Touch The Arc

A painting I did twenty years ago of my dad.

Years ago I started a portrait of my dad (we call him Columbus) emerging from – or returning to – a cornfield. At the time it seemed an odd painting, something more elemental than intellectual. Something I had to paint though I didn’t really know why. I thought I’d left portrait painting far behind. Columbus is from a very small town in Iowa so the necessity of the cornfield made some small sense. He yearned to live in the town of his birth and although life took him other places he maintained a deep heart-root to Monticello. For Columbus, Monticello, Iowa was and always will be home.

After laying it out, after applying the under painting, the portrait felt complete – or I felt complete. So, I stopped. I have carried it with me all of these years.

These days, dementia has its slippery tentacles around Columbus. He is a mighty combatant in this tug of war, a war that he cannot win, and feeling his strength waning, his single wish was to one last time visit Monticello. So, this past week, Kerri, my mother, and I – as Kerri likes to say – followed Columbus’ heart around Monticello.

His heart took him three places. The first was to the cemetery. It is the place he will finally rest with his brother, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends. He wanted to wander. We followed him as he touched stones and told stories – stories he told to us but for himself: a friend who died too young in a car crash, a kind scoutmaster and mentor, an old girlfriend, a high school pal who flew an airplane and their adventures landing in cornfields. We followed, listening, renewed to the deeper truth that the stories we tell of others, the stories of shared time and experiences, both comic and tragic, when combined, scribe the arc of our own lives. Columbus needed to go to the end place to scribe his arc, to touch the depth and arc of his experiences.

The second place was the house that his grandpa Charlie built. It was the place of his childhood, the place of his greatest freedom, the place where all his stories begin and, now I know, where they return. This house is the cornfield. It is, for Columbus, the font of family and the source of his ideals. It is the symbol of his pride. This small house, with no electricity or running water, no indoor plumbing, this house that was pieced together with found material, smacked together with a handsaw and a hammer, an evolution, this house is Columbus’ holy ground. It still stands, just barely. And although now a storage shed for someone, it holds riches beyond words or measure. Columbus needed to stand in the source of his belief.

Finally, we followed his heart to visit his aunt JoAnne. She is only two years his senior but his aunt never-the-less. She is the last living person to know him through the entire passage of his life. She is his connective tissue, the one capable of affirming that it all happened, that the house and the people in it were exactly as he remembers, that this life, although only a minute long, is bottomless in the love that they share. They are the burning point of family, the front line. When we left her, Columbus and JoAnne hugged and cried, saying to each other but not for a moment believing it, “I’ll see you again.”

Stories told at the end place. Stories told from the beginning place. Stories told that connect the places. Columbus counts himself a lucky man. He knows with absolute certainty the trinity of places that hold his life/story. Sitting on the porch he (once again) taught me that stories – lives – are like a river and the flow transcends a single life. He just taught me that the story, a good life, like the painting, is never really complete.

 

Let Life Come Through

a sketch: Dancing At Crab Meadow

a sketch: Dancing At Crab Meadow

Kerri works on her “un-cantata.” She plays a short section from a piece and it captures my attention. I put down my pencil, close my eyes, and listen. I am inking a cartoon, preparing a proposal. It is mechanical work, rote. I have learned to use this stage of the process as a kind of pay-attention-exercise. It is only tedious if I slip into the illusion that I’ve drawn this line before; I have not, just as I have not lived this moment before.

Artistry is often like laying bricks. Repetition is rarely sexy but beautiful creations come from it. I know that in my repetition I am “putting the lines in my body,” building muscle memory.

I have not heard Kerri play this piece and I find myself savoring it. I love it when she plays. The first time she played for me I was stunned into silence. “Something came through you,” I tell her. “It was enormous.” I often tell her the story of the first time I heard her play. I tell her the story so she will play more. I tell her because I know that music wants to come through her like images want to come through me. “You have to go to the piano,” I say. “Let it come through you.” She responds, “Let’s take a walk.” And we walk. Life comes through.

Neither of us spends as much time in the studio as we ought. Our walks, however, are extraordinary.

We went to a funeral on Saturday. We will attend another funeral tomorrow. There have been many, many in the past few years. I suspect that we are of the age that funerals become common. I have been paying attention to the eulogies with some fascination. They have become life-giving or at least revealing of what actually gives life (and what does not). In the many eulogies I’ve heard, the lives recounted, I’ve yet to hear about the big house, the luxury car that was bought, the clothes or jewelry that the deceased strove to possess. I never hear about the accumulations, the stuff or achievements. I hear warm stories of relationship. I hear of family dinners, trips to the lake, walks in the woods, laughter and lessons. I hear stories of life’s repetitions, the holiday feasts, the coffee sitting, the small moments, the messy moments that amount to time spent together. The walks.

Life comes through.

Know Your Stuff

my latest and the first of a new series. Held In Grace: Rest Now

my latest: Held In Grace: Rest Now

This a note of gratitude. Unashamed and unabashed.

Yesterday was our third annual trip to Cedarburg for Winterfest. It is one of my favorite adventures of the year with some of my favorite people. The temperatures were unseasonably warm, in the 50’s, so there was no snow and the river ran freely. The ice sculptors lining the streets tried to carve but soon abandoned their too-rapidly-melting blocks of ice. I stood with my back to a brick wall and drank in the sun.

Like the rest of the crowd, we wandered in and out of the many boutiques and shops, ate brats, sipped coffee, watched the sweet -small-town-parade and cheered at the bed races, an event that usually takes place on the frozen river but this day was held on a side street. The team with the best wheels won.

The shops, like shops in every town dependent on tourism, are chocked full of trinkets, greeting cards, clothes, and tchotchkes galore. Some of the shops are so stuffed with stuff that shoppers routinely flee to the streets to avoid imminent suffocation. I am generally crowd-averse so I hovered near the door and watched the games that emerged when the rules of personal space also fled to the streets. I delighted in the dance of strangers-in-too-tight-aisles bumping bellies, stepping on toes, laughing and blushing at unintentional nose touches and unfortunate hand placements.

In one of the shops I found displayed among the stuff a book entitled, Less Stuff, More Life by Amy Maryon. Ironies abound! I laughed heartily and was surprised when I found the same book in the very next shop we entered. So, I made a game of finding how many shops stuffed with stuff carried the book about collecting less stuff. The count: I found it in every shop we entered with the single exception of the antique store. It’s okay to load up on old stuff.

Each time I found the book I assigned it as a trigger for me to turn and appreciate the amazing people sharing the day with me: Dan and Gay, Sandy, Noelle, Daena, Jay and Charlie. Kerri above all. I also made it a game of giving gratitude for the riches of my life: 20, Linda and Jim, Russ and Mary Kay, Marilyn, Arnie, my Jims, …I could go on and on. I am the recipient of infinite kindness and support, love and friendship. This is the stuff of my life – as it is the stuff of life for us all. I suspect (the author) message is that the stuff in our closets obscures the real stuff of life. The shoes and houses and dish towels are not in themselves negative, they are, in fact, nothing at all. They are stuff. And, in the midst of the stuff, if we can see the forest through the trees, is our family and friends and community. There are people in our lives that we will never meet who make it all richer, better (for instance, I’d like to hug the human that first made a cup of coffee). They are the people we read about in the newspaper who donate time to make playgrounds, volunteer at the library or to man the local firehouse. There is the woman in the shop in Cedarburg that prays that we will buy something so she can pay her mortgage and feed her children.

 

Reach Through Time

TODAY’S FEATURED PRINT FOR HUMANS

Reach Through Time

FOR TODAY’S FEATURED PRINT FOR HUMANS, GO HERE.

Return To Center

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 5.16.04 PMMy sister posted some photos and a video of our father dressed as Santa Claus. He was playing the role for her grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. The photo made me smile and the moving images took my breath away. When he came in dressed as Santa he was mostly silent; his voice would have betrayed his true identity. His Santa was gentle and kind. Like every good Santa Claus, he took his cues from the children.

I did not have children, though, recently, there came into my life two amazing twenty-something adults, Kerri’s children, and I am learning the ins-and-outs of the role of parent. It is a complex and rich affair! On Christmas Eve, Kerri and I were up until 5am wrapping packages and hiding gifts for a treasure hunt (the wrapped boxes held clues and the gifts were hidden around the house). It was a riot of fun and gave me some small taste of what being a father must feel like. All night as I wrapped and concocted clues I thought of my dad: what must he feel in a room with his children’s children’s children? If my excitement for the giving of gifts on Christmas morning – also a new experience for me – is any measure, his heart must have been near to exploding as he pulled gifts from a red bag and handed them to his daughter’s daughter’s daughter.

During this season I’ve participated in many conversations about the loss of meaning in this holiday. As P-Tom said, this is the season that everyone seems to be telling us what we need and where we can go and buy it. And, there’s no denying that the commercial has generally overtaken the communal. Yet, when I watched the video of my dad, I knew that his great-grandchildren would someday tell the story of how once, long ago, their great-grandpa played Santa for them. On that day they would not remember what was in the presents he brought, only that he brought them. As I watched the video of my dad, I knew the essential thing was intact, the commerce had not touched the center: family.

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Touch The Past

The journal/record Isabelle kept of the fever that killed Johnny.

The journal/record Isabelle kept of the fever that killed Johnny.

I’ve been posting updates to pledgers for my play, The Lost Boy, through the Kickstarter campaign. I’ve been using images of the artifacts – Johnny Quiggle’s possessions – found in the trunk. Jim, the chief Chili Boy, has been doing archival and art shots of the artifacts. The images have served to make a vital point about the play: this story happened. This little boy died. The story that unfolded for me moved both forward and backwards in time. And, while receiving it from Tom, I realized that it was also my story, and your story. It’s universal and, therefore, worthy to tell. My latest update generated much feedback so I’m sharing it here, too:

Jim has completed shooting archive and detail photos of the contents of Johnny’s trunk. This journal was the last thing Isabelle put in the trunk before she closed it in 1885 and secretly sealed it into the walls. Tom told me that this journal told him more about Isabelle than any other object in the trunk. In her record of the fever, he could read her worry, her despair, her fears, a few days of hope, and then the devastation at losing her son. This play is more than a good story well told; it is one of the ways Isabelle reached through time, through Tom, and into me to tell a story that is relevant to all of us.

Thank you for everything you have done to bring this play to life. It is your encouragement and support (financially and otherwise) that will open the trunk to larger audience and extend Isabelle’s intention beyond the walls of the ranch, beyond the Quiggle/McKenzie families, and into the greater conversation.

Johnny crop copySupport the kickstarter campaign for The Lost Boy

 

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Greet The Day

photo-1Behind Beaky’s house is a retention pond. There is an alligator that occasionally breaks the surface and when it does I say, “Looking for poodles…” Kerri punches my arm and smiles.

The house is nearly empty; Beaky moved into assisted living almost 2 years ago and slowly her possessions have been packed or passed on to family members. It has been a quiet attrition, a gradual acknowledgment of the step into the next phase of life.

We stay in the house when we visit. We sip our coffee, sit in camping chairs, and watch the waters of the pond change with the progress of the morning sun. A cormorant comes each morning. It stands at the pond’s edge, spreads it’s wings, and drinks the sun. “It’s as if it is opening its heart to greet the new day,” Kerri says.

She tells me that the cormorant comes to the exact spot where, a year ago, her family gathered to spread her father’s ashes. A single cormorant came that day, too. In the middle of the rite, the bird landed, stepped into the setting sun, and spread it’s wings. Her father loved the pond. It was as if the spirit of her father came as the cormorant. It opened its heart. It greeted the sunset.

The news with Beaky is not good. I watched Beaky’s face as Kerri wheeled her from the doctor’s office. Beaky is no longer living, as she says, “indefinitely.” Her path is now definite (as I suppose all of our paths are truly definite even though we rarely consider it so). She looked relieved. She looked easy and quiet. Beaky said, “I’ve lived a good life! I’m ready.”

Now, as is true with abundant life, there is metaphor upon metaphor. There is the house. There is the alligator breaking the surface. There is the cormorant spreading its wings. There are cycles of life, passing moments, possessions never really possessed. There are stories made and stories lost. There is a family with an open heart, watching the progress of the sun, ready to greet the day.

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I call this painting, "Canopy"

I call this painting, “Canopy”