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Creative fire

What is the most compelling beautiful work I’m capable of creating at this point in my life?  Roderick MacIver

Creativity is conceived as a reproductive act with tangible result — a child, a book, a monument that has a life beyond the life of the producer.  Creativity, however, can be intangible in the form of a good life, or a beautiful act, or in other virtues of the soul such as freedom and openness, style and tact, humor, kindness.  James Hillman

What is the most compelling beautiful work that I am capable of creating at this point in my life?  During the lush and star-spangled and busy and crazily green-growing days of the first half of summer, I’ve held onto this question that Roderick MacIver poses, held on like a lifeline, like a Tarzan swing that I’m clutching with both my hands.  And, indeed, it is a two-handed hold that I have on this metaphoric swing.

In my one hand, I hold dear to the knowing that my greatest life work, my most compelling and beautiful creation is to live a life of presence, that the living itself is the greatest art that I could possibly manifest.  And what a month of living July has been!  Our son, daughter-in-law and three-year-old grandson have been visiting with my husband and me in Upper Michigan.  For the first two weeks of the month, a just-turning-three-year-old guy was my buddy, my first mate of household chores and Joy Center errands, and my hiking partner for several memorable excursions around the neighborhood and along the shores of Superior.  It was the dear art of living that Viren and I created on these summertime outings.  And one particular trek shines brightly as an afternoon I want to remember.  We called it our roots-and-rock-hike, and I said, “Be careful, this is a challenge!” and he said, “This is tricky!” and we both agreed that we were having a blast on this sunny sparkling seventy-degree day.  We parked at Wetmore Landing, followed the trail to the wide stretch of beach and to the path that traces the shoreline all the way to Little Presque Isle.  Viren wore a backpack; I carried lunch.  And it was the adventure that I am savoring now as I remember, the adventure that carried us along over the roots and the rocks and down a steep sandy root-ridden incline to our own private cove.  We were living a string of Huck Finn moments. The path was new to Viren, out of his box of routine activities, and out of my box as well.  I had let go of Joy Center responsibilities that day, let go of any possibility of a writing time, and off we had gone, carefree, letting freedom lead the way, letting the Lake and the rustling trees and the warmth of the sun beckon us forward.  And that sense of freedom, that sense of a stretched-out trail and a day spread out wide, it stays with a Grandma and her grandson for a long, long time and can be conjured up at a moment’s notice.

And after two full weeks of Viren play, I, the Huck Finn Grandma, said good-bye to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I set sail — air sail, that is — for a different sort of adventure.  I flew west laden with a suitcase filled with gifts from Michigan friends for Viren’s baby girl cousin soon to be born, flew west over the northern plains and the mighty Rockies.  And I eased down into the country of rolling wheat and lentil fields and majestic cedars and pine, and I spent a weekend there in the Panhandle of Idaho with our other son and our pregnant daughter-in-law, and this, too, was sweet music for a summertime soul.  The air was clear and dry, and their cottage home was inviting, and it felt real, the impending birth of a baby girl.  I placed my hands over my daughter-in-law’s belly and it felt like a prayer, the roll and the tumble inside, and I whispered, “I love you, Baby Girl!”  And I treasured the three days in Idaho, the dinners out at farm-to-table restaurants, the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning and the juicy peaches still warm and sweet with sunlight, the gentle hikes through the nearby forest, the coyote and the deer eating cherries dropped from the backyard tree.  And again there is a memory that I hold especially dear.  While our son, the dad-to-be, biked on mountain trails new to him, my daughter-in-law and I found a bench by a reservoir filled with blooming lilies and ripple-tiny waves, and we sat there for an hour with the breeze cooling us off and we spoke of grandparents, not of the current crop of grandparents, but of the grandparents we knew as kids.  I loved listening to my daughter-in-law’s stories, loved the expansiveness of that time on a summertime bench sprawled out and relaxing, an expansiveness that embraced these people who came before us, that brought them into the fold and made them real for my daughter-in-law and for myself, and for the baby girl who is about to be born.

And perhaps that is what I loved best in Maine, the next stop for this Huck Finn adventurer.  It was a triangular route I mapped out over the country, east from Idaho and south to Atlanta and north again to the rugged and rockbound coast of Maine, my home state, to a cottage that I had rented on the ocean just two miles from the land where I roamed as a girl.  And it’s not that I didn’t love the action in the present moment, the walk on the long stretch of state park beach with my friend and writing sister Muriel, the trek along the wide Androscoggin River with another friend Rebecca, a friend who I have known forever, the lobster dinner, the blueberry deserts, the gatherings with siblings and cousins, the overbites with niece, nephew and their baby, the boatride on the 1930’s Ruth with my husband Cam, and his mother from Michigan and her boyfriend from Maine.  This was all fabulous, this was all blueberry pie and salt air wonderful.

Yet, it was the rich bubbling up of the past that brings me such joy, that reminds me that life is even wider than the great Great Lake that is my dear companion in Upper Michigan, more expansive than the pure blue sky in Idaho that makes me want to soar with those western hawks, more mighty than the north Atlantic that makes my heart sing and my hair curl wild.  It was the connection with those no longer living in their bodies yet ever so present in the present that brought me to happy tears.  I felt them at the dinners and on the boat ride and when I peeked in the cottage windows of the now-vacant summer dwelling of my parents’ best friends.  And I especially felt this connection when my family congregated at the Maine Maritime Museum this past Sunday.  We siblings all just happened to be in Maine in a grand orchestration of perfect timing.  It was the opening of the “Lobstering the Maine Coast” exhibit and there he was, our father, one of the visionaries of the museum back in the 1960’s, once again hauling up his favorite trap in two photos on the wall — the hoop net, he called it — a round net that sunk to the ocean’s floor and collected all sorts of treasures that brought us to squeals.  And there it was, the red boat, the one I write about in essays and poems and stories, the one named after our grandmother, the Emma L, the boat that carried us to Wood Island and Spring Beach, the boat with the bow I straddled as a teen, gangly legs dangling into the splashing sea, the boat that served as lobster vessel for my father and later for my brother as well.  And thanks to my brother’s efforts, here it was now and forever preserved in a world- class maritime museum in our hometown, and here we were, the siblings, on the opening day, savoring it all.

That’s the kind of July it has been, a July so packed with gifts and places and people, with time stretched out wider than I could ever have imagined possible.  And how does a gal take this all in, absorb this expansiveness into her cells?  How does she push the save button on these experiences before swinging out over the sea of possibility and plopping down into the second half of summer?  It’s with a two-handed hold — at least it is for me.  I can’t move forward before breathing all of this into my bones in a blog or a poem or a story, without gluing the photos of the adventures shared with that beloved grandson of mine into a book made with my owns hands at a Joy Center Book Art event with him sitting on the stool next to me making his own book, without claiming the time for a pause and allowing the creative impulses of the moment to rise up.  And this creative work of integration is compelling to me, and beautiful to me, and as essential to the journey as the vibrant action moments.  It is the living and it is the making sense of the living that calls to me and it is all creative and all necessary if I’m going to swing myself forward.   And that’s what I am going to do right now on this first day of August.  I’m going to grab hold of that rope and fly out into this glorious sweet and sunny morning.

 

Viren selecting rocks; Lake Superior, July 2015

Viren selecting rocks; Lake Superior, July 2015

 

Diana, Moscow, Idaho, July 2015

Diana, Moscow, Idaho, July 2015

 

Moscow, Idaho; July 2015

Moscow, Idaho; July 2015

 

Fishing boat, Sebasco, Maine; July 2015

Fishing boat, Sebasco, Maine; July 2015

 

The Emma L., the boat of my childhood and one that my brother restored; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015

The Emma L., the boat of my childhood and one that my brother restored; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015

 

Photos of Daddy and his hoop net; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015

Photos of Daddy and his hoop net; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Islands of Sweet Secrets

quiet mind, i am divine — in this body of earth i carry the wild inside me    Marina Evans

We’re here to be blown away by the beauty of nature  Anne Lamott

My love for islands amounts to a pathological condition known as nesomania, an obsession with islands.  This craze seems reasonable to me, because islands are small self-contained worlds that can help us understand larger ones.  Paul Theroux

I come from people who love islands.  Casco Bay in Maine is dotted with them.  Mark Island and Ragged Island and Jenny where we celebrated Fourth of July each summer, Big Wood and Little Wood and Horse Island and Malaga, they all sat there in our piece of the Atlantic just waiting for us to explore them.  And explore them we did.  Our father led the way.  On weekend mornings in the summer when we we were kids, he woke up at dawn, hauled in the line to the turquoise skiff that would carry him out to the big red boat and he would set off in search of treasure.  And there is so much treasure to be found on islands!  There are flat smooth rocks, pink and perfectly-shaped for stepping stones down to the beach at the head of Fish House Cove.  There are small cedar trees to carry home in a bucket for the hedge out to the road.  There are beaches full of periwinkle shells and moon shells and flat delicate sand dollars to form into Dr Suess-like animals.  There are blueberries and cranberries and the sweetest of raspberries that just melt in your mouth.  And there is the sea itself that splashes the shores, gently on the island’s lee side and with high-flying spray on the island’s wild cliffs.

I loved our island summers, the Saturday picnics with sandwiches and deviled eggs and cookies and plums that our mother would spread out onto bleached pieces of driftwood, the hours spent scrounging for shiny rocks on the beach and baby crabs lodged in the cracks of the ledges under clumps of brown rock weed, the dips into the water as the tide poured in, the valiant excursions away from shore to see what lurked in the center of it all.  Our mother would haul out her watercolors and find the perfect spot to paint, our father would keep an eye on the boat, and we, the kids, would play our days away.

And perhaps it was the sweet memory of these island adventures of my youth that propelled me forward in my planning of the latest Mystery Trip.  Or perhaps it was the chocolate, handmade from the purest of ingredients and displayed with care on gorgeous pottery platters and served to us in abundant quantities at a workshop honoring our inner goddess just days before Valentine’s Day that got me thinking about islands and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  In any case, Greece was calling me this past winter as I, the Mystery Trip spouse in charge of this annual surprise my husband and I take turns giving to each other, googled the birthplace of this goddess who rose from the sea, fully-formed, exquisitely graceful and standing on a seashell.

And it was Kythera that I found, an island off the southeastern tip of Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula that is said to be the cradle of Aphrodite, an island described as being filled with sweet secrets and feasts of the soul.  And who doesn’t want to wash up on the shore of an island filled with sweet secrets, an island that is said to have beautiful hiking trails and green valleys and olive groves and small pine forests and hills of wild thyme and the best honey in all of Greece, an island of astonishing landscapes and waterfalls and springs bubbling up from the earth, of pristine beaches and mountain gorges, an island off the beaten path of touristy islands?!?  I could already taste the honey and feel the sea breeze long before my husband Cam and I set off on this adventure at the end of April.

Islands provide a playpen for our adventures.  The seas’ boundaries limit our exploration, and, somehow, the world within these limits seems more vivid and concentrated.  It was like that when we were kids.  Our island adventures were rich and sensory.  We tasted the salt and the sun on our skin and the raspberries were warm and sweet on our tongues and the scratches that streaked our legs from scrambling through the bushes stung when we waded into the salty sea.  And the water we waded into sparkled on its surface — and, underneath, when we pushed off and floated on our bellies, we saw the long green grasses swishing with the tide and watched as the the lobsters scuttled along the sandy bottom.

It was like that on Kythera for Cam and I, too.  Our eight day stay in the much bigger playpen than the ones of my youth was packed with sensual delights.  Our host at the family-run hotel, Pelagia Aphrodite, who spent the first twelve years of her life in Australia before her parents brought the family back to Kythera (the place of their ancestors) shared that there are so many choices in Australia, yet, in Kythera, where there are not as many, everything is concentrated with flavor.  And it was true.  The foods tasted as though they were prepared by the gods and the goddesses themselves.  And Cam and I, slipping easily into the slower pace of island life, lingered for hours over meals so fresh and tasty that it was like taking those ancient olive groves and that blue blue sky and that clearest of water, clearer than you could imagine, taking it all right into the very fiber of our beings.  How could a simple salad of ripe red tomatoes, thinnly-sliced onions, crispy cucumbers, and topped with a slab of feta, a few dark olives, a sprinkling of sea salt and herbs and a drizzling of that oil from the groves — how could it taste so heavenly?  Was it the smell of orange blossoms wafting in on an afternoon breeze or the cafe owners and servers who treated us as though we were family — and aren’t we all family on some level?!?  Was it the hiking for hours on ancient roads and trails with the sea always somewhere close by and a village to explore and a cove tucked around a corner and a beach just waiting for us to strip down and dip in that brought us to a place where we were willing to receive the gifts of the gods and the goddesses?!?

Islands build up our appetite — my mother always said it was the sea breeze that made us hungry.  And islands satiate that hunger too.  Late each evening on Kythera after one of those glorious meals, under a full moon, (And how was it that the moon just happened to be gloriously full and rising up from the sea during our stay on the island?!?) Cam and I would walk, arms linked and sea beside us, back to our fabulous home away from home.  I’m not sure I have ever felt so happy as I felt during those treks back each night, with the whole long day soaking into my cells.  And yet, when I remember my childhood island adventures, I feel happy, too.  After piling back into our boat, with treasures tucked in sweatshirt pockets, after the ride through the late afternoon chop back to Fish House Cove and our cottage home, these island adventures soaked into our cells, just as Kythera sings in Cam and I now.  I intend to savor the song!

 

Helen and Cam: Pelagia Aphrodite Hotel, Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Helen and Cam: Pelagia Aphrodite Hotel, Kythera, Greece, May 2015

 

On the throne of Aphrodite: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

On the throne of Aphrodite: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

 

Olive Grove: Kyhera, Greece, May 2015

Olive Grove: Kyhera, Greece, May 2015

 

Ancient Byzantine village: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Ancient Byzantine village: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

 

Figs: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Figs: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

 

The sea is everywhere! Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015

The sea is everywhere!
Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015

 

Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015

Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015

 

Avlemonas (fishing village): Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Avlemonas (fishing village): Kythera, Greece, May 2015

 

The clearest most beautiful water in the world! Kythera, Greece, May 2015

The clearest most beautiful water in the world!
Kythera, Greece, May 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

(Snail-mail letter from Joy Center mailing for March/April, 2015)

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Rainer Maria Rilke

I have found it, the holy grail.  Actually, it wasn’t me who found it.  It was my cousin Abby, a milliner who has lived in New York City for most of her adult life.  She discovered this golden chalice of information in the archives of New York City’s public library, right in the midst of Manhattan, this letter written by our grandfather in December of 1918.  It’s not like I haven’t seen letters written by him before — I’ve been on a Grandpa quest these past nine months, sifting through and soaking in a wealth of information left to me by my father (Abby’s mother’s twin and Grandpa’s son).  I’ve read published essays about my grandfather and by my grandfather, letters he wrote to his mother and to his sister from London and Paris, letters to art dealers, letters from other artists, and remembrances, too, by his friends and fellow artists after he died in a car accident in 1925.  And I’ve perused through the pile of art that I have inherited.  You see, that’s how I knew Grandpa, as an artist — internationally known during his lifetime and remembered for his etchings, engravings, pen-and-inks, lithographs and watercolors.  And these etchings and watercolors and theater posters adorned our walls when I was a little girl.  And the grandfather who created this art died more than thirty years before my birth when the twins were four.  And to us, his kids and his grandkids, he was more Famous-Artist-Myth than flesh and bone.

And that’s why I’ve been questing, to make Ernest Haskell, my grandfather, real for me.  And he was becoming real to me, this artist grandfather, before cousin Abby, two weeks ago on a Saturday morning while she and I sat in a booth eating breakfast in her Harlem neighborhood IHOP, handed me excerpts that she had copied from a letter she discovered in the public library archives.  During the autumn months of my quest into our family’s own archives, as I read the letters that Grandpa wrote home to his sister from New York and London and Paris, I found myself delighting in his exuberance and his humor and the determination he possessed to learn from the great artist masters during his lengthy period of self-study.  I found myself adventuring alongside him as he sailed the waters of Casco Bay near the salt-water farm that he owned and loved and handed down to us, his ancestors.  I found myself admiring his integrity and his ability to cave out for himself a handcrafted life on his own terms.  And, in late January, my husband Cam and I flew to California for a five-day trip tracing Grandpa’s trail to Sequoia National Park, to the very spot where Grandpa, one hundred-and-one-years ago, etched in copper plates the mighty Sequoias.  And then, we followed his path to the coast, to Big Sur and Monterey where he lived and created art among the windswept cypress.  Yes, his life and his art were already becoming real to me before this trip east to New York two weeks ago, to the city where he spent many of his winters, where he connected with other artists and art dealers and curators of art and the theater people he would immortalize in posters.

So what was it about this letter written by Grandpa in 1918 that made me fall head over heels in love with him?  (And was that what I’d wanted to do all along, not just to make him real, but to like him, to heart-open tears-in-my-eyes love him, not just as artist, but as person?!?)  It was less than a year since his wife had died in the 1918 flu epidemic and he was sole parent to two small children and he was hurting for money and writing to a friend with connections to patrons.  There was a vulnerability in this letter written by my grandfather, now an artist in his forties who had become well-known and acclaimed for the etchings that he had been creating for much of the last decade.  He was telling his friend that he had devoted himself to these etchings created in the tradition of Rembrandt, that he knew he had a gift, that a man’s eyes would only allow him to continue for a limited time, that he thought that fifty more etchings would complete his work in this medium.  He continued to say that he knew that etching wasn’t a popular art form of the time, that it was the era for the modernists, that he could make money doing portraits and oils, but that his heart was in etchings, that it was the gold that he possessed, the talent that was his, the treasure that he must manifest.

That’s when I knew I was in love with my grandfather.  He wasn’t seeking fame and fortune.  He wasn’t following popular trends of the time.  He wasn’t choosing the easy path of creating art that would sell.  He was listening to his own heart, and honoring his talent.  And I’m not sure whether he found the patrons that he was seeking.  I don’t think so.  We have never found evidence to indicate that he did.  But I’ll tell you this — in the next seven years, the years before his accident, he did complete an amazing collection of etchings, etchings that critics have felt are his finest pieces.  He did it!  He did what he had set out to do.  He did it while parenting those two children and marrying again and fathering the twins and living with integrity and guts and humor.  And the last lines of the letter are the ones that make me cry, the lines that bring the whole quest home for me.  He was telling his friend that he was not creating this art for the present moment; he was creating this art for future generations.  And oh my goodness, here I am, nearly one-hundred years later, reading the letter.  I am the future that he was creating for.  We all are.  And to me, it’s not just the art.  Though I’ll tell you, it is a treat to dive deep into these etchings.  It is something else, too.  It also is a treat to dive deep and to discover a mentor, a role model, a friend, someone who can hold your hand and cheer you on as you, too, listen to your own unique and precious callings.  I discovered that Ernest Haskell is indeed earnest, and is such a friend.

The Players Club, Gramercy Park, New York City: February 20, 2015 Ernest Haskell was a member, late 1800's/ early 1900's

The Players Club, Gramercy Park, New York City: February 20, 2015
(Ernest Haskell was a member, late 1800’s/ early 1900’s)

Cousin Abby at Player's Club, New York City: February 20, 2015

Cousin Abby at Player’s Club, New York City: February 20, 2015

Helen in Harlem: February 21, 2015

Helen in Harlem: February 21, 2015

The Puck Building, New York City: February 21, 2015  (Where Ernest Haskell did the printing of his art work)

The Puck Building, New York City: February 21, 2015 (Where Ernest Haskell’s lithographs were printed)

The Student Art League, New York City: February 21, 2015  (Ernest Haskell taught an etching class here during the winter of 1918)

The Student Art League, New York City: February 21, 2015
(Ernest Haskell taught an etching class here during the winter of 1918)

Finding Grandpa

Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.  Martin Luther King Jr.

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well.  A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.  Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’m on a Grandpa Quest!”  That’s what I told the young man at Wuksachi Lodge when he asked what called my husband Cam and I up to Sequoia National Park on this misty forty-degree Friday afternoon in late January.  That’s what I’ve been telling everybody.  The words ring true to me, though I’m not exactly sure what I’m questing for.  It started last summer, this quest of mine.  Or maybe the roots of this longing started way before, when I was a little girl and my Grandpa was the art that decorated our walls and the stories our family told about someone we called Grandpa Haskell who was famous in his day for these etchings and watercolors and theater posters that he had created, someone who had died tragically — the tragedy is what was emphasized — in a car accident at the height of his career thirty-one years before I was born when my father and his twin were four.  So what brought this quest to the forefront eight months ago?  What compelled me to make it a one-hundred day project last autumn, a daily dose from the archives of original letters and articles and sketches and remembrances of this grandfather who was more myth than human, more framed etching of a mighty tree than flesh and bone?

I know some things.  I know that it’s not healthy to hold someone, living or dead, as your family icon, someone you make larger than life, someone who overshadows the rest of you mere humans with your very human quirks and your own precious gifts.  I know that I didn’t want to live in my grandfather’s shadow anymore, and perhaps there were ways that I still was doing so, and that was one reason for my quest, to untether myself from his massive root system and to discover more fully my own connection with Source.  I wanted to see him as human, to get to know him as human.  I also wanted to get to know his art again.  I had stuck it in the closet and under the bed and into acid-free notebooks, the piles of etchings and watercolors that I had inherited.  That was my rebellion — and also perhaps a part of my growing up — for years, to hang on the walls of my adult home the art of my contemporaries, art that spoke to me, art that had nothing to do with my grandfather.  And during my one-hundred days of Grandpa this past autumn, I not only received a holy grail of information about his life, but also found myself transfixed with his art and his creative process.

So here I was in California over Super Bowl Weekend on the first day of an archeological-dig-of-a-road-trip with my husband who has also found himself drawn into the Grandpa Quest, visiting the places that Grandpa explored and etched and painted one hundred years ago.  Here I was on this misty Friday afternoon an hour before sunset in the heart of Sequoia National Park on the first hike of our two-day adventure in this land of the giant trees.  It was hard to see clearly these trees that surrounded us on this trail that wound its way up even higher in elevation than our lodge that sat at 7200 feet.  The mist was thick and pink-toned and moist and the air was pine-scented and patches of hard-packed snow clung to the forty-degree ground.  We were very much in the moment as we trudged up the trail, very much in the moment as we craned our necks skyward and gazed at the misty tips of these ghost-like trees.  And I’m sure that Grandpa was on our mind.  Had he hiked this very trail on his visit to the park in 1914?

I have an image of him, my grandpa, now that I’ve read through the archives.  I know that he was a big man, tall and fit, with a large head and hands.  I know from his own words, and from those who knew him both professionally as an artist and personally as a friend that he was exuberant, enthusiastic, that his voice boomed and bellowed and he laughed easily.  I know that he was generous with other artists, and strived for excellence with his own artistic pursuits, that creating art was a lifelong passion, as was his sense of adventure, that he studied the masters in Paris for extensive periods of time, and traveled this country by train and Model-T, that he loved his property in Maine, the farmhouse, the barn with cow, the gardens and forest and the sea.  I know that he loved the sea, and I know that he loved this land too, California, with its wide expanse of possibility, with San Francisco that stole his heart the summer he attended the World’s Fair, and Monterey and Big Sur, with the rolling hills and the mountains and this west coast ocean and these trees.  I know that he loved these trees.

You can have an image of someone, a grandpa, for instance, and still not feel like you know him at his essence.  I think it’s harder to know someone after he is no longer living in his body if you never knew him when he was present in that same body.  Sometimes I feel my mother’s presence, and I am warm inside.  I know its her.  I know her touch and her smile, know what it is like to be in her midst.  The same is true for my father — or countless others who have been near and dear to me in this lifetime and have made their transition back to nonphysical.  So I count what happened next on the trail as a real gift, one that I want to etch into my mind the way that Grandpa etched these trees into his copper plates.  I wasn’t trying to make anything happen.  I was simply trudging up the mountain and gazing off into the misty forest, over at a faint foggy sketch of a tree, and that’s where he appeared to me, not a concrete-material vision with my body’s eyes, but in my mind’s eye as clear as a sunny day.  He walked right out of the foggy space where that tree was standing.  It felt like something different than imagination.  I could see him in my mind’s eye wearing khaki pants, a wool shirt, his leather boots.  I could hear his booming buoyant voice.  And he bound with a vigor right over to the trail, this grandpa I had never known, and he joined us for the rest of that first-day hike.  It sounds corny, I know.  But I don’t care because I viscerally felt his essence that afternoon and I liked the Grandpa who I met.

And then the next morning, the sun rose over the Sierras and the air was crisp and high-altitude clear and that mind’s eye image of Grandpa as man in khakis walking beside me was no longer in sharp focus.  It was Cam and I at breakfast at the lodge and Cam and I playing among the mighty ones, those giant Sequoias that Grandpa had etched during the summer of 1914, and Cam and I climbing to the top of Moro Rock and Cam and I traversing the side of a mountain on the High Sierra Trail in the late afternoon sunshine with a view of snow-capped Mt. Whitney in the distance.  And sure, we thought of Grandpa, found the exact angle that he had etched the giant of the giants, the General Sherman tree that I knew so well from the etching-print that hung in my childhood home.  And we wondered whether Grandpa, too, had climbed the knife-edge of Moro Rock, had explored the Crescent Meadow with its moss-covered trees, had hiked on this glorious trail that overlooked the high mountains.  And where had he stayed in this national park that was new and even less developed one hundred years ago?  We wondered these things as we played in the park, as we created our own present-day experience.  And the next day, when we drove southwest on the windy roads back down to the coast, Grandpa was still very much on our minds.  How could he not be when we were looking out at hillside after hillside dotted with California oak trees, snapshot images that could have been lifted right out of one of his west coast etchings?

All weekend long, our present-day plan was splashed with these Grandpa wonderings.  As we traced the Pacific coastline from Cambria through Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz back up to San Francisco, with the mighty Pacific crashing into beaches and cliffs in great splashing waves, as we looked out at some of the most stunning scenery we’d ever seen, at five dolphins playing by a cove, at hundreds of sea lions fishing in the waters off a beach, at a sea otter floating on its back, at Cypress trees leaning windswept toward that blue blue sea, we could understand why Grandpa had fallen in love with this part of California in the summer of 1914, had returned the next year, and again a few years later for an extended period of time with his two small children after his beloved first wife had died in the flu epidemic of 1918.  It didn’t matter that he hadn’t shown himself again in that clear wool-shirted way that had been such a gift during our first misty walk among the spruce trees and pines.  We, my husband and I, were having a blast.  And isn’t that what a grandpa wants for his grandkids?  We were appreciating what he had once appreciated one hundred years earlier.  We were looking though our own artist’s eyes while, at the same time — I would venture to say — also seeing the world through his.

And that clear wool-shirted Grandpa who hiked with Cam and I through the pink-misted dusk that first day of our adventure, I can close my eyes and conjure him up.  I know him now in a way I didn’t before.  And the evening that we returned home from San Francisco, we hauled out the notebooks filled with etchings, the piles that are still sitting on the floor, and we sifted through them all and we gasped.  The cypress we saw along the windswept coast — we were sure that they were the same trees that Grandpa had painted and etched so long ago.  And a California etching that had meant so little to us before — just another western hillside — was titled Moro Rock.  He had been right there, one hundred-and-one years ago in the exact spot where Cam and I began our climb up this knife-edged mini-mountain just a few days earlier and he had documented it in a way that now so many years later is bringing us pleasure. In fact, all of his west coast etchings, the ones in my possession, seemed more alive to us, more pleasurable to examine.

And then, as we climbed into bed, jet-lagged and happy, I read to Cam from Grandpa’s oldest daughter’s journal.  I had perused these pages scrawled in her backward-slanted penmanship many times before, but, now, they, too, took on new meaning.  She had been four the summer that they traveled by train from the east coast to San Francisco, had been a part of this adventure to the thrumming big city, and then south, to Monterey and the glorious coastline.  I knew that.  I also knew that she mentions in her writings a camping trip to Yosemite, and an encounter with a mountain lion who runs off with their ham.  But what I read next aloud to Cam that night sent thrill bumps up my spine.  It wasn’t Yosemite after all.  She just had stuck the wrong label on the right place.  Our place.  She describes the camp site that the mountain lion visits as being close to General Sherman — not a part of Yosemite after all, but a highpoint in Sequoia National Park.  They had camped within walking distance to the lodge where Cam and I had stayed.  And the mountain lion story, one of the childhood myths I knew about Grandpa, has now become real to me.  I have a vivid image of where that tent was pitched and where the lion emerged from the woods.  This all makes me feel happy inside.  This all makes me feel as though I have, not just an inheritance of etchings and a family myth of someone who once was famous, but  a grandpa, a grandpa who I’m getting to know and love.

 

Out of the Mist: Sequoia National Park, January 30, 2015

Out of the Mist: Sequoia National Park, January 30, 2015

 

General Sherman:  Ernest Haskell, 1915

General Sherman: Ernest Haskell, 1914

 

Helen Haskell Remien and General Sherman:  Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015

Helen Haskell Remien and General Sherman: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015

 

Sequoia National Park: January 31, 2015

Sequoia National Park: January 31, 2015

 

High Sierra Trail: Sequoia National Park; January 31, 2015

High Sierra Trail: Sequoia National Park; January 31, 2015

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, 1914

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, 1914

 

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015

 

By Big Sur, California; February 1, 2015

By Big Sur, California; February 1, 2015

 

Windbent Cypress: Ernest Haskel, circa l 1918 -- 1919

Windbent Cypress: MontereyErnest Haskel, circa l 1918 — 1919

 

Watercolor of Cypress Trees: Monterey, California; Ernest Haskell

Watercolor of Cypress Trees: Monterey, California; Ernest Haskell

 

Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 1, 2015

Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 2, 2015

 

Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 1, 2015

Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 2, 2015

 

 

 

Living in my own unfolding novel

She had a strange sense of time tucking inside itself, folding, dovetailing with minute precision.  Mair Ellis, character in Rosie Thomas’ novel, The Kashmir Shawl

Something emerges within you that is deeper than you thought you were.  Eckhart Tolle

I tucked myself in each night with a novel, a multi-layered story that swept through time and place and drew me into its pages with a delicious sense of intensity.  As I allowed the novel to carry me across the sea to Wales and then onto India, a part of me also stayed grounded right where I was, on this side of the Atlantic with the waves whooshing in and out again against the rocky coastline that hugged this cottage’s hedge of  lilies and freshly-mowed lawn.  And each night, before settling into my cozy bed and my good read, I opened the door to the deck and let the breeze blow in — I couldn’t get enough of it, the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves and this novel that I was hungrily devouring.

It was both an exotic treat and a habit, familiar from long ago, this nighttime ritual I followed while staying for a week at the cottage in mid-coastal Maine this past summer.  It is a short drive from this 1950’s-built Saltbox rental property, a mere two-and-a-half miles by car or foot to the land that my grandfather bought back in 1906, the land that included the farmhouse my cousin still calls home, and the spruce and balsam forest with its mossy ledges and the two coves and the point of land between and the cottage that sat at the head of one of those coves where I spent my childhood summers.  Tracing the shoreline by boat, past cottages and through the inlet called the Carrying Place and around the tip of Cap Point, its an even faster jaunt, the trail that links my present-day week of July evenings spent nestled under quilts reading a novel to my childhood summers at Fish House Cove.

Was it the sea breeze and the cozy bedtime ritual, familiar from childhood, or the deliciousness of immersing myself into the story that called to me each night?  I truly can’t say because it was all woven together into a transfixing whole.  It was only a few pages into the novel when I discovered that although the main character was Welsh and her ancestors’ stories were far different than the stories of my ancestors, there were similarities in the present moment where we, the protagonist and I, found ourselves.  The novel begins shortly after the protagonist’s fathers’ death with a bittersweet scene taking place at her childhood farmhouse in rural Wales, on land that has been in the family for generations, with the protagonist and her two siblings dividing up the property’s treasures as they prepare to sell the land to a local sheep herder.  I know what this is like, to gather with siblings and divide up possessions and let go of a piece of property that you have held dear forever.

And it was what happened next in this novel that sent shivers of excitement up my spine.  The protagonist finds, tucked in the bottom of her mother’s bureau, a shawl, an antique carefully-woven Kashmir shawl, and a lock of dark hair and an old black and white photo of three young women looking directly into the camera and laughing.  She is certain that her mother’s mother is one of the women in the photo and the Kashmir shawl must have been hers, too, from the time that she spent as a missionary’s wife in India in the years before the Second World War.  Thus begins the protagonist’s quest, a journey to find out the shawl’s story and to learn about this grandmother who she never knew that takes her to the high mountains and hill towns of northern India, a journey that mingles past and preset for the protagonist and for us the readers.  The grandmother’s-young-woman-story is presented in vivid details, weaving in and out of the protagonist granddaughter’s quest and creating a gorgeous panoramic view that seems to transcend time and space.

I closed the book each night with the taste of India on my tongue and a genuine love for these characters and a curiosity about how it was all going to unfold.  And then, as I turned out the light, there was the screen door rattling and the breeze and the damp smell of ocean and the weight of thick blankets, and then there was a faint sound of a bell-buoy and I was home again in this cottage that felt like home, drifting off to sleep and thinking to myself, “I’m living in my own unfolding novel!”

You see, past and present were mingling for me, too, not just because my childhood home was a few miles away, or because I found my adolescent wings while working at an inn a stone’s throw from this Saltbox gem, not just because it had almost seemed magical, too unbelievable and easy for the pages of a novel, the way that this cottage rental had found its way to me through three friendly strangers met over brunch at the local cafe.  There was more.   There were the family’s back stories, the ones lived out before my memories of family picnics and boat rides and and hikes along juniper-lined paths, stories as compelling to me as the ones that my novel’s protagonist and I were uncovering each night.  There was my grandfather, well-known artist who bought the family land, who lived and etched and painted in this town until he died in a car accident in 1925, grandfather more myth than real, until now, that is, when he was taking up whole chapters in my “novel”, the one that I found myself living in July.

It started a month earlier at my high school reunion, when a friend I hadn’t seen in forty years, an artist- historian-architect, took an interest in my grandfather, and my friend’s curiosities and his searchings were bringing my grandfather alive for him and for me, too.  I began to see my grandfather all fleshed-out, tall and rugged and at the helm of his sailboat or paddling his canoe with his artist tools in his leather suitcase protected somehow from the elements, heading out to an island to etch for the day, maybe to Ragged Island, the one that I could see, a month later, from my rental cottage’s deck.  In chapter’s woven between my present-day gatherings with siblings and cousins and jaunts to the beach during that week in Maine, my grandfather lived in the pages of my imagination’s novel, as did his two wives, the first who died in the 1918, and the second, my grandmother, as did his children, too.

We knew things as readers that the protagonist of my nighttime novel never knew, rich details of her grandmother’s bold and adventurous years as a young woman in India.  And that was okay.  The protagonist solved some mysteries, felt the love and the connection that was there, held dear to the stories that did come her way, and tied tender bows around those parts of the past that have counterparts in the present.  I am doing the same.

The Falka: etching by Ernest Haskell

The Falka: etching by Ernest Haskell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magic in the Moonlight

Life’s enchanted cup sparkles near the brim.  Lord Byron

Enter the enchanted woods, You who dare.  George Meredith

It felt magical, that walk home around the block from Joy Center last Thursday evening.  The air was balmy and the moon, filtered by a thin layer of clouds, lent a warm glow to the trees and to the road and to the sky above me.  And as I looked up, I wasn’t certain what I was seeing.  Was it clouds that were dancing across the nighttime sky or was it something else radiating out in wispy pinwheel patterns — the northern lights, perhaps?  And what was that sound that I was hearing carried in on the slight breeze?  It was a howling sound, I was sure — coyotes howling at the moon and the pin-wheel dancing sky.  And my heart, it was a happy open-hearted song it was singing and I felt in love with it all, the howling coyotes, the dancing sky, the air I was breathing.  I felt in love with life, rapturously in love with life, and with chocolate, too.  Yes, I felt in love with chocolate too.  Not just any chocolate.  Pure organic fair-trade chocolate, in roasted beans offered in a pottery bowl, and in a steaming blend of water, cocoa powder, and cayenne pepper served in handmade mugs, and in concoction after concoction of chocolate nibs and cocoa blended with spices and honey and coconut in exotic variations.  I was filled with chocolate as I walked that short magical route from Joy Center to home.

And was it the chocolate that made me feel so good, so open, so appreciative of life?  Adonna, our professor/facilitator and magician-extraordinaire of chocolate concoctions at the evening’s Chocolate as Medicine workshop had told us that, along with the antioxidants and the long list of healing properties, chocolate was filled with endorphins and I certainly was filled with rich dark pure chocolate.  So maybe it was the chocolate.  Maybe I was on a chocolate high.  Whatever it was, it stayed with me through my short night of sleep and onto the plane in the wee hours of the next morning as my husband Cam and I flew west to Boulder, Colorado for a four-day adventure celebrating our 37th wedding anniversary.  And Boulder is 5000 feet above sea level and the air is clear and sweet and the trails we hiked on each day took us through juniper and pine-scented forests and even higher into that clear thin air, and is that why the good-feeling stayed with me?  Did the altitude take over when the chocolate wore off?  Was it a Rocky Mountain High causing my euphoria?  Was that the reason I was in love with my beating-in-my-ears heart and my huff huff huffing breath and my limber legs and my sturdy big feet that stepped from Rocky Mountain rock to Rocky Mountain rock?  Was that the reason that I loved the blindingly blue sky and those snowcapped peaks more than words could ever say, why I loved that guy, too, the guy I call “my guy” who was hiking right in front of me?  Was it the altitude that had my heart all a’flutter and my head filled with euphoria?

And I wonder about the Boulder evenings too.   After our days of hiking, sun-soaked and fresh-filled with mountain air, my guy and I would head downtown, to Boulder’s pedestrian-only tree and sculpture-lined Pearl Street where the people promenade and the buskers perform their magic acts and the kids climb the rocks and scamper through the shooting-from-the-ground fountain.  And it was here, in the midst of this hustle, that the five young men and women would take out their string instruments and in front of some store would begin to play.  It was as good as chocolate.  It was as uplifting as the upward thrust up those mountain trails.  This music that washed through me in a glorious buoyant wave, swept me to a place where once again I was in love with it all:  the yogi on the other side of the rock sculpture garden twisting himself into a pretzel and squeezing himself into a tiny box, in love with the scampering kids, the lovers walking hand in hand, the guy with the cardboard sign asking for money, the crowds of people, the full moon rising up above that sweeping sound.  I’ve heard that violin music has the power to open your heart, and the full moon certainly can pull at the inner tides — and is that why I felt so good sitting on a bench on Pearl Street at the end of each day?

And who cares if it’s a chocolate high or a bout of euphoria induced by the thin air in the Rockies?  Who cares if it’s the outward gift of a string quintet or the full-rising moon?  Who cares what it is that sets are spirits flying ?!?  Aren’t we supposed to feel good?  Aren’t we supposed to sing with the coyotes and lift our eyes up to those pin-wheel spinning clouds and to the moon that is super full on a Saturday night?  Aren’t we supposed to fill ourselves up with wonder, with pleasure, with rich-tasting high-in-antioxidant treats?!?  Cam and I scrambled up the last hundred feet of jumbled rock to Lily Mountain’s ten-thousand-foot-summit, to its tiny cramped spectacular summit with its 360 degree view of snow-capped mountains and green valleys and the whole of Rocky Mountain National Park.  And as we sat there on that cramped summit, eating our lunch, admiring the view, our eyes caught something in the air, hovering in the wind, something unexpected and unbelievable.   It was a hummingbird fluttering in front of us, no flower in sight, no logical reason to be there.  The Native Americans believe that the hummingbird is a sign of happiness, an invitation to open to pleasure.  I’m glad to remember this gift that flew into our summit moment.  I’m glad to accept its invitation.  Pleasure is here for us in our foods, our music, in the very air that we breathe

 

Chautauqua Park, Boulder, Colorado: August 2014

Chautauqua Park, Boulder, Colorado: August 2014

 

InTune String Ensemble: Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado, August 2014

InTune String Ensemble: Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado, August 2014

Rocky Mountain High: Celebrating Our Anniversary, Rocky Mountain National Park, August 2014

Rocky Mountain High:
Celebrating Our Anniversary, Rocky Mountain National Park, August 2014

Fireworks

The perfect creative stance is satisfaction where I am and eagerness for more.  Abraham-Hicks

It was the weekend after Fourth of July, a Saturday evening, and the sun had just dipped over the horizon as the plane sped down the runway in Minneapolis, on this, the third leg of my travel adventure to Moscow, Idaho.  And then, just like that, the plane was airborne, its nose pointing skyward before leveling off on this perfectly-clear night and offering us, the packed-in passengers, a wide-angled view of the Twin Cities, the Mississippi, and something else, something wonderfully unexpected . . . Fireworks!!!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune!  A week earlier, my husband Cam and I had joined our son, daughter-in-law and two-year-old grandson Viren at dusk on a grassy field for our local display of fireworks, and the two of us, who hadn’t witnessed Fourth of July fireworks in years, oohed and ahhed and traced the bursting and blossoming fountains of sky-shooting color with our fingers with as much delight as our toddler grandson.  And now here they were again, first flower-shaped and large — and then we were above them and I was looking down at bursts of color and then they were gone and we were on our way.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  As we, in our Boeing 737, sailed westward through the nighttime sky among the stars and a full round moon, the country below us remained clear of clouds, and each time that we passed a town of twinkling lights, in North Dakota and all through Montana and into northern Idaho, there they were, the tiny bonfire bursts, more and more and more of them — the country lit up with post-Fourth of July fun.  Just when I thought that it must be over, that there couldn’t possibly be more, it would happen again, the sudden explosion of light, tiny now, but big enough to make me happy.  It was nearly midnight when we landed in Spokane, Washington, too late for the boom boom boom of fireworks, but not too late for another display of wonder.  As I waited for my motel shuttle outside the Spokane Airport, I looked up into the warm summery sky and there it was, suspended in front of me, that full moon that also had followed me across the country, the biggest and roundest moon I’d ever seen, something else to ooh and ahh at, something else to appreciate

Grandson Viren doesn’t quite get it yet, that there is a full moon to admire when the fireworks are over, that a good night’s sleep after witnessing that full moon is like gold in our pockets, that the sunrise the next morning can fill a person with wonder.  He dives into his present moments with gusto.  A trip to the park is heaven on earth to Viren — the curvy slide and the fast straight one, the toddler swings and the swings made for bigger bottoms, the kid-sized dragon with the friendly eyes that rocks each time you climb on its back, the metal bars that are perfect for dangling.  Why would a guy who has just turned two want to go anywhere else?!?

During the week that I spent in Idaho this past month, as Viren’s parents took possession of their new home, as Viren’s aunt and uncle — our other son and daughter-in-law — drove into town and moved into their rental cottage, it was my “job” to hang out with the little guy.  And we had a blast, Viren and I, not only at that park with the rocking dragon, but downtown, dipping our feet, then our legs on the hot hot afternoons into the icy cold fountain at the town’s center square, and on a hike at Moscow Mountain picking thimbleberries and collecting feathers and stones, in the toy store playing with the well-equipped train set, at the Food Co-op eating scrambled eggs and slurping on the smoothie called “monkey”.   We had a blast, until it was time to go, time for the next thing to emerge.  Sometimes it worked to explain to Viren that we’d be back again and that it was going to be fun, this next adventure that we were pointing our noses toward.  Sometimes we’d just wave our goodbyes and call out in our sing-song voices, “See you later, alligator!”  And sometimes we wouldn’t.  Sometimes there was flailing, and crying, and full-out refusals to budge.  Sometimes it just wasn’t easy moving forward to the next display of fireworks.

And I get it, this not wanting a good thing to be over.  At the end of the eight days in Moscow, Idaho, I said my goodbyes to our sons and their wives and that beloved grandson of ours and I headed back through the Palouse Valley to the airport in Spokane to take off on the next leg of my adventure.  I didn’t flail and I didn’t cry and I didn’t throw myself down in a refusal to budge.  I kept on driving through those ambers waves of grain, but, as I moved forward, I could feel it, an inner resistance, maybe similar to the resistance that Viren feels.  Why would a gal want to be anywhere else but here in the northwest with her family?  I called husband Cam, who had flown home to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula the day before.  “We need to buy a cottage in Moscow!”  I exclaimed into the phone.  And I meant it.  And someday we probably will.  But as the day moved forward, I did as well.  I got on that plane from Spokane to Salt Lake, and the next one to Atlanta, and, finally, as the sun was setting over Georgia, onto the third plane that headed back north up the coast to Portland, Maine, and, in the wee hours of the morning, I climbed into another rental car and traced the coast northward to the peninsula I’ve known my whole life, to a cottage that was mine for the week just two miles from our family land.

And what a week it was!!!  The ocean was at my doorstep and the salt breeze blew in through open windows and I read a whole novel and I wrote with my friend Muriel and we swam in the river and I waded each day in the waves at the state park beach.  I ate dinners on the deck of the cottage with friends and family and we watched the changing sky and the sea birds and the boats bobbing on their moorings. And at the end of the week, Cam joined me and that was sweet sweet time too and my siblings came to town and we shared raucous meals and we laughed and the sea entered my bones and I relaxed in the way that I only relax when I’m by the sea in Maine.  And why would I ever want this to end?!?  When Cam and I closed the door to the cottage that last time and headed toward the airport, I could feel it again, the resistance to what’s next.  How could it possibly be as good?!?  How could there be another display of fireworks?!?

And now I’m home again, and yesterday, the air was sweet, the way it can only be sweet in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, smelling of ferns and pine and the fresh fresh lake.  In the afternoon, Cam and I hiked the shoreline of Lake Superior from Wetmore Landing to Little Presque Isle under the tall red pines and on the sandy beach.  Cam dozed on a smooth bed of rock and I waded in the waves that were slapping the shore.  And, as I looked up into one of those pines that rise above the beach, an eagle lifted off and flew above me and I felt it, the ooh, the ahh.  There it was, something else to appreciate.  The fireworks just keep on coming!

 

Hanging out in downtown Moscow; some of the family, July 2014

Hanging out in downtown Moscow, Idaho; some of the family, July 2014

 

Maine Cottage, July 2014

Maine Cottage, July 2014

 

Little Presque Isle: Marquette, Michigan, Early August

Little Presque Isle: Marquette, Michigan, Early August, 2014

 

 

 

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