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.

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.

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

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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.

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Coming clean

I clean houses for a living. I have been doing it for seven years now and I am (if I do say so myself) pretty good at it. I work for a smallish local company — so the particulars are all taken care of for me; I never have to trawl for more work or scramble to replace broken equipment, it’s all there for me, reliably provided for.

I fall in and out of love with it, for lots of reasons. At worst, it is a tedious, demeaning thing that may well be accelerating the breakdown of my lungs, and certainly made recovering from knee surgery difficult. There are days where I work like a draft horse to appease people who have unrealistic standards, all to collapse at the end of the day winded and sore.

At best, it is an invaluable opportunity to meet people I would NEVER have a chance to meet and get to know in real life. It is incredibly active, which is a boon in our sedentary age. (If anything I am too muscular; I tell people that cleaning professionally is like getting paid to go to the gym). In houses I’m familiar with I can listen to audiobooks or podcasts, just like I do when I paint, and so there’s a tremendous amount of mental continuity and freedom. I picnic lunch in a public park most days, and when I’m done I’m DONE — it is work you truly leave at work, which for an illustrator is invaluable.

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Cleaning, like drawing, puts you at a perpendicular to life, rather than a parallel. You intersect with people at very specific points, but most of your experience (and theirs) is separate. I don’t usually talk about my illustration work with my cleaning clients, because it’s really not relevant to how well I can clean their toilet, and by and large people don’t care about who I am and what I do.

Having said that, I live in a chummy west coast town, so most of the people are friendly and glad to see me. Clients come and go, for myriad reasons, but I always have a handful of dear ones — some new, some I have cleaned for since the beginning.

One of these was the source of the Fennel Story — a delightful home-schooled child.

We’ve gone through many phases over the years. He followed me around when he was three and four and performed a simultaneous “cleaning” with me. When he was five he would start telling me strange things that had me pausing to jot things down in my notebook — the Fennel Story was simply the most cohesive of these. They have only become more elaborate over time. Recently he has been insisting that my cat is building a rocket ship in an underground laboratory with a team of cat-scientists, and he earnestly asks me to set up motion detection cameras to verify this suspicion.

As I don’t tell my cleaning clients about my illustration work, I also try not to talk too much about my day job here, Chez Kumquat, because how I keep afloat need not concern you. (And above all I don’t want to become that cleaner who paints, or that painter who cleans. Cleaning is so NOT my identity, despite what my clients might tell you.) But I have been wrestling with the whole coming clean about day jobs thing for a while now.

So, so many creatives have extracurricular gigs that keep things running, and so, so few of them talk about it, and it paints an incomplete picture. Sets up unrealistic expectations. And, far too often, allows a person to self-sabotage with shame, guilt, and weird ideas about how a person’s art should sustain themselves 100% Or Else They’re Not An Artist. Which is, quite frankly, nonsense.  The only thing that makes you an artist, as David Rakoff says in his delightful rant about the broadway musical RENT, is making art.

(And I say this to you here, because if I do, maybe I’ll start believing it on my bad days, the fingers-sore days when the only thing I draw is a little doodle on my to-do list.)

Furthermore, on a practical level, I don’t talk about my day job because want to protect the privacy of my clients — and in this case I want to protect fantastic mind of this child, whose ideas are his and do not belong to me. I made pictures about the Fennel Story because how could you not, but really the only authorship credit I can take beyond the images were the leading questions — though this cat thing has been closer to a real collaboration, and stems from the (true) notion of my cat loving ping-pong balls.

The perimeters of our imaginative play has changed over time — he once got very angry with me for suggesting wizards might live in the neighborhood. (They have to live somewhere, right?) That is NOT TRUE, he told me. This was just after he had folded himself into the mattress of a futon and laid inert, because he was a taco. (This was when he was six. I wrote in my notebook: “being a taco, yes; wizard neighbors, no.”)

There have been many milestones I have borne witness to. People have children, their children grow. People marry, remarry, get divorced. People go on big once-in-a-lifetime vacations, people travel regularly as a part of life. People remodel parts of their home. People move and take me with them to the new house, and I and the client can deepen our rapport by remembering things about the old place; what is better here, what is missed from there. Our histories become mingled. I have a sort of unearned front row seat at major hinges of life.

A week ago, I hit another one. I went to clean for a client of mine with advanced Parkinson’s. And she never came to the door.

I had to look back at my emails to see how long I’d cleaned for her: five years. In fact I did her very first cleaning for her back in 2011.

It’s a very odd sensation that has settled in. Because in truth I didn’t know her that well, just where our lives intersected.

She was always kind to me, always grateful in an unceremonious way that felt very genuine.

I know she was a bird person but we never really jammed about it; she was never that eager to talk about herself, and I let clients make that call. We talked about film; she was a great connoisseur. I knew things were truly getting bad when she gave me her copy of the PDX Film Festival schedule in February. “I won’t be needing this this year”.

But of course, I also knew from the appearance of the walking stick, the tremors in her voice, the way she’d stagger along with her diagnostic stooping gait. I knew from the in-home help that began to cook for her and leave a mess in the kitchen that she couldn’t clean up after. I knew from the little chair that was placed in the kitchen, for her to sit her reluctant self in when this person came to help. I knew from the little stash of medicinal marijuana that appeared in a little tray behind a few vases on a table against a wall, and the corresponding chart from the dispensary that tried to narrow down what strains can help with what symptoms. (Pain management? Increase appetite? Suppress appetite? Give energy? Reduce energy? Apparently there’s a strain for everything.)

Over time one has a sense of protectiveness over “their” clients — their homes and the things in it, but also their well-being. It pained me to see her in her previous high rise, because it seemed so unsuited to her. Aside from the walkability to all the things she regularly did — volunteering at the library store, attending screenings at the NW Film Center — it was a depressing little box in the heart of the financial district. Somewhat cheaply put together. I didn’t like thinking of her there knowing where she had been before: a fine little historic bungalow in Southeast.

She would complain about her building, which made me even more uneasy. Finally when a large construction project began nearby — and all the potential noise and clatter that would doubtless accompany that — she resolved to move again, and indeed did so so abruptly that she neglected to tell me.

So it wasn’t the first time, this past Friday, that I showed up to a place where she had departed.

Her final home was into a place along a wooded street, overlooking a park, with great big maples out all her windows affording unimpeded views of birds. Some part of me quieted down when she moved in there. It was easier to picture her there, made more sense somehow.

The email we received confirming my suspicions informed us that she went surrounded by her children and her children’s children, which was also a great relief to me. One passion of hers that I knew of — yet knew very little about — was her family. They all visited each other often and for extended visits. I infer she was very close to them.

It was so odd that it happened on April first. I was hired by the company on April 1, 2009, much to the delight of my mother, who still can’t believe the sloppy teenager she raised grew up to clean houses. I kept hoping my client would get back to us so I could tease her for her awful April Fool’s joke.  But I also kind of knew it wasn’t going to happen.

I’ve had only one other elderly client who has died, which is a fairly unlikely track record for seven years, though of course it’s something I always think about. The circumstances were different, my relationship to her was different, and I still clean for her daughter who is about my mother’s age, and helping her through her grief has proved cathartic for me as well.

Spotted towhee

Let’s start with this bird. The spotted towhee.

We’ve always pronounced it as though it rhymes with “dewy” but it turns out that it is probably rhymes with “doughy” instead. Just like I often pronounce the paint I work with “gohssh” instead of “gwash”. (Tomato, Tomahto.)

To add to my bewilderment, the Spotted Towhee was always called the “Rufous-sided Towhee” in my household, as apparently we were not with the times and in fact learning that the Rufous-sided Towhee is merely a “spotted” Towhee is something that left me a bit thunderstruck as I was putting together this piece. Evidently this was to differentiate it from the “Eastern” Towhee — which also has rufous sides and seems alike in every way apart from the relative lack of white spots. We find them interbreeding on the Great Plains, but otherwise we’ve decided to distinguish the regional plumage variation as a separate species.

This sort of thing is a bone of contention for my husband, who has less patience than I have for the finer points of taxonomy. To him, a sparrow is a sparrow, and sometimes when I look over a page of essentially identical birds with a little arrow pointing to the white patch touching a black stripe which is the diagnostic feature of that particular bird, I am inclined to agree with him.

Flickers have gone through an inverse transformation in my lifetime, a who-are-we-kidding-they-are-the-same-species shift, so I certainly allow for changes and, to a certain extent, laxity in classification. (Particularly for the home birder.)

Another example of the confusing world of fine print: the Towhee is technically a “New World” sparrow; we Americans apparently lump together all sorts of birds in the “sparrow” category — even bigger, different-seeming birds like our towhee. (Or other ground-shufflers like juncos.) In Europe, such birds are called “buntings”, whereas “sparrows” are chiefly what we refer to as “Old World” sparrows. (The only one of those we regularly have on this side of the pond is the ubiquitous “House Sparrow”, which is the little brown bird that steals your french fries, or attends political rallies.)

Furthermore, the buntings I know about — indigo bunting, painted bunting, lazuli bunting — are actually in the cardinal family are are themselves not buntings at all. And all of these birds can be generally referred to as “finches”.

(Do you see why I avoid getting too militant about classifications?)

For myself, I unscientifically think of towhees as the step between sparrows and jays, as they are quite large for a sparrow (nearly the same size as a robin, though more slender,) and have a raspy, jay-like call note that sounds like a big question mark.

(This sound, as well as the tumbling jumble of the house finch’s song make me immediately homesick.)

They like a good amount of cover, and as such particularly like our yard, what with the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence. In my childhood home they favored the low, wide juniper bushes. They are ground feeders, attracted to the mess the squirrel leaves behind when it gorges on the suet cake. They are the vacuum cleaners of the forest. They do a funny little shuffle-hop to uncover bugs and seeds from the leaf litter or, in wintery places, from under snow.

Towhees, like tigers, sport what offhand appear to be very daring colors that actually make them invisible in their preferred surroundings. In the bleak winter it can be a thrill to spot one. A combination of orangey, white, and black, topped only by red eyes and a very expressive tail. There is a nervous energy to the tail, leaving flashes of white with nearly every movement. Very often one simply looks for those tell-tale white flashes at the tail for identification. And fortunately they don’t really care what you call them