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.

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.

Greetings from the trenches

We’re six weeks into knowing about my friend with cancer, (see previous entry) and about five weeks into his 6-8 weeks prognosis.

There isn’t much to say about it. Most of the time, because I am not living with this friend nor am I that intimate with his family, life is normal — transcendent and gorgeous, even, in this heightened state where all one’s focus is on the immediate present. It is late spring and it has been a particularly beautiful one here. I find myself weeping with gratitude, not sorrow, when I see than a rose has opened, or the pea plant has a new pod plump and ready for eating.

I have been surprised to find myself more content, clear-eyed and happy than I have been in a long time. There’s just a heaviness — growing or shrinking unexpectedly and triggered by things that seem quite unrelated. The subconscious fights desperately to be heard.

We’ve had a few moments where it has been undeniably forthright.

I don’t yet want to write too freely about this here because it is a ‘developing situation’, and anyway it may not even be a story that is mine to tell in the end.

It is not because I don’t want to talk about it. Quite the contrary — it’s ALL I want to talk about. It is all I can think about, it is all I want to think about, and I can’t find anybody that will indulge me and listen to all of the gritty, morbid, irreverent, frank, unblinking things that are stirring around in the cauldron of my curiosity. Too many people I know are too involved in this to talk about it that directly, that often with me.

I am not a particularly social person and usually do not process things verbally, so this impulse to talk to people has been really interesting. It has bordered on a NEED. It’s like I’m searching for words to pin down what is going on in my own mind.

Furthermore, I like to be able to DO. And when there’s little to DO I get very restless and uneasy. I want to Help, to the extreme that I find myself doing things unasked for, bordering on becoming a nuisance.

I spend a great deal of time feeling blank, like an automaton going through the motions of a day, waiting for orders.

In this altered state of life where not much feels correct, where surfing the web is so clearly a waste of time, when Facebook and Twitter as just saturated with nonsense that I just can’t bring myself to care one iota about, because what is any of that to the pulsing, urgent need to be present when called upon, to comfort a friend who is struggling, to sit quietly with oneself and appreciate the heartbreaking majesty of clouds. Now, instead of sneaking peaks at Instagram or Tumblr in quieter moments when I’m in the bathroom or waiting for the teapot to boil, I endeavor to have a book in my hand. So I can read.

Because death is a subject that books are well versed in. And unlike people’s children, pithy memes or political travesties, death is a subject I have an unending amount of patience with, tolerance for, and interest in right now.

You’ll note the Tolstoy. Somehow, aside from directly topical items, the 19th century really gets me right now. Hard to say what I appreciate more — the slow paced thoughtful characters who seem to prioritize the proper things in life (unlike our hopelessly segmented and compartmentalized 21st century selves,) or merely the numerous instances of consumptives sliding into medically unassisted deaths. People on deathbeds and people attending to those people have obvious appeal, and take up a good portion of the books from this era. Tolstoy in particular is very, very good about writing about this, how messy it all is.

Aside from reading I have been quilting a great deal.

The first quilt I ever made was over a breathless weekend or two when I was home alone because I was working and couldn’t accompany Mom and my brother on a trip to Grandma — was I a junior in high school? Or was it Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college? I can’t remember. I just remember Mom had a pile of her old button-up shirts she’d asked me to take to Goodwill, and instead I cut them into squares and made a quilt out of them, borrowing her sewing machine.

I have made several since then, different kinds and styles, but it’s been a while and I hadn’t made one in my new sewing set-up at this house, which is essentially a little gnome’s cave in our cubby hole / storage space.

I’m making a new one, again out of old shirts and cotton clothes — ours this time, not my mother’s — as a permanent bedspread and ultra-snuggly nap blanket for our room. Most of our quilts — aside from that delicate first one — have been pressed into service throughout the rest of the house. I find them on the porch or in roommate’s rooms — filling out the corners, keeping things cozy.

This one is also in the kantha quilt style. I was delighted to learn the name of those charming, lightweight quilts that are rapidly gaining popularity; perfect for summer, and, as it turns out, genus for its reuse of old fabrics. Waste naught, want naught.

To do a kantha quilt means one spends a LOT of time hand stitching, which off and on is perfect for what I need right now. There are indeed days where I have a restless, exhausted energy, and nothing feels right but to dial up the iPod with a scene from Anna Karenina and make a running stitch again, again, again, again all up and down the soft, well loved fabrics of old shirts of ours — shirts that exhault at being pressed into service in this new way.

Quilting and reading. And messy ink drawings. That is what these weeks have consisted of, primarily.

The courage of our hearts

[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” background_position=”center center” background_repeat=”no-repeat” fade=”no” background_parallax=”none” parallax_speed=”0.3″ video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_loop=”yes” video_mute=”yes” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ border_style=”solid”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ layout=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” border_position=”all” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”small-visibility,medium-visibility,large-visibility” center_content=”no” last=”no” min_height=”” hover_type=”none” link=””][fusion_text]

On March 9th my husband’s friend/boss was killed by a tree.

About three weeks later, a woman I know — a cleaning client — died after a long, arduous battle with Parkinson’s. I have written a LOT about that one, but haven’t yet had the heart to post anything about it.

So I was already in a contemplative mood when, two weeks ago, I was told that a dear friend of mine has aggressive, stage IV cancer. He has roughly 6-8 weeks.

I come from southern church people — not the deep south kind, but the great plains kind. Hardy work stock. And I’ve shepherded several friends through deaths that “should not have happened,” if you think life is a tidy neat little bundle that should make sense.

So my reaction to this news was not to pine, not to get angry, not to say “why them”.

My reaction was: prepare every vessel that floats.

There is a lot happening every day. Every moment is precious. Anthony and I are mobilized on different fronts, helping different people. We have met up in random neighborhoods while in route to other places to have trench conferences and share intelligence. We duck out every so often for quick decompression — here a weekend camping get away, there an hour for ice cream.

I won’t write much about it hereafter but soon you’ll doubtless start seeing messy ink auto-bio sketches, and that is why. (***EDIT: I am actually going to be posting most of these on a separate tumblr, because it turns out there is a LOT of them, and I would rather see them in chronological order.***)

My personal Facebook account is filled with all sorts of useful tools to help out the key players — very quickly myself and another good friend of theirs became the sort of assistant managers of this crisis. Here, Chez Kumquat, (***actually there, on the tumblr***) is where I will be churning through the more messy aspects; the grief, the things I notice and can never stop noticing because that’s what an illustrator does, and (most importantly) the lighter things that lift the spirits.

Those lighter things are particularly important.

[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

The Sparkling Salish Sea

I didn’t want to talk about this until I could show you, and short of standing with you on the shore and demonstrating, this is the next best thing.

Apparently the waters surrounding the San Juan islands (which we visited recently) are filled with noctiluca scintillans (also known as sea sparkle!) a microscopic organism. (Not a plankton itself for it eats plankton, but just as small.) Agitation of the water’s surface causes a chemical reaction within their little organelles, and they glow for a brief moment with a fascinating blue-greenish tinge that you have to really pay attention to at first, because it seems unreal. (It reminded me of the table-cloth we were “seeing” at the blind cafe.)

Once you do finally accept that what you are seeing is real, it becomes captivating. I was particularly mesmerized by the waves crashing onto the pebbly shore, and the sparks of light that would dance of the surface of the bouncing pebbles — the bright hiss of the peebles tumbling in the surf registered as a sizzle, coupled with the dance of light so quick it seemed like electric sparks.

These guys are dinoflagellateflagellate meaning they travel via flagellum (like sperm — they have sperm tails) and dinos meaning they are tiny dinosaurs. (Just kidding. It is latin for “whirling.” They spin!)

(…whirling-lizard?) *checks Wikipedia and the OED via the local library website* No, we’re good: the Greek root “dinos” means whirling, whereas the Greek root “deinos” means terrible, potent, or “fearfully great”.

Back to our creatures. They feed on plankton, which is apt to bloom in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the San Juan islands, and evidently this bloom is reliable enough that bioluminescent tours exist. We knew nothing of this phenomenon before we went out to the shoreline at night, so in our case the discovery was as serendipitous as it was delightful.

You know now, so I’ve spoiled the surprise for you, but I don’t think I’ve diminished the wonder, because there really is no picture I can show you that will replace seeing the thing for yourself with your own eyes. So get to it, will you?

Explorations down the aural canal

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT THE EAR CANAL IN THE PAST 26 HOURS OR SO

You are apparently not supposed to clean them with Q-tips, not even a little bit, despite the fact that Q-tips look and feel expressly designed for that purpose. (What…are they for then? Can anybody tell me?) My mother did not teach me to clean my ears in any fashion, but neither did she teach me not to, so alas, I do from time to time. What can I say? I have gunky ears, and once had the magical if alarming experience of getting them sort of…douched via turkey baster by a medical professional, and the great wads of sediment that came out of my ears were unlike anything I had ever seen. And I heard clearly for what felt like the first time in my life.

– Speaking of douching: Ears, like vaginas, are self-cleaning organs. No cleaning necessary. Wow! Who knew? And color me surprised and ashamed a little, for not trusting my own body and the nonsense it produces. These things happen for a reason.

What is one to do about the gunk, then, if one has that ears-filled-with-cotton feeling? Place a warm washcloth against your head, over your ear, to allow it to sort of “melt” and “drain” the proper amount. (Which is different for everybody, and depends on how good your system is at fighting disease.)

You can drip in a solution of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and water, but it should be applied via dropper (not Q-tip!) and the solution should be warmed to body temperature, as cold fluid dripped without preamble into the ear canal can cause pain and dizziness. (I had my doubts, but then I thought about Neti Pots, and the various false starts I’ve had with water not QUITE the right temperature, and realized it makes perfect sense. Your tubes. They are not acclimated to climate change.)

You can also just chew your food. According to an article cited by wikipedia: “Cleaning of the ear canal occurs as a result of the “conveyor belt” process of epithelial migration, aided by jaw movement. ” So, just go about your business.

Your eardrums recover if you puncture them, in about a week or two, which I guess makes perfect sense, but to confirm this on WebMD was interesting. I’ve held one of those a since-childhood misconceptions that seem absurd when you examine them with your adult mind but that sticks with you because of the purity of feeling (be that joy or terror) (usually terror) in the original question that led to the formation of the hypothesis. One of these misconceptions was that if you touched the electric cables that go into the ground from a telephone pole, you’ll get a nasty electric shock and probably will die. (This is…almost certainly not true, since the object that inspired this theory was on a playground we would visit on a weekly basis, and the wires were between a distant swing set and a popular slide, and it seems unlikely that EVEN IN TEXAS IN THE 80s a person would build a large playground for children around something so casually lethal. But still to this day I have no idea if its true or not. Touching something to answer the question, “will I die if I touch this?” is not something even my four year old self would have dreamed of doing, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I can live with the uncertainty.)

Another one of these theories? You Only Get One Pair Of Eardrums, And If You Puncture Them, That’s It. Gone Forever. Deafness.

While the body can fail us in many ways, a fit body has a delightful way of healing superficial abrasions, and so it’s neat to learn that “perforation of eardrums” — as it is officially called —  is fairly trivial so long as you don’t, I guess, try for a morsel of inner ear at the same time.

That there are several kinds of “ear infection”. They are impossible to accurately diagnose without a visit to the doctor. I haven’t done that yet, because the folk treatment of warm garlic oil and the washcloth thing helped enough — far better than even ibuprofen. I remain keenly aware of my ear canal, but I can chew food again and can look over my shoulder without needing to fight the urge to meltdown like a toddler with the same affliction.

Q-tips (or cotton swabs to use the non-branded name, though not nearly as vivid to the North American mind,) were originally called “Baby Gays”. They were invented provisionally in 1920 by a woman named Ziuta Gerstenzang, who wrapped cotton wool around the end of a toothpick for what purpose? CLEANING THE BABY’S EARS.

Leo Z. Gerstenzang, her husband, is the man who witnessed this miracle and who took the idea, manufactured an object, and produced it for mass consumption, so his name credited for “inventing” them, but really, isn’t he just the production guy? Who was dealing with the baby’s nooks and crannies, who was fretting over filth lurking deep in the baby’s dark crevices, who saw the toothpick and had the flash of inspiration to use it in a way that would confound doctors many decades later? That would be Ziuta Gerstenzang, and not her husband, thank you very much.

(Note: even the “official” version of this origin story is apocryphal, but L.Z. Gerstenzang IS credited with inventing Baby Gays, that much we know. There are numerous anecdotes, and all of the ones I read were along the lines of “he got the idea from his wife”. PRETTY SURE THAT MEANS THE WIFE IS THE INVENTOR, but thanks for the Assertion of Patriarchy, o authors of history.)

Improper use of Q-tips is one of the chief causes of impacted earwax, which leads to one of the various ear infections, and is suspected to be the reason children get so many.  Nervous parents, like the good Ms. Gerstenzang, wanting the best for their off-spring and in so doing causing them more harm.

– Again according to Wikipedia, anthropologists have used earwax to track human migratory patterns! Apparently east Asians and native Americans tend to have “dry type”, which is grey and flaky, and very different from what Africans and Europeans often have, which is the brownish wet stuff. Wet-wax peoples also tend to have more sweat production and body oder, yay us. May or may not have to do with the grey-wax folks historically living in very cold places, where sweat is fairly moot. And I suspect frozen earwax would be intolerable.

NOW YOU KNOW

Magic at Sauvie Island

So in an impeccable act of anti-climax, our eagerly awaited expedition to Sauvie Island with the Oregon Mycological Society was cancelled at the last minute, owing to another expedition taking place the day before. In fact, when we called the Office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure our REMOVAL OF VEGETATION permits, the woman on the phone kept asking if we meant “Saturday” instead of “Sunday”.

Alas, Sunday it was. There were rumors that the overall secrecy of the morel-picking spots have been betrayed, and promises were made that “new spots” would be found in the future.

As we had all requisite permits so we decided to go anyway and try and see what we could find — no easy feat when you have no frame of reference. A good part of the first few hours was spent tramping through undergrowth. Not nettles, as on Kelley Point, but blackberries. Which have thorns.  Delightful.

We eventually gave up and drove to a few other sites, building theories on where the lucky morels might be hidden. And finally, maybe out of luck more than anything else, we did in fact strike gold.

We came away with two by the end of the day, and in comparing stories with other mushroomers it seems is a fairly typical morel score at Sauvie Island. Better luck up in the hills, which we’ll have to go attempt because now that we have tasted the meaty goodness that is a morel (a first for both of us) we are hooked. There is a reason people tramp through nettles and blackberries to look for these things, and it is because they are delicious.