The Artists: A Triptych, Part II

The Dancer

If you lived in New York in the 70’s as I did, you too would have frequently seen posters of an Adonis floating mid air, advertising the legendary Joffrey Ballet Company. If you were lucky you would have seen that dancer perform live. I was lucky. He had trained as a teen under Martha Graham. All the great choreographers of the day put their work on him…Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Robert Joffrey, to mention but a few.  He transitioned out of dance to focus on his life long second love, costumes and was sought after to design whole ballets for many world class companies. He also designed Tina Turner’s performance wardrobe.  Are you breathless? I am and was recently on a daily basis when I stayed with him in London. Every morning over coffee and still in pajamas we would curl up on his sofas for another installment of, I’ll call them “life talks”.  Like a child at story time I’d soak in another tale of his having been in the rehearsal studio with Robbins or Gwen Verdon, for instance. Mid story, ever the dancer, his twinkling eyes would light up as he would illustrate the moment with a tendue, a port de bras, a whip turn. He also kindly brought out photo albums that documented his process in creating costumes.  First came the montage pages…a line of poetry, a sketch, a postcard, etc. Turning the leaf, the album went on to reveal his detailed sketches with accompanying fabric swatches. Last were photographs of the dancers in his final masterpieces. I was gob smacked. These morning sessions would end only because he had a rehearsal to get to for his upcoming cabaret performance.  The halls of his home are filled with portraits, paintings of life moments I only later realized were his own. Who needed to go to the British Museum?  Not I.  It was clear that each level of artistry had informed the next. His eye for line moved easily into silhouette on a costume, his breath control as a dancer had become the foundation of his singing, his visceral knowledge of dance had expanded into the swish of Tina Turner’s dress, making visible the aura of her fiery spirit.  For all the monsters in our midst there are also these rare wonders of nature who fulfill their destiny as creatives, as continual fountains of the beauty that is possible from within the human spirit.  Lucky me to have experienced this just when its needed most. 

The Artists: A Triptych, Part I

The Artists: A Triptych

I went last week to see a long term girlfriend perform in concert. Her show’s arc was autobiographical and included illuminating stories about having survived a long and successful career in musical comedy theatre. The strongest common denominator through her tales of adventures and misadventures was heartfelt gratitude for it all.  She was spectacular and the audience spontaneously stood to cheer and tell her so during the extended curtain call.  Every thought in the lyrics was explored to its fullest, every emotion was rooted in a truth, every syllable articulated, both literally and metaphorically.  She left it all on the table, got everything one could possibly get out of each song.  Her authentic effervescence radiated out to uplift her audience, she moved with the fluidity of a young gazelle and at 67 she looked impossibly youthful.  None of that was by accident.  She has worked hard to make it so. Knowing her for over four decades, I can bear witness to the fact that this is also how she has lived her life.  She has delved in full tilt at every chapter.  As a young woman she planted roots in good soil and then nurtured them.  In return for steadfast loyalty, her life is filled with an army of long term, beloved allies.  She’s been married to the same good man for almost 40 years.  Their home is filled with works of art by and photographs of their thriving children and now grandchildren. There is fresh fruit out on her sun drenched kitchen counters, healthy snacks in her pantry, comfortable well-lit places to plop in with easy access to wonderful books and magazines at the ready to dive into.  In other words she lives the way she creates her art and creates her art the way she lives.  With intentionality, smart choices, attention to detail, taking absolutely nothing for granted and always with gratitude. Brava Diva.

Loss and Redemption

A very wise friend of mine recently said he viewed life as mostly a journey of loss and redemption.  I don’t know if that hits a chord with you but it sure did with me. It’s making me reframe the past, if not the future.  Call it optimistic or naive or both but I’ve always believed that wins were the main thoroughfare on which only occasionally the shock of loss would trespass. Looking back now whilst I’m grateful for successes and blessings I can see that what I perceive to be losses have also been a large part of the journey. Sitting where I am on the chronological time line I can say with certainty that if you’re anywhere past say 35, you’ve also experienced your share of gains and losses. Kudos and condolences.

So…what to do with the losses anyone of us cannot seem to get past? Love for instance. Some folks get to keep their loves, get to have that journey continue to unfold through all the chapters of their adult life.  More, I’m coming to learn, are not granted that privilege. There is an individual I fell hook, line and sinker for long years ago.  We had a big, bold, adventurous life together, the stuff of dreams and now he is gone. Details don’t matter much. Gone though he is, the footprint remains, the bandwidth still occupied.  So brethren of loss, what to do?

First I suppose is to actually do the loosing, the letting go.  Easier said than done because to do so is to loose the remnants of what had been. For me, that “us” besides raising my son, has been the best and brightest time of my life thus far. How else though, except by letting go, can we make room for the new?

I got to sit by a Montana stream the other day.  Not one molecule of it looked back. It kept moving, was a constant if you will of letting go, of depositing debris, shifting the landscape.  Clever stream. If the stream is any example, letting go is part of the natural order of progress.  

Following the wisdom my pal offered, next up would be redemption. Webster’s dictionary offers helpful hints by way of defining redeem with actions like “restore, reform, retake, make good, to free from harm.”  Taking “restore” and “reform” at face value could mean we need to gather the pieces of our shattered selves and put them back together on a new trajectory.  “Make good, free from harm” could be to fill in the gaping hole with gratitude that we got to experience the good at all.  

Loss and redemption. Working on it.

Mountain Call

For all her considerable elegance and city sophistication the call of her West Virginia roots could not be denied. So it was that Mom found a funky wooden cottage at the base of Mt. Fuji to which we would repair when the swelter of Tokyo summers overwhelmed. Once out of the city, we’d continue the three hours up the precarious windy mountain road to reach our paradise. The first days there were always busy making rounds on dirt roads to the hog, chicken, rice farmers, tofu vendor, the kindly man with the loan village cow, for supplies. Each would beam welcoming smiles back to this funny Western family, patting my sister’s and my heads noticing how we’d grown during the winter months. Filthy lucre was never discussed but rather passed over in an envelope with much bowing and thanks.

Every country day brought new adventures of running up and down hills in the cover of scented pine forests behind the house. Now and then through the branches we’d glimpse Mt. Fuji, her serene presence, in stark contrast to our own, somehow always bearing witness. We’d ride our bicycles ever forward on trails we in our youthful hubris, felt sure no one had discovered before. We’d head to the ramshackle Ping Pong Pavilion…a barely standing open walled shed with a rickety table and corroded net, for a game. A favorite neighborhood destination was to the convent school’s spring fed, cement swimming pool, complete with slime green walls and water bugs seemingly performing complex water ballet on the pool’s surface. We didn’t mind. It was wet and inviting. We’d explore again and again the giant timbered, laced with cobwebs and abandoned, Buddhist temple with its enormous Taiko drums. We were sure it was haunted and would tell each other made up ghost stories until we were shaking in our flip flops and had to run away. When the cicadas started up we knew it was time to head home. Once there, we’d get under way with our primary evening chore…stuffing and then lighting the firewood underneath the stone water vat so as to heat water for the eventual bath. Someone would light the incense coils so as to keep the mosquitoes at bay, someone else would set up the mahjong table with the click clack of tiles. Someone else would put the needle on the record…Stan Getz, Jobim, Herb Alpert were our soundtracks. Everyone slept like logs on those summer nights. The thing is that magical place engrained a summer rhythm of needing to spend as much time out of doors as possible, of needing to explore, of being alone in the powerful, realigning force of Mother Nature.

Life evolves and for chunks of the year now, I live in a city setting that boasts some of the best museums and galleries in all the world. Like my Mother, however, the calling of my privileged summers will not be denied. Different mountains, but the same theme. I love to hit the trails, usually alone. I love the splendid solitude they offer, their humbling challenge that both invigorates and inspires.

The time honored Masters hung on city cultural temples, grand though they are, do not hold a candle to the art in nature. To its outrageous color combinations, leaning boulders that would be the envy of any monumental sculptor, breathtaking vistas, complex valley systems…and behind each image a living metaphor. I suppose in the deep breathing and endorphin high of an ascent, immersed in that beauty the subconscious is at liberty to throw up old sorrows and/or life tangles to be metabolized one foot step at a time. For instance last week in the free flowing euphoria of a descent, I found myself ruminating over my six miscarriages…yup…of long years ago. A wave of buried sadness washed over me. I turned to the life force of the surrounding trees for solace. Surely their patient witness would issue comfort. They did. There, on the ground at the base of a giant tree were pinecones and small baby pine trees. Some had taken hold, others had not. Even amidst death the dominating force was life. The image told me that each of those six precious souls found a next ride into life. They had not died, just had been lost to me.

On spiny ridges, apparently unaware of their peril, I’ve seen trees improbably growing out granite slabs 1000 feet off the valley floor simply reaching beautifully toward the light. Others heroically curl and twist up between and around jagged rock outcroppings with fearsome tenacity. In direct correlation to the challenge of their circumstance, the more beautiful the tree. Is this it I wonder? We twist and adapt, we expose our roots and hang on for dear life always reaching toward the sun. Is our own beauty expressed through the overcoming of challenges? I will think of the tenacity of those trees next time I hit a wall in life. The tree found a way to hang on. So must and can, apparently, we.

Maybe this is the calling…to insight, to solace.

Whatever it is, I wish it for you.

El Paso

El Paso and Dayton this time. My heart is breaking for those mourning today, for those whose lives will never, not ever be the same. It breaks along with yours for those who met their deaths incomprehensibly whilst out on simple shopping errands, whilst out for a fun evening.  As I struggle, again, to work my head around the incomprehensible, I’m ever so slightly comforted in knowing that as surely as hatred won the day the overwhelming presence of compassion and courage is also evident in the reports from many of the survivors of these tragic horrors.

A news report about this devil of a man who perpetrated the slaughter in El Paso spoke of the manifesto he had recently posted. Details are sketchy but apparently he had written that everything he was raised to believe he could have in life is not, in fact, available to him.  As a white American male he had been raised to believe that his education would guarantee him a job that with hard work would in turn provide a decent living, a home in which he would be able to nurture an eventual wife and family. At the ripe old age of 21…sitting at the cusp of everything, he was consumed with a blinding rage that had seemingly blotted out his horizon. He believed the steady march of high tech jobs combined with the inflow of immigrants had irretrievably dashed all his dreams. You can practically hear the crunching of the white patriarchal industrial age in those misguided sentiments.  You can also witness the utter failure of his education to instill in him what I believe to be the American spirit. One with grit that charges the individual with the responsibility that comes with freedom to make your own life. He is correct that high tech is steam rolling all of us but where was his “Then what” thought? Where was the imagination to adjust? Where was even the glimmer of rationality that there was a way forward other than all consuming hatred? Are we still America if we, as a nation, loose this essence?

The world moves at a lightening pace now but even the world I was raised to negotiate was not the world I entered into. I was taught how to curtsy, how to polish silver, how to write a thank you note on good stationary with a fountain pen, make a square meal, organize a kitchen. These were the crucial survival tools carefully placed by my loving parents in my sister’s and my life tool belts. My sister and I both entered a world at the boil of the women’s movement where those tools were sorely inadequate.  I mean, a curtsy?  We were launched out of the nest into a world where we were to burn our bras, not get married, not get “saddled with kids”, certainly not be beholding or indeed strapped to any man but rather we were to make our own way.  I suppose this is a cross for every generation: The world changes and people adjust in order to thrive.

What was the twisted seed that got planted in his psyche that grew to make rage his response? What irrational demon caught hold of his spirit to conclude that mass slaughter was a solution? What could have been done to pull him into our 21st century in the gorgeous global reality and healthy diversity we are privileged to live in? These questions pound in my head because the hatred with which this man erupted is not his alone. Education conquers ignorance, rationality conquers irrationality, laws should control guns, knowing dissolves prejudice, love conquers hate. There are solutions and they must be vigorously sought if we are to stem this unbearable tide.

 

The Guardian

In the early 1960 my Dad’s career moved the family to Tokyo, where my sister and I got to grow up. Once there, the first line of business for my Mom was to find a home for us and after a couple of months living at the Hotel New Japan, she found a great one. It was a big rambly house, full of character and idiosyncrasies. Half the house was of western design and was ours to live in; the other half was of traditional Japanese design and was the residence of our landlord, Mr. Akebana, an elegant Japanese gentleman. Our half was bare when we moved in save for a wooden statue of an early Japanese Jesuit priest, dressed in kimono. He wore a rosary and a sword…a sword not to kill a possible offender but rather to kill himself in the likely event he would be persecuted for being a Christian. A classic east meets west paradigm. Mr. Akebana told Mother that the statue had long lived in the Western wing of his, now our, home and that it was the Guardian of the house. He asked if the statue might stay put. Mother was delighted to comply.

We know nothing of Mr. Akebana’s life except that he would have lived in Tokyo through the war, had this enormous estate and grandiose home smack in the middle of town and lived with his sour step-sister. My memory of him is that he was a sad and contemplative man, always dressed in shibui toned kimonos. It must have been quite something for this Japanese survivor of WWII to permit an American family to live in his home.

Our side of the residence eventually boasted dogs, cats, hot and cold running flow of international house guests, homework, sleepovers, fancy dinners, kitchen suppers, climbing trees in the backyard…it was a happy and privileged life.

When after ten years we were moving to another home, Mr. Akebana over the protestations of the sour step-sister, insisted Mother take the Guardian with her. That statue, a particular favorite of Mother’s, eventually returned to the States with them when my folks retired.

Six and a half years ago at a ripe old age, my Mom entered hospice and I became her primary caregiver. About two weeks prior to her demise I went to a little nail shop not far from my parents’ home and asked if one of the manicurists might consider coming to the house to tend to Mother’s nails. The gals declined siting the situation as too unusual but a gentleman stepped up and within minutes he was following me up the hill to the folk’s home. As we came into the house the Vietnamese manicurist, Tony, took off his shoes. He started noticing the Asian art and once in the living room spotted the Guardian. He knew immediately who it was…a famous figure of Christian advancement for Asia. With that we went to Mother’s bedroom where he greeted her with a beaming smile. Tony worked on Mother for well over an hour. I could hear them laughing and giggling…when I checked back in he was massaging her feet and said “I wish I was her son, then I could do this every day.” As he was leaving he flatly refused to take any money for his efforts. I forced a little vase on him which he reluctantly accepted. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang and it was Tony with a wooden rosary and cross. He asked that I give it to Mother. What was so startling is that it looked precisely like the rosary carved into the wooden statue made to look as if the Guardian himself were carrying it. It was as if, through this angelic stranger, the Guardian had given Mother his rosary.  Mom was as astonished by the gift and she held that rosary over her last days absorbing the comfort it afforded.

Six years ago…. and Tony’s gift still astonishes me. Death, I learned, gathers angels be they on this or that side of the veil.

Pink Drapes

New chapters I’ve learned can take you to places or situations you’d never have pictured yourself in. For instance not so long ago, I took over my parent’s home. It’s that time of life.  I bought it shortly after Mom died. It was the only way to keep my then 98 year old Dad in his own home over his end of days and having just lost his bride of 72 years, it seemed the right thing to do.  In the fullness of time my Dad also died in that home, just 26 days shy of 100, in his own bed and thank heavens, peacefully. 
 
So there I was..alone in their, now my, home.  Its a gracious property in the mountains and in the 20 or so years they had lived there they had made it beautiful. It housed their entire history…telling the tale of their long and good lives through the books, art and photos it held. New chapters however demand their own changes, symbolic moments perhaps of the new. Thinking along those lines, my eyes landed on Mom’s bedroom drapes. Pink drapes and, sorry Mom, I am not a pink person. What to do? The drapes were in great shape just not the right color. “Apricot!” I thought. “I can dye them apricot!” Off to the store to buy the dye.
The task ahead involved taking all twelve panels down and putting them, one by one, in the bathtub of hot water/dye solution and stomping on the soaking drapes for 20 minutes.  Because it was a messy job I figured best to do this in my birthday suit.  I did not foresee the fact that my feet and hands would turn flaming apricot. Never mind. Next step was to stuff the dyed and sopping panel into a big plastic bag,…schlep it to the washing machine, plop it in and while that was going return for the next round of stomping. Times twelve.
I timed the first panel and figured I had just the right amount of time before I had to be ready.  Ready for my dinner guests.  That night I was having my first dinner party at the house. Now, WHY I felt it was imperative to get the drapes done that particular afternoon is beyond me.  Apparently it was part of my inner ‘new chapter’ routine.  Anyway, most inconveniently my timing was off because just as I was putting the last panel into the washing machine, the door bell rang. This would have been fine except for the fact that of course I was buck naked and my clothes were on the other side of the house, past the front door and entry windows.  Doorbell dinging, dogs barking, I could but crawl stealthily below the windows as fast as possible in order to get to my clothes and throw them on so that I could then open the door to my waiting guests. They awaited their tardy hostess with the flaming apricot hands and feet and the rest of the evening went off without a hitch I’m relieved to report.
I cannot recommend this method of new chapter building as in my case, the drapes shrank.  Sorry again, Mom.  When I look at the new drapes now I think about that madwoman stomping in the bathtub.  What was driving me? Some caveman like urge to make a space my own? The whole episode seems tied to some ancient ritual designed to honor the old and bring in the new, it was connected to some primal need to create a line in the sand between then and now. A demarkation in the continuum.
Either that or I truly just don’t like pink drapes. Your call.