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.

Reach Out. Peer In.

I've yet to title this painting but it seemed right for this post.

I’ve yet to title this painting but it seemed right for this post.

It’s a mid August morning with a hint of fall in the air. The breeze carries that “something” that is indescribable, more of a feeling than a chill or the changing of leaves. Never-the-less it is present. It is the signal and my body knows even as my mind debates. It is too soon for this – but even as I think the thought, I wonder what that means. Too soon based on what? Compared to what? This is my first summer in my new home. Last year I was an occasional visitor. I had glimpses into the cycle of the season so I have little with which to compare.

It has been a surprising summer all the way around. We’ve been traveling almost constantly since early June. The first few weeks of travel was planned, the rest was not. I’m not sure what the summer was like here because I was not present for it. The neighbors tell me it was a wet and cool summer. “Summer never came,” is a phrase I’ve heard more than once. After this summer of travel I will move into autumn with mere glimpses of the season.

I just had a call with Skip. He inspires me and makes me think things I would not ordinarily think. We’ve not talked for many months and our call was about catching up. Since I am writing about glimpses I was aware during our call that the best we can do is offer small windows into our lives. I said, “These past few years have been extraordinary in the changes and transformation I’ve experienced.” I was fundamentally incapable of articulating how profound my experiences have been. “It’s been like peeling off layers,” I said. A simile is the best I can do. Like or as. Glimpses. Events. Metaphor. No one can ever know the full scope of my walk just as I can never know the fullness of another person’s life.

During our call Skip told a story of walking through the woods with his wife when his cell phone rang. It was his daughter and infant granddaughter calling on Facetime. Skip’s granddaughter was taking her first steps. He and his wife peered into their phone and watched the miracle of first steps as their granddaughter, taking her first steps, looked into her mother’s phone at the excited faces of her grandma and grandpa. Glimpses into spaces.

We peer for a moment into a space. We stand in a space for just a moment. We try to share what we see. We try to share the fullness of our experience but can only approximate. Reaching out and peering in. Standing on the deck feeling that indescribable something that my body knows. My mind debates. This is life. Reaching out and peering in. What else?

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Catch It On An Index Card

689. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

He was walking down the center of the street. He was wearing a backpack, heavy coat, a thick sweater cap, rubber boots, and was playing the violin. Actually, he wasn’t really playing; he was sawing. He was making sound pulling the bow across the strings – sometimes fast, sometimes slow; there was no discernable pattern. His face was as determined as his march down the center yellow lines, his rubber boots thunking on the wet asphalt. The cars moved over to avoid him as if he was on a bike or perhaps was a traffic cone. I heard an kid say to his friends, “This dude’s needs different boots – he’d keep better time with something less clunky.” I took out an index card and made a note. I live in a mad, mad, mad world that has no idea how mad it is and I like to capture some of the more absurd moments.

On the other side of the street a man in a suit glared at the parking meter. He hissed, “Come on!” and gave it a thwap atop its green dome. He looked at no one in particular and shouted in frustration, “I can get a happy meal at McDonalds faster than I can pay for parking!” I took another index card from my pocket and wrote the phrase; it was too good to let slip unrecorded. It reminded me of a phrase Tom uttered in frustration a few years ago: Sacramento County took over 5 years to approve a map of land Tom was trying to parcel and sell. One day at the county office, after yet another delay, he put his head against the wall and said, “We won World War Two in less time than it’s taking these people to approve a map!” I wrote that phrase on an index card, too.

I went into the Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee House to get an afternoon coffee and to write. There was a young couple posing for a photographer but also trying not to draw attention from the other coffeehouse patrons. It was the best split intention I’ve ever seen. The photographer was aware of the couple’s discomfort so was she was antagonizing them by making lots of noise and moving furniture around and giving them instructions in her big-girl outside voice. The couple shrank and tried to disappear before the camera. I’d give anything to see that proof sheet! After the photo-torture session was over, the barista asked the couple why they were having their photograph taken and they said meekly, “We’re getting married.” Everyone in the coffee house uttered a collective, “Ahhh!” The young couple blushed and disappeared. The photographer, packing up her camera said, “I wonder if they realize that people are going to look at them when they do the ‘I do’ thing. This might just be the worlds first invisible wedding.” I reached in my pocket and pulled out another index card.