Wednesday, October 31, 2012

...grace and survival

The former wholeness was nothing compared to the incompleteness of the present

n. pl. pentimento
An underlying image in a painting, as an earlier painting, part of a painting, or original draft, that shows through, usually when the top layer of paint has become transparent with age.

Playwright Lillian Hellman titled the second volume of her memoir trilogy, Pentimento. The Library Journal described the work this way: "Pentimento is the title of the second of three volumes of memoirs written after she had dried up as a playwright." [Note to LJ: that's a tad harsh.] "These remembrances have come under fire by many who claim she lifted some of these stories from others, such as the famous 'Julia' chapter upon which the film was based, and completely invented others." [According to the Wiki, "the events depicted in the film conformed to [New York psychiatrist Muriel] Gardiner's memoirs. Hellman and Gardiner shared a attorney who had been privy to Gardiner's memoirs.] The Library Journal concluded, "Whether fact or fiction, begged, borrowed, or stolen, who cares? This book makes for great reading."

n.      palimpsest
1. A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
2. An object, place, or area that reflects its history. The Wiki cites a building altered over time that reveals ghosts of early spaces; the winding estuaries of a bayou that speak of an ocean moved southward; ancient ruins that "speak volumes of their former wholeness."

The collage above is a merger of three photographs. Underneath, a picture of the children and me, shattered in the collapse of our home in a storm. You can see shards of glass stuck to the edges of the peeling photo. Layered to the left is a picture of my daughter as she looks today; to the right, my son with his young daughter. Years after the storm, I found a copy of the original picture with my young children. Grateful. But it is the torn one that speaks to me.

We are, after all, pentimento, palimpsest. The past bleeds through the present and infuses us with more than memories. It points us - if we dare look beyond the pain and joy, beyond ourselves - to the great strength, helping hands, loving hearts that brought us this far. To those whose lives were shattered this week by Hurricane Sandy: some are feeding you, sheltering you. I offer hope, hope grounded in stark truth. You will dig through the muck. Find tattered bits. Wash away the mud and one day find that dried bits linger still in the odd corner of a rescued chest. The rubble will be cleared away. New buildings will fill the spaces left by the storm. But the imprint of all that has gone before will remain. The question is this: do you cling to the ghost of old life rudely interrupted or honor an aspect of life that has passed?  In one lies bitterness; in the other, freedom.

I took the picture below last week while visiting Patrick, Leslie and Ciara. This lively three-year-old interrupted a game of dress-up to rest her young, unmarked hand briefly against mine. I looked down at my wrinkled skin and thought of holding my dying grandmother's fragile hand at Emory University Hospital over thirty years ago. I scribbled the words shown here beneath the picture in my journal.

Yesterday would have been my grandmother's 114th birthday. I once had another shabby old taken on her wedding day...damaged first by water that leaked behind the convex glass of the carved oval frame, then destroyed in the storm that ravaged my house. I never knew the solemn, unlined face in that photograph. The visage I loved was wrinkled from laughter, softened by grief, lined by the harsh conditions of life on a south Georgia farm.

In my hand then, hers:
its veil of translucent skin
draped over blue veins
and around knotted fingers
that pressed softly into my flesh,
tap, tap, tapping:
 love you love me

By my hand now, hers:
its silken skin unscarred by time
stretches over plump fingers
that rest for a moment
then fidget and twitch
tap, tap, tapping:
gotta move gotta go

Perhaps we are all a bit like Hellman: a bit begged and borrowed, a bit stolen; part fact, part fiction. Wholeness is not made of brick and mortar, by resolute design. It is a dance - evolving, ephemeral - that takes us beyond the horizon. In the dark hours, the remains of the day haunt us. In the bright sun, the rubble is harsh. But hands reach out. The old ones speak of survival and grace, reveal life coursing below the surface. The young ones are filled with hopes and dreams...and need, a need that calls us to go on when we'd rather not. Grace and survival. They go hand in hand.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

...a walk with Mary Oliver

Words today by poet Mary Oliver
good ones

"It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,

it could be weeds in a vacant lot,

or a few small stones...

just pay attention,

then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks,

and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

NOTE: My days are always better when I do this

Friday, October 12, 2012

...for Malala, for our daughters, for our sons

New York has the Met and MOMA. Paris, the Louvre. 
But my favorite gallery is in the galley: my refrigerator door.

My three-year-old grand-daughter, whose artwork is currently on display in the kitchen, is much loved by her parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, for starters. Each day her teachers work diligently to love, teach, and discipline the little ones entrusted to their care. Miss Dawn friended me on Facebook so that she can share Ciara's play school pictures with me. Ergo, Miss Dawn is my new best friend.

At three, play and learning are synonymous. When the time arrives for big school, Ciara will have had lessons in socialization and an introduction to basic skills. She and her classmates have already been to the zoo, to City Hall, to the Fire name a few of the outings. They've cooked. And pouted, sulked, and semi-brawled a few times. And I can tell you how this played out in the long run, at school and at home. Last year, I told Ciara not to reach for the mail basket on the entry table lest she tip over a large lamp. She stretched her hand out again while looking at me, one eyebrow raised. I repeated "No" and said, if she tried again, she would be punished. The third time was the charm. I called her name. Before I could say another word, she turned around and crossed the living room into self-imposed exile. As she stood nose-to-the-wall in the corner by the fireplace, I thought to myself, This kid's been in time-out before. I'm thankful she has loving, consistent boundaries into her life. She will be freer and happier for the discipline. Show me a consistently contrary, bullying child and I'll show you one who wants reasonable structure. Show me a child who cowers and I'll show you one who has been controlled, abused, broken.

Ciara has what we so readily take for granted...the right to go to school. I recently wrote this to a friend: The day after my grandfather - a south Georgia farmer - died, I saw an elderly man walking up the driveway, starched and ironed with a nice summer hat. My grandmother saw him and went outside to meet him and bring him inside. His vision was failing and could no longer drive. So he had walked five miles in the August heat  - in his Sunday best - to pay his respects. These two families - one white, one black - had lived a mile apart on a red clay road past Gum Swamp. In other words, a long way from anywhere. When the influenza pandemic swept through their community in 1918, both families were taken ill. At separate times. So they took turns cooking broth and cornbread to leave on each other's front porches. Helped each other plant and harvest. In short, they depended on each other for survival in the harsh post-Reconstruction, depression-era south. But equity didn't exist. For example, only one could vote when they first met. Of the two couples, three of the four people didn't meet the prerequisites: wrong race or wrong gender...or both

Both our daughters as well as our sons can now vote. We strive to educate all and struggle with how to do this better. But this morning halfway around the world a young girl fights for her life...for what we take for granted. On Tuesday afternoon, 14 year old Malala Yousafzai was shot by a masked gunman who climbed aboard her school bus and called out her name. For three years she has championed the right for all girls to attend school, an action the Taliban calls "an obscenity". They have promised that, should she live, they will try again to kill her. She has been give a 70 percent chance of survival.

My heart is with Malala and with her family. How brave these parents are. And heartbroken. While I cooked breakfast this morning, I looked at Ciara's drawings and struggled with this latest cruel chapter written in blood.

To my brothers and sisters in Pakistan who are praying for Malala: you are not alone. Hearts are joined with you in your country's day of prayer for Malala...and beyond.

To those of us in the west: There are people in every culture - i.e., here - who demean humanity and offend sensibilities. Decadence and pure evil know no boundaries. When we question criticism from other cultures, we are left with the uneasy knowledge that our actions speak louder than our words. C.S. Lewis' allegorical novel, The Screwtape Letters, features letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, a demon-in-training. They are charged with leading their victims to eternal damnation. Wormwood wants grand temptations. But Screwtape believes in a different approach: "He is not interested in getting the patient to commit anything spectacularly evil, saying that 'the safest path to hell is the gradual one'. He considers it a demon's primary goal to befuddle confuse, and eventually corrupt a person rather than to tempt," saying, "[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them." [1]

We are our sisters' and our brothers' keepers...or nothing at all. 

Ciara, I'm adding another picture to the refrigerator door. 
You're in good company, my sweet granddaughter.

Malala Yousafazai
THIS is the face of bravery.

Pass it on.

...and from one of today's prayer vigils in Pakistan
courage and beauty

Photograph of Malala: 121010025930-sayah-2011-interview-malala-yousufzai-00015013-story-top

Photo of prayer vigil: Shakil Adil / AP

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

...light and shadow

If you don't have any shadows, you're not in the light.
Lady Gaga

He dismissed the post - and me, as well - with a single word. "Sweet", he said. Sweet. The word rankled. All sunshine and preciousness, I'm not. It's not as if I'd never been dismissed before. Truth is, I struggle daily not to dismiss myself and I know all of the circumstances, the for-better-or-worse truths, of my life. But a lifetime of experience that runs the gamut from "here" to "none-of-your-business" distilled to one word?  One that misses the mark by a long shot? I think not. I'm not without shadows.

Consider this passage about shadow from Spirituality and Practice: "The spiritual practice of shadow encourages us to make peace with those parts of ourselves that we find to be despicable, unworthy, and embarrassing — our anger, jealousy, pride, selfishness, violence, and other 'evil deeds'. This practice aims at wholeness by unifying the dark and the light inside and around us. Start by looking closely at yourself, especially your flaws. Take responsibility for your actions, especially those that have had unfortunate outcomes. By owning your shadow, you embrace your full humanity. Shadow is a corrective to any tendency to make spirituality into simplistic feelings of sweetness [Aha! That word again.] and light; it balances Pollyanna thinking. People do terrible things to each other, sometimes because of their beliefs and in the name of their religion. Individuals, even those who are deeply spiritual, go through dark nights of the soul when depression and not-knowing take on terrifying dimensions. Nature, the source of so much inspiration, also has its shadow elements — hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, floods. By honestly acknowledging these aspects of life, we move toward a more rounded view of reality and build the foundation for personal wholeness. Practicing shadow means you reclaim all your flaws and gifts, accepting yourself in all your complexity."

Flaws and gifts, light and dark: the stuff of a personal inventory. Gratitude and amends follow. And acceptance, haltingly...two steps forward, one back. Freedom, too. No longer a need to drag a heavy chain of accumulated denial, with new links added daily. Two quotes come to mind. The first from Sam Keen: "I feel as if I live in a haunted house." The second from a t-shirt I bought in New Orleans many years ago: "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water."  The truth clears cobwebs, busts ghosts. The quest is a daily discipline lest the haints repopulate. Nature abhors a vacuum.

An article on called "Everybody Has a Story - But Is It Worth Telling?" looks at that hot genre, the memoir. Author David Shields is quoted: "The books' themes [boil down to] "I survived; you can, too." But he also is skeptical because he feels that, all too often, "The moment you open up the book, you know the pain has been resolved. They're too much founded on a notion of resilience and triumph, which forces them into false resolutions...not the uncertain realities of life."

Prof. Patsy Vigderman cites 17th century Japanese poet, Basho, who wrote, "It is deep autumn. My does he live, I wonder."  And adds, "After all, a curiosity about our fellow human beings is as old as mankind itself." She "believes there are parallels between the memoir's popularity and the rise of reality TV."

Some of my best friends my favorite books are memoirs and biographies. I dislike formulaic, disingenuous writing...period. So here's what I ask when I dip into a book. Is the storyteller honest...or prurient? If a memoir: does the writer blame others or take responsibility for personal decisions?  Revel in drama and center stage and cast an unflattering light on the rest of the cast?  If a biography: does the author have an agenda...for revisionist history perhaps or to vent a grudge?  Rather than list the numerous books I've closed before the end of the first chapter, let me offer a positive example. I anticipate writer Cathy LeGrow's book-in-progress about her grandmother, Minka Disbrow. Cathy's blog, Windows and Paper Walls, is a personal favorite. For now, read her post about Minka (click HERE) that led first to a story picked up by the AP and then to a book contract. This is memoir at its best. (See the postscript below.)

I also invite to ask yourself these questions: Am I willing to look closely at my own life, rather than focus only on others? To face my shadows? In his book, Dialogues with a Modern Mystic, Andrew Harvey writes, "The very things we wish to avoid, reject, and flee from turn out to be the 'prima materia' from which all real growth comes." Can I tell my story to myself, unvarnished, unedited? And choose to share it with discretion and regard for those who are companions...without exaggeration, vanity or self-promotion?

Cathy LeGrow wrote this comment below her post:

"I am thinking of the last lines of Ulysses, by Tennyson:

...and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

"People like my Grandma," she added, "never yield."

The true "voice" is born in silence, in light, in shadow. Soft but firm, honest, respectful of others. Weaves a story with depth, gravitas and laughter. This, our last word, is also our legacy. A worthy quest. Yield not.


Postcript: Cathy LeGrow's book, The Waiting: A True Story of a Lost Child, a Lifetime of Longing, and a Miracle for a Mother Who Never Gave Up, was published in May 2014. Minka, her grandmother and the subject of the story, died a month later, in June. 

Friday, October 5, 2012 to the music

St. Francis Dancing on Water
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe, NM

I'm a visual person. Who likes to write. When I write, I like to listen to music. The proper tune sets the mood...transcendental transportation. The senses are inextricably bound.

Enter Julia Cameron. She began her career at the Washington Post. During a stint at Rolling Stone, she met filmmaker Martin Scorsese. They married, had a daughter, and collaborated on three films before divorcing. Cameron wrote about her personal descent into a drug and alcohol-induced hell in her memoir, Floor Sample. Once in recovery, she discovered an inconvenient side effect of sobriety. With no glass of wine to lubricate the process, Cameron experienced writer's block.  The personal discipline she developed grew into a course on creative unblocking. The method was spread word-of-mouth. Constant requests for her course syllabus led to a book, The Artist's Way.

One element of her creative process is the Artist Date. She describes this as "a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly 'artistic' - think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration."

When we venture out - especially out of our comfort zones - our creative neurons fire. When we are fed by music, art, play, beauty, the spirit is nourished. We behold. And are emboldened.

So color outside the lines. Any dishes in the cupboard with chipped edges? Break them and make a mosaic out of the broken bits: an homage to life. Be fearless. This is my mantra. Death to that false god, What Other People Think. Hear Julia's words about perfectionism:

"Perfectionism doesn't believe in practice shots. It doesn't believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that 'anything worth doing is worth doing badly'...and that, if we allow ourselves to do something badly, we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner's work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn't know how to say "Good try" or "Job well done". The critic does not believe in creative glee...or any glee at all, for that matter. No, perfectionism is a serious matter." Ever spent an afternoon or a phone call with Ms. or Mr. Perfectionist? There's not enough good sherry in the world to dull the onslaught.

Julia again: "Survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention...the capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention." Me: Take a look around. What's really hanging in the closet? Ghosts of old sizes and shapes, of past ages and stages? Be gone with them. De-clutter. When I surround myself with space, I find space within.

I have no Puritan genes but I'd bet some Fauves are in the mix somewhere. An exponentially great grandmother of mine came from France. She was shunned by the good women of the small Georgia community where her husband farmed. All because she wore lipstick. And, gasp, rouge. Oh, mon Grand'mere, you really are my people.

Julia likens life to "a spiritual dance" and says that "our unseen partner has steps to teach us if we will allow ourselves to be led. The next time you are restless, remind yourself, it is the universe asking 'Shall we dance?'"

I hope you dance. I do...more at sixty-one than ever before. My amazing enthusiasm makes up for my blatant lack of coordination. When Ellen comes on, I get up and move with her. I quit ironing when Nora Jones sings. And I get all fired up when Alicia Keyes belts out my song, "Girl on Fire".  Hey you, the one over there in the corner. Quit writing my report card. Get off your rear.  Go forth and paint. Play ball. Sing. Anything. Never learned to knit or cook? It's not too late. Just do it. And have a jolly good time.

If arrogance is fear's armor
- heavy, hot, and cumbersome -
then humility is filled with holes like lace, 
light and airy. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

...more from Mendocino: Glendeven Inn

The view from our room

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he's come from,
where he's headed.
That way, he'll have strength enough to answer,
or, by then, you'll be such good friends
you don't care.

Strangers, Hospitality, Friendship by Naomi Shihab Nye

Glendeven Inn near Mendocino was a delightful haven for one night this summer. The owners rightfully state that "The Inn is a place of natural and cultural beauty that refreshes body, mind, and spirit." Trust night is a good start but not nearly enough time to experience the place and the hosts' hospitality. But we didn't need three days to discover a connection to Glendeven.

Accommodations are scattered through four buildings on eight acres of rolling land beside the sea. The Farmhouse, built in 1864, has been lovingly restored with five guest rooms on three floors. The Carriage House, where the farm's carriages once were kept, now offers the Grand Suite on its second floor. The Barn houses a gallery where art shows are hosted and the winebar[n] on the first floor with the Barn Loft Residence on the second and third floors. Stevenscroft, a charming redwood building from the 1980's, irests by the meadow and the woods.  Outside, llamas roam the meadow. The garden offers fresh ingredients for the kitchen and the chickens provide fresh eggs for breakfast.

We opted for a seated dinner with three other couples, two from the bay area, one from Wisconsin, the other from Texas. Conversation flowed naturally in the warm and beautiful setting. The food courses and wine pairings were presented by Chef Kristy Wilson whose warm personality added an extra dimension to the evening.

Enough talk. The eye-candy factor is high, with one charming vignette after another, indoors and out. And here's proof:

Even our parking space extended hospitality

We stayed in The Farmhouse.

From the minute we opened the front door...

...we encountered warm, inviting touches at every turn. A handwritten greeting on the dresser,
two brownies on linen napkins. And, yes, chicken feed.

Details make the difference.

We found several cozy spots to read and relax.

The dining room where dinner is offered three nights a week...

...and snacks and beverages are offered until bedtime.

The view from the overstuffed chairs in front of the dining room's large multi-paned window: 
a worthy spot to sit a spell.

Breakfast arrives on a tray.

If you can tear yourself away from this lusciousness,
take a walk outside.

The vegetable garden is a beautiful as it is practical.

Remember that chicken feed?

Bill did...

...and the hens were waiting for him.

Mama goat and baby goat are made of metal.

So is the big guy.
But they manage to move mysteriously around the yard.
You never know where they'll turn up next.

This comfortable bench sits at the entry to the Carriage House...

...inside you can browse art shows that are held in the gallery
or visit the winebar[n]
where you can sample Mendocino County wines
by the glass, by the bottle, as tasting flights
...with a nosh of artisan cheeses, 
accompaniments, and fresh homemade baguettes.

Our visit passed quickly. Once more by the lily pond...

a quick good-bye to a friendly llama

and then to our talking parking space...

"Drive Safely"
Why, thank you.

"See you next time?"
Oh, yes, please!

For more information, visit Glendeven Inn's website:

And bookmark their photoblog: