We rely on maps to navigate earthly and celestial terrain, and I feel grounded, in control somehow, when I am pulled into a fabulous map. Oh here I am! There I will go! And then there are maps for our internal landscapes and methods we call on to steer through spiritual terrain. Mine help preserve sanity and joy—and trek through heartbreak and confusion. But they were falling short of guiding me through my own brand of American angst.Read More
I am a wildflower stalker, albeit a haphazard one. My dedication falters when learning proper nomenclature. My mother started me on this path when I was a child. We hiked in the same hills where I now live --the Colorado Rockies -- and before each hike she would load the nylon hunter orange drawstring backpack with sunscreen, sandwiches ,water bottles, army surplus rain ponchos and always, always the battered, thumbed wildflower guidebook. The sandwiches would be smashed and inedible by lunchtime but we weren't allowed to complain. How could we with those views, these mountains, that meadow of flowers?
My mother taught me all the quaint names -- bread and butter, monkshood, elephant pagoda, false sunflower and Indian paintbrush. We had to stop on each hike and peer at flowers and ponder their identification. Of course she was also teaching us reverence, but I only cottoned on to this as an adult. Now it's karmic payback as my own kids suffer my abrupt roadside pullovers to snap a photo for later identification. In their minds, I think the needle of my eccentric scale is now well beyond unusual and has leaned into embarrassing.
But the bottom line is that my mother slowed me down and taught me how to look, really look and notice the ant on the stamen, or how the wind moved the leaves on a stem or how to be astonished by how many hues one blossom can capture. She developed my artists's eye as we explored the natural world. Someday I will get to thank her.
"Not everybody wants to be looked at. Everybody wants to be seen." Amanda Palmer
Last week I took our children to hear our United States poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, who opened the Winter Words lecture series for our local literary organization, Aspen Words. Herrera is an outstanding speaker and a truly compassionate and gentle man. His poetry aligns with his mission -- to sweep those on the fringe back into the margins, back into our sight. Our son asked him a question during the Q and A, and not only did Herrera answer with good humor and sparkle, he also asked Duncan to join him onstage. He then asked our delighted son to repeat what Herrera’s 3rd grade teacher said to him: “Juan, you have a beautiful voice.“ That simple sentence transformed Herrera’s life and launched him on his journey. Herrera did the same for our son, who is a dreamer and seeker in his own right, and was thrilled to be on stage with this amazing artist. When Herrera became our national poet laureate, he started the Casa de Colores: project as “ a house for all voices. In this house we will feed the hearth and heart of our communities with creativity and imagination. And we will stand together in times of struggle and joy.” https://www.loc.gov/poetry/casadecolores/
Herrera well understands that artists have the power to pull us in, to make us pause to see beyond the tiny scope of our lives. He invites us all to be activists, in a gentle and unrelenting way. He wrote Poem by Poem for the victims of the Charleston church massacre last year. Here is an excerpt:
"you have a poem to offer
it is made of action—you must
search for it run
outside and give your life to it
when you find it walk it
back—blow upon it
carry it taller than the city where you live"
May the world nurture more artists like Juan Felipe Herrera.
You can read more about Herrera here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/juan-felipe-herrera or listen to the NPR interview: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/16/437287870/from-mexico-kidnappings-to-eric-garner-hererra-writes-poetry-of-the-moment.
And he does have a wonderful voice.
Just living is not enough....one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower. Hans Christian Andersen
The gardening catalogues are clogging up our post box and I am daydreaming about my gardening future. I’m beginning to feel the earth move under my feet, even through a foot of snow.
Conservation InternationaI's "I need nature" campaign is a household hit, and our kids love the celebrity takes on various "personalities" of our natural world. The film shorts make a compelling reason for why we all should be conservationists.
My favorite features Lupita Nyongo and makes me long for my flowers, the Mojo Garden (our garden) and summer. You can find Lupita as flower below, but don’t miss PenelopeCruz as water either.
Fall brings freedom. School is back in session, and I can return to a more structured schedule in my studio, and hike while the kids are in school before the snow drifts in. This season ushers in the quiet of off season in a tourist town and a welcome, slower pace.
Fall also brings the press of melancholy. My mother died six years ago in September and my sister, Heather Catto Kohout, died a year and a day ago. The loss of my mother has evolved into a constant, familiar ache. The loss of my sister is more an open wound. I lost three family members, and my mother-in-law, in the space of five years, and those years were my toughest yet. My mother taught her children to love wild, open spaces and my sister and I shared her passion for hiking. So I hike whenever I can, on trails that they loved and new ones that they would have delighted in. My parents' exits made some chronological sense, though I hope to push past my mother's seventy two years. My sister was only fifty five, and I get stuck there. She was always so vigorous and rarely succumbed to illness. Until she was diagnosed with The Illness of cancer.
Our September Aspen Words Catch and Release writer-in-residence was Kerry Egan, a renowned hospice chaplain, electric spirit and wise soul. She used the residency to work on her new book, which is centered around her work and conversations with the dying. I asked her if the allotted year for formal mourning (a year and a day in some fairy tales) was enough. Her reply: "A year is the very least." She confirmed that It is critical to take a psychological gap year after a beloved's death. Over these years I have learned that mourning has a nuclear volatility that is difficult to navigate in a fast and impatient age. You are raw after intense loss, so wild with grief, that reason is fugitive. You tend to react, instead of act. You are as sensitive as an adolescent and chafe at every perceived slight. A year gives you permission to catch your breath, thank those who are stalwart friends, to resist impulse, to spurn the temptation of such immediate change as remarriage, skipping town, or quitting your day job.
I grappled with another aspect of loss, one that is more abstract - this odd notion of finding a new identity distinct from the individual you lost. After each death, I changed dramatically. I had to. I had to gauge who I was - independent of my dynamic, highly visible and successful parents and then again, from my sister. Apart from my own children and husband, she was the brightest star in my constellation. I realized how often we draft by our associations and use the work of our beloveds to feather our own identity or to leap frog over own psychic wastelands. Appropriation is part of human nature, but it is vital work to parse what is yours and what is acquiesced. And sometimes these distinctions cannot be teased apart. After a years of fumbling, I feel like a completely different soul, but few, save my husband and close friends, really understand the extent of this sea change.
As I hiked, I felt Heather everywhere. Heather always found the mystery and joy in the quotidian, like walking: being present in a conversation, rowing on Lake Lady Bird in her hometown of Austin, the spark of good poetry, and her innovative cooking. And especially in the laughter and company of her friends and family.
She was a prodigious reader and thinker, and used her writing to explore the particulars of many a snarled conundrum. Always with a quiet deliberation and a relentless dedication to inquiry. She had a flair for flipping her own darkness and struggle into some singular illumination for the rest of us. She wrote the following passage from a blog post for madronoranch.com during the heart of her battle with cancer:
"In recent months I’ve found that the power of Love is as startling as the force of nature. When I found that my life was as fragile as a nestling’s egg, disintegrating as I tried to pick up its shattered pieces, something appeared, an unexpected padding, to help me into a new life. The realities of death and illness, grief and anger—the possibility that this new home will fall—never stop looming. But over time the steady swooping kindnesses have built an improbable nest in which I have been, for now (and what else is there?), protected.
Despite years of thinking and reading and analyzing, I’ve been overwhelmed by the steadiness of Love’s flow, as powerful as the wind and water eroding the west Texas vastness and almost as impersonal, a force that needs an outlet, that seeks to move where it is not. I’ve stood in the midst of the swallows’ enfolding flight and seen that it continues when I step out of it."
Before Heather became bedridden we held hands and cautiously picked over a flagstone walk to marvel at her raised beds in her Austin garden. Tick daisies, snapdragons, verbena and self-sowing sunflowers were blooming in abundance, and we delighted in the discovery of a small eggplant, as discretely hidden as a hummingbird egg. Its shape was luscious and the smooth skin had a remarkable iridescence. She turned to me and smiled: “It’s all here, isn’t it? You just have to look.”
I miss you so, beloved sister.
I avoid the term "bucket list. " It's just too hackneyed and the word bucket is not visually compelling enough for me. But I am an inveterate list maker. I keep To Do lists. To Be lists. To Go lists. To Read lists. Painting Title lists. Quote lists. Good Song Title lists. Potential Dog Name lists. To Fix lists (this one encompasses the spiritual and the mechanical.) And the Artist Residency list.
Attending a residency is still years away, but we host our own writer’s residency with Aspen Words: http://www.aspenwords.org/about/history. We don't have extra studio space to accommodate fine artists, but since writers' needs are more streamlined, we provide space for a handful of writers every year. We turned a former rental apartment into a writing retreat, and the writers-in-residence stay in a bucolic setting in Colorado. Aspen Words handles all administration, such as the selection process, the parameters for applicants and all other quotidian details. Our job is much easier. From May to November, a published author, poet or playwright with a looming deadline arrives to a full refrigerator and works in solitude for a month. Every now and then a dog will stop by for a visit or the resident will come up for air and join us for dinner. But they are guaranteed peace and quiet, and they get it.
Despite their popularity, the notion of -- and need for -- artist residencies is still a fugitive concept to many outside of the creative realm or to those who support more mainstream philanthropy. Space and solitude are essential ingredients to creative process. Artist residencies provide this opportunity to work and retreat from the constant tug of the outside world. At least temporarily. There have been many benefits to our own venture, not the least of which is meeting so many dynamic, wonderful and engaged writers. We are more passionate than ever about artist residencies and the need for them in this increasingly frantic world.
The variety is endless – there are the established and famous residencies like Yaddo http://www.yaddo.org; the McDowell Colony http://www.macdowellcolony.org; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture http://www.skowheganart.org; the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown http://web.fawc.org/program or Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts http://www.bemiscenter.org. The competition is fierce for these alpha residencies (and those are just a few), but there are many others, including the quieter and more obscure ones (like ours) that serve one artist at a time and are not year round. Many of these can be found in a comprehensive list for all disciplines at the Alliance for Artist Communities. Their mission: “The Alliance gives a collective voice on behalf of its members, small and large, that leverages support for the field as a whole; promotes successful practices in the field; and advocates for creative environments that support the work of today's artists.”
Their website: http://www.artistcommunities.org