An autumn day. Sugar maple yellows and reds are firecrackers exploding against the blue sky. Cool air calls for a scarf wrapped loosely around the neck, against a heavy, cable-knit sweater. A never-ending carpet of dogwood and oak leaves muffle footfalls leading from our house, today. Loading boxes in the car. Returns. Years shared, packed with haste and anger.
It has been a “summer into fall season” of heartache for our household. Not sorrow as with death, but the dull heartache from reminders of loss both past and recent. Driving down the neighborhood streets, tears fill the eyes unexpectedly. Absence of objects associated with love and friendships. Voids shout at the eye. Autumn is the season that honors loss. Blossoms die. Trees stand in their solitude, grey and skeletal. Animals begin burrow, lining their dens for warmth while their bodies armor themselves for stillness. Slow. Patient. Warm.
Tonight is for family. Small. Quiet. Intimate. We are honoring a birthday. We are reclaiming one that was fraught with pain and hurt. We are owning it tonight for our son, a night that could have well been his birthday if he had not been so anxious to join us twenty-six years ago. We will share a home cooked meal – a simple one the color of autumn – carrot soup. We will have cake and gifts. Candles will be lit. We will affirm – no matter what happens in a week, a year, or in life – our family remains steadfast.
Dancing with Bastian, Artist’s Book (detail) TH1998
There is a short, paperback book of one hundred and eight pages that every so often – when the need is great – I take off of my shelf and re-read. Every time I do, there is something from it that speaks to the moment – this moment – addressing the confusion or stress or void in my life. How do I know to do this? Because I trust the author’s experience and the words she shares with me through her experience – dated as it is. This book of worn and weathered; the spine is cracked and in areas, ripped; pages are yellowing and becoming unglued. Yet, I cannot replace it with a current edition. For as important as the author’s words are, so too are my notations and underlining. It is historical documentation on my psychology. Inscribed by my sister to me, “Happy birthday and happy wandering,” I have read it and re-read it countless time since I received it back in the 1980s.
In her small and powerful book, The Tao of Psychology, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen includes a substantive quote from Dr. Carl Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis (p 419-420) which I must share with you, as it is my point of reference this year:
“There was a great drought. For months there had not been a drop of rain and the situation became catastrophic. The Catholics made processions, the Protestants made prayers and the Chinese burned joss-sticks, and shot off gins to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result. Finally the Chinese said,’We will fetch the rainmaker.; And from another province as fried-up old man appeared. The only thing he asked for was a quiet little house somewhere, and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day the clouds gathered and there was a great snow storm at the time of the year when no snow was expected, an unusual amount, and the town was so full of rumors about the wonderful rainmaker that Richard Wihelm went to ask the man how he did it. In true European fashion he said, ‘They call you the rainmaker, will you tell me how you made it snow?’ And the little Chineseman said “I did not make the snow, I am not responsible.’ ‘But what have you done these three days?’ ‘Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordinance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I also am not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao and then naturally the rain came.’ (p 98)”
Where I live, it had not rained for more than a month. The garden was dry despite my dragging around the hose every evening with my futile attempt to refresh the plants I so love. It is weather I hate, and also accentuated the situation at work where I was feeling “stuck.” That night I opened this book to continue reading, and when I came across this passage I all but cried – it affirmed my conflicted feelings about my job. I could finally breathe; as I did, I kid you not, it began to rain.
Bolen, Jean Shinoda. The Tao of Psychology. San Francisco: HarperRow, 1979. Print
Today is my first-born’s birthday. Suffice it to note that he is not a child or an adolescent, but an adult. To celebrate, the sons and their father went fishing; I remained at home. After a long week at work filled with non-stop movement and interactions, I was thrilled to be alone for a respite. Quiet. No obligation.
So, I decided to bake a cake. A birthday cake. What could be more rewarding that to treat my son and family to an old-fashioned, homemade cake? A shiver of excitement and trepidation ran through my body as I pondered this. What cake? What recipe? Relying on my family history, I turn to my mother’s favorite, Crisco , and choose a yellow cake. Simple. Not only do I default to a family recipe, but grab the mixer that resembles my mother’s – one that was a gift from my husband – and replaced my former, fancy-schmancy, KitchenAid. Armed with the directions and tools, I proceed to line up my ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, vanilla, eggs, baking powder, & salt.
Next, for the pans. It is at this point I deviate from my mother – I do not have 2-8″ round cake pans – any longer. This summer the spouse and I “weeded” our kitchen supplies – foodstuffs, pots & pans, dishes, & linens. Of course, “since I never bake anymore” I gave away these needed items. Scrounging around the cupboard, I pull out 1-13″x9″x2″ pan that we use for roasting potatoes. Despite the warping, it is my only option. So, the mixing begins.
All is going well. The mixture is creamy and sweet. The oven hot. The pan is greased and flour-coated. Guiding the batter with my bright blue, rubber spatula, I reminisce on past birthdays of my boys – cakes and cupcakes – chocolate or vanilla, sprinkles or cinnamon beads, icing in multitudinous colors – anticipation of the evening with candles, singing, and gifts. This year holds the same anticipation. As I pull the cake out of the oven, I smell the subtle aroma and delight in seeing the golden brown edges.
Cutting this in half and using a lemon filling between the layers, the birthday cake is complete. No coconut white frosting an 1″ thick. While not perfect – due to the warping of the pan, the one layer is not even, so it was tricky getting it aligned – it is a labor of love, freely chosen on a beautiful Labor Day morning!
This recipe is from Crisco’s Favorite Family Foods Cookbook. Cincinnati:OH: Procter & Gamble Co., 1973.
- 2 1/2 cups of sifted cake flour
- 1 2/3 cups sugar
- 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup milk
- 2/3 cup Crisco (I used butter)
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
In mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the 3/4 cup of milk and the Crisco. Beat vigorously by hand or at medium speed of electric mixer for 2 minutes. add eggs, the 1/2 cup of milk, and the vanilla. Beat 2 minutes more. Pout batter into 2 greased and floured 9×1 1/2 inch round layer pans. Bake at 350° for 40 minutes. Or bake 35 to 40 minutes in two 8×1 1/2 inch pans or a 13x 9×2-inch pan.
- delight at a birthday dinner with my dear friend at a favorite cafe & bookstore
- reveling in spending a day with my sons at the National Gallery, Hirshorn Museum, & Freer Gallery of Art
- the spouse and I – driving along highways in companionable silence – visiting family in Pennsylvania, and a day-trip to the Queen’s Anne County Fair in Maryland
- feelings of freedom by giving away furniture, kitchen goods (pottery, dishes, pots & pans), books, & throwing out the junk
- intense gardening and yard work leaving a sense of deep satisfaction
- revising ZiaClara
- thrill of splurging on the building of a small stone and slate patio & walkway
- relief at having the piano tuned so I can finally play it
- and, gentle minutes spent in intimate coffees at the new, local bakery or surrounded by the lush garden in mornings on the porch with friends and neighbors
- an cozy evening spent with women friends sharing book titles, gossip, and support
- reading good books of my choosing
- hearing sounds of the evening cicadas and midnight “Ooooing” of a visiting owl
As I enter into autumn and a new school year, I have cleared away the technology – laptop, phone, cords, cables – from my drafting table. My newly purchased set of color pencils sit next to an old sketch. This room will hold the slow pace and easy peace that I am leaving behind with the dark, dry seeds of my sunflowers. I plant them here. They are in shades of blue, green, orange, violet and reds. This garden will bloom indoors during the chilling months ahead. Evening blossoms. After the frenetic push and pull of the weeks and months that I know are ahead of me, I will retreat into this room. When the cicadas lie sleeping, and the dusk quickens into night, the generosity of summer will spill carelessly into my world.
In college I read The Little Prince in French. Now, my eighth-grade students read it en français. The three, 5×7 calligraphic pieces were created by me more than a decade ago.
Working as an artist meant trying to sell work, and so the quote, being quite popular, was fair game.
Looking back, and thinking about my very young students struggling with translation, I am sad. Like le petit prince, I have the moments of disillusionment. Is the magic of words, or the intrinsic need of art-making subject to structured pedagogy and commerce – two artificially constructed forms of human behavior? Where is the time to develop a love of reading, of experiencing words without the arduous task assigned? Where is the ability to create art without the need to produce a livelihood?
Have I loss my stamina for both – teaching & art – as I age? I remember a time when being “in the act” of both filled me up. This year how do I live in the moments of these without the drag and pull into the orbits of the mundane?
While loss is my theme for this summer, pondering life on my planet sustains.
“Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: Is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes…And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance.”
de Saint Exupéry, and Katherine Woods, trans. The Little Prince. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1971. Print.
This was given to us by my in-laws. My father-in-law always envied those of Irish descent. So when they traveled to Ireland, this little books was carried back by my mother-in-law. She was a fabulous cook who studied with James Beard and others. Why we have this book, I have no idea as neither my husband or I even cooked one recipe. Perhaps it was just a reminder – a link to our parents – a time gone by, and “Garlic Cough Syrup” should we ever need it!
A gentle summer morning. Cool breezes brought in by the summer storms remain, and even a blue, couldless sky does not dampen my enthusiasm for the outdoors.* I am not sure what makes one begin to appreciate one’s life. Today, I do. The flowers are spectacular this summer. Brilliant. Wild. I never take this for granted as we are surrounded by majestic ‘black walnut‘ trees. When we found our house more than thirty years ago, we knew nothing about plants, trees, or gardens. The yard was a disaster. Year by year it has been tended, sometimes ruthlessly; others, with a soft touch. Always with the black walnut tree’s preferences at the heart of our decision-making. It is a fickle tree. We are limited with plantings. No vegetable garden for us. Yet, I can feed the bees and the birds, the insects and the gastropods. The cats sleep in the sun underneath the fronds and leaves. A consolation.
But, today! Today. Joy. Celebrating the sun, the sounds of cicadas, birds yelling at the cats, and the occasional hummbingbird at the trumpet vine.
*It is known by many that I prefer the Cornish weather – damp and gray, moving clouds – wind, not breezes. Could this be why I prefer to read books and view films with this backdrop?
The Uninvited 1944, black & white film was my introduction to Cornwall. I fell in love with it. Currently, the PBS series, Poldark appeases this need for “weather,” although there has been too much sun for my tastes! Addendum: both are based on books – Daphene DuMaurier and Winston Graham.
A dear neighbor and friend, Faith, has written a wonderful poem about the street & small town in which we live. Her words are remarkable in the way that they capture so directly, the feelings and images about the changes we both are witness to during the past thirty or more years. She has graciously given me permission to share with you.
There Goes the Neighborhood
Up the hill at the top of my street, High’s Dairy Store
Sold ice cream cones for fifteen cents,
Until too many break-ins brought an end to that, and they moved on.
TJ’s minimart came next to fill that space
With candy, soda, milk, TP and strange assorted canned goods no one bought,
Unless they had to.
Still when unexpected snow closed every other store in town,
Bu had milk and bread to sell and lottery tickets, too. Now he’s moved out
Like the juvenile delinquents living just across from me.
I don’t miss the cop cars or the sound of “firecrackers” at the druggy’s house, when
Terrified, the toddler and her granny ran for help
Into the street at night.
Last week they razed a 1920s bungalow a few doors down:
A huge construction’s going up that fills the whole damn lot.
A house like mine was gutted, then expanded in all six directions.
The meatloaf special and the diner serving it are gone, but we have tofu, sushi at our eight cafes.
Sunday a farmer’s market fills the square and every week some kind of festival is celebrated there.
We’ve got a House and Garden Tour, even a poet laureate.
Are these the signs of gentrification?
There’s still some quirkiness about us, but so much has changed.
Some people say we’re moving on. Others say, “We have arrived”–
No longer Tacky Park or Berkeley East, we’re now a destination.
Up the hill at the top of my street you can do hot yoga, then undo it all next door
At Springmill Bakery, opened yesterday–“You want a double latte with your cupcake?”–
Exactly where High’s Dairy store once stood.
Faith Bueltmann Stern 2015
Awareness of a tension or a lack of harmony, as many online dictionaries declare, and living with this disharmony do not necessarily make a miserable life. The ability to trust the presence of the discord – to allow it to live with you, not against you – offers opportunities for self-examination, which generally take the form of soliloquy or an “internal dialogue.” (You can see, dear reader, how fond I am of the dictionary.)
Without any doubt, this has to do with waiting for art to become harmonious with my Self, once again. The burden of this becomes lightened when I take time to ponder the meaning of its absence. While I am familiar with the feelings and intellectualism associated with this void, this time its nature is different. I have placed art to the side. I have chosen to defer my artistic life. A timetable ticks inside my chest – circulates patience through my veins, so that I might return to it with a full heart and mind.
Hope is the essence of living well.
During the past two years – especially during the summer months when I am at home and able to “do art” – I find myself stymied. It is so much easier to continue with my current “work. ” My adult life is now at a balance – equal number of years as an artist to that of a librarian. Oftentimes, I find myself preparing for a project only to look at the supplies without inspiration, or love. Not long ago I found myself ruthlessly ridding the supplies -untethering myself from the burden. Gone are the pastels. Gone are the acrylic paints. Gone are the hand cut stencils. Gone is all the papermaking paraphernalia – press, vats, dyes, molds and deckle. Given away with love.
I am no longer living life as an artist.
There was a time – the halcyon days of raising children – when it was my life. I awoke thinking about it. I spent the days working on art. Pondering life and art, in the quiet moments. In the afternoons or Sunday mornings, my children created art with my supplies laid before them on the floor of the studio, or outside on our porch. My husband built papermaking presses, pedestals for stone cutting, borrowed trucks to haul large equipment to and fro throughout the various studios shared with others. The artistic life created a center for me, and enveloped those I loved, which nurtured the art work. A beautiful circle.
I look at these years lived “in the world” – in the library world – as a gentle interlude. Aging brings an ache – the ache to live as an artist again. I know in my bones that it will return for it has been resting these many years – new pencils and pens will be bought. There will be other colours and fresh paints. Patience, I tell myself.