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Of owls and podcasts

Oh hey — I’m an illustrator, remember? Sheesh, I scarcely have with all the STUFF that’s been going on. Thanks for listening. (Or ignoring, if that’s your jam. No worries.)

I’ve been working on a project with a friend of mine, who is making a thing that sorely needs to exist and I am super pumped that she is building it.

It’s hard to succinctly explain what it is, exactly, because the thing about new innovations is that the good ones fill a very specific need. And often they are so specific that explanations are clunky and fall short.

It is an aggregate for podcasts. Or rather, for the extra stuff that goes with a podcast.

By way of sideways explanation: there is a podcast, “the Hilarious World of Depression.” It was recommended to me by Meg Hunt while I was working on this project. It — the podcast — is amazing. I feel particularly “hooked” as a long time public radio fan, because the first guest is our heart’s own Peter Sagal.

I want to know everything about this show, about the things Sagal talks about in this episode, related blog entires. I want to know what else the people who are listening to this are listening to, and if news related to this podcast pops up I want to know that too.

I got hooked with Serial in the same way. I think a lot of folks did.

It’s like: I want the DVD extras to this podcast. And I’d like them all in one box. And even better if I could combine that all in one place, rather than jumping around between Stitcher, Audible, NPR1, and my (outdated, no longer actively updated) iTunes playlists (which means, for me, jumping between devices as well.) — which is the way I cobble together my podcast consumption.

…Because, if it were all in one place, then I could have a context for the thing I am about to tell you. I maybe wouldn’t even tell you, here, but rather I would just tell it to the in-app social thing, and then have that point back to my own blog entires that explain the events I refer to.

Instead I’m going through this elaborate backstory, otherwise it’s going to seem too vaguebook-y, too disconnected.

Pause.

THIS is the thing that my friend is building. A place where all of this can take place. Where all the STUFF that a podcast builds — tangental interest, blogs that reference the episode, as well as websites and such related to the podcast itself — can just flow into one big basket. Where you can talk to other users — not just an Amazon recommendation algorithm, but actual interaction with other human beings.

I am drawing some owls for it, it is going beta soon, and I hope it really takes off because I am tired of stumbling upon perfect audio illustrations of things that I feel and then having to build an entire world to explain it to someone.

In the meantime, take a breath.

This is the whole reason I am writing all this.

Here’s what struck me:

There is a moment in this episode where Sagal describes how going through a Major Awful Event dulls the other events in his life that seemed awful.

“…It also makes the other problems I’ve had seem really minor…I see all of the things that I used to obsess about and worry about — my place in hierarchies, the number of feathers I had accumulated in my cap from day to day — is utterly meaningless. Completely meaningless and not worth worrying about, because I’ve got something really serious I need to worry about.”

THIS.

THIS is something that I have felt firsthand since the 3 months of cancer, since my brother-in-law’s leg abscess, since my roommate’s heart attacks and subsequent quadruple bypass, since my no-cause eviction.

The truth of this is so real for me. It reminds me of the end of Tig Nataro’s monologue about having cancer. Because what is a bee joke to the (let’s face it) superlative nature of all this tragedy? It is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh — not because “or else we’d cry,” not because “the tears are all used up,” (there’s ALWAYS more,) but because it really is unreal. If I wrote a book right now about how things have lined up since last April an editor would send it back saying, “you are beating a dead horse, this is overkill. Try to pull it back. We’d like to see some subtly.”

I would have too.

And there certainly have been quieter, better things, and that’s what I’m spending a lot of my time doing — rooting around in the debris looking for those things, so that the narrative isn’t JUST overkill. So that the story I eventually tell is nuanced, so that it does have subtly, so that it doesn’t leave a metallic taste in your mouth like the one I’ve got. So you’d come to me for other stories. So people who go through stuff can find it and say, oh, you too? Sweet. Also, I like how that turned out for you. Or, I’m so glad I didn’t have to go through that, too. Or, I like how you managed to find meaning in all mess. Maybe I can too.

Or even just, I like that part where you just walk through the field of golden weeds and feel the wind in your hair.

Often right now when people talk to me my eyes glaze over. Or I seem like I’m on another planet. I am. It is the planet called I Have Something Serious I Need To Worry About, and I can’t be bothered by problems outside that sphere right now. Even big ones like The State Of Our Failing Nation.

Let me live on that planet. For one thing, if you pull me off too soon it isn’t going to go well for either of us. And also, finding lotuses in the manure is tricky business, and it’s something I do want to do. I’m not leaving this cesspool until I find the lotuses, damn it, because otherwise the whole experience will be filed in the THAT WAS TERRIBLE file of my brain, rather than the WOW ISN’T IT INTERESTING HOW ALL THIS LINED UP, or, GOSH I NEVER COULD HAVE IMAGINED THINGS WOULD HAVE TURNED OUT SO WELL files. I’d much rather the story live there.

Hell, I’d settle for: THAT WAS A CONSTRUCTIVE TIME IN OUR LIFE.

Anyway. 

The app is called Knolo, and I drew a bunch of owls for it. I will be hanging them up prettily in the galleries here soon, but she is currently, as of press time, best displayed on the Facebook page, which is also where you can sign up to be a beta tester.

Coffee

For the first time in I don’t know how long, I did not pop awake at 4am this morning, but instead sleepily emerged from a lovely, happy dream involving a big green field and nice friends. We were sleeping scattered about a large guest house in the dream, and in real life I was able to roll over and sleep again for several hours, which hitherto is an almost unheard of phenomenon.

There are many reasons this might be so, but I am attributing it to the very beginning of my break-up with coffee and overt caffeine, after over two decades of heavy usage.

I’ve always liked this phenomenon about myself, the strange DING that goes off in my mind and pops me awake and alert out of bed sharply in the small hours. I am a huge advocate of early morning — have been this way all my life, since way before the coffee days. I have read Ayurvedic articles that claim that the hours between 4am-6am are the best times to be awake, and I agree with them.

But. Is it also possible that this is an extension of the addiction? Because it happens even if I’ve only been asleep for a few hours, and once awake I am usually wide, wide awake and nothing can change it. On weekends I can’t lie in bed enjoying the early morning sun with my husband and cat all sprawled around me, even though just typing that makes a stern voice in me say THAT, MY DEAR, IS HEAVEN.

It is. But I can’t stay. I never stay. I get up and go downstairs to make coffee.

If I meet resistance I say if I don’t I’ll have a headache, and because caffeine is a socially encouraged substance this is agreed to and to the french press I go.

I think blood vessels are going to expand in my head, which is the thing I am groggily fixated on this morning. I will get more blood to my brain.

I am completely unremarkable in that I am a coffee-obsessed artist living in Portland, which really tells you all you need to know about me and coffee. My whole identity has been wrapped up in the bean, my friendships were formed over it. Anthony and I’s first “date” was at Martha’s, the indispensable coffee shop on our college campus, attached to one of the bookstores. Someone in high school once opined that my blood was brown, not red, for all the brown caffeine I drank at the time (both coffee and diet Dr. Pepper).

The latter I walked away from years and years ago, the former I hadn’t really ever seriously considered cutting out of my life, as caffeine is so socially sanctioned, is so a part of life, and anyway don’t you want me to get stuff done?

I have been really reevaluating that compulsion to get stuff done, though, at least at the pace modern life is going. I have already mentioned this, but it bears restating — while I pride myself in the ability to get a great deal done, I don’t know that being in constant frenetic motion is healthy. In fact, I know it isn’t. Because it wasn’t until I stopped doing that — and took a step back to asses what was happening — I found myself joylessly, mechanically going through my daily tasks — tasks heaped upon tasks — angry at every little thing, upset at every little roadblock, on edge about every single thing that wasn’t going “my” way, and isn’t my way the right way?

And I stopped because wow, that is not who I am.

And it is not who I want to turn into.

I don’t want to be the frazzled task master barking orders at people.

I want to calmly and tranquilly move forward and allow things to slot into place or fall away.

And it wasn’t until I started giving myself some space during the day that I started being able to emerge from the swampy blackness that had resulted in all the Things I’d been through.

This quiet pausing sounds a lot like meditation and someday I hope it turns into that. Right now though it’s much more structured (thinking wise). There’s a lot of mental reframing. A lot of inserting isolated incidents into larger goals. There’s draw-journaling and making triumphs out of task completion. It’s much more cluttered than a traditional sitting practice.

And a funny thing happened when I stopped drinking coffee the other day. I was headachy and listless and foggy, yes. But through the fog I also found that the ambient anxiety that more or less courses through my veins — that doubtless fuels all this joyless barking taskmaster stuff — was completely gone. At least for that day. And considering it was the day after we learned that we owe ([monthly income] x 2) on our taxes this year, whilst we are looking for a new home after our no-cause eviction, that is really saying something.

In place of the kettle shriek, the hysterical crowd chatter, instead there was just this…silence. This calm.

This was indeed my pragmatic motivation to walk away from coffee — as an anti-anxiety measure, and as a way to improve sleep. I struggle with both of those things and for many years have done almost everything everybody tells you to do to resolve those issues. Except give up coffee.

But something else happened too.

All the stress I’ve been living through accentuated a nasty sinus infection recently, and at week SIX of that madness I caved and went to the doctor for drugs. I was prescribed sudafed, and had a latte that same day on an empty stomach, and the resulting stomach cramping, shakes, nausea, metallic taste, light-headed dizziness, panic and awfulness that ensued for several hours after all this metabolized scared me off the coffee bean (and the sudafed) for a good many days. In fact, I haven’t had a cup of coffee since.

In the rosy self-affirming moments it feels all very doable. On mornings like this one however, still making coffee for my husband, dipping the scoop into the grounds, smelling the aroma I had based my entire identity on I had hoped it had been several weeks since I began this, and I check the calendar and realize it’s only been six days. March 3rd.

I tried to have one small cup of coffee last Saturday, at 7am, but one tiny sip brought back the creepy metallic taste in my mouth and that night I didn’t sleep a wink. Just now I tried to drink just the tiny bit from Anthony’s thermos and it has such a … drying effect on my pallet, and immediately sent my stomach into an outraged cramping and gurgling and left me nervously within a close radius of the bathroom, unsure where this was heading.

So it would seem I am off the stuff for good.

Moving

The man at the corner bodega called me by name yesterday, and I am a little heartbroken that it’s happened three months before we’re going to move out of this neighborhood.

I’ve lived on this corner about three years. That’s not a long time relatively speaking, but a lot happened during those years.

I was informed a week again that a long-dreaded / long-awaited renovation project will be happening to the house I live in, and it will come in the form of a no-fault eviction in June.
This is, sadly, the best of all possible scenarios, but it is still a cessation, an uprooting, and those are two things I was hoping wouldn’t meet me after last year. But as we have been waiting for a long time to learn the real mechanics of this project, in some ways it’s a relief. Now it’s tangible, actionable. We can finally make plans.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I am trying not to be totally shattered by this. I’ve been remarkably resilient in the face of death, then a near-death leading to a more complicated grieving, and other heavy things. This though, this is something like my Achilles heal. As long as I have a safe, pleasant place to come back to I can endure great bleakness — and it seems we are not even to have that.
A strange tinge is added to this as this is the very same house that my friend who died lived in, the house he and I became friends in, the house where his daughter was born. (Literally. In the bathroom.) So many key pictures that get shared around our circle were taken in this house, on our porch, in our yard. A new one I’d never seen before went around minutes before I got the notice from our landlord.
I am doing that haggard thing of inventorying everything we own and weighing all options — because really so many options are on the table right now for us. But when I walk into the bathroom and see the shelves he put up and I go to pieces. Because HE put them up, and he’s dead. And soon we’ll walk away from this place and walk away some of the last things he touched, and that will be hard.
I find a voice inside me asking heartbreaking real questions.
Will his spirit be able to find us in a new house?
They are questions that don’t have answers.
I have so many questions that don’t have answers right now.

 I’m trying to shed a brighter light of some of these things. The corner bodega for instance. I get sad to think I will leave it behind — an independent business! Run by a first-generation Asian man whose name probably isn’t “John,” but who goes by that name, whose store we refer to as “John’s”. He carries the butter I like. He sells individual batteries and postage stamps. He thankfully carries Pepto Bismol, which is the thing I always think about when I walk back from there; remember that time when I ran over here and bought some Pepto so Travis could get home? We did a good job that day. 

We’ll be leaving John’s I sigh.

Then another part of me says: remember when he was robbed at gunpoint when your in-laws were in town?

And I think…yeah. I guess leaving that isn’t so bad.

Snippets of spring are coming and the house is shining with hope and potential like everything does to a gardener this time of year.

And I find myself wanting to spend as much time as possible in this house that I love and isn’t mine.

I find myself feeling as I did last year when we knew we had weeks, not years, left with this person. Whatever we got was special, sacred, worth while. I find myself thinking the same things I did that year: make the most of this. This may be all we have.

It was bracing and exhilarating then. Now as I shop for replacements on Craigslist, finding few in our budget, wondering seriously if that’s it for Portland, for us, for everything — it doesn’t feel exhilarating. It feels exhausting.

We find one out of thousands that works for the budget and it turns out they don’t allow cats. Or there’s one with a sunroom but no yard. Or there’s one that is perfect — so perfect that if I’d encountered it a year or two down the road, when we are a bit more above water, I would offer to buy it. And it is just too expensive. Not extreamely so, but just enough. Just enough for my fingers to brush up against it. Beyond my grasp.

I prick out seedlings and prep my starts because that’s what a gardner does this time of year, knowing full well that I have no where to put mature plants in April and May. That I may never have a place to put them, and may have to put my tools in storage somewhere, or sell them.

In better times it’s a mark of hope and resilience. Sometimes right now it feels like a kind of futility, like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic. Let there be beauty and light, even in the face of the swirling inevitable. Is it brave? Is it foolhardy? It depends on how much sleep you’ve had.
However. Isn’t it all inevitable, and isn’t it all just for a brief lark in the end? When I can get truly big picture about this I can regain my three months of cancer perspective and feel it is Correct and Right and Just to tend to my little seedlings, and give them every chance they’ve got.
Then I go to the grocery store and see a man walking around with mud spattered jeans and I am shattered. What will I be doing in April or May? What will happen to us?

Scenes from Winter (Tough Times Never Last)

It’s the part of winter that feels like it’s ALWAYS been winter,
She said.

reminding me of when someone else told me,

“I’m in the part of pregnancy that feels like I’ve always been pregnant.”

Endurance
and grinding toil
and holding out
and waiting
waiting waiting.

Even when we reach the destination it can seem too little too late.

Or too much.

It’s been hard, hard, hard for me. Since December.

I could attribute it to legitimate national causes, but actually it’s interpersonal.

A lot of things happened this winter. A lot of things have BEEN happening, of course. But since December a lot of other things happened. Things with close friends — friends who didn’t die and so I cannot freely tell the stories. Not directly anyway.

I will say that one was a brush with death. A major one. A narrow escape. On the tail end of a tragedy we very narrowly escaped another one.

This was actually the THIRD major medical crisis since April, the third time someone I am extremely close to could have died, or almost died. (Or did die, as with Travis.)

Three brushes with death in nine months is rather a lot for a person not living in an active war-zone.

There were other things, too.

These things didn’t happen to me, but came blasting through me. And a month later I washed up on shore, caught up with my external self, and was filled with wonder and sorrow and, for the first time, felt the sharp pang of despair.

I’ve found myself doing things I’d never, ever done before even in my darkest times — finding myself unable to get out of bed, succumbing to numerous strange bodily ailments, feeling no hunger whatsoever, and unable to draw anything, which for me is very, very strange indeed.

I find that I am so disconnected that I scarcely know what I think about the whole thing when I am at my best, and when I am at my worst I am merely blinded by anger, or sometimes sorrow, often fear, and am petrified with dread. (About what has already happened, what MIGHT have happened, and what MIGHT HAPPEN in the coming days.)

These feelings sync up so nicely with the political situation that I often don’t explain it, I just meet others’ bleak outlook with my own and we can carry on nicely.

Or at least, nicely enough.

Lately though ‘nicely enough’ hasn’t been enough. Because there are times when it becomes downright…heavy.

In despair, I talk to Anthony. Because what is a gentle soul supposed to do in times like this?

I am feeling left behind — like if I don’t muster up and do Something About This now I will be irrelevant — because living in such politically significant times yet NOT doing overtly political work is almost like treason. Like you don’t deserve to live where you already are. Like your existence is out of place.

The pace of life is increasing, and I am unwilling or unable to keep up at that speed. “Trying” leaves me exhausted and disconnected, more than I already am.

Anthony reminded me that to preserve the sense of calm in a state of chaos is no cowardly act. Could be considered revolutionary. To be “left behind” in this case might mean one remains unique, interesting, striking, worth hearing. To be different is still useful. Like a breath of fresh air.

At the very least, it means the things that truly interest me are not crowded. Chummy and comfortable is the line outside the Aladdin theatre in the light rain a few weeks ago, presenting my phone eTicket for the first time and for the first time entering this building. To see Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform for the first time with my own eyes.

The founder of the group, Joseph Shabalala, had a series of recurring dreams over a period of six months in 1964, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony. It was a beautiful sound — very close to the traditional isicathamiya harmonies that he was already performing with his choir at the time — but it was somehow softer, filled with more love, more beauty. He restructured the choir, bringing in some relatives of his (family voices after all blend in ways that friends’ voices cannot.) He strove to teach his choir the harmonies he’d heard in his dream.

I first learned about them on Sesame Street. I have always loved their sound, have always found it soothing, and the recordings of theirs have been a great harbor of solace for me during all these days of turmoil.

We love them and clap so much.

Because they are so different.

Because they are so themselves.

The motions they do during their songs which seems so…right somehow. There is a great general showmanship to their motions onstage, which is a blend of vaudeville and something deeper. To say “childlike” is patronizing and colonial — and anyway it doesn’t capture it. It’s…deeper. Richer. It’s a cultural inheritance where movement and song were never sundered from one another, where people’s spirits were never subjugated to the extent that they internalized “what will people think of me?” as we have in the West.

At intermission everyone seems to be talking more with their hands.

There is a kind of warm-spirit awakened by this music. The family in my row shares handfulls of carmel corn with me.

There was something very moving about hearing dream-gentle sounds from a place that has seen apartheid.

It made me hope that perhaps there is still room for gentle wanderers after all.

This is the song I have had stuck in my head for the past few days, and I find it very soothing.

Tough times

never last

(but) strong

people do

North and South and East and West

Up until November 8th, I was preparing a historical piece on Sarah Josepha Hale — my latest historical figure crush, the woman who canvassed for years to secure the Thanksgiving holiday in our national pantheon.

To my (albeit limited) knowledge, she was not an advocate of the Henry Wordsworth Longfellow rubbish about Pilgrims and “Indians” — rather, her interest was in unification. To bring an injured, quarrelsome, partisan country back to the table of togetherness, after such divisive times as the Civil War.

If anything, her efforts are even more relevant now.

I made a point of not entering the fray this year — of paying no attention whatsoever to the lead up, dispute strong, strong urging to do so.

There were other more important things happening this year, and because my workload at the time was light, because my day job was simple and brainless, I was uniquely positioned to really sink in and focus on my sick friend, and I wanted to. So I did. To the utter exclusion of other concerns.

I live with political radicals, and I think they really looked down on me for taking this stance. I had several tense discussions with people in the months leading up to the elections: defending my decision to not put candidate-specific stickers on my car, and not participate in phone banks — things I wouldn’t do anyway in normal life. During the three months of cancer I even found myself indignant at their insistence that this larger issue was more important than my specific one — particularly as many of those people knew Travis a lot better than I did.

I’m trying to really remember this feeling — indigence that a larger issue being deemed “more important” than mine — as I suspect it is very similar to how a conservative voter has felt for the past eight years, and why we are where we are right now.

I project, though. Because I really haven’t had many substantive conversations — and it seems like nobody else has, either. And to walk into a screaming stalemate this late in the game is bewildering, particularly for someone like me that prefers to sit alone and draw. I find myself Googling things like “how to talk to people” , and wondering who to go to for a reading list. There is AMPLE material out there, but as I felt during the three months of cancer – time is of the essence. Is reading up on things and talking to people too little too late? Is that the world we are living in now?

I know deep in my heart of hearts that this will not do. That we must find a way to come together and discuss these issues with one another. I know deep in my heart of hearts that unity is more powerful for EVERYBODY in the long run than different factions at war. I truly believe that.

But it is hard to move towards that openly listening to the people I am listening to on my social media feeds. Hearing the stories of marginalization from the marginalized. The truly horrifying instances of major, blatant things that trigger a blue voter into a frothing rage, and the same event that is just completely under the radar of a red voter. And the anger on both sides, the easy dissemination of false or misleading information. What is real? What is true? How do we find out? How do we ensure justice is done? How do we serve the needs of the people who need it — both the refugee and the rural farmer? The black man and the white woman?

It’s a good thing Facebook wasn’t around in Hale’s day. We would have just gone on killing each other. I worry that’s where we’re headed.

Social media discourages the very thing that I feel is needed — conversations with people with whom we disagree. Not unfollowings, but respectful, earnest questions and uncomfortable silence. Not lectures, not arguments even. Just real conversations, getting a sense of where each side is coming from. Because the stalemate we have reached is too rigid and brittle.

I have been encouraging people to do this, to talk to people. To try it at least, to muster themselves up and get a little brave. To ask questions and listen. (I mean, really listen.) I myself have been doing it, little by little, at a time when I still find myself wandering from room to room, churning my hair around and sobbing. There has been so much to grieve this year and stress is high for everyone, for all kinds of reasons.

But we can’t wait until it feels easy.

I don’t think it will ever feel easy.

We just have to start somewhere.

Slip Slidin’ Away

“…Cry. Swear. Laugh. Cry more. We are making a river with our tears and rivers quench the thirsty…”

I had a massive headache for the past two days — the sort that makes you not even want your morning coffee and leaves you feeling nauseous. I worked through it the first day and made it worse. I tried to appease it the second day by lying prone wrapped in blankets on our couch with a cool washcloth on my eyes and forehead.

This is what couches in living rooms are for, and with four people in the house we get a lot of mileage out of ours — though of course the thing I thought about was that this was exactly where Travis was when I came home and found him sick on the couch back in May.

His was a much more advanced ailment, of course, but it was with roughly the same treatment. He was balled up on the couch, had a bucket and a blanket — I administered the cool washcloth, asked if the light level was okay, asked if he wanted windows open or closed, asked if he needed a lighter or heavier blanket, asked if he wanted water. Brought him some anyway after he threw up the first time while I was there, and brought him a fresh cloth to wipe his mouth with. Held his hair back when they next wave came.

I found a book on grieving for teens at the end cap of our library recently. I found myself deeply moved by this item:

” 21. Know that your relationship was unique.
You’re probably not the only one mourning this death.
Others share your sorrow, and there’s comfort in knowing they do.
But it’s also comforting to know that the relationship you had with there person who died was unique. You behaved differently around one another than you did around other people. You affected each other in different ways.
You’re a different human being now than if you had never known that person.
Your life is enriched forever.”

Travis and I were not best buddies. I honestly had not known him that long, as far as things go. But we’d lived together, and his partner was a fixture in Anthony and I’s concentric circles. To be roommates, for me, means you become a sort of family. There’s a lot of late nights, early mornings, weird household emergencies (like chickens escaping or discovering two of your angelfish are a breeding pair), and just a lot of casual stuff that bonds you in ways that are difficult to explain.

So our friendship was stirred up pretty quickly, because in addition to all this we were similarly laid back, similarly in favor of being quietly attentive rather than overtly demonstrative. Similarly wary of Too Much Directness, and often balancing something really deep and meaningful with something kind of surface-silly, to even things out.

We clicked. That’s really all there is to it.

During the three months of cancer, our interactions were exactly as they would have been if he had just caught a bad cold. I never tried to Say Anything Meaningful, nor act outwardly that this could be the Last Time I Saw Him — though of course I always knew that in the back of my mind. That knowledge did not push me to a heightened state of sentiment, rather it pushed me into a heightened state of awareness. Appreciation. Openness. I was just unexperienced enough to think to myself, with a sense of quiet bemusement, this is what a Last Moment could be. Digging in pizza boxes for a cheese pizza, that he absolutely should not eat anyway. But that’s what he wants, and by God I’m not going to police him. Enough people are doing that. Sure, bro, I’ll help you look.

He told us at the beginning of all this that he was eager to come see us because he knew we weren’t going to treat him any differently. And we never did. Illness strips you of bullshit — of tact, of propriety, of all the tip-towing we do to keep other people at ease. There’s no patience for that when you are plagued by a gnawing nausea, when something else is gnawing at your liver and lungs.

And it seems like this sudden, utter, abject directness causes a lot of healthy people to wrap extra layers of indirectness around themselves, to protect themselves from it. And it’s just because you don’t know what to say, how to help — because of course, you can’t help. You can’t make it better. And you can’t say anything that will help the fact that he’s dying and going to leave his two year old daughter with no memory of his devoted, pure love.

We’ve been writing letters to his daughter. In my first one I said:

“I never knew what a father was until I saw your daddy being one.”

One of the last things Travis did on this earth was to arrange for a slip ‘n slide to be purchased for his daughter, and watch her play on it in the hot summer sun, with the kind of wild abandon reserved for two year olds.

Three months later we were at Orcas Island, a place he loved almost as much as his daughter. The place he shared with Anthony and I (along with a handful of folks who had been there before.) A place I have not done justice to at all, and intend to, because it is unreal.

It’s where we all would have gone again this summer if he had been well — it was a place he himself was able to spend his last week on this earth. It was a place I said I need to get to this year, long before I knew we were holding his memorial there. Because he is connected to the place in a deep way, and I felt his spirit would be heading there. In our circle one cannot set foot on the island without thinking of him.

We were there to formalize this connection.

During the memorial I was throwing pebbles into the sea with his daughter while above us, on a large rock, family members scooped into the Big Lebowski inspired Folgers can containing his ashes. (This can was purchased on eBay at Travis’ request, about a month or two before it was needed. The phrase “volume of human remains” was Googled to ensure one can would be sufficient — it is, as it turns out, at least in his case.)

Music was playing from a loudspeaker. After several key people hurled a scoop of ashes into the sea, they yelled my name. I hadn’t expected them to, and was deeply moved.

I was unofficially in charge of his daughter, who looked at me inquiringly when they yelled my name.

“They’re calling my name. Let’s go see them.”

Someone else threw ashes while I got myself up on the rock. I had his daughter in my arms, and I checked someone’s program to confirm the song we were dancing to: Paul Simon’s Slip-Slidin’ Away.

I learned later that Travis had selected all the music for the memorial himself. Doubtless this spurred on the last minute slip ‘n slide purchase. Full circle.

“What they doing?” his daughter asked. I was frank. We are always frank with her.

“They are throwing your daddy’s ashes. And now it’s our turn.”

The memorial was planned months ago — and when I heard the date I was ecstatic, because it was being held the day before my birthday. How correct, I’d thought. How beautiful. A celebration of death and then a celebration of life. It meant I’d be spending my birthday doing things I loved: camping, sitting around in nature.

After a good hearty camp-stove breakfast I went for a walk back along the place we’d been to the day before, the place one spends a good deal of quiet time if one is at that campground. The place where we’d thrown his ashes.

It was earlier in the day, so the tide was further out than it had been during the memorial.

I wasn’t exactly walking where the ashes had landed, but closer. I was looking casually for good pebbles, as one always does on a pebbly beach. Things catch your eye and you examine them.

I posted these on instagram earlier, and haven’t been able to say it any better than I have already:

It was there that I saw, rolling around in the sea…

…an agatey-geode he left just for me.

There are people who got real closure from the man himself.

There are also people who didn’t, and for whom that stung very painfully at the end.

I wasn’t CONSTANTLY around during Travis’ illness, though I think I give off that impression. There were some people that were there almost every day, administering massage, helping with the steam baths, managing medication, and just generally trying to keep him comfortable and loved. It was like a massive rhythmic dance going on for those three months. A stomping, clapping, tapping kind of rhythm. And my role as I saw it was to add a clap in the gaps. I was the gap filler. I would drop in, nudge something into place, then leave again.

I tried my best to strike a balance between giving help and giving space. (And, very often, LEAVING space for others.)

It didn’t matter to me who was visiting them, what mattered that SOMEONE was visiting them.

It didn’t matter to me who was bringing them dinner, what mattered was that SOMEONE was bringing them dinner.

It meant I was slightly outside of the real work — the drama, the frustrations, the tears, the moments where it got especially dark. But as such it meant I could pick up the slack, or direct others to pick up the slack for them, when energies waned. It meant I felt my role was not as important as those folks who were always there, and I was never out trawling for acknowledgment, though I received a ton.

Of course, this also meant I was occasionally very privileged and lucky to be at the front seat of things.

Of course, “privilege” and “luck” are not usually words you’d use to describe holding someone’s hair back as he vomits into your trashcan because of his stage IV terminal cancer. But it felt lucky to me. To have a chance to be there with him, to be helpful, and to not make a big deal about it at the time. To not need or seek any thanks at all. That wasn’t the point – the point was the real, hands-on time. The gift of time.

He surprised the hell out of me by alluding to it once, when he came to visit me out of the blue on a Saturday morning about a month later.

“I owe you a pitcher…” he said.

He was talking about the plastic pitcher I’d sent him home with the day his partner came to get him from our house — he had been wrapped up in one of our quilts too, but the pitcher was the Thing To Throw Up In. A comforting thing.

I laughed. “No worries. I know where you live.”

We understood each other.

I understand this stone as a birthday gift from Travis, from the other side.

And that’s how I’ll take it, because I like going on that kind of ride.

Draw-journaling and the “m” word.

One of the biggest shifts that happened during the Travis Thing was that I found myself being extra aware. Extra attentive to the present. I was snowed under by DETAILS — some mundane, some very grim indeed. And I was startled to find those two things, the grim and the mundane, so close together like that. And there were just so many of them.

I started drawing every few days about Everything That Had Happened. I mean…I do draw every day — funny things I see or coffee cups or things relating to upcoming projects — but I hadn’t, in a long time anyway, drawn about my own life everyday.

This draw-journaling not only made all the amorphous details seem less daunting (for I had pinned them down, and could therefore relate to them,) but it also helped remove them from my own brain a little bit and made shelf-space for the new things that would come in every day. Little minor things — like the glorious way the sunshine caught in the grass in a meadow in one of my favorite places, and bigger things.

I was struck by how much calmer and happier I was over the course of this whole process than, say, I had been just beforehand — when I was so distracted by the petty annoyances of life. And I attribute this calmness, without question, to this practice of sitting down and facing What Was Happening in this way every day.

This is what everyone calls “mindfulness”, and while I was fully in favor of it — and knew all about it in an academic way from things I’d read, lectures I’d heard, snippets from Radiolab and religious thinkers, all pointing to the merits of Grounded Being-Here — it was hard to move towards in a conscious, full-hearted way for some reason. Even for me, and I am an incredibly deliberate and earnest person.

And beyond that, it wasn’t just knowing about it and liking it and knowing it would be a good idea. It took being So Very Attentive, on accident, in almost every moment during those three months. It took being totally present for a dying person. Because when you know, with utter certainty, that you may never see this person again, when every moment could really be his last, THE VERY LAST THING you want is to be distracted. Let nothing take you away from this backyard, sitting next to this skeleton, laughing with his morbid jokes. Being grateful he made a morbid joke, because it means he is thinking about his own death.

Staring mortality in the face means you are just completely there. Completely listening. Completely glad when they are content and comfortable, and completely sad when they are not. Completely everything. Completely present.

I am missing that now, as I drift back into the distracted life. I wish I still felt the urgent need to just focus on what’s in front of me. I am trying to figure out how to hold onto that.

Solo Art Show: Tiny’s Coffee SE

For those of you in Portland, listen up: for the whole month of August I will have pictures up on the walls at Tiny’s Coffee SE.

I was trying to remember if I’ve ever had a show of JUST my illustrations. I’ve shown my canvas work here and there, and illustrations have popped up in group shows, but I think this is the first time they’ve taken over an entire public place.

The last show here was a photography show with uniform enlargements that could easily be seen across the room. My work — painted by hand on paper — is not large, so I’ve tried to group them invitingly to make people yearn for a closer look. In some areas this worked fairly well.

In others, well…better luck next time.

Remember though that most homes do not have vast empty walls but rather have a menagerie of existing features to work around. And the nice thing about small pictures is you can tuck them into almost any space.

These two didn't make it into the show, though they are available. These two didn’t make it into the show, though they are available.

This show is a culmination of about six years’ worth of work. It features pictures from all sorts of different adventures I’ve had during that time: working the recycle crew at the Oregon Country Fair, my trip to Los Angeles for the Manifest:JUSTICE show, volunteering with the Portland Opera,  and several Cyborg Anthropology pictures are available as well. One of the fennel pictures is even there. All sorts of good stuff.

The show is up through the month of August. Come by and see it, won’t you?

Private battles

The other day I was at Lauralhurst park on my lunch hour, sketching for this picture — one of two for my friend-who-died’s daughter, so she’ll be able to see what his fatherhood was like. These have been very satisfying pictures to work on, though of course they are intense to work on as well.

Two ladies in their 60s came up to look over my shoulder at what I was doing. One of them started fumbling desperately for her glasses, realizing she may have lost them or dropped them somewhere. (She hadn’t, she eventually found them in a bag.)

“UGH. Never get old!” she said to me. “When you get to be 60 they should just take you out and shoot you.”

It was so cosmically messed up, telling a person who was drawing to a toddler about her dead father that it’s better to be dead than enjoy long years of life with the people you love.

I wanted to say this to her, but I was too thunderstruck to speak.

There’s that saying about how you never know what quiet battles people are fighting on their own, and so you shouldn’t go cavalierly diminishing folks or taking it to heart too much if someone is short with you or doesn’t give you back the kind of energy you are giving out. I always know that in the back of my mind, but it’s been interesting to be living that lately. To hear people say glibly, “I just DIED.” and think, no. No you didn’t.

Of course, who knows what health issues this lady is struggling with. Maybe she used to have a sharp memory and never used to lose anything. Maybe she just heard bad news. Maybe her lunch wasn’t agreeing with her. Maybe she too was annoyed that someone’s dog had just plunged into the pond and chased all the teenage ducklings away. I don’t know what quiet battles she is facing. They must be doozies.

Monster Drawing Rally 2016

All photos in this entry were taken for the Portland Art Museum by Cody Maxwell, and are used here with permission. There are many more pictures to admire here. 

All photos in this entry were taken for the Portland Art Museum by Cody Maxwell, and are used here with permission. There are many more pictures to admire here.

I read on someone’s Facebook page that “MDR” is the French version of “LOL” (mort de rire: dying of laughter), which is a great way to look at it really. The Portland Art Museum‘s Monster Drawing Rally is a big fun time.

This was the second of such events, designed to raise money for free youth programming at the Art Museum. It’s a pretty good deal for the artists as well. In exchange for rubbing elbows with one’s colleagues and drawing before an admiring crowd, one receives a FREE membership to the art museum for a year (!). I have loved being able to just drop into the museum for an hour or two to see a certain painting or visiting exhibition without having to make a big THING about it, so of course I was thrilled to be asked to participate again.

I was in the final session this year, and I arrived right at the beginning of the event so I’d have a chance to look around. It was because of this I met Linda Hutchins.

AND her incredible ink-nib-fingers.

I stood for a long time before her, dazzled by her little invention.

I told her I was dazzled, and she beamed and said she had been attending a metal workshops for a while. This event was the ink-nib-fingers’ debut! They make tiny little scribble beasts that look like something Paul Klee would have done if he’d had the luck to play with such interesting things. It looked SO FUN.

I also met a PNCA student named Jessica who was doing a paper-cut collage.

She cleverly had her sketchbook out for folks to flip through – which is a great idea that I may borrow for future events. It made me want to see more of her work, though I haven’t yet found a website for her.

Of course I also saw a bunch of people I know. Like Kinoko Evans.

And Lisa Congdon.

And Anisa Makhoul. (Apparently giving the volunteers a hard time. When I saw her she was drawing.)

I also saw pals of mine who I don’t have photos of, like Adrienne Vita, Phillip Stewart, Carson Ellis and pretty sure I saw my Lena Podesta as well.

I saw people I don’t actually know but kind of drool over too, like the little family behind Apak Studio.

It’s an interesting exercise to put a bunch of introverts in front of a live audience and have them draw for an hour. Some people find it trying. “How was your session?” I asked Rilla Alexander, when I bumped into her after her session. She said, “I learned I really need a steady table.”

Some people really clam up. I saw several artists this year with a stash of pictures already half done, which they would sort of finesse into finished and then hand off to the volunteers. I suppose it does make for a more polished product, though to me it is not in the spirit of the event — the joy of watching something get created, from scratch, before your very eyes.

Then again, I draw out in the world quite a bit and have a separate painting kit to do so, so it is easy for me to click into an informal mode. I don’t find it difficult to just sit back and draw monsters. I am not daunted by people looking over my shoulder and I am not afraid to do a bunch of potentially terrible drawings in front of people.

I have an “always be closing” attitude towards this event. Rather than spend a long time on one or two pictures I like to make a whole bunch of quick ones. Some I like very much, some end up being not to my taste, (i.e. I think they’re awful,) but maybe they would be someone else’s taste. Because who cares in the end. Some of them sold right away, some are still probably at the art museum’s shop and may or may not sell in the coming weeks.

Once a picture is finished, you raise your hand to alert a volunteer in a blaze orange lei. They take the picture to a drying rack, slip it into a plastic sheet, label it with one of your stickers, and then it goes off to the bidding wall.

This is where the funds are raised.

I like having other people take care of all that, because again it lets me focus more on the process itself. And the result of that process. The look in people’s eyes when they see something getting made.

And the feeling you get when people stop before what you’re doing.

Finally meeting artists you’ve admired for a long time.

And the inspiration — and opportunity! — to make a little magic of your own at one of the many tables available near the concessions.

It’s all just a very cool thing to be a part of. I hope I get to do it again next year.