Where the Taconics Meet the Greens

12 x 12, oil on canvas

I see this particular view every time we come back from and the Equinox that I have to go back to again and again because I can’t get them out of my head and they never the same two days in a row. This is another one of those spots.

The difference is I have to remember this one because there’s no good place to park and draw or take pictures, so, each time we round this particular corner at the crest of this foothill in the Taconics, I try to commit another part of this view to memory.

Don’t Think, Just do

The assignment was to put the intellect on hold for a whopping 10 minutes and just paint from the heart. Disconnect the critical and turbocharge the emotional.

I’ve done it several times tonight, and even been happy with the results once or even twice. But as soon as that timer goes off, as soon as I step back to inspect, the intellect — the critic – sees a spot that could be just a bit better and moves in with a finger or knife or brush and turns any sparkle to mud.

Wages of Salt

Back in December, I made a deal with Thing1 that I would quit drinking Diet Coke. We were both worried about some new habits he’d picked up at college and decided to conquer our separate vices in solidarity. The bargain worked out well for both of us, but, when I slipped in the middle of June, I discovered that crushing guilt wasn’t the only price I would pay for not upholding my side of the deal.

When I was first diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease (MD) back in January, I’d been “clean and sober for a couple weeks. My ENT’s eyes widened when, responding to to his query about my caffeine consumption, I revealed a lifetime commitment to keeping Diet Coke stock prices stable. He confirmed Dr. Thing1’s prognosis – Diet Coke was not a health food – and noted that, in addition to needing a few weeks for the caffeine to leave my system, the 40 mg of sodium per can might have been aggravating my vertigo.

So for four months I stayed on the wagon. I told myself it was for the Meniere’s but knew the discipline was entirely due to my pact with Thing1. I occasionally counted sodium until April, when, after months of disabling vertigo, my ENT that I might actually need to go on disability. Neither of us was ready to throw in the towel just yet, however, so he referred me to Mass Eye and Ear in Boston.

Thing2 was elated for a trip to Boston — his stomach knows no limits – and, as the self-appointed referee of my pact with Thing1, even allowed that a single Diet Coke would be permitted with our first meal.

That was the first slip and should have been the last.

The visit to Mass Eye and Ear was scary (no taking the T alone, no driving, no running) but resulted in specific guidelines for diet that might give me back my life. He gave me a new medication and a firm number for daily sodium, along with guideposts for avoiding hidden salt.

I’m always stronger when I have a checklist to get through things and, for the next 5 weeks, using my calorie counter app, monitored every bit sodium in every bit of food and drink. It was much more strict than anything I had done before. I was proud of developing a shred of discipline, and knew I owed it to my pact with my first born.

Then came the text from Thing1.

I was getting a haircut and almost ignored the ding.

<<I’m having chest pains>>

Chest pains can be many things, but Thing1’s chronic illness has taught us never to take chances. We texted back and forth as the stylist cleaned up my neck, and, by the time I was paying, I had an iron-clad promise from him that he was going to the emergency room in Boston where he’s working.

I texted a doctor in the family to get reassurances that this was nothing, but as I started home, anxiety gripped my chest and stomach. We’re in Vermont. I knew he had to handle this on his own until we could get there. All there was to do was worry.

I knew I had to keep on with my itinerary as we waited for news, but, as the worry metastasized, I found myself turning to my old standby psychotropics — food and Diet Coke. I turned into the drive-through, knowing this sin was worse because Thing1 was sick. When the salt and soda were gone, the worry was still there, but it had shame as a companion.

We got down to see Thing1 the next day. His meds had triggered pancreatitis, and he would be in for a few days. When we knew he was okay, I admitted what I’d done. The guilt still ate at me, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how giving into one habit triggered another downfall and penance.

For our first day in Boston, I managed to stick to counting milligrams, but soon began rationalizing sampling this dish or that. My prescription did its job keeping vertigo at bay valiantly for a day or two, but, but by the fourth day of sinning with sodium, the sidewalks started to move beneath my feet, and the ocean began to roar in my head again.

I knew guilt was one the wages of salt and soda, but that “sin” was also a powerful reminder of what it felt like to have my life literally spinning out of control.

I’m back on the wagon again, but fear and even guilt didn’t get me back to the straight and narrow. Love did, and it’s what I know I need to focus on when the next crisis hits.

Showing Up

Harry Rich has been showing up at his studio (every day) for 71 years,” read the first line of the article, reprinted from a 2021 issue of Art New England Magazine that I’d picked up at the gallery entrance.

I browsed through the rooms of the gallery, having the same reaction I always have with wonderful art. The world and its chaos faded away, and, for a few moments, there was only peace and color and light. By the end of our visit, however, there was something else just as wonderful and completely unexpected.

I’ve known Harry Rich for many years. I’ve been friends with his wife, Mallory, also an artist. Visiting their house and viewing her expressive landscapes on one wall and his large square, colorful abstracts on the living room walls is like discovering a secret world. Seeing his luminous paintings in a gallery, however, was like getting free admission to an art museum in a major city. 

This gallery is not in a major city. It is in Arlington, Vermont at a community center called the Arlington Commons. Housed in a former Catholic church and rectory, the Commons is new community gathering place and gallery space.  

Last night, this town of 2500 had a new pizza place open (a major event), and, as the Big Guy and I headed over to sample the vittles, we passed the new community center and a sign announcing Harry’s art show. We knew an after dinner visit was mandatory to complete the perfect date night. By the time we got to the art show, a quorum of friends and neighbors had had the same idea.

As we walked to the entrance, we waved at people we haven’t seen outside of Facebook since before Covid. For reasons passing understanding, I was suddenly shy about seeing people I’ve known for 20 years or more. I wasn’t sure what to say or for the first few minutes, but just asking how people were or about their kids, opened the floodgates. We mingled through the crowd of 30 or so people, and I felt like I was returning to something. The looks on the faces of other guests suggested at least a few people felt the same way.

We finally walked into the gallery with 45 minutes to spare before the opening was over. We spent a good part of the time wandering through the space, sometimes talking stopping to talk to a friend or neighbor. I read through Harry’s unofficial bio several times as I took in the paintings.  

In his interview with Art New England, he spoke of himself as a poet as much as a painter, and his  description was perfect. It leaves out a few things, however. I read the line about showing up, absorbing the implications as each new painting opened gateways into Harry’s imagination. 

At the end of the walk-through, I returned to the entrance where Harry and Mallory were talking with other guests. The Big Guy and I gushed over his paintings as the four of us caught up for a few minutes. I told Harry how much I loved the insight into his work the article provided. I loved learning about him “showing up“ and continuing to paint even when he thought “the paint had won.“ 

I thought of the times I’ve hung up my apron when I couldn’t solve a problem in a painting, swearing to the sky that I forgotten everything I know. As if our minds were meeting, Mallory voiced the same sentiment. 

Harry overheard that part of our conversation and looked at his wife and then at me and the Big Guy. With a mischievous look in his eye said, “That’s bullshit.”

He wasn’t telling anybody how talented they were, he was telling any artist who was listening to get off their butts and get to work. He was telling us all to show up. He had given us the gift of his creativity, reconnecting his community with each other and, in several cases, connecting people with art in a completely new way. 

I’ve been guilty of not showing up for so many things over this last year. I haven’t reported to my studio with any consistency. I’ve been reluctant to rejoin community even as Covid restrictions recede.

Last night as we finished reconnecting, we both decided that we would be back for future get togethers. Harry’s work had been a tangible reminder that we need show up regularly for the little bit vital things in our lives and our community. After all, showing up did more than produce a few rooms full of his paintings. It made him a master. It made him an inspiration.

Harry Rich: “The Vermont Years, So Far…” exhibit

is on view until September 6, 2022

The Arlington Common hours are

Thursdays 5-7 & Saturdays 10-3

3938 Historic RTE 7A , Arlington, VT 05250

Who are You?

When school ended, I thought I would be abuzz with creativity. I was expecting a summer of discovery after a winter and spring spent coming to terms with my own chronic illness. What started to happen was a buzz of mindless activity.

It was as if I was afraid to be still with my own thoughts — afraid of the answer to a question that was evermore on my mind.

“What if I’m not actually an artist?”

We had planned an overseas trip for last week and this to see family and sightsee. Thing1’s chronic illness had other ideas, so I took my sketchbooks and watercolors to Boston (where he’s working all summer) so we could visit our firstborn in the hospital.

The change in plans was disappointing at first (once we knew Thing1 would be okay), but if chronic illness has taught all of us anything, it’s how to find the silver lining in any situation. Thing1 got his release papers after two days, and the four of us had an mini-staycation so he could reintroduce us to our old stomping grounds.

Having lived there as newlyweds, the Big Guy and I have seen our share of sights, and, except for wanting to see a Turner exhibit, we were happy to walk around our favorite haunts. Thing1 and Thing2 made it clear that, no matter how air conditioned it was, they would not be going inside any museum while there was still street food to be sampled, so, on the last day, we turned Thing2 over to his brother and went, child-free for the first time in 22 years, to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Turner exhibit was going until July 10, giving us one more silver lining for the week. Joseph Mallord William Turner has been one of my favorite artists for decades, and, while we had been to a few exhibits focused on his work, nothing prepared us for this one. Boasting room after room of watercolors, drawings, and, of course, oils, the exhibit focused on Turner’s artistic and philosophical evolution against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, the end of the British slave trade, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

His masterworks were awe-inspiring, but about halfway through the second room, I stumbled on to something much more humble that, for several hours, quieted all the toxic questions in my head. In a glass case by a doorway sat a 4″ x 5″ dog-eared sketchbook next to a faded pencil and gray-wash drawing. The sketchbook was laid open so that the viewer could see several entries.

Studying them was like walking through a forest for the first time.

The first sketch looked as if Turner had been sitting near a soldier — it was a quickly drawn impression of some detail of the uniform. It was by no means perfect. The next drawing appeared to be inside a tavern of some sort. It, too, was perfectly imperfect. It was never intended to be a masterpiece or even part of one.

It was Turner bearing witness to life around him. Good or bad wasn’t part of the equation in any of these sketches. There was no questioning of who he was, there was only doing work he was driven to do.

So much of the noise in my own head is created by the question of “is it good?” I worry about the better artist at the next table seeing my inferior work. The irony is that when my own students worry if their writing or art is good, I make sure they know that creating, working — good or bad – is what helps them grow.

As we moved from gallery to gallery, I began to see more of the same theme in his masterpieces, as well as his sketches and “practice” watercolors. Even in his most celebrated work, different elements highlighted Turner’s strengths and minimized any “weaknesses.” It finally occurred to me more than once that the only thing that would have kept him from being an artist would have been if he had worried about the artist or creator at the next table in that tavern and let that sketchbook stay empty.

Blessedly Connected

Our first house — a 200-year-old fire trap of a farmhouse in Vermont – came complete with dreams of growing our own food and (me) making quilts. Then 9/11 happened, and I began thinking about my garden as a form of defense. I thought about the Victory Gardens of yore and how they could once again fortify the country from the unexpected, but I also thought about them as a way to disconnect from a world that seemed to be going more mad than usual.

I’ve had that same feeling of and for disconnection for a good part of this year, though not always because of the news. An unexpected and protracted battle with Meniere’s Disease put my current dream teaching career (and work in general) at risk and seriously challenged my carefully honed skills at managing depression. Living with uncontrolled Meniere’s is walking (or sometimes crawling) through a tunnel with a hangover. It’s being in an airplane as it’s changing altitude too fast. It’s watching the world from the back of a cave, while clinging to the arm the couch.

In the last month, I’ve finally found a medication that to be controlling the “flare ups.” As the brain fog began to clear, my first destination was my garden. The rest of the world is just as chaotic now than it was in those crazy days after 9/11, and I still find the work of weeding to be meditative and healing but not always for the reasons I expect.

The work of weeding can be exhausting, even in Vermont where the summers aren’t that bad. My weeding sessions aren’t that long, and because this is a garden for our family, I can use methods that mean that I don’t have to do it that frequently. Every time I weed or plant, however, I find myself thinking of the people who squat and fields picking and pulling for hours on end, day after day so that Americans can have cheap food. I think of the farmers calculating how to get the most out of every hectare so that they can keep producing food for the rest of us.

When I started growing food, I wanted to disconnect from a society that seemed increasingly violent and irrational. What I found, however, as I weeded the beds and paths, was that I became more connected to humanity.

And as I get done with one bed and move onto the next, salivating in anticipation of the fun part of picking dinner for the night, I find myself fall of respect for so many of the people in this country that will never meet but with whom I am momentarily and blessedly connected.

Hot Mess, Cool Brain

In the end, it’s the not just the content of the racing thoughts that drive people to a swallow that bottle of pills – I think it’s a  desperate to escape the noise inside your brain. I realized that a few weeks ago as I got out of bed just past midnight and padded to my office.

I’d been lying in bed tossing and turning over a health insurance question I knew I couldn’t solve that night. It was a vital one, affecting my ability to get and continue treatment for my and my sons chronic illnesses, but it was still a problem that had no midnight solutions. 

No matter how many times I rolled over to a different side to try to reframe the question, it wouldn’t be solved that night or in the middle of any night.

That’s what I told myself when I’d tried to go to bed an hour and a half earlier, and after 90 minutes of mentally calculating budgets and consequences, it was still true. Knowing it was true, however, didn’t stop the thought racing through my brain. I knew some of this is anxiety from the shooting in Texas and multiple threats against schools here in Vermont during the same week. 

I also know that is what mania feels like. Sometimes you get the fun mania – – you feel all powerful and try to take on as much of the world as you can before the inevitable crash. Other times — most of the time during one of many sleepless nights – you just can’t stop thinking about anything and everything. 

I see this in my students sometimes. An unnamed but very real trauma may completely derail any attempt to sit at a desk and learn. When they are vocalized, internal monologues escape at a fast and furious pace as these kids who have already seen too much try to process and suppress the memory of whatever has happened between school days. 

When I see it in my kids, I instinctively turn to art — not the meditation that comes from drawing, but the expression and venting that comes with color. The irony is, that as my own head had become crowded with worries over the last few months of school, I didn’t automatically return to art to quiet my own thoughts.

That night, battered by real worries I couldn’t resolve in the dark on a weekend and feeling steel bands of stress tighten around my chest, however, I finally hopped out of bed and went to my office, put on some music and started to paint. I didn’t know what I would paint and I didn’t care. The result at the end of a 45 minute session was a hot mess but a cool brain that, for a few critical moments, managed to escape the noise inside.