Out in the California hills far from my home is a place I’ve frequented for many years—a hot springs, complete with an old hotel seated amongst the hills. There are miles and miles and hours and hours of walking trails there. Some trails go up and up and back into the land in several directions. One trail takes the walker past the hotel through a tunnel of trees and then on out into the valley. Once I found an old cow rib back there and carried it back with me as a sign—a good sign. The valley trail skirts a small creek or, if there’s been a lot of rain, a not so small creek. There’s been a recent addition to the landscape. It’s the Wind Chime Memorial Park where, dangling from a number of trailside trees are lots and lots of wind chimes. Walking amongst those trees is to walk into an orchestra of wind transforming sorrow into song. What sound does your sorrow make? What’s the music of it?
The last photograph of my father was taken by his good friend Tim during their final visit. In it my Pop hardly looks like a dying man—his skin hasn’t a wrinkle; his eyes are clear; he’s wholly engaged in conversation, happy to be with his old friend. But less than a week after that picture was snapped, my father left, without packing a single bag, but yes, with a hat on.
A response to grief for me is to make art. During my mother’s dying, poem after poem came, voicing what I was unable to articulate any other way. Last Saturday I sat with a copy of Tim’s photo wanting to build a collage around my father’s beautiful face. I’d look at his face and well up with tears, unable to conceive of a picture. Clearly it was too soon for that project.
However, amidst a stack of handmade papers on the table, were two that caught my eye: one was comprised of red, brown and white circles, and the other a thick, solid saffron sheet. I deconstructed the circles, cutting them free from their background so I had a stack of circles beside me that I placed and re-placed on the solid paper, spot-gluing them, finally, adding a few leaves, some small circles of cut-out maps, and gold decorations. The design that formed calmed me; it felt right. I retrieved a sense of rightness when my world had lost its predictable form, when it felt angular instead of like a (more-or-less) sure round ball.
Later, I sewed this collage to a bottom sheet of orange felt. I like stitching paper to fabric. In addition to spending lots of time with my dad at Bookshop Santa Cruz we also frequented Harts Fabrics; he too loved the textures, the colors, the trims. The collage isn’t finished yet; I’m going to add more beadwork, but here is it so far.
Needle and thread in hand, with scissors and glue, too, I began stitching myself back together. All the while I worked thoughts played and settled down easily, while the grief held steady but didn’t overwhelm. It was good to make something appealing to my eye, to feel a sense of order where otherwise there’s isn’t one.
The surrealist André Breton said that the world “is a forest of signs.” When we trust and follow intuition, we’re more easily able to recognize those signs. Or when someone we love dies and that loss causes the firm line between the living and the dead to blur. As is my case these days, following the death last Sunday of my father. For the first few days after his death, I felt my father lodged in my heart, now he’s not so near, but not so far, either, apparently…
In 1967, when I was 11 and my sister was 7, my folks bought a brand new green VW Bug, a rather small car for a family of four inclusive of two growing daughters. My parents wanted a change, and apparently, they wanted a big change, so in that small car we drove west from Chicago to California. My sister liked the jump-seat best, that narrow space right behind the back seat where she fit perfectly. I commandeered the back seat. From the passenger seat, my mother read storybook after storybook to keep us kids amused during the many hours, the many days we spent driving—that little car wasn’t known for speed.
My father loved that car! Several years later, when my parents divorced, that car began just his. My bigger-than-life father worked at Stevenson College, and once a group of students looking to shake things up “stole” my father’s car, painted it like a piece of abstract art and drove it onto the stage in the school dining hall! How did they manage that? My dad, who was quite the trickster, though not with his daughters, must have roared with laughter. I’d have loved to have seen the look on his face!
Yesterday, heading to the farmers’ market, in the lane to my right, what did I see, but an old VW Bug! I take it as a sign that wherever my dad is, he’s driving again, that the coast is clear and the road is open, the windows wide to the air, the sun bright. He’d want me to know that he’s at ease, in no hurry, happy, once again, to be back behind the wheel.
When my father came for a visit, we walked together at Jacks Peak Park, a place I love and where I mostly walk. He did what I never would in a forest: he yelled at the top of his lungs. He was angry and fearful about what life comes down to when its end draws near. The boom of his voice made me feel protective of the forest, made me want to shelter it from his gruff sound. I tell you, the tree branches quivered. Why hadn’t he saved his rant for my kitchen table? Though I wish he’d chosen another location, the boundless space gave him the room he needed to let go of a bit of his fear, for that is what his anger hid. After leaving the park, my father’s spirit was a whole lot lighter.
Step into Nature launches at Bookshop Santa Cruz, on April 7, 7:30! April 9 my new book will have its Monterey launch at The Carmel Art Association Pilgrim’s Way, 6:00. Isn’t it interesting when we feel what was so far down the path of time begin to approach.
Here’s one of the lists that began my new, almost born, book:
- Explore nature’s allure and its connection to the imagination.
- Consider the presence of place and its influence on creativity.
- How intimacy with an outdoor place can rekindle a lost sense of belonging.
- Revitalize innate knowing and intuitive awareness.
- Find out that inspiration is closer than believed possible.
- The spirit of the wildness…
- The five senses or more—can I smell what I see?
- What are the rituals of imagination?
- Make art to serve a whole life.
- Where fear keeps one from going and how to move through it.
- Consider the transformative power of the hidden.
- What about mystery and magic?
- Nature’s ebb and flow in relation to my own.
Make a list, freely, directed by your curiosity and intention, dreams and wishes, who knows where it might take you!
In my forthcoming book I wrote this: “When traditional Japanese ceramicists mend broken pots they fill the cracks with gold. This is not to mask the break, but to accentuate it—the idea is not to hide the suffering. The otherwise unmarred object doesn’t lose value, but gains. The crack demonstrates that life has happened to that pitcher or teacup, much as life happens to us, showing up in our visible and invisible scars. The Japanese term wabi sabi refers to a sensibility that an artist brings to her work that accepts loneliness and invisibility, as well as imperfection and transience, and allows them to manifest like shards of lightning.”
I wrote that without any sense of foreknowledge, without an inkling that it might apply to me physically. But since falling last Saturday and being unable to walk without crutches due to badly torn ligaments in my foot, I have been feeling that life is happening to this vessel, this body, to this heart, breaking me here and there. And the light that’s gotten in? Acceptance of kindness—from strangers and acquaintances, family and friends. I find I have to accept the cracks to let that light in when I’d rather pretend otherwise, push on through and pretend everything is just fine, thank you! It’s not. I am good at relying on myself but not all the time, not exclusively. Pretty much all the time, not exclusively. Who am I fooling? The kindness I’ve received sends light into my brokenness and enlivens me.
Thank you to those whose names I don’t know who’ve opened many doors for me—literally. And to these people: Margaret who brought food and drove me around and lent me her crutches, Jory and Karen who not only offered me a place to stay but to drive from Santa Cruz to Monterey to pick me up for my teaching engagement on Saturday and then to drive me back home!!!! Thank you to those who call and leave messages, and call again: Gina, Suzanne; my sister, Beth, and Martha from Switzerland. Gabriella who suggested I come two months early to Seattle so she could take care of me! Diane who helped to make the Monday writing retreat possible; my Monday students and my Tuesday evening students; my neighbors Rey and Tammy who brought pizza. To Anna who lent me her scooter. Thank you to my father whose at whose bedside I sat and when I began rewinding the ace bandage around my paddle-foot, tapped his knee and said, “Here, let me do that for you,” like he used to do when I was little and he tied my shoes. To my husband, Michael, who actually loves most all of the cracks I have! These are beautiful words, “Here, let me help you.”
In my forthcoming book, Step into Nature, I write: “I pay homage to the fruit of the bees’ labor: the almonds, apricots, and plums. Here’s to sunlight in a jar, languorous gold on my breakfast bread; the ultimate sweetness that reaches our most sensitive taste buds; honey’s good medicine when you take it on a spoon if your throat hurts, especially laced with cayenne pepper. It also has an uncanny ability to dissolve sadness, even for a little while. Who can turn down the tawny thickness of it?”
Storm clouds meeting up with each other in the dark sky, not to clash but to blend. This was not a 10:00 a.m. sky, more like the sky at dusk. Which was the perfect light in which to witness the small girl’s reach. Had she dressed herself yesterday morning? Was she out for a day with an eye on color; brightness her middle name? Oh, to just barely touch the reached for thing. For the heels to lift and the toes to find their tippy-tip. Ah, to be that little girl again. What are you reaching for? Which colors name your day?
It wasn’t till this morning that I thought of Matisse’s last years and how he made pictures from bed. Sometimes he would use a long stick and point to the place on the wall where he wanted his assistant to pin the cutout shape. Yesterday, I brought a fabric collage I’m working on to my father in his hospital bed.
When I get a new idea for a picture it’s like a fire burning inside—I’ve got to get started, to grab the inspiration, the essence of what I’m imagining while it’s bright and alive, lest it should dim. My father’s less bright than usual but he’s alive! I hope he’ll begin eating and drinking again if his wish is to remain alive.
I dropped everything on his lap; he raised his hospital bed to the sitting position. There was the picture’s beginning as I’d laid it out and pinned it earlier. There was the pile of new felt—the yellow, apricot, dark brown, not-so-dark-brown, the turquoise blue, a couple new shades of green. There was the spool of blue thread.
“This is great!” said my father looking at what I’d had so far. “Inspired by Matisse, aren’t you!?” (The exclamation points were in his voice.)
Now, “great” is not a word my father ever applied to me until a couple of years ago. Unless it was, “What a great mess you’ve made!” Or “What’s so great about that?” (Ouch!) But once he hit 90 he began to see me anew, and that’s been absolutely great!
“The picture needs trees, Pop. Don’t you think?”
“Of course,” nice and feisty, “it needs trees! The grass isn’t enough; you gotta have more life in it.”
Together we made the trees you see pinned here, the ones I’m beginning to stitch. I did the cutting and the laying down of the felt. He was the director, telling me where to put the green leaves and to “tilt this tree just a bit. You don’t want everything straight up and down. Get rid of that branch.”
Then we made the flowers. I wondered if just one turquoise blue large tulip was okay, and he reassured me that it was fine, “I like that spark of color,” he said.
By the time we’d gotten the whole picture designed, a couple of hours had fled by. Even in his hospital bed, at 93, ill and negotiating the last portion of his life, my father immersed himself in my picture, gave his enthusiasm and joy, and we shared an afternoon together sparked by life.
“Flores igual sonríe,” that’s what I said to the flower seller making easy sale after easy sale out in front of a county building where I stood waiting for my sister yesterday to discuss my father’s situation with an official kind of person. “Yes,” the flower seller replied, smiling, a man who appeared understandably pleased by his work.
(My father is improving; it’s slow. Most things are slow at nearly 93, except time; I think, for my pop, it’s moving at an uncomfortable staccato pace that he can’t predict nor keep up with.)
Flores igual sonríe because none of the many people approaching the flower-man with money in hand addressed him in English and flores igual sonríe because they do. With the overwhelm and confusion inherent in being a daughter of an old man stuck in a hospital and confused about it, witnessing flowers equaling smiles was a particularly healing sight.
The flower seller’s white bucket was stuffed with a brilliant array—orange protea; purple stock; red roses; the bright pink, wide-open faces of gerber daisies; and lacy carnations. When a woman asked for a particular flower color, the flower seller dashed off to his truck, returning with exactly what she wanted. Everyone was smiling, even the building guard who offered to help those uncertain about which bouquet to choose.
When it was our turn inside at the desk, there the upright purple stock stood behind the clerk, with their clove-like spicy smell making our interaction smoother. How weighted down can a person feel when surrounded by people happy with their flowers? I wanted to bring home that bouquet of orange pincushion protea but the flower seller had moved on to another location by then. I didn’t really mind; it was good to know that he was bringing more smiles to more people. That, along with my father’s voice sounding stronger, was plenty.