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.

 

Sit In The First Seat

 

a detail from my latest painting

a detail from my latest painting

I am living this story, as are we all. I am a lover of story so I count myself fortunate enough to know that I am living it. It’s one of the grail stories. Here’s the section of the story that I am now living:

The knight who cannot be beaten (he has a magic sword) is knocked from his warhorse. A warrior, a man with no armor or shield, no protection, emerges from the woods, challenges the knight, and in a single blow, unseats him. That’s not the worst of it: the knight’s magic sword shatters. And, that’s not the worst of it. His armor, his trusty protection through the many wars in the wasteland, pins him down. Like a turtle on its back, he is defenseless. His magic sword, his trusted armor, all that he has relied on, all that he’s built his identity and purpose upon, betray him. He is stunned. He is lost. He closes his eyes and awaits his death.

Death does not come. Well…

another detail

another detail

The warrior, the man with no armor, does not finish the job. He disappears without a trace leaving the knight stranded but alive. The knight opens his eyes and somehow manages to sit up. He weeps because his endless efforts to save the world have come to naught. In fact, fighting ogres seemed to produce more ogres! He removes his armor. He is no longer a knight. He is no longer capable of saving the world. He is, for the first time since his childhood, unprotected. He is, at last, purpose-free.

Nothing is more frightening – or useful – than to drop the armor of purpose and take a good hard look at what lives beneath all that forged metal.

...and another

…and another

At first his lack of identity drives him crazy. He has no answer to the cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” He feels naked and exposed. Fortunately, a teacher, a hermit, emerges from the woods to help him navigate the crazies. Namely, the hermit helps him by not answering his endless questions. The hermit helps him understand that the world never really needed him because the world was never really broken. The hermit helps him relax and see beyond all of his thinking. He realizes that the wasteland came, not because the world was broken, but because he believed himself to be broken, somehow lacking.

In a life of chopping wood and carrying water he sees that his purpose has nothing at all to do with doing – or roles or achievements. He sees that the road to the grail castle is blocked so long as he believes he is defined by a role or a bank account or lost in a made-up purpose. When he drops his need for importance the grail castle appears.

...and another

…and another

Satori, in all the stories, knocks seekers from their ponies. It stops all pursuits. It pops the illusion of a purpose-driven life. It necessarily strips the seeker naked.

We are all seekers at some point.

When you are required in the workshop to write your epitaph or are somehow forced to articulate what was most important in this life, the doing, the list of achievements, the purpose-drive will always take second seat. HOW you did what you did, the relationships you tended or ignored, the moments you appreciated or missed, will sit squarely in the first spot.

 

as yet unnamed

as yet unnamed

 

 

 

 

 

Save

Save

Look At All The Stories

My Stuff

My stuff.

It is ironic to me that I spent the previous two years divesting myself of stuff. When I moved to Kenosha last October, the truck was filled mostly with paintings, art supplies, and books. If I excluded those things, I could carry my worldly possessions on my back. And, I did for months. I now know without doubt what is essential and what is luxury. Mostly, my story is no longer entangled with my stuff. Well, in truth, there are still a few things that are sacred: the box that held DeMarcus’ brushes, a treasure or two from Bali, grandpa’s nutcracker, Bob’s tools. I gave away many useful things because of the story they held!

Since moving I’ve been helping Kerri clean out her house. Each week we take stuff to the Goodwill or place bags on the curb. She has been twenty-five years in her house and raised two children. The things we sort through have layers and layers of story. Children’s toys and books, sporting equipment, old electronics, and clothes; everything comes with a memory. More than once Kerri has held tightly to a box or shirt, saying, “I can’t get rid of this! Craig used this when….” We’ve saved many things, not for usefulness, but for story.

Several times we’ve made the trip to Florida to sort, box and store the contents of her mother’s house. Kerri spends hours each week on the phone with her mom, Beaky, as she pours over an enormous list of her possessions. Beaky is now in assisted living and will never return to her home. She wants to make sure that each item goes to the right person and that the story held in the item goes with it. In fact, the designation of recipient often has more to do with the story than the item. She is reaching into the future attempting to build a story link with the past.

A few weeks ago we walked by an open house. It was an estate sale. People were lined up out the door to go in and buy stuff cheap. The people in line were anxious and jockeying for position; they wanted to get in before all the good stuff was gone. The stories associated with the stuff died with the homeowner. The new story begins with a bargain found at an estate sale.

Last week while in Denver for my grandfather’s funeral, I crawled under Ruby’s house to pull out the boxes that Bob had stored there, mostly things they hadn’t used in years. Ruby said, “I didn’t even know that was down there!” Forgotten stories resurface.

My parents’ house is filled with the accumulated possessions of a lifetime. Their sedimentary layer of stories includes children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. They’ve added no small amount of my grandfather’s possessions now that he has passed. The layers of story sediment compounded. “What are we going to do with all this stuff?” my dad asked. “Someone must have use for it!” He might just as well have asked, “What are we going to do with all of these stories. Someone must have use for them?”

It’s the question Tom asked when he found a trunk plastered into the walls of the family’s ranch house. The trunk contained the worldly possessions of an ancestor, a young boy named Johnny who died a century earlier. Little slips of paper written by his mother accompanied the layers of clothes and toys. “She wanted to keep his story alive,” Tom said. “What am I going to do with it?” he asked when he knew his life was on the glide path to the finish.

Someone once said to me, “You are not your stuff.” No. But we are people of commerce. We are people who identify ourselves through our stuff. We place great value in what we accumulate and what we accumulate becomes the vessel for passing on our value and our story. Look around you. Look at all the stories that surround you! Stand in your home, close your eyes, and spin around. Open your eyes and look at any object, any thing. What’s the story? What is essential? What is luxury?

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Canopy by David Robinson

Canopy by David Robinson

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