When your soul knows what it needs

A year ago was a dark time. The pandemic was just settling in for the long haul and we were all coming to terms with the fact that the promised return to normal would not be days or weeks or months. I’m not sure any of us really believed years, but we sure as heck didn’t know what was coming. The bright days of summer, with their brief abeyance of death and loss, only served to highlight that darkness ahead loomed uncertain and fearful. There were also some things in my personal life – not for sharing on a public forum (reach out if you really want to know – we’re all hanging in there) that left me devastated, fearful and feeling broken.

My first drawings in July

The great crashing of my personal life happened just before we spent a week at Camp Wilmot, trying to drag some fun and normal out of this hard hard summer. I remember going on a run, knowing that I needed to practice meticulous self-care to make it through all this mostly intact, and the thought suddenly popping into my head that I wished I could draw. And in the gift of time the pandemic reluctantly gave us, maybe this was the right time to learn. I don’t even know where this inspiration arose – was it the slanting of the evening light? A mix of form and beauty that caught my eye? Was I going through a catalog of things I would wish I had done when I looked back on my life? This moment is lost to recall. But I came back and I ordered a book: Learn To Draw in 30 Days.

Draw what you see

And I did. I worked my way through the book methodically, gradually convincing myself that basic art was indeed a skill which could be learned by interested (if likely untalented) practitioners. And it was fun. It was so different. Especially early on, I was constantly astonished by what I could do instead of frustrated by what I couldn’t. There were new tools and techniques. My eyes saw things in different ways. And at the end I, previously a creator of the ephemeral, had this lovely *thing* that existed in this world, outside of the binary memory of the cloud or the listening ear of another human. I persisted without me in a way words and music did not.

White Lake study

As I pushed on the edges to discover what about it I liked (shading) and what I hated (erasing), I realized that what I really wanted to do was to capture the majesty of the mountains, the wild things, the natural world which has so long been my great consolation. I bought about a thousand books on how to draw wild things with your pencil, but they missed the color and light – especially the light – that turns a leaf into a graceful flicker. And so in the vastness of my ignorance I thought maybe watercolors would be a good way to draw, but with light. I have always liked to color (my collection of coloring books was extensive BEFORE that was, uh, “cool”), and I had watercolor pens, so that was like the same thing, right?

White Lake in watercolor pens – my first watercolor

Once again a vast vista opened in front of me, of what watercolors might be and do and how I might feel if I could capture the light with a brush. Art supplies being expensive, but much cheaper than therapy, I walked tight-masked into art stores, armed with lists from the stack of books I began acquiring, and began the delightful acquisition of color and paper (two long time favorites of mine.)

My starter set: of these, I only still use the easel and the pencil sharpener.

There were so many things I didn’t understand. For example, every book on watercolors has a color mixing section – eg. two parts Prussian Blue and one part Indian Yellow to make a dark green. But I tried to do it by squeezing the tubes to be 2:1. No one explained that part. (FYI, I am pretty darn sure that’s not how you do it – you take the color on your brush and mix a smaller amount usually, but I’m still not sure.). I didn’t understand that once watercolors in your easel dried, you just rewet them and used them again. I thought the whole thing was rather wildly wasteful in that context (good thing I started with cheap paints!). I still struggle to admit how much of watercolor is water, and how little is color. I learned about masking fluid (and how it can take off sizing). I learned about sizing. I learned about blocking with masking tape. I came to understand why the weight and quality of paper mattered so much.

Learning from online teachers

I learned what gouache is, when and how to use it, how to pronounce and aspire some day to be able to spell it without looking it up. At nights, when my thoughts ran dark and fearful, I’d turn my thoughts to the names of colors – glorious names like Indanthrene Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Veridian and Aureolin. I’d think about Caput Mortuum violet and Venetian Red and how those tubes, innocuous on my particle-board desk, stretched back in time hundreds of years and tied me to a far older tradition. I’d plot out paintings I would do some day when I had the skills. And I would fall asleep in the fearful still dark of the night, instead of spinning over and over.

A collection

And I got better. I painted mountains. I painted the northern lights (also a bit of a pandemic obsession). I drew things that I painted. I made terrible paintings. I made bookmarks. I slid paintings into the hundreds of letters I also wrote during this time. I was taught by books (I have learned I like to learn by book). I was taught by online videos. I set up my Instagram feed to be all the amazing art of people who were way better than me. I attempted to compose and create my own scenes.

Increasing artistic independence on display

Perhaps my magnum opus was a painting I did for a friend of her favorite quote. I felt gloriously vindicated and complete in that through a LOT of iterations, I had accomplished something that I was proud of, and that I hoped would speak to her.

The journey: the one where the masking fluid pulled away the painting nearly broke my heart
The final product

And it was such a solace to me. To turn away from words, which felt caught in my throat and dangerous, to this way of speaking to which one could hardly be held accountable, was beautiful. The freedom to be terrible is a glorious liberation. The fierce joy of creating a thing of beauty, or the bubbly humor of creating a disaster, were both panaceas to me. My failures all had a back side that I could use instead. Or they could be cut into bookmarks. Or saved as glorious evidence later of how far I had come.

My teachers

Things are better now. I am in less desperate need of consolation. The world is spinning back up, and the gaps of time are evaporating, and I don’t think I’ll be on my periodic “one a day” track of watercolors. But I am so, so, so grateful for this time and the gift of this light, and color, and lightness of being.


I actually have an album of many of the paintings and drawings I’ve done. You can see them here!

Clammy-tee Camping

In the bleakest days of the bleakest winter of my life, I look to the summer as a beacon of hope. Vaccines would arrive. The weather would warm. Even under pandemic restrictions, I could seek solace in the forest and the trees, with my boys on the banks of the Mad River.

When the Memorial Day camping trip fell to bone-chilling (near record) cold and miserable drizzling rains, I consoled myself. 4th of July is as close as New England gets to guaranteed good weather. We had five full days set aside for hammocks, hiking, tubing and white water river rafting. There would be a balm for my chapped soul.

Two days before the trip began, the sky was a metal welkin as a record number of 90 degree days in June steamed the countryside. I fanned myself and contemplated the cooling breeze that ran as an unseen river just above the noisy banks of the Mad River, where I would be shortly.

Not the camping experience we wanted

We got the tent up. We got the tarps pitched – almost all of them, given the weather. We hung hammocks draped in rain flies. And the temperature dropped 40 degrees and the rain began – the heavy, soaking, life-giving rains that April is supposed to command. The rains that fill aquifers and nourish plants and wash the world clean. And there we were, in tents, trapped and cold and so very, very humid.

This might be enough to cement the trip as a lousy one. When we bugged out after 4 days, we agreed this was the worst SUSTAINED weather we’ve ever had. I mean, we’ve camped through hurricanes, cold, blowing winds, flash floods. Heck during the Memorial Day trip it snowed in the mountains. But this one, took the cake for non-camping weather. But that was only part of our calamities.

As we packed up to go, with the kids headed to Camp Wilmot right behind this, I was on their case to get their laundry done. We have two laundry setups – a small European washer/dryer combo in the second floor and a more “parent of children” separate set of units in the basement. The second floor unit takes about 5 hours a (small) load. Finally, my procrastinating children got the better of me and I put a load in the basement to make sure that SOME clothes would be clean. But when it came time to pull them from the dryer, I discovered that the dryer was no longer working. (A fact which is only ever learned when you have a pile of wet clothing.) I couldn’t even dry them outside as I might have the day before due to temperature drop/rain starting. At best, a working dryer would be available in the middle of the following week. These things happen, but the timing could hardly have been worse.

As we got our campsite set up and I was just preparing dinner, I pulled out the new knife I’d gotten for the glamorous task of 1) cutting the bacon I was making for the hamburgers 2) opening a package of hot dogs. On that second unsheathing, the knife got stuck. As I pulled it free, it slid across my left index finger right at the bottom knuckle. I am very lucky – there was no tendon or nerve damage. But it was deep. And bleedy. So we had to go (starving) to the local ER and spend some quality time getting some lovely blue stitches put in.

That small bandaid hides a gruesome wound

Thursday also our camping companions texted to say they were going to be a little late – one of them had woken with a swollen eye and they were trying to figure out why. So no hanging around the campfire or gaming tonight. And the planned tubing for the next day was already cancelled due to rain, so didn’t need to be cancelled due to finger-can’t-be-submerged or eye-swollen-shut.

A friend texted to ask whether I was camping, due to her looking at the forecast and it’s dismal aspect.

Grey is a natural at Q-Bert

Friday we went to a local old-timey arcade (which was actually open and fun). We planned lunch in Plymouth, which had a cute downtown with some nice restaurants, a gaming store, a book store and an art store. Not a bad place to pass a rainy afternoon. But just as we arrived and went in to the diner we were hoping to eat at, word came down there had been a water main break on Main Street. Every single one of those places could not prepare food (no water for handwashing) so Every. Single. One. was unavailable for lunch. Also no bathrooms.

I found a diner far enough away to have water and near enough to feed the hungry. It was just closing when we got there. There was a brew pub not far away. It wasn’t open for another hour. We ended up at this “saloon” which specialized in mediocrity and western decor. It was bad, but it was food, I guess.

Editor’s note: those swimming suits are not going to dry

That morning, we heard our camping companion, on his birthday, had shingles in his eye. Stabby pain. No camping for him. Happy birthday Kevin.

The next day, the boys went swimming in the Mad River anyway, in the rain and cold. Because they are nuts. And the rain came down without ceasing. Everything was damp. The tent started seeping. The air itself was so moist that nothing was truly dry. The sheets on our bed are flannel, and I am here to tell you that few things in life are as unpleasant as clammy flannel. It’s just the worst. We resolved that we had enough of this crap, and we were going to head home Sunday assuming a long enough break in the rain to pack up. We just climbed into our clammy bed with the periodic drips promising a damp night when Grey called out in increasingly alarmed tones. He was in his own tent, and discovered that what he thought was some tracked in dirt was actually a hatch of tiny mites – millions of them. Over everything in his entire tent. An entire mat of mites. He slept in the car that night, and we threw away everything in that tent the next morning.

They were EVERYWHERE

We were able to pack up in a dry spell, although the clouds opened again that day. And we brought home all the damp, dirty clothing and bedding to a house with no dryer. I spent the rest of the 4th of July in the laundromat, spending a shocking number of quarters to wash and dry every stitch of fabric we took on that trip.

Fun fun times!

Given our luck I feel fortunate that the injuries were minor and we all survived. But it does raise the question of why I like camping. I might even review the forecast before doing the Labor Day trip!

In praise of the vaccine

Yesterday, in the most glorious of Spring days ever birthed on this earth, I drove south to a place I’d never been before: Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots (and New England Revolution). As I followed the clearly marked signs, I thought about how I’d been just about to get around to going to a football game one day, to enjoy the spectacle and noise and party atmosphere, and complete inability to actually watch the game. Such an aspiration seems like it comes from some science fiction book I read once. Windows down, I navigated the vast and spreading parking lots around the grand stadium.

It felt a little like a movie of being onboarded into the afterlife. There were clear sign and instructions – no doubt on what to do next. There were a steady line of us coming in, all keeping apart from each other. There was no talking as we double masked and did not walk up the elevators, instead being taken passively to where we were supposed to go – an unknown location.

A sign we could see on the field flashed the vaccination count every 30 seconds or so – in the 300ks while I was there. Every time it climbed inexorably. Every number of that vast sum represented a hope, a dream, of a world restored.

The count here is 356,504, 150 higher than it was earlier in the line

When my time came I sat uncomfortably close to the nurse, who already had most of my card filled out with neat and lovely handwriting. After very little preamble, she placed the biting edge of a tiny needle into the limp muscle of my left arm. I asked her to put it right next to my smallpox scar, symbolically. And like that, I was now on the quiet path out, waiting silently in chairs set six feet apart and watching the Revolution practice on the field below.

I have grown accustomed to having the greater part of my mind and focus be on fear and disapproval. On my run that morning, I had passed signs forswearing a vast array of kinds of hate: Stop Asian Hate, Black Lives Matter, We Support our Trans Siblings. I marveled at how many different varieties of hate we need to revile, and am somewhat astonished at the energy of people to persecute on so many channels.

In my daily life, I have reshaped my entire world in response to the fear of contagion. I do not see my friends. I do not go to work. I do not eat in a restaurant. I do not drive to the mountains with my hiking buddy. I do not sit in Gillette Stadium and complain about how terrible the new quarterback is. This fear has so far been effective. I have not once been identified as a close contact with someone with COVID. This whole time, I have never had to take a COVID test, or been afraid I had it. This is not just virtue – it is also wild good luck, and privilege. (I may not go grocery shopping, but someone goes into that store to get my food. It is just not me.)

With this habit of angry disapproval and fear, long cultivated, yesterday felt odd. Things were so beautiful in the world. There was this strange butterfly of hope in my heart. So long we watched the deaths and illness counter tick up inexorably. To watch the vaccination counter do the same caught my breath in my throat. The loveliness of the world, so long ignored and hidden and frozen in the ice of winter pandemic, just burst through like the waters of a thawing river and would not be ignored.

Waiting after the shot

As I waited fifteen minutes after my shot, trying to be cool and not cry, I also thought on what a great testament to humanity this all was. Destruction is easy. It takes just a few moments to burn down, deface or defile. Creation is hard. There is a tunnel on the bikepath where artists come and do breathtaking murals of surpassing skill and often loveliness. But it is graffiti and there is no one watching it. So periodically someone comes through and defaces days of work with scrawled penises and blots out art with “TRUMP” in dripping spray. But somehow, despite how much easier it is to destroy than to build, there is so much that is built. Every home, garden, building, concert, organization, sanctuary … it represents the balance of how much more we humans create than we destroy. It is not just 10:1, it is 100:1 or 1000:1.

And the wild creation of the mRNA (Moderna) vaccine in my arm tells that story so well. Imagine that we humans have been so foresightful that for 20 years people – who could have dedicated their lives to their own enjoyment, or making money in banking, or inventing the next erection drug – instead saw with wisdom and clear eyes the threat that Coronaviruses posed to humanity. They made huge personal sacrifices to pursue new ways of responding to this simmering threat in the border between the wild and the human. They prepared for an event none of them living had ever seen. They had capacity, tools, plans, investment ready to go. And when the call went out, while we were still eating, drinking and living merry lives with our friends in the winter of last year, they laid down their plans, their leisure, even their health to work night and day. So that I could stand in a stadium a year and a month after the start of this virulence and be inoculated, blessed, by a matter-of-fact nurse who would jab hundreds of other arms before she herself could go into the warm spring night.

My deliverer

Our era is a recitation of the litany of fear – on both sides of the aisle. You can count the rosary beads of outrage as well as I can. But I am telling you, friends, we are a better species than we give ourselves credit for. We can plan for problems and fix them. We can build things, and rebuild if they are destroyed. We can make meaningful sacrifices for the good of people we will never meet, who will never know our names. And not only CAN we do this, but we DO do this every day.

In six weeks, I will be liberated to live a life more of my choosing, still bounded by the obligations to keep my community safe, but not as much by fear for my person. By then, summer will be nipping on the heels of spring. And I will remain so grateful to those who gave of themselves to give me the gift of this liberty.

Beginning of the end

Stoneham 2021 April Ballot

This year was particularly difficult, not just because of the pandemic but because all the candidates seem like excellent folks we should be pleased and proud to have serve our community. I hate to feel like I’m voting “against” any of them! May Stoneham always be so lucky to have this be our set of choices! That said, I think more than ever it’s tough to make a decision between folks so qualified, and I hope that the candidates not elected this time will consider serving again.

Here’s the sample ballot:
https://www.stoneham-ma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/3242/Sample-Town-Election-Ballot

Select Board:
Raymie Parker
Robert Lawler

Rationale:
I have been impressed with Raymie’s work on the Selectboard since she was first elected. In a role like this, I think that a mix of experience in how to get things done and optimism things can change are an ideal mix for a board, and Raymie has both.

The choice between Robert Lawler and David Pignone was a harder one. In the end, it came down to access and communication. I strongly believe that Stoneham is best served by a Selectboard that serves all 20,000+ residents of the town, not just the few thousand who are already well connected. David’s communications to people outside the already well established channels weren’t as strong as Robert’s (Robert did a number of open Zoom forums). David also did not respond to my requests to talk to him about his candidacy, where Robert reached out to me several times. I think Robert’s background and experience are good and a good mix with the current board. I’m hopeful if elected he would continue to serve all the residents of the town well. So in my final decision, I give Robert Lawler the edge.

School Committee (full term)
Jaime Wallace
Melanie Fiore

I’m grateful for George Georgountzos for his continued interest in serving the town, but his educational experience and commitment is considerably less than Jaime (the incumbent) or Melanie Fiore (who has significant volunteering bona fides, and is serving an appointed role now).

School Committee (part term) – SUPER HARD CHOICE
Rati Chaudari-Murray

OK, this was by far the hardest choice! I want both Rati and Betty! They both have great backgrounds in education, and they both have a wonderful perspective to offer to Stoneham! Their outreach and platforms are similar. I really wrestled with this one! At the end, I finally leaned towards Rati, in part because of her experience with special needs kids, which is so important to vulnerable members of our community. Making sure our schools are addressing the needs of ALL our children is a critical contribution.

All other races are uncontested.

Zodiacal light

And now for something totally different. I have a tendency to accumulate small and obscure interests. I don’t talk a lot about them, since I have long since learned that few people are interested in going in depth on things like Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it’s mythical connections to Tolkien. If you try, you can get me going on some of these at a party, when we have parties again.

Anyway, one of my small obsessions is solar phenomenon. At least, specific solar phenomenon. For the last five or so years I’ve been totally obsessed with the Carrington Event, a Coronal Mass Ejection at the beginning of the industrial age that lit up and partially destroyed the telegraph wires (as well as painting skies across the world with vibrant auroras). I sort of fail to understand why this isn’t a bigger deal. It’s one of the most likely civilization disrupting events (right next to, uh, pandemics). Events of that size hit earth every couple hundred years, depending on a solar cycle much more complex than I realized. (We’re in solar cycle 25 right now, although it seems clear there is also a meta-cycle that lasts longer than our scientific observations and is hard to map to any permanent stuff here on earth.)

Anyway, I decided this summer to dig deeper into the aurora and the coronal mass ejection (and also Northwest Lookout towers) and read this great book called “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began” by Stuart Clark. Towards the end of it, after the unseemly death of the title character (Clark seemed to hate telling that part, but dutifully dished up the promised salaciousness), you get some lovelorn English gents wandering to Egypt with the expected malaria, ill health, and bad neighborliness. They go to investigate the Zodiacal light. Given my obsession with all the other weird phenomenon, I couldn’t believe I had missed one. The Zodiacal lights are a pyramid shaped column of light seen at dawn and dusk roughly between the tropics. And those ill-fated Englishmen (did they die of dysentery/malaria? I don’t recall, but it seems right) couldn’t figure it out. In fact, the mystery stretched down to my reading of the book.

There was a pyramid of light in the sky, and no one knew why.

Until last week.

We launched a probe, Juno, a decade ago. And with it’s vast solar panels, it discovered something in space – a vast section of dust fiercely pinged and pitted the light-catchers. And that dust lined up perfectly with both the trajectory of Mars, and the Zodiacal lights. That pillar in the sky? Mars dust. So cool. Of course, in the manner of all scientific discoveries the answer to one question simply raises another: how did all that dust get into space in the first place? Interesting, but not quite as cool as the mysterious pillar of light in the sky.

Anyway, Zodiacal light has been on my mind this week, so I decided to make this, ahem, artist’s rendition of it. It’s SO CLOSE to what I wanted, without quite being perfect. Ah, the life of a person attempting to make art. Anyway, this picture is definitely an exaggeration. But I got these pearlescent watercolors, and they seemed just right for this dim and misty light. And pyramids are fun. If I’d had skills I would’ve added a camel. But I don’t have skills. I did add two zodiacal signs to either side of the pillar – can you spot or identify them?

What bizarre stuff are you interested in?

Actual image of the zodiacal light

The longest year

Few of us have failed to notice the anniversary of the time when our world screeched to a halt, and we entered a time like none living had ever experienced before. Like so many, I know the day my world changed. I was supposed to go to Del’s funeral (now rescheduled to be virtual), but flying to Seattle for a gathering of a couple hundred wise old men seemed like a bad idea. So honoring his outdoor memories, I went hiking instead. The morning was normal. But as we got flashes of signal, we watched the NBA cancel the season and the stock market fall hard and fast. A nurse with her daughter took our picture at the summit, and we wondered if we should, you know, be worried? We had pizza and beer at a great restaurant on our way home (with the nurse and her daughter). By the time I got home, we got word that school was cancelled for two weeks and no one was going back to the office for now.

The day the world changed

You know the rest. We worked from home. The kids played SO MANY VIDEO GAMES. I watched the Great British Baking show and was inspired to bake all the things. Strange things became scarce. Yes, flour and toilet paper, but fencing was hard to get and bicycles and snowshoes are still unobtanium. I had reflected, in the before times, on how impossible it seemed that my life might ever slow enough (this side of senility) to have quiet and boredom and leisure for activities. But I played through “Breath of the Wild” on the bed with my kids by my side. I read books. I exercised. I had social Zoom calls on top of hours and hours of work video conferences.

With the warming of the year and the dropping of infection rates, it seemed possible the worst might be over. If the trends stayed good, if we stayed careful, this might be unlocking. We went camping, had backyard fires, hiked, ate in outdoor seating and felt downright Mediterranean. How odd it is, but I feel nostalgic for the freedom and folks of the summer of 2020.

Backyard fires: a staple of the social life

And then there was the catastrophe of the holidays. Watching it coming, we locked down hard again in November, removing those little eases we’d added over the summer. I sent Christmas card after Christmas card, in the darkest part of year and pandemic, exhorting hope and the inevitable waning of winter and plague. I wrote those words mostly for myself. In the cold stillness of winter, two of my uncles died. They did not die of COVID, but it prevented me from reconnecting with my family and introducing my children to a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins they haven’t seen in years. I find myself wondering if COVID will fragment my extended family, like an iceberg breaking apart on its way to melting.

Now in this year mark, I am caught on the juxtaposition between hope and vast weariness. The hope is clear: we have multiple vaccines. They are extremely effective. The ability to manufacture and distribute them is improving. I will be vaccinated this year. My parents and mother-in-law are already in progress. The children will eventually go to school wearing pants. I will eventually go to an office. There will be a resumption of a new life that includes people and places. At the same time, I am so direly weary of everything it is safe to do where I am. My creativity to “make things fun” is entirely sapped. I love reading, and watching funny tv shows, and going on hikes in the Fells, and making dinners and writing letters to distant friends. I’ve come to love watercolors, and the bleed of the first stroke against wet paper. I like sleeping in and playing video games. But it seems like all these activities have been so overused that they hardly register. My husband brings me breakfast in bed every morning for a year now, but I swear I can hear “I Got You Babe” to the infinitely familiar sound of heavy-laden feet on the stairs.

Every morning for a year

Still, I hold the gift of this moment. So many have lost so much, that it is hard to both reflect on the deep and difficult challenges of the year. “I still have a job and a home” we tell ourselves. “No one I love has died of COVID … yet” we barely dare say aloud. We know better than to think we are uniquely struggling. But it also seems unwisely unkind to turn this into a “count your blessings” moment. But in all our lives, there have been dire challenges and there have been little blossoms of delight that could never have grown in the thick forests of our lives as they were.

For me, it has been fascinating to learn what I would do if I weren’t so damn busy all the time. The truth is, I am still exhausted. But it’s a different exhausted. I’ve laid down almost everything that was optional (my life has had some particular challenges), and I still do not want to tackle the items in my email inbox. I’m waiting to see if I start to recover. If I resume having “brilliant” ideas and kicking things off and volunteering for things. Or if perhaps that time in my life has now past, if not for good then for longer than a year. I am also quite surprised by what has filled the rooms of my mind dedicated to those things I long for. I would have said, before, books and music and cooking. I have read a lot. I have played almost no music (perhaps because there are always 3 other people in the house? Or maybe because I am good enough at music that improving seems daunting, especially with no audience to play for?). I am ready to not cook again for like several months. Or a week. Whatever.

My first drawings in July

But the art took me entirely by surprise. In retrospect, I can kind of see where it came from. The longing to make something beautiful, distinct and individual. The love of colors. The obsession with paper and pens. But I have spent forty(cough) years knowing that I was TERRIBLE at art and couldn’t even draw a compelling stick figure. This is true, by the way. But in the vaccuum of time and life, on a run, I was inspired to think, “I wonder how much I could improve if I tried”. And then I ordered pencils and paper and a book from Amazon. And on a July morning I sat down to draw my first picture. It was terrible. But it has been such a great consolation. My eyes are seeing things differently. When my mind wanders, it is to colors and shapes and picking apart the problems of “how do I” and “I wonder if”. I’ve gone from uncertain and fumbling, to practiced. And for the person who loves people – when I post my art (good, bad and indifferent) my friends without fail comment on what they like, what they see. They connect with me. Recently, I’ve gotten to a point where people would even accept a picture for their wall, and it feels a little bit like it did when I could feed them, and place a delicious meal made with my hands in front of them and invite them to eat until satiated.

Last week’s artistic production

In this year, I have come to know my home and neighborhood with a passionate intimacy not available to the commuter. Every view from every window, every house on every stroll that emerges from my door is known and observed. I have spent hours with cats on my laps, pushing my hands off the keyboard with their assertive love. I have named the rabbits that live in my back yard and eat the flowers. There has been a rootedness, and space never before known.

As the uncertainties of our path out of pandemic begin to clear, and the road can be seen further ahead, we consider what it is we will do when we are vaccinated, when our friends are too. We think about how wondrous strange (and scary?) it will be to sit at table with people we have hardly seen in a year and have upcoming vacations to talk about. But I have come to this conclusion: we will never return to where we were before. Time never flows back, but usually we are in the boat being pulled along. Now we have walked along these half-frozen shores, and we will re-embark in a strange land that looks something like the one we left, but also entirely different. There will, for example, be 800k fewer Americans than there would have been (the half million who have died so far, and the 300k babies who were not born this year). There will be masks. There will be the work from home. There will be a long shadow of fear and caution. There will be relationships set adrift, and ones set on fire by the anger of the “you’re paranoid and living in fear” vs. the “you are irresponsible for yourself and society”.

To green days and better luck

So here’s to the memory of what we have sacrificed, lost and had taken from us. Here’s to the small consolations we’ve gained in the darkness. And here’s to a coming of spring, a new day, and a world ready to be reborn.

Color in a monochrome world

If you follow me at all on social media, you know that I’ve fallen hard for watercolors. I’m posting pictures several times a week: some I’m proud of and some I’m frustrated by. I dream about watercolors, when I am not having that dream where you go to a party and realize halfway through that no one is wearing masks. My art adventure started in July with basic of learning how to draw, and then in September I tried a watercolor of White Lake. I’m saving the before/after until I’ve been doing this for a year, assuming I’m still interested this summer. But I’ve made a lot of progress.

A recent (uninstructed) attempt

I’ve been waiting for two weeks breathlessly for a shipment from an art store. (Shockingly Amazon isn’t a good source for the stuff I’m trying to buy.) I’ve been whining a lot about how it’s taken TWO WEEKS to get me these paints. I, unlike most Americans, like STUFF. When I was a kid, the best part of going to school was that sweet, sweet 64 crayon box with all the sharp, unblemished colors. I’m not alone in having learned the names of every crayon Crayola produced for years. But my art education never advanced past the Crayola and Coloring phase, although my love for colors shows in my extensive pen selection.

My favorite genre of painting

For years, the closest I’ve come to artistic expression has been stamping cards. This is also a pleasure with color and paper – the sharpness of a crease, the perfect match of pattern, image and words. My favorite was always coloring in the stain glass window stamps with watercolor pencils – a bare step above coloring book and crayola. But with the water colors, all the joy of the 64 box has come flooding back, but with even more complex and multilayered joys.

Remarkable how much the mind fills in

One of the first books I read advised me to buy about 8 colors of paint. So I went to Michael’s and bought 8 tubes of cheap student’s paint (appropriate, given my skill level). The book had instructions on how to mix the colors to make other colors, but neglected to understand just how inexperienced a student might be. I struggled mightily squeezing out gobs of paint trying to get proportions right and cleaning huge amounts of paint off my little plastic palette after every picture. It felt… wrong and wasteful. Because it was wrong and wasteful.

I did this one twice, so you can see the amount of my skill vs. the skill of the instructor

I’ve been doing a lot of classes from a teacher online, and my new strategy has been to have blick.com up for the materials section of every class and buy everything I don’t already have. NORMALLY they’re here by the next weekend’s painting time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the tools and my preferences. For example, the right brush is absolutely transformational – at least at my skill level. I adore indigo with a deep and enduring passion, but cerulean is just meh. And it’s not just the one color, it’s the colors as you move from pure paint to nearly-water with the same paint. It’s the richness of the paint, and how the paint loves the water. Whether it longs for or disdains the paper. Is it smooth? Is is translucent? Does it haunt your dreams? But it’s hard to guess by paint names. I mean, cerulean is a great color name. Indigo is boringer. But I love indigo so much.

So much potential

So this last order I got a dot sheet, which allows you to paint from a tiny dot of watercolor all 109 colors that Winsor & Newton make. 109 times you introduce the paint to the water, and share both with the paper. It’s a deeply contemplative activity (how can a person be bad at painting swatches? But yet I am.) It took me almost two quiet hours. And in that time I delved into a world previously unseen to me. Each color is coded with the permanence, series number, staining, granulation, transparency and light-fastness. These are realms I have not considered.

From a recent class

As the time spread like water on the paper, I also started contemplating the color names – so different from their Crayola predecessors. I think of myself as having a pretty good vocabulary, but have never heard of perylene or quinacridone or gamboge or indanthrene. Mysterious patterns lay themselves out: there are cadmiums of every color, and then a non-cadmium option. Why? What makes the cadmiums both so prized and so flawed that they cannot be left out but also need some alternative? What does it mean that there is one Winsor in every color. Does that harken to the manufacturer? Does it mean the base color, like a box of 8 crayons? Then we go a step farther. One of the colors is caput mortuum violet. I know that once they made a paint called mummy brown, made of mummies. Is this … latin for mummy brown? There is a tale to this color, likely over a century old. And every color in this swatch. And then there is also the science to it. Intrigued, I looked it up and caput mortuum is made from hematite and the name stretches further back than the 19th century to the alchemical experiments of the enlightenment and yes. Is related to mummy brown.

I like the polaroid size

I stand on the banks of the river of my ignorance and am only now seeing just how deep and wide those waters run. Truly, I have known nothing and come to this as a babe. It’s been so long since I have approached something so innocently. I mean, this is just paint colors that have my heart running fast with excitement tonight. There are other paint manufacturers, who have other storied colors. There are other kinds of watercolors, like the unpronounceable and unspellable gouache. There are brushes. I know they matter, but I do not know what they MEAN. The papers, sold with so many languages on their covers, hint at sacred mysteries like cold pressing and rough grain. (Are these mutually exclusive? How do they change the dance with the paints and the brush?) There are techniques, and trick and things everyone knows (did Picasso have one shade of blue he used in his blue period?). There’s the difference between pigment and hue. There’s how to see, and how to communicate what you see, and which tools you need to pick for what you’re trying to do. And that’s before we get to acrylics or oils.

In this pandemic time, I feel like all my horizons are room-sized: small and constrained and maybe just a little worn. Watching this world of painting unfold in my own mind is like braving a winter hike to stand on a summit and gaze beyond purpling horizons lined with mountains. When I first started hiking, those mountains were unnamed and undifferentiated too. And now I know them with the intimacy born of sweat and suffering.

My love and longing

There is no telling how long this phase of exploration lasts. Do I quit when progress is no longer immediate? Is my time swallowed by the return of the world? Does it lose its charm? Do I develop a near-fatal allergy to cadmium? Even here I have no path, and simply walk ahead, seeing what vistas may yet await me the next time I pick up a brush.

Indigo mountains

How I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!

It’s hard to move as fast as the internet. For a glorious few days last week, the internet was taken by storm by a revival of sea shanties and the subsequent public bemusement and pedantic corrections (eg. the Wellerman isn’t a shanty per se because it’s not intended as a work song). As I listened to the familiar lines, I was full of various and conflicting emotions. My first one was a prideful possessiveness: here were all these “Leave Her Johnny Leave Her”-come-latelies. Did they even Stan Rogers? But then I realized that was the absolute worst, and not who I wanted to be. What I want is for everyone to enjoy these great old songs like I do, and for people to discover and recover just how much fun it is to sing singable songs: alone, in the car, on Tik-Tok and some day (God willing) together again.

Monday is Robert Burns birthday. In other years, that would mean tonight would be spent in my kilt and tam, dragging my plaid-covered Scottish song book and preparing to endite poetry memorized 30 years ago, when memorization came easily. We’d usually start the night with Burns (“My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” and “Address to a Haggis”) before going to vaguely Celtic (“The Parting Glass” and “Early One Morning”) and then moving on to whatever we could sing or recite (a capella renditions of “Some Nights” by Fun). But the absolute highlight of the night, often sung two or three times (which I also snuck into my host-friends wedding) was “Barrett’s Privateers“. Not a shanty, but a sea song like Wellerman – sung by the same dude. This is also one of the few songs my sons have learned to sing.

The great joy of the singalong is the verse/chorus format. The more interplay there is between them, the more the crowd can join in after the first round or two. Barrett’s Privateers is particularly fun because there is a lot of interjection and plenty of verses. Plus fewer things are more cathartic than belting out “God damn them all, I was told…..!!!” at the top of your voice.

So in case you would like to join in the sea shanty*, fun to sing along songs, here are a few of my favorites:

1) Barrett’s Privateers: Stan Rogers
The very best of the singalongs for large, rowdy groups. Try to have at least one person who has the verses written out for a call and response. And never look at a bowl of eggs the same way again. Just what ARE the staggers and jags?

2) Mary Ellen Carter: Stan Rogers
On the same album, this song about the resurrection of of a sunken ship, given up on by the owners. It’s a triumph of the little guy over the heedless, soulless bosses, and the relationship between a worker and the tools, which is so much more than a simple cost benefit. To my deep surprise, this song was one my pastor chose to have sung at his retirement celebration.

3) The Wild Rover: The High Kings
There are a bunch of good version of this song, but I like the harmonies on the High Kings version. The funnest part is by far the clap in the chorus. Makes you feel like you’re part of the in-crew when you can totally nail the claps, and gives you a chance to good naturedly laugh at the new person who adds the extra clap!

4) The Scotsman: Seamus Kennedy
Another classic with many versions. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to roll off a ringdingdiddlio or two. This version is nice and clear so you can hear exactly what he’s saying, which was incredibly scandalous to 12 year old Brenda when I first heard it at a party after the Highland Games sung by a man named Sterling.

5) The Tarriers Song: Chad Mitchell Trio
Another fun, fast chorus on this one, with gorgeous three part harmony by the Chad Mitchell Trio. Like so many of the songs in this genre, it makes you grateful for a desk job. It’s short, but a fun chorus.

6) Greenback Dollar: Kingston Trio
In the version of this song we had on tape when I was a girl, they’d only strum on the word “damn”. I didn’t discover what I was missing until we acquired a CD version, and was appropriately scandalized by the language. I apparently spent a good amount of time as a girl being scandalized.

7) Long Black Veil: Columbia Country Classics Volume 3
This entire album is a freaking national treasure, and memorization of all the songs should be mandatory for high school graduation. Also, I only figured out last year that Lefty sold out Pancho, and I’m starting to have doubts about Carmela. This is a great song for later at night, when you’re feeling maudlin and sentimental.

8) The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Gordon Lightfoot
This one has no chorus, and is more the kind of song you should memorize (even if you can’t sing a lick) in order to impress everyone with your authentic credentials. This is an excellent choice for someone who can’t sing to sing, since it has like a 5 note range and super simple melody. The strength is the lyrics.

9) The Downeaster Alexa: Billy Joel
Required singing for any beachside fire-pit sing-along from New London to Newburyport. Billy Joel has a straight-up fishing song, tinged with the grit of New Jersey and the smell of diesel. For contemplation: does he die in this song?

10) Hard Times Come Again No More
Another song sung by so many, this is a great theme for all of us as we persist through these dark days, held hard by pandemic in the right hand and squeezed by the icy grip of winter in the left. We can all sing together on the chorus “Hard Time Come Again No More” and get misty-eyed at the plaintive hope in this song.

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many a days you have lingered all around my cabin door
Oh, hard times, come again no more

So there you have it. When we get together again, let’s sing these songs together. I’ll take the verses – join me for the chorus.

And while we’re on the topic, ahead of any future improbable resurrections of unlikely music, I’ve also long been a huge fan of:

  • Opera, especially Wagnerian opera
  • 1970s folks rock with electric background (see also: Maddy Prior & Steeleye Span)
  • All the great folk trios of the 60s
  • Early music, inclusive, but especially focused on motets and madrigals, the works of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the repertoire of the pifarri.
  • Old school hymns
    Congrats! You got to the end. Have a haggis.

    *None of them are actually sea shanties. Pedantry isn’t the point.

  • A farewell to 2020

    In the gap between Christmas and New Years, I had planned on finding the words – an angle – from which to reflect on the remarkable year that has just passed. At the center of it, regardless of angle, stands the spikey ball image which has become so familiar to us of a virus, crowned in thorns, which has transformed our lives, our deaths, our relationships and even our wardrobes. It has come as a destructive force, wreaking havoc, loss of life and health, creation of fear, division of peoples, cessation of normal living and so much more. But as with all destructions, it has also created space for new things, previously unimaginable amidst the crowded ecosystem of our lives. A tree has crashed in the forest of our days, destroying all it hit, but opening a light in the canopy for a new thing to grow, too.

    To focus solely on either side feels wrong, and dishonest. We risk despair if all we see is what has been lost, damaged, destroyed. It seems ungrateful to the small gifts of the year, suddenly so precious, to cast them aside against the greater weight of tragedy. But to talk about the gifts of such a disruption, without also sitting with the grieving and unemployed, seems like a wicked use of good luck and privilege.

    By any measure, 2020 was the hardest and most difficult year of my life. I am an extroverted adventurer, who revels in novelty and people and treasures relationships above all. I bounce between the desire to be with people and doing things to the need to be quietly alone with myself. I have held on to as much as I can, but there are friends whose silence fills my heart. There are the people I did not meet this year, and have not come to know. And while there are no gatherings, there is also no solitude. This would have made me cranky if it were my only trial, but that is hardly the case.

    I have also had an extremely serious, extraordinarily time consuming, heart-hurting challenge within my family this summer. It’s not for speaking of in a forum that is Google-searchable, but many of you know (and if you’re dying to, drop me a note and I’ll tell you). For the vast part of this year, desperate fear has overshadowed any chance of peace or joy. At times, I could not even see hope from where I stood. It felt like the air I was breathing was increasingly stale, and as though I might at some point run out of oxygen and smother altogether. I am very happy to report that from the depths of that fear, we have gotten a breath of fresh air. Hope has returned, even amidst the hours a week we need to spend doing hard work to nurture and sustain it. I hold my hope and joy lightly – knowing that it is fragile – and treasure the lightness of my heart in this moment.

    These twin challenges: the darkness in my life, and the crushing weight of pandemic, have been so much. But they are not all the sorrows. Starting with November of 2019, it has been a season of loss for me. My godfather died. My cousin died. My friend’s son was paralyzed, and in hospital for six months. My friend BJ died. I broke up with my church. At work, I worked crazy hours under crazy pressures to launch three medical devices in a matter of months (and am still working under intense pressure). My plum tree died. My uncle died. And on New Year’s night, just as the year turned, a mother of a friend of mine – a woman I know and will miss – died of COVID. It has been a year of aching.

    But that is not all the story. The bleakness above would be unsurvivable. But in the midst of it all, there have been consolations great and small. My loving husband has brought me breakfast in bed every morning of this pandemic. I am so fortunate in the company with which I have been trapped!! Our cats have draped themselves over us as loving scarves – Data is sitting on my knees at this very moment. We have been keen participants in the changing of the season, with no blossom or scarlet leaf escaping our rapt notice. There has been less hiking and camping than I would wish (almost all my camping trips got messed up this summer), but still I have seen the summits of: Field, Tom, Moosilauke, the Tripyramids, Chocorua, the Moats, Owl’s Head, Flume, Liberty, Willey and Moriah. I ran and hiked and walked closer to home, in the familiar paths of the Fells and streets of Stoneham. The Greenway for which we fought so hard is filled with families and art.

    All summer, Adam and I would share a fresh and crisp salad under the shade of my dying plum tree at lunch, watching the rabbit we dubbed “Hawk Food” menace our plantings. We gardened and mulched and trimmed. I took up, for the first time in my life, the pencil and brush and learned the very basics of drawing and watercolors, giving my mind some new ways of thinking and new thoughts for having. The art has been a great consolation to me, not because it is good but because it is both new and deeply satisfying. We have baked and cooked through over a hundred pounds of flour, with bread and cinnamon rolls and pies and cakes and all manner of delicious recipes not possible to pull off while you’re commuting. We hung out as a family in the attic on Saturday mornings, playing Breath of the Wild on our Switches as the snow fell. We replaced all our windows, built new bookshelves, renovated our living room and took long baths in the bathtub. We bought a new car, had it be a lemon, and replaced it. (Ok, that might belong in the “bad things” list.)

    Finally, in many ways we have been so very lucky. None of us in my family – immediate or extended or pod – has gotten COVID or even been all that close to it. For all the people who have died, so many have remained safe and well. Adam and I have kept our jobs, and have been able to safely work from home since March – with no pressure to return to an office until summer or fall. Our children are of an age where they can handle most of the remote schooling without detailed hourly supervision from us, and we can work as we need. Our home is safe and comfortable and our wifi is very good. We have been lucky to be in a pod with dear friends with similar risk tolerances, kids the same age, and enjoyable company. We have enough rooms in our house that all of us can be on virtual meetings and close a door and not be crammed together.

    And this to me has been 2020: sorrow, fear, joy, wonder, fortune, misfortune, loss, gains – all together under the broad shock of great disruption. It has both been the sameness of the days, melding undifferentiated into each other, and the vast changes which have gone from inconceivable to normal to inevitable as the long weeks have turned into months.

    I do not know what 2021 will bring. There is ahead of us possibly the most dire 6 – 8 weeks of the whole pandemic, where disease and death are rolling across our country unbridled. The first symptoms from Christmas exposures are showing now for those who will be dead by Valentine’s Day. But racing towards us like a rescuing angel is the work of exhausted but dedicated scientists, medical professionals, lab workers, project managers, FDA regulators (absolute heroes – you have no idea how much work they have had to do this year), pharmacists, doctors, nurses and other nameless but hard working folks who have spent this year of their lives to buy us a way out of this. We have three vaccines at maturity and more on the way. Behind them are antivirals and therapeutic treatments, to rescue those who fall ill. I have hope that by spring we may start to see the tide turn, that this summer outside may be close to normal, and that by fall we will all be finding our places back in a world remade, but ready for the next chapter.

    However, if 2021 has taught us anything, it is that we simply do not know. We must stand ready with hands to help and hearts open. We must look to protect the most vulnerable among us, whose list of blessings is so short and list of trials is so long. We must treasure those things which are good, and support the fight against the things which cause harm. And if on the way we can climb mountains and paint pictures, then so much the better.

    Puissance of the storm

    Excerpted from my journal yesterday, during the nor’easter

    Today a nor’easter is pounding Boston. It’s currently wild winds and sideways rains, but every time I look the thermometer has lost a little more ground to winter. By tonight, the rain will become snow and tomorrow we’ll all awaken to the “beep beep beep” of the plows backing up. I’m sitting in my car, heaters on full bore, in a spot in Nahant where the untamed eastern waters pound mercilessly against fragile-looking causeways. With the cancellation of Thanksgiving plans, the arrival of bad weather, the dramatic worsening of the pandemic and the tumult of managing home and work, I feel like I have not gone anywhere or done anything in months – that I only look out of the same windows of the same rooms every day. Now, I like the windows and rooms, but a phrase that comes to mind is “A change is as good as a rest”. But in the same vein, I feel exhausted by the unrelenting sameness of this pandemic life. So I took to the road, in the midst of the storm, to see what different views there might be.

    There is so much pressure in my life, I struggle to hold the center. I try to do the things – fresh air, exercise, sunlight, good food, good sleep, new hobbies. I do ok at them. But I am really struggling to enjoy things. I feel dry and dessicated. I take little pleasure, even in things I should love. I feel fragile and overwhelmed. I claw back at moments of peace and contentment, fragile as they are, where I can find them. But I am very bad at both failing and quitting, so I fall back on my skills of striving and persisting, and pray they are enough to see me through.

    The waves are indominable in their crashing. They don’t last forever, but while they last they take no pauses. They do not step back, take a deep breath, regroup and then start again, as we beasts do. They come without weariness or rest. Woe to the beast who much ply such waters, and match the frenetic pace of nature with frail body and failing breath. Here’s to the birds and beasts and humanfolk who hold tight through stormy waves for the coming stillness, warmth and sunlit days that do surely follow.

    The car is rocking in the buffeting winds and I, who usually sit all day, have been sitting all day. The veil of darkness will drop in the coming hour, to be followed quickly by the veil of lacy snow. I must return to my accustomed windows and rooms and resume the weekend mantle of mother and wife. I hope my endurance is greater than the storm’s.