i used to know someone who really despised redundancy. this person would interrupt and say, “you already told me that” or “i heard that already”. ask them about their day and they would reply, “same-old-same-old.” it was hard for me – a new yorker – born into repetition and long-story-telling.
d and i sat on that iowa porch only four days, but it doesn’t take long to grow fond of something beautiful.
in front of us – facing east – were two trees. beyond the trees were fields. before they were mowed down, the fields were wildgrasses green with sunny yellow flowers. in the distance – quite a ways off – was the road. a country highway, it was populated by many pickup trucks, an occasional sedan, rarely a semi and, at one point, more booming harleys than we could count.
the light changed during the day. no surprise there. the sun rose to the left of the trees and burned its way into the sky. the trees glimmered and reappeared through the early morning thin layer of smoke from wildfires in canada, jetstreaming its way into the heartland. it was bright in midday and then the sky took on the echo of the western sunset. at night, the trees were still a presence, silent, rooted strength.
i took many photographs of these two trees. they were somehow very comforting and reassuring; it was a time of memorial for columbus and emotions were all over the place. and the trees stood there, steadfast.
they watched us all gather and eat and talk and reminisce and play bags and run with oversized bubble wands. they watched us hula-hoop and dance in the grass and drag chairs following the sun and escaping the wind. they watched us wander and take pictures, play with gracie-cat, pour wine. they watched – as trees do – and we watched them back.
i love each of the photos of the two trees on the east side.
i don’t know about you, but i – most definitely – talk to my dog. not just the sit, stay, come, paw sort of talk-talk. no, i am talking about laying bare my thoughts and questions and deep despairs and utter joys.
dogga usually looks as though he is paying attention; he is a really gifted eye-contact dog – better than many people i know. he doesn’t act like it’s unusual that i am divulging my innermost fears or existential ponderings. instead, he keeps eye contact and listens, his ears moving forward and back as he recognizes words…or maybe it’s because he thinks i am drawing to a close. either way, he is a really good audience and, though he never answers in words, his presence is comforting and steady and sometimes that is all i need.
i do believe, however, that somewhere deep inside of him is all the knowledge. somewhere in there he is all-knowing and all that is divine can be found in our dogs (or cats) and we are fortunate to share any tidbits of life with them.
somehow dogdog knows that steadfast and quiet are the real answers. he knows that letting me lay my head on his side is reassuring. he knows that his job is simply to love me back.
he does that without any hesitation. his gentle snoring, the rise and fall of his body breathing in sleep, his eyes closed in trust – he models how to do life. one moment at a time.
and we find the simplest answers to our hardest questions.
given a choice, we will stay in airbnbs. they are homes – real people’s places where they laid their heads – and they offer a comfort that hotels just can’t.
perhaps i have never stayed in a hotel resort that reaches its arms around me, snugged into its chest. it is true. i haven’t ever been to an all-inclusive. when we hotel-it, we stay at the hampton inn, where they offer breakfast and wash the duvet cover daily. they are very clean, mostly updated, the beds are goldilocks-worthy and there is a refrigerator and microwave for the food we are carrying with us.
we arrived in richmond, kentucky on a thursday evening. a fire truck was diagonally across the road, blocking it, and my heart flipped a little, wondering what might have happened. instead, a small town, it was the night of the homecoming parade. we got to the corner by our airbnb, but only to the corner. it was the final approach for the parade route and the police officer at the corner stopped us with a sheepish smile, “just pull over and watch.” he added, “sorry”.
we weren’t sorry. it was a delight to see the parade up close and personal and we cheered and the high school football team threw us candy. after all the convertibles with king and queen candidates drove by and the final police car with lights, the police officer allowed us to turn toward our lodging.
we wrote to andrew, the host of our roomy and perfectly-appointed loft, just to let him know what a joy it was to pull into his town and find such fun. he responded immediately. a real person. a real home. he pays attention. we sat on the tiny balcony and sipped wine while the church carillon rang out post-parade. after more than eight hours on the road, we felt comforted.
the little house in brevard was known to us. we stayed there before. so we knew exactly what we would find…a home with a front porch… our window into the tiny mountain town. we chose to stay there again because it had held us the first time…in comfort. home away from home.
the ukulele band i directed played the van morrison song “comfort you”. “i want to comfort you. i want to comfort you. i want to comfort you. just let your tears run wild like when you were a child. i’ll do what i can do. i want to comfort you. you put the weight on me…i want to comfort you.”
i can think of nothing more important in these times – really, any times – but especially these times – than people comforting other people. the capacity for a human to give reassurance and hope to another must surpass all efforts to compete, to one-up, to undermine. surely as the south begins to clean up from hurricane ian, the evidence is obvious.
i will comfort you – words unspoken perhaps – but deeds spell it all out. people loving one another.
in looking for a word to describe him, i stumbled across “erudite”. now, this isn’t in my normal vocabulary…i would have said “cerebral” or “in his head”…but “erudite” (syn: learned, scholarly, well-educated, knowledgeable, well-read, well-versed, well-informed, cultivated, civilized, intellectual) fits. yup. yup.
an early morning this week, as he was drinking his coffee, he was staring into space. i asked him what he was thinking about and he told me that it was “a deep rabbit hole” and went on to recount a bit of a book he had read about how our society had been built on henry ford’s assembly line innovation and how that applied to today and our country and the work he is doing and…
it was not quite 6am. pillow talk.
i knew i was wide-eyed, but it wasn’t – necessarily – with fascination.
he asked what i was thinking about as i sipped my -thankgoodnessforit- bold black coffee. i said, “cleaning the bathroom before the plumber gets here.”
he brought his synopsis of the book-bit to a close, postulating a few questions about society in these times.
i said, “i’m gonna swiffer too.”
though we get there from slightly different places, we usually arrive together. my ever-threading-heart and list-making-practical-feet-on-the-ground self arrives, swiffer and camera and pad and pencil in hand and his heady-thinker-visionaryish-philosophical self gets there, abstruse questions and positivities in tow.
it shows that yes…there are no simple answers, really. there are complex questions. and many ways to get to the answers. oftentimes, well, people in relationship get there differently.
i always want to bring home the zen from a trip. i want to wrap in it, the images from the adventures, the feelings it all gave me and not let it go. i want to evade the stresses that tend to consume all of us.
do i really think that is entirely possible? no. not entirely. life is life and it’s the whole kit-n-kaboodle. i just wanna know that we’re both holding onto that zen, keeping it close at hand. i don’t reeeeally wanna hear about our toolbox of potentiality.
in my wild-harebrained-dream we own a food truck called “and sauce.” and we drive around the country in big red pulling our food truck and selling sauce on pretty-much-anything.
i blame the whole30. or credit the whole30. i suppose there’s a difference between blaming and crediting.
the whole30 is a diet for 30 days (clever, eh?) during which you only eat whole foods and do not eat any: grains, legumes, dairy, added sugars, alcohol. you pare down your menus to fresh vegetables and meats and seafood and, after 30 days, deliberately add things back in to see how your body and digestive system react to various ingredients. it was back in early 2018 and it truly helped me get a tummy that was having a rebellion under control.
in many ways, it kind of stuck.
one of our staples was my homemade tomato meat sauce. but, at the time, we could not have it over pasta – regular or gluten-free. so we had it over spaghetti squash, which was, surprisingly, amazing. then we had it over oven-roasted chopped sweet potatoes. then we had it over roasted brussels sprouts. and over a hamburger. and over a baked potato. when we could add gluten-free products back in, we had sauce over penne, over rotini, wrapped in corn tortillas. sauce, we had discovered, is good on pretty much anything.
and the ideas were born. “and sauce”, the cafe, the food truck, the home delivery service. with the entrance of the pandemic, the food truck seemed like an apt adventure. i mean, who needs to even think about pianos and stages when you can travel around with stock pots and a food truck?
perhaps i am romanticizing this a tad bit, but, since this is my dream and not my reality, i am giving myself grace to daydream.
in those moments where comfort is sought and food that soothes the soul is paramount, we turn to the stock pot, to sauce or soup. the biggest pot comes out, the apron goes on (i adore over-the-head aprons), the cutting boards sit on the counter and life instantly slows down.
chopping and measuring (sort of) and sauteing and stirring with the giant wooden spoon from finland and sampling…it’s all heaven. there is not much that smells better than onions and garlic being sauted in olive oil. (though i recently read how you could re-create the williams sonoma store scent, which is very popular, by simply simmering vanilla extract, rosemary, lemon and peppercorns.)
just walking into the kitchen and seeing the stock pot on the stove is a reassurance. whether there is sauce in that stock pot or veggie soup or – drumroll – my sweet momma’s chicken soup (with the addition of spinach leaves and shredded parmesan, of course), it brings everything back into focus.
and as we ladle out sauce or soup into bowls or onto baked potatoes or penne, we, in turn, put worries and concerns and out-of-sorts-ness into the big pot. cause that’s actually the job of big stock pots. balancing out life.
the old radiator in my studio was its home for years. i picked it up at a wholesale show…an old fencepost with equestrian leather…i couldn’t resist. it was perfect next to my piano. shh. quiet. ponder. dream.
it’s outside on the back deck now, really for the same reasons. shh. quiet. ponder. dream. it reminds us to take those moments and just be.
in the middle of the night last night we talked for a few hours. it was a big discussion…about life, about existence. we agreed that life is merely about those rare and outstandingly idyllic moments – a collection you might store in a little special box or place in photographs-in-the-round for a viewmaster – ready, at any time, for you to look at, review, be reminded of, hold close. not usually the gigantic stuff, but the slides of tiny, even silent, markers, instants you recognize as mica.
we had another water episode a few days ago. it seems the theme this summer. once again, drains in the basement yielded water instead of no water. a really lovely young man from the sewer-drain company came; it was their second time in just over a month. the tree roots they had cleared likely had left behind another piece. it doesn’t matter. he cleared it out and we moved on. it wasn’t without a ton of unexpected work…clearing all of david’s paintings out of the space to protect them, moving any and every thing out of the way of the water and allowing room for the technician to work without feeling nervous about anything around him. after he left and we cleaned everything up it was back to quiet.
we exercised down there again yesterday. it’s a peaceful place, even though it is a basement. being surrounded by the muse of david’s time at his easel brings a certain life to it. i imagine he wishes this little sign was in his studio, but there is a hush nonetheless, even without the sign.
our studios – places where time fills in the gaps between noise.
in the middle of existential questions about my wrist and hand, a screeching halt to occupational therapy imposed by the insurance company (don’t get me started), questions and the after-effects of betrayal, a silencing of my professional work, i have not sat there much. i enter to allow in light and fresh air, gaze at my piano and walk out. another silent day.
each morning, for at least a week, as i have sat with pillows propped sipping coffee, the window beside me wide open, i have been visited by a chipmunk. it sits atop the fence post across the driveway right opposite the window and looks in, chirping. i named him ‘sunny’ as it is often that the sun is just reaching that fencepost as he sits and the first time he was bathed in rays of light as he held his spot and said whatever he was saying to me in chipmunk i could not understand.
today, in the quiet of the morning, sun not even yet beginning to stream in the window, sunny was out there, chirping to wake us. i called out the window to him a good morning greeting. we chirped back and forth a bit before he left, satisfied he had awakened me. i watch for him now each day as the sun starts to rise.
three times in a twenty-four hour period over the last weekend i heard or saw the words “everything will be ok”: once written, once spoken and the third time bob marley sang it in the woods as we hiked the river trail.
sunday as we sat at the table on the deck in waning light a not-oft-seen hummingbird came directly over and hovered right in front of me. a couple days later as i stood on the deck, david watching, a monarch butterfly flew over to me and circled less than a foot above my head. and sunny, a chipmunk on a fence post, greeting me each day.
i guess that sometimes the universe is quietly whispering, “it’ll be ok. everything will be ok. shh.”
“i believe art is utterly important. it is one of the things that could save us.” (mary oliver)
in those moments – so many of them – when all else fails to reassure – beauty reminds us. it keeps us present, in the moment, working to get to the next moment, breathing in deep breaths, slowly, slowly.
the work of an artist, in any medium, is as a pointer, just like the wooden ones with the rubber tip that your fourth grade teacher used as she pulled down the world map on the roll above the blackboard to show your class the track of an expedition or the location of a country. artists pull down the map and point to it, making it accessible to anyone, making it alive, bringing an infinity of beauty, pulling your attention away from the narrative inside, whatever it might be. it is a tool of healing, a balm, a salve. it is freeing. it is free.
we immerse in music, in the ecstasy of dance, in the flow of poetry, in the spectrum of paint on a canvas, the feel of clay pots in our hands. we sometimes forget and are driven into the angst of life’s dimensionality, missing the limitlessness of the simplest. these are the moments we turn to art.
for in the end it is not the accumulation of things or wealth or titles or power. it is simply and utterly the sheer beauty of being here, the absolutely stunning realization that we get to be here in this moment in a continuum of moments we share – albeit tiny within the vast – with the universe. inside the art.
“you can’t take it with you,” my sweet poppo would say as he would refer to money or stuff. in those pondering moments he had, he somehow knew watching the cormorants on the lake out the window, listening to music on their stereo, puttering and creating in his garage workshop, quietly coffee-sitting with my momma – these were the things of value. the day he threw caution to the wind and purchased a large painting at the splurgy karl’s mariners inn restaurant perched on northport harbor; he was answering the call of art – the pointer that drew him in and wrapped him, in this case, in the fjords of norway and endless dreaming. it moved home to home with them and always was a source of calm, a reminder of beauty and peace.
each day i walk downstairs and see this canvas on the easel. each day it reminds me of the trail we often walk, for it is the paused and erased beginning of a painting of the woods of that trail. i pay attention to it because it affords me tiny spaces of river trail within my day. it reminds me, as i scurry about attempting to get things done, to remember. it slows me down and i can hear the rustling of leaves, the birdcalls, the crunch of our feet on dirt, the chatter of squirrels. i can feel the sun atop my head, the breeze in my face, my arm looped through david’s. i can see the color of wildflowers, lush green underbrush, rough grey-brown bark, cloud-dotted blue sky. i can sense a bit of time on my hands, but just a bit. and i am right there, stepped out of the up-close worries, stepped into beauty. i am paying attention. art has done its good work.
to pay attention, this is our endless and proper work. (mary oliver)
dogdog does not live his life expecting grandeur. he does not look for the secrets of the universe nor does he try to reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that is. his riches are right around him – his shredded toys, his bone, his food and water bowls, his treats, his people and his beloved cat. he lives each day, seemingly, without the emotional chaos we get embedded in; the view from his amber eyes is simple and they reflect back a love of living, of those things he cherishes. he does not try to be anything; he just is. “when you seek to be special, only a few things in life will measure up,” writes sue bender. he does not seek to be special, yet he is magnificently special.
it was very very quiet in the house last week. i played no music. i watched no tv. i barely read the news. together, dogdog and i were almost silent. my dear and wise friend wrote, “sometimes silence allows us to conserve our energy to go on.” together, dogdog and i stepped in our days, the padding footfalls of babycat’s sorely missing from our mix. yet we continued on and the earth spun through the galaxy and the sun and the moon did that which they do, nevertheless.
“i learned to love the journey, not the destination. i learned that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get,” pens anna quindlen. dogdog’s journey sans destination – for without the same human parameters that make us measure our lives, his is simply a journey without a destination – included babycat. and now, in his quest to find his cat, we can only hope that babycat sits by his side and reassures him, in his gravelly babycat voice, that he’s right there with him. our journeys include the angels all around us; they are right there, quiet and steady.
“get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a cheerio with her thumb and first finger,” recommends anna.
i’d add, get a life in which you take moments to be very quiet – silent, even – and in which you can see the dim outline of your angel-cat sitting next to your dog at the front door.
“the shadows from the starlight are softer than a lullaby…”(john denver)
in the shadows you can’t tell. nothing is precise. the edges are softer. you can’t tell age or race or gender. you can’t tell shoes or clothing style; you can’t tell anything really specific. it is all gentler, fuzzy, and, depending on the angle of the sun and the texture of the ground, a little bit blurry. seems like it might be a good way to live – softer than a lullaby.
the sun is often closer to setting when we get around to the part of the day when we release all else and go for a walk or go hiking. as we hike through the woods or trek around our neighborhood, the worries of the day, the week, the times, begin to float above us as we attempt to let them go. sometimes, in lieu of laptop-focus-sitting, we will go for a long hike to sort…to discuss…to brainstorm. those are the times it is daytime, when hours are plenty, long shadows are scarce and the sun is high in the sky. but at the end of the day, when it is time to quell the angst a bit, to ease our minds, the shadows prevail and we linger in them, often making play of their gift, snapping pictures of silly poses or just a capture of the very moment on the trail. to look at them later is to hear the lullaby of soft shadows’ reassurance.
in these last days i have begun to realize that which had been close is becoming shadow. i have begun to see, once again, that, in nebulous whirlwind life, time moves on and so do people. i have begun to acknowledge that it is time to let go. we have become shadows in the story of a community. we will fade as the sun drops lower below the horizon, as the moon rises. and with each day passing, we will be forgotten a little bit more. what i believed so deeply mattered has turned out to be evanescent, fleeting and ephemeral, vanishing like a shadow as clouds move in to replace the sun. and for that, there is no lullaby playing, no soft starlight. and there is no way to see our sadness in the shadows on the street.
but there is the promise of another rising sun, another chance for shadow-play, for tender sunlit silhouettes, for the reassurance of the blur of life and stars to come. of new photographs and lullabies.