Friday, August 16, 2013

Whittling


I have been whittling this summer.  I don't really know how, which makes it easier- otherwise I might get discouraged by all the 'mistakes' I have made.  As it is, it's just one learning experience after another with some odd funny little creations happening along the way.
I haven't been in the studio- painting or drawing- for a very long time.  Years.  Not quite sure why I stopped, I just did.  I made art for over 30 years then just stopped, and spent more time writing, teaching, and doing Therapeutic Touch for Hospice.  But I don't want to talk about that.  I want to talk about whittling.
When I am away from wood right now I long for the satisfying action of slicing into a piece, then cutting in from a different angle and having a chip fly off onto the floor.  It's such a clean, simple action.  My mother always told us to cut down into a slice of melon, then sideways into it.  Control.    I do the best I can with the wood.  First step is draw the figure on paper from front and side view.  I don't usually draw people or animals...I was an abstract artist- so it means I have to go look.  All the things I take for granted I have to go study.  When someone leans against a wall and crosses their legs- which leg bears the weight?  Which leg is in front?   How do crossed arms get so complicated? I do a lot of jumping up and assuming various stances as I carve because I don't know anything.  Then I sit back down, get totally confused and jump back up again to reassume the position and pay closer attention.  
I began some abstract drawings earlier this summer and found myself thinking "soooo serious.....I want humor" and I grabbed the wood.  A friend had suggested I start drawing again as a way to document my changing hand movements....since I have  Parkinson's.   At first I thought it was an interesting idea, but as soon as I started I knew the last thing I want to use my creative energies for is that.  I'd rather explore wood and figure out how to carve a bird, which means looking at birds, pictures of birds, wings of birds, beaks of birds, and bird feet.  Much more fun.   How do I turn a block of wood into a bartender?  I don't know!  Let me find out.  When I was little we used to get these carving kits that were a block of clay and some tools- and inside the clay was a plastic statue of a horse, or a dog etc.   We would just 'artistically' scape away clay with these cool tools to reveal the finished object.  Magic!  
I am feeling the magic in the wood.  Right  now I am working on a mobile of St. Francis being hoisted aloft by birds of all sizes.    Big smile on his face .   A cluster of hummingbirds lead the way.  An egret holds the saint's rope belt in his claws,  other birds hold his hem, sleeves and cowl,  and yet another bird flies behind holding one of St. Francis' sandals that's fallen off.   Are the figures "good"? Probably not.  Do I care?  Not particularly.  I am having fun. I feel like I am at camp. Since I have no idea what I am doing, there is no self criticism.   I smile all day. And I haven't cut myself.  Yet.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Witness


I was standing on the corner outside Peel's on the lower east side waiting for my daughter Andrus.  We were meeting for brunch-  and it was a beautiful day, so I put us on the wait list for one of the outside tables, and went to wait in the sun.  Lots of people heading out for a meal, running weekend errands, or walking dogs.  Saturday morning, autumn, New York City. Warm sun, cool air- about perfect.

I was leaning against a bus stop shelter, watching the scene, when a cute young couple walked up with 3 Whole Foods paper bags of their household trash, and deposited them in a trash can about a yard from me.  They had a brief cuddle and kiss and parted company and never even noticed me standing all of 2 feet from them.  I used to live in NYC, long ago, when Soho was still mostly industrial buildings and galleries.  You can develop a cloak of invisibility when you live in a big city...unless you are one of those characters who commands attention just waiting for a cab. I'm more of the voyeur type- so invisibility suits me.

As the couple separated and walked away, a second young couple- who had been approaching took center stage.  They were street people, and everything they wore looked like it had been run over by city buses for a month. A year.  Black, grey, brown grimy clothes, and the girl had shoes that were actually just soles, with scraps of leftover shoe across her feet, leather flapping this way and that.  He had black dreadlocks to mid- back, and a heavy backpack, as did she. Blond, with a pierced nose, and a watch cap, she looked anxious, tired, and hopeful that those Whole Food bags might contain something she could eat.  The man was on a rant, swearing about the city, and who knows what, while she searched the bags.

He stood right in front of me as he yelled and swore, maybe 2-3 feet away.  His backpack was open at the top, and nestled into the top of it was a cage with rats in it. 2 grey-black rats, nosing the air, and moving about. Then he was gone, heading up the sidewalk, and I watched her as she kept her eye on how far ahead he was, while she continued to look through the bags.  Finally she gave up, and set off after him.

We never made eye contact. She never saw me, or realized I was watching her from a yard away. But I saw her. As a mother, I wondered where her family was, if she had siblings, a grandmother, an aunt- does anyone worry about her? Do they know she is alive- if this is alive?
For a brief moment I thought I should have given her some money, then realized it would have probably caused tension between her and her mate.  If she'd kept it for herself it becomes her burden, a secret.  If she tells him about it he might take it.  This is her life, not mine.  Her path.

She has haunted me for days, with those tired, anxious eyes, wary and watchful.  Her hunger gnaws at me. Her fatigue wears me out.  And there is nothing to do but place her in my prayers at night when I do my practice.  I can send her peace, and love.  I was her witness, for a few brief moments, on a beautiful morning in New York, and I will be her advocate to the gods.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Wandering Toast at Camp Swamiland


Some of you might remember why I call myself the Wandering Toast…it’s a tongue in cheek reference to Taoism.  I was at 4 day silent retreat at a friend’s house with her Buddhist meditation group and their teacher. Doing a slow walking meditation past a wall of library books I caught the title out of the corner of my eye- The Wandering Toast.  The host was a world class cook, traveler, psychotherapist, gardener extraordinaire, Episcopal minister, and Buddhist.  Her book collection includes books on all those subjects and more, neatly organized.  Then the book was behind me.  Curiosity! Could it be a cookbook on food to take on the road? Jonnycakes, unleavened bread, things that don’t need refrigeration and such?  Things to do with stale bread?  I walked around alternately beating myself up for not being a good meditator, wondering about the title, and trying to follow my breath and walk.  Finally, after zipping by it at a fast walk,  I got to slow walk by it.  The Wandering TAOIST.  Not Toast.  Giggles.  Not good.  I’m clearly not meant for monastic life. There’s a previous post about what happened next if you want to read it.

I’ve spent the last month at yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I decided over a year ago to apply for this program. I’m still trying to remember why, but it doesn’t matter anymore.  After the first week that question was plaguing all 62 of us, as we visited the sauna and whirlpools, got massages, and wept. 4-6 hours of yoga a day, anatomy and physiology, philosophy, teaching strategies, asana posture clinics, voice workshops, scary practice teaches, and the looming final exam. Up at 5:45 and crash into bed later than I should.  Initially I was terrified knowing that I’d be in a minority of older participants, surrounded by 18-40 years olds with uninjured, muscular bodies leaping into and sustaining difficult positions for as long as it might take me to drive to the Red Lion Inn and get a glass of wine and sneak back- whereupon they’d leap, undaunted, out of the asana and grin, begging for the next assignment.  I’d be in Swami boot camp. 

Not so. Because I have had injuries, done yoga on and off for 40 years, and learned to have some compassion for myself I was able to pace myself, modify poses as appropriate, and like the tortoise, I plodded along while the young’un dropped like flies the first 10 days.  Then each one “got it” and they started to take care of themselves, and the philosophy part that overwhelmed many of them in the beginning started to sink in.  One total cutie pie said early on “What do you mean this is going to ‘transform’ us??? I like myself just the way I am!  I don’t want to change!”  She is transformed- becoming more deeply herself every day. And joyful about it.

So I survived!  And what is the Wandering Toast taking home from camp? No potholders, or picture frames made of popsicle sticks.  No badges for excellence in canoeing. I’m taking my breath home. Breath creates an expansion, making space for movement, and change.  With that space and movement, prana (energy) can flow more easily.  Not just in the body, either.  It’s that breath I take before responding to a question- when I have the opportunity to disengage from my knee-jerk reaction and respond with thoughtfulness, and kindness.  In my final hour-long practice teach I invited people to begin every deliberate movement with an inhale and move with the exhale, and stay a few breaths.  The exhales became a gentle surrender – an invitation to go deeper into the posture, and into what was true for them, in that moment.  I’m trying to breathe into the whole day now, and see what spaces open up, what new movements are possible in my life.

So I am back in the Adirondacks, dog delightfully underfoot, and the planet is breathing thru the cottage- windows flung wide open, curtains flapping. The wind chime moves with the breeze, and the greens and blues of the summer day are stunning.  It’s a day to breathe and feel and allow- and I’m going to do all three.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

And the river runs thru it.

Every so often the water company opens the dam and lets water flow into the Santa Fe River for a while. The river bed is usually dry, just sand and rocks. Today- Earth Day- a spectacular spring day- the river had 6" of water, children in rain boots, dogs, adults with jeans rolled up, and even normally surly teenagers sat on the banks smiling at the action. Lilacs are in full bloom, along with many of the trees in town, tulips, wisteria, forsythia, various shrubs, and succulents.
You haven't heard form me in a while. It's been a busy year. Brief synopsis- the house in Rhinebeck sold 30 days after my friend Judith Feng Shuie-ed it after it had been on the market for over a year. The right family bought it, too. Children, a dog, the works. The house I had fallen in love with in Santa Fe had been bought by someone last winter- but no! The deal had fallen thru- and so here I am sitting on the porch, dog sprawled at my feet (still wet from the river,) looking at the garden and writing to you.
It was a good move, coming here. There are 2 places I feel at home; the southwest and the Adirondacks of NY. 2 hard, scrappy, difficult places. Both also essentially beautiful. While New Mexico has little water, The Adirondacks often get more than their share- as witnessed by Hurricane Irene last summer, which followed bad spring flooding when the snow melted. My little valley up there was one of the hardest hit places by Irene. Fema and all. Here in Santa Fe you'd be shot if you used a sprinkler on a lawn.....and no one has lawns. You have stones, or dirt, or cement, and rain barrels under your down spouts from the roof to water what plants you do have. Santa Fe is 2 miles up- so we have snow and skiing in winter, but in town by early afternoon most of it's gone. The Adirondacks are often 20-30 below, with mountains of snow and ice. You pay serious attention to weather in both places.
I read this book called The Wind in a Jar, by an anthropologist named Farella. It's a slim volume about the problems of trying to capture a culture- how impossible it is to say "The Navajo believe X" when in fact some don't. In any case, he describes a fellow anthropologist's interview with an old Hopi man, and their discussion of the Hopi creation story. According to the story, the Hopi lived in the rough, difficult high mesas of the desert for a long time, and then migrated north- perhaps into what is now Colorado- where there was water, lots of game, and good soil for crops. Eventually the Hopi returned to their original home in the mesas and high desert. The anthropologist asked the old man why his people had returned to this hard, difficult place when they had been in greener, less arid climes, where hunting was good, and water plentiful?  The old Hopi told him that "In those easy places our religion, our way of life, would not survive."  Farella goes on to say "Their religion, their way of life requires close attention to things.  They need to watch closely that world around them, look for order in it that allows them to life there.  ....  Their ceremonies make note of that pattern.  They mark the moments in it that matter.  They punctuate time and are a celebration of it." He goes on to talk about how we perhaps have misinterpreted the importance of their ceremonies.  It isn't that the rain won't come if the ceremony is late, or not done properly.  The wrong is in forgetting the tempo of their world.  The wrong comes from not having paid attention to- or not knowing what matters.

This struck me like quiet lightening.
I need to be where people naturally pay attention, where the organic rhythms of our planet are considered, and contemplated, noted and acted upon. In difficult environments you have to pay attention- to the birds, the bugs, the clouds, the rain, the seasons. I'm hardly a "nature girl"in the sense of running barefoot up mountains, camping on rocky ground, eating freeze dried food and feeling neutral about being eaten by bugs while I try to sleep on those rocks. But I do need to feel connected to the balance of the natural world. I get queasy when I am not aware of what the sky is doing. I get cranky when I'm in shoes all the time and haven't felt the earth with my soles for too long. Santa Fe and my Adirondack home town both require that attention to the natural world.  People are in partnership with it. Periodically it beats us up- yup- and we bow before it, humbled and wide awake.
Wide awake. That's the part the buddhist in me responds to. I don't want to control nature- neither do the native tribes. I just want to notice what is happening, and I don't want to inflict harm. I don't really like the idea of water only coming down the river bed when men open the dam a bit-to celebrate Earth Day... but damn it was beautiful down there. It was a celebration of water, the lifeblood of the planet. The new plantings have taken and are leafing out, the children and dogs were running and gleeful, the bright green of the new tree leaves against that deep blue sky practically hurt my eyes. The rolled up cuffs of my jeans are still cool and damp and I bet there is sand in them when I unroll them.  Bliss.



Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rapture and Recycling


Wild week: crazy day. Where to start! High winds and drought drove brush fires across New Mexico- and I passed great swaths of charred country as I headed for Amarillo. Move on to Joplin, which I drove by this morning. The highway near Joplin was teeming with trucks saying "Mobile Therapy", "Disaster Relief Team", "Help on Wheels" etc. There wasn't a healthy tree left along the interstate, as crews worked to clean up the uprooted, mangled, splintered remains of once lovely plantings. Rows of stumps, like the tomb stones in the national cemetery in Santa Fe, just wait by the roadside for- what? Chains and tractors I'm afraid. Rip them out. Start over. I have managed to pick a good week to drive thru tornado alley- but suddenly New England is torn apart. Springfield MA.? Not Springfield, Mo.? Bizarre. What's happening? Blooms of jelly fish wash ashore in Florida over the holiday weekend, stinging children and others playing in the sand and sea. 30 minutes outside St. Louis- in the homestretch for my motel- I started hearing this rising and falling hissssss- radiator? Oh hell. Over the hum of the a.c. and the book on tape I could hear it- and louder when I cracked the window. Damn. Pulled onto a side road, turned the car off and got out. Deafening. Cicadas! And let's not forget the forgettable non-Rapture this last week. Oops. Did it occur to any of those who had arranged care for the pets they'd be leaving behind when they ascended to the Celestial Inn and Suites- that they had not been wrong- that that was indeed the Rapture? And they hadn't been invited? Double oops.Okay, let's get real. Or at least really appreciative of what's on terra firma. For instance, this morning in Oklahoma City my motel was next to a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Gift Shop. Ever been to one? While you wait for a table, you are stuck in the gift shop- and it is a fine place to pass 20 minutes. Or 5. I scored Green Tea bags for my sister- "Scripture Tea"- each bag comes with a bible verse. And a wonderfully tacky hand held, battery mic that lights up and illuminates your face in rainbow pulsating colors while you sing. (I know a little girl in Saratoga who'll be extremely happy!) They had Moon Pies, candy in vintage styled boxes, books on tape, and rocking chairs to sit in while you waited for your table...or you could buy one and strap it to the roof of your car. Then the high point of the day- bringing my beloved dog into the hotel tonight- to ascend to our own cloud # 206. Sometimes elevators don't phase him- but tonight- as soon as it began to go up- he went up on all his toenails and skated around like a spider with too much caffeine. Nearly wet my pants. Later I walked him around the little neighborhood behind the motel- and thought about my parents, as newlyweds, coming to St. Louis for Dad's first teaching job at St. Louis Country Day. The school occupied the land where the new airport is, so visual memories are buried. The dog and I passed rows of little bungalows, cheek by jowl, and it dawned on me that I was conceived right here- in Saint Louis! A few weeks before Christmas vacation 1951. What do you know! I don't think it means much- no miraculous conception or anything- but it was a nice way to end a week fraught with wind, bugs, tornados, stinging sea slimy-s, and raging fires. Brimstone it was not, but maybe an admonishment from the planet to behave ourselves. A new reader of mine, Blayney Colmore, wrote to me: "If we end up being a brief- if noisy- phenomenon in the geologic history of the planet, as hard-headed consideration might conclude, I wonder if consciousness may turn out to have been an unproductive and self-defeating avenue because it caused us to believe and act in ways that separate us from what we are irrevocably connected to." I agree- I have always assumed the earth would absorb and recycle us- as it does detritus of all kinds. A brilliant but nervous friend of my son's frantically asked his mother when he was five- "I need to know what comes after people!!!!! What comes after people??????" What did he mean? "Well- we know what came after dinosaurs- what comes after people?" Can't even wait and see! Meanwhile, we clean up the tornado damage, and dance with our dogs in elevators, and replant trees and crops, rebuild our barns, bury our dead, drink Scripture Tea (while giggling), learn how to use less and give more, bow to our neighbors and bow to your corner. We keep dancing. Perhaps most of all- be ever so grateful to be conscious for this experience- and at least try to live consciously. Maybe I'll get to come back as a praying mantis.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Adventures of the Wandering Toast

An explanation: About 5 years ago I was at a weekend meditation retreat in Connecticut. The teacher, Doug, comes from Boston a few times a year and his students in the area gather for the weekend to sit and to listen. In my case, also to squirm, itch, be impatient, cranky, and wonder why I was doing this. I am not one of Doug's regular students. I went on invitation of the host- and it was held in her wonderful, rambling farmhouse.

I meditate at home, sometimes in my local group, and while the rigors of sitting for a weekend with a teacher might serve me well....well, I don't like it much. But there was a bright spot that weekend. The routine was to sit for 40 minutes, then walk- very, very slowly around the room a few times, then move to a fast walk, then back to slow, then back to sitting. The room we were in was also the library- with a huge wall of books. The host was a buddhist, an Episcopal minister, therapist, traveler, an extraordinary gardener, and fabulous cook. Her library reflects all of those interests, organized by subject, then alphabetically.

During a slow walk section of the morning, as I passed the books, my eye caught the title The Wandering Toast. Then I'd moved past it, but was left wondering- was it a travel book on bread in foreign lands? A cookbook on all the things you could do with leftover toast or stale bread? A recipe book on jonnycakes- and other carbs meant for the road? The rest of the circuit of the room, at a snails pace, was excruciating! FOCUS Eliza- follow your breath, forget about the book! The book on....unleavened bread that the Jews developed? I did truly try to be a good meditator... or I would try once I got my hands on the book during the break for lunch.

As we approached the bookshelf I was positively salivating with curiosity! Would it be in the cookbooks? In religion? In travel? We sped up to the fast walk and I missed it! ARGH! Let it go- I told myself. Behave yourself! Try to keep on track here- feel your feet, feel your breath, listen to the room, be here, now. I was useless.

We slowed down again in time for me to non-chalantly scan the books as if I was just stretching my neck.......The Wandering Taoist.

Ever try to restrain belly laughter? Forget about giggles. It was worse than being in church as a kid, or watching a classmate sneeze milk out their nose in the lunchroom.

Taoism is about balance: yin and yang, life and death, darkness and light, joy and sorrow. There is peace when there is balance between the yin and yang. Well, I was beginning to see that The Wandering Toast had saved me from taking myself a little too seriously that weekend. My son Dave told me I am not really a buddhist- I'm a Taoist. I think he's right. In fact- I think I'm the Wandering Toast!

Last night I went to a party in this warehouse here in Santa Fe with my friends Bill and Helen for some great barbecue. Helen runs a terrific used bookstore, and Bill is an artist. He's in his 80's, and wheelchair bound from polio- but it doesn't stop him from engaging with life in a big way. The warehouse is owned by Pablo and his wife. He restores cars and motorcycles, and he rides a big trike. The yard around the place is a graveyard of old cars and motorcycles. Pablo's wife designs and makes the clothes for the Bishop of Santa Fe. Her sister Pia looks like a rocker, and designs religious jewelry. Lots of bikers at this party, an enormous (6'6", 280 lbs?) bagpiper from Boston, another couple learning to play the pipes, an older gay couple from across the street, the three of us, some other couples, and the most beautiful Spanish woman I've ever seen and her husband. A rather astonishing mix of lovely people.

Somewhere along the line Pablo has collected a bunch of wheelchairs. The party game of choice for these folks is wheelchair limbo. For the record- Bill thinks this is hilarious, tho he doesn't participate. The bar they go under is metal- none of the light bamboo stuff. Balancing on the 2 big wheels, they inch forward under the bar- scooting their butts forward as the bar gets lower so they can tip back farther. Then they do it in reverse- approaching backwards. Gotta do it both ways. Lots of wipe outs. Lots of applause and laughter. The other ongoing game was that stacking game with blocks- where you remove one block and place it on top. Again- lots of wipe outs, lots of applause and laughter. Lots of balance.

We went back to Helen and Bill's around 11, and watched this dvd on Tony Bourdain's visit to ElBullie- the famous Spanish restaurant, whose chef Bourdain has always made fun of- Ferran Adria- "the Foam guy". We finished the evening watching Tony totally succumb to the extraordinary talents and inventiveness of a chef who mixes chemistry with culinary arts- the moment with memory.

What a night. Talk about balance. Talk about fun, food, friendship, laughter. The Wandering Toast is happy. A little hung over...but very happy.




Thursday, April 21, 2011

When I was a young girl, I had me a spaceman

There's a Bonnie Raitt song going thru my head- "Angel From Montgomery"- great song- go listen. I'm on the road again, between NY and New Mexico. Last year at this time I was packing up in Santa Fe to drive back. Anyway, when I was 19, I had me a spaceman. The first real love I had was with a man about a decade older than me- an artist. I was thinking about him a lot today. He was "a free ramblin' man" as the song says. We rambled around the country together that summer, in an old VW van of course- it was 1971. He was one of the early video artists, and was also a great observer and appreciator of rural America, its people and their peculiarities. Ace Space Company was the name of his artistic venture. He spent his too short life telling stories about his travels in a brilliant piece of audio/visual performance art called "Next Exit". He graduated from the VW camper to a Dodge van, and moved on to a series of larger and larger RVs that housed his recording and performance equipment, his guitars,and whichever of his friends were sharing the adventure with him just then. For awhile he did a Video Postcard segment for some national TV weekend show- where he'd do "postcards" on alligator wrestlers, people who built their house-castles out of bottle caps, or an old southern guy who was sure if he braided his beard just right...and pulled it up onto his head just soooo...that he could levitate. (He was still perfecting his technique). Ace could listen to these people, and draw their stories out of them with total seriousness and respect. As a result- he had the most wonderful, bizarre, unique friends all over the country.
Anyway, I was driving west today, and there in the sky above me were crossed jet streams- a big X. That'd be Ace saying "The road...how I love the road." and winking at me- relaxing me for the next 2000 miles of road ahead. Why the X? Back in 1971 a Canadian (I think) artist wanted to do a piece involving correspondence art- then a big thing. He wrote to many artist friends, and asked them to send in a B&W contact sheet (remember 35 mm film?). They would all go into a book he would publish. Whether we were supposed to use an X somewhere, or whether that was Ace's idea I don't remember. Ace had background in graphics and book design (MFA Yale) so he meticulously planned out every shot on the contact sheet ahead of time- who would be in it, where, order of shots, etc. We cut out a 3' tall X out of canvas....the birth of The Amazing X. It appeared in many subsequent pieces and conversations over the decades. We took it around the then tiny, sleepy town of Crested Butte, CO. where Ace owned an old house, and photographed the X nailed to the side of the great breakfast joint in town- with the cook next to it, and at the leatherworker's, and with this person and that. I climbed over barbed wire into a field so he could photograph it with the cows. I photographed him at the town highway dept.- sitting in a front end loader- payload up- with the X limp across a heap of gravel. The contact sheet was brilliant. Ace did just the right amount of careful prep- but was willing to totally wing it if a better opportunity presented itself. He had good instincts for turning down the road less traveled when the planned road wasn't too interesting.
Me? I decided to spend the first night on the road about 10 miles off the interstate, in a sleepy little town. I admit- I have the misguided tendency to think that west of the NY/NJ metro area is...well, Kansas. This turned out to be a tiny town, all lush with spring, and too many churches to count. It also has the largest high end Outlet center I've ever seen. So much for this road less traveled! But the day was full of wonderful memories and an old friend smiling in his rear view mirror in the sky.