a journal of...

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The slow lane

About a month ago, spurred on by our helper and friend Sharron's enthusiasm for her water exercise class at the Y, I began to swim again, a few times a week.  I'm ever grateful for her encouragement to get into the water and move, for winter (this everlasting chill) had me pinched and disjointed.  So off I went to renew my lapsed membership and joined her there.

I did try to like the class, really I did, knowing that an hour's worth of underwater bouncing, kicking, arm-waving and skipping to over-sexed 'eighties tunes would leave me refreshed.  About a quarter of the way through the third class, however (you knew this was coming, didn't you?), I looked over my shoulder and saw that the lap lane behind me was free.  Free.

I glanced quickly left and right, then ducked under the spiral lane marker and began to stroke my way to freedom.  It felt so good to stretch and pull at my own speed, arm over arm, legs in harmony, body aligned just right.  I hadn't swum in a long time except for occasional dips in the ocean and tropical pools, but having been born on the beach, swimming is second nature, and here I was, on my second, third, tenth and finally 16th lap.  Over the weeks since, alternating crawl, backstroke, breast stroke and something upside-down-turtle-like which I call my rest stroke, I slowly made my way toward this morning's 28th.

I'm not a fast swimmer, nor do I care about speed.  After the first day, I didn't bother noticing how I measured up to the others racing in their lanes, men and women, younger and older, all willing to get up before dawn to fill the pool before work or home life distracted their energies. One morning, all lanes occupied, a young woman politely asked if she could share mine.  Equally politely, I agreed, but warned her that it might be hard to follow as slow and irregular a swimmer as I. "That's ok!" she chirped, but after two laps, I noticed she'd moved two lanes over, with someone clearly more predictable.  That was ok, too.  I just swim to my own rhythm.

This morning, on my way to the showers, someone drying her hair greeted me by wondering how I was.  "Well, thanks." I told her.  "Only well?" she laughed, "after that nice long swim?"  But well was how I felt, inside and out.  Hip not buckling, shoulder easier, tangles untangled:  well-being.

Part of the swim I take is mental, rolling my mind back and forth as I do my muscles, imagining the day, sorting out (idealistically, more often than not) the issues coming at me in much higher waves than a pool full of swimmers will produce.  It's been an complicated winter...indeed, the whole last year seemed one affaire after another.  My cousin said to me the other day, "I thought this new year would bring better days, or at least slower ones, but it's just more of the same, isn't it?"  I know what she means by wishing for days slow enough to breathe through, one inspiration at a time.  At the pool, slow is possible.  Sometimes, stroking backwards, I simply stare at the undulated ceiling, the red, white and blue flags fore and aft, the windows looking out into the wooded yard, and think of nothing at all.  And soon the sun is up and it's time to climb out.

Whatever the day brings, I'm glad for having begun it in my own way.  I smile the whole five minutes home.  Indulgence, indeed.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Slippery slope ii

Well, after a fine afternoon looking at the offerings of two nurseries, I came home with a few pieces of advice and a few plants to put in after the rain this weekend.  They are good plants, each in themselves...hellebores (lenten rose in a nice rose shade) to add to my timidly growing ones; a small holly fern (the first fern I really have ever liked) which I'll plant under a copse of trees;

 and a prickly, blood-orange quince to pair with the one I share with Anna, growing up between trees near my shed.  I know the latter's flowers will be soon gone, taken over by green leaves on thick-wired branches, but I couldn't resist, and next early spring they will return, flaming (I hope), just when a little flame might warm us.

Shopping for garden things (and fabric) with Angie is always a treat in itself, and this time Jim came along to lunch to make it a celebration.  Angie always introduces me to places I'd never have found on my own, and I always come home with a surprise or two.

One of the surprises this time is that none of that plants I bought are intended for the slope at all.  I hardly got into that with my nursery visits yesterday.  I did try, but somehow inspiration failed me except for a few small ideas of periwinkles and vinca, which turn out to be old ideas anyway and today the periwinkle notion is fading.

So the slope is still the slope, and digging into it will be a job which, this morning at least, I don't relish.  Plans are one thing, executing them is another level of energy entirely.  So much has happened lately...plans afoot, plans being slowly put into practice, plans even more slowly becoming reality, and plans entirely unforeseen...that I am in something of a confounded state this morning.  I don't know which hope to put forth, or which to put on hold in the back of my spirit for a later moment when I can handle it with more aplomb.

I'd love to get into my workroom to make the confounded into art, but it's unavailable...undergoing renovation for new space (a good thing) but keeping me at stairs distance for a while longer than expected (not so).  Back to digging in the earth is the next best thing.

But isn't life full of such discombobulations?  Why, except for remembering that that is so, is each occurrence such a new shock to us, no matter how similar the experience?

As I wrote in my last post, that spring weather (and its spring-like joys) had better be around the corner waiting for me...or at least bud out of the tight promises the azaleas are making right under my window.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A slippery slope

A cold snap had us in scarves and warm socks this morning, but Angie and I are set to go garden shopping anyway.  First an early lunch at Prego, then we hit the nurseries, our enthusiasm undimmed by the traitorous wind.  It's too sunny and too full of hopeful yard dreams not to.

Angie will have her list of annuals and perennials to consider for her pretty (and pretty spectacular) garden around her house at the farm; I, on the other hand, have a major landscaping project this year...revamping my long front slope.  Things I've organized across it in the past few years have mostly died or are looking sadly like even a fine spring won't raise their mettle.  So I'm pulling it all out and starting again.

To give you an idea of what's involved, here are some photos I've taken to bring with me to the nurseries, so I can beg for help.  (Technological wizard as I am, I can't get the photos to line up horizontally, but you are looking at Left, Center, Right...what passersby see from the street...if that helps.)

The thing you should know before you send me miraculous solutions that grew in your fertile, aerated garden (or worse, to Pinterest, where really impossible solutions glimmer before me, gloating) is that our soil is hard clay, rocks and tree roots embedded and entangled in it.  Hah. 

In each of the seasons I've lived here, I've put down a few levels of good dirt, leaves and triple-shredded mulch, trying to build up a decent growing layer; that's why the surface looks deceivingly reasonable.  But beneath it is the slippery slope clay brings, and the labyrinth of roots that call a halt to most attempts to dig in.

Hence, I'm going to be bringing in a lot more soil, mixing it with leaf-mulch and a soil aerator our friend and magic gardener Nancy recommended, and some helpers to dig out deep pockets where I can terrace here and there.  Making, I hope, the space more manageable.

Not that I'm discouraging recommendations!  Send any you have. As long as you realize the parameters of earthly possibility, and my own tendency to plant, water, pray and then leave things to their own fates.

Tomorrow, I'll let you know what I learn, find, and/or bring home.  Warm weather had better be ready when I am.

Friday, March 2, 2018


Like breathing in the first whiff of the new season, one by one they draw me to them, and I open to their enticements.

First, there was the birthday card from my friend Pam, from which cover a whole shaft of ideas occurred to me.  I was ready to be awakened, I admit.  My workroom table was crowded with piles of possibilities and plans that were, as they say, long past their sell-by date, as far as my motivation was concerned.  They were good ideas once, and probably still are, but they and I needed new energy.  I don't run out of ideas, to be sure, but sometimes I need a nudge in a new direction to see them through.  So, though I am not the precise student of origami and Japanese arts that Pam is, that image  aroused me.  And that was the beginning of this season's inspiration.

Pam Bencke, Bird

Not long after, Sharron and I took a ride to Artspace, where the Triangle Book Arts exhibit Re(f)use was in play. Each of us were already familiar with a few of the artists and their work, and were excited to see what they'd shown.   It wasn't difficult to be impressed.  Technique and skill were exemplary in much of the work, something to admire in each.  But what inspired me seemed to come forth in invisible, soul-centered ways.  I couldn't point to this intricate binding (even Lisa Gilbert's imaginative work) or that unusual use of material (see my favorites below) and say that those eye-openers were what I was taking home with me.  Instead, inspiration seemed a needle and thread that reached out from somewhere in the artist's creation and sewed me firmly to it.

Martha Petty, The Arc of the Moral Universe
First, front and center, was Martha Petty's The Arc of the Moral Universe, a searing found slice of tulip poplar, very tall and studded closely with folded bits of book paper.  The first thing I thought when I saw it was, oh, that leaves no doubt of the backbone that makes a moral being.  I stared and stared, walking around it, taking in yes, the technique too, but mostly the way that idea must have sprung into Martha, when she spied that wood in the castaway shop, and how long she, too, must have walked round and round it, while its meaning grew in her.  I could not possibly have come to that myself, and yet from it I inherited something very important and impossible to lose.

Ever since I'd learned the rudiments of encaustic (wax) art from her, I've followed her book arts on her website (marthapetty.com) and shows.  And though my workshop doesn't have the space it once did for the permanent spread of tools and materials encaustic requires, I still try out simple versions in projects of all sorts.  I am always excited by the way materials take on alternate selves and conjugate new forms with one another in her pieces.  Her other entry in the Re(f)use show, the poignant but severely cast The Cost of Childhood, drew me into the years that cost us lifelong conversion; once again, those materials...the pod into which old bank receipts are sewn one by one...bring that whole memory into play.  You can see it for yourself on the Artspace website.

Kathy Steinsberger, East:West

Hung against the back wall of the Gallery was another light, Kathy Steinsberger's ladders of branches hung with stained tea bags, perfectly poised.  East:West she calls it, a meditation through the I Ching on our parochial perceptions of wrong and right.

 I think it's interesting, don't you?  that so many artists are taking to their workbenches to bring us visions of what we so immediately and importantly need to remember.  I think back to ages in the history of art when that happens more forcefully, and realize that there is a lot of emotion behind the way we work these days...not only intellectual and creative emotion, but also the strong sense that something has got to change minds, and we hold in our brushes and pliers a means to impel it.  I'm not sure we even realize the fervor behind what our hands create.  For her part, here, as she has in her work on peace, Kathy uses the simplest of found materials to evoke the perceived differences between hemispheres that, for better or worse, are really just mirrors of one another...an antidote to the divisiveness of the narcissism and violence of  our times, its baroque falsehoods and half-truths. Those are my impressions, of course; but as artist Kathy, like all of us, may have begun with simply a pile of tea bags she'd saved for something someday...

Kathy (you've seen me go on about her classes before) is a teacher whose inventions I follow as often as I can (follow, of course, is always an arbitrary word for the way I learn art...or anything else...but so far she's been really patient...).  Her workshops bring me new and welcome perspectives on both art and the ways art fulfills our need to communicate what words entangle more than reveal.  It's like turning the pages of a new chapter to work in her studio.

We found Kathy at a demonstration table, showing visitors how to do small, triangular books, and we tried one or two with her.  She soon had a stream of would-be students, but in between I asked her about her exhibit, and she told me it had been some years since she'd made it. "I just couldn't set my mind to a piece for the show just now," she confided.  "But then I pulled out this one and realized how perfect it was for the times and the Re(f)use theme."

I was glad she did.  Here were sturdy ladders of wood supporting the lightest of leaves. What struck me was its simplicity and the depth provided by those rudimentary elements.

Dana Palmer, Self Help

As for the rudimentary making a deep impression, it was Kathy who nudged us toward her favorite of the entries:  "Did you see Dana Palmer's Self Help?  It  overpowered me."  Curled into a fetal position (recovering position, the medical texts call it) was the shape of a person (why we all thought instantly of woman I cannot tell you, even now...human is the way Palmer phrases it) made from wadded and rolled pages of self-help books among others, untinted so that its whiteness almost camouflages it in the midst of all the other work.  We think of how we get back to the elemental in such positions, both physical and spiritual.

Inspiration can bring negative influences, too...or perhaps just other lessons.  A rusted book in one installation warned me against the sort of binding I'd been lazily leaving on one of my books, so tight that it couldn't open out;  I went home and unbound mine, freeing it from its constraints.
Copper Book, unbound

Another, a series of colorful blocks in a row, reminded me to push myself far enough to wrestle with and accept (if not tame) the vital Jacob's conflict which enlivens art.

It occurs to me that in trying to explain what these works have brought to me, I've missed the point entirely.  Inspiration isn't really a matter of the explainable or the platitudinal.  It infuses one with the desire and the creative impulse to go further than one would have, but the connection is as elusive to word as it is strongly felt.  (Even that is not what I mean.  Sorry.)

It was such a wonderful show, quite literally...I'm still wondering.

But to illustrate how words can't really explain how inspiration takes hold of me, try to make sense of this:  a few days ago, I sat in the doctor's office waiting for his arrival.  It was quiet, and I took the time to meditate a minute or 30.  When I looked up, there on a shelf was a tangle of cable...the ordinary kind you hook up electronic equipment to...and I thought, oh! look how perfectly that means!   I took the picture to remember it.  By chance, when I got home, Cathy and Steve called me to his workshop to give me something he'd pulled out of an old broken rocking chair I'd passed on to them:  four thick sturdy springs.  "We thought of you when we saw them," they grinned.  So, my cable inspiration acquired its materials.  Maybe it's true:  when inspiration strikes, the universe brings what you need in view.

You will probably be hard pressed to recognize any connection between my doings and the art that so brilliantly cast its glow on them, but never mind.  Or rather do mind... for the mind collects and redistributes its visions in lots of ways unfathomable to anyone except ourselves.