...and getting ready to stay home a while.
Last Thursday we left Montreal again and went back to our former home on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire for the wedding of a dear young friend. While there we also caught up with several other old friends and family members, in the first few days of the beautiful New England autumn, and it was, to say the least, an absolutely wonderful few days -- a homecoming of sorts, a time of connecting and reconnecting with people we love very much.
The wedding was truly beautiful, and also ended up feeling, to us, like a celebration of our own long connection with a family who were our next-door neighbors, back when we were the age of the bride and groom: we've known the bride from the day of her birth, and are very close to her brother and sister and their parents. There were lots of happy tears and lots of laughter.
The bride had asked me to read or write something for her wedding, and after considering a number of options I decided to try to write a sonnet. During the composition it doubled in size, becoming a 28-line poem, but I managed to keep the whole thing in iambic pentameter. I read it during the ceremony, right after they exchanged their vows. Because it was personal and written for them, I'm not going to share it here, but the whole thing was a wonderful experience for me, and apparently it was moving for other people as well. I'm so glad that they asked me, and that I decided to go ahead and challenge myself to write and present a personalized marriage ode, since that's what it ended up being.
While there, we also celebrated connections in art, in music, in long friendships and in welcoming new life. We visited the home of our friend who is the director of a gallery and art center with which I was once very involved, especially to see her daughter and partner and their beautiful three-week-old baby, and we had lunch with a lifelong friend and musician, now approaching his 75th birthday -- he and I spent quite a while at the piano, listening to his latest compositions and playing some four-hand duets, and talking about his new CD which Phoenicia will be publishing later this year. And we met our niece and sister/sister-in-law at the gorgeous new cafe at King Arthur Flour, a business that's grown exponentially since our early days in Vermont. During the long weekend, we stayed at the home of the other couple with whom we've been very close friends for thirty years, catching up with them and with their youngest son, who's an accomplished guitarist and recent graduate of the Berkeley School of Music, just starting out in his career.
It sounds like an idealized vision of the world -- all this happiness -- but of course that's not the whole picture. These relationships are special because they span a lot of years during which we've shared both the dark and the light times in our lives. Nearly all of the people I'm talking about here, including ourselves, have had hardships, illness, and loss in their lives; part of the reason we wanted to go down and visit right now are the recent deaths of two mutual friends. We talked a good deal about American and Canadian politics and events in Syria and the world - particularly poignant because J.'s father was born in Damascus, and the family has many continuing connections to the Middle East. Economic conditions have affected almost everyone in the U.S., not least of all the young; that subject came up too, along with the changes in society over the past decade and a half.
But the realization, after more than thirty years of relationship, is that nothing is more important than friends and family, and that we want and need to spend more time with the people we love. During these days my heart was so full, both with love I wanted to give, and with love received. It's only later in life, I think, that we begin to understand how love actually works, and that the parables are right: mustard seeds actually do grow into great bushes; a vineyard needs to be pruned and cared for; the wine-jug of love and hospitality is actually bottomless, and we don't need to fear it running dry.
And now we're back home; I'm in the studio with the cat on my lap, thinking ahead to fall, singing, writing, working, and staying put for a while.
This from VT Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which just opened hearings on a proposed overhaul of the country's immigration system:
“Last week, opponents of comprehensive immigration reform began to exploit the Boston Marathon bombing,” Mr. Leahy said. “I urge restraint in that regard. Refugees and asylum seekers have enriched the fabric of this country from our founding. In Vermont, we welcome as neighbors Bhutanese, Burmese, Somalis, just as other states have welcomed immigrants to America for refuge and opportunity, whether it’s the Hmong in Minnesota, Vietnamese-Americans in California, Virginia and Texas, Cuban-Americans in Florida and New Jersey, or Iraqis in Utah. Our history is full of these stories of salvation."
“Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hard-working people,” Mr. Leahy said. “The bill before us would serve to strengthen our national security by allowing us to focus our border security and enforcement efforts against those who do us harm, but a nation as strong as ours can welcome the oppressed and persecuted without making compromise in our security.”
Today I was going through old picture archives, looking for something else, when I came across a set of photographs I took of my studio spaces back in Vermont, six years ago. I must have taken them because we were starting to think about moving from that house, where we had lived for 30 years. I haven't looked at pictures of our old house very much since we moved; maybe I didn't want to, maybe I knew I needed time to replace old familiar images with new ones. Now, though, looking at these spaces again, I was surprised by my reactions.
I worked in several different rooms in that old house. The picture at the top is of a wall in what J. always called my "anti-room." It was indeed an anteroom that had been added onto the main house, over a crawl space - the pipes froze here regularly - but the pun J. was making had to do with the fact that it was a very analog space, devoid of the computers in the rest of our work area -- in this one a lot of handwork took place! This was a wall of formal calligraphy practice sheets and several experimental calligraphy pieces, created in mixed-media with multi-layered lettering, and printing, in acrylic, Chinese inks, and gouache.
This is the same room, further to the right, showing the book press and some early linocuts, and a general mess; looking at the pictures now, all I can remember is how impossible it was for me to work in such a small space with so little table space and completely inadequate storage. The calligraphic inscription on the wall is a quote from St. Francis: "Preach the Gospel always -- if necessary use words."
Below is another corner of the room, moving clockwise to the right. The sketches on the wall eventually became a large pastel that I gave to my parents. I still like that red Conté sketch, though, now that I see it here; it must be in my flat file still.
On the fourth wall I had a revolving gallery of drawings - the large portrait of my mother is on the wall of my present studio, too.
We had another building -- a garage with a large open space above that J. used for photography. On the ground floor were two other small rooms, one a woodworking shop, and the other, my painting studio and meditation room, shown below. When I saw this photograph today, I felt again the peacefulness I always enjoyed in that room. It was very much my own, and the desk looked out over the garden. The bookcase is right in front of me as I write this, and the easel and desk are here in my present studio as well. The rocking chair, which was my mother-in-law's, was sold; the Japanese cloth is folded up somewhere, as is that pretty lace curtain. The antique lamps and brackets are in a box; I haven't had a good place to put them. The Cezanne poster, faded and rolled up now, is from an extraordinary retrospective at MOMA that I saw way back in 1978 or so and still remember vividly.
I don't feel nostalgic -- our workspaces now are so much more functional, with wonderful light and much more space -- I simply remember the many hours I spent in this particular room, above, pondering life and trying to grow, feeling supported by objects that reminded me of the best parts of life, and people who were and still are dear to me. It all comes back very swiftly when I look at these photographs.
It feels just like back-to-school here: September began, and all of a sudden everything and everybody ramped up. So since I haven't had time to write anything, I thought I'd post a watercolor from almost twenty years ago. These are sunflowers I grew in my Vermont garden, where in late August and September I always had a big group of them nodding outside my studio window. Except for the ones that made their way into the house or the studio, we left them in the garden for the goldfinches and purple finches to feast on, and enjoyed watching the birds as much as the flowers.
I'm also remembering my great-aunt Inez today; this is the week of her birthday (she would have been about 115!) and she was a very good watercolorist who loved to paint flowers too.
I really like this expressive, free style of watercolor; I was just starting to get comfortable and free with it when I stopped painting very much and began writing more. Right now, I don't know quite how I'm going to keep working at either my art and writing this fall; it certainly won't be with the same focus as this summer. We've got a bunch of professional work to do, Phoenicia has more books coming out before Christmas, choir has begun again, I'm teaching/leading monthly meditation at the cathedral, and there's company coming for various visits starting tomorrow, and a couple of short trips out of town for us as well.
However, in the spirit of last night's first meditation session: deep breaths, calmness, and a reminder-to-self, via the sunflowers, that everything is fine, just as it is, right this moment.
Summer Fields and Mountains, near Ascutney, Vermont. Pastel on paper, 26" x 16", (c) 2011. (click for larger view)
This morning I was photographing this large pastel prior to listing it for sale. That process really makes you look closely, especially since I was including some detail shots.
But what it really did was take back to Vermont itself. I felt myself standing on the rise looking down into this valley; I felt the slight breeze on my skin that was also moving the cumulus clouds along, saw the first touches of color in the red maples on the slopes, saw the ripples on the river, heard a hawk crying overhead. And then I felt myself standing over the work itself, a year or so ago, trying to play back the emotional content of those original impressions as I worked on the pastel, making decisions, trying to keep the handling loose because there of the motion and energy I felt in the landscape.
There are an infinite number of ways to go about it; this is just one choice. We think we "see" a scene, but in a quite different way from a photograph, a painting or a drawing ends up being just as much about us.
And it occured to me that time of year depicted is only a few weeks from now. I've noticed that the cycle of plants and flowering has been accelerated this year by as much as two weeks -- a somewhat troubling phenomenon. I wonder if the leaves will turn earlier too. Whatever happens, those summer days are precious, and while I'm very happy living in Montreal, it's nice to be transported back to Vermont for a little while. All the places I've lived or visited have their special qualities -- just like people!
A while ago, I promised my friend V. that I'd post a painting that was related to an essay I wrote about the loss of a huge, mature willow near our Vermont house. The other day I came across it in my flat file, and here it is.
This is kind of a "dream painting;" it came out of my imagination and memory during a period of time when I was doing very large watercolors and trying to loosen up both my technique and my head. I was aiming for the motion of the willow branches tossing in the wind, and the stars appearing through the branches, but more than that to convey a particular emotional temperature. I don't know if it's a "successful" painting or not, I that depends on what criteria you're using to judge it, but seeing it again brought back exactly the feeling of standing there at night, looking at the tree, even though it's been gone for many years. I like it because it does what expressive painting can do, and photography, most of the time, cannot.
Here's the essay:
Requiem for a Tree (1998)
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Wordsworth, "Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey"
The big willow is being cut. I'm upset about it, know it has to be done, but it's such a great and beautiful tree, worthy of being mourned. I've looked up into its branches for twenty years now, especially on summer evenings, when the only light was from the moon, to see stars shining through the leaves so far above my head, and fireflies dancing among them. It always felt like its own world, up there, in the bowls formed by those great dark branches, populated by things of the air and heights. A pair of orioles nested in the tree each spring, serenading me as I turned over the first soil in the garden; later their purse-like nest swayed above me. And it was home to many smaller birds: chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, feeding no doubt on a vast colony of insects. Kneeling next to the garden beds I'd feel drips of water raining down on me all summer, even during dry weather, and wonder whether willows really wept, if that was how they got their name.
Branches fell continually, especially in spring storms, and I used the long supple tender ones to make woven fences and supports for herbs and other plants. It was a high-maintenance tree for us, and we didn't even own it, but I never minded. I drew it many times, painted a watercolor, wrote a poem --trying unsuccessfully to capture that mysterious, secret world suspended in the sky.
When this hill was a pasture, a stream flowed between our property and the neighbors', and along its banks a line of willows grew up. Ours was the first house cut out of the farm proper, near the turn of the century. Over the last twenty years, the hillside, divided and subdivided, became house lots. The willows -- streambank trees, never intended for shade -- were left in one back yard or another, sending their shallow roots into basement walls and dropping branches each spring. Homeowners, sympathetic at first, grew tired of taking care of the trees and worried when major damage occurred in thunderstorms. It's understandable. But as is always the case, it doesn't matter that the trees were here first, that we are, in fact, the ones who have encroached on them.
Last night, after dinner, the chain saws in the neighbors' yard were finally silent. I went out on the back porch and looked over at the willow. The tree stood there still, its great wide crown shorn, one main trunk remaining with all its branches and leaves, the others amputated into huge logs that lay around the base. It was a horrible sight but heroic in a way; the tree, still alive, retaining something of its nobility and the strength emanating from that huge solid trunk, easily five feet in diameter at chest height. Yet it was doomed; this would be its final night, the last time those branches reached toward sunlight, leaves stretching a few new millimeters in length. I came back upstairs, drew a basin of water for the dishes, and started to cry, filled with sorrow for mankind, for being alive at a time and in a culture which values the safe, the cheap, the fast solution: whatever fits easily into our lives and causes the least inconvenience. I cried rueful tears for myself, made so sad by a tree -- how out of step I am, and how painful it is to stubbornly refuse the cries of a culture that would gladly give up Bach for the sitcom-of-the-moment; where artists, musicians and poets eek out a living and developers get rich.
I'll remember the willow best on those nights, years ago, when I was trying to figure out if God existed. After I'd meditated for an hour, the incense burned down to ash, candle extinguished, I'd come out into the night, and to my polished mind, open, newly innocent, every sensation appeared fresh, important, astonishing. The Milky Way had never seemed so vast, the air so exhilarating, the snow under my feet so white. And there the willow loomed: hugely alive, pulsating with being-ness and a quality of home that strangely did not feel closed to me. I stopped trying to paint it or write about it, but just stood there, night after night, as if it were part of the meditation ritual; looking up, not thinking, I let it tell me whatever it had to say.
After doing a quick drawing today, of a corner of my studio, I leafed through the pages of the rather old sketchbook. This drawing caught my eye. It was obviously done years ago in my Vermont garden, which was full of ferns, and I guess at the time I didn't think it was very successful. But today I loved the energy of the lines, the interplay of the forms, and could see all kinds of possibilities lurking in that foliage for a relief print. (Note to self: search out your forms with blunt, chunky objects, not those sharply pointed ones you seem to prefer...)
It's odd, isn't it, how we change, and how it's sometimes so hard to see the potential of a creative idea or expression at the time. A good argument for keeping sketchbooks and notebooks of poetry and writing, and actually going back through them once in a while!
Proud to still be a Vermonter at heart, who helped elect Bernie Sanders, subject of a recent Guardian profile. It would be oddly ironic if this Senate outlier finally got famous. I'm glad he's calling on the Wall Street protesters to organize and get an articulated agenda, because Bernie knows talk ultimately doesn't get anything done, and doesn't get anyone elected. He should know - he's had a long track record of backing up his words with action, in a state known for its practicality and low tolerance for b.s.!