catching illusions

I wrote to a friend yesterday that I’ve been busy catching illusions. I referred to my commitment to let them stay so I could grieve their passing. And then spent the rest of the day wondering what I actually meant.

I thought first of the literal meaning of images I like to catch on camera. Rarely these days, do I just accept that image as finished or ready to share. No, I play with it as modern technology will let me, immediately, right there on my phone, with a spontaneity that feels good. I can search for the feeling inside me through color and shadow and composition and emerge with an image that looks as real as what I began with.

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This past week, the resulting images have felt magical and hopeful. Is this too an illusion? Is it simply the expression of me in relation to what is out there in a way that I want to be true?

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Is art then the treasure hunt us humans do to touch truth? Because what is on the surface might be too painful or too difficult to accept as true.

Another friend recently made a reference to being very sensitive. That she had little tolerance for the corruption, pollution and general malaise of our current state affairs, of how badly we human beings treat our own bodies, treat each other, treat our country, treat our planet. The definitive ‘yes’ of resonance I felt resulted in a clear thought that sensitive people simply have no tolerance for any kind of illusion that insists we desire what we cannot have or might be unattainable. I just hate it when this thought arises. I want to celebrate the tradition of freedom I have been been raised with. It is July 4th after all. I want to believe that we all have equal opportunity and equal access to what we all need. I am sitting with the illusion that we are all truly free. I feel the grief that this is might not be true, of how many human beings in this country are prisoners of isolation, loneliness, and fear, that manifests in discrimination, violence, poverty, and ill-health.

I like to think that as Americans, we are all treasure hunters. I think this can mean we actually have the freedom to hunt for the treasure behind the illusion that all is well, and that the true gold standard is to be truly seen and celebrated no matter where we came from or what we look like or what we believe.

My celebration today is to acknowledge where community can be celebrated, in whatever form, in relation to the humans that are there, to the animals who make their presence known, to the abundance of life giving plant life,

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to the dance of fireflies in darkness and dragonflies in light, to the coolness of flowing water in extreme heat, to an infinite richness that can be accessed at any moment no matter how much money I have in my pocket. I want to celebrate and at the same time I grieve the illusion that catching illusions and celebrating peace is possible for all human beings. I don’t take this freedom for granted. I am not hungry or fighting for my survival. I am white and middle class and have known privilege. I can protest and demonstrate and resist the utter craziness of the state of world affairs AND I can find peace at the same time. I don’t think it is an either/or, black and white proposition. It is my right as a human being. Happy Independence Day. May we all find our true freedom.

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kitchen garden

It’s been exactly one month since I planted my kitchen garden. I ignored the corners of the two raised beds I built three years ago, now warped and pulling apart, the gnawed edges where Yogi cut his new teeth almost lost in the silvery weathered gray. The small lupine casually planted in the space between them was already making its presence known. I had added compost and manure fertilizer to the soil weeks before, raking it in, imagining the dirt drinking in the nourishment, the earth’s placenta, hoping for healthy new growth that will result. It is a garden designed to eat out of every day. It is not a garden designed to yield large enough quantities of anything to put up for the winter. Located right outside my window, part of view I covet and love, of distant hills, meadow, apple trees, and dogs, it has to be beautiful too. It has to tickle my senses, invite my pleasure, give me places to rest my joy.

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And this first month does not disappoint. The mixture of starts and seeds, of flowers and vegetables, has yielded a landscape of variety and texture already. Added to perennial and ever expanding lupine, lemon balm, sage, calendula, day lilies, mint, strawberries, and peonies, there is now three types of string beans, cucumbers, broccoli, carrots, radishes, mustard greens, kale, butter crunch, red oak, and romaine lettuce, corn, red flame beans, tomatillos, and a whole quarter bed devoted to my favorite snap peas. I’ve added tarragon, parsley, zinnias, basil, and nasturtiums to already established edges. The earth outside one side of a raised bed is devoted to a variety of sunflowers. Pots filled with flowering annuals and colorful vines form the edge next to the door, the more creative side of the fence that has been necessary to keep Yogi out of the garden.

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Every day now I gather handfuls of greens and herbs just minutes before preparing a delicious salad. I don’t wait for anything to get limp or soggy, no, they get washed, cut ups and tossed with the barest minimum of dressing to eat right away, to savor the taste of immediately fresh.

Two years ago, I attempted to make a bigger garden to grow ‘quantity’ in. The thought was to enclose a large rectangular area with a protective fence like a typical country garden. I had a whole section of lawn dug up, had a fresh plot to work with that only required moving a few rocks. But on the opposite side of the house, in a place that my eyes rarely landed on, this plot remained untouched for a year. I thought, ok, then, I’m not ready, so began to add things, dead leaves, compost, straw, cardboard, anything to keep the grass and weeds from growing back, to make a mulch that could nourish the dirt over time. It is an untidy mess over there still, waiting. Instead, I have discovered the permaculture delight of keeping things close to home and in view, with two new garden beds that I can see throughout the day from my kitchen window. One is now filled with flourishing zucchini, melons, and hubbard squash. The other is still deciding what it wants. I will plant leftover seeds there today, have the pleasure of watching for more new growth in the next month.

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All to say, I am watching my relationship with the kitchen garden with interest. This morning I took note of the holes that are starting to appear in the leaves of things from unseen destroyers. I saw a gorgeous orange oriole fly out of the garden as I came into view, wondering what nourishment he found there too. I feel the resistance to eating more than I do now, wanting to have some for tomorrow, instead of simply planting more seeds in the places that open up in the process. The garden is ever changing. There is no definitive beginning and end, no ultimate harvest, no sitting back and assuming all will be well without my eyes and touch and care. I wish every day for this be enough for now, to get by with the small amounts of fish and meat and grain and beans and daily homemade bread that I have in ample supply, to eat only the fresh things that are here right now, to not run to the store to buy fresh things I don’t need. I pray for the patience to wait for the rest that will surely come.

chasing a porcupine

In all my years walking the woods here, I have not once seen another animal other than Yogi and Nora, in clear view. These days, it is just me and Nora. I’m still getting used to making the walks into the deep woods off leash without him, still trying to reconcile his wandering instinct that most likely will never change, with my desire to let him run free. But I have found him one too many times at the side of the main road after too long looking for him, watching him try to cross, wanting to wander even further. And so Nora and I leave for our time in the woods to the sound of his wailing from inside his crate. He knows where we are going and doesn’t trust yet that his time will come later, a nice long walk at the gorge or down to the brook, on leash. It’s the best I can do. I need to respect his ways. He has quieted even before we are out of earshot.

It is early, bright sun, blue sky and a barely perceptible cool breeze this morning. I let the woods do their magic, dispel the last of the accumulated worries and bits of fear that found their way into my awareness overnight. By the time I wake up, it is mostly contained. But there is always a lingering sense of something unwanted there, like a trickle from a body of water that looks contained, but can never really be truly contained.

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This is the beauty of the woods for me. It eagerly soaks up my lingering doubts, drinks it deep and transforms the energy of the moment into one of promise again. Nora races ahead, comes back to find me, splashes in her favorite spot in the pond, and honors both her freedom, and her invisible tether to me, at the same time.

Then, after all these years, I see a porcupine, fully present and in full view right smack dab in the middle of the path. It is a big one, dark and very much alive. Nora races ahead to greet it, and of course, the poor thing turns to scamper off as quickly as it can. But the porcupine’s slow lumber is no match for the lightening quick movements of Nora who has now begun to bark frantically, maintaining the distance between herself and the creature a very uncomfortable few inches. My yelling falls on deaf ears. Exorbitant vet bills flash through my mind as I watch the large quills of the porcupine sway back and forth. It tries to escape up a face of rock. But Nora runs around to greet it at the top. I can’t watch. I simply walk away, calling to Nora to come, ‘this way’, ‘treat’, finally muttering, as if she can hear me, ‘you are making a big mistake Nora, please please please come…’. The barking stops. Silence. I hear her thundering up the path behind me, and note as she races past that she is quill free.

At home I open my animal medicine book (Medicine Cards, by Jamie Sams & David Carson) to the chapter on porcupine. “Porcupine has many special qualities, and a very powerful medicine: the power of faith and trust. The power of faith contains within it the ability to move mountains. The power of trust in life involves trusting that the Great Spirit has a divine plan. Your task is to find the pathway that is most beneficial for you and that uses your greatest talents to further the plan.”

Yes, the Woods tell me each and every time, just keep writing your path. Become the child again. Appreciate this new day as an adventure for discovery.

Porcupine is a gentle, non-aggressive creature. It’s quills are only used when trust has been broken. It does my heart good to know that Nora chasing the porcupine, barking her desire for connection, might not have been a threat or something to fear. The porcupine might not have liked being chased, but somehow it trusted that there was no bite behind Nora’s bark. Or so I’d like to believe. And why not have faith that animals can mirror for us the way to open our hearts and trust? “Trust can open doorways to the creation of space. The space thus created allows others to open their hearts to you and share their gifts of love, joy, and companionship.”

As if in answer, we emerge from the woods back into a sunlit blossom filled space.

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dad’s way

A week ago, exactly four months from the day he passed on January 19, we collectively and lovingly offered remembrances and goodbyes to Dad. It was a beautiful memorial service and a wonderful gathering of family and friends to commemorate his life and share stories of how his presence touched our lives. We began at eleven in the morning and didn’t finish until eight the night. Dad always did know how to party.

In the course of going through countless images for making photo boards, I came across one that captured, for me, the essence of Dad’s exuberance. The innocent joy of a five year old barely contained in the elegantly clad body of the eighty plus years man. In a perfectly balanced gesture of both giving and receiving, while shaking the hand of past Hobart & William Smith president Mark Gearan and at the same time accepting an award from his beloved Statesmen Athletic Association, Dad exudes pure joy. It was that joy that we passed around to each other last week.

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How does one distill sixty years of a beloved relationship into five minutes?

My contribution to the service follows….

“I loved sharing the start of a day with Dad. He was brilliant in the morning. It was his time. Anyone up at the crack of dawn with him could rest in his orbit of gentleness and powerfully focused energy, as he was preparing to enter the challenges of the day. My summers during high school working for him in his dental office were spent in this orbit with him, driving in the wee hours to greet his first seven am patient. I got to ride in the coveted red Carmen Ghia, feel the chill of morning air as we drove through farmland to get across town, and have breakfast with him in his favorite diner. Two eggs over easy with rye toast. There was little conversation. It was comfortable silence even then. He had trained me and trusted I would do a good job. And I in turn could witness just how much his patients trusted him. And though he never looked the part, no white coat for Dad, his uniform was nice slacks, short sleeved shirt, and his famous white bucks, he had a way of putting everyone to ease by truly listening and letting you know how much he cared.

Because Dad was a caregiver. He embodied the quality of being a supportive presence as surely as the air he breathed.

When I was twenty, he stood on the platform with me waiting for the train that would take me out of his orbit and into the jungle of NYC. I felt loved, his glistening eyes full of tears told me how much he cared, and that he trusted I would be ok.
As I lay on a hospital gurney waiting alone in the hall to be transferred to a room, after complications of giving birth to Molly, he appeared out of nowhere, quietly standing next to me, eventually asking ‘How are you?”, making space for me to say, “I’m so happy!” He had not been able to get the hospital in time for Ben’s birth. But when he heard that Ben had Down syndrome, I was told that he simply said, “What a gift.”

In the years of young children and career all colliding, when he and Mom would come to spend the holidays with us, Dad’s Christmas gift to me was to shop for all the food, and then cook our Christmas meals. He would even help form the crescent shaped kuerbies made from his mother’s own recipe. I think all he ever wanted for Christmas was a pair of socks, these cookies, and to be with family.

I didn’t understand it until recently, that his gift for letting go of just enough expectation in another person, was just enough to let that other person shine.

Taking care of family came naturally to Dad. He was devoted to his siblings Mona, Judy and Ted. We always knew when he was on the phone with one of them. His body language and his tone of voice spoke of his delight and ease with each of them. From both the Fords and the Brodines, I have heard countless recollections of how Dad gave of his time and presence when needed, quietly, without fuss or fanfare or desire for recognition. He was there, fully participating in all the ways that counted growing up, the fun family weekends and outings, the road trips, and holidays that always included aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents galore.

When Dad turned seventy, I treated him to an introductory yoga weekend at Kripalu. I had been going to this wellness center for years, and it was a sacred place of rest and relaxation for me. I was a bit nervous about how Dad would manage the serenity of this type of environment, wondering if I was making a mistake in bringing this highly energetic, action oriented man to such a place, sharing one of the typically small rooms with him, the man I had grown up hearing snoring even from my room at the other end of the house. Well, not only did he not snore, but he seemed to know exactly when I needed alone time and would leave to explore on his own, even asking if I would like a cup of tea when he returned. He would eagerly get up for breakfast in preparation for his yoga classes each day. He loved it. He worked hard, asked questions, and found camaraderie with everyone he met there. After that, he always referred to ‘doing his stretches’ before emerging for the day. I like to think that he had learned yet another way to make space for his generous spirit to flow.

Dad cared for all of us beloved humans in his life, especially for beloved Ginny, for his beloved dogs Misty, Mandy, and Maisey, for his beloved green lawn and vegetable garden, for beloved Hobart College.

And aside from the copious amount of cucumbers he ate each summer, Dad was a master of moderation. It was how he cared for himself. He didn’t eat too much or drink too much, or work too much. But he could play hard, and care deeply. He didn’t proselytize about his way. He just quietly listened to his own body and did what he needed to do to stay healthy. I grew up benefiting from the healing power of hot toddies and warm salt water prepared with his beautiful hands. In this last year of his life, he was challenged to consider how his vision of the healthy Bob Ford he embodied, might need to change. In this last year, he did his best to turn his generous presence to himself.
I have been blessed with sixty years of knowing Bob Ford as my father. I have been lucky enough to share a stream of morning energy with him that will last a lifetime.

Rest in peace Dad. I love you.”

boundaries

I had forgotten to call Nora and put her leash back on. I’ve learned that if I don’t do this down by the brook, out of sight and mind of the end of the trail, she will race ahead to neighboring yards and in my mind, to danger beyond. She pushes the limits of the boundary I continually set for keeping the walk under control and safe. Knowing that once she has made up her mind to push past the boundary, no amount of calling will bring her back. And at the same time, she always comes back, if only to play hard to get alongside the path I am walking, only coming when she is ready. It can be exhausting and worrisome. I’m supposed to be in control of my dog.
Note, Yogi wasn’t even with us. I had just come to an agonizingly fought decision to not let him off leash in the woods. There have been too many episodes in the past few months of him taking off and wandering way beyond recall. I have had to get in the car, only to find him alongside our country highway, ready to cross and continue exploring. It has taken me months of angst and self-judgement, “I should have trained him better”, “this is not the right home for him, he needs a farm with a job” etc, etc…with thoughts flowing as insistently as the water now flowing with force through the rivers and brooks. Thoughts that can’t be contained, or ‘bound’ in any way either. It is ironically one of the things I love best about water, how it will flow exactly as it needs to in its free state, unbound by dam, or pipe, or container with a lid.

I have finally accepted that Yogi’s nature will always be to wander, regardless of whatever internal ‘trained’ boundary I have set with him. The irony is that he, unlike Nora, is an easy walking companion on leash. He doesn’t pull at all. I can actually walk through my woods with him tethered, connected and stress free. I have finally come full circle to consider the gift of being able to now explore places I have resisted going in the past year because I was concerned about the dogs being off leash, places I could never go with Nora easily. We don’t have to be together, all three of us, all the time. Within the expanse of meadow, their everyday playground, the two of them have ample time to romp, rest, and contemplate together, boundary trained to the edges protected by an invisible fence.

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I am working on a new quilt that explores the limits of a most definitive boundary, the circle. I’ve just finished the quilting lines on one of two celestial bodies I imagine in relation to each other. I am looking for where and how this body of energy can relate to its context, the rest of the quilt. Yet another way to explore the nature of boundaries.

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I think about setting boundaries a lot. How do you set a loving boundary with a twenty-seven year old adult child who has moved back indefinitely? Or with elderly parents who need more than you are able to give? With past lovers when there is still love? Yes, setting boundaries with dogs is different. And yet, I wonder at the delicate balance between yielding to the needs and freedom of another while clearly and effectively being in control of our own counsel. Yogi and Nora structure the emotional flow of my day from the moment I wake up until the moment I decide to go to sleep at night. Their gift to me is the reminder that a desire to stay in my bubble of solitude is an illusion that only serves temporarily. Eventually, the bubble always bursts. The essence of a fluid way cannot be contained.

another story

I was driving into a valley on the road leading from my hilltown home, right into the middle of a cloud. It was like driving into a dream. The edges of everything became muted and soft, imagined images of what was there. My thoughts up until then had been dominated by the mental to-do list to prepare for my first book reading since the book was published. Strategizing how best to pick up the last few items, seltzer, dollar bills, and another box of books. It was going to be a busy day and everything needed to be in order, tasks accomplished in small spaces between responsibilities. It is the kind of organized mind-set I am capable of, and I have learned to be grateful for the highly functioning executive capability that I can be known for. But there is always a hard edge to this way, a pressure to follow the script, which can be stressful. I would be presenting my book, a story of learning to go off script and what has resulted in a day to day life punctuated by soft imagined images of all that is here.

I had been talking to my friend Beth the day before, reviewing the selection of excerpts I intended to read. I shared my thoughts about the act of taking responsibility for both light and dark feelings contained in an experience or resulting from a choice. How taking responsibility can begin with an awareness of how stories evolve about what is good or bad. The process of writing the chapter titled ‘Another Story’ was the first chapter I wrote and the beginning of this awareness for me. She added, “We don’t really know what we know until we write.” Yes!

I write, “It’s like what happens when you tell someone the gist of a story in abbreviated form, but one of the details triggers a memory of something hidden and we say, But that’s another story! And quickly move on without actually telling that story. What stays on top is appropriate, immediate, accessible, conscious, light. What stays hidden for another time is full of promise, unconscious, dark, scary, still alive. I wanted to explore the meaning that could emerge while working with these aspects of light and shadow. What came to mind were the bars of light I saw one night coming out of a dream. They were floating down around me like gentle rain. The widths of the rectangular bars remained constant while the varying lengths moved around each other evoking the feeling of a piece of music from another world.” After establishing a strategy for beginning the quilts, “I made some basic decisions about scale for the first quilt and began to consider fabric. I had just received a gift of beautiful Japanese fabric squares that Kathy had sent me from Australia. I had also just acquired a unique piece of hand-dyed cloth made by a colleague. There was a huge contrast between these two fabrics; one could even say they clashed. I became excited about the possibility of creating balance by revealing another story behind the surface pairing of these two opposites. The technique of reverse appliqué was perfect for creating context that could support the revelation of something new.”

When I went to NYC last week, I planned to take one full day to immerse in art in the museums I’d not set foot in for years. As if to honor my choice, my friend Mindy pulled out a card she had been saving for my birthday with this Gauguin painting, saying it reminded her of my quilts.

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It was such a strong vision, to spend a day immersed in art. But the day ended up not being about time spent in museums. Instead, it began with a visit to the garment district. As if by homing device, I was drawn to peruse the cacophony of choices that live in large fabric warehouses there and with much discernment, managed to emerge with modest purchases. I was acutely aware of the commercial quality of what I was purchasing, happy to have these new coveted pieces of the uniquely expensive yardage.

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City life imprinted in stylized designs and commercial abundance. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, the sun was shining and I knew I would now spend the rest of the day on foot traveling to see old friends, human and inanimate alike, see the building that had been home,

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familiar streets,

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and walk the now completed Highline that graced the west edge of the Chelsea neighborhood I once lived in.

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Each of these places offered me a view of something familiar and intimate, and completely changed at the same time for the space that lived between me and their current presence. I found a new quilting shop around the corner from the building I once lived in. I bought a few spools of my favorite thread and another small piece of fabric. With clear restraint once again, as if defying the abundant choice that oozed from every fold of urban life here.

Underneath the story of culture that lives in perpetuity on the walls of grand institutions is the heartbeat of the very culture itself. NYC is still, truly, a grand melting pot and the grandest of places to immerse in to bring back the richness of what life was like for me years ago. I had a thrilling day of walking over eight miles, re-charging with the energy of a city that once ran like blood in my veins.

Next stop was southern NJ for a visit with friend Colleen, and a day of hand-dyeing fabric. We are so good at creating context for doing this together after years of acquired efficiency working together. We made yards of beautiful fabric, including preparation and set-up, dyeing, clean-up, rinses, final washing and drying, and ironing each piece lovingly into crisp folded rectangles to transport home.

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All this accomplished with the energy of two young girls excited about every aspect of the endeavor. Shades of two women immersed in the lush landscape of Gauguin’s painting. Different lives and different stories that continue to spiral with each other.

The assemblage of newly acquired commercial fabric with the lush palette of newly hand-dyed pieces now on my work table holds the contrast of life in NYC meeting life in the country. I can’t wait to see what kind of story gets revealed in their pairing.

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I did begin the reading from my book with an excerpt from ‘Another Story’. It was the perfect place to start. It will clearly be a place I continue to come back to over and over again.

six decades old

 

*** Post has been updated to correct the original title of ‘five decades’ old. LOL. Guess I wasn’t really paying attention after all!

Today I am SIX decades old. Sixty. Writing the word feels surreal, signaling the beginning of a decade that I have been looking forward to, but was always still way out there. A friend wrote me a few weeks back saying he hoped I had big plans for the BIG birthday coming up. I wrote back and said I’d be sliding very non-chalantly into my 61st year. Pressing, he asked, is that the non-chalantly as in with grace, ease, celebration and aplomb, or the non-chalantly as in if I pretend this isn’t happening it will be another day of living spontaneously? To which I replied, No denial here! Definitely spontaneously! I’ve always said (and known) that my sixties were going to be some of my best years…

Which is true. The knowing that is. So here I am. It is an ordinary, not so ordinary day. I have not made plans. I was truly going to see where the day led me. My daughter Molly came down this morning with a wrapped gift in her hands and a big smile on her face. I shook the box and cried out with pleasure, a puzzle!, and ripped open the package. What a fun surprise. I can’t remember saying out loud recently how much I’d like to do a puzzle, but the desire has been there and somehow she knew. A thousand tiny pieces to put in order. The sun came up. Within a half hour I had a table set up in the porch room dedicated to this effort, where I could sit with this new pleasure surrounded by the beauty of the land I get to live with.

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Another half hour and I had all the edge pieces set aside. When I finally sat down to begin, I felt the rush of anticipation I remember feeling as a child. We are never too old to feel this way.

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As I worked the edges into place, I reflected on the significance of having a clear border to work within. I considered how six full decades of living have given me the structure to move into my sixties with. Most memories of my first decade are rooted in playing and having fun. Playing wasn’t as prominent in my second, third, fourth & fifth decades, the years of making career, family, and stable life. When I finished the edges of the puzzle, I began to lay out the rest of the pieces, making little groupings of like colors, a first attempt at finding the order in the 1945 New Yorker cover called ‘farm calendar’. Twelve images of country life. They could be blocks of a quilt.

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The pleasure of childhood abandon merges with the joy of where I feel my energy as an artist today. Giving myself permission to sit and play is a gift. Letting myself celebrate my sensitivities is a gift. Even if it opens up spaces for feeling tough feelings. The last time I did a puzzle was with my parents about five years ago. Mom loves puzzles too, but it is sitting at the table working silently with my father that I remember most about that particular time. A dear friend lost her fifteen year old son last week. It is an unfathomable thought, and my heart breaks for her. A flow of grief moves through and my fingers turn over a few more pieces. I anchor sadness I feel for another friend who struggles with a debilitating illness, in the pink border of one edge. I cherish my solitude, even if it means not moving out into the world in the way I did when I was younger. I consider the sadness I can feel for the losses in my own life, beginning to fit the pieces together now, remembering that I can also let the beauty and awe experienced in any moment, be enough.

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When the phone rang and I saw it was Meg, I thought, how perfect. We’ve never forgotten each other’s birthdays in the fifty-three years we have known each other. She loves puzzles too. Her presence in my life, a kindred creative spirit, reminds me of a way of living that I have gratefully found in the sixth decade of my life. I am learning to trust that the people I love, and the people who love me, will always be there. There is much to celebrate. And still so many choices to be made. Being here, playing with my puzzle, feeling everything that there is to feel, makes moving into the next decade something to look forward to.