

Image: "Path in the Woods", c. 2009, Sukie Curtis, 12x12", oil on panel

Sometimes you just don't know what results will follow from something you do. (Actually, maybe we never really know for sure!) I suppose in the right frame of mind, that fact just keeps things interesting. I mean, if we really knew beforehand the exact outcome of everything we dull!

I keep mulling over and feeling grateful for the fact that when I said yes to a friend's offer to put me in touch with someone at the Starbucks on Middle and Exchange Streets in Portland, I was thinking it was a good idea because maybe I'd sell a painting. I was thinking of modest financial gain as the mark of success. That, and having people see my paintings.

That hasn't happened, though at least one person has expressed an interest in purchasing a future painting, and many people, at least thirty at last count, have taken one of my business cards. And of course people have seen my paintings, and perhaps quite a few people stopped to gaze a while.

But what has happened was both unanticipated and even more significant than my idea of selling a painting or two. It happened in two parts. First, I originally was offered the month of May as the month that Starbucks would host my paintings. Soon after settling on that, the assistant manager called to say that June had just opened up, and she thought I might prefer June, since the summer tourist season would be kicking in, and June includes the Old Port Festival, which brings lots of people to that part of Portland. So I said, "Sure! I'll go with June. That sounds great." (I also knew it would give me more time to paint new stuff and freed up some time back in April when I was working on something else, so it really did feel helpful.)

Right at the beginning of May, the assistant manager called again, somewhat apologetically, to say that their May artist had backed out. "Could you possibly be ready to hang some art this week?"

I knew that I could be ready right away, even if it wouldn't be the newer paintings that I had hoped to display. I also knew that I didn't want to give up the month of June, or at least not all of it. So I bargained a little, suggested a compromise. (Or perhaps she had offered me part of June at the start--at least through the Old Port Festival--although her boss was clear that I couldn't have my work up more than six weeks in a row.) We settled on six weeks, roughly three in May and three in June, and that was that.

Until David and I were hanging my May paintings and the assistant manager asked to speak with me again, this time to say: "The manager says you can have all of May and all of June, as long as you are willing to change paintings before the First Friday Art Walk in June."

"Great!" I said. "Perfect."

So here's what happened after that--the delightful yet unanticipated consequence of saying yes to the chance to hang art at Starbucks: it got me painting. As in day after day painting, or at least painting more days of the week than not.

And I found that regular painting really grounded me, felt like something solid to build on. I looked forward to getting up in the morning on days I knew I would be painting in a way that's different from how I get up on other days. I was "inhabiting" my life in a different way, if that makes sense to you. That sense of solidity coupled with contentment was powerful.

I've read of a couple of painters in Maine who undertook a "May marathon" of painting. One set out to paint every day in May without fail, often painting outdoors (a great month for that), some days creating three or four small works.

Without planning to, I had my own sort of May marathon, and the after-effects are still with me, still unfolding, still offering me a different wave to ride on. I couldn't have planned it to turn out this way if I'd tried.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Different View

I've had some paintings hanging at a local Starbucks (on the corner of Exchange and Middle Streets in Portland--Maine, that is) for most of May, and I've been working on more to put there in June. The guest artwork hangs on a wall that's just beyond the counter where special coffees and hot chocolates get picked up, and also where one turns to get to the restrooms, so although they are a long way from the entrance to the shop, they do get seen.

A couple of weeks ago while driving by, Anna and I noticed that, due to the layout of the shop and the placement of windows relative to the street, you can actually see two of my paintings when you are stopped at the stop sign on Middle Street at Exchange if you're headed toward the East End. It was quite fun to look in and see my favorite painting from our car!

Even better, David told me that on his way by one day last week, not only did he look over and see my art, but he also noticed a man standing squarely in front of my favorite, the largest one there and the image included in this blog, gazing intently at it. (Unless of course he was standing facing the wall with his eyes closed.)

Image: "Lilies and Books", c. 2010, Sukie Curtis, 24x24", oil on canvas

That made my day. And there have been odd moments on other days when I've remembered the unidentified gazer. I will probably never know who he was or what he was thinking, but I'm glad that someone felt drawn to stand and gaze.