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Archive for February, 2016

Loving Your Soulful Handcrafted Life

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.  Christopher McCandless

There are moments in our lives, there are in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual — become clairvoyant . . . We reach then into reality . . . Such are the moments of our greatest happiness . . . Such are the moments of our greatest vision.  At such times, there is a song going on within us, a song to which we listen.  It fills us with surprise.  We marvel at it . . .  Robert Henri

Always be on the look out for the presence of wonder.  E.B. White

I’ve been thinking about my grandfather lately.  And, it is a pleasure to think about him, my grandfather the artist who lived such a long long time ago and died in a car accident in 1925.  He is alive for me as I skate-ski on the wide-groomed snow-packed trails through the forests of Upper Michigan.  I focus on the trees as I push forward in long skating strides, the bare-branched maples and oaks, and the tall stalwart pines, and, sometimes, it is as though I am skiing through a wintertime gallery of his etchings, for it was the trees that were a passion and etching his medium.  And as I skate-ski my way to the top of a hill, about half-way through one of my favorite loops, and look out over its crest into a field scattered with jagged trunks and seedlings and into the sea of trees beyond, he becomes more than a thought, this grandfather of mine.  He becomes real.  I’m not sure why it is here that I sense him, as though he is stepping out of the snowy dusk and greeting me with his full-bodied flesh-and-blood exuberance, but it happens often, and I welcome him warmly into my wintertime experience.

For years, my grandfather was a tall tree, the etching of a giant California oak that hung on a wall at the bottom of our staircase.  “Goodnight, Mr. Oak Tree!” my siblings and I would sing as we made our way up to bed.  “Good morning, Mr. Oak Tree!” was our call when we would clamor down the stairs the next day.  He was the Maine coastal pines and the wind-swept Monterrey cypress.  He was the willows at Winnegance and the apple trees on farms near our summertime home at the cove.  His etchings graced our walls and he graced us with his presence, Grandpa Haskell, the artist who died too young, as the tallest tree among us.  It only has been in the past few years, since I have dived into the extensive archives filled with letters and journals, with articles and sketches and photographs, in his words, in the words of others who knew him or admired him, that he has become human to me, a grandfather whose life is an artful template as I etch out my own handcrafted existence.

And sure, as I have swum my way through this ocean of material, as I have immersed myself in these letters and articles and journal entries, as I have examined more closely the vast collection of etchings that I have inherited, I have found myself with a greater appreciation for his talent and his productivity and his willingness to hone his skills.  He was a supreme craftsman and a focused self-taught artist and he poured reverence into his work.  What he achieved in the art world is impressive and he deserves his Wikipedia place on the world wide web.  But that’s not what I want to talk about now; that’s not the only thing I have found compelling during my grandfather search.  It has been the Wikipedia of his living, the details that I have encountered in these archives that I also hold dear to my heart.  These details have been the magical wind that has blown breath into my wooden-tree myth of a grandfather.

Ernest Haskell wasn’t an etching on the wall, wasn’t the well-written and thorough Wikipedia page on the web, or an art exhibit at a New York gallery.  He was a man who loved his mid-coastal Maine summer house and the two coves on his property and the waters beyond which he explored in his sailing canoe.  He was a man who loved to laugh loudly — people mention this often in letters and remembrances — and his voice boomed with enthusiasm.  He drove fast and food was a passion.  He collected his own mushrooms and greens and cooked recipes he had learned during his self-study years in Paris.  He loved his wife, Elizabeth, first saw this New York beauty when he was studying abroad and she was traveling to Italy and he told his friend that this was the woman he was going to marry.  And he did, and together they refurbished the old saltwater farm that my cousins still own and designed the stone wall that surrounds the garden, and, on sunny summer mornings, he would shave in this garden among the peonies and iris.  And they drank the milk from their own cow and had horses and entertained friends — and people say that Ernest could get along with anybody; the fishermen who lived in the village nearby, the theater people in New York who found their faces on the posters he created for their shows, they were all his friends.  He loved Maine where he summered and New York where he wintered and California, too, was smitten at first sight, at the 1914 World’s Fair in San Francisco.  And years later, after Elizabeth died in the 1918 flu epidemic, it was California that brought him healing with its Pacific blue waters and inland mountain parks, California that brought him his second wife, my California grandmother.  He loved the big things, his wives, his children — and the everyday things too.  He loved the theater and the movies, on their first date, taking my grandmother to Dr. Jeckly Mr Hyde in San Francisco and watching it twice.  He loved his L.L. Bean boots and his New York Opera top coats.  He loved his life.  It was a feast to him.  And he squeezed the juice out of its moments — and it is through the details in these archives that I, too, can feast at my grandfather’s table.

That’s what I want to tell you — the details matter, the details of our own handcrafted lives.  It is all art, the art of living, and it is up to each us to taste it.  And my grandfather, the grandfather who I sense walking up the groomed trail to meet me on wintery days, he can be our role model and friend.  He whispers to me that it is a part of the feast, the day to day details, the art of bringing presence and joy to them all, and, and — at this point, I sense his voice growing stronger, louder with his earnestness and enthusiasm — and, it is another part of the feast, the art of digging deep into our personal passions, following their unique and compelling call.  I take his message to heart.  The copper plate and the tools of an etcher may not hold power for us, and trees might not draw us in the way they spoke to my grandfather.  But we all have passions that propel us forward and we can claim the time to heed their call — and we also can relax into the soulful richness of the every day ordinary details of our personal lives, as if it is poetry, art, as if our spirits and our bodies and our minds are in sync and every moment is packed with something to savor.


Wind Bent Cypress: Monterrey, California, artist Ernest Haskell


In the parking lot of grocery store: Bath, Maine, January 2016



What fertile seed is beginning to grow down in the belly of your deepest being?  What’s shaking and quaking under the rich earth of You?  Miriam Dyak

It’s delicious riding the wave of infinite potentials, and then there comes a moment to shift out of the void, grab hold of your dream and leap into the Real.  It’s time to initiate.  Time to place your bet on your own creative power . . . Miriam Dyak

Can you feel it?  It rises up from someplace deep within the inertia of late January, someplace dark and mysterious and womb-like, and it stirs your inner embers and it gets you moving again in a fidgety spark-filled dance of something new not quite yet formed.  And you’re not sure what to do with yourself and you’re not alone in this — the crows, they feel it too, as they zig and they zag above the trails that you ski upon. And all this zigging and zagging, all this fidget-filled frenzy vibrating within you, all this crow-calling and crow-mating, it has a name and it happens every year as January spills over into February, every year as ridiculously short days begin to stretch themselves out again into a world of increasing brightness.  Half-way between the December solstice and the March equinox, it is winter’s mid-point, and the Celtic people call it Imbolc, the Old Gaelic word for “in the belly.”  It officially occurs on the second day of February, but its sparks start rumbling around in the belly’s depth a few days before and we feel its impact well into this month of growing light.  Brigid is patron saint of this marker on nature’s calendar, saint of healing and poetry and smithcraft, blesser of newborn lambs in the Irish countryside and blesser of our dreams, too, the ones deep in our bellies and bones awaiting to be born.

It started for me a few weeks back, in late January, on a five-day trip to the east coast to visit family and friends in Maine.  I think I know the moment that the seeds began to quiver.  I was with my friend Muriel and we had just wound down our day of parallel play together, writing and walking and catching up after a six-month hiatus, and we were hungry and, on Day One of my excursions to Maine, it has become a tradition for the two of us to eat out at our favorite Mexican-meets-coastal-Maine restaurant, El Camino.  On this particular night, the air was crisp and the stars were bright around a moon that was almost full, and we shivered as we made our way to the restaurant’s front door.

And then it happened as we stepped inside, not just a blast of welcoming warmth, but something else, too, something that took me aback.  It was the sea I smelled, not the frozen-beach-wintertime-sea that was rolling into the icy shore just miles away from this coastal town — it was fish and sunshine and salt and seaweed, a glorious assault to my senses, and I truly stood for a moment dumbfounded.  Maybe it was because I am a coastal girl and it had been six months since I had soaked in the salt air.  Maybe it was because I was extra hungry after our day of creative play and the food that smelled of the ocean was intoxicatingly inviting.  Maybe it was because the moon was full and spilling over and something in me was eager, too, to become full and ripe and spilling over.  It doesn’t matter the reason.  What I want to tell you is that everything became brighter for me that evening — the taste of peppers, cilantro, lime danced in my mouth, and the conversation Muriel and I struck up about projects yet to be birthed was filled with a deliciousness, too, of color and music and a full-body-shiver of excitement.  What I want to tell you is that my inner seeds, the ones that had been lying dormant during the cold still months of late autumn and early winter, began to dance inside of me and I was alive with it all, and I think, in those moments while feasting with Muriel, I just might have heard that Celtic goddess of poetry joining us in our dinnertime conversation.

Despite the catch-your-breath cold that lingered in the outside world for the rest of the trip to Maine, despite an even colder catch-your-breath landscape awaiting for me  when I returned to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this inner dance, this quivering color-filled excitement has continued to grow.  That’s what happens during February.  Seed catalogues start appearing in our mailboxes, the days, even when they are dipping below the zero mark, are brighter and longer, and those crows, the ones that were zigging and zagging in late January, have begun building their nests.  Things are astir.  I am astir.  I have started to paint again.  It was my passion to create art when I was a little girl, to pick up crayons and pastels, watercolors and charcoal pencils.  Time became malleable; hours seemed like minutes when I played with color and form on paper.  Around age ten, when perfectionism and expectation took over, I must have buried those seeds deep.  And, sure, occasionally I have felt their quivering over the years, perhaps at a Joy Center workshop or during an evening of collaging in my creativity room, but not like this.  And indeed, it was at a Joy Center watercolor workshop facilitated by my friend Penney the day after returning from the trip to Maine that my love for painting was ignited.  We painted Valentine roses that evening, gardens of color, bright and bold, each finished product as unique as the artist holding the brush.

You just don’t know what is going to be stirred up.  You just don’t know what seeds are going to begin their quivering.  That is not your job.  Maybe February is not supposed to be a clear focused image, not supposed to be about a sharp photo of that garden that will be in full bloom come August.  The crows are building their nests, but the eggs aren’t hatched yet.  The babies not yet born.  I’ve continued to paint these past few weeks.  It wasn’t something that I had written on my to-do list, not something that I had expected to rise up out of this Imbolc dance, not a part of the parallel play plan put into motion with my dear friend Muriel in Maine.  But I’m honoring it, the seeds of the moment that want attention.  And I can tell you this; I’m having a blast.  I’m on fire with excitement, delighted in the process of painting, delighted in the landscapes and flowers and Valentine hearts that show up on the paper. But, there is more to it.  I’m also on fire as I think about the other seeds, about the other possibilities, the ones that have been buried so deep in my marrow, the ones that want their chance, too, to rise up and nudge me into something new and alive, something expansive and fun and unexpected.  It’s that time of the year!  Here’s to the quivering seeds!  Here’s to February!



What is ready to unfurl its blossoms and bring you delight?  Watercolor by Helen Haskell Remien with addition of Colleen O’Hara’s butterfly



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