a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Eye of the Beholder

Recently, when my niece announced she was heading for Asheville, her mother and I went along for the ride.  We stayed, as we almost always do, with my sister and brother-in-law, in their place a bit south of town.

The drive up, like the drive back, was beautiful, warm and sunny, but the days between were mixed...some fog, some wind, some bright sun, some warmth, an equal amount of chill.  The weather certainly wouldn't stop us relaxing in Eileen and Jim's comfortable home.  Everything in their house seems set up for letting go and enjoying each other.  There are puzzles to decipher, word games and card games, and plenty of coffee and tea (or wine) to take on the porch with a good book, or settle into a living room chair for a chat, the sort, especially, that doesn't find its way across geographic distance by phone, email, or text.

Visiting Eileen and Jim also means a chance to hop in the car and take a ride anywhere there are natural beauties, trails, and destinations to explore.  The Asheville area is full of them, so many, in fact, that on each visit there develops a list of places we need to go next time, and the next and the next.  Sometimes we take a picnic, sometimes we stop for salads on the way back.  One constant, whichever the direction, is Jim's camera bag.  Each trip, no matter where, is an opportunity to capture what only that moment can lay claim to.

This time, on the morning we wanted to get out on the road, it was overcast and chilly.  Such days aren't a problem for Eileen and Jim, however.  "We'll just go up to Biltmore," Eileen suggested. Particularly on days like these, no longer deep winter, not yet early spring, when the otherwise lush gardens seem ghostlike, its conservatory is the place they head.

photograph by Eileen Langdon
Jim has been photographing people and nature forever, it seems.  Ever since he was a young father, his photographs of his children growing up or the families coming together draw memory not only to the occasion but to the personalities and interactions gathered in one time and one place.  That is photography's best gift to us...recording not only a moment in time, but the story in it.

When my second son was born, his father presented me with a copy of a book of that very title. I was in the final leap of a dissertation on Miss Welty, a baby at home only just passed his first birthday,  and another just arrived, and it seemed to me the sweetest gift, that book of photographs, tendering to all the parts of me so juxtaposed by time and place.  Its cover is worn and pages loose, but it holds its magic tightly in the heart.

Despite that, time passes.  All our sons are grown and gone, one way or another, and my brother-in-law has turned to the outdoors to decipher its fragile, mysterious code of life.  I admit I do the same, though perhaps not so technically proficient.  So that morning we set out for Biltmore, cameras at the ready.

Though from the road it looks bereft, it's not fair to say that nothing is in bloom on the wide, rangy grounds;  buds are popping up through the tips of plants, green leaves shoot through the newly mulched ground heading for a daffodil explosion, even the woody detritus of winter's shearing seems lying in wait for regeneration.

And in the conservatory, room after room of hothouse plants spill over onto the narrow walking paths, inviting admiration and inciting the imagination to more glorious horticultural possibilities.  Jim brought his talented eye to it all.

photograph by Jim Langdon

photograph by Jim Langdon

photograph by Jim Langdon

photograph by Jim Langdon

photograph by Jim Langdon

As for me, I walked the grounds thinking of both past and future...blooms past, blooms to come.

my daffodils
When you receive this, it will be the first of March, and so for me daffodils naturally come to mind...the ones in my yard now, the ones that were in high bloom when Joseph was born forty-two years ago (for Michael, it was tulips brazening the pathways). Interestingly, as if to cater to the earth's warming, their yellow and white heads now arrive nearly a month earlier.  But that's time for you, always rearranging space, and memory.  As Wordsworth reminds us:

...in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon that inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude;
and then my heart with pleasure fills
and dances with the daffodils.

Here are more of Jim's beautiful visions.  It would be redundant to offer words about them.  Their stories are in the eye of the beholder.

photograph by Jim Langdon

photograph by Jim Langdon

photograph by Jim Langdon

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where There's a Life, There's a Story...

It's windy today, and cooler because of it, but the sun after this morning's rain is grinning down on us as widely as if my friend Frances, who died last week at 88, were sending those rays to us.   It's a common enough anthromorphism for the fondly remembered, "smiling down from above", but, believe me, Frances' grin was anything but common.

I'm thinking of her today, especially because, though I moved away only a few years ago, only a few hours down the road from where she and I and others used to sit around the table and share our lives, no one thought to tell me about her death until Michelle, from her perch in Canada no less, saw it on Facebook and texted the news late on the day of her burial.  So this post is by way of a celebratory memorial, my own.

Frances, though she was born, by the accident of her father's work, in Newark, New Jersey, was a Southern woman through and through, as evidenced not only by the ground she walked for most of her life, but also by her sweet, kind, motherly, girlish, funny, curious, and resilient sides.  Her father had passed away before she was grown, late enough in her life to remember the particulars of their fond relationship, but early enough to encrust him in legend.  They moved to the Norfolk area of Virginia where what we might call her formative years were spent, and it was those times, along with the later ones as a nursing student at Charlottesville, the romance with her future husband Tally (a reticent, puzzling medical student at the time), and her life as a country doctor's wife which occupied the tales she told us.

Formally, we were a group meeting to write and share journals, recording our lives, our thoughts, our quandaries, our families' histories, and anything else that occurred to us.  Since 1982, I'd gathered together those small groups in whatever town I'd lived at the time, from Texas to New Hampshire; and finally in Washington, about midway in the 15 years the group existed there, came Frances to join us.

In all my teaching career, though teaching isn't really a word I'd use for that workshop (I having as much, if not more, discovery and life lesson as my "students" did), it has been what I think of as my highest achievement.  I say that not so much with pride as with humility. Wherever the gathering, there was, always had been, something binding about the way our writing, laid out on the table, drew us together in ways that even long friendship missed.  We listened as words opened up layers and layers, bringing experiences and sentiments to light that often times illuminated our own.

All through the years, among us were really good writers, creative writers, willing and reluctant writers, but Frances was a natural storyteller, both on paper and in conversation.  She'd had a full life even by then, her triumphs and tragedies remembered with not only her signature humor, but wonderful openness and equanimity; her love of social gatherings and her long, close friendships, her enthusiasm for music, art, travel, children and life itself became the seat she took each week among us.  When she decided to write a book for her children and grandchildren about her and their early lives...the stories of the way they were born and grew up, and the way she and her husband fared, too, over the years...we read her chapters and pulled even more from her.  Long after she'd stopped writing, long after, loss overtaking me, I'd given up what I'd loved doing more than anything, she'd meet me on the street, at someone's birthday lunch, or at an art reception and ask, "When are we beginning journals again?"

What both Michelle and I remembered instantly, though, was a trip we took one summer to the mountains, Frances among us.  The four-hour drive on the interstate became the road along which Frances' imagination came to life.  On the way home, we stopped for lunch near a sign that directed travelers to the small highway north heading toward a hamlet called Harmony.  None of us had ever been there, and this time we didn't detour toward it, either.  But all the way home we listened as Frances, enchanted with the name, laid out and populated the town, inventing relationships among the characters, homes they lived in, bars they frequented, intrigues they would fall into, histories they were prey to, and threads of a mysterious future to ponder later.

"Frances was such a gift," Michelle wrote the other day.  "Her stories always made me belly-laugh!
...that car ride was so entertaining...Frances got talking about staying at [an old] hotel and said something cheeky about her romantic life with her husband, whom she adored."

As she talked, we told her, only half teasing, that her story would make a good screenplay for a soap opera (Michelle, a media producer, would know), but Frances was the one who--it being her invention, after all--kept it alive, and eventually began to scribble chapters.

None of this is in her obituary, obituaries being what they usually are, but it's the life I remember her by, the life of that generous good humor that loved people, that could raise their stories equally from the dust of memory or the flakes of imagination, enriching them and us.

Thank you, Frances.  Here, just for you, is one more journal piece.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Porch Weather

Just about now, early February, when, in spurts of two and three at a time, days here can be as warm as April, the impulse to grab clippers and trowel and get to work is too strong to overcome. For the last three days, all charmers up in the 70's, I've let it overtake me gladly.

Yes, I know it's too early; the weather channel brings us back to reality with hourly updates warning of dipping temps tomorrow.  But in the yard, there is always something to dig into, and so I've begun some prep work for the less fickle warmth to come, marking out new beds, stripping the trees of last year's creepers, and pulling too-eager weeds out from among the driveway stones.

Actually, so far it hasn't been a very cold winter, barring a few anomalies of ice and snow back in early January, when I tucked myself into the house and stayed out the three-day freeze.  I don't do ice and snow well.  The latter looks pretty as it falls, sometimes enough to pull on hat and boots for a (short) walk in it, but its co-conspirator has never been my friend.  I suppose it's because of my south Florida beginnings that I suffer this February impatience for winter to be past.  When I noticed the quince flowering, I took to the garden.

During this latest warm spell, each day I've chosen one part of the yard to focus on. First, I simply wandered about, getting a spring feel for things, admiring the tiny buds on the tulip poplars and dogwood, peeking down under the winter cover of leaves to see what's budding or what's lost its lifeline.  I picked up fallen twigs along the way, tried to calculate which way the grasses will spread among the flagstones that lead to the picket-fence bench my nice neighbor Steve made for me, and invent new scenarios for spaces heretofore neglected.

I don't have an elaborate or formal yard; neither the landscape nor the neighborhood, or, for that matter, my own inclinations, are suited to it.  It's a hilly town, for one thing, and my street in particular rolls along with it, leaving one end of my yard at street level and the other a good ten feet above.  The slope in front is a challenge I puzzle over every year; this time I'm saving it for last, concentrating first on the high ground looking outward from the porch.

Did I mention I am sitting out here writing this?  Porch weather is the best season of all.  Shiny faces on the evergreen leaves dazzle and the signature blue in the sky holds all our gazes upward and outward.  Inspiration rides high as I rock along to the small breezes that float through.  What's especially pleasing is the new view I've created in the formerly unused corner by the kitchen door.

 After the porch was finally finished last fall, I'd thought about, actually planned out, a raised kitchen garden of herbs and lettuces, but yesterday I had my doubts.  I called in Cathy, who zipped over in record time when I texted her that I wanted to talk garden, and she threw out some ideas that made me re-think things.  Here where soil (think thick clay...it's not for nothing we're famous for our pottery) needs replacing nearly every time you want to plant anything, a fully raised plot suddenly seemed more trouble than it was worth.  Given the fact that we are on the deer highway, as I call it, despite the fact that we live right in town, I could see my raised garden vanquished each night.  I have enough trouble keeping a few hydrangeas or daphnes I love.  Isn't this nice of her, I can hear them whisper at dusk about my ground-level herbs,  a whole platter to choose from!

Just try a few pots first, Cathy advised, and see how that goes. Those words were my cue:  seeing how it goes is the way I do everything.  So I grabbed the keys and headed out to the garden center.  I told myself I'd just be looking, but barely an hour later came home with not only pots, but bags of organic soil, and a leafy trellis for some sweet peas to climb up the wall behind. I dug up pavers, filled the pots, then went back for some large gray beach stones to spread around the pots. I liked it.

In keeping with my mood, it seemed that my parsley hadn't quite given up its ghost, and the sun had nudged upward a little piece of chive, so I transplanted those into the new pots, and then a speck of mint greening beneath its winter detritus.  Rosemary, something that grows like crazy for other people, hasn't ever been more than spindly for me, but it deserved a second chance, too, and I fed them all.  (Angie, bless her, reminded me to put down cayenne to deter the deer.)  Basil, thyme and lettuce will come in their time.  As the fishermen say, no good rushing the season.

This morning, I'm even happier about it.  It rained a little overnight, and the wetted stones were a darker, brooding shade that spells calm to me.  I am now wondering if a small ripple couldn't wash over it now and then, creating a peaceful hush.  What a fine sound to listen for from the porch.

What is today's gardening going to be?  Wandering again, this time to find the best places for my growing collection of bird feeders.  I already see flutters of wings in the thorny ailanthus...nesting maybe?  There is a limb just beyond where I sit that seems ripe for hummingbirds, perhaps.

I think what I am working toward is a garden of peace, though at the beginning I wouldn't have realized it.  Goodness knows, we could all be working, in all sorts of ways, toward that.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Life Lessons

[photo from the Philadelphia Milton Hershey School alumni website]
Hershey, Pennsylvania has its name all over the map, usually wrapped around their famous chocolate.  In town, that confection is the symbol of the city (coming and going, a billboard with the iconic bar pronounces "Welcome" and "Thanks for Visiting"), as well as the theme of festivals and tourist attractions, the names of major streets, and, in a dash of humor most probably not intended, the small brick corner building entitled Chocolate Workers Local #464 AFL-CIO, a sweet oxymoron, if ever I saw one.

butterfly garden in the Hershey conservatory

Milton Hershey's legacy has its elegance, too, in the gardens and conservatory, which includes a charming butterfly garden with friendly inhabitants who will light on you if you are wearing the same coordinating colors they are, and legendary generosity in the schools he created and children he and his wife Kitty have fostered there, even long after their deaths.

It's been interesting to explore the town in various seasons, especially fall and spring, though I am not usually in tourist mode when I travel there.  This last visit, however, brought a sweeter treat, an introduction to a painter whose work still brings amazement to the few people who are lucky enough to view it.
friends Sadie and Mary

Mary De Bon and her late husband moved to Pennsylvania when they retired some years ago, and after his death, she eventually left for an apartment at Country Meadows in Hershey, where, as luck would have it, my aunt also moved last summer and soon met her.  "I want you to see her work,"Aunt Sadie has been telling me.  It isn't the first time my aunt has directed me to art--because of her I found the Print Council of New Jersey, where I fell in love with monoprinting. This time, she arranged for the two of us to visit Mary so I could see what she so admired.

Mary herself is a friendly, good-humored woman (and, by the aroma coming from her kitchen, a wonderful baker), and she took us on tour of the dozen or so paintings in oil that she has hanging there.

Mary De Bon, husband and son at lodge

But, here's the thing...it's been forty years since she's painted.  "Before I had children, a friend told me about a group they were starting; they'd go into the city together and take painting lessons from a man they knew about.  I thought I'd like to tag along."

Mary De Bon, early still life

Join them, she did, and her prolific work began, at first whatever the instructor had them copy, and then, as their technique grew stronger, finding inspiration from their own sources.  Mary often chose photographs of people from the National Geographic, whose faces drew her.  "Faces are the most difficult things you can paint," her teacher warned.  "But I like painting them," she told him.  Obviously she followed her own muse.

Mary De Bon, face
Mary De Bon, portrait of a star
 Followed it until the children came along, and painting became something that, as she puts it, seemed to belong to another life.

She didn't stop art, however...needlepoint became her medium, and later fabric collages, and you won't be surprised to learn that she brought thread and needle to the complicated images of portraits.  "Oh," she demurs, "I was just following the patterns."  Well, there are followers, and then there are followers.
Mary De Bon, needlepoint
I hope I didn't gasp audibly when she told us that the rest of her paintings, many more of them, were being stored in her daughter's basement.  Mary smiled, "She has different taste," and mentioned that one of these days, she'd divide up the treasures among her three children and their children, letting them choose whichever ones they'd like.  Mary hasn't sold her work, or tried to.  It's hard even to talk to her about showing them at Country Meadows, though she has had a few hung there in exhibits with others, and she's won prizes for her Christmas card designs.

Her art is about as far from mine as mine is to the English portraitists, whom I also admire but could never emulate.  What they have in common is their high talent for impressing on us the character of the faces they paint.  It's not only the precision of the lines and shadows that matter to them, but the unseen root of the person...that expression at that moment.  As much as I sigh over Winslow Homer and his wild skies, I stand back at a piece by Mary and shake my head at the clarity of her vision.

And not only the vision of art.  I can understand perfectly the notion that art, of whatever kind, can be useful to us at certain points in our lives, and then we move on to something else, driven by a wholly reformed phase of self we've fallen into.  We see the world through changed lenses; we see art through the motions of hands that take to other tools, to other subjects.  We don't disparage our former work; far from it.  We use it as a foundation for seeing, if not doing, more.  Life and art make good tradespeople, lending one another their best experiences to shape and reshape as the conditions and circumstances of life reshape us.

It's really a matter of dedication, not necessarily to art, but to ourselves.  I admire that, most of all.