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.

Coffee 2017-04-26T06:11:39+00:00

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?
Moving 2017-05-11T07:22:36+00:00

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.

North and South and East and West 2017-03-06T17:37:44+00:00

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.

Slip Slidin’ Away 2017-05-11T09:09:34+00:00

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.

Draw-journaling and the “m” word. 2017-03-06T07:26:51+00:00

Just another path

My friend died. He has been dead almost three…four weeks now, as I write this.

I have been writing about it, writing a whole lot, but whenever I sit down to write to a person (or in this case: people) I tend to clam up.

It’s so much easier to write to no one, somehow, that it is to write to someone. It’s so hard to bring people up to speed, so hard to really explain HOW I feel without unearthing so many stories and details that most people just don’t want to look directly at. I wonder if it’s like how war veterans feel. If you weren’t there you can’t understand what it was like, and even the stories can’t quite encapsulate everything. It’s like trying to explain a dream — even if you explain the internal connections, the feelings that arise when THAT elementary school / church parking lot blended architecture come to mind — you still somehow miss the color of that thing, or the sound that this person made, and it all just falls so short. So you barely try. You just stick with key points and let the other person sort it out. Dead. Rare sarcoma. Three months. Cachexia. Two year old daughter. Beauty. Kindness. Community.

I have been writing long, beautiful letters to a fellow “death midwife” as we’ve been calling ourselves, and that has been easy because she is so hungry for all the details I remain somewhat fixated by.

Death is such a divisive thing. I sneak out the news as best I can — because I mark this time as sanctioned time for grieving, whatever that looks like, and therefore I need people to know I am going through Something Unusual. Though of course by and large, because I’ve been doing my grief work all along, I find that I am mostly okay with it all, and it is other people who cannot handle it, or are struck down by it — the tragic nature of it, the suddenness, or even just the death itself.

I am privileged to be acquainted with many excellent local illustrators, and at one of our recent monthly get togethers I managed to repel everyone in earshot aside from Rilla Alexander and Meg Hunt, who both had their own stories to tell on the subject. One finds extraordinary comrades down in the trenches of death. But one also finds people whose mouths harden to a rigid line, unable to entertain the idea in any capacity. Unable to even open the door a crack, never mind invite it inside out of the cold. Which is hard because I’m standing out there, with death, getting soaked by rain, and it would be so nice to come in out of the cold for a moment.

One also finds wobbly, unresolved prior-griefs that bursts forth whenever you mention the one you are carrying. Eyes redden, faces gurn, tears well up and spill over cheeks — tears you yourself no longer shed when you say the words “Travis” and “dead” or “died”. Those people invite you into their bedrooms right off the bat when really you just need a dry towel and maybe to borrow some socks.

At first I was confused by my propensity to WRITE about it so much but not DRAW about it, but then I remembered that I have read something like…6? 7? books about death in the past two months. I have not similarly increased the rate at which I look at pictures. So I changed up my morning routine to involve less email writing and more picture-looking, and on Tuesday spent a good many hours at the art museum.

Of course, I found death there too.

I think I will be interested in death for a long while yet.

And I’ll let myself do that — I think if I try to push it away too much right now, while I’m so fascinated by it, I’ll end up avoiding it altogether, which I above all do not want to do. I have learned that closing down one mind-valve all too often shuts down many, many other valves in my mind, and usually they are tied to the parts that I need to function normally. Particularly the curiosity and the wonder. And I need those things to be awake. So I do my best not to censor what interests me.

“I know you like to know about things,” Travis said to me almost a month ago, as he explained his accu-pressure bracelets. I do. I exceedingly like to know about things. They are so much easier to draw about if you KNOW about them.

As it turns out, I know very little about this part of grief. The storm after the storm. The real work.

Perhaps that is also why it’s been harder to draw about. And it’s all the more reason why I need to stay here, out in the rain, and pay very close attention. I need to take all the notes I can on what this is like, so I can start picking apart what it even is. So that I can paint it.

The other thing I need to paint right now is the practical stuff, the better days of  Travis’ life as I knew it, what I knew of it, for his daughter so she’ll have tangible things to remember him by. After my visit to the museum I walked to a coffee shop and ended up sitting next to a woman from Brazil studying English from a little work book, chatting with an earnest local guy. And I started noodling in my sketchbook.

And that was a pleasant surprise. And so the next day I worked on it some more at the studio.

So in a way he’s back alive again in my studio. And it’s really intensely gratifying and strange. And lovely. Looking forward to the coming days.

Just another path 2017-03-06T07:38:06+00:00

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.

Greetings from the trenches 2017-03-06T17:26:27+00:00

The courage of our hearts

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.

The courage of our hearts 2017-03-06T08:06:37+00:00

Curiosities

I think the strangest thing about our new place is that all of the objects that do not belong to us seem to be slightly bigger than our things. 

The roommates have lived with people for I think all their adult lives, and have a child, so I suppose it makes sense in the area of larger pots and things. Get the 12″ skillet, not the 10″. 

But some things just leave me baffled.

I assume, like me, they’ve acquired their accoutrements piece by piece at thrift stores over the years, as needed. Then again I know that there is a high rate of leave-behinds, so I’m not even sure these things were acquired by the roommates on purpose. Which in a way makes it even weirder.

I maintain that living in a five hundred square foot apartment for six years naturally inclines one to buy the smaller item, to not buy the item if you don’t really need it, and to ruthlessly and continually purge, purge, purge until you are down to what seems to be a satisfactory kitchen arsenal. (And then to stop buying things until something you use every day breaks and cannot be fixed.) 

Anthony is quick to point out that I am small — always the smallest, and definitely the smallest at the house excluding the baby — so that perhaps my choice of our particular items were influenced by this. It may well be — I would never have a cast iron skillet I couldn’t lift comfortably with one hand. 

If you’ve watched the extras accompanying the Fellowship of the Ring you know that asserting the proper scale was key to the whole trilogy working, and if you’ve watched them as often as I have you find yourself wondering if you’ve stumbled onto the wrong set. 

Curiosities 2014-10-09T01:17:47+00:00