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

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.

Hot Air Ballooning

There was a moment where Thane was born when I had an epiphany. It’s funny, I know when it happened and what it did in my life, but I don’t remember the actual epiphany at all. Maybe it was a gradual realization. Maybe I was doing dishes. Adam and I had spent our 20s trying to be grownups – being reliable, showing up on time, gardening, learning how to cook, reading books, staying at home. We didn’t make big money, but we lived thriftily. I started my 401k with my first professional job when I was 21 years old – before I even graduated college. We were dead set on Being Grownups (because of course, we didn’t feel like it). But then I had Thane and I turned 30 and I realized that this was my one and only precious life, and my life would only include the things that I did in it. Moreover, I really only remembered the things that I photographed and/or wrote about. I bought a digital camera. I bought a book on photography. I started this blog. And I started planning to do things that were important and memorable.

First camping trip – Thane is only 9 months old.

We started camping. I ramped up the picture taking. We began to travel more, to visit more places and go on excursions. And I took more and more pictures of all of it (of course, the improvements in digital photography helped – taking pictures when you actually used film was a pain in the rear).

I suspect sometimes I now overdo it. Hundreds of pictures on a memorable day is not unusual. Last year, going through my pictures to put together a “Best of” album, I had over 10k pictures to review. And during precovid times we were exhausted and strapped by my insistence on constantly *doing things*. But then life hit the biggest collective pause button our generation has ever seen. In the year in which Adam and I celebrate 20 years of marriage (and 24 of sharing our lives), we were supposed to go on a romantic trip to Italy in April, which clearly didn’t happen. And as our anniversary approached, I was jolted by the realization that this really rather tremendous milestone was on its way to being lost in the sameness of these quarantine days (nice meal and dressing up aside). So I cast my mind for something truly memorable, something that wouldn’t erode with the currents of time, and was appropriate for a pandemic. One of those sorts of things you never have a good enough reason to justify the cost for doing.

And I had a brilliant idea

Despite a widespread fear of heights among the assembled family (not me!) I got very little pushback for my crazy scheme. Even the 4:30 am wakeup call was handled with grace, fortitude and coffee. (It turns out balloon rides are almost always at dawn, when the winds are calmest. One of our co-fliers had tried 4 times to get in a balloon ride to be stymied by high winds the previous three). We got to the site at 5:30 and watched as they unrolled the balloon, tested the gear and started inflating the vast room-sized, rainbow balloon. We first had to hold down the basket, and then we climbed in. As gently as an escalator, the balloon started taking off next to its competitor compatriot, and ascended into the quiet of the New England dawn.

Still waters and smooth sailing

For some reason, the heights in a balloon are much less scary than other heights. The basket is firm beneath you. The rates feel human-scale. The margins feel large. We skimmed across the tops of trees – close enough to grab a handful of needles from a pine. We swooped low over the water of a lake, catching our reflection. Then we rose up high high high until the cars were smaller than Matchbox cars. Differences in height changed our direction. Our pilot Andre, who appears to have trained every other hot air balloonist in New England, told a series of well practiced jokes and tales, his persistent love of his aeronautical craft seeping through his customer facing banter. He was like a magician, seeing things in the future. It takes a long time to make a hot air balloon change where it is (heat is not the world’s most efficient method of steering), but he was somehow always seeing ahead and moving us to these invisible air currents made somehow visible to him.

The balloon face of the other balloon only got creepier as it landed

The landing was rather exciting. They really only control up and down in a balloon, and to land they need quite a bit of cleared space, without power lines. New England is rather on the wooded side (Andre was vehemently anti-tree). So the cul-de-sac we landed in had seen balloons land there before, although the neighbors still turned out in delighted appreciation of the gem landing in their street. Except for one person, who was _BESIDE HIMSELF_ with anger that we would land there. He was hopping up and down with rage and cursing and generally making a scene, which shouldn’t have been funny, but absolutely was. The capper was when one of his long suffering and patient neighbors, in the midst of his profanity laden tirade against the balloon, greeted him with a very phlegmatic, “Morning Lenny”. Landing a hot air balloon does require a certain amount of diplomacy, and a canny and quick ground crew to literally sprint to catch the landing lines.

The mostly volunteer landing crew

We ended our adventure with a glass of champagne (I looked up only to realize my Very Tall son had one as well – ah well! Good time for a first glass of champagne, I suppose!) in balloon cups with good wishes (including “friendly landowers) and a history lesson on the first aeronautical adventurers. And Andre gave us this toast, in his muted French accent:

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

MOSTLY friendly landowners

It was a lovely, beautiful moment my friends. Much has been abandoned, or prevented, or cancelled. There is fear everywhere, and grief and anger. Many traditions have been broken, and others forever lost. But we are humans. We are at our greatest when what is called for is stamina, forbearance, patience, humor, creativity and wonder. If the old is no longer possible, we can ask ourselves – what new things has that created space for? When we account for our lives, what will we – in the end – remember?

Smile!

If you want to see all the pictures of our adventure, I’ve put them into this album for your enjoyment! I would definitely recommend A&A Balloon Rides in NH!

Smiles behind masks!

Learn to draw in 30 days

We all have different ways of coping with the crazy times we find ourselves in. This summer is a strange one in so many ways. It’s been beautiful and hot and precious here in New England, but as we tip into fall all of us are bracing for a school year far from normal, and the possibility of another winter trapped inside our homes. I’ve tried to be extra diligent lately with self care – doing things to build up my strength and nourish my spirit. And during a run a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to draw.

My desk of joy – as opposed to my desk of work

It’s been interesting to discover my learning style. Lately, the trend has been towards video education. I hate hate hate and loathe learning things by video. I’m not sure why. I pretty much never go to Youtube for anything but workout videos (which are for some reason an exception). I know that there are probably infinite channels dedicated to this very task, as well as the entire video footage of Bob Ross. But I learned how to learn from books, and the written word is still 100% my preferred method. So I bought myself:

1) “You Can Draw in 30 Days” by Mark Kistler
2) A crazy complicated set of drawing pencils which did not come with any sort of guide on what to use when, or even what things are
3) A sketchpad. If I’d realized how BFFs you become with your sketch pad I would’ve bought a nicer one, but here we are

The first thing we drew was a pretest. We were supposed to draw a house, a plane and a bagel in five minutes each. I hesitate deeply to show you mine. You see, in my school, you either did art or you did music. And I definitely and 100% did music. And then some extra music. So I think my last formal education in art might have been … 3rd grade. And I wasn’t very good even in 3rd grade. Since then, I have improved not at all due to never trying to. So what you see below is not sandbagging – it’s actually my best attempt. DON’T MOCK ME. (Or, you know, only mock me behind my back.)

I’m really this bad

Obviously, any skills at all will be a vast improvement on the impressively-retained 3rd grade drawing level I started with. Since then, it’s been a real joy. The book is canny in showing you how to do something that looks and feels like a real accomplishment, and only sneaking a little theory or technique in along the way. It has those things, but the overall tone of the books is one of joyful experimentation on basics being taught. Here was my first real success, a measly three lessons in:

I’m a particular fan of the “alien jumping out of a hole” technique, which is recurring in my opus.

Then we moved onto squares. There are a few places where I could stand a little more explanation (like how do you get the length of the squares right? But my architectural friends better watch out – I’m not only doing open boxes, I’m doing treasure chests!

Boxes, treasure chests and foreshortening

Then yesterday’s lesson was wild! Out of left field! After 7 days of circles and squares we suddenly went to …. koalas.

Brenda’s first bear

Then last night, from the giddy heights of Lesson 8, I thought …. what if I put all these things together in one crazy, overlapping circle, open box with pedestal, koala-combining extravaganza. Could I do it? Such a complicated piece? How do people not smudge their drawings when they do this? But I sat down and didn’t stop until I had … this.

With bonus bopping alien

I mean, compare to my pretest. Pretty amazing, right? There’s plenty of problems with it – probably more problems than drawing. But it was super fun! And it made me feel really good and accomplished and like I’d learned things. And that was a great feeling to have during this crazy time.

Here are my key takeaways so far:

1) Erasing is a tremendously important part of drawing – by intent. No artist is “so good” they don’t need the eraser. The eraser is a key tool.
1.5) I wish I had an eraser as precise as a pencil
2) I like to sketch in a high-hardness pencil (like 4H) and then texture in a high smudge pencil (like 4B). It’s somehow much easier to erase the Hs. I had to experiment a lot with the pencils to figure out what they did, and why you would use one over the other.
3) How DO people avoid smudging their drawings with their hands? Do they always move left to right (or non-dominant to dominant) in their drawings?
4) Someday I will not have to actually draw (and then erase) the sun to get the angles right. That day is a long time from now.
5) I still can’t tell with boxes whether I should shade in alignment with the angle of the box or the sun. Is the answer “it depends?” (Narrator: the answer is ALWAYS “it depends”)
6) It’s useful to redraw (in the bolder pencil) lines you want to have visible, so they really pop from the page
7) I’ve started thinking about drawing when I’m not drawing and noticing things in drawings I’ve never seen before.
8) This is fun.

I’m sure that if I power through to the end of the 30 days, I’ll inflict updates on you (or at my Instagram account – look for fairoriana).

The power of going from 0 to 1 in a skill you totally lack is intoxicating, especially when you get immediate rewards from the efforts. I’m looking forward to high powered doodles in my notebooks from here on out! Have you ever picked up a skill like this – where you could do nothing and then got to do something? Has that been a part of your COVID journey too? What have you always wished you could do, but never actually had the time and space to learn?

Downright architectural!

Be a sheep

My tiny, rural home county of Lewis County (approx the size of Connecticut with approx the population of Somerville MA) made the national news this week. The Governor of Washington has made masks mandatory to attempt to slow or stop the crashing wave of Coronavirus infections. In response to this legal edict, the Sheriff (you know, the hand of the law) for the county got on a bullhorn (maskless) and advised people that the choice of whether to follow the law was theirs. His exact words, repeated more than once, were “Don’t be a sheep”.

Not a shepherd

As someone who loves people in Lewis County, and worries about their safety and well being, I have a lot of thoughts about this medically, socially etc. But the thing that really struck me was how profoundly un-Christian this advice is.

You see, throughout the Bible – and especially Jesus’ words – he over and over again talks about his people as sheep. There are incredibly clear stories that came immediately to mind, putting God’s beloved in the role of sheep. The first is, of course, the parable of the Wandering Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) “If a man owns a hundred sheep … In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

Of course, we have Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. … Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

If you’re Catholic, you should care a lot about being a sheep, because of John 21:15 when Jesus, THREE TIMES, asks Peter for one thing, “Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me? He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” This is part of the story that establishes Peter (Simon = Peter if you’re confused) as the Pope. The Pope to this day carries a stylized shepherd’s crook.

The last story comes as a warning (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus has just explained that in the end, we will be judged on whether we have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner. (I often wonder why religious rights folks haven’t been fighting restrictions against prison visits harder – or at all – for infringing their religious duties). But the end is an apocalyptic scene, where at the judgement day …

“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. … Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

So take a longer thought. If you are a Christian, should you want to be a sheep? Or should you fight against being a sheep? Will you be led, and guided, by the law, medicine and the need to care for others? Or would you rather be an individualistic goat, wandering in your own free, will not caring who you harm? And if the latter – how do you square that with being a Christian?

Be a sheep. Wear a mask.

Baaaa!

Good fences

Back in February, in another age of this world, a bunch of boys were playing in the back yard on an unseasonably warm day when “a strong wind” knocked a segment of our 12 year old crappy vinyl fence out, snapping the connectors and boards both. After a conversation on how I don’t mind accidents but I object to lies, I actually felt a flush of relief. The vinyl fence was of the kind that looks good juuuuuust long enough to sell the house, and not a second longer. There were many broken boards. The whole thing was dingy with mildew and mold. And I’ve always hated it. So this was an excellent opportunity to replace it with something I would like better.

I called a fence company, who said they could get it up in two weeks.

Then the world fell apart. They actually did the estimate that first week we were home, and I thought how convenient it was to be here for the appointment. Granted, it was at 7:30 am so it was actually Adam who was awake for it, but usually he’d be on his way to work by then. In the suddenly collapsed world of the stay-at-home order, I spotted an opportunity to let Grey stretch his wings a bit. “Go ahead and practice your graffiti* on the fence!” I blithely invited. “They’re coming to take it down next week. But remember to keep it appropriate!”

You are all smarter than I am. You all see where this is going.

I actually got annoyed enough to scrub a good portion of the graffiti off

So for the last two months (which were, lest I need to remind you, approximately 5 years a piece) every time I sat in my back yard or looked out my window I was greeted by orange and black graffiti spelling out things that were juuuuuust this side of the “mom is going to make you repaint the fence line” and only if you accept the explanations for what that _really_ spells/means mom. This has been a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe and a hair shirt for me ever since.

Not Restful

To my great joy and after only about a thousand urgent texts following up on the status of my fence, whatever unexpected supply chain backup was holding my fence hostage was resolved. And through the beautiful middle days of this week, the old graffiti fence came down and strong men with post hole diggers and cement bags put a new one in for me. And so I woke up on the gorgeous May morning with a backyard ready to be made into a summer escape.

I understand why the previous owners put up a privacy fence on top of the nearly 12 foot wall they installed to keep the house from sliding down the hill. The wall cost over $100k and was the motivation for them to sell the barely occupied house. But they were private people, with heavy blinds on every window. So a privacy fence on the tiny plot of land – no bigger than a squash court – kept wind and prying eyes both out. But behind our house is a glorious series of unbuildable back yards with lovely trees and grasses and wildlife. Part of what I love about this house is this borrowed view.

Shown with May snow

And I decided on a fence that would keep us from falling off the wall, but allow us to gaze out at the small piece of nature available to us. And I love it. I have big plans for what to do next: with all the extra light now available, I spent today planting lilacs as a hedge against our neighbor. Maybe I’ll put a fruiting bush in on the other side. I’ve already gotten citronella torches ready against in the fence for fiery nights. I found a great new spot for the chairs and table. There will be bulbs and phlox and clemantis – a riot of color and fragrance and peace waiting for me whenever the weather is fine.

New lilac hedge for privacy and fragrance

This time spent at home – always at home – has amplified everything about all the places we live. Was it small before? Now you feel the smallness every day, ten times a day. Was the view lovely? Now you cling to that view with the ardent gaze of a lover on a honeymoon marking every small shift in aspect or trick of light. Our lot of land is small, our view is beautiful. I am grateful because small is so so so much more than none.

The new position of table and chairs

Last night I sat in the warmth of the night before the storm, gazing out at the view through my new fence. For a minute, it almost felt like camping. From where I sat, I could see six different groups out enjoying the fine evening. The intermix of not-quite-intelligible conversations felt so much like what it’s like at a campground in the evening. And I have noticed that everyone in my safe suburban neighborhood is also tending to their homes. Sheds have been installed, mulch delivered, garden boxes constructed, yards mowed, trees planted.

I know that this time is not like this for everyone. There are many people working long hours and living in cramped and unsafe conditions. But from my borrowed view, I can see everyone settling into what it is they have, and taking the gift of time to pour themselves into their homes in a touchback to another time. People are baking, and sewing for need. They are gardening. They are sitting in back yards they have manicured themselves and watching the breezes sweep away the warmth and herald the lightening. And we are all in awe of how much more we can see now that we’re standing still.

This was quite a cloudburst. I think we would have normally missed it.

*Stoneham is home to a fantastic graffiti tunnel, with exceptional and high quality art work. Grey admires this and wishes to emulate it – not to vandalize stuff.

Recent art work by my favorite artist

Do not tax yourself with forethought of grief

The world has been different now for about 7 weeks. I remember clearly that last pizza and beer I had, after climbing off a mountain with a friend, as the last day of the world as it was. The next day, with school cancelled, was he first day of the world as it currently is. I read online a statement that Coronavirus completely destroys some folks, while leaving others almost completely unscathed. I am so aware that I am in that latter category. My job remains secure (if requiring plenty of time from me). My home is full of food. My children are well (if at risk of becoming inert elements in front of their computers). My family is all still healthy. So far, I’ve escaped even serious inconvenience.

But even so, the days have been hard. I find that every Monday is worse than the last, attempting to marshall my resources to teach my children, do my job, keep the house, cook the dinner, maintain my relationships. I almost didn’t make it through last Monday, and I am staring at dread with tomorrow morning. (I have a plan. It includes wearing a dress and makeup, in a desperate attempt to channel my inner professional.) A walk in the forest involves people edging to the side of the path, as though you might be carrying some awful, transmissible disease. The main street is full of signs either optimistically promising better days to come, or saying “Temporaly closed” (sic) – a sign becoming faded in the strengthening sunlight. Life is feeling harder every day, as supplies of TP and flour dwindle, and the walls of my home crush me.

Still, there is the great blessing of New England. This has been a long, cold, rainy spring. It seems like those are particularly common after mild winters. We’ve had our fair share of spring snow and rain and sleet and misery. We’ve had weeks where it didn’t break 50. It’s been a great boon to our amphibian population, as every creek and rill and vernal pool is full to the brim of cold water.

Bleeding heart

But this weekend, oh!! This weekend was the glorious weekend of spring that doesn’t come just once a year in New England, it comes perhaps once a decade. The skies were blue, the sun was strong. The colors were all new-formed, as though God himself had just dreampt them up. Every color imaginable is suddenly bursting forth into joyous profusion, looking new washed and newly painted on the world. We are at just the tipping point between daffodil and forsythia, into tulip and, well, everything. Even the houses look jollier in the bright sun, which portends warmth and freedom and backyards in a way that is utterly and inescapably charming to all those of us who have been practically housebound since October. There seem to be few consolations in this newly-isolate world, but oh. Spring in New England is still one of them.

Confession: this man has brought me breakfast in bed nearly every day for those 6 weeks

Not being a fool, I early resolved that my plan for this weekend was to spend as much of it as was humanly possible outdoors. Given that it’s nearly 11 and I’m still by a backyard fire, I declare said plan fulsomely accomplished. Usually weekends like this would be subject to the whim of the calendar: had I already committed myself? Was it to something outdoorsy? But yesterday I woke to a clean slate of a plan, and (after the delicious breakfast prepared for my by my incredibly loving husband) I started with a five mile run along the bike way that I played a small part in ensuring was here for us, now, when we need it most. The Aberjona and Sweetwater were both running high along their banks, and the trail was crowded with folks enjoying the finest weather we’ve seen in six months. Most of them, including me, were wearing masks.

In glorious fashion, the day unfolded with sleepy hammock naps, letters to friends, and meals shared with my beloved family. I have always said that I cannot relax at home, because there is too much to do. But honestly, most of it has now been done so for the first time in ever so long, I find myself able to just … be. Here. In this 10th of an acre that is my homestead. I spent the whole day happy. I definitely interrogated myself several times over this. The world is in tumult. So many have died. So many have suffered. There is more to come. How dare, HOW DARE I be happy? It isn’t fair that I be happy when so many are caught in sorrow, grief, fear and distress. That is all, unarguably, true. But the thing I’ve wanted to tell you, across many failed blog posts, is that your suffering does not reduce the suffering of others. So if you have a choice between suffering and not suffering, do not suffer.

I have been struck by the poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” since it arrived as the answer to an advent Google search I initiated looking for poems of peace. It is strong enough that many of the lines can speak to you. But the ones that have slayed me – stopped me in my tracks – during this pandemic period are:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

Resident baby bunny

On this most beautiful day of spring, I find myself challenged by the question: will I tax this day to neutrality by forethought of grief (or by focus on the unfairness of my joy?)? Or will I let go. Will I come into the peace of the wild things and take this moment as it is, built on a complex scaffold but for a moment, full of joy? I think of the baby bunny who has taken residence under my porch, and who nibbles on dandylions in my back yard. Do I see that creature as a pestilence-spreading eater of bulbs, destined to destroy gardens before falling prey to the hawks and foxes that prowl my suburban neighborhood? Or do I just enjoy the meek cuteness of its ears, now, when it is a baby and before its destiny is fulfilled for food or procreation? Do I look towards all the consequences of rabbit-incarnate, or do I just smile across baby-bunny.

For the bunny, my decision does not matter (assuming I am unwilling to poison his bulb-eating self). This Coney will live to be a great big jackrabbit, or it will fall food to yet wilder animals. It is not in my power to control. But what I can control is my joy of it, in this moment. I can choose to sit in companionable silence with my little Lagomorpha. Or I can choose to tax my life with the forethought of grief.

Communion under a dying plum

So I decided, in this one shining weekend, to enjoy it. To nap in a hammock tied to my dying plum tree, and not look at the blight. To build a fire of the wood I have and not consider the shortage at the hardware store. To serve communion to my husband from the glasses my father brought from Ethiopia more than fifty years ago, and not wonder when I would sit in a pew again to receive communion in a sanctuary. To look at bleeding heart with a full and joyful heart, and not wonder how soon it will be before my heart bleeds. To meet with my friends through the miracle of technology, and not wait until we can be together again in truth.

What would you do differently, if you chose not to tax your heart in forethought of grief? What joy is there for you in the time, in this moment? In an era of grief, doubt, uncertainty and loss, where is it possible for you to find peace?

Guest Post: Dustbowl Dance, COVID19 version

My 14 year old son Grey was given an assignment to write a song about a disaster. He picked the Mumford and Sons Dustbowl Dance for music, and the current pandemic. For those not up on the latest meme culture, here’s some background on his use of “Karen,” as a generic type of person and not an individual. – Brenda

A young lad sits inside of his room
He lies on his floor, attends a class in a Zoom
There’s no one outside and no one to play
He eats food and he sleeps, that’s all of his day

I have been stuck in my house since Winter’s last breath
And my sleep schedule makes me feel like death
I have read and ran and writhed in fatigue
Played so many games, I’m the best in my league
So hurry and quicken o’ science worldwide
Corona’s the thing you need to confront, not hide

Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide

Karens, you idiots, look at this place!
America now reeks of fear and disgrace
So everyone quarantines and anti-vaxxers do not!
How can you claim y’all are safe when you got
A disease and then said essential oils could heal?
Are you sure that the reality you live in is real?
You’ll live in your stupor and die with a flu
Corona has more letters than your IQ!

Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide

Steal my parties and steal my time!
I’m going insane from staying inside
Please I ask all y’all far and wide
Quarantine, then we can shift the tide

Yes Doctor, yes, Karen died of COVID 19
There were many more things in life she coulda’ seen
But she brushed off reports of the deathly disease
And now her body rots with fleas.

The darkest day

Holy Week is usually one of my favorite, most distinctive weeks of the year. I did not grow up going to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services – I’m not sure why that wasn’t part of our faith tradition, but it wasn’t. For a generally cheerful person, I’ve always had a soft spot for candelight and minor keys. And Holy Week is full of contemplative music, hard realities and truths that you don’t really want to hear but desperately need to. In a usual Holy Week, I would have been at church Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday & Good Friday (and probably practiced trumpet for Easter at all of them!)

This year is, of course, different. This year, there was no sitting in a darkening sanctuary listening to the 7 Last Words of Christ and watching the light in the parking lot flicker, as I have every single year for two decades. There were no Taize pleadings to Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. The days and weeks have begun to blur together in a sameness only relieved by the gradual, gorgeous unfolding of spring.

But even in a normal Holy Week, there is always this Saturday. Today was actually bright and fair, with brisk winds and waxing sunlight, budding trees, vibrant forsythia and the burgeoning promise of a world soon to bloom. There was little dark about it, other than the day’s statistics on the number of dead mowed down by this novel virus. But today, in the liturgical calendar, is the worst day. Worse, maybe even than Good Friday. In the Easter story, today is the day after Jesus died, while his body lay unprepared in a tomb that wasn’t his. It was the day when the disciples and the women woke up – if they slept at all that night – to a world where hopes had turned to ashes. This day abounded in the bitterness of betrayal: Judas’s betrayal (another unburied body). The betrayal of all the plans. They MUST have thought on this day that Jesus could not possibly be who they hoped he was. He was dead, and the Messiah had not yet brought liberation to the people of Israel. They must have felt sick – how much of what he had taught was true and reliable? How much of their sacrifice had been worthwhile? Had they thrown their lives away on just another pretender? And … what exactly was going to happen next? Were they going to follow him to a criminal’s execution? Would anyone be left to be the son to Mary?

Of all the many dark days whose story is painted in the Bible, this Sabbath might be the very darkest. Hope was irrevocably lost. The worst had well and truly happened. The body was cold. More was likely on the way.

It feels a bit like that now, in this pandemic time. All through January and February, watching the headlines, I thought that this virus would burn itself out or be contained, just like SARs or MERs were – or stay distantly awful like Ebola. Like the apostles – or even Jesus himself in Gethsemane – I hoped that this would once again pass us by. But here we are, locked in our homes, in fear and in shock that our world can be so abruptly transfigured. Fear crawls on the back of astonishment, worrying us about how much worse this will become. Will it be my parents who die? Or me? Will I still have a job? Will this be the next great depression? Of all the people I know and love, who will die and be counted in the daily statistics tallied at 3 pm by the governor? When will I venture onto Facebook and learn that I will never again see someone? Or worse, when will that phone call come through that isn’t just a “How are you doing?”

We are in the deep darkness of the Saturday after Good Friday, friends.

But. There would be no Christianity and no Christians if the story really ended as badly as it appears to – if there were no chapters after “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” There was real loss on that Saturday. Judas. Jesus as a living man. Mary never again held her son. The world was never the same again. But in this dark hour, let us remember the Easter story, that out of this darkest of days arose a new hope, so powerful as to reshape the entire world for the next 2000 years. Even death was not the end to this story, as it will not be the end to ours.

Tomorrow, when we rise to pancakes and baskets, we may feel like our cries of “He is Risen” are hollow. Like Easter itself is diminished under our collective grief and fear. But that’s just the thing about Easter, my friends. Without Good Friday and Holy Saturday, it’s just a confection – full of sugar and without sustaining substance. The power comes when we have despaired, and sat with our grief. Then we can truly become part of a world made new, in ways that we could not even imagine possible on Palm Sunday.

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Antepandemian Days

Before the flood
There’s an old word, much beloved of the sort of 19th century poets and authors who took great delight in antiquated, obscure vocabulary, that has been much on my mind lately. The word is “antediluvian“. It refers to a time “before the flood” – it speaks to an ancient period both innocent and evil, of near mythical antiquity. HP Lovecraft was a huge fan of the word, and tossed it in like raisins to his descriptions:

All at once I came upon a place where the bed-rock rose stark through the sand and formed a low cliff; and here I saw with joy what seemed to promise further traces of the antediluvian people. – “>The Nameless City by HP Lovecraft

It is hard to know, right now and right here, just how much of an apocalypse this virus truly is. We have certainly, as humans, seen worse. When smallpox ran like a wildfire ahead of European explorers, it wiped out as much as 90% of those who had lived in the place I now call home. The Black Death killed millions. There is no doubt in my mind that we – humans – will be as triumphant long term over this stark moment as we have been over every other difficult and challenging time in our history. And there have been so many – more than even I know.

Still, it’s strange to be in that moment. It’s strange to have been a full adult in both the ante and the post of our pandemiun moment. I already felt like a part of a liminal generation. Born in 1978, I was one of the last to be trained on the prior generation of skills: typing on a typewriter, repairing a lawn mower engine, formatting a memo, writing a letter. I lived and loved in an era before the internet. But I also got my first computer at four, my first internet connection at sixteen, and one of my first jobs was digital. I have driven cross country before GPS, and can navigate with a map. I also love APIs and have written HTML for nearly as long as “markup languages” have existed.

And now I am at the full flower of my prime right at the moment where the world looks to reshape itself. There is a clear before, and there is a developing hereafter. The day of demarcation is bright in my mind. To me, the world pivoted as fast as it has ever done on March 12. I took a day that was intended to be Del’s funeral and spending it instead hiking in the White Mountains (a choice I think he would have fully approved of). When I left that morning, the stock market was strong, nothing was closed, and even our decision to cancel the funeral was just because it was being held in a “hot spot”. When we emerged off that mountain, self-consciously mindful of keeping our distance from other hikers, the stock market had the first of a historically awful series of days. My son had stayed home sick (with a bug he would share with me – still not sure if that was Coronavirus or not). And there would be no more days of school this winter. All employees in both my and my husband’s company were to work from home – indefinitely as it turns out. That drive home, we had pizza in a trattoria buried in the mountains and I noted it as an excellent find for later. Now I wonder if it will still be there when later comes.

As one of Generation X, I got to set my expectations for what the world was during the most boring decade in history: the 90s. (If you’re wondering, it definitely FELT like the most boring decade in history.) It was an era after war between nation-states had become irrelevant (or fast and bloodless, if required). Vice Presidentials scuppered promising careers with an inability to correctly spell root vegetables. We were all rudely corrected about how safe, how boring, how predictable the world was on September 11th, 2001 (the day the 90s truly ended).

Since that pizza coming off that hike, I’ve had this passage from Matthew (which I just read this winter) rolling through my mind, about that antediluvian era (although I know of no Biblical translation so obscure as to use the word itself):

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark. And they were oblivious, until the flood came and swept them all away. – Matthew 24:38-39

We have been swept away. Where we will land, on what shore and in what condition, I do not know. I do know that we will continue, and find new ways of being. We will create a postpandemiun society. And it depends on the choices we all make in these days and hours as to whether that society is a joyful one, or one built on fear. Hold on to hope, my friends. There will be a day – sooner than you can believe – where this is all a tale to tell children.