Espresso Yourself

I didn’t start drinking coffee until I turned 50. Having always been the one in my family with “champagne taste on a beer budget”, it seemed only natural that my taste-buds are ignited by the expensive Starbucks stuff, not the ordinary cup of Joe. Indeed, I have been born again into the afternoon non-fat latte tribe, and have probably single-handedly kept Starbucks afloat in a flagging economy. A trip to Italy in 2010 coincided with my “taste for coffee discovery,” and seemed the perfect place to explore my new-found love of lattes and cappuccinos. It was at a small street cafe in Rome, however, that I learned from my friend Laurie that Italians consider the  cafe latte and cappuccino to be breakfast drinks only. This startling discovery made me realize I needed to adapt immediately, or be easily targeted as “AMERICAN TOURIST!” when sidled up to a coffee bar in the late afternoon ordering my favorite milk-foamed concoction. Luckily, it was only 10:30 that morning when Laurie set me straight, and I choked down the latte I was drinking. (11:00 am seems to be the cut-off time).  Henceforth,”When in Rome…..”it would be espresso or cafe for me during the day.

When we eventually got to La Romita and began the extraordinary adventure of sketching in small villages and cities throughout Umbria, I happily discovered I could continue to indulge my love of lattes and cappuccinos. Because we arrived by bus in these towns well before the bewitching hour of 11 am, lattes were not out of bounds! We could easily take the time to stake out a cafe, order our foamy coffee drinks, savoring them slowly while sketching whatever was in front of us.  Indeed, it was typically the  first cafe where we landed which would determine the focus or subject of many of our sketches. In Orvieto it was the spectacular cathedral (past 11:00 so it was espresso for me). In Assissi it was sitting on a fountain’s edge, near the cafe, (latte, before 10) sketching a wall.  In Narni it was in the town square, in front of the church near the fountain where all the old men sat shooting the breeze (10:30, cappuccino). However arbitrary or silly this seems, having one’s coffee establishment be the determining factor in making a decision about what to sketch was useful when confronted by a multitude of possibilities ranging from architecture, ruins, fountains, sculptures, people, landscape.

As plans for my upcoming sketch/art group at La Romita are underway, I have made a note to myself to include a section in my “When in Rome” Helpful hints information sheet about ordering Coffee in Italy.
Espresso, anyone?

Reflections & Cemetery Wonderings

2010 came and went in a flurry of monumental events. My Mother moved to Austin, I turned 50, I directed my first Literally Letters program at Ghost Ranch, went to Italy with my daughter, I started a new class called “Sketch Austin,” started drinking coffee for the first time in my life, began classes in African Dance. I taught at the International Calligraphy Conference in Boston, was rejected for an MFA program at UT. I was invited to teach in Italy for 2012; I attended a week-long “Process” personal growth intensive at the Hoffman Institute in Northern California, and completed four sketchbooks.

One experience, however, which effected me most deeply, was an accidental visit to the Wimberley cemetery one Sunday afternoon in early Spring. My Mother and daughter and I decided to take a rode trip in search of wildflowers, so I headed out towards Johnson City. On a whim I decided to turn off at Dripping Springs and go to Wimberley where we were disappointed to find that the flowers weren’t blooming there yet. After a glass of iced tea in a charming cafe, we drove through town looking for a place to turn around. It was then that we happened upon the cemetery. Compelled to stop because of the unusual displays we saw on the gravesights, including tchotkas of all kinds, bird-feeders, hand-carved stones, we got out and wandered around, drawn in to this artful, wacky netherworld whose inhabitants clearly had had more than a sense of humor in life–they also had the delightful audacity to know that even death could not thwart their final self-expression and exclamations of “I AM. Unique!”

The most touching part of our self-guided tour through the cemetery was discovering a stone near the entrance covered with toys and other child memorabilia. It was a young boy’s grave who we were told (by the caretaker who conveniently showed up) had died of a heart attack on Christmas eve. She also told us about the first person buried in the cemetery–on the opposite end–the little Wimberley girl who had died of a rabid skunk bite. We were all moved, and our drive home was quiet, reflective. When I came home that evening I wrote the following directly in a little sketchbook:

Cemetery Wonderings

Some people I met today live six feet under, twenty-five miles away near some mighty fine oaks.
A boy, six years old, dead of a heart attack on Christmas eve. His white stone bore the simple epitath (from the movie Toy Story) “To infinity and Beyond.”
A husband and wife buried next to one another, her feet at his head, a humming bird feeder attached to her headstone.

The little Wimberley girl was eight years old when she died of a rabid skunk bite in the late 1870’s. It was her family’s wish to bury the child under her favorite live oak tree not far from Cyprus Creek, and they were granted permission to do so by the Dobie family who owned the property. The girls’ family were among the founders of the town of Wimberley, and her burial under the big oak tree marked the founding of the Wimberley cemetery.
Does Wimberley girl know her neighbor “Infinity and Beyond,”
His life summed up in action figures lovingly placed and undisturbed around his still unmoving bed?
A carved stone whimsy of a dinosaur looks on–a gargoyle watchman of sorts–
so near the gate he won’t be running through,
an eternity away from his Mama’s loving arms.
To infinity he rises and leaves us with toys
to ponder his life.

She couldn’t know we’d ever think of her,
this child brought back to memory by a chance encounter.
We went looking for bluebonnets and found her story instead,
a rabid skunk and a town named for her family.
She was…
I am not…
And my daughter clung closely to me
as if to stave off the claim eternity has on all of us.

She was only eight after all,
and I miss her full-grown story she never lived,
and yet she grows old along with me
who has just now discovered her to remember.

SZ Spring 2010

Her bones are found among the quarry rocks,

and barren landscape scuffed with sage,

a layered life of sky, earth, sun and sweat,

brittle, ancient, hidden, treasure.

Bone dry, stratified,

rich with filtered sediment

of collected past

River tears flood living days.

A Fossil!

Her query soon complete,

she’ll lie in wait beneath the mesa sky,

among cholla blooms and charcoal dirt

with hopes to be discovered

Cat Daze

This past Saturday, our typical routine of a morning walk was disrupted by a sobering experience with my Mothers’ cat. While it is an extraordinarily ordinary experience to usher any living being into “infinity and beyond,” even my background as a hospice social worker doesn’t give me much of an emotional edge when the Grim Reaper comes calling so close to home. The simple fact of the matter is that when you love someone or an animal, it hurts like hell when it dies. Death happens. And even when you see it coming–you know that the THIS IS IT moment is immanent–it always comes as such a surprise and shock, the end of a life. I didn’t know it would be this particular morning we would be summoned to my Mothers’ side, at the South Lamar Animal Emergency hospital, to support her in making a decision about what to do with her 18 year old Black cat who appeared to be catastrophically ill.

I have always disliked this mangy, thin-as-a-whippet, poor excuse for an animal whose screechy yowl was like nails on a chalkboard, and who should have met his end long ago in a dog or raccoon entanglement, or other form of natural selection. Black, wiry, thin and ugly, this cat was not the cuddly kind who purred or warmed your legs with gentle nudges; he was all stealth, sleek, a ruthless hunter who in his prime had killed his share of groundhogs, squirrels and other small creatures in his many hunting forays near my Mothers’home. Chief among his disturbing habits was to drag half-dead critters into the house, let them go, play with them, then eat them. It was not unusual for my Mother to find the remains of the cat’s prey in the bathtub, a few tufts of fur and some blood and bones provoking many a scream on her part. Oddly (to me) she didn’t hold these disgusting habits against this animal, but forgave him his sinister exploits, and looked upon him as some noble creature of Egyptian Royalty “Bast” descent.

Lately, however, the cat’s sheer age and tenacity had worn me down, as well as the fact that this mongrel beast owned my Mothers’ heart. How could I help but admire this feisty cat who had successfully burned through all his nine lives, only to be uprooted recently from his woodsy Northern Calif Home and relocated to the urban Austin landscape across the street from our family? My Mother, whose eyesight has deteriorated dramatically, was forced to make this move, and her one consolation throughout the whole ordeal has been the company of “Monster” on whom she doted. Not only did this cat adjust remarkably well to this major upheaval, he seemed to be right at home in the neighborhood, terrorizing my own cats, yowling at my door from time to time, investigating my neighbors’ yards. I took him for granted as a seeming permanent fixture in my Mothers’ life, and was caught by surprise when his activity came to a halt on Friday. 24 hours later, he showed no improvement, and it was our unspoken understanding that he was in decline, and that his days were numbered.

So there we were Saturday morning, dogs barking in the waiting room, Mom crying, cat gasping for breath, the kindly veterinarian giving my husband and me all the options, a young technician coming in and out with various estimates of what any choice was going to cost. Was I too harsh to ask for a straight up answer to the question, “Is this IT? Is the cat dying?” No such definitive answer was forthcoming, just hushed voices and the vet leaving the room for us to ponder our financial and/or ethical choices. Steroids or no? Fluid injections–or how about some kitty morphine? Cremation or burial? If cremation, did we want a special (it cost a lot) urn for storing kitty’s ashes? Or did we want a kitty coffin in which to put the cat until he could be buried? It all came down to “to be or not to be,” kitty Hospice or The Shot.

I have to admire my Mother, because she made the same decision I would have in this situation: Cat Euthanasia. Cost and inconvenience aside, the real question was, “whom would it really serve to haul the suffering cat back home, keep a death vigil for what probably amounted to a few days, only to have to come back to the vet for the same decision?” It was clear to us that his end was near, and it seemed the more compassionate alternative to help the cat along into the Happy Hunting Ground without delay. And so with Monster in my Mothers’ arms, she chose to give him what in our eyes seemed to be a dignified end. While the vet administered enough propofol (we know what that is thanks to Michael Jackson) to first knock him out, I reflected upon his wild cat-life escapades, his demonic countenance and vampire-like fangs, his voracious appetite, his years of hunting, the countless hours he spent in the evenings on my Mothers’ lap.

As cat’s lives go, this one had had a good one. My Mother knew that, and though devastated, was clear and unwavering in her decision. It was time. Thus, with a nod from Mom, the vet gave Monster the fatal dose of the stuff of Euthanasia that kills cats, dogs, horses and people on death row. It wasn’t terrible, just sad, and remarkably upsetting.

I have always marveled at the difference between life and death, particularly the moment after death has occurred. While Monster lay there newly dead, I thought of how miraculous it is–more mysterious than scary–to see a being who was moving, breathing, living just moments ago, so still, not moving. Having been in the presence of both dying animals and people often enough in my life, it is always a profound and humbling experience, provoking a feeling of quiet reverence. Did we really say, “He looks so peaceful!”? Yes, however trite we sounded, it was true. Small consolation for us, though, as we stumbled numbly out the door with carrier and blanket sans cat, my Mothers’ grief (and our own) coming on in waves.

A Voice of My Own

When Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and he fell into the sea. This cautionary Greek myth came to mind the last time my friend Denis Brown visited me. Denis is no mere mortal; in calligraphy circles he IS the Sun King, the Mozart of Calligraphy, the one who has reached a pinnacle in our art and remains at the top of his game. In comparison, my work seems messy, pedestrian, earthy and most definitely imperfect! Like Salieri in Amadeus, I have felt doomed to mediocrity.

That is until I was surprised by an inner voice which stated clearly, “You are flying to close to the SON!” It seemed perfectly timed as this “message” came to me as I was doing laundry, the most mundane of tasks. I thought about it for awhile, and realized that I had convinced myself that the only standard by which my art could be measured was in comparison to the work of Denis Brown and his ilk, the maestros or SUN’s of Western calligraphy. If I continued to compare myself with ones’ whose light shine so brightly, I not only risked melting my wings, but being blinded as well.

I have followed this clear, intuitive message and it has served to help me stay grounded while seeking my own WAY to soar in art. My wings are not fashioned of wax, but of solid, disciplined studies of line and composition. Art journals have helped me appreciate the value of ephemera, of process, of ordinary experiences recorded with honesty and lack of self-consciousness. As much as I appreciate highly polished, sharp and extraordinary things, I also appreciate the Wabi Sabi-ness of the not so pretty, the decaying and worn down stuff of life.Now when I leap, I do so with the knowledge that my own light is bright enough to guide me, my confidence and skills strong enough to keep me aloft until I drift back to earth softly, landing firmly with my feet on the ground (rather than in the sea, submerged in the unconscious!) Indeed, earth is where I choose to be, immanent, embodied. However imperfect, I am committed to my own voice, my own truth. I can accept my limitations as well as my strengths and keep working to shape my visions, however vague or mundane.
Denis left this morning after a four-day teaching gig in Austin. I did not take his class, but stayed in my studio, practicing on my own, soaring here and there, happy to do what I do. Our conversations were stimulating, provocative. I spoke my truth and he shared his; I was not blinded by his light, but warmed and inspired by it–and ignited by our shared passion for art.