Washing Away

Another form of water that reflects my mood on this last day of August.

This month I’ve been obsessed with water. Starting with my art grant for next year, which focuses on how water always seems to show up in my paintings, to the horrific events still unfolding in Texas. I’ve gone from lazy afternoons spent watching barges glide down the Ohio River on painting trips to recoiling from the unforgettable photos and videos of the broiling brown brew currently washing away lives and lands.

Like Katrina before it, I felt the same sinking feeling with Harvey as I tracked the swirling cloud mass on weather maps and phone apps. Growing up on the east coast I remember well the endless deluge of Agnes in 1972, when constant rain soaked through everything in my family’s spanking new saltbox colonial home, the wooden shingles, the old-fashioned plaster walls that only a very few craftsmen still knew how to apply, and the extensive fireplaces built with unglazed brick. My mother set out so many pots and pans to catch the drips, that the sparsely furnished rooms echoed like a tin symphony.

But that was nothing compared to the flooding of my beloved meadow, where the innocent creek that meandered through my youthful playdates became a wrathful river that destroyed the little driveway bridge that carried us to the outside world of groceries and grandma’s house. We waited days before my father was able to reconstruct a passage to freedom. By that time, the angry torrents had reduced to a slimy whimper, and when I managed to slip and slide my way to the meadow’s edge, I couldn’t recognize my former friend amid the scattered rocks and stinking muck from a thousand fields upstream.

The gentle bends and soft shoulders of the grassy banks I knew by heart were never the same, making it easier to say goodbye. The next year we moved away to another land with a completely different kind of water, where my brother and I played in a man-made ditch that ran straight as an arrow through soil the color of coal, reflecting a greenish hue that I would later realize was filled with something more ominous than the little leeches clinging painlessly to my legs in the old meadow.

And while Agnes’ unrelenting rain and stifling air fell heavy on my bony shoulders that June of 1972, this was nothing compared to what the population of Texas is enduring. My family didn’t watch our beautiful new house fill up with sewage, or have to leave our pets behind, we didn’t inhale the choking fumes of chemical plants and refineries relieving themselves of toxic byproducts as they shut down, and we didn’t know anyone who perished beneath a dark current.

This water, no matter how swift, will never wash away the fear and countless tragedies. As I grieve for those living beings who have been affected by this national disaster and donate what I can, I find myself wondering whether the suffering evacuees will return and the bridges be rebuilt, or if it is easier to say goodbye and start over somewhere else? Only time will tell and there is one thing I do know:

It will never be the same.

 

 

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Summer Reflections


Kids are heading back to school, moving trucks are out in force, and I have just returned from our first successful attempt at a vacation this summer of 2017. Old friends took pity on us in our stuffy apartment during these final sweltering July days by inviting us up to their family’s cabin on the Menominee Indian Reservation near Keshena, Wisconsin.

This was only my third time in the Badger State, and we couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful weekend to indulge in a few days of swimming, boating, lounging around a campfire and gazing up at the stars. Located on the shores of a string of lakes that have been connected together, I was enchanted by the serenity of this land and its people during boat rides to remote parts of the reservation.

A large portion of undeveloped property has been returned to the Menominee tribe, and they gather on the shoreline for reunions and birthdays, to fish and swim, play games, eat and socialize. As we slowly passed numerous campsites and RV gatherings, I marveled at how peaceful and happy they seemed without the fancy cottages and noisy watercraft on the commercial areas of the lakes, sandy banks and perhaps a simple inner tube all that was needed for hours of swimming fun. We were warmly greeted for our quiet passage, careful not to create a wake strong enough to erode edges where the beautiful beech and pine trees perched.

During our visit, we saw and heard loons, gulls, sandhill cranes and even a majestic bald eagle. At night on the dock, as the Milky Way appeared overhead to remind us of other worlds, I found myself thinking back to those gatherings along the shoreline with longing and an urge to join in community with one of the few tribes that still lives on its original lands. That kind of belonging is as alien to me as those distant lights in a faraway galaxy, and as elusive as the shooting star I saw falling from an endless sky.

Passing Through

A double row of hornbeams planted twenty years ago.

Here it is the end of May and I’ve barely been here. My focus is kept packed by the door and my psyche feels like it’s still moving after an interminable car ride. I stop by just long enough to check my email and pay the bills, wash a big pile of neglect that’s accumulated. There are cobwebs all over some best-laid plans left piled on last winter’s table.

My “word” for 2017 has been “awake,” and boy, have I. To the point where I rose early enough to see the dawn in all kinds of wind and weather for seven days in a row. There are no photos because I refused to carry any form of electronic distraction. Instead, I wanted to burn the sun’s first midas touch on the tips of trees into my eyeballs, let a heavy dew sink into my bones, be swallowed whole by the rising rush of bird song. How could I have missed these treasures for all those countless years spent lolling about in bed like an apathetic teenager?

Some mornings we danced intricate steps set to modern astral music inside a labyrinth’s ancient patterns. On others we were high above ancestral land and its tree-lined ribbon of river, at a circle made with stones that whispered power and prayers. And still others were spent in the gardens, tended by human hands but retouched by faery folk in those magic hours when mortal souls still wander through the grainy dreams from other worlds.

There has been art and music, poetry and dance, and some really good gin. Despite an early rise, I’ve stayed up way too late talking about crazy-beautiful ideas and inspiration, because I didn’t want to miss a minute of this precious time or interrupt the messy, foolish freedom that doesn’t fit into a shifty shared cloud calendar or antsy time-management app.

But perhaps the most precious gift I’ve been given by staying awake long enough, is to rediscover a forgotten little keepsake tin with the rusty lid I left hiding in my memory’s bank barn. Inside, once again I heard the quail’s call in tall grass, felt hard rain rumbling across a field, finally found those missing linch pins from an old Farmall tractor hitch, inhaled the sweaty scent off a low morning meadow, and watched with great joy some gritty, grinning kids stagger home covered in the satisfying filth from a mountain of freshly dumped sand.

You see, somewhere during those adult years of dysfunction, darkness and despair, I had lost my childhood’s best mementos. I’d fallen into a slumber of numbing responsibility and restriction. I could only recall the disappointments and failures harped on by my mind’s endless critiques, where the rules are always changing and your advisors never let you leave.

Nearly halfway into the year, I’m happy to report that I’ve been awake long enough to know now, that I’m finally free to go.

From Where the Sidewalk Ends


Somehow, February got away from me. And then March. The days just slipped away through a hole in the floor, the grate, the ground, the sidewalk and ultimately, my soul. So, I search for them along the loop I walk most mornings that harbors mature oaks, maples and evergreens that have been around since this former army fort was established in the early 1900s. And some trees have been here long before that.

The other day, I noticed that a tree company had shown up and marked many long-standing sentries with ominous red x’s spray-painted on their trunks, or orange tape throttling their worn bark. There were too many to ignore, and some choices were downright puzzling. Sure, there were those that were mostly dead, or lopsided. But quite a few looked perfectly fine.

One morning before I left on a long trip, my walking partner and I marched around the loop saying a quiet goodbye and blessing to each of the doomed ones. The rumblings of the chainsaw and shrieks from a chipper could already be heard at the other end of the long parade, seemingly lined up like good soldiers waiting to be struck down by an enemy who claimed friendly fire, as if fire was ever friendly for a tree.

By the time I returned in mid-March, the sadly singled out were all gone, and in their places stood mounds of chips, where their very roots had been sought and ground out of existence. The innocent smell of freshly cut wood wafted in the breeze.

I still feel their ghosts as I walk, searching the sidewalks for a glimpse of the bottomless holes with their shimmering deceptions of days that are no longer there.

As Above

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While I really enjoy the month-long photo prompts that are prolifically offered on Instagram throughout the year, sometimes you just have to go maverick and wander off on your own. All the storms and fast-moving weather fronts during the past two months in my neck of the woods have led to plenty of drama in the skies, so I’ve found my camera tilting upward daily (when I’m not cowering in a first-floor hallway while the tornado sirens wail nearby).

After the first two days of sky photos in September, I said what the heck, why not a month of skies, unfiltered, shown just as they are, or as much as my limited but convenient iPhone camera can capture. I wasn’t sure whether thirty days of sky shots was sustainable, but I found ways to incorporate them as reflections on water (or car hood), and as metaphors for a mood to match the front-page antics of the country I live in.

Indeed, with all the drama manifested this month in both sky and earth, I can’t help but think that the ancient adage “As above, so below” is still a very relevant one.

What the Water Says

Contented chuckling from the creek at Turkey Run State Park.
Contented chuckling from the creek at Turkey Run State Park.

More painting than writing is happening these days, as you can see over at Paints in the Parks. However, I’ve been enjoying some poetry hikes in a local state park as part of our Indiana Poet Laureate’s Arts in the Parks grant. Poet in residence for the summer at Fort Harrison State Park, Shari Wagner has led us along poetic paths to history and nature, providing thoughtful prompts along the way. Last week, her prompt to write in an element’s voice inspired me to start a new poem by a creek in the woods. Though destructive at times, water has always had a calming effect on me, whether in the bath, near an ocean or beside a babbling brook.

What The Water Says: Fort Harrison Poetry Hike

Born babbling
from embattled
ground I could
not stop myself
from gleeful giggling
with the faster flow,
seeking a rush in
rapids, shouting
down the stone-
silent elders who
tried to hold
me back, before
cascading full of
laughter into a
reckless roaring
tide of carnival
tunes and siren’s
sea songs.

Please check out Shari’s website called Through the Sycamores featuring her workshops and wonderful poetry as well as submissions from poets all over Indiana.

Writing for Art

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My tradition the last few years has been to choose a “word” for the year, starting in January. My word for 2015 was “Write,” and while I confess that I did write a fair bit, my greatest efforts weren’t in the form I’d imagined last year. Instead of the usual creative outlets like journal entries, poetry or even that book I keep promising to self-publish, I spent a huge chunk of my time in the throes of the hardest writing of my life — along with the blinking cursor of an online grant application that I filled out last fall.

As a grizzled veteran of numerous English research papers and an agonizingly procrastinated Master’s thesis, this is no small claim. The precise language and focused nuances required in proposing my project and asking for funding threw me into a strange new world, since I struggled to accurately portray a vision that would benefit the public as well as my own personal pursuits. You see, this particular grant focuses on creating art outside in state parks, and in my case, that art will be visual rather than verbal.

That’s right, my battles with the written page have been transferred to the terrors of a blank canvas, all in the name of celebrating art in nature. And I will gladly take on that challenge if I can convert even one person to the joys of spending artistic time outdoors, whether it’s to write a poem, compose a song, dance a jig, or set up an easel to paint.

Plus, I’ll be able to travel to some of the most beautiful natural settings that Indiana has to offer with a trusty assistant (my husband), and invite the great outdoors to be my personal work space. In the weeks to come, you’ll see a new WordPress blog called Paints in the Parks detailing my journey as I paint scenic landscapes in six state parks while I research my painting subjects and interact with the park visitors who stop by my easel. I hope you’ll join me on this artistic ride, either by blog or in person.

I believe that in our modern society, we spend too much time cooped up in homes or offices that can become self-made prison cells, preoccupied with the flickering screens of fake connections and false avatars, while a sentient world lies just outside our doors, at the bus stop, on the bike trails, in the parks, and under the shade trees in our backyards; all waiting to be celebrated through ART — my word for 2016.

Careful What You Ask

Day 27: 2015 Taught Me . . .
Day 27: 2015 Taught Me . . .

2015 taught me that in order to find what I want, I have to ask. And the asking can be very hard when I’m afraid I’ll get it.

I’ve decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections  photo prompts again this year. During this hectic and stressful season, won’t you join me in mindful reflection from life’s photographic window seats and contemplative comments that provide refuge from the madness.

Confirmation

Day 22: Solstice Sunset
Day 22: Solstice Sunset

Our celebrations of song and feasting last night must have worked because the sun finally came back today.

I’ve decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections  photo prompts again this year. During this hectic and stressful season, won’t you join me in mindful reflection from life’s photographic window seats and contemplative comments that provide refuge from the madness.

When the Fog Lifts

Day 19: I Said Goodbye To . . .
Day 19: I Said Goodbye To . . .

This year I said goodbye to some lingering roles that had run their course: the dutiful daughter, perfect mother and overcompensating wife. This year the fog lifted from my eyes, and rays of my own turth blinded me with potential.

I’ve decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections  photo prompts again this year. During this hectic and stressful season, won’t you join me in mindful reflection from life’s photographic window seats and contemplative comments that provide refuge from the madness.