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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.