Posts Tagged ‘painting’

painting my father

May 1, 2016

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Jackson Pollock

 

Note: Some of you will have read this before, at ccesf.org or in mary’zine #54, March 2012. But I shared it in a memoir writing workshop, where it was very well received, and I thought it deserved another look. I wish I could include the painting itself, but it’s buried somewhere in the stacks of paintings in my closet.

I’m in a painting workshop. I’ve been process (intuitive) painting since 1979, and one thing about process is that you’re always a beginner. You don’t decide what to paint, and you don’t try to make a pretty or interesting picture. It’s all about the experience you go through when you’re painting.

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, my teacher Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and I’m like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in the flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating?) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to force the expression of the deep irritation in me that is covering something more meaningful.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I realize that I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis, and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time with an army buddy. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window in the front door when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor, who also had MS, once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to paint an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Ha! Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, to which I add organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I went straight to bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.

 

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William Henry McKenney

1920–1969

R.I.P.

mary’zine #75: December 2015

December 27, 2015

MARY UNMUTED

Long time, no me.

I don’t write, I don’t call….

My writing energy has been going to the Painting Studio at ccesf.org (Center for Creative Exploration).

But…

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… and what a coinkidink, I’m going to write about painting here, too, along with some other stuff. And I’ll explain what “Mary Unmuted” means.

 

As I look back over the last few weeks, I think, “What a shitty month this has turned out to be.”

 

On Dec. 3, my 10-year-old cat Luther died.

Next day I got work, which is usually a good thing, but it meant I had to miss the first 2 days of the December painting intensive.

There were a few bright moments, even some profound moments, during the intensive, but at the same time…

I was having to be on the phone every day trying to save my health reimbursement account and my flood insurance, which is required to keep my mortgage. At least I had an agent to clear up the flood premium snafu, but for the other one I had no advocate. I called and e-mailed multiple people in three institutions: my former employer, an insurance exchange, and my health insurance plan. I was lied to, given wrong information, waited in vain for people to call me back, was called unnecessarily to tell me someone would call me later.

If it weren’t for misinformation and disinformation, I wouldn’t have any information at all.

 

The result of all this effort was that I lost funding for my account for 2016: $3,000 gone poof. And there is no appeal.

 

So now, I’m feeling depressed—it’s not S.A.D. or Xmas, it’s just the confluence of losing my kitty and a lot of money in the same time period. I feel like I should have a better attitude, be positive. Instead, I feel heavy, pulled down by emotional gravity. Plus, I worry about Luther’s brother Brutus. Either he’s depressed over losing Luther, too, or I’m projecting. It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

But… onward and upward!

 

 

in-tens-ity

 

For the first time ever, I did not attend the December 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco—at least, not physically. Until astral projection becomes a reliable form of transportation, I have to rely on a web conferencing service called Zoom. It’s similar to Skype. Anyone who can’t get to the studio for a class or workshop can “Zoom in” and paint at home while being able to interact with Barbara (our teacher) and the painters who are there. I did the May intensive that way and have been taking 2 classes a week all summer and fall. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this, but it is not without its problems.

The biggest downside for me, besides difficulty in hearing what people are saying during the group sharings, is that I have to be “muted” so as not to create static, feedback, or amplified cuss words if I yell at my cat. So I have to get Barbara’s attention before I can say something, and it kind of kills the spontaneity.

 

My physical travels to S.F. over the past 11 years have been traumatic, to say the least. You can read about them on editorite.com; search “travel.” But this year I’ve had leg pain for several months and it’s not easy to walk, even with a cane. That leg is 69 years old; of course, so is the rest of me, but the leg is taking it extra hard. I think there’s a portrait of it in a closet somewhere, glowing with health.

So I felt I couldn’t deal with all the walking, the multi-drug taking, and the various demands on me physically and emotionally that result from my being in that now-foreign element, driving around a big city, having a strict schedule, and, of course, spending a lot of money to make it happen.

 

I knew that Zooming in to the intensive was going to be its own challenge. I have felt resentful at times about the distance—real and imagined—between me and everyone at the studio. I’ve likened it to being a brain in a jar; at other times, to a ghost who’s dropping a feather so the other painters will know I’m trying to communicate with them.

 

To make matters worse, I have several good friends who do the December intensive, and I was missing out not only on the hugs and conversations, but also on the lunches and dinners and the hanging out at the end of the day with Terry.

 

 

loss

 

Luther had been sick for a long time—he’d had bladder problems his whole life—and now had renal failure, blood in his urine, and he was peeing in places other than the litter box. He had lost so much weight that he seemed to be disappearing ounce by ounce. But he was still wanting to be with me or on me all the time, purring, sleeping in my arms; he still ran to the window when he saw a bird, could jump from my armchair to the top of the cat tree, and would play with an empty toilet paper roll on the bathroom floor or rassle with his brother.

 

Except for the obvious signs, he almost seemed normal, even up to the night before he died. I found him dead the next morning and called the mobile vet, Dr. A., who came right away and took the body away. It was heart-breaking to lose him, but I was also profoundly grateful that I had not had to make the decision to put him down. I’ve only had one other cat who died peacefully at home like that.

 

So, when I finished my work and Zoomed into the intensive on Monday morning, I knew I was going to be painting Luther a lot. I did, of course, but I was startled when I realized that, had I flown out to S.F. for the intensive, all else being equal, he would have died just after I left for the airport. Then my sister Barb would have had to deal with the body, and Brutus would have been alone all week except for Barb’s daily visits. I’m not going to draw any deep conclusions from this, though it would be convenient and soothing to think that “God” or The Universe had planned it that way.

 

 

an interlocutor

 

I hadn’t had work in months (I’m a scientific editor), so, according to the laws of the Universe, or at least Murphy’s law, it was no surprise that I got two manuscripts to edit just before the intensive was about to start. Most of my clients are non-native English speakers and therefore non-native English writers. This is good, because I’m quite invaluable to them, but it can be difficult to decipher what they mean, especially since they’re writing about very technical (biological) things. So I spent the weekend working harder and longer than I wanted to, and I finished the paper at 10 p.m. Sunday night.

 

 

 

 

 

painting

 

We painted for about 5 hours every day. Painting felt good, but I was ill at ease in the group sharings, during which I mostly watched my friends 1,836 miles away while they laughed, talked, and bonded as only we painters can. I was still technically a part of the group but felt marginalized, mostly unseen and unheard. This was something I had anticipated, and I saw it as a difficult but necessary lesson in being in myself rather than looking for recognition from others. I had sometimes had this feeling of alienation even when I was physically at the studio, but there was always someone to talk to there. Even making eye contact over the painting table was a form of communication. This week was a stark contrast.

 

I had painted Luther in the classes for a few weeks before he died. I painted the following on Nov. 14, Nov. 23, Dec. 7, and Dec. 11 (#1–4, respectively). So only the last two were painted during the intensive.

 

 

#1:  I’m holding Luther, Brutus is clinging to me, and previously ascended kitties Pookie and Radar are enjoying their peaceful or raucous afterlives.

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#2:  Luther (center) displays the power and immortality of the Cat World. His coffin, an irrelevance, stands empty. I am in the upper right corner refusing to be consoled by Blue Cat Being.

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#3:  I am burning up from sorrow. A Being on the left is dispensing comfort and encouragement (to keep burning).

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#4:  I’m holding Luther, who is ascending. I’m still burning, and Luther’s golden coffin is still empty. On the right, a staircase leads up to a Royal Cat Being sitting on his throne, wearing a golden cape. Below the throne is the notation C.A.T., which I later decide means Consciousness And Transcendence.

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So these paintings felt good—even transcendent—to paint, but the contact with the group was bittersweet. I had to face the alienation and the loneliness, which were very real, despite my certainty that I am loved in the group. “Knowing” something, and feeling it when conditions are not ideal, are two different things. Terry, who had flown in for the intensive from Massachusetts, made it a point to check in with me now and then, and we talked on the phone a couple times after she got back to her rental place. Occasionally, if my name was mentioned, people would wave, but I mostly experienced the sharings as if I were watching a movie starring my friends. It was an odd sensation. It was as if I didn’t exist—or did, but only (like I said) as a ghost or pure gray matter. When someone addressed me directly, as a few people did, it was like getting a hit of energy. This was instructive.

 

 

On Monday night, I said good-bye to a few people and exited Zoom when the sharing was over, but on Tuesday night I stayed and watched the scene as some people left and others stood or sat around and talked. Sometimes it can be hard to leave that place after painting all day and feeling the love. Terry and Sandra were sitting by the laptop (on which my ghostly self was displayed), and we were able to talk and act silly like we used to. Then Terry asked if I wanted to take a tour of the studio. Sure! So she picked up the laptop, and she and Sandra walked me around. I said “Hi” to a few people, and I got to see a few of the paintings. I wanted them to prove that “my flag was still there”—the Tibetan prayer flag that I had painted for the studio’s 16-year celebration gala in November—and yes it was, hanging above the windows with all the others. When I was ready to leave, the others waved and yelled good-bye. The attention was intoxicating. Suddenly, my alienation was a memory and I felt special for attending the intensive in this virtual way. This thought, too, was instructive.

 

Another bit of unexpected attention I got was when one of the painters said in the sharing that she had read the studio’s “blog” online (ccesf.org). She quoted a line about the author’s feeling “dread” as she drove to the studio. She found this “helpful”—obviously, she could relate—and then said she didn’t know who wrote it. Barbara said, “She’s right here,” meaning me. That was rewarding, because I tend to think that no one ever reads what I post there. Once again, I felt special. Are we seeing a trend here?

 

 

insights

 

During the Wednesday morning sharing, I asked to speak, Barbara unmuted me, and I told the group about the glorious tour of the studio I had been taken on the night before. But the attention I had so enjoyed brought with it the realization that I expect validation to come from the outside. I had honestly thought I was long past that belief, but those core feelings from childhood have a way of reasserting themselves when one is under stress. I love living alone and being alone, but feeling like a ghost or a brain in a jar had put into sharp relief my deep need to be accepted and reassured. My reactions during the week were showing me that I had trouble feeling comfortable even with a group of friends I normally feel very close to.

 

But one day—I don’t remember which day it was—I was speaking, and an interesting thing happened. Instead of the Zoom emphasizing my distance, I actually had the sensation of zooming toward the group on my own wave of connection. I felt like I was in the room with them; the screen, the frame, disappeared, and I was no longer an onlooker. That had also happened one time in a class, so I know it’s within my power, I can’t blame the technology for my alienation. I can’t make it happen on command, though. It’s like the painting itself, it comes alive when it’s ready, when I forget myself.

 

Wednesday was a half day for painting. The studio provided a pizza lunch, Alyssa made her signature kale salad, which of course I didn’t get to eat, and people either painted or left for parts unknown. I was looking forward to a long winter’s nap in the afternoon, but instead I spent hours on the phone pleading with insurance people not to drop me from my HRA and (different insurance people) not to drop my flood policy, which I had been late in paying.

 

That night was our traditional night (me, Terry, Diane D, and Diane L) for dining at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. The last two times we were there, I had the Crab Louie. I’m hardly a salad person, but I love theirs—the crab, the hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and of course the dressing. It was probably the healthiest thing I ate all week. But this year it was not meant to be.

 

On Friday, the last day of the intensive, Barbara asked us each to speak about something that had touched our heart during the week. Several people mentioned the presence of Amanda’s young daughter Maia, always the center of attention during the sharings. Terry spoke about the time a car alarm went off outside and people in the group started singing in harmony with it, “transforming noise into beautiful music.”

 

I talked about the night that Terry and Sandra took me around the studio. I told them about Luther’s dying and how over the weekend I had felt uncharacteristically lonely. And then, I was surprised to hear myself say that maybe I had been lonely all my life. It felt strange to say that, because I pride myself on never feeling lonely or bored when I’m alone. The fact that this is a source of pride tells me something. But as those words came to me, I thought of myself many years ago, especially after my little brother died when I was six years old. I felt as alone then as I have ever felt, before or since.

 

And I wondered if I had shielded myself from the grief by becoming a self-sufficient “loner.” A few years later, when I was 11 or 12, I remember walking down our road, inaptly named Bay de Noc, and giving myself a pep talk about life. I had decided it was inherently unfair, and that the only way to deal with the unfairness was to allow myself to say and do anything to survive. I was actually denying the concept of living with honor. If I had known curse words back then, I would have said, “Fuck that!” It felt like I was growing up and taking the pulse of the people around me and figuring out what I had to do.

 

And so that brings me to the “present,” which is also my past and my past’s future, when I may finally be able to reverse the ignorant but self-protective armored stand I took back then. Self-knowledge, I’ve discovered, has many layers, and you have to be diligent in opening to the next beautiful, painful realization. Even at the age of 69, with or without my bum leg, which may be living a better life in that idealized closet, there is time to “change,” which is, in a way, to stop changing, running, maneuvering, rationalizing, and just being still and being myself.

 

I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

Peace.

 

(Note: If this is published with all the weird spacing I see in the preview, I will throw down my keyboard and admit defeat. WordPress changes its way of doing things every time I write a new post.)

 

mary’zine #72: February 2015

February 23, 2015

 

best way to begin an autobiography

I was born, obviously. —Alyssa C.

 

January 2, 2015, 3:33 a.m.

I like to think that the “new year” really doesn’t affect me. It’s arbitrary, after all: dividing up time as if it were loaves and fishes. I don’t like rituals or ceremonies, either; maybe I don’t like symbolism, which seems weak and helplessly hopeful in comparison to what is. (Krishnamurti: “Hope is a terrible thing.”) Hope, resolution, affirmation are all about “the future,” as if the next arbitrary span of time may contain and reveal something that does not exist in the present moment.

And yet… sitting at my desk in the middle of the night, after spending several hours editing a paper on the inactivation of HIV in certain cells by certain proteins, I feel strangely satisfied. It doesn’t feel like a “new day” or year, exactly, but like I’m where I’m supposed to be, as if there really is a plan, a “supposed to be.” I love being awake at this hour of the night. Brutus and Luther are raising hell in the background, diving onto tissue paper left over from Christmas as if it were a pile of leaves, batting around the balls that “Aunt Terry” gave them when she was visiting. I just drank a Frappuccino, fattening liquid of choice, though I should be trying to sleep so I can talk somewhat coherently to P on the phone in the morning.

My house is full of color—from my paintings and a couple of my friends’ paintings that I somehow bamboozled them out of, and from all the many gifts my niece, sisters, and friends have given me. I am running out of both wall space and surfaces on which to display them. In my “office,” which is just an arbitrary space carved out of my large upstairs loft-like room, I have a dollhouse exactly like the one I had as a kid—maybe even the same one, for all I know. My sisters found it at a garage sale and bought it for me. Because of my fascination with bucking trends and defying the conventional, I don’t fill it with miniature furniture. When I realized I could indeed use it for anything, it was as freeing as when I first discovered that I can paint anything, or I could buy a red phone, back in the olden day of those bulky, plugged-in, dial-dinosaurs. I must have a strong streak of conventionalism after all—I fight it so much while stubbornly holding on to the idea that I have to do what I should do, when it really doesn’t matter. My mother was practical down to her bones, to the point where decoration seemed frivolous and we kids bringing her flowers from the woods across the road were “bringing dirt and bugs into the house.” She had very strict ideas about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. I’ve written before about how she told me I was wrong when I wrapped a present for my aunt Doris by positioning a large flower—part of the pattern on the wrapping paper—in the center of the package: early artistic leanings not to be fulfilled for many years. For Christmas and birthdays she bought me lots of boxed craft kits, for sand painting or jewelry making, paint-by-number sets and coloring books, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her to encourage me to let loose with paper and pens or paint: Creativity was marketed, not really used to create.

I’ve always struggled against the constraints I possibly inherited or at least was conditioned to, so my life has been a series of amazing and mundane discoveries, such as, Why can’t I have a red phone?? It’s the same process I experience in painting. The battle is never really won, between wanting to do the “right” thing and eventually discovering again that true satisfaction is in the freedom of making it up as I go. I love painting fictitious animals and exaggerated, unrealistic human figures with tubes pumping rays of light and color outside the body, and internal organs and contorted limbs not known to science or medicine. The juxtaposition of my creative self (my true self, I like to think) and my expertise in logic and language seems like it should be contradictory, but somehow it isn’t. I can have both, I can be both, and more.

Among many other Christmas gifts this year, my sister Barb gave me some Yooper memorabilia: a full-size license plate (“YOOPER—You betcha!”), a key ring in the shape of MI, with the U.P. designated “Michigan’s better half” (might be some overcompensation going on there) and magnets: “It’s a YOOPER thing… EH!,” “Michigan YOOPER Great Lakes Splendor,” and “Yooper Girl.” Sure, this kind of thing is pretty hokey, and commercial to its core, but she also found, in Schloegels’ gift shop, a small elephant made out of recycled aluminum… from Kenya! UP here we are not completely out of the loop, or the Yoop. On the dollhouse I have an old bendy girl from a McDonald’s Happy Meal and a twisted series of plastic snap-on pieces coming out of the chimney. The other day, when I was trying to make a dent in the picking up and putting away of both the detritus and the gifts of Christmastime, I noticed some red yarn on a decorated gift bag, so I impulsively tied the big Yooper license plate to the chimney on the back side of the dollhouse. Noticing it tonight was part of what made me feel satisfied with this never-to-be-imagined reentry into my home life / homeland past that I am making into my own image.

I have also discovered several warm, intelligent, creative women here whom I have been gradually meeting in person after finding them on Facebook. Facebook (!): the medium intended for young people to hook up with each other and then text back and forth when they’re in the same room, but which has become, instead, a meeting ground and philosophical forum for us oldsters to ruminate, Laugh Out Loud, and reconnect with old friends. We boomers have taken over everything. This happened a few years ago with the Honda Element, a vehicle I still want, though I understand it isn’t being made anymore. All the profit-mongers are trying to appeal to the 18-35 age group and here we are, in our 50s, 60s, and beyond acting as if we still matter, we still have preferences and a little bit of discretionary retirement income and, in all the ways that count, are as young at heart as we were back in our formative years running from tear gas and cops at antiwar demonstrations. It was a great time to be young, the ‘60s, I tell you what (unless you were a draftee or a Republican).

*

I don’t know why that reminds me, but I have no outline or grand plan, so here goes:

fd8ea8f60f66a2e88aa74e9dddb216fd  I am addicted to Pinterest, which, long story, but I came across some images of the little drawings that medieval scribes added to the margins of manuscripts they were supposedly copying verbatim (while also adding their own stories and interpretations of myths or long-past real or imagined events, which, Holy Bible). So I was “pinning” some of them onto my Art & Illustration board, and I found one that showed a man (?) on stilts holding (breastfeeding?) a baby and carrying a vessel of some sort on his head… along with a young woman and a bird down on the groundIMG_0966 doing I don’t know what. It’s a striking image, because the very idea of walking on stilts, let alone carrying a baby while doing so, is anathema to me. I posted the image on my grown godchild’s Facebook page, because she and her husband are “stilt-walkers” and can be seen far and wide doing their thing in parades, festivals, and (by the way) at their own wedding. I figured they’d like this ancient example of their art, but I was surprised when Kelly sent me a photo of her breastfeeding their darling, godly god-like child while on stilts. It was a wonderful case of synchronicity, and both my godchild and godson-in-law were amazed at seeing the medieval image. Someday I suppose Larkin will be accompanying them on their stilt-walking travels, hence keeping the hippie spirit alive for two generations past the time that we boomers mostly gave up on it.

*

A few days ago, I started writing this ‘zine with the predictable travel story about flying out to San Francisco for a painting intensive. But it felt canned, like I was just describing events and thoughts and encounters by rote. I have a lot to say about the trip, and about the painting itself, but I need it to come out naturally, or not at all. So that’s a peek into my process, in case you wanted to know.

Sometimes I think that Life is not New at all, but is mostly a rediscovery of things we’ve always known but have to keep relearning—as if we constitutionally consist of the New but go through this bodily process called Life in order to experience the New being remade from scratch, over and over again. Blissful stillness seems to be our natural state—how can Oneness be anything but Still?—because in truth that is all there Is, no differentiation, no duality. But our difficult, subjective, isolative charade of Life seems to be a reward for all that Oneness & Beingness, not a punishment as we sometimes think. There are things we can only experience in apparent separateness, such as the exquisite coming together in unlikely communion, and I’m not talking about religion here, or even “spirituality.” Just Truth, in its elusive but eternally yearned for and occasionally seen wonderment, blazing like ten thousand suns. One of my favorite fantasies is that “all will be revealed” after we die—like there will be an intimate workshop with a kindly old teacher in a seminar room with a voice that might call itself God, but not like “God” as we imperfectly imagine It. But it’s unlikely that this will happen, because we will, by definition, be returning / dissolving into the Oneness, and it is merely a childish desire to stand outside Time and Space and maintain both our precious individuality and our blissful surrender to “the time before we were born.” Without duality, you can’t really have it both ways, know what I mean?

I’ve been at this for almost 2 hours now, time for a break. You may talk amongst yourselves until Yooper Girl returns.

 

my all-time favorite explanation for what’s happening in the world; from 1992!—but it applies now more than ever

[From We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins, 1992)]

“Ventura: … My feeling is that this worldwide disintegration is going to play itself out no matter what, and it’s going to take a while, a century or two—a century or two of a kind of chaos, possibly a corporate nightmare, I don’t know, but call it a Dark Age. We had a technologically primitive Dark Age, now we’re going to have a technologically extraordinary Dark Age. But you remember what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said: ‘We die of cold and not of darkness.’

“Just around when he was turning thirteen my kid came home one night, after dark, sat on the couch, and in a kind of fury suddenly burst out with, ‘It’s fucked, it’s so fucked, man, the whole thing is fucking fucked. What do you do in this world, man?’ What could I say to him, that things are gonna be all right, when they’re not? That it’ll be okay when he grows up and gets a job, when it won’t? I got a little crazy and impassioned and I said something like this:

“That we are living in a Dark Age. And we are not going to see the end of it, nor are our children, nor probably our children’s children. And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed it and keep it going and pass it on, because this Dark Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops those people are gonna need the pieces that we pass on. They’re not going to be able to build a new world without us passing on whatever we can—ideas, art, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people: that’s something to be passed on.

“And all of this passing things on, in all its forms, may not cure the world now—curing the world now may not be a human possibility—but it keeps the great things alive. And we have to do this because as Laing said, who are we to decide that it is hopeless? And I said to my son, if you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for—trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”

*

The first thing I thought of when I read this was, of course, the painting I’ve been doing for 35 years. We are a small band of people who explore the self (for lack of a better word) through a process that uses our consciousness—that which Krishnamurti said is the same for everyone, not similar—to explore what the mind, useful as it is, cannot touch. It feels a little like going down to the bottom of the ocean and painting what you “see,” with no need for oxygen or protective devices. This is an ocean without a name, and it is completely worthy of our trust, despite the fears we have all been conditioned to. Indeed, it is the very apotheosis of the Unknown, which governs us each deep down. It can be frightening to face the Unknown, even in such a seemingly superficial way as applying paint to paper. But what results is wisdom, compassion, empathy, humility, humanity.

In a happy marriage of technology and this process that is so much more than an art form, I finally agreed to Barbara’s suggestion that I join a web conferencing site called Zoom so that I can paint at home while being in audio and visual connection with classes going on in San Francisco (ccesf.org). It’s a different experience than painting at the studio, because there is more human contact there, obviously, complete with conversations and hugs, but it makes it possible for me to paint more than once or twice a year. (I don’t have the self-discipline to paint completely on my own.) So here is a case where technology aids the passing on of what we love. It has given me a new lease on painting, without the expense and torture of travel. And just today I painted something I’ve never painted (or even thought of) before: eyeball bullets. Happy will be the future people who discover that.

*

I’ve been thinking about how childhood exists on two levels: the outer and the inner. If I tell the story of my childhood, what comes to mind are the events that happened around me or were visited upon me, the story. Of course, I had reactions to those events, and lots of thoughts, tears and fears around most of them. But what still has power for me now are a few things that were deeply personal and meaningful, not involving family, school, or indeed anyone else.

There was a time when I was very close to nature… not the thought of it or the appreciation of it as an idea, but the essence. One of the advantages of nature was that it got me out of the house. I could be alone and travel without fear through woods, picking a spot in the cedar grove way behind us on what used to be my grandfather’s land, and reading or just sitting, watching the birds and smelling the fragrances all around me.  My favorite thing to do was find and pick flowers, especially buttercups (also called cowslips, I think). I also liked violets and the rarely seen jack-in-the-pulpit, but there was something almost mystical about buttercups. I crave them even now—the frisson I would get from just touching them again, seeking them out in a semi-swampy part of the woods. They are still out there, I hear, but not where I used to find them. “My” woods are gone, or the property has become privately owned and not to be trespassed upon. And yet I have not driven out on those county roads where local people say buttercups have been sighted for a brief time in the spring. Maybe the actual flowers are not as important anymore, but something in me considers them one of the hallmarks of my young life.

The other thing I think about a lot are the little books I used to make that I would fill with images cut out of magazines and seed catalogs. Those flowers—extravagantly lush pansies and roses—pasted into arrangements with people and furniture before I knew the word collage—were equally precious to me, for all their unreality. I would be tempted to sell my soul for just one look at those books again, though I might be disappointed. I would be expecting some mystical (that word again) intelligence, some disconnect and reconnect with a creative world unlike the world of craft, like when you find your teenage diary and think you’ll encounter wisdom you didn’t know you had, and then it turns out to be mundane and predictable. I didn’t keep a diary then, anyway, because I had to hide my inner self from my intrusive mother. She wouldn’t have valued the collage books, and clearly didn’t value the real flowers, so those were two things that were solely my own: art as privacy, as distance, as a marker of my true self. Naturally, she threw out the books, like she did everything else from my childhood except, inexplicably, a crayon drawing for which I won a blue ribbon in kindergarten. She did value competition and achievement. The drawing wasn’t a great example of creativity, it was quite rational and cold-blooded, in fact. It was a barnyard scene with the requisite chickens, barn, and a farmer with a pitchfork that was touching the ground although his feet were not. There was a fence that I reasoned would hide the horse I drew behind it, so you could only see the top half of the horse—but the fence was just posts and a few horizontal pieces of wood, not solid at all! At the age of four or five, I hadn’t yet developed the great logic skills with which I have made a career.

So every now and then I think about those collage books and I know that I could make them again, though they would be very different, of course. I haven’t done it. It’s the memory I want to keep close, not necessarily the actual craft or art. I do something that is similar in some respects but doesn’t involve paste or access to magazines (I subscribe to only one, the New Yorker, which isn’t big on colorful images). I mentioned above that I am quite addicted to Pinterest, which for the longest time I couldn’t imagine the point of. You create “boards” online, that you name and then fill with images from the Internet, many of them from followers or those you follow. It’s not the same as creating art, but there is a particular pleasure in gathering these images. My boards are not highly organized or comprehensive—which is fine because it doesn’t matter. I now know that there are an infinite number of art pieces in the world, from doodles and illustrations to abstract paintings, sculpture, and blown glass. I’m not much interested in realism, which would not come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen my paintings. I can almost breathe the rightness and richness of works by Joan Miró or Franz Kline, but my Art & Illustration board makes no distinction between great art and the simpler shapes and colors found in magazines. I enjoy color and form and value them more highly than words, ironically, considering I’m an editor.

*

I think my sister Barb deserves a blue ribbon for her response to my Facebook entry, “I used to think I was a prodigy, but now I think I’m a late bloomer.” Her response: “Does that make you a Baby Bloomer?” (W)it runs in the family, I guess.

 

San Francisco > home

2 Sertraline, 2 Excedrin, 1 Tagamet, 2 Dramamine, 2 Advil, 1 lorazepam. That’s what it took to get me home from the painting intensive in San Francisco in early December 2014. Each pill had a specific job to do. I am not one to turn my nose up at a pill. Lorazepam, in particular, is a life-changer. The side of my right foot had been throbbing for hours; I thought it was just from wearing shoes all week, but it was actually the dreaded restless legs syndrome, which, I wish they would think of a more impressive name for it because it is neurologically ruthless! Just this side of unbearable.

I had gotten up at 2 a.m., after about an hour and a half of sleep, so Terry and I could return our rental car to Alamo at SFO and get through all the check-in and security business in time for my 6 a.m. flight. I was exhausted and slept for almost 3 hours of the 4-hour flight, a mitzvah of the highest order. I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the whole time, and I remember saying something out loud that I mercifully did not remember once I woke up. I had already known for a few days that there would be no blizzard in Chicago, which, once again, mitzvah.

This next observation is quintessentially “white” of me, but I am quintessentially white, with Northern blood flowing through all my ancestors and into my own veins, along with a Northern temperament, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what that is.

My seatmate in first class was a black man, professional-looking, somewhat younger than me. That’s right, I said black man right up front instead of holding this information back and later referring casually to his mocha-colored skin. I’ve read stories in which the white author used this gimmick (as I think of it) in order to appear to be color blind. I’m not color blind, I can see just fine, but I had no issue sitting next to this man, nor did I feel the need to be obsequious in the way of white liberals wanting approval for their open-mindedness. I have limited direct experience with black people. (If we say “African American,” we should call white people “European American,” but that isn’t going to happen. The majority is the default and gets to be called “people” or “men” whereas, say, women writers or black scholars are considered outliers, a social subspecies.) But I read, and from what I have read by black people about their daily experiences with clueless whites, I try not to repeat the same mistakes, mostly by keeping in mind the late poet Pat Parker’s admonition to “forget that I’m black; never forget that I’m black.” It is indeed possible to keep both things in mind. It’s a matter of respect.

I don’t know why I like to start my travel sagas at the end and then go back in time. It might have something to do with my mother’s habit of reading the newspaper from back to front. That’s how I read The New Yorker now. It’s comforting somehow. It’s like hiding something from yourself and then being delighted when you come across it.

The day’s roster of pills gave me a strange mix of feelings by the time we landed in Green Bay. I had to wait around for a United employee to find my suitcase—clearly marked by a big orange PRIORITY tag. Do words not mean anything anymore? I had been planning to have lunch at El Sarape but was too tired to go out of my way and then attempt to drive after a heavy meal. I could hardly stay awake as it was, and it was a great relief to arrive home unscathed. After a brief flurry of interest from the cats, I once again slept, but it took me several days to feel rested again.

 

painting

As always, I had dreaded the trip and all the various unknowns I would be faced with. But Terry didn’t want to go without me, and Barbara was quite insistent that I was needed there and needed to be there. And it was true. I had an amazing week, which I think I always say. But it’s always true, which is the real motivation to return.

It may have been day 2, maybe even day 1, when I shared in the group that “my molester” had contacted me a few days before and wanted me to do some minor favor for him. It had been 25 years since our last contact, and that only by phone, and 55 or more years since the events. A close friend I told about this urged me to “let it go”—it had happened a long time ago, and he surely didn’t know he had done anything wrong, had probably (a) forgotten all about it or (b) thought it was consensual. So, in the group, I was wondering if I was supposed to “let it go,” and if so, how, and I also acknowledged that I had “dined out” (as they say) on the story, as if it were a badge of honor, courage, or at least victimhood to have this in my past. And it wasn’t just the molestation. His driving me to school on the first day of eighth grade was, I believe, what triggered my year-long phobia about throwing up in class. I was anxious about possibly being late, for one thing, and resentful that my mother could not have cared less about such common teenage anxiety; after all, she’s the mother who turned around on a divided highway and went against oncoming traffic because she “had to get back” to a missed exit.

Part of what confused me about X, “my molester,” was that he had called his parents’ house the morning after my mother died, specifically to offer his condolences to me. I was in shock, half because of my mother’s death and half just hearing his voice (his mother, my aunt, had invited me next door for lunch). His older brother R was in the other room talking to my uncle about everyday things (one thing he contributed at lunch was his belief that a prostate exam was “proven” to be as painful as childbirth) and didn’t once speak to me about my mother. X and I had a perfectly pleasant conversation, in the way of girls or women speaking to boys or men who have done them harm: Somehow there’s a code, of fear or of inappropriateness, in accordance to which we don’t confront them, we keep it all inside, blame ourselves instead of them, and so on. But I was struck by X’s apparent sympathy and lack of self-consciousness as if, indeed, he felt there was nothing between us that warranted being nervous, or maybe even that he felt a bond with me because of those events in the cedar grove and in our basement that were humiliating for me but clearly pleasurable for him.

So I could see the wisdom of my friend’s saying I should let that past go, and I didn’t know if I was resisting that because it had become an integral part of my victim identity. Fortunately, in painting, there’s really no such thing as past or present, and the future, if it exists, is completely open. So I painted him and me, staying with the core feelings, and I did feel somewhat better just letting it be rather than trying to force a letting go. But Barbara came along and pointed out that I hadn’t painted any part of him touching me, which I’m sure was deliberate, though not conscious. So I extended the reach of his painted self, barely crossing the boundary of my painted body with black tendrils. Barbara urged me again and again to go as far as I could. I had to paint him getting into me somehow (lines going into my eyes and mouth), and even then she had to urge me (without saying in so many words) to see the part I was still avoiding, which was our lower halves. So I ended up with a painting I hated to look at, and I still don’t know the extent to which I have “let it go” or touched something deep inside that I had never allowed myself to feel.

*

It seems rather ironic that I had such pleasant encounters with men on this trip. It started on the smallish plane I take from Green Bay to Chicago. I was struggling to wedge myself into the single seat on one side, and the man across from me had two larger seats to himself. He generously offered to switch places with me, and then we kept up a conversation until we got in the air. Turns out he’s a pilot for Delta (we were flying United), and he told me several stories about awful flights he had flown. He was very solicitous about my comfort, I think partly because of the cane I take with me so I can make it through the airports more easily. (A cane is an obvious sign that something isn’t right.) I told him I was going to S.F. to paint, and described the process very generally. He said his 16-year-old daughter is creative, a writer. He said she’s very protective of her writing and her privacy. She’s careful about whom she shows it to, and only when she feels ready. I said, “Vulnerable. Being creative is on a par with being vulnerable.” He seemed dubious. I hope he remembers that, though. I felt a kinship with his daughter, and with him for caring about her. When we landed in Chicago, I said good-bye and we shook hands. He was surprised that, “unlike most women,” I have a strong grip. I like to think I shook up his world a little bit. I’m far from outgoing, but when I have a chance to make an intimate connection with someone, even briefly, I relish it. That’s how people change, I think (me and them).

All week (not just in the airports) I had a good feeling about various men I encountered. It’s a new world for me. In Chicago, my gate happened to be near Wolfgang Puck’s, which I love, so I hobbled over there and got myself a margarita pizza. As I looked around for somewhere to sit, two Indian men got up and effusively offered me a seat at their table, and I settled in to eat my lunch. More than one man helped by parting the crowds for me or letting me get in line. One guy responded to my thanks with “Absolutely! No problem!” Women were kind to me too, of course. I couldn’t help noticing that the women who helped me were not with men. And the men were not with women. Not sure what to make of that.

I think that will be all for now. There’s an omelet downstairs with my name on it, or will be once I break a few eggs. I hear you have to do that.

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mary’zine #62: June 2013

June 8, 2013

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The Difference (King’s X)

 I walked through a garden
In the morning
I walked right into
A change

No words were spoken
Just a feeling
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

Wind it comes and
It blows
Where it comes from
I don’t know

To look for a reason
Might just kill it
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

And I cannot explain

 

7 days

Terry read us the above song lyric during the last sharing of the May painting intensive at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco. It fit my experience of the week perfectly. And now I face the challenge of using language to somehow “explain,” describe, or at least evoke it in some way.

As usual, I have lots of little things to share about my trip, some on the ground, some in the air, but one major theme has come up that doesn’t seem suited to intertwining with details about restaurants, traffic, and funny conversations. I’m not sure what to do about that. If I promise to put all that stuff at the end and call it The Lighter Side, can you stay with me here as I no doubt poorly “explain” the big thing that happened? OK, here goes.

Writing this the day after I got home, my mind is buzzing and my body is buzzing, but I don’t think they’re buzzing in the same direction. Or level. Or something. The mind is all earnest and heartfelt and wanting to share the strangeness and plumb the apparent disconnect between physicality and consciousness. Its agenda is to understand and thereby control the strange goings-on. But the body is all about the inarticulate but strongly felt sensations where old and new experiences and perceptions are stored. Far from languishing, it exerts its own control from down in the briny deep.

In the last issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about a body part that I loathe. But I have encountered new life, new blood in a region of my body that has been felt but unplumbed for a very long time. It is, for lack of a better term, the “lower region.” I would call it visceral, the “pit of my stomach,” but anatomically I don’t even think the stomach is that far down. I will just call it the “lower region”: the lower belly, just shy of the genital area but surely connected to it by plumbing (!) and magic.

So Barbara was talking about this “lower region” and about how much feeling and power is stored there. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, and she gestured to the area on her own body, but I wasn’t sure what the perimeters were. I made her stand up and show me. I was really excited to know that something important goes on in that area, because I’ve had sensations there (rare but strong) since a young age. I couldn’t put a name to them, but I eventually came up with the words lovepityhome…. The love and pity seemed to be for my mother. I remember when I was about 12 years old she had bought me a pair of slacks for Easter. When I went into my bedroom to try them on, I had this intense sensation (quick, where’s my thesaurus?)—a short-lived piercing ache, an abyss of love closely linked to pain into which I could toss any number of words: regret? fear? guilt? the bleakness and joy of existence in this world? I wanted to escape my situation (home), but I felt inexorably tied to it, to my family whom I knew I would leave behind literally and in so many other ways. I knew my mother loved me. But her attempts to please me made me feel almost worse than her insensitivity to my feelings at other times. Her life was hard, with an invalid husband to care for and a family of five to support. She did her best, and maybe that’s why I felt that “strange brew” in my body. (The band Cream’s song “Strange Brew”—“kill what’s inside of you.”)

(I’m throwing a bunch of words on this, like sprinkling salt on a casserole. I hope it makes sense, on some level.)

I’ve had this sensation many times over the years, and I welcome it, I’m not sure why. It comes on its own, I can’t make it happen. And now that I know it’s an important part of the body’s feeling apparatus, uncontrolled by the mind—that ultimate emperor with no clothes—I want to become more aware of it and express it or follow it, or whatever will give it the freedom to flower.

I can’t believe that it took me more than a week to connect sex to this area. For almost the whole intensive, I was having strong sexual feelings, and by the last day it was clear that those feelings were being prompted by my new attention to this complicated area of my body. (“This old gray Mare still has some gas in her tank!”, I thought, or maybe that was Minnie Pearl.) I’m still not sure how sex enters into the love/pity/home theme, but I suppose it makes sense that the most difficult feelings, the ones most laden with significance and physicality, would all be related somehow.

***

During the week I had the usual feelings of disconnect between painting and life. As in the song lyrics I quoted at the beginning, painting made a huge difference but it wasn’t possible to trace the connecting lines, connect the dots, explain a damn thing. On the painting I started after the talk about the “lower region,” I painted myself standing knee-deep in a body of water, and all my attention was on what was below the water—as if my own body were a mere afterthought. Barbara and I saw this at the same time, and it was very telling. I had to focus on my body, which was difficult because I couldn’t paint my feelings literally: A black or muddied band around the lower region wasn’t going to be enough. So I just painted, and I have no idea what happened. The painting isn’t finished, but I scanned a couple parts of it to show you.

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Looking at these images now, I’m struck by two things: The “lower region” I’m talking about has an eye in it. This makes me wonder if that part of the body, an apparent storehouse of denied emotion, is more wise and sensitive than we can imagine. And the larger eyes, especially as seen in the second image, project intense power. As I was painting, I had no idea that they meant anything, and they weren’t even in the “area” I wanted to concentrate on. But looking at them now, it seems obvious.

The sexual resurgence I started to feel during the painting week has continued. Have I unleashed something—my own Pandora’s box*—only to be stymied in the face of consequences? (*According to that bastion of scholarly research, Wikipedia, the “box” was really a jar; [“I left Pandora’s box ajar”?] The mistranslation was blamed on Erasmus of Rotterdam. But I digress. No, wait, I’m not finished. Zeus gave Pandora the jar, with instructions not to open it under any circumstances. Remind you of anything? Hint: apple, snake? What is it with mythological male figures enticing women to do “evil” (assuming evil = mere curiosity) and thus bring down the wrath of the very same gods (or God). By the way, Zeus didn’t punish Pandora for disobeying him—“because he knew this would happen.” It was a set-up from the beginning!)

Since the first insight about the “lower region” struck me, I’ve been discovering layers upon layers of repercussions. One of the major ones is not just sex but Desire. Desire seeks an object. Pandora’s container is easily unhinged when Desire is on the lam. Is Pandora’s jar commensurate with desire? or merely with fantasy? Does fantasy lead to recklessness…cracking the foundation of truth by placing unearned weight on it? or balancing rickety ladders on chair rails to reach a higher understanding? Can fantasy be a means to the truth? One of my dalliances, years ago, resulted in my seeing beyond the illusion of lust to the truth that both of us were in it for ourselves. There was a lot of hot body action but no true communion of souls. Just two female animals trysting under the stars (or in my office after hours, but if this were a poem I wouldn’t mention that). But talk about being alone when you’re with someone. Selfishness (whether the driver or the result of fantasy) is isolating.

So when I got home after the intensive, I found—or imagined—an object of desire in the form of an old friend who had once been attracted to me. It surprised me indeed to open that door and find her there… as if she had been sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. It was astonishing to think that this could be real. But would my desire for her be a welcome gift? Or would it be seen as a mixed message, a mixed gift, a once-nixed gift, a gift too old to be of value?

Desire: a hard pounding in my heart, a hurt before it ever finds its happiness, and also after.

I held Desire in until I couldn’t hold it anymore: the hot potato of love. I threw it to her—made my proposition. I wanted to make a deal. I’d pick door #1, the least threatening, the least life-altering, the maximum good with the minimum cost or hazard. Sex is infinitely malleable, is it not? Couldn’t we define it, indulge in it, as narrowly or as broadly as we chose? We had a long-lasting friendship, had been through a lot together. And there are no rules for being gay (one of the best parts, frankly). Straight people have several well-worn paths laid out for them, whereas we are always, of necessity, blazing our own trails.

Unfortunately, being human does have rules. Truth has rules, as well as hard-and-fast demands. Truth will not be cheated or betrayed. Truth cannot be faked, or extended like a warranty, or cut to fit the Procrustean bed. It just is. Truth is. There is nothing else. Imagine that! We dither and debate and put our thumb on the scale to give ourselves a small advantage, but advantage does not exist, it is ephemeral, and still a cheat in the long run. Truth is. Being is. Honesty is all there is. Existence is truth, with an unyielding foundation—or none at all; which is scarier? I think truth matters but is not material. There’s not even a choice. All of our choices are imaginary escapes. To be still, silent, unreaching, unmoving, even burning with desire… Desire is a gift because it is fuel for being, and being still. It does not require tossing itself like a hot potato, hoping for another to catch it, keep it, nurture it, and pass it back and forth until the heat disperses.

If I can’t toss my hot love potato to a suitable (and willing) mate, then what is there to do? Loving, longing, lounging, logging. OK, logging won’t help, but maybe longing. What does one long for if not the unattainable? And what does one do with a lifetime of repressed power? If I let it grow and be, it will guide me. It will guide me right back to myself, because, really, it’s the only place to be. Longing is not for something, it’s an expression of self. Putting oneself out there by going nowhere. I do not long for, I just long.

At least, now, in my semi-dotage—I put myself somewhere around October 12th in the metaphor of months equaling a life—I am surely still capable of spinning golden threads of illusion, but I am also a seasoned veteran of the ineluctable Real: the stronger force—the stronger desire—which is for truth. Truth of my feeling. Truth of my lover’s feeling. Truth of relationship and loving connection whether or not the connection is the one desired in the moment. Honesty in talking about these things with openness, understanding of risk, self-awareness, love for the other even when her truth means she has to reject the offer, the longing, the desire. One knows one is loved when one is turned down so gently, almost wistfully.

A crisis of faith would be to dwell on what might have been at the expense of what is. What is true. Right here, right now. There is no other place I want to be.

 I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up… in me.

(“Right Here, Right Now,” sung by Jesus Jones; slight edit by Mare)

*

*

*
the lighter side!

So now I’ll tell you about my flight to S.F. At Chicago O’Hare (an airline-sponsored ring of hell) we sat on the runway for the usual unit of time (long). I dozed off, having taken the requisite Dramamine and lorazepam, and awoke as if after an entire night’s sleep to hear the pilot announce, “Ready for takeoff.” I was alarmed and asked my seat mate, a young man, “You mean we haven’t even left yet?” He looks out the window and dryly points out the obvious, that “we’re still on the ground.” I can see a large American Airlines building in the distance and, indeed, I can see ground, but in my drug-addled state I thought for a moment that I had slept all the way to San Francisco and the plane was now about to take off for somewhere else. I just said, “Oh my God” and fell back asleep. I was glad later that I hadn’t jumped up and cried, “I forgot to get off the plane!” The only other time I spoke to that guy was when I saw a flight attendant preparing the pilot’s meal. We in first class had been given the choice of spinach cannelloni or chicken cacciatore, but when the flight attendant got to me, the cannelloni was gone already and she had to give me a detailed explanation of which passengers got first choice: global, premiere, super-duper (I quickly lost track of United’s superlative brand names), front to back of cabin, most miles flown, etc. (Those last two don’t even make sense: your seat in the 6-row cabin is not determined by your customer status). So I picked at the chicken, ate a roll, and pondered how even paying for first class doesn’t guarantee you’ll get all the perks. You get a hot towel, though, and hot nuts, which impress me a lot less than they did on my first first class flight. So when I saw what the pilot was getting, I turned to my seat mate and said, with heavy emphasis, “The pilot got a baked potato.” The guy had to remove one earphone to hear me. “What?” “The pilot got a baked potato.” We chuckled in mock outrage, and I was quite proud of my brazen importuning of this perfect stranger.

I’ve noticed a difference in how I deal with strangers these days, especially during a painting intensive. Everywhere we went in the City, I felt like I was facing each person we encountered with my “front” completely undefended. It seemed so much easier than trying to shrink back and hide behind an imaginary shield of invisibility. My back, of course, was spine-sturdy, a literal back-up should things go wrong. Sensing danger or disdain, the openness shuts down quietly, like a Kindle cover clicking quietly closed (I should have gone into advertising). A case in point: I did not feel open to my seat mate on the flight back home. There was something about him, or the way he ignored me, I’m not sure what it was, but I held myself back and we didn’t say a word to each other. I wasn’t hiding from him, just self-contained. Thanks, 12 years of somatic psychotherapy!

Terry and I had a great week—with each other, with the other painters, and with the many strangers and old friends we encountered during our daily rounds of lunch, dinner, and grocery shopping. We stayed in a different house this time, in Bernal Heights a block off Mission, and enjoyed the amazing views and spacious upstairs with a beautiful long table that was our command center for eating, computing, and piling stuff. It had lots of stairs to contend with, but I’m happy to report that I had no walking-related pains during the week. I had my cane along, but I was able to get around pretty well without it. This was huge… and stood me in good stead when I had to walk/scuttle/shuffle halfway across O’Hare to make my connecting flight home when the cart driver off-loaded me far from the gate. (A not very interesting story for another day, perhaps when I publish my Stories That Don’t Fit Anywhere Else, and Aren’t That Interesting Anyway.)

Driving all over the City (and dipping down into Marin briefly) in a cramped and weak-willed Ford Fiesta, I had a few close calls in traffic, but I got us home without any major damage to ourselves or the car, didn’t I? I mean, that red arrow at the ramp onto South 101 in Mill Valley was obscured by my sun visor. And that yellow car on Mission came out of nowhere! Plus, I had no choice but to blast through the red light at Sloat and Ocean, because I was caught in the intersection and had to keep going, I couldn’t go back: “I have to! I have to!,” I cried, as T gazed in horror at the three or four lanes of traffic to our right that now had the right of way. Occasionally, I let her drive and we both felt empathy for the other’s position: She had to make the crucial decisions when there was no traffic light to legislate our stop-and-go, and I experienced the helplessness of having no control over those decisions except to say “Wait!” or “Go, go go!”

***

Yes, I’m all over the place with my stories, but though the 7 days seemed to progress in a linear fashion—night/day, night/day—the way one remembers things is not linear at all. It’s all a mishmash in there, and one thought that rises to the surface may lead to another that is not obviously related. Welcome to the human brain.

***

New restaurants. L’Avenida is gone now, a huge disappointment. We tried to go to El Toreador in West Portal, but there was a long wait. So we strolled across the street to Spiazzo at 6:30 on a Saturday night and were surprised to get seated within 15 minutes. Excellent food, too. We also had two meals at Tacos Los Altos on Cortland in Bernal Heights. I enjoyed the super veggie burrito, but the second meal of steak enchiladas didn’t meet the high standards of Mexican food that I have become accustomed to in Wisconsin. (I had lunch at El Sarape after I touched down at GRB, because, well, when in Green Bay, eat like the Green Bayans do. My favorite Mexican-American waiter there always remembers me and my sisters, so I thought I was giving him and the restaurant a compliment when I told him that I preferred the food he was serving me to what I had had in San Francisco. Too late, I realized that I was saying more about my limited palate than I was about the heavily Midwesternized meals they serve around here. The waiter said he was from Los Angeles and preferred the food out there. Yeah, OK, never mind.

The painting week was filled with good will and great conversations with Penny R, Diane L, Diane D (who didn’t paint and could only join us for dinner on Wednesday and Friday nights, but her presence was a mitzvah as always), Sandra, Carol, Kate, Linda, Kyle…. Barbara was a delight and a challenge—deeply caring, deeply trusting of her own truth, and deeply in tune with our process(es). Even when I wasn’t sure I was “feeling anything,” it was clear that “something was going on”; I think painting has made me lose my words, or at least my exacting ones. Barbara pointed out that I’m comfortable in the world of language, and that living in the body is more difficult for me. The shift confounds me, because I’ve always believed that coming up with just the right word or string of words is as good as any inchoate “feeling.” I’ve always thought I would be more comfortable as a head in a jar (but not Pandora’s), as long as I could write or speak. Maybe with Google glass and other high technical arts to remove the body’s distractions from the interface, humanity will eventually do away with the physical world altogether?  (But I would miss cats; maybe I could have a cat head in a jar next to me. Oh, now I’m just being silly.)

One day in the sharing, I relayed a true story I’d read online about a man who had been swallowed by a hippopotamus. Turns out he wasn’t actually swallowed (I’d been thinking: There are only two exits—which one did he escape from, and how?). He told it this way: “I was aware that my legs were surrounded by water, but my top half was almost dry. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout. It was only then that I realised I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.” Eventually, the hippo “spit [him] out.” My favorite part was the guy’s conclusion: “Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.” I thought it was quite an instructive message, raising questions as to the nature of time, perception, and WTF he was doing that close to a hippo. (Answer: He’s a river guide—a one-armed river guide at this point.)

I think the biggest laff of the week came when Barbara told us about being hugged by a neighbor who always says, “God bless you.” Barbara was unsure how to respond. “You too” didn’t seem right. Even less so: “Back atcha.” I suggested she answer her in German, in which Barbara is fluent. So Amanda pipes up: “Gesundheit?” OK, so you had to be there, but the thought of saying “Gesundheit” to someone who’s just said “God bless you” was just too hilarious. We laughed like crazy persons.

Neither Terry nor I could sleep the night before we were to leave, so we started the “day” at 2 a.m. We followed her GPS to SFO, dropped the rental car off at Hertz, and parted on the air train because we were leaving from different terminals. It was bittersweet. At security, I was astonished to find that the TSA (now CSA?) were all very kind. I never thought I’d hear the words “Have a good flight” in that corner of bureaucracy. And instead of marching me off to the side and demanding that I surrender my half bottle of water or be “escorted out,” the woman who found it in my bag merely asked if I wanted to go outside the security area and drink it or if she should toss it. Faced with this display of rationality and human feeling, I was practically speechless. In the terminal proper, I stopped at a kiosk to buy some non-bomb-containing water, and I asked the seller why everyone in the airport was so nice now: they’d never been before. She responded… nicely… that it was better than being nasty, and I told her I appreciated it. It really made everything about the airport experience more tolerable.

My flight home was relatively uneventful—I especially appreciate the jet stream, if that’s what explains the much shorter time in the air when going east—except in Chicago (hub of all airline ills) where something happened to the “auxiliary power” and we had to wait on the plane for airport maintenance to come and fix it. The delay was probably less than an hour, but I always have a heightened sense of fear when I get that close to home and face the possibility of being stranded, as I did a couple years ago.

The cats were thrilled to have me home, and for the first day and a half they didn’t let me out of their sight. I’m sure my sister Barb did a great job of caring for them—including a repeat of the lying on the floor by the bed and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Luther when he thought he had found a secure hiding place. She says he eventually got out from under the bed and walked slowly away… I picture him backing slowly away, with two paws out as if to say, “That’s fine, don’t get up.”

My method of unpacking after a trip involves several days and an attempt to expend no extra energy whatsoever. If I happen to be going into the bathroom, I’m happy to pick up a used Kleenex or a plastic bottle of lotion along the way and bring it with me. If I’m going downstairs, I’ll bring along a t-shirt that needs to go in the laundry, as long as I don’t have to go out of my way. This doesn’t work for very long, because eventually I have to take active steps to empty the suitcase and organize the clean vs. dirty clothes, but it lets me feel for a short time like I’m getting away with something.

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Oh, what will become of me?

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #60: January 2013

January 4, 2013

Flying to San Francisco for a painting intensive is a lot like taking my cat to the vet. In both cases I think I can handle it, but there are certain things over which I have little or no control: (1) the cat; (2) United Airlines.

Either I’ve let down my vigilance or Luther has increased his. I had to take him in for a very simple procedure: to remove the stitches from his MTF surgery (male-to-a-gash where his privates used to be). I usually have no trouble grabbing him and sticking him in the carrier. But he had been watching and learning: he would get suspicious when I put socks on, or when I closed both doors to my bedroom (so he couldn’t hide under the bed). I try to remain calm and not give off any vibes of “I am about to pick you up, cat,” but he’s very sensitive to nonverbal cues. Let’s face it, he has nothing else to do all day. So this time he figured it out, and I kid you not, I spent one-and-a-half hours chasing him up and down the stairs. (It was a low-speed chase on my part.) He would wait at the top or bottom of the stairs until I almost reached him and then he would take off. He got behind the washer and dryer and tucked himself into a hole in the dry wall. I couldn’t move the appliances, and pleading with him in a reasonable tone of voice didn’t work, so I got out the vacuum cleaner and flushed him out with the sound he likes least in the world. Then it was up the stairs again, and on and on. About an hour into this fiasco, I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on a short stand-alone bookcase and looking down at Luther who was lounging on the other side. He averted his eyes, so I knew he knew he was being a very bad boy. I explained to him, “I can’t do this all day, you know. You’re going to have to give up sometime, because I’m not going to!” With that, we took up the chase again. I finally trapped him in the upstairs bathroom.

United Airlines is even more difficult to deal with, because you’re completely at the mercy of snow, rain, wind, fog, missing planes, late planes, planes that won’t move, planes that can’t move, mysterious demands from the air traffic controllers (inadequately explained by the pilot), mechanical difficulties, missing crew members, not enough food on board, an overhead bin that won’t close, a missing sticker on the pilot’s control panel. This last one happened to my friend P in October. FAA regulations would not permit the plane to fly without this sticker! I asked her if it was a happy face, or maybe “My honor student can beat up your honor student.” There is no end to the excuses for why a plane cannot go when it’s time. On my most recent trip, there was a 45-minute delay at O’Hare because some plane that was in our way needed a “pusher.” That’s when I learned that a plane can’t go in reverse (wouldn’t that be a sight in the sky? backwards-flying airplanes?), it has to be pushed out of the gate. There was also much yelling back and forth over the heads of the waiting passengers between two employees at the far ends of the gate, white phones to their ears, trying to convey information or questions either to the other gate person or perhaps to the person at the other end of the other gate person’s phone. It was impossible to determine what they were talking about, and whether it was good or bad news for us, the passenger/hostages. But once we got going, the flight to S.F. was uneventful and, I have to admit, they served a delicious tomato soup in first class.

[As I write this, I’m half-watching the “KittenCam” on YouTube. Brutus sometimes watches it with me and will look behind the laptop to see where the kitties are. Poor dumb animals, there’s so much in life they don’t understand. The mother cat is lying on top of a rudimentary cardboard castle, and there’s a wide entrance for the kittens to get inside. I hear a lot of scratching, and I look over to see that one of the kittens has managed to climb up the back of the castle and is lying next to mom, oh bliss to be the only child for a moment. One of the other kittens is trying to figure out how to climb up there too, but he/she gives up and leaves the castle to lie on a blanket in front of it. The blanket is blue; is it meant to represent a moat? Am I giving this too much thought?]

At the baggage claim at SFO, I was waiting in vain for my luggage to come down the chute when a United employee came up to me and asked if I was looking for a purple hard-sided suitcase. He said it had come in on an earlier flight, so it was waiting for me in the Odd Sizes area. I asked him how he knew it was mine, and he said he remembered my name from the wheelchair list (I get ferried around O’Hare and SFO). Which really didn’t explain it, but I guess my cane gave me away. So I claimed my suitcase and schlepped up to the air train with all my stuff: suitcase, heavy carry-on bag, painting tube, and heavy wool coat. (I don’t understand the architecture of that part of the airport. I had to take an elevator up and then another elevator down.) I picked up my car at the Rental Car Center and was delighted to see that Alamo was much more efficient than Avis ever was.

I’d brought along my GPS, so before proceeding to the flat in Bernal Heights that Terry had rented for us, I typed in “Golden Gate Park” so I could stop at Andronico’s for supplies, maybe pick up a burrito at L’Avenida. Complacent with the smooth way the trip had gone so far, I proceeded onto the freeway in the heavy rain and dark, pretty much remembering the way over to 280 but figuring it wouldn’t hoit to use the GPS. It wasn’t until I saw the “380 to 280” sign out of the corner of my eye that I realized that Gloria (Positioning System) was guiding me onto 101 North. Very soon I discovered that she was trying to make me go over the Bay Bridge! Her demands became more and more insistent until I finally unplugged her and decided to fly (so to speak) solo.

I wasn’t sure how to get away from the dreaded bridge and find the heart of the city. There used to be a sign that said, “Last exit to S.F.,” but  I didn’t see it this time. At one point, I thought, “I could die tonight.” The crowded freeway was a nightmare, especially when I had to change lanes, and the city streets, when I finally got to one, were almost worse because of all the pedestrians and bike riders and still too many cars. When one car started backing toward me without regard for the Pauli Exclusion Principle (no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time), I leaned on the horn, and a guy on a bike riding by called out, “Chill, lady.” I tried to think of a biting retort, but I didn’t have the energy. Besides, it was probably good advice. At a stoplight I tinkered with the radio, got it turned on, and almost got blasted out of the car it was so loud. Then I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Not for the first time, I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

To make a long story not much shorter, I managed to find Polk St., then Pine, and drove across town to L’Avenida (it was closed) and Andronico’s, where I bought water, Frappuccino, eggs, butter, English muffins, and capellini with artichokes and pine nuts. Oh, did I forget to mention the lemon tart? By 9:00 I made it over to the flat, which is on a nice quiet street across from Holly Park. After meeting the “hosts” and getting a tour of the premises, I ate half the capellini and the lemon tart and retired early. Terry wasn’t flying in until the next day, Friday.

I woke to darkness and still-pouring rain. The mattress was so soft that I couldn’t turn over: an inexorable gravity-like force kept pulling me to the edge. When I reached for my cell phone on the night stand, I fell out of bed! The phone hit the floor, too, and broke apart, the three pieces scattering. It took several minutes of sweeping my cane under the bed and a chair to find the battery. Besides being bruised by the fall, I had a sharp pain under my right heel when I tried to walk. I think that was from the schlepping I had to do in the 3 airports the day before (the wheelchair rides get you only so far), not from landing on the floor.

To say that I was discouraged at that point is a vast understatement. Each time I go to these painting intensives, I’m six months or another year older (and deeper in debt), and my mobility is increasingly compromised. Every movement is difficult, and every new environment seems designed to stymie me. Here is a perfect example. The bathroom door would get stuck on the bath mat when I tried to open or close it, so I had to bend down and pick the mat up to move it out of the way. The first time I did this, it wouldn’t come up, and I finally realized that I was leaning on it with the cane in my other hand. This also illustrates my complicity in my other, nonphysical problems, I’m sorry to say.

Terry was also having a trip from hell, which I didn’t know about until after I’d had lunch with Barbara. We got burritos from La Corneta in Glen Park and ate them at her lovely outer Mission apartment. I once speculated that eternity is the “time” between meetings with the other painters, because it never feels like time has passed, we pick up where we left off. I got a text from Terry saying she was stuck in Philadelphia. (I wanted to work in W.C. Fields’ famous epitaph, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” but it turns out to be apocryphal; damn!) She finally got in late Friday night.

On Saturday morning it was old home week at the painting studio. Only 4 of 25 painters were “new” (not known to me). Some of us have been painting together for over 30 years. I was delighted to see that Diane L. and Diane D. were there, also Sima, who had lost her job the day before and so was freed up to paint. Greeting everyone, hugging and exchanging gladness at seeing each other again, went a long way toward turning my travel woes on their head and making me see that “it was all worth it.” All weekend I was high on the people, the ease of painting, and the realization that I seem to have “gotten out of my own way” (the cane pinning down the bathmat notwithstanding), able to accept my mistakes, petty thoughts, and social awkwardness. It’s so easy once you know how: if you accept yourself and your imperfections, you can note what happened and then move on, rather than spiraling down into the useless, self-fulfilling prophesy of self-judgment.

Yet despite this, part of me wondered if I was getting too cocky, if I was going to get my comeuppance. And it did come, but not, I think, as a punishment for feeling good about myself. Accepting yourself in general doesn’t mean you will never fail or flounder; it works on the other end, when the worst has already happened. On the third day of painting, I had a sudden insight that I wanted to share in the group, even though it was in response to someone else’s sharing. Barbara’s attempt to bring “painting consciousness” into our relationships with one another in the group is fairly new and difficult to carry out in practice. The painting itself feels completely natural, because you do exactly what comes to you. But in the sharing, you need a higher level of awareness so that you honor each person’s space to speak without responding, giving advice, or going off on your own tangents. The sharing is not a discussion group or a casual conversation, and in that sense it feels unnatural… to wait and consider one’s intentions before blurting something out, for example. I seem to be the main blurter in the group. Back in the day, I was so shy that I could never think of anything to say or, if I did, could not bring myself to speak up. Now I’m kind of a loose cannon, putting myself out there, taking risks with what I say (an avocational hazard of being smart and funny), and getting caught up in meta disagreements with Barbara about trust, permission, rules, authority, and approval seeking. I seem always to be seeing a naked emperor in front of me, rather than another sensitive human being who is doing the best she can.

It’s a painful process—pushing the boundaries, getting pushed back, afraid to give in to authority, afraid of “group think.” My earlier experience in a certain group can explain this, but it’s difficult to let go of that reflexive need to challenge when my hackles start rising up. So Barbara and I went back and forth for a while, I completely closed down in despair at not being “understood” and left to go to the bathroom so I could compose myself and blow my nose. (“I can’t keep my snot in my nose” was my elegant way of excusing myself.)

What happened when I rejoined the group was quite amazing, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. My defenses simply let down—not because I was trying to be conciliatory, not because I had been persuaded by internal or external arguments—they just fell away, as if I had set down a heavy, unwieldy load. I told the group that I was “melting into not knowing.” This happens in painting, too, but it’s a completely new (to me) way to deal with interpersonal conflict. You can sharpen your verbal sword, parse your arguments, thrust and defend as long as you want, but the source of the problem cannot be reached until those defenses come down. When you see that there’s no intellectual road map, that only honesty and humility will change the dynamic, the problem dissolves. It’s an extraordinary thing to just give up, to be there with your whole self, not denying, not defending, just being, being open. Conflict dissolves with trust of self and other, not with the defeat of one over the other. Could this be women’s gift to the world? Barbara later said that these things (my rude rebellions) “need to come out” and that she “needs” me for that, so, once again, all was well that ended well.

Now that the heavy part is out of the way, I’m going to meander amongst my memories and relate some of the other interactions that happened during the week. There was so much humor and insight, coming from so many directions, that it was intoxicating. Even when no one was speaking, the silence throbbed and the feeling of connection and love was palpable. It didn’t have to be personal, which is the most amazing part of it. I love the personal, don’t get me wrong, but the discovery of connection through our common humanity can be just as strong.

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Microscopic photo of Krameri erecta (purple heather) by Rob Kesseler. I love the heart shape and the protrusions… the hackles of the heart?

One of the people I felt especially connected with this time, both personally and in the larger sense, was Jan E. She had the most amazing experience of love that came, she said, out of painting “nothing”: trees, blackness. There was an odd lack of correspondence between what she was painting and what she felt. She was at the painting table at the same time as Claudia and suddenly was overcome by the realization, “I LOVE Claudia!” Then, “I LOVE Penni!” There was a purity there, in that eruption of affection. “I never loved Gene [her husband] that much!,” she exclaimed. Her description of this experience was so funny and felt so true. (Believe me, I am not doing it justice.) She was also having experiences outside the studio, such as wanting to hug the man sitting next to her on the bus, and noticing the beautiful face of a child in a schoolyard (she had never really “seen” children before: “I mean, I knew they were there….”).

Jan also brought poems to read aloud in the group. From having no interest in “mystic poetry,” she had become fascinated by it in the past year. Here’s one she read, by the Sufi poet Hafiz:

With That Moon Language

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
“Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
Language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.

Years ago I went through a long period of spiritual longing, of appreciating the mystic expression of God as “the Beloved.” It’s intoxicating, gives one hope, is beautiful and romantic. But I came to associate this beauty with a teacher who was selfish, manipulative and dishonest, and I distanced myself from this romantic view as I distanced myself from her—but now I feel more open to it, though still skeptical of the idea of “worship.” But Jan’s stories of spontaneous feelings of love clearly came from a place of innocence, and I was very touched. That night I e-mailed her to say, “I LOVE you.”

Jan also read Hafiz’ poem “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing.” Best title ever.

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Liat had to report for jury duty that week and was not happy about it, fearing that she would get picked for a jury and would miss the rest of the week of painting. She was gone one morning because she had gotten “the call,” but she came back to the studio after lunch, explaining that they hadn’t put her on a jury. At the courthouse she was so happy about it that when she got on an elevator, there was another woman there to whom she said, “I really want to hug you right now.” The woman replied, “I don’t know how I feel about that.” This was hilarious, because we knew exactly how she felt but also how the other woman felt. Can the world survive our spontaneous expressions of love?

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One morning Alyssa came over to me and thanked me for helping her last night. I asked her what she meant. I had helped her in a dream: She had found a dozen dead mice in the oven and I took them out for her. She hugged me in the dream. I was very touched by this. She didn’t know what to make of it so I hazarded a guess: Was she by any chance trying to get pregnant? She gaped at me. “Why would you ask me that?” It was the oven, as in “bun in the oven.” And her word “dozen,” associated with eggs. “But the mice were dead!” And from my limited knowledge of dream work a là Jeremy Taylor, I said, “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.” I have no idea what it meant that I was there helping her, but I felt honored.

Later, at the paint table with her, I noticed that she was using a lesser quality of white paint and pointed out that there was a thicker, nicer white available. She said, rather dismissively, “Oh, this is just for my mom’s hair.” I loved that.

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I was painting near Martha, with whom I shared long hours of absorption in our own paintings that were suddenly broken by a sudden eruption into play and laughter. Diane D. told me I seemed “awfully chipper” one morning, and Martha immediately christened me “Chipper” and revealed that her own moniker was “Gidget.” She said it would be doubly ironic when we “got really dark” (as is our wont). I said, “Chipper is feeling moody today.” She asked if I thought the name was wrong. I said, “I’m not really feeling moody, I just thought it was funny.” I paused. “I lost several loved ones in a train wreck last night.” I sighed and put the back of my hand to my forehead. Martha said, “Oh, Chipper,” in the most sincere way possible. We laughed our heads off for a while and then went back to our paintings.

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One day after lunch with Diane, Diane, and Terry, we stopped at a small market down the hill from the studio so I could get something sweet. There were several young Arab men outside, and an Arab man and woman, presumably married, inside. The man immediately tried to hustle me into buying more than the ice cream bar I had settled on. “We have sandwich, candy bar, we have hummus and baba ganoush.” I was feeling completely copacetic, so I just smiled and said, “This is all I want, I just had a big lunch.” He kept selling at me, but I think he knew I was a lost cause. Then Diane L. came in and asked if they had baba ganoush. The man was ecstatic. I walked outside and said “Hi” to the young men. I had noticed a sign for “Yelp” (the review website) in the window; it said “People on Yelp hate us!” I questioned the wisdom of hanging such a sign in their store, and the young men tried to explain that it was “a joke”—“it’s funny!” I replied, “Oh, it’s funny [not really]…. I just think it would make a bad impression on people who want to come in the store.” Then one of them pointed out a similar sign in the other window that read, “People on Yelp love us!” “Oh, I get it,” I said. It was such an innocent, happy exchange; I felt so open, so accepting of them and of myself.

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I got permission from the person involved to tell most of these stories, but this one will be anonymous because I don’t know if she’d want to be identified. During one sharing, the woman next to me started to cry. She’s very verbal, working class like me, heady… is usually a talker, with all sorts of ideas about herself and her place in the group. Finally, she just gave it up and started sobbing. For moments at a time I let myself feel her pain: It was excruciating. But I didn’t let it take me over, I just sat with her and admired her willingness to reveal herself so deeply. Later I told her this, and she said she could feel my presence next to her. What an honor, to be a witness to someone else’s pain and not freak out or plunge into my own, not be afraid or overly solicitous, not try to “help” or give advice. This is the whole point of not commenting on other people’s sharings, and this time I got it. The person who is revealing herself honestly has the space and time to truly feel it and let it expand or subside on its own. And, speaking from personal experience, the silence of the others is not off-putting, it’s the highest form of communion there is: witnessing without interfering—simply accepting, because we all know that it could just as easily be us feeling the depth of our own pain, that no one is truly alone in the group.

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Penni had brought copies of her newly published book, Hubert Keller’s Souvenirs: Stories and Recipes from My Life, which she had written “with” Keller. It’s a beautiful book, and I bought a copy for my friend P. Penni agreed to mail it for me so I wouldn’t have to schlep it home in my suitcase. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but our interactions about the book made me emboldened enough to say to her one lunchtime, “I want to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone else in my entire life…. You have a great ass.” She roared with laughter and hugged me. She said she had been aware that she was perhaps sticking it out a lot. I said, “That’s how I noticed! I didn’t go looking for it!” It was a delightful exchange.

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One morning while painting, I saw Karine in the sharing room crying pretty hard and writing in a journal. She spent the whole morning out there, it seemed. Someone asked me if I knew what was going on with her, and I said I didn’t but that it seemed serious, like a break-up or someone had died. But we found out what it was on the last day of the intensive, when she read the group a poem she had written—her first ever. An encounter with a mosquito in her bedroom the night before had brought a flood of feelings and insights. “[A] mosquito was my gift last night,” it begins… “a valiant hero i could not vanquish with righteous rage / who wouldn’t let me sleep thru this life.” It’s extraordinary what the urge toward creation will call us to do.

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Early in the week, I had a laughing fit that started at lunch with the usual suspects, at Chloe’s. Well, first there was a whole thing about my bag, my carry-on bag that I was using as a purse. Diane L. kept teasing me about it, there was nowhere to put it, what did I need such a big bag for. So I was kind of propping it on my lap against the table, and, I couldn’t see this, but the silverware that was closest to it started being drawn to the bag and sticking to it. Diane D. removed a fork, and next a knife glommed on. We speculated on how it would be a perfect way to steal silverware. (I guess it was static electricity?) Anyway, it was bizarre. We all laughed about it, but for me it triggered one of those “can’t stop laughing” experiences that are way more fun for the laugher than the laughees. The others also teased me for always ordering the same thing there, a BLT with avocado on rosemary toast. I don’t see what’s so wrong about ordering what you want, but this time I was already laughing and feeling a bit wacky, so when the waitress came around and it was my turn to order, I said (through tears of hysteria), “I’m going to try something new for a change.” I could hardly get the words out, I was laughing so hard. Then I ordered the same-old BLT with avocado, and for some reason I found this so funny, and of course no one else could see the humor in it, which made it funnier yet. Later that afternoon, while painting, I started to remember this, and the laughing fit got going again. I couldn’t stop. It almost seems more acceptable to be crying than laughing in the group, because no one questions why you’re crying, but if you’re laughing (the whole world laughs with you?), no, people are desperately curious to know why. Right in the middle of this self-induced hilarity, my cell phone rang, and it was my sister Barb texting me, “The boys say ‘Hi’!” (She calls my cats “the boys.”) This sent me over the top, and I had to go outside to compose myself. I think that was the day that I later made the faux pas in the sharing (interrupting/commenting). I guess I got so loose from laughing that I forgot to pay attention.

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One day I was in the bathroom when seemingly the entire group in the studio burst out singing: “My Cherie Amour / lovely as a summer’s day / My Cherie Amour, distant as the Milky Way / My Cherie Amour, pretty little one that I adore / You’re the only girl my heart beats for / How I wish that you were mine.” When I got back to my painting, someone explained that a car had gone by blasting that song. It was a lovely burst of spontaneity.

on driving in the city

I had many unnerving experiences while driving in the city that week, and you can imagine how much more unnerving it was for my hapless passenger, Terry. She would alert me to pedestrians who had just stepped into the crosswalk, or to bikes and cars that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Strangely, I managed fine when she wasn’t in the car. The scariest time was one night when I was trying to get from the east end of Golden Gate Park over to 6th Ave. For some reason I thought I was on the street that merges into Lincoln Ave. going west, but turns out I was on the other side, and when I “merged,” I discovered that I was driving directly toward a sea of headlights a couple of blocks away! T calls out, “Get on the sidewalk!,” which, “No shit!” and I blithely drive up on the sidewalk at a driveway cutout, and continue to the end of the block where I could turn onto 6th. A guy up ahead was riding a bike toward us, and my maneuver sent him off the sidewalk into the street. I thought, “You want to share the road? Go ahead, I’m taking the sidewalk!” It was surprisingly pleasant to drive on the sidewalk, I must say. Later, this story became the highlight of many conversations, and when I defended myself by saying I’ve never had an accident, Diane L. pointed out that her 90-something clients who want to keep driving say the same thing.

 

my painting

For like the third or fourth intensive in a row, the painting was easy. I can’t explain it, but it feels so good. After a couple of fast, warm-up paintings, I started one with absolutely no idea what I was going to paint. I started with my body, lying horizontally as in a bathtub, and as I was painting it, I sensed water under me, then blood, and finally I saw that she/I was dead! I’ve painted myself dead before, it was no big deal, but all the other times the body was still, devoid of life: still life. This time I became aware of all the biological processes that continue after the person dies. We like to say that death is a part of life, but life is also a part of death. We think it’s the end when the brain and heart stop, but there is so much else going on! I had a blast painting the organs rotting and the skin deteriorating and being consumed from within, some of it by fire, because of course the decay is very active—alive—and other creatures feed on the by-products.

So I painted water and blood and then a Being who was just there, observing and holding and honoring. It didn’t feel macabre at all; it was exciting to have this insight that seemed obvious when I thought about it but had never occurred to me before.

That painting put me in the groove, and when I started a new one I absolutely felt like it didn’t matter what I painted or even whether I knew what the images were: like a flower/vagina growing out of my dead body’s neck: no need to explain! (As if I could!)

I think Jan sent me this poem. It feels especially true in painting, but I can also feel it in my daily life.

Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick.  I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean. 
 —Rumi

good times

Our little dining-out group held fast to our traditions: Lakeside for lunch on Saturday, dinner that night at Clement St. Bar & Grill, Alice’s on Sunday, Chloe’s on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Wednesday and Thursday were special, as I’ll explain.

Terry and I had a wonderful week together. Our morning routine was that I would get up first, take a shower, and make breakfast. She would then take her shower, we would eat, and she would clean up. She found out when garbage pick-up day was and volunteered to put it and the recycling out the night before. This was on Wednesday, our half day of painting, when we had a pizza lunch provided by the studio. After we finished eating we were treated to belly dancing by Claudia, amplified flute by Barbara accompanied by Alyssa’s beautiful singing, and then I-forget-what-it’s-called, a group poem? where we passed around the mic and added to the poem or made lovely or raucous sounds. I usually don’t feel comfortable during these purely social gatherings—harking back to high school cafeteria days, afraid no one would want to sit with me. I keep forgetting that I’m not 14 anymore. But Alyssa sat down next to me, Kate and Penni were close by, and we had rousing conversations in different configurations.

Terry wanted to do some laundry that afternoon, so she asked around for where there was a laundromat… only to be told that there was one across the street from the studio! We had obviously seen it for years but never took it in. While she did her laundry, I went back to the flat, which was only about 3 minutes from the studio, and told her to call me when she was done and I would come back and get her. My intention was to read and then nap until she called, but instead I decided to put the garbage out myself. It wasn’t a big deal, but when I picked her up later, I told her I had a surprise for her but that it wasn’t a material object. She looked around the flat, puzzled, didn’t know what to look for, and I finally asked her what she had been planning to do that night. She mentioned a couple of things and finally said, dubiously, “Well, I was going to take out the garbage…. Oh!” And she went and looked in all three wastebaskets and started doing a combination victory/gratitude dance that included elaborate bowing with both arms while tiptoe-dancing. It was highly amusing and very satisfying for me. If you haven’t seen Terry dance, you ain’t seen nuthin’. We had so much fun together, all the time.

That night we met Diane, Diane, and Gloria (Diane D.’s friend, not G. Positioning System) for dinner at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley. It’s my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. We had a delightful time in a beautiful setting, lots of Christmas lights, and they’ve taken down the mounted animal heads that used to adorn the place when it was a hunting lodge. I had a vodka lemonade, some excellent bread (and I’m not usually a “bread person”), a Dungeness crab Louie salad (best one I’ve ever had), and a slab of coconut cream pie. Heaven. I can’t get crab at home, just “krab,” which is a faux version that I’ve never tried for fear of being desperately disappointed. Will I be writing down this meal in my “diet diary”? No way!

On Thursday, Kate and I had lunch at Eric’s, a Chinese restaurant on Church St., and had a nice time talking about painting, editing, and her upcoming move to the East Bay.

After painting that day, Terry went to see the movie Life of Pi with Diane L. Again, I had the plan of reading and sleeping, but I turned the wrong way going back to the flat, tried to “go around the block,” and got completely lost. I found myself on a street with trolley tracks, and dark buildings rearing up high on both sides. I felt like I was in Gotham. Eventually, I found my way out of there. We needed eggs for the next morning, so I was going to get some at Andronico’s and hopefully get a burrito at L’Avenida, but it was closed again. I never did get to go there. For some reason, the thing I most covet at Andronico’s is their jumbo artichokes. They sell them back home, but they look terrible and taste like nothing. On an impulse I decided to buy two and take them home, either in my luggage or in my painting tube. Well, they were way too big for the tube, but I managed to fit them into my suitcase along with a couple of Henning Mankell Wallander books I’d bought there and some cute gifts I’d received from D, D, and T.

the love offerings

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For our final sharing on Friday, we each brought in a “love offering.” A few people sang (Carol: “I’m a Believer”) or played a song on their iPod (Linda: “Love Shack”); some read a poem, told a story about their lives, or showed their paintings from the week. Polly walked around the circle with her painting and told a sweet story about it, but unfortunately I don’t remember a thing. The variety and creativity of the offerings was inspiring. I had downloaded “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, which Terry and I had heard on the radio as we were driving to the studio that morning. I introduced it by saying I dedicated it to everyone in the room. “Home is whenever I’m with you.” Terry and I hadn’t heard it all the way through, so I said if there was any reference to making love, they could ignore that part. A rush went through me when it started to play.

That day we had our final lunch at Chloe’s. Earlier in the week we had discovered that our favorite waiter, T.J., who had quit a few years before to move to Thailand, was back. He is the sweetest man. As we were tallying up our money to pay the bill, he came by and gave us a brownie with fresh strawberries to share. I had been about to order carrot cake, so he brought that too, and turns out he didn’t charge for either dessert. I wanted to hug him—not for the free dessert but for who he is. As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, I love men sometimes. When they’re good, they’re very very good. The rest, you know.

After all the sad good-byes at the end of the day, Diane D., Terry, Carol and I went out seeking a last group experience. As we did in May, we started out at the Bliss Bar in Noe Valley and ate at Pasta Pomodoro. It was quite late when we got back to the flat. I only got 2 hours’ sleep that night, because….

the final push

Up at the crack of 2:00 a.m. Saturday, Terry and I managed to get our luggage and ourselves out of the flat without waking up our hosts. GloriaPS took us on a somewhat convoluted route to the Rental Car Center, and I had many moments of panic during which T kept encouraging me and confirming where I was supposed to turn or not turn, and when we got there she said, “Good job, Mare!” Still, I felt shaken. As often as I’ve made that trip from SF to SFO, I’m never completely sure what lane to be in and what exits to take.

I turned the car in—again, a much easier procedure at Alamo than at Avis—and we made our way back to the air train. We were leaving from different terminals so said our good-byes on the train. I laboriously made my way to the United check-in area, where there was a very long line (one of those double-back kinds) even at 4 a.m. I eventually got to the front of the line and was told that first class check-in was farther down the hall. No signs, of course. So I dragged myself and my stuff down there, got my bag checked, and said to the guy, as I always do, “I’m going all the way to Green Bay…,” because they always only mention Chicago. “Right,” they always say.

The flight to Chicago was great. I slept most of the way, waking only to accept my hot towel, hot nuts, and unidentifiable “breakfast”: mound of yellow, triangle of white, puck of brown. Also, we must have had quite the tailwind, because it only took about 3.5 hours. O’Hare was easier to navigate, too, because for some reason I didn’t have to go all the way to the F concourse to catch the smaller plane going north.

So all was hunky-dory until I got to Green Bay, prematurely thanking God, the universe, and United Airlines for getting me “home” (or at least within 50 miles) in one piece. I say prematurely, because my lovely purple suitcase had been left behind. As it dawned on me that my car keys were in the suitcase, my heart sank. The next flight from Chicago wasn’t due for another 6 hours or so. Fortunately, the sun was shining, and it was only mid-afternoon, so I called my sister Barb, who didn’t hesitate when I asked her to come pick me up. She’s nervous driving on the highway, but at least the big snowstorm wasn’t supposed to come until the next day, so she made it in record time. Usually a strict observer of the speed limit, she said she went as fast as “63 or 64 miles an hour!” (Actually, the speed limit is 65 for most of the way, but she was clearly pushing her own limits.) I appreciated her so much for doing that.

Terry and I both have painting tubes that Barb made for us. They’re colorful, covered (and laminated with Contac paper) with images that she found online, with our addresses and a strap so we can carry them over our shoulders. The tubes got a lot of attention at the studio, but T had told me that some of the TSA people had also been intrigued by hers. One of the guys called it “artsy.” No one had said anything about mine when I was traveling out there, but in Green Bay, a United employee who’s always really nice saw me and said, “What have we here?” He admired the tube, wanted to know what it was for, and finally said it was “artsy.” I haven’t heard that term since, like, high school. But apparently it’s the final word on Barb’s creations. I tried to interest him in my no-show-suitcase dilemma, but it was out of his hands.

I was told that the airport delivery service would bring the suitcase to my house when it came in. So at midnight, a haggard-looking middle-aged woman struggled up my front steps with it. I wondered how many deliveries she’d had to make that night, and I felt sorry for her having to do what has got to be a thankless job, so I gave her a $20 tip. She was clearly shocked, said, “Well, you brought a smile to my face! Not many people tip.” It made me feel good.

Barb’s son Brian, who lives in Chicago now, was home for the weekend. He had assured me that if I ever got stranded in Chicago, he’d drop everything and “take care of” me. That wouldn’t have worked this time, because, well, he wasn’t there. But on Sunday he drove me and Barb back down to the airport. The “big snowstorm” was just getting started. It was a treat to be a passenger for once. I sprung my Jeep from long-term parking, and instead of rushing home to avoid the snow, we decided to go to El Sarape for lunch, like, what the hell. The snowplows were out, and the highway is usually kept pretty clear, so we made it home without further incident. Barb asked if I was coming back that evening to watch our Sunday shows (Homeland and Dexter), and I thought, Oh shit. I was beyond exhausted. But when we got to her house I decided to watch the ones I had missed, then save the newer ones for later in the week. I relaxed into her recliner, she put a fuzzy blanket over me, and I missed at least half of both shows. Every now and then she would ask if I was awake and rewind to the last part I had seen. My baby sister takes such good care of me.

When I got home, I noticed that a luggage tag Diane L. had given me, which said “I’m not your bag” (dual entendres there) had come off. Damn! I figured it was stolen, or maybe I hadn’t attached it securely enough. I e-mailed her to tell her this, and she replied that she was laughing about it… “Life is just strange.” What a mature attitude. I’ll have to work on that.

Shoutout to Kerry and Dewey! When Kerry had volunteered to read the ‘zine online instead of on paper, Dewey somehow never got to see it. So now I’m sending them a paper copy and hope they both enjoy it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t include everyone by name in this tale. So much happening, so little remembering. But I meant what I said about how everyone in the group felt like “home” to me. Love you! Love you all!

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #55: June 2012

June 9, 2012

The other day, a Friday, I actually had stuff to do. My days usually consist of drinking coffee, eating, napping, eating, napping, and so on until it’s the next day. But this day I had to pack up and ship some lingonberries to my friend Diane, take Luther to the vet for his allergy shot, get groceries, and stop by my sister Barb’s annual garage sale.

The garage sale was fun, (a) because I didn’t have to do any work, and (b) because my other sister K was there, and I rarely get a chance to talk with her one-on-one. Niece Lorraine did the heavy lifting, Barb collected and kept track of the money, and I alternately chatted with K and people-watched: a little girl delightedly paying for a hair ribbon with her own money; a man picking up a whole set of G.R.R. Martin books; a father sifting through boxes of HO train parts for his son; a man buying country music tapes for his mother; and a middle-aged woman buying a loose-leaf binder with paper and tabs in it. I was intrigued by the woman for some reason, so I tried to tease out of her what she was going to do with the binder: She didn’t look like a student. When I showed an interest, she hesitated, as if gauging how sincere I was. And finally she shared that she volunteers at Rainbow House (a local shelter) by helping the women there, whom she said she understands because she “used to be one of them.” I felt compassion for her, for her mature innocence and willingness to serve, in addition to the pleasure of giving attention to someone who might not get a lot of it. Sometimes I feel this is my real work in the world, to make these brief connections, like touching a wire to another wire and causing a spark. In most cases, the spark is just that. But I have been deeply affected by tiny acts of generosity or humor or courtesy, and so I hope I have done the same for others.

I’ll have to be careful, I might turn into an extrovert yet. It used to feel like an impossible burden to connect with a stranger, but I’m finding that it’s effortless, really, you don’t have to do anything in particular, just have an open heart and keen receptors. The main thing painting for process has done for me is to make me willing and able to go deeper with people (if they want to), even if the encounters barely last a minute. When you’re guarding yourself all the time (as I have been wont to do), you try to keep interactions to a minimum. But it’s wonderful to give of oneself: better than receiving, as they say.

On the first day of the sale, Barb, K, and Lorraine collectively made over $1,000. I made a quarter. That’s because I only brought a few paperbacks over for the sale, and sold one. Barb is consistently, insistently, fair and will pay me that quarter if it’s the last thing she ever does.

I got the lingonberries shipped off, bought broccoli, garlic, avocado, and cream soda at Angeli’s, and made it to the 4:00 vet appointment right on time. Luther had disappeared from all of his usual spots just as I was getting ready to go, but then he blew it by showing up. So I grabbed him, stuck him in the carrier, and we were off. We go to a clinic where there are several vets, but one of them is afraid of Luther. In fact, I’d go so far as to call him a pussy. Luther’s reputation for hissing, clawing, and launching himself out of the carrier at the nearest hand or face precedes him. But another vet, whom I’ll call the Cat Whisperer, has a gentle touch and gives the injection, instructing the assistant not to try to hold Luther down. He does it with just a towel laid lightly over Luther’s body rather than the lead-lined (I’m guessing) gloves, blanket, and strong-arm tactics of the Pussy Vet.

Barb has cat-sat for Luther and Brutus at least once a year for the past 8 years that I’ve been back here in the U.P. But when I went off to San Francisco for a painting intensive last month, she erred, and not on the side of caution. Thinking to entertain the lonely boys, she brought along a “fishing pole” cat toy, jiggled it in Luther’s direction, and he freaked out and ran under the bed. He continued to hide under the bed whenever she came over, so what did Barb do? I’m sure what anyone in her position would do: She lay down on the floor next to the bed, trying to coax him out, talking and singing to him. I asked her what she sang. You’ll never guess. “Jesus Christ Superstar.” This is an image that will be with me for a long, long time. I suspect that Luther felt more invaded than serenaded, but who knows. Anyway, I appreciate how she goes above and beyond. I will treat her to dinner at The Landing to say thanks.

***

The night I got home from San Francisco—as exhausted as I’ve ever been—I had catastrophic dreams. In one, I observed a pharmacist embezzling, and he threatened to kill me if I didn’t get out of there. Then I was there again with my sister, who thought it was all a  joke. I kept yelling at her, “This is really serious! He means it!” but she wouldn’t believe me. I got up around 6 a.m., had coffee and watched some of Mad Men, but then went back to sleep for several hours. The pharmacist had stolen my car (or so I surmised), so my sister and I and one of my cats were trying to flee on foot. We got to a town and spotted a courthouse, so I went inside to try to find a judge to do something about the pharmacist, but I couldn’t find the judge, there was only a phalanx of women who didn’t believe my story—one said my face was too calm-looking, even though I was yelling that it was a matter of life and death. Turns out that both the men and the women in the courthouse were corrupt and/or jaded. No one believed me or was willing to help me. (I don’t know where this sense of martyrdom is coming from.)

The dreams continued for the next 3 or 4 days. Was my brain letting go (or freaking out) after 10 days of physical strain, struggle, and intense immersion in the Unknown? One would love to know. One does not. (I meant “one” to mean “I”—I would love to know, I do not know—but it reads as if there are two, one of whom wants to know and one of whom does not want to know. That could be true, too.)

When I got up again at 11 a.m., I was still dog tired and still there was no resolution to the pharmacist problem. I gamely tried to put a few things away—or at least dump my dirty laundry out on the floor—but was so tired I didn’t even want to watch the rest of Mad Men. I discovered that water had spilled in my bag, all over a book I had just bought, and shampoo had leaked into my suitcase, neither of which I was in the mood to deal with, so I went back to bed.

The day of my flights home had been very long. After 3 hours’ sleep, I got up at 2 a.m. to get ready to go to the airport with Terry. (My plane left at 6 a.m.) We got lost somehow, and when we did find 280 and proceeded onto 380 to get over to 101, I hit a raccoon. It ran right out in front of the car, I cried “Oh no! Oh no!” and then “Fuck!” when we heard the thud, and I wanted to just sit and cry. But I knew I had to get us to the airport safely, so I didn’t have the luxury to spiral down into emotional chaos, as is my wont. (I have been using the term “wont” a lot lately, because I finally looked it up to see how it’s pronounced—like “want.” You don’t know what a useful word it is until you start using it.)

Believe it or not, for the second S.F. trip in a row, I had no major problems with the airlines, at least as far as the actual taking off, flying, and landing went. It was complicated, though, because part of my trip was on U.S. Airways, and the other was on United, and they are now avowed partners but not well coordinated. So the right airline never knew what the left airline was doing. Still, I made it onto all scheduled flights, and the only downside of the “first class” flying experience was that first class is not what it used to be. If you have to turn right as you enter the aircraft, you know you are not headed for the lap of luxury. The laps of luxury are all located on the left side, which none of my aircraft had. It was still better than coach, I’m not complaining, just sayin’.

The worst part was the 4-hour layover in Chicago. With no certainty that the 6 p.m. flight would actually take off (I have witnessed a lifetime’s worth of canceled flights going north), and no place to rest my head, I just sat there in a stupor and kept reminding myself that each minute that passed was taking me closer to home. I hoped I was not trapped in Zeno’s Paradox, which states that if you always go half the distance to your destination you’ll never get there. And I was pretty sure that not going any distance wouldn’t help either.

I arrived in Green Bay after a wildly bouncing flight in and around thunderstorms all up the coast of Wisconsin. You think Wisconsin doesn’t have a coast? Think again. I managed to drive the 50 miles home, kept awake by phone conversations with Terry and Barb. I contend there is nothing better than returning home after a time away… no matter how gratifying the away time was.

Luther and Brutus were wary of me when I walked in the door, reeking of a foreign land, but they quickly recovered, and before long the three of us were sacked out together in my big chair and ottoman. It was as if we had all come back from the vet and could forget about how anxious we had been.

“odd dark beauty”

The painting intensives are challenges that cannot be directly met, because there are no terms, no methods, no way of knowing what will happen or what will be expected of you. This can make it a nerve-wracking experience, especially in antici…

pation, but there’s also a beauty and a simultaneous excitement and silence of the heart as we sit together in a circle and prepare (without preparing) to step into the Unknown. This sounds a bit grandiose, but I assure you, it is factual and real. We come together for just that purpose, but it is daunting. No matter how many intensives you have experienced or how long you have been painting, there is no sure way to do it, the beginner is on a par with the most experienced painter, it’s back to zero all over again. This zero is not empty, the proverbial goose egg; au contraire, as with the real goose, it is filled to bursting with actual and potential life.

Throughout the 7 days, the painting was easy for me. But it was disconcerting to find no words for it on the last day, when we went around the studio to see everyone’s paintings and to hear what each painter had to say about her process. Many people had things going on in their lives that naturally came out in their paintings: a new relationship, a break-up, a pregnancy, a death in the family. Real life, in other words, expressed without forethought but with a direct experience of joy or difficulty. It’s not therapy—where you put a problem into words or pictures and search for a resolution. It’s more a mirror in which you paint what comes and see what is reflected back. Any resolution is a by-product, the real “work” is in staying with yourself, sidestepping judgment and being vulnerable and open to whatever wants to be revealed.

When it was my turn to show my paintings, I had nothing to say. I knew it wouldn’t be useful or interesting to just point to the various images and tell which came first, second, and third. All I could say was “I don’t know why I painted that,” “I don’t remember what I felt painting that.” Me, wordsmith! Lacking an explanation or an insight into my experience. Wondering if I had an experience at all: where was I when all this color and these shapes and images were being applied to the paper?

I cried a lot on that last day—for many reasons, I suspect, but in this case it was frustration at not being able to perform the “task” of talking about my process. Barbara said some kind and encouraging words, not that I remember them, and when I was done she came over and held my hand. I was so moved by that. It was only an hour or so later, when we were saying the final good-byes in the circle, that it hit me. I didn’t have a “story” going on; my life is fairly placid and does not provide much fodder for drama. None of what I painted felt personal, unlike all those times when I have painted my family or other worldly or spiritual relationships or fantasies. What I realized in a blinding flash of insight was that I didn’t know what had happened in my process or even my feelings, because “something” had told me what to paint at every step; “I” was not really involved.

I had brought along an unfinished painting from last December. I had painted myself in the center of the painting, bursting out of my grave below ground. But as I didn’t have the same energy for it now, I went about painting lots of circles and dots and trying this and that. It was satisfying—no thought, just doing. In the top left corner was a blue head that I barely remembered painting, but when Barbara asked me who it was, I said “God.” She asked if there could be anything coming out of or going in anywhere, so I painted white breath coming from the mouth of “God.” Then I was finished and had a blank sheet of paper on the wall in front of me. The new painting came to me in an instant. “God” was blowing his breath on me where I was sitting deep underground. I was in the lotus position, holding a baby. I didn’t know who the baby was, or the black figure I painted on the left, who also had white trails of something coming from her chest. I didn’t place a lot of importance on this painting, I just did whatever felt good: lots of circles, dots, and finally some fish swimming along on the bottom. I had the unoriginal “insight” that I could paint anything. It’s something we know all the time but somehow rediscover at odd moments. It’s as if the brain short-circuits while trying to set some rules, paint the familiar, find a pattern that works and stick with it. Then it gets jolted out of its brain patter (patter is part of the pattern) by a seemingly uninteresting occurrence like painting fish that don’t logically fit with the God’s breath, a baby, or a crevasse.

During a break, I noticed one of the flyers for children’s painting classes that showed a painting of a large fish, along with the little boy who had painted it. I was amused by the anatomical accuracy with which he had painted the fins and other whats-its on the fish’s body, whereas my standard way of painting a fish is to make a sort of infinity symbol, cut off one end to make the tail, and add eyes and a fin on top.

My next painting came to me as quickly and easily as the previous one had. God was on top blowing breath down on me, but this time the crevasse was in the ocean and I was being burned on a cross, with fagots (kindling) stacked beneath it. I was separated from the water on both sides by a barrier, which was in danger of being breached on the right by a large yellow fish that was about to devour 3 smaller fish; it had teeth and a tongue, lots of holes on its sides, jaggedy scales, slanted eyes, and a sharkish fin.

After we stopped for the day, a mother and her son happened to come by to pick up the little boy’s paintings from a previous class. Barbara delightedly introduced me to the boy who had painted the fish I had seen on the flyer. I asked him if he had a fish at home, thinking that was how he knew what fish actually looked like, but he said no. Barbara had joked that she brought in a fish in a bowl for the kids to paint, like life nude drawing except the nude was a fish. (This was funnier than I’m making it sound.)

The boy was 7 years old, well mannered and soft spoken. He walked into the studio proper where he looked around at the large colorful paintings on the walls and breathed, “These are actually rather amazing.” Barbara told him about my noticing the fish he had painted, so I brought him over to my painting. At this point the painting consisted of “God,” me burning on the cross, and the big yellow fish about to devour the little fish. Some of the images we paint are not suitable for children to view, but this seemed OK. In the meantime, a few of us chatted with the mother. As they were going out the door with his paintings, the little boy looked at me and said, “Your fish is cooler than my fish,” and I said, “No it isn’t!” though I was of course pleased as punch to hear that high praise. Afterward, someone told me that when we were talking to his mother he had gone back to my painting and studied it for a long time… I don’t know to what end.

***

The next day I continued to paint with no hesitation; everything was obvious, from the “fabric of the universe” (which Diane L calls “plaid”) to underwater circles and sea plants and a couple of lizard beings who were presumably trying to break the barrier to get at me like the big fish on the other side. A round fish with protruding extremities (that looked like snakes) appeared, also.

Needless to say (?), there was no apparent correspondence between what I was painting and anything in my life. But being open to any shape, color, or image that wants to appear makes it ridiculously easy to paint, because you’re not trying to force it or make sense of it. The correspondence is with your feeling, a deep, undemanding sense of rightness—no ambition to make a beautiful product, no censorship of images, no need for interpretation.

During a group sharing, Martha said that she appreciated “beauty”—which puzzled me until she amended that to say, “odd dark beauty,” and that phrase has resonated with me ever since. The beauty of our paintings and our interactions with one another is not a matter of artifice but of a deep, rich truthfulness and grace. It’s the essence of going beneath the surface to find what is truly beautiful no matter how odd-looking or dark-seeming. We are not in the business of painting calming landscapes or, in our interactions, of saying only the polite, meaningless thing. The atmosphere is so truthful that it throbs in silence but can erupt into laughter (or tears) in an instant.

if x = G + U, where G = God and U = Unknown, then solve for x

Obviously, I can’t tell you anything about the “Unknown.” It’s just a word we use, like “x” or “God”—though you can put “x” into an equation, and most of the time you can solve it. But the Unknown is real, like dark matter, the dark side of the moon, like odd, dark beauty, so I’m just going to riff here about what has come to me as I paint and disappear into that Unknown.

The Unknown is a strange place—though not a “place,” of course. And it’s not empty, not by a long shot. In it, you lose yourself, but not really. Your everyday mind still functions perfectly, but it’s not in charge; at most, it’s the copilot… like if you have to wash a brush or blow your nose or eat an apple. But actually, that everyday mind/traffic controller is way in the back of the “plane” (of existence!)—maybe the lowest-ranking flight attendant, maybe a secret air marshal or the last customer to buy a ticket who has to sit in the very last seat.

When you are painting in a state that we call “the Unknown,” “something” (another vague word that stands for something very real; oh dear, the semantics of this is just impossible)—“something” tells you everything you need to know and nothing you don’t. And we say we want this: the ease of painting “whatever” with no sense of confusion or trying to think (but not think) of the next image. Because the Unknown is not the same as drawing a blank or not knowing what to do. It’s not uncertainty, but it’s not certain, either. It’s not at all like traveling on a dark road in a strange land. It’s a source, and a resource.

And yet, we fear it, or the idea of it. Why is that? It can be daunting and even painful when you want to get from here to there. It feels like you would be free if not for that stubborn mind of yours, struggling for control with the big bad Unknown. But you can’t get there from here. You can’t will it, control it, wish it near, or wish it away.

“Sometimes it feels like light, sometimes like bone,” said Kate about one of the images on her painting. The oddness of that, the apparent contradiction, struck me. We don’t know what we’re dealing with when we paint. But it’s a reality like no other.

***

As the painting has been coming more easily, so have my interactions with other people. As a group, we’ve been finding that painting is not the end-all and be-all; it’s just as important to learn how to relate with others in the same way, from intuition and compassion to (though it sounds contradictory) risk-taking. I had meaningful interactions with nearly everyone in the group. And I cared about them for who they are, not from any “criteria.” In other words, I wasn’t judging them: They just all seemed beautiful in themselves. This sounds like a cliché. So shoot me. It’s a radically different way of seeing people.

There were also social times galore. Diane L, Diane D, Terry, and I had lunch just about every day, and a few dinners. On the first night, we invited Kyle, a new painter whose 25th birthday it was, to join us for drinks at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. We decided to have dinner, too, so we ate in the bar. We had a rollicking good time. Kyle seemed comfortable with us despite our advanced ages, and Diane D was on fire like I’ve never seen her before, very funny and relaxed. We rocked the house. Again with the clichés.

Our foursome spent most of our lunch breaks at Chloe’s, our traditional haven. We were waiting outside for a table one day when one of the waitresses came out, saw me, and said excitedly, “We have carrot cake today!” I couldn’t believe she remembered me—from December! I guess I had made kind of a big deal about their running out of carrot cake several days in a row. So I got carrot cake for dessert… couldn’t let her down, you know. The next day we went back, and I didn’t order carrot cake. But when we finished our lunch, the waitress came out with a bag for me: carrot cake! “On the house.” I was floored. Of course I thanked her profusely, and when I opened the bag and saw the smiley face she had drawn on the box, I was really touched. It was an amazing feeling to have been remembered, and rewarded, for something that would never have occurred to me. Truly, we don’t know the effect we have on people.

T and I eschewed the Laurel Inn this time for a “vacation condo” high above the studio on Miguel St. It was much cheaper than the hotel, had free parking and a view of the city, lots of light, a kitchen, and 2 bedrooms. We came to enjoy it very much but were struck by how uncomfortable all the furniture was. The main selling point of the condo was the view; why would you care about your sore back? I ended up borrowing an air bed from Diane L, which helped a lot.

We still had to drive down to the studio, because even though it was close as the crow flies, I could barely walk a block, let alone attempt a hill. I had a cane with me, but every physical move during the week was an effort. I couldn’t stand for long, could only walk a short distance, and had to take regular breaks.

One night, after eating at El Toreador in West Portal, T and I decided to see the movie playing across the street: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It was really fun. Afterward we stopped in at a nearby bookstore. I get almost all my books from Amazon.com, having no real alternative, but I like to browse in a bookstore when I get a chance. When I brought a poetry book to the counter to pay for it, the bookseller, a handsome young fellow, started quizzing me about my favorite poets. At first I drew a blank, but finally I thought of Kay Ryan. Then Bob Hicok, Philip Schultz, Sandra McPherson. The guy recommended several books to me, and even had me read some poems. I ended up buying A Journey with Two Maps (Becoming a Woman Poet), by Eavan Boland, and Beautiful & Pointless (A Guide to Modern Poetry), by David Orr.

In the bookstore there was a dapper-looking man, perhaps in his 40s, who approached me and asked about my cane. He admired it, said he had been looking for one like it for a long time. I was surprised, because it’s the most rudimentary sort of cane, wood with a curved handle, that was my father’s in the 1950s. The man pointed out that it was too short for me. Well, I wanted to say, what would you have me do? We had quite an extended conversation about canes and the need for them. He had bought his cane at Walgreen’s and they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. I was pleased with the encounter. I felt like a flower that could open at a touch of the sun but could close up again if need be. What a lovely and useful ability.

It was a week of chance encounters, silly and serious conversations, and quite a bit of singing. For some reason, everything reminded me of a song. We turned onto Chenery St. one day, and I knew there was a song in the name. I kept saying “Chenery, Chenery. Is there a song called Chenery?” After a few hours it came to me: “Henery, Henery, Henery the 8th I am, I am, Henery the 8th I am.” So at every chance I got, I sang, “Chenery, Chenery, Chenery the 8th I am, I am, Chenery the 8th I am.” I’m sure this did not get on Terry’s nerves one bit. She’s a real trouper.

As I said, the last day of the intensive was emotional for me, I wasn’t even sure why. I was disappointed by my “process” talk, and afterward we played a song I had suggested to Barbara: “It Is Well with My Soul,” a hymn by the River City Singers. It’s a beautiful song that made me cry, but also the group was starting to feel scattered, like everyone was too tired to truly get into anything. Saying good-bye is always difficult, it’s kind of a madhouse with the cleaners finishing up and everyone getting their paintings and other belongings together. I didn’t get to say good-bye to everyone, and at a certain point I just wanted to get out of there. Diane L and Diane D had suggested going for a drink after, but I was in “gotta get home” mode, and the condo had by then become the quintessential home away from home.

But then T and I were walking to our rental car when we ran into Diane D. She had been looking for us and greeted us with a big grin. I was persuaded to go out after all, so the three of us went to the Bliss Bar on 24th St. It was very dark and had cozy seating arrangements where you could be by yourselves. After a while, though, the noise from the other patrons became too much to bear. We were hungry by then so walked down the street to Pomodoro. It’s a restaurant that has improved greatly since the days back in the ‘90s (?) when it first opened: I had a delicious pasta with chicken and broccoli. The three of us had our closure, grateful for the chance to talk about the day and the week with good friends. Nothing beats that, I tell you what.

This has been a disjointed account, but when is it ever jointed?

I’ll leave you with one last bit of wisdom, which I read off a clock in the salon where I get my hair cut: “Life’s moments make the best memories.”

May your life be full of them.

(Special thanks to Terry and Barbara, whose generosity made it possible for me to attend the intensive. And shoutout to Sima and Josie, may you both be well.)

Mary McKenney

merry’zine #54: March 2012

March 10, 2012

You’ll notice something a little different this month. I’m coming in like a lion, who knows how I’ll go out. On a whim, yes, I’m a whimsical lion, I’m changing the name of this whatever-it-is to merry’zine, maybe forever, maybe not. Why must we be merry only at Christmastime? And who’s truly merry then anyway?


 
 

painting letters

On my 49th birthday, I wrote my first Painting Letter to my friends in the teacher training at the Painting Experience studio in San Francisco. After a few months I expanded the scope of the Letters to include any other painters who wanted to contribute. I’m only bringing this up because I wanted to show you the cool drawing that Terry made for the February 2001 issue. And I wanted to show it to you for two reasons: (1) So you can see what a cool drawer (and person) Terry is, and (2) So there’s visible proof that I have taken a good picture at least once in my life.

And that’s not the only walk down memory lane I’ve taken lately….

who paints?

I was doing the unthinkable the other day—sorting and filing the bills and other papers on my desk, the earliest of which were from November 2010—when I came across the manuscript for Who Paints?  I had written it in, oh, the ‘90s, I think, when I thought the world needed another book about process painting. I no longer had an electronic copy of the manuscript, except possibly on some no-longer-readable disk—maybe wait 1,000 years for the Dead Sea Floppy Disk Scrolls to be found and decoded—so, thanks to good old paper, I was able to reread my pearls of wisdom.

I had done quite a lot of editing for M. Cassou, and her publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, had praised my work. I asked MC how he knew what I had done, and she said she had sent him some of her writing that I hadn’t edited. Ah. So I took advantage of the slight name recognition and sent him my manuscript. He said he couldn’t publish it without a section at the end of each chapter with “how-to” tips, in other words, I should turn it into a self-help book instead of a paean to the process. I think I’m pretty good at writing paeans, especially paeans to the process, but I think “how to” in this process is completely pointless, maybe even pointzeroless. So I dropped the idea of getting the book published, and now, 15 or so years later, I’m going to self-aggrandize, I mean, self-publish it by including selected chapters in this merry/mary’zine.

When I reread the manuscript, I discovered that it’s not bad, not bad at all… but I found myself bored by the expository parts (“What is process painting?”). I perked up when I read some of the stories about actual painting, so I started putting those chapters aside. Below is the first one that grabbed me.

 

Daddy and me, 1949 (I was 3).

My cartoon of those early days.

painting my father (a Who Paints? excerpt)

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and it’s like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in my father’s flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So anyway, I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to bring forth the expression of whatever is in me that is driving me crazy.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I add 2 + 2 and see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis (MS), and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor (who also had MS) once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to painting an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, through which I can see organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for  years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I lay down on the bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.
 

‘Nam like me

As I’ve mentioned before, my brother-in-law has finally gotten some attention from the VA. He’s now receiving a disability check for his injuries sustained in Vietnam, both physical and mental, and has gotten counseling, surgery, and other perks. He had a follow-up appointment for his recent foot surgery, and he told us about feeling uneasy as the tiny waiting room filled up with other patients, how he’s always looking over his shoulder, needs to sit with his back against the wall in any establishment, etc. The verdict, I gather, is that he’s had some form of PTSD ever since he got out of the Marines some 40 years ago. That could explain a lot, actually.

But as he was talking, I kept thinking, “Fear of closeness, check”; “Fear of being followed or attacked, check”; “Thinking I see something out of the corner of my eye that isn’t there, check.” And I blurted out, “That sounds like my childhood!” I suppose it’s the ultimate sacrilege to compare an American woman’s experiences on the ordinary streets and byways of this country to a combat veteran’s heightened sensitivity and fear acquired in the jungles and deserts of war… but still. I may be an exception, but I have had a low- to medium- to high level of fear (of men specifically) since I was a very young child. I know some of it is based in reality—I was attacked or threatened or coerced sexually several times before I reached adulthood—and some of it comes from that gray area of psychological attunement, which spawns fear in an otherwise benign situation. The psychological parts may have stemmed from my mother’s mistrust of men, as when one of my father’s drunk Army buddies came into my room in the middle of the night and asked if I wanted a drink. I was 4 or 5, and according to my mom, she rushed in there and dragged him out, probably roaring like a mother bear protecting her cub. And I, cub, though I don’t remember the incident, might have learned the lesson, Don’t trust them, in that precise moment. But I didn’t make up the many encounters with lone men in cars slowing down as I trudged home from school down a country road and asking me if I wanted a ride. I don’t know how I knew that their intent was not that of a Good Samaritan, but I was very sensitive to nuances even then. Likewise, one of my sisters still dislikes a certain make of car because when she was out trick-or-treating one Halloween, a man beckoned to her to come up to the car—she expected to be given candy—a “treat”—and he asked her if he could fuck her. Who can downplay the devastating effect of this very common experience on young girls and women?

So why don’t most women experience the symptoms of PTSD that many male war veterans do? I think it’s because we have lived with this reality all our lives. It’s part of the culture, taught in our homes by our own parents, taught in the streets by predators. We understand that we cannot stroll freely through a dark night or a bad neighborhood without paying the price.

Always, this topic makes me defensive, because many or even most women have either not had these experiences or have weighed the negative and the positive and come down on the side of the “few good men” they have married or birthed or know in some other way. So I always have to add that I have known and liked and respected several heterosexual men who are good people, some even great people. And I have known or known of several women who are not good or great people. Those are my disclaimers, and, frankly, I think it’s awfully mature of me to be willing and able to discern the goodness of the good men. In fact, I almost appreciate them overly much because of my generally low expectations—just as many straight women melt when seeing a man pushing a stroller. The bar is that low. I’m sure that the good men greatly outnumber the bad ones. But that doesn’t help me in certain situations: like, in college, walking from Lansing to East Lansing alone, late one Saturday night, because I was afraid of the guys (strangers) I had gotten a ride from. That may have been the most terrifying night of my life, because I felt utterly and completely at the mercy of the men in passing cars. As I trudged along, praying to a nonexistent god, trying to stay in the shadows, trying to walk fast and look inconspicuous, one lone man drove around the block several times, coming up to me repeatedly and asking if I wanted a ride. A bunch of young guys in a car yelled out the windows at me and called me a whore. I just kept pressing on. I was absolutely vulnerable. Since “nothing happened,” I could look back and say, “Oh, they were harmless,” or “I should have just yelled back or firmly and confidently refused the ride,” or never have gone with (or left) the first guys in the first place, or never gone out after dark, everything coming down to what I did wrong. There’s no question I was naive and did do stupid things, like go to a motel with my roommate and two guys we had just met, and as the guys were strategizing in the bathroom, Kathy and I realized what we had gotten ourselves into and made an excuse and got the hell out of there. So I was lucky. And I’m not saying any of those guys were actual rapists. But it was difficult at the time (pre-women’s movement) to negotiate the line between party time and danger. And maybe it still is.

Lest you think that story was just the result of being a vulnerable college girl, I encountered a group of 5 or 6 young men in Golden Gate Park when I was out jogging in broad daylight—in my 30s—who called me a dyke and other threatening endearments, and I held my breath until I was past them and they had given up their little game. Because this is what we learn: to pretend to ignore what’s going on. To endure. One of my sisters had to deal with a car mechanic whose erect penis was sticking out of his jumpsuit as he worked on something under the dashboard of her car, and all she felt she could do was pretend she hadn’t seen it—even questioning her own perception that he was doing it on purpose.

By the way, I don’t think my experiences “made me gay.” From a very early age I was not interested in dolls, hated wearing a dress, loved “boy” games (basketball, football, baseball, building roads in the dirt for little cars; in the fifth grade I loved drawing Ford cars with their spiffy fins and whitewalls). Although I appreciated some of the female characters of the American West, such as Annie Oakley, I was much more taken with the Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger. I read a lot of Westerns (on both sides of the mythological fence: cowboys/Indians) and other adventure books, especially ones about deep-sea treasure hunts, all with boy heroes. Coincidentally, my mother’s favorite author as a young girl was Zane Grey, a classic writer of Westerns. But when she grew up she put her tomboy past behind her, and I never did. Until I knew there was a “lesbian option,” I longed for a boyfriend, mostly as a form of status, but when I fell in love with a woman it was absolutely amazing, the “real deal”… though in 1965 it was still the love that dared not speak its name. So despite everything else I’ve told you, I did not so much reject men as I realized that my true emotional and spiritual connection is with women. And that has been the greatest blessing of my life.

to hell and back, computer-style

I feel like I’m 100 years old in computer years. I was there in 1970, when I had to keypunch data into a mainline computer as big as a big room. I was there a decade or so later, when I had to learn UNIX on a Sun workstation. My boss wanted to “drag me kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” but I feared he also wanted to replace me with a rudimentary grammar and spell checker; he was easily impressed by technology and just as easily unimpressed by my superior human editing skills. I finally embraced the dying century when I got my first personal Mac and was rewarded by not having to type and retype my writing, then obliterate the words with circles and arrows and X’s and retype again. In the day of The Typewriter, I had fantasized about some form of magic that would allow me to revise and move paragraphs at will, having no idea that it would ever come to pass. The downside of this miracle was having to learn the inner workings of the thing and spend hours or days trying to diagnose problems and wangle solutions out of tech support—unlike, say, when you bought a car or a vacuum cleaner, which were presumed to be used by ordinary people.

Things have gotten much better over the years: Software basically installs itself; warnings and instructions often tell you what to do in almost humanoid language; and there’s no more inserting of foreign bodies containing viruses, as if you were having disk-sex with every computer into which they had been previously inserted.

Still, nothing makes me feel more helpless than trying to fix a computer that has gone awry. In January I had to buy a new MacBook Pro because my old one went black and no amount of coaxing and trying different things could get it to work. All the king’s horses, etc. At 9:30 in the evening I called my sister Barb to see if I could use her computer, because I needed to notify an author and a couple of friends who might need to get hold of me. I had also decided to order a new computer, because I can’t work without it. I had already researched them and knew what I wanted. It wasn’t just the fact that I couldn’t get my old one going—after 3 years the operating system was teetering on the brink of not supporting any new software… so if the machine doesn’t fall apart, they make it so you can’t use it anyway because 10.5.whatever “is no longer supported.” (I like the passive voice there. “Gosh, something must have happened and left 10.5.whatever completely useless”—like the kitty hanging from the ‘hang in there’ branch on a popular poster.)

Before giving in and calling Barb, I had attempted to use my dumb (i.e., not “smart”) cell phone to get online. Considering that it has no trouble pocket-dialing the Internet without my knowledge, it was curiously uncooperative when I actually wanted to get there. That 1 or 2 minutes of (failed) “data usage” ended up costing me $30.

Unfortunately, Barb is not a Mac, whereas I am a McKMac (paddy whack), so it was beyond frustrating to get anything going on her PC. I’ve also been using a trackpad for several years now, and it was an annoyance to have to get used to a mouse again. Worse yet, I had forgotten to bring my close-up glasses. But I managed to get to “iris,” where I checked my e-mail and shot off a few clarion calls to announce my absence on the e-lines… felt like I was announcing my own impending death… and then went to MacConnection to order a new laptop… not that I can afford that expense right now, but when has that ever stopped something expensive from giving up the ghost.

The 17-in. laptop I wanted was not in stock; I e-mailed the company to find out when it would be available, and they replied that it would be 10 days, give-or-take. I couldn’t fathom being without my lif-e-line for that long. Barb generously offered to let me “come and go as I pleased” to use her PC, but it was still a dismal prospect. When I got home that night, it felt so weird. I kept going toward my desk and then remembering. It wasn’t as if I really needed to check Twitter or Stumble Upon anything, but I still felt bereft.

The next night, Barb and I went to dinner at Schussler’s and, oh, as long as I was right there, dropping her off, I might as well go in and check my e-mail. Not much was going on except a notice from something called Keek that had a 36-second video of Adam Carolla doing something or other. It’s odd how the media forms are getting shorter and shorter, I suppose to match our attention spans. If I want to watch a clip of “The Daily Show” or a video of a kitten romping with a crow, and it lasts 7:35 minutes with a 30-second commercial at the beginning, I will usually skip it. It’s a wonder I can still read whole books.

I had ordered the computer and settled in to wait the interminable give-or-take for it to arrive, and so I was amazed to find it sitting on my front porch 2 days later! I was in heaven! I spent 11 straight hours setting it up and reconfiguring my configurations. Found out I also had to buy a new printer, because mine was 10 years old and “no longer supported” (of course). Planned obsolescence has never been so… planned… and yet, strangely, you never hear that term anymore. Also had to buy new Quicken software for the same reason and somehow lost all my financial data up to November 2011. The new OS has many gratuitous changes and fancy names for things I still don’t know what they’re for… Launchpad… Mission Control… FaceTime… Terminal. Also, I can never remember which exotic animal it is: Leopard? Jaguar? Wildebeest? (If you had a wildebeest, you’d have to call it Oscar.) But at least I had e-mail and Internet and a half-formed idea of how to use the new Quicken. So all was good…

…until the next day. I had hooked the wilde thing up with the power adaptor, but the manual said that you could extend the reach by plugging the power cord into the adaptor, then into the wall, etc. etc. Which I did. Everything seemed copacetic, but I didn’t notice until hours later that it was going to shut down in 2 minutes because it had been on battery power all day! The connector’s light wasn’t lit, even though I had plugged all the right things into the right things. So then I was frantically trying to check the manual and get to Apple Support to find out what to do before the battery gave out. I tried everything. I should trademark that phrase: “I tried everything(TM)”. I kept plugging and unplugging the adaptor, then exchanging it for the power cord again, and nothing worked. I even tried to reset the SMC! which I have no idea what it is, but it didn’t work anyway. The beast went black.

In the midst of all this, my cat Brutus, who is fascinated with cords and wires, kept getting in my way and I was getting increasingly frustrated and yelling at him to the point where I ran out of curse words. I had all my desk stuff plugged into a surge protector, which appeared to be working fine, because my desk lamp was plugged into it and it was still on, but as a last resort (or a penultimate resort: the last resort would be calling Apple, which I hope never to do again in this lifetime) I went and got the surge protector that was protecting my bedside lamp and radio. Had to untangle the cords in the dark because of course had to unplug the lamp… and Brutus was trying to get in the middle of everything, swatting at the cords that were dangling that I couldn’t see. It’s very hard for me to get down on my knees, but I rigged up a pillow and a footstool so I could get under my desk and exchange power strips. Brutus “helped.” I could barely reach the wall outlet and kept fumbling with the plug. Finally got it in, then had to move all the plugs to the new power strip and then claw my way back up and plug in the connector to the laptop, and VOILA!, the charge light came on and the power came back on, and I was limp with relief.

It took me another day to discover that my landline phones didn’t work. I will spare you the boring details of what I went through before giving in and calling TimeWarner, and also the paces that the tech support person put me through before she figured out that I had failed to plug in one of the phone cords between the modem, the computer, the wall, and at least one body orifice. (I’m kidding about one of those.)

news from social media

  • gazelle.com on Facebook: “People don’t say tissue anymore, they say Kleenex. Apple wants that for its iPad. It worked for its iPod.” (I don’t know, I’ve heard “tissue.”)
  • Kotex is on Twitter. I just can’t think of anything to tweet to it about. Maybe: “Suggest u change name 2 iKotex. Cross-ref. from iPad.”
  • I tweet: “How it feels to get old. Receptionist at dr’s office: ‘Oh you brought a book [to read while you wait]. It’s a BIG book!’ ” (Well-meaning condescension: better than the other kind?)
  • I tweet: “(1/2) In my hometown, growing up, you’d say ‘go to the store,’ ‘go to the show’ or ‘go to the drive-in’ and no one had to ask ‘which one?’ ”
  • I tweet: “(2/2) Now you still don’t have to ask which store, which show, but you have to specify McDs, BurgerK, TacoB, Arbys, ad nauseum (literally).”
  • Best title ever: “OMG: Stories of the Sacred” @TheMoth
  • Michael Moore tweets: “Every Michigander counts – even those who live an hour behind us on the WI border and root for the Packers.” (I reply: “Hey, don’t rub it in.”)
  • Albert Brooks tweets: “If I were president I would allow poor people to drink 1% milk.”
  • My only Twitter follower is my friend V. Well, I have 3 others, but they’re strangers and I can’t figure out why they would follow me. One day I checked out V’s Twitter page and was puzzled to find maybe 200 short tweets that didn’t seem to make sense. Found out later that she and her son were working companionably on 2 computers in the same room. She habitually utters her thoughts, random musings, and observations out loud, so, unbeknownst to her, her son opened a Twitter account in her name and tweeted everything she said while browsing on eBay and CNN. The tweets are hilarious when you know what was really going on. Here is a small sample:

—Wait a minute here…what happened?Wait a minute…Wait a minute..Uh oh.Oh-it’s there.False alarm.Never mind.[singing]Never mind,never mind.

—Oh yes, it is, oh, yes, I’ll say so, yes, indeed, uh-huh. I would say so. I would. I would say so.

—Utah has named an official state firearm.

—Let’s put this here. Let’s put that there. Let’s put that there.

—Ahhh-HA. Ahhh-Ha. Ahhhhhhh-Ha.

—That is very sweet… very cute. Forty dollars? I don’t think so.

—Uh-buh-buh-ba-ba-ba-ba-buhm.

—BART train falls off track. What?

—Oh, I’m going to have to get off my butt – I hate that!

—I did it! I got off my butt! I decided it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t so hard!

—Well, look at that. They’re getting a new library card. Oh, Okay. Ahh, the plot to bring down the British Empire, okay.

—Oh! Bingo! Zingo! Dango!

—Every day I’m still amazed I can move.

—[singing] Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miii-iiin-istro-ne.

—Goodness, gracious, I’ve GOT to get something accomplished today!

—All right, that’s it. I should do this. And I did this. I did this. And I need to do this. And what was i doing here? Was I reading this?

—I think if all Americans sat down & watched Donald Duck on Christmas eve it would unite us and wipe out all the animosity in our society.

  • By the way, you can follow Twitter on Twitter. You can also follow Facebook on Twitter. But can you “like” Twitter on Facebook? Yes, you can!! It’s a brave new world after all.

                                                                       

                            …follow me, I’m tweeting!

Mary McKenney

 

mary’zine #53: January 2012

January 8, 2012

Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting. —Unknown

The above saying came to me by way of Diane D, who gave me an elegant magnetic notepad with that quote and a funny old-timey picture on it. We laughed at how hilariously appropriate it was.

I suppose it’s possible to masquerade as someone you’re not at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco, but mostly, the acute self-knowledge—or at least self-seeing, self-experiencing—that comes along with the brush strokes, vivid paint colors, and previously unimaginable imagery reveal you for who you are, to yourself and to others. It’s a gift, but there’s also a price to pay: your most fondly held beliefs may be challenged, your own hypocrisy, bad social skills and defensive postures can be highlighted. But the upside to revealing the difficult parts of the self are the deep love and compassion that can also come—the realization, on a level below that of ordinary thought, that we are all human, deeply flawed, but/and lovable. It’s one thing to face the white paper and expose our ids and egos to whatever may appear from the collective or personal unconscious, but it can be more difficult to do the same with one another in the group or, indeed, one on one. One woman’s worst, most humbling day can be another’s best, most compassionate day. And that can all be reversed in a minute or overnight: no one has a monopoly on self-judgment, or the judgment of others: or grace, or simple gratitude. Somehow the painting process breaks down our defenses, our belief about our own specialness, our habit of competing with others or judging them to make ourselves feel superior, or at least normal. We all recognize ourselves in one another, making identification and thus compassion the only reasonable response. It’s not a painless process, obviously. Feelings can get hurt, misunderstandings can arise. But it’s strange how having even a minor conflict with someone can open the doors (the eyes) to a new way to see that person. It’s an odd way to bond. There’s also, obviously, the usual case of being drawn to one another through the common understanding of what lies in the human heart. In the outside world, as I said one day in the group, “Fear is King.” But in the studio, in the process, the secret is: “We are one.”

I had been freaked out about flying back to San Francisco for the December ’11 painting intensive ever since, well, the December ‘10 painting intensive, which ended in my being stuck at the Chicago O’Hare Hilton for 3 days during a massive snowstorm. (You can read about it in mary’zine #48, January 2011.) One of the worst parts, besides the unexpected extended stay, was the excruciating symptoms of restless leg syndrome I suffered throughout both cross-country flights. I had since gotten a prescription for a drug that helped to alleviate those symptoms, but I didn’t know how it would interact with the Dramamine I have to take to fly.

I had decided, quite definitively, not to go this year, but finally bowed to the inevitable. At my age, I feel I should make the effort as long as I’m physically able to do so, despite the huge expense for a first class ticket (“I just can’t do coach anymore,” I announced, like the 1%’er I most assuredly am not), 9 nights in a hotel, and myriad other costs.

The intensive turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to, and there were no problems with the flights. I repeat: there were no problems with the flights. I only got tsuris from one TSA at SFO, because I had forgotten to take the bottle of water out of my bag. This was at 5 a.m., after I had gotten up at 2:00 to be sure to make my 6 a.m. flight. Mr. TSA took me to a separate contraband/confrontation area to read me the riot act about how I’d have to “surrender the water” or be “escorted out.” From his stern demeanor, I could have been smuggling hashish. I asked if I could take a pill before surrendering—I get anxious about taking my Dramamine in plenty of time before a flight, so I try to have water on me at all times—but no, I had to have taken it in the pre-security area. I would have loved to hear his reasoning for what tragic consequences would result from my swallowing a pill 10 feet one way or the other, but he wasn’t about to discuss it with me. I’m sure the TSA is chomping at the bit to emulate the sudden rise in status (and matériel) of the campus police state (UC-Davis). How humiliating it must be to have absolute power in their little sphere but no weapons to back it up. I wanted to mouth off, but of course I surrendered. I have a lifelong problem with authority, but in my advanced years I have learned, like John Mellencamp, that “I fight authority, Authority always wins.” Also, thanks to the world-wide-webs, I have learned that “Scorpios are ruled by Pluto, so there are bound to be power struggles with unreasonable authority figures,” an explanation that is as good as any, I suppose.

I was going to tell my story in reverse order, like in the movie Memento, but that sounds like a lot of work, so I’ll just go back more or less to the beginning.

Change is a bitch. Where others seem to have an insatiable desire for the new, I strive to repeat experience as much as possible. When I take the huge leap of faith that is entailed in traveling, I attempt to replicate the known by using the same airline, same flights, same rental car, same hotel, and so on. This works out about as often as you might expect, which is to say not often, because the world keeps changing—adding, subtracting, and probably doing a bit of calculus on things I’ve come to rely on.

Terry and I stayed at the Laurel Inn, as we always do, and practically the first thing we discovered upon checking in was that they no longer provide the continental breakfast we used to enjoy before setting off for a day of painting. It bummed us out to the point of thinking we would have to find a different hotel in the future because this was simply not acceptable! It finally occurred to us that we could buy our own eggs, English muffins, and orange juice, and we had even tastier breakfasts on our own. (We both had kitchenette rooms, a must for boiling eggs and refrigerating leftovers. Hopefully, they will not eliminate that necessity/luxury.)

At the studio, we found our expectations beautifully met: same bright painting space, same great friends—old (30+ years) and “new” (<10 years)—same beaming Barbara welcoming us to another 7 days of intense inquiry.

my friend and teacher, Barbara (beautiful subject; blurry photographer)

However, we soon learned that changes were afoot there as well. There would be a different schedule: starting half an hour earlier in the morning, and cutting the lunch hour from 2 to 1.5 hours. We would then stop half an hour earlier at the end of the day and have long, glorious evenings to do as we pleased. I wasn’t happy about this, because I preferred to spend my free time (a) sleeping longer and (b) luxuriating in a long enough mid-day break that I could have a leisurely lunch with my friends and then investigate various chocolate shops, bookstores, or other attractions, maybe even have a nap in the car.

Barbara said she also wanted to experiment with bringing in music to the group and changing the final sharing on day 7 from each person’s recitation of gratitude and awe to a “love offering” given in any form we wished: a poem, a painting, a story. Both those things—the music and what sounded like “show-and-tell”—rocked me to my core. Painting had always been the sole focus of the studio, the raison d’être, the ne plus ultra, the sui generis, I think you get my point.

But at first it all seemed kind of abstract, a remote possibility, except for the schedule changes. Nothing else was written in stone, and Barbara was not one to write in stone anyway.

On day 1, Barbara read us this beautiful poem. It felt almost scarily relevant, not an abstraction or sentimental in any way, just solid, earned knowledge of the heart.

For a New Beginning

by John O’Donohue (1956–2008)

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

I was blessed to have a wonderful, easy week of painting. It just flowed. But at the end of one especially good day—no conflicts, no doubts, no intense huddling with Barbara over how I could possibly get out of the corner I had painted myself into—suddenly, music filled the air. It was a beautiful song that I don’t know the name of and that I wasn’t remotely willing to enjoy. It was like Painting: The Musical. I was angry. It felt like a violation, an imposition. An unwanted change.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to fully disclose my own reactions but will protect the privacy of other painters as much as possible. So I told Barbara that I “voted” not to have music in the studio, at least during the painting hours. What anyone does afterward, whether it’s speaking groups, Byron Katie work, or karaoke, is of no concern to me. And Barbara cheerfully replied that I could stay or go, my choice.

I had been conditioned from years of “pure” process that nothing was needed to “enhance” the painting process. In fact, introducing other forms, such as dance or singing, could be a distraction—or worse, a form of avoidance. So when I heard the music ringing out at the end of the session, I was appalled, and I refused to join the afternoon group sharing.

I felt ridiculous, sitting alone in the painting room, just behind the wall from everyone else, especially because it seemed I was the only one who had a problem with the music. So I hid, indignant, embarrassed, wishing that the studio had a back door. I swear I would have sneaked out and left Terry behind to find a ride back to the hotel. In my wildest fantasy, I thought I might change my ticket, fly back home, and never darken the door of the CCE again. (This is a common fantasy, actually; more than one painter has threatened to quit forever when they’re having a bad day.)

I know this makes me sound like a prima donna maker of mountains out of molehills, but there you have it. We painters know that strong feelings don’t necessarily come from the trigger—the precipitating comment or event. They are usually reactions to what we’re painting, or memories or feelings that arise from it, or from other people in the group. But in the grip of those feelings, I don’t always know what the true source is, and I’ve long since lost the ability to just stay quiet about whatever’s bothering me, if indeed I ever had it.

Also, we’ve all felt alienated from the group at various times: when everyone else seems to be having an easy time painting or is feeling blessed and happy, and we think we’re the only one feeling out of sorts, annoyed, or bored. It helps everyone when this is brought out, because painting (and, by extension, sharing) is about being how we feel in the moment, not about achieving some ideal state.

So the sharing began, and after a while Barbara asked if anyone knew where I was. She wanted to reconsider her response to me, because she felt she had reacted defensively. She “invited” me to come in and join them. “It’s not the same without Mary in the group.” So I went in and sat in the back and cried some and tried to explain what was going on with me, that it felt like an imposition to have music played in the studio and to have no choice about it. What I love about Barbara is that she is open to being questioned and is willing to reveal her own vulnerability. I felt much better having the opportunity to talk about my feelings. Her willingness to hear me out made all the difference.

But I felt sensitive afterward, because I was afraid that I would forever be associated, even as a joke, with “hating music.” The day after the incident, someone joked about the group singing “Kumbaya,” and she looked right at me. I coldly asked her why she was looking at me. (Geez! I can be such a jerk!) She later shared in the group that she had said something that was met with a defensive attitude, so I, center of the universe, took her aside afterward and apologized. Lo and behold, she had been talking about her husband! I told her why I had reacted that way and she apologized for being “insensitive,” though of course she wasn’t at all. We hugged, and I felt so much closer to her afterward. There’s something about telling the truth, exposing oneself, that can turn a misunderstanding into a real connection.

Also, I had completely forgotten that I had told Barbara earlier in the week that I wanted to learn to stop taking everything so personally. “Be afraid of what you ask for” has never seemed so true.

Oh dear, I just remembered I had another meltdown a couple days later, but I don’t think I’ll go into it. Too complicated, involved other people, made me feel like a jackass again…. But it was resolved, and I felt even closer to Barbara. We’ve never been afraid to sit together, look into each other’s eyes, open our hearts, and let the truth pour out. No defenses. A blessing I cannot overstate.

One of the poems read in the group that week was “Allow,” by Danna Faulds. A line that resonates with me is: “practice becomes simply bearing the truth.” I experience “bearing the truth” (a fear, a self-judgment, a humiliation) as feeling like a nut or a knot (or a pit) in the pit of my stomach that I can’t ignore or rationalize away. The nut-ness, though not a pleasant feeling, is actually the good news. If I can’t contain it / bear it, the fear or humiliation just washes over me and I react blindly, defensively. Feeling the nut (I should find a more genteel way of saying that) is like M. Cassou’s “when you paint the wall, the wall comes down.” The nut feels like it is lodged there forever, never to be digested or dissolved. But when we look at / bear (and paint) “it all,” it all takes on its true proportions. Only then can we truly feel our own humanity and thus the humanity of others.

The painting was intense all week. Barbara would come around occasionally, mainly just to make contact. I would look at her and smile with a demented energy that could hardly be explained by the circles and lines and dots I was applying to the paper. The process happens in the person, not on the painting.

I had never before painted dead people doing anything other than being dead. Sure, I’ve painted my share of bodies in graves, in caskets, hanging from crosses, divided into body parts—who hasn’t??—but one day I left an area at the bottom of my painting to wait and see what “wanted” to be there. I didn’t have much hope that anything new and mysterious would come, because you can’t make it happen and you can’t predict it. But when I finally got to that white part and started to paint a casket with my body in it (ho-hum), I was amazed to see something completely new: My head was in the regular place, but one arm was flopped over the side! Then the opposite leg went over the other side! It was a revelation! I painted crosses lying crookedly on the ground along with discarded flowers, as if they had been flung off the casket. It felt awesome. What would become of me, rising from my death like that? In the next painting, I started with the hole (the grave), and painted myself big, standing up with my arms spread wide. I put nail marks and blood in my palms, I don’t know why—don’t exactly see myself as the risen Christ, but the things you paint often passeth understanding. When I shared in the group later that my body on that painting didn’t have feet “because they cut them off, or so I’ve heard,” this was greeted by a collective gasp, and I quickly backed off—“Never mind, I probably made that part up!” (From About.com: “The Saxons of early England cut off the feet of their dead so the corpse would be unable to walk. Some aborigine tribes took the even more extreme step of cutting off the head of the dead, thinking this would leave the spirit too busy searching for his head to worry about the living.” Good thinking, ancients! I’m so glad we’re using one of your books of wisdom—The Bible—as a guide to living in the 21st century!) Then I painted the dirt underground, the grass and flowers above, and the cross at the head of the grave toppling over. I then proceeded to paint a million dots and circles, very satisfying.

It amazes me that I can get right back into the process after not painting on my own all year. Is that proof that time does not exist? On a certain level, emotions don’t matter, time is never lost, there’s just The One Moment of honest exposure of yourself in color and form on the white paper. Here’s a mysterious but possible explanation (that I wish I understood better):

Our consciousness animates reality much like a phonograph. Listening to it doesn’t alter the record, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music. This is what we call “now.” In reality, there is no before or after. All nows, past, present and future, always have existed and will always exist, even though we can only listen to the songs one by one. —Robert Lanza, MD (author of Biocentrism)

 

 

Other highlights and lowlights

  • On the night before the intensive started, Diane L had a showing of her paintings in a beautiful, spacious home on Potrero Hill. She glowed with excitement among her many friends and colleagues who had come to see her work. I felt so happy for her. This was definitely a highlight… except for the challenge of driving through an unfamiliar area of San Francisco during rush hour on a Friday night.
  • One morning, an old woman appeared outside the door of the studio, her hands and face pressed against the glass, peering inside. She opened the door and announced, “My name is Michelle, and also Michael.” I thought, Here we go. “You know that if you kill people, God will forgive you.” The narrative quickly devolved into sentence fragments: “… something in her belly… the family…,” and finally she said, “I’ll be right back.” And she left.
  • On the same day, after lunch at Chloe’s with Diane, Diane, and Terry, I was hobbling across the road with my cane, my friends several yards ahead of me, when a man stopped his car at the stop sign, let my friends pass, and then started revving the car and jerking it forward, impatient at having to wait for me. I stood in front of his car and yelled, “What’s your problem?” I couldn’t see the man’s face clearly, but I was lucky he wasn’t looking to kill a pedestrian that day. After that, Terry made sure to hang back with me when we were out. Not that it would have helped much if we had both been run over by a maniac, but it was sweet of her. Throughout the week, I drove the rental car and she was my lookout (as in “Look out!”), and I’m sure she prevented several needless injuries to bicyclists and pedestrians who rode or strode through the black night in dark clothes. (At least the bicyclists twinkled.)
  • We all sort of forgot about the strange woman at the door, but in the afternoon sharing Karine mentioned her again—she had been thinking about her and was still kind of apprehensive. In my favorite line of the week, she summed up the woman’s message: “It’s OK to kill people. I’ll be right back.” We all laughed, and thus a lowlight turned into a highlight. And God didn’t have to forgive anyone.
  • I want to reiterate the great fun I had with my close friends, and the tenderness I felt for everyone in the group. Besides our tightly scheduled lunches, Diane, Diane, Terry, and I had dinner one night at the beautiful, Christmasy/sparkly Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. On the last night, several of us gathered for one last time at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. On several nights after painting all day, many of us stayed past the official closing hour and shared laughs or long, full silences, a blessing either way. Throughout the week I had intimate, meaningful interactions with… again, just about everyone. Special shout-outs to Martha, Carol, and Kate. It was truly a special week, and one I would have missed if I had chosen to follow my fears instead of my heart.

I had dreaded the final sharing (“love offering”) on day 7 and had just about decided not to do anything for it (we had a choice). But that afternoon I quickly prepared something and was glad I did. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had at the studio. Everyone brought something very personal—from stories and pictures of mothers and grandparents who had died, to Alyssa playing her guitar and singing a beautiful song she had written, to the sharing of paintings that had been done during the week, Liat telling us about her beloved dog, Kate leading us in singing a round of an old folk song, and several beautiful poems and reminiscences. I felt tenderized and tender and cried practically nonstop. Everyone’s offering was so moving. There’s an old story about how the world rests on the back of a turtle; when someone asked what held up the turtle, the storyteller replied, “Turtles all the way down.” For me, this sharing felt like love all the way down.

Linda H, the only brand-spanking-new painter, who, coincidentally (?), was the one who provided the music over which I had freaked out earlier in the week, played a recording of Johnny Cash singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with his daughter Rosalind, from an album he recorded just before he died. I cried so hard during the song that I felt I had to explain afterward… he had been my father’s favorite singer, and my father had played his songs on the accordion. The tears and memories and tragedy of my father’s life washed over me as I listened. It was a special gift, and when I asked Linda later if that “made up” for my protest over the music earlier in the week, she said simply, “It’s forgotten.”

At first I was concerned that my “love offering” wasn’t in sync with the rest, but I went with it—first showed and talked about my death paintings, then did what I called an “infomercial” about the mary’zine, with information about how to read it online or subscribe. Later, a few people gave me money for the privilege of receiving paper copies, which I painstakingly print out at home so I can include the color photos.

All week, my eyes were opened to the beauty of ordinary people on the streets, in stores, in restaurants. I found myself intently observing everyone around me, marveling at their humanity, our commonality. One night at an Italian restaurant near our hotel, I was so focused on other people that Terry asked, “Have we said everything?” No… but there was so much to look at, to overhear, to speculate about: young, permissive parents trying to bargain with their tantrum-throwing child; a large party of friends or family who individually left and returned, changed seats, you couldn’t tell which children went with which adult, like they were one moving, changing organism; a waiter with ready-made jokes that were often incomprehensible (holding out two identical glasses of wine: “Pick one.”). Everywhere we went that week, we remarked on how everyone was so nice (with the obvious exceptions of the God-forgiven murder fan at the door and the impatient man behind the wheel). One day at the hotel, waiting for the slowest elevator in the world, I noticed a doorknob sign that didn’t look like the usual zzzzz or please clean room. I couldn’t see the words clearly, but I thought it said Everything is fine. Hmm. But on closer inspection, it actually said, Housekeeping in room. I felt like I was looking at the world with new eyes. What if all it took to “change the world” was to change one’s way of looking at it? Perception could be everything.

The officious TSA at SFO notwithstanding, my trip home was a breeze. At the Chicago airport, I had plenty of time to get to the other side of forever (O’Hare: The Nightmare) where the small plane would fly me northward. Being whisked over to concourse F in a wheelchair is fine, but I prefer the large multi-seat cart that makes me feel privileged rather than infirm. The driver was a young Pakistani man who proclaimed his love for America (“no discrimination!” “jobs!” “free speech!”). At one point, another Pakistani got on and rode with us for a while so he could bond with the driver over the tragedy of their homeland (partition of India). He was either a traveler who happened to be walking nearby, or a plant put there to advertise diversity, as if I were a bit player in an infomercial for Freedom. (I’m not being cynical, just fanciful.)

In the waiting area for my blessedly short flight to Green Bay, I observed a mentally disturbed woman and her grown son who were sitting near me. The son was patient but clearly stressed about dealing with her. She got up at one point and stumbled over her bag, falling facedown and setting in motion a parade of United Airlines representatives to ask how she was, perhaps to forestall a lawsuit. I hadn’t exchanged words or even a glance with the son, but when he went to gather his things, he mistakenly started to go for my book, coat, and messenger bag; in one of those sweet encounters with strangers that could easily have been unpleasant, we both laughed at his error. It wasn’t a big deal, but it made me wonder if World Peace could start at home, as it were, in the smallest exchanges between people with no chip on their shoulder and no axe to bear.

It was a relief to land at the Green Bay airport, claim my luggage, and plod over the vast tundra of the parking lot to my Jeep. The sky was gray and leaden, but it had never looked so beautiful to me: I had made it through 10 days of Unknown! I somehow managed not to fall asleep on the 50-mile drive home, having taken the various travel downer pills. (The lorazepam worked!)

The cats were confused by my arrival—Luther even hissed at me—probably because I and all my things smelled like California. I would rather be greeted by cries of ecstasy, but oh well. Hauling my suitcase into the bedroom, I noticed a wine bottle… black, with hundreds of white dots painted on it, some surrounding large circles that remained black. It was quite synchronicitous, because I had been conscious of painting dots and circles all week. Clearly, it was a gift from my sister Barb, who had been tending to my cats. I saw her the next night to catch up on the episodes of “Homeland” and “Dexter” that I had missed, and she gave me a black ring display hand (I have a thing for those), that she had spent all day painting white dots with large circles of black on to match the wine bottle. I was blown away. She said to me once that I was the artist in the family and she was the craftsperson. But she had shown true artistry and love in giving me these gifts.

Happy winter!

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #48: January 2011

January 4, 2011

to San Francisco and partway back

[Guide to my itinerary: Menominee to Green Bay by car, G.B. to Chicago O’Hare by puddlejumper, Chicago to San Francisco by 747, 1 day of lounging and 7 days of painting, then S.F. to Chicago again, and for the rest you’ll have to read on.]

I can’t claim there were no humorous moments on my United Airlines flights last month, but the only one I can recall is when the pilot coming into Chicago on my way home turned off the seatbelt sign at the gate and announced over the PA, “All rise.” Pretty funny. But anything would have made me smile at that point, because I had only a short hop to Green Bay and an hour-long drive ahead of me and then I’d be home! My travel nightmare was almost over.

Or was it…?

I had arranged to get a wheelchair at O’Hare to ferry me between terminals, because the one for the big plane is far, far away from the one for the little plane, even though they’re both United. I was so happy to be going home that I gave the wheelchair pusher a $20 tip. “Merry Christmas!” I cried, in the spirit of the season. But I spoke too soon. One minute before we were set to board, they canceled the flight. How I love those empty apologies: “Sorry for any inconvenience.” They have to put that “any” in there, in case someone experienced no inconvenience whatsoever. Sure, they were justified in blaming the weather this time—it was right at the beginning of the Great Winter Storm of 2010, before winter had even officially started!, and Chicago was at the leading edge—but United is no more reliable when the skies are clear and flocks of angels are ready to guide the plane safely onward. Last year, during a 6-hour delay in the same airport, the gate agent announced that “It’s not our fault.” So she didn’t even have to offer the empty apology. I’ve never known an organization so hostile to its paying customers.

So I was stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. Without my luggage.

Do I sound bitter? I was pretty… pretty… pretty… bitter. But I should explain why I was in that situation. I flew out to San Francisco for the annual December 7-day painting intensive at the Painting Studio (ccesf.org). Flying is always a dicey proposition for me, partly because of the Dramamine I have to take, which knocks me out, but it was worse this year because my knees have been killing me, and I was really concerned about sitting in coach for hours and trying to navigate not only the airports but the streets of the City. So when I was making my reservations online, a window came up that offered me a one-time-only opportunity to upgrade to First Class. Wow, First Class! I felt daring, out of my league. Not only was I the first person in my family to go to college, but here I was the first one to fly in the company of rich people, or at least men wearing suits! It was going to be the experience of a lifetime!

So on December 2, I drove from Menominee to the Green Bay airport and left my Jeep in long-term parking. I know the airport and I know the security drill, and the TSA people there are perfectly nice because—what do they have to worry about? We got to O’Hare on time, no problem, and when I boarded the 747 to S.F. I almost gasped: I had this large, open, curved cubicle all to myself. I could sit down and stretch my legs all the way forward without hitting anything. There were built-in trays, and shelves on which to stash your bag, none of that “under the seat in front of you,” because there is no “seat in front of you”! The seat itself was very comfortable and had more positions than the Kama Sutra. I never quite got the hang of turning it into a bed, but that was OK. Before we even started taxiing, a parade of flight attendants marched through with beverages, hot nuts (not sure how heat is supposed to improve them), and anything else you could think to ask for. Later, there was spinach lasagna for lunch that wasn’t bad, not bad at all.

Do you sense a “but” coming? Maybe not, but here it is anyway. Almost as soon as we got in the air, I got the horrible restless leg feelings, which I assure you are no joke. I was absolutely miserable, even in that lap of luxury, even knowing it would have been 10 times worse in coach. I writhed and squirmed my way through the whole 4 hours, and even the snacks, lunch, and breathless service didn’t help.

The bigger “but” (don’t say it) came on the way back from S.F. to Chicago. (I’m telling this out of chronological order, try to keep up.) The plane was smaller than a 747, and I was shocked to see that what they called First Class was barely distinguishable from coach. There was a little more leg room and a console between you and your seatmate, but getting up out of the seat and out to the aisle was as awkward as anything I’ve experienced back with the hoi polloi. And I again had the restless legs, made worse by the close proximity of a very nice British man who politely ignored my constant squirming and twice uncomplainingly turned off his movie, put away his laptop, took off his headset, and stood up to let me by to get to the toilet. I had selected an aisle seat online, but they (as is United’s wont) had switched planes, so now I was stuck by the window.

So I’ve already told you about landing in Chicago and finding out that I couldn’t get home that day, which was a Saturday. Fortunately—in a rare moment of thinking ahead and taking action—I had called the Chicago Airport Hilton from my S.F. hotel room to make a reservation, thinking it was worth it for my peace of mind even if I lost the $129 if I didn’t need the room. So at O’Hare I got another wheelchair ride to the hotel, which is theoretically in the airport but still a long, long way from anything that truly qualifies as the airport. I had cash on me but had to stop handing out the exorbitant tips. My room was much nicer (and a lot cheaper) than the one at the Laurel Inn—no offense, Laurel Inn!—so while I was unhappy about the layover, I was grateful to have the resources to afford that option. I ordered room service a couple times (another never-before luxury for me), and the food was damn good and only a leetle overpriced: $31 for a cheeseburger, fries, and Coke, once they added on all their fees and taxes and gratuitous gratuities. I watched mostly regular TV (lots of Weather Channel) but did splurge by purchasing the last two episodes of “Dexter” that I had missed ($6.95 apiece) and the movie “The Town” ($14.95). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The smartest thing I had done besides reserve a hotel room was to bring my cell phone charger in my carry-on bag. I was getting frequent recorded messages from the airline, which kept me apprised of what was happening (mostly after I already knew, but still). They automatically rebooked me on a flight for the next morning, though I had little hope of flying then because the storm was still looking bad. But I called the recording at 5 a.m. Sunday, and the flight was still scheduled to leave on time. I took all my stuff with me, including my key card in case I had to come back to the room, and set out to find the gate at least 2 hours before departure time. I have a little piece of advice for whoever makes those recordings. When you pronounce “Concourse C” and “Concourse E” exactly the same way, and to my ear I think you’re saying Concourse C when there is no Concourse C in Terminal 2, you are going to cause me a world of hurt. I hobbled off in the direction of the airport with my father’s old wooden cane and couldn’t make heads or tails out of the signs. Also, the “moving” sidewalk that would have eased my progress was not moving. I’m sure the airport was terribly “sorry for any inconvenience,” but it was fortunate for the homeless and/or travel-stranded men I saw sleeping on it. There are at least 3 levels in the airport, reached variously by escalator, elevator, or stairs, and as I followed signs that led nowhere or dumped me back in the same areas I had just covered, I felt a close kinship with Franz Kafka. I expected to metamorphose into an ungeheures Ungeziefer (literally, monstrous vermin) at any moment, if I hadn’t already. But no, I seemed to have all my human appendages. When I finally found the United Airlines counter, it was devoid of human life, and a handwritten sign directed my weary wayward self to Terminal 1, which was supposedly “down this way and to the left.” There was a “this way” but no “left,” and the surly uniformed lass who was sitting there told me I had to “go outside” (she points behind her, which is not where the doors are) or (and?)  “take the train.” I had no idea what she was talking about, where this train was or where it would take me. Mostly, I just needed a wheelchair and some confirmation of where the gate was, so I hobbled downstairs again, looking in vain for Concourse C. The United employees were presumably swilling their morning coffee and cracking jokes in some Shangri-La I had no hope of finding.

So I continued to hobble up and down (I’ll have to find another word for hobble), trying to get my bearings. I finally found a long line waiting to get to Concourse E, and I remembered that my previous flight had been supposed to leave from gate E4. So I joined the line, and the nice man ahead of me said I was in the right place, because the tiny United Express planes leave from Terminal 2, not Terminal 1. Good to know! (I routinely found fellow passengers more helpful than airline or airport staff.)

I think I have adequately expressed how physically miserable I was, but I soldiered on and finally arrived at security. I was on the verge of tears and beyond common courtesy at that point, so instead of smiling politely at the man who checked my ID, I just inched my way forward like the cow or monstrous vermin I truly was. At least they didn’t have those new body scanners, and I didn’t see anyone being patted down, so thank God for small favors. I wobbled down to look at a departures board, only to discover that the flight had been canceled. I have to give myself this: I didn’t completely freak out. I whispered a frustrated “FUCK” and found somewhere to sit down and figure out what to do next.

Naturally, I called the United Airlines recording to see what could be done, and for some reason I wasn’t able to give the required answers in the allotted time. He/it would ask for my Mileage Plus number, and as I started to say “zero…,” he would say, “For example….” or “and then touch the star key.” All communication would break down, because when I finished giving the 11-digit number, he would repeat it back to me with an extra zero, I would say NO, and he would fakily, mechanically apologize, though, I must say, he sounded more sincere than any of the live humans I’d dealt with. I went through this 3 times and finally managed to spit out the requested number to his satisfaction. Then he told me that the wait time to speak to a human was “60 minutes.” FUCK.

(This is hilarious: According to United Airlines, my name is “MARYMS MCKENNEY” [they put the “Ms.” in the wrong place]. So when saying my name, the recording robot pronounces it “Mary Mil-seconds MICKinny.” I’ve always wanted a nickname: how about “Mil-seconds”?)

I found a gate agent who cursorily informed me that all flights for the rest of the day and the next day were sold out. I was now fully in tears—tears for fears. (Did you know that the “Tears For Fears” band name came from the book Primal Scream by Arthur Janov, “tears as a replacement for fears”? In my case, tears just joined the fears, they didn’t replace them). So he reserved a seat for me on an early morning Tuesday flight. It seemed like forever to me. Whoever heard of getting stuck in Chicago for 3 days??

To avoid spending more money on tips, I throbbled back to the hotel—at least I was starting to get my bearings, but I had taken 2 Dramamine already and was seriously fried. From my room I called down to the front desk to see if I could extend my stay by 2 more nights. The person I talked to said she would check and “call [me] right back.” I waited in vain for 2 hours to hear back from her. I spent the time counterproductively worrying that I would be thrown out on the street and have to fend for myself, or sleep on the non-moving sidewalk. For all I knew, the “hundreds” (according to the gate agent) of stranded travelers had filled up the Hilton and all surrounding hotels, and I would have to rent a car and drive into the storm and die in some snow-filled ditch, frozen and clutching my dead cell phone. You see where my mind goes.

I finally called back downstairs and the woman said yes, I could stay 2 more nights. If I could have jumped in the air, I would have. Instead, I fell back on the bed with relief. She called back a minute later to say, “Oh I forgot,” the rate had changed from $129 to $209/night. All the staff have been trained to say “My pleasure” whenever you thank them for anything, but it was a bit odd to be told how much “pleasure” she took in informing me of the outrageous price hike.

Long story even longer: On Monday I took the hotel shuttle over to Terminal 1 to get a boarding pass for my flight the next day. After I did that, I didn’t know how to get back, so I checked the “Visitor’s Information” kiosk to maybe find out the shuttle’s schedule, but guess what? Of 15 or so hotels, the Hilton wasn’t listed! Ha! Was I surprised? Fuck, no! I ended up whrobbling back to my room. I was surprised that the room hadn’t been cleaned yet, so I found the housekeeping person, who told me she had me marked down as checking out that day. I straightened it out with the front desk and went down to the restaurant to have breakfast—some excellent chilaquiles (eggs scrambled with tortilla strips, queso fresco, and salsa). I thought it would be cheaper than room service, but with orange juice and coffee and a tip it still came to $31.

When I got back upstairs, my key card didn’t work. I asked the housekeeping person what to do, and she called security. He showed up finally, interrogated me about my identity, and wondered why a person named “Yvette” had been given my room. After he opened the door for me and checked the bathroom to be sure no one was hiding in there, I called back downstairs. The witless front desk person (not the original one) cheerfully told me that it would be “[his] pleasure” to extend my stay for another night.

I told him to be sure to charge me for 3 nights, not 4. His pleasure. But when I got my Visa bill, I was surprised to see that I had been charged a grand total of $1,069.25. He had indeed put me down for 4 nights. The bastard.

Tuesday a.m., I thrwobble back over to the gate—by this time I know exactly where I’m going, hurrah!—and get in line for security. All the special people—troops, etc.—are allowed to go ahead, so we stand there without moving for half an hour. Finally, they open another line. I go through the motions—dumping shoes, bag, coat, cane, cell phone in the bins—and await deliverance. The TSA performs its ritual of checking the number of ounces of lotion, hair gel, and toothpaste I am carrying and gratuitously tosses my gel. But in her zeal to deprive me of manageable hair, she doesn’t notice the 7-inch metal dental instrument with two sharp hook ends that was wrapped in a paper napkin in the same plastic bag. So I was thwarted from slathering my fellow passengers with hair gel, but I could have done some serious damage with that pick.

We are hunting bin Laden by pawing through my purse, as if I’ve hidden him there, have hidden a wire in my shoe, a liquid in my pocket, a bomb in my underwear. We lost our way in the dark but are looking for it under a lamppost because the light is better there.

Anyway, this plane managed to get off the ground, my luggage was waiting for me at Green Bay, and my Jeep started right up in the bitter cold. The kitties were happy to see me, I think, though they may now prefer my sister, who read to them every day while I was gone. It was heaven to be home.

Brutus (front) and Luther, posing for the cover of their first album, “U.P. Catz.” Photo by P. DuPont.

 

forget the journey, here’s where I talk about the destination

One of the best things about the painting intensives is seeing old friends again. Diane L., Diane D., Terry and I dined out just about every day in our old haunts, especially Chloe’s, a little café on Church St., and started a couple of new traditions: On Saturday night, T and I met DD, DL, and DL’s man Chris at the Clement St. Bar & Grill. I have a horror of trying to park on the streets of S.F., especially on a Saturday night, but we easily found a spot and joined our friends for a rousing urban outing: pasta, burgers, wine and black Russians, jostling in the aisles, attentive waiters, and shouted conversation. It’s what I miss most about the City, I think. Well, first, having friends available to go out, and then knowing people who know interesting places to go. Later in the week, we headed over to the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin, in the rain, me driving, trying to remember how to get there. Either they moved the road (unlikely) or I didn’t know where I was going (ya think?), and I ended up having to turn around on Tennessee Valley Road. But then, in a burst of glory, I drove into the parking lot, handed my car over to the valet, and we entered the bright, shiny world of the Buckeye. Drinks (the raspberry lemonade was superb), ahi tuna and spicy pork sandwiches, lots of hoopla, again an urban-style experience made more special by the sparkly decorations and holiday spirit in the air. I love you, D, D, and T.

In the middle of the week, the studio always springs for a pizza lunch, which we eat in the sharing room. This time the pizzas came from an Indian place, which, no thanks, but there was also a really good pepperoni pizza, and Alyssa had made a raw kale salad. I don’t think I have to tell you that I do not eat this kind of thing, so I can’t believe I even took some, but it was great! I even got the recipe from her later. You can find “Chef Alyssa” at http://www.earthenfeast.com. She is amazing, and not just for her mad food skillz. She had us in stitches with her story the morning after seeing Roger Waters The Wall Live.

More shout-outs: I was going to name others with whom I had special moments, but that can be tricky because of whom I might leave out, so: You know who you are. I loved painting and being with you all. And I have a special shout-out to Sima, but you’ll have to read on for that.

On Friday night, at the end of the intensive, I went out with my friends from Oregon, who had driven down just to have dinner with me, P’s and my godchild, and the godly child’s husband and mother. It’s always somewhat bizarre to go from the intimacy of the painting studio and my friends there to my “other” world. We went to a noisy Italian restaurant south of Market, and it was both overwhelming and gratifying to banter and catch up with one another. Plus, the food was excellent. Then P&C brought me back to my hotel, and I got a few measly winks before having to get up at 2 a.m. to leave for home (ha!).

***

It’s easier to write about the obvious targets—the airlines, security, and hotel staff—and the fun times than to put words to the indescribable experience of painting for process, but I will do my best.

“I hear the paint falling…”

Barbara was telling us about someone dropping a container of paint, but I heard poetry. In my world, a lot was falling: rain outside; tears on the paper and on my face inside; mercy, mercy everywhere….

All week I painted a young man who had killed himself after holding a room full of high school students, including my great-nephew, hostage. No one else was hurt, unless you count scarred-for-life. During the stand-off, my fearful thoughts were of course for my great-nephew and his parents, but when I came to paint, suddenly there he was, the 15-year-old boy who couldn’t even say what he wanted, who had no demands, except possibly the demand for attention, to be taken seriously, who knows what goes on in the mind of a teen-age boy? So I painted him with the gun to his head, in the grave, as a spirit rising from the grave. Mind you, I didn’t know him, but his tragedy was the vehicle for 7 intense days of painting.

At first I painted a lot of guns, bullets, blood. The boy (I know his name but don’t want to name him, I don’t know why) was a hunter, as is my great-nephew, so I painted deer as targets, then deer pointing their own guns. Sometimes the imagery becomes so satisfying to paint that you get carried away. I told Barbara I wanted to paint a forest with hunters, deer, mayhem. She got me to focus on the painting in front of me, to see what could be coming in or out. So I connected all the beings on the painting with white cords, felt the connectedness of life whether the ties are visible or not, and still she asked what could be connected. But there was nothing else, just shapes! just colors! I had made the obvious connections, she was asking me to do the impossible. But it turns out that how you face the impossible is kind of the point: Finally, I was neither fighting nor holding back, and though I didn’t think of the word at the time, I had “surrendered.”

At some point a quotation from “The Merchant of Venice” started running through my mind. It was the same quote that came when I painted my late brother-in-law many years ago.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I painted tears falling from the faces on the painting and from the unknown sky above. I didn’t know where the feelings were coming from, what they “meant,” why I was focusing on this boy. The teacher and the other students had done their best to keep the boy calm, talking to him about hunting and fishing, and then the SWAT team came busting in and it was all over, the boy shot himself. My great-nephew seemed to be OK immediately afterward, and his mother, my niece, was euphoric that he survived, but post-traumatic stress had come, predictable as clockwork.

I was far enough removed from the story that I knew virtually nothing objectively, but my feeling state was a projection of the boy’s loneliness, despair, lack of choices, forced into a corner, thinking the gun and the attention of the other students would tell him what to do now, how to go on, whether to go on.

As happens when you paint so intensely for so long, the story faded away and I just followed the mysterious feelings for the rest of the week, painted whatever came next, not like clockwork but like some organic heartbeat leading me on.

 

an intruder in our midst

There was one man in the intensive, among 22 or so women; we’ve had them before, it’s not a big deal. But this one seemed different from the gentle souls who had painted with us in the past. On the very first day, someone referred to being (psychologically) “naked” in front of the painting, and he offered that she “had [his] permission.” That was rather jarring, this male insistence on making everything about sex, but no one said anything. He (I’ll call him “Dick”) made a few other comments over the next few days, joked about how he could paint his penis as long as he wanted. I wanted to say to him, “You know, Dick, it’s not about the length, it’s the girth.” But we’re not supposed to comment on other people’s sharings, so I zipped it, no pun intended.

One of the painters had been doing some very sexual paintings, and she talked about feeling exposed, wondering if she was doing the right thing, not wanting anyone to see—questioning what was going on with her, as we all do when the mind is not in charge and imagery seems to have its own power and direction. Sexual imagery can feel very liberating to paint, but it brings all the baggage with it, one’s fantasies and fears, the expectations from the culture. So at one point, “Dick,” who had been painting near her, shared that he had “wanted to watch” and that he could “feel the excitement” from her corner, and he said these things in the group while looking intently at her, a burst of inappropriate, unwelcome testosterone, entitled and insistent, flooding the room. The rest of us, the women, the targets of male entitlement in and out of “safe” places, sat there as if stunned, as if shot with a paralyzing agent, not lethal, not like he put a gun to our heads, but stunned into silence and submission. Barbara reminded the group at large that we were not to comment on one another’s paintings, and apparently the point was not lost on Dick. Afterward, things were said in private, apologies were made, epiphanies may or may not have been achieved, but I wasn’t part of all that. I just felt the reverberations from his statements, his obvious glee and sexual response, and a lifetime of unwelcome comments and advances made me furious that we had to endure this kind of thing in our “sanctuary.” But sanctuary is not necessarily what it seems. The painting studio is a sanctuary in which to feel unsafe, to take risks, to not know what we’re going to feel, let alone say. It’s a contradiction wrapped in an enigma and all that.

When we reconvened for the next morning’s sharing, the women’s voices started to come forward about what had happened. It was unusual to have a “meta” talk like that, and it was disturbing, especially considering the tender feelings that we encounter, in ourselves and in one another, when painting for so long. After a few people had spoken, I realized I was practically quivering with a phrase that had come to me in the night. It seemed that to say it in the group would be like dropping a bomb in the middle of a marketplace, blowing myself up along with everyone else. But it was so strong in my throat to voice it: I said that the aftermath of Dick’s comment the day before had been like “passive little girls being word-raped.” No one seemed to know what I was talking about. What?? Repeat that. Explain that. It’s always strange to put something personal or explosive into words, whereas you can paint literally anything and no one will be shocked.  I was afraid that what I said was too strong, too (God forbid) “feminist” or “man-hating” or any of the other shields that women use to deflect just or unjust criticism of men. Barbara engaged me, encouraged me to see where this was coming from in me, what more I could say, didn’t let me just drop my bomb and disappear. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but after a while I paused and said, “But… I’m having so much compassion for this boy who killed himself, whom I didn’t even know.” And my energy changed from reacting against one man to feeling for another man, and there was no more contradiction, just an appreciation for the complexity of our beings, and for Barbara’s skill in bringing me to a truer place than mere reaction. (Barbara, I am more grateful to you than I can say.)

Here’s my Sima shout-out. I happened to be wearing my “Bitch Is the New Black” t-shirt that day, and after the morning sharing she came over to me and said, “Brave Is the New Bitch.” That was so cool! I had thought of another t-shirt I wanted to make for next year, with a phrase I had seen on a car that morning: “It Don’t Matter to Jesus.” I have since learned that it’s a quote from “The Big Lebowski” (one of my favorite movies, actually), not an illiterate paean to the son of God. But I guess it can mean whatever I want it to mean. “It Don’t Matter to Mary”? The only problem with wearing these t-shirts is having to explain them to people, such as my “Not here today, not gone tomorrow” original. Contact me if you wish to purchase.

***

One of the things Barbara wanted to explore in the sharings was how to make use of the extraordinary opportunity to relate with one another in the group the way that we paint—not just sharing details of our day or our individual feelings, but to speak in the same spirit that informs our paintings. But while painting, we’re in our own worlds, backs to each other, no one really knowing what’s going on with anyone else unless we overhear them talking with Barbara. And it’s hard to know how to “relate” when we’re not supposed to make judgments or offer advice. We all have a tendency to want to help someone who’s feeling bad, but there’s a freedom in just being able to express ourselves without being bombarded with well-meaning suggestions. Even so, the feeling of connection in the sharings is just incredible: the silence so deep that it vibrates.

We talked a lot about what it meant to be “inappropriate” while speaking in the group. Later in the week, I’m not sure how it came about, I was probably going on about the contradiction of having “rules” in the sharing that we don’t have in the painting. So Barbara invited me to “say something inappropriate.” I had no idea what to say, and I usually freeze when put on the spot like that. But then it popped into my head to ask, “Can I speak to a person?” Barbara hesitated but said OK, and I looked at Dick and said… [I imagined the room holding its collective breath] “I was going to ignore you for the rest of the week, but I got over it and now I know it’s not about you.” Barbara beamed, “That’s good!” She asked Dick how he felt about what I had said and of course he was fine “…since it’s not about me.” I’m not sure if he learned anything from the whole experience, but I learned that if I’m honest about my feelings, I can get past them.

There was another time in the group when I said something that was very difficult to admit to, but I’m not going to go into it here. What I said wasn’t the important part anyway, it was my reaction afterward when I feared the judgment of others and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Back at my painting, Barbara urged me to feel, not think. As soon as someone tells you not to think, your mind thinks even harder: How do I not think, are you crazy? But somehow my defenses had been worn down, I was a soggy mess from crying, and I just kept going back to the wordless feeling whenever I found myself on the Think Train again. I kept painting, it didn’t matter what. And then it happened. It was as if the feelings, so deep, so heart-felt, so powerful and seemingly destructive, eased out and spread out as if on a broad plain, flooding all my defenses and finally dissipating into wordlessness, fearlessness. And then another “falling” quote came to me: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” And look, the word “pain” is right in there.

***

So the week of painting (and traveling) for me was about raining, flooding, cold particles falling, breaking the levees of self-protection, pure feeling rising, emerging with or without words, dissipating in riots of color and shape and image; and it was also the opposite: erecting boundaries, patrolling the perimeter, rifling through my own mental carry-on bags for dangerous implements of self-knowledge, thinking security will save me, in turn resisting and surrendering, tears fighting fears. It’s all related, we’re all connected, the hazards are everywhere, the target is indistinct and constantly moving, clarity is hard to find.

But in the midst of the chaos and the misdirection, our country’s loss of good faith in the pursuit of blind faith, we painters persist, 22 or 23 at a time, in facing the simplest and deepest truths in ourselves, which is to say, in humanity. The effect on our loved ones or distant strangers cannot be measured, but the painting energy goes out into the world and a little more light is shed, not where the lamppost stands but in the darkest corners where we struggle and cry, laugh and love, and live lives of quiet exhilaration.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #20 January 2002

January 28, 2010

Scientifically proven to be the World’s Funniest ‘Zine! (also the Second Funniest)

… with occasional commentary by Pookie: Proud to be a Feline-American (watch for comments in italics, lowercase, no punctuation, plenty of sarcasm)

I can honestly say that this issue of the mary’zine is the world’s funniest ‘zine, because it contains the “world’s funniest joke” as determined by scientists in London. I kid you not. A professor at the University of Hertfordshire devised an experiment in conjunction with the British Association for the Advancement of Science (so you know it’s real science), in which 100,000 people around the world voted on the world’s funniest joke. Here it is:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping, and pitch their tent under the stars. During the night, Holmes wakes his companion and says: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”

Watson says, “I see millions of stars, and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”

Holmes replies: “Watson, you idiot. Somebody stole our tent.”

To lay claim to also being the second funniest ‘zine, here is the joke voted second funniest:

Two hunters from New Jersey are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. The other whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps out to the operator: “My friend is dead. What can I do?”

The operator in a calm soothing voice says “Just take it easy. First let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

No one asked for my vote, but here is one of my all-time favorites:

Q: How do you know when an elephant is having her period?

A: There’s a dime on your purse and your mattress is gone.

I guess you have to be old enough to remember sanitary napkins to get that one.

***

OK, enough frivolity. Happy Y2K+2, everybody! It’s hard to believe we’ve already come this far into the brave new century. If only Edward Bellamy were still around to update his vision for the future. In 1888 he wrote Looking Backward, a utopian novel that describes the U.S. in the year 2000 as “an ideal socialist state featuring cooperation, brotherhood, and industry geared to human need.” And how right he was! No, wait, I must be thinking of Brave New World, “a nightmarish vision of a future society.” Or Nineteen Eighty-four, which continues to echo down through the years. On second thought—never mind. Let’s stop trying to imagine the future and just learn how to be in the present, shall we?

I mean, look at what we thought 2000 had in store for us. I still have my bag packed from 2 years ago. Still haven’t read that Patricia Cornwell novel I stuffed in there. The underwear and t-shirts surely don’t fit me anymore, and the aspirin probably expired months ago. The survival food bricks in the earthquake kit in the trunk of my car must be even more similar to real bricks by now. It’s hard to believe in preparing for the future when the most significant disaster we collectively experienced in the past year was unpredicted and seemingly unpredictable.

Well, at least—partly as a result of 9/11—I now have a cell phone that I can carry with me instead of the clunky AAA phone I had to plug into the cigarette lighter in my car. I haven’t had a real use for it so far, but I’ve made a few gratuitous calls to Peggy when I was driving home from the city. One day she called me back when I was on the Golden Gate Bridge—it was thrilling, my first call—and we basically spent 20 minutes reporting on our respective whereabouts.

M: Where are you?

P: Van Ness.

M: I’m on the bridge, ha ha. [we were both going north]

[Five minutes later]

M: Where are you now?

P: The Waldo Tunnel.

M: I’m at Paradise Drive already!

Do you think I could get a screenplay out of this material?

We did talk about other things, of course—like the weather.

P: Is it still raining where you are?

M: Yeah, but I can see blue sky!

P: So can I.

M: I wonder if we’re looking at the same clouds.

P: Probably.

M: I feel so close to you right now.

P: O-kaaaay.

And our respective physical states.

M: My arm isn’t very comfortable holding this thing.

P: Really? My door armrest is right at the right place.

M: I can’t turn corners very well with one hand.

P: That’s because you’re a pantywaist. [She didn’t really say that; I’m just trying to spice up the dialogue.]

After exhausting all the possible conversational topics specific to driving while on the phone, we hung up.

So my worst suspicions about cell phones have been confirmed. Not only was the call completely unnecessary, but my attention was, shall we say, frequently compromised. But too bad, we are now living in the apocalyptic 00’s, and we’ll take our anytime minutes any damn time we can get them.

***

It was a quiet Christmas in Lake Wobegon. Had a wonderful dinner at P&C’s and played with their kitties, Willie and Coco. Came home with catnip on my collar, but Pookie pretended not to notice. He’s long since decided that, in Ann Landers’ famous words, he’s better off with me than without me. He knows there are Other Cats, but as long as he doesn’t have to hear the gory details—the scratching of the tummy, the cooed endearments—he can deal.

Besides, I brought him home an armload of tissue paper, which now covers my upstairs hallway. It’s like swishing through a pile of autumn leaves every time I walk through. He hides his “cat dancer” with the furry mouse under the paper and then pounces on it and wrestles it into submission. He’s completely bored by the mouse when it’s in plain sight. Substandard intelligence is bliss, eh, Pookie?

Eh, Pookie?

dont bother me im napping

My friends and I didn’t help out the Xmas economy very much. We loosely followed the “white elephant exchange” model by bringing anonymously wrapped $5 presents and taking turns either choosing a wrapped gift or “stealing” one that someone had already opened. It’s a fairly new tradition that is acquiring more rules and more controversy every year. Do you get to choose a gift you brought yourself? Does the one couple in the group get to use a tag-team approach to claim their own gifts? (“I can steal this; she bought it.”) Can an unwrapped gift be stolen more than once? Forget how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, these are tough questions.

You think you can’t buy anything for $5? I came away with a bottle of organic olive oil, a wooden spoon set, one of those chocolate-orange balls that you whack to separate the wedges—it sent signals to me from the kitchen cupboard {{EAT ME}} until I had to give in—a vanilla-scented candle, some cool cocktail stirrers, a “nitelite” (the English language is going to hell in a handbasket), and the pièce de resistance, a lipstick holder, which I promptly took home and transformed into a coffin for a tiny skeleton. I am nothing if not

weird

I thought you were napping.

zzzzzzzzzz….

***

What a difference therapy, psychiatric drugs, painting, dream work, and human relationships make. I’m feeling 100% better than I did the last time I wrote. The impotent rage is gone, or at least it’s retreated back into its cave in my inner Afghanistan. I don’t know if it was the “inner work” or the extra Zoloft, but it’s a blessing to be in this lighter state. I suppose the rage will always be a part of me, but it doesn’t have to be front and center all the time. “You can be angry at some of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t be angry at all of the people all of the time.”

In December I was blessed to take part in a 7-day painting intensive at the CCE (www.ccesf.org). Even though the studio is in San Francisco and I go home every night, painting for so many days in a row feels like total immersion. It’s a very powerful thing to spend several hours a day in such intimate contact with yourself—especially in the company of other people who are doing the same. Far from being alienating, being with yourself without distraction creates bonds with other people that go very deep. By the end of 7 days, the thrumming in my chest that means I’m in contact with a Source that shall remain Unnamed extends to everyone in the group and beyond. The intuitive painting process strips away the masks we wear with others and even with ourselves. It’s a sometimes painful but also exquisitely beautiful and reassuring process—and what it comes down to is the knowledge (in the midst of so much unknowing) that we are all born of that Unnamed Source. (“Sources high in the Deity said today….”)

Painting in this way leads inevitably to a change in perception. When I go out into the world between painting sessions, I connect more, I feel more, I take in more. I see beauty in unlikely places—like the complicated network of chimneys and vents on the tops of buildings. Everything that happens is fascinating. I share a laugh and a few words with a man at the deli counter in Andronico’s. It feels intimate, in a nonthreatening way; I’m more open to friendly vibes in this state. At the other end of the spectrum, a young guy tries to claim the parking space I’m waiting for. He lifts his middle finger in the rearview mirror just as I’m wondering if I dare to lift mine. He roars off in a burst of testosterone and fossil fuel, and I feel alternately relieved (to have won the parking space) and hurt (by his digital insult, which pierces my crumbling armor). But I see the mirroring that has just taken place: my “thought” finger anticipating his “real” finger; my parking greed played out in his manly aggression. We are the same force in different forms.

It’s like being in a lucid dream where you know everyone is a version of you and everything that happens has great significance. You see the interrelatedness of things. Three times during the week, twice at the exact same intersection near the studio, I heard a song on the radio with the lyric “Right here, right now; there is no other place I want to be.” And my chest started thrumming. In other words, you get to see how you create the world around you by what you notice, what you take in. Of course, the world also exists independently (doesn’t it?), but the perception with which you view it is crucial.

As with the angry parking rival, this hypersensitivity can be disconcerting. On day 4, I’m driving to the studio, and I hear on the radio that Vinnie of the morning show on Alice 96.3 radio is at the Any Mountain store in Corte Madera taking contributions for Toys for Tots—an annual event at which Marines collect money to buy Christmas toys for needy children in the area. The reports on the radio are all about how thrilling and lively the scene is, with listeners driving up to hand over checks or cash or toys to the rousing thank-yous of the radio people and the Marines. I get caught up in the spirit of the thing, and it seems like serendipity that I’m right near the Corte Madera exit. So I impulsively turn off and drive to the little shopping center where Vinnie and the Marines are waiting to cheer my Christmas spirit.

I expect a long line of cars, with helpers running out to the drivers’ windows to collect the contributions in high excitement. On the radio they say they’re handing out free t-shirts plus coffee and pastries. A party atmosphere, no doubt. But when I locate the Alice truck, mine is the only car there. Out on the sidewalk, shivering in the morning cold, are a few Marines standing around a table. I stop in front of them, but no one makes a move. I get out of my car, cash in hand. A guy holding a stack of t-shirts is standing right by the curb but doesn’t say anything. I mutter under my breath, “Who do I give it to?”

I approach the table feeling like I’m walking out onto a stage in front of hundreds of people. The Marines have become a blur of uniforms, but I recognize Vinnie. He’s not looking at me, which seems odd since I’m the only “civilian” around. Unlike my other experiences of heightened perception during the week, my gaze now is completely turned inward. I don’t look at the table at all; there might be a donut (doughnut) there with my name on it, but all I can think about is getting off that stage.

I walk up and hand Vinnie my $40, saying softly, “Hey.” Apparently, many other female listeners have been showing Vinnie their breasts or pinching his butt or at least screaming a little bit. But I feel like I’ve just walked into a time warp. I realize with a jolt that I don’t exactly fit the demographics of this station. I’ve never really thought about the fact that the DJs and most of the listeners are 20-somethings, or 30-somethings at the most. I have reached the age of something-something, and no matter how young at heart I may feel (no moldie-oldie station like KFOG for me), my image and persona in the world are quite different. The curse of being “old” in this society is that no one can see you for who you really are, or at least who you think you are (ouch). But that’s a diatribe for another time. Vinnie gives me a warm smile and says “Thank you,” but I can’t shake the feeling that he and the Marines are going to talk smack about me after I leave. “How did she hear about the toy drive? From her grandchildren?”

I accept the free t-shirt, which is from AAA and sports the message, “Santa Claus is coming to town—don’t hit him.” And then I get back in my car, shaken by the disconnect between my inner world and the world out there—although I’ve since realized that I was only doing my usual projecting. What do I really know about what any of the other players on that stage were thinking? I’ve come to value projection highly; it teaches you a lot about yourself if you can catch it in time. And a painting intensive is the perfect time to do that.

My fellow painters are also having some interesting perceptions this week. Diane L. tells how she arrived home the night before, and her boyfriend, a man of entrenched routine, wasn’t there. So she was sure he was dead, but she still walked down to Walgreen’s to get him some beer, because she was holding both things in her mind, that he was dead and not dead. But considering Schrödinger’s classic thought experiment in which the cat in the box is both dead and not dead until the experimenter opens the box, she was completely in tune with subatomic principles. In fact, I think that’s where both the “contact” and the “disconnect” come from when you paint. Painting puts you in touch with the world beneath the usual senses, so you perceive both the inherent beauty of things and the gap between your everyday idea of “objective reality” and the many possible interpretations that arise when you’re in a flowing state of perception.

do you really think anybody is still reading this psychobabble

I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed cat.

oh youre funny

Do you like living indoors?

zzzzzzzzzzz….

***

On day 1, Barbara had stated that she was “not in charge,” that it was up to all of us to create the experience of the 7 days together. I remembered this on day 5, when I drove to Irving St. to get a burrito and saw some graffiti on a wall—in those curly, hard-to-read letters—that I thought said “Change is in Charge.” I was so impressed with this example of synchronicity. Yes! How true! Barbara’s not in charge, change is! When I got back to my car and drove past the graffiti again, I saw that it said “Charles is in Charge.” So much for synchronicity.

Barbara had also reminded us that we never really know what’s going to happen, even though we constantly act as if we do. That night as I drive home, I think about that. I see her theoretical point, of course, but I believe that I do know what’s going to happen this evening. I’m going to eat some oatmeal and ice cream and curl up in bed in front of NYPD Blue. After painting all day I don’t cook, I don’t work, I don’t read. When Pookie comes around to “say his prayers”—Give us this day our daily tuna-flavored laxative—I pet him, but I feel too wiped out to engage. Luckily, Pookie makes very few demands. Either he’s extremely content, or he’s planning my assassination, it’s hard to tell with him

heh heh

Anyway, contrary to expectation, I arrive home to find a message on my answering machine. It’s my sister Barb, and she’s crying so hard I can hardly understand her. I freeze. Someone must have died, probably her husband Skip, who’s in very poor health. I strain to hear what she’s saying. Yes, Skip has had a heart attack, but he’s still alive. They don’t know how bad it is yet. She hangs up, and I curse the creator of this unpredictable world. Whose bright idea was this concept of constant change? I’m sorry, Charles, but Change really is in Charge.

I spend the evening in a terror of what may lie ahead. If he dies, I’ll have to go back to Michigan for the funeral. It’s the dead of winter, and I don’t have the clothes for it. I haven’t seen snow in 30 years, but I remember it in every excruciating detail. Worse, I’ll have to reenter a family drama that I have been avoiding for the past 10 years. I don’t feel comfortable telling the whole story here, but basically I became estranged from Skip at a time when I was overwhelmed with grief at my mother’s impending death. At the most vulnerable time in my entire life—as he was driving me to my mother’s deathbed, my first visit to her in 2 or 3 years—Skip confided a deep secret to me and then spent the next 2 weeks cornering me to talk about it at every opportunity, with a stunning lack of clue about what I was going through. This was before I started therapy with J, before I had any idea of how to deal with other people’s intrusiveness. At the best of times, my boundaries were easily shattered, and at that point they were like a flimsy fence that had been completely trampled by my inner cattle stampeding out and other people’s inner cattle surging in.

My mother died soon after, but Skip wasn’t about to give up his new confidante. Months later, when I finally reached a breaking point—he was calling long-distance twice a week and expecting me to talk for hours at a time—I tried to explain to him that I “needed some space.” Then he’d call and say, “I’m going to take some of your space now.” After I wrote him what I thought was a tactful letter explaining my feelings, he got angry and withdrew—shades of my mother. So of course I withdrew, too—mother lives on in me. We have both refused to acknowledge each other’s existence ever since.

So that’s the background. I tried to call Barb the morning after I got her message, but she was at the hospital, so I called my other sister, K. We have little in common—she’s a factory worker, married, with children and grandchildren, and never left the area where we grew up. She’s 6 years younger than me, and we rarely talk or even write. But we have a bond that I always forget about until something happens to throw us together again.

Since 9/11, every time I heard that “we are all cherishing our families now more than ever,” I wondered why I had no such impulses. But as K and I talked, I felt that bond keenly. We talked about work, we compared middle-age maladies (hair falling out, for starters), and when her husband came home for lunch and found her talking on the phone while lying on the bed naked, holding her toothbrush, we laughed like sisters, like women who passeth the understanding of men.

***

The next morning, day 6, I’m grateful to have 2 full days left in which to confront my feelings about Skip in the painting process. I had never even painted my sisters before, except once or twice as little children, because they weren’t part of the primeval family drama of me, my brother who died, and my parents. (That my sisters had their own primeval family dramas going on never really occurred to me.) But on this day, I paint my sisters and their husbands, their children, and myself. I paint Death standing behind Skip, ready to claim him. Skip’s heart is being struck by lightning, and Barb’s heart is connected to his with strong ties. I paint little energy lines that eventually go from each person to every other person in the painting, and I feel the power of that energy that courses through all of us, beneath our conscious awareness.

As the hours pass and I get deeper into the altered state that is the hallmark of the painting process, I realize that some words are going through my mind, over and over. It’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d;

It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The feeling that is coming with these words is so strong that I can hardly contain it. I have been painting drops of white coming down on all the figures in the painting, and I have added paper on top to paint God’s heart. Suddenly everything falls into place, and I know that the drops are mercy coming from God’s heart, and that it falls on all of us, regardless of our thoughtlessness or our boundary-overstepping. The realization is beautiful as only truth can be. I’m not sure why “mercy” is exactly the right word. “Forgiveness,” “compassion,” and even “love” are not quite right. I realize that I’ve been withholding mercy from Skip for 10 years, and that by withholding mercy from others, I withhold it also from myself.

In the afternoon sharing, I talk about the mercy painting and about the words and understanding that came to me. Later, Bonnie says one of the most astonishing things I’ve heard in a long time. First, she says that I’m “honest.” It’s always embarrassing to hear that, because I feel like such a fraud. Moi, honest? But that’s not what is astonishing. Bonnie also says that, the way it looks to her, my “honesty” shows that I love myself.

Are you reeling with me, dear reader? LOVE myself? How can that be? I am the Queen of the Bad Self-Image! But Bonnie’s words have stayed with me and have, in fact, created or encouraged a wave of self-love in their wake—the very best example of self-fulfilling prophecy. When I saw Jeremy recently, he also found self-acceptance in my dreams—including the I-have-a-giant-penis dream I described in the last issue. In a “dream joke” about how men equate the size of their penis with their self-worth, I discover, via this massive organ, that my self-worth is far in excess of what I had thought. Maybe it’s just the Zoloft, but I feel as if I’m being reborn—or, rather, reclaiming a knowledge from very early childhood that subsequent tragic events and my own fears and doubts have hidden from my conscious mind all these years.

***

One of the things I got to observe during the painting week was my jealousy. Kate and Jan and Kerry had come from out of town for the intensive and were staying with Barbara. In my imagination (and probably also in reality, let’s face it) they were all having a rollicking good time back at B’s house every evening, and old feelings of being “out of the loop” came rushing back to me. On the last day of the intensive, I tried one of my patented, transparent methods of getting reassurance when I “joked” to B that I was afraid she no longer loved me. I’ll never forget what she said. “That’s just human love, when you love one more than another.” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but I saw the truth of it. (B doesn’t even remember saying this, so let the mary’zine be the publication of record for what really happens at these painting events.)

Got love? That human craving never really goes away. But thanks to a beautiful poem of Jan’s that she read to us on day 7, I realized that I do have a choice about which world I want to live in—the one where I am engaged in an endless, irresolvable cycle of conflict over a succession of pointless worries and judgments, or the one where I am free to accept myself and others as the Unnamed Source made us. As Jan’s poem (“The Lover”) asks, “…what kind of lover do you want?… [One] will always guard you against invasion, protect you from strange enemies and the unknown, a valiant soldier and bodyguard never leaving your side.” But “There is another lover…/The true you is the one he adores/He will leave you unprotected, sure in the trust of truth/He will delight in you wandering the unknown/This lover wants you to be yourself….”

I feel closer to choosing that second “lover” than I’ve ever been. Or maybe I’m just realizing that I’ve already made my choice.

***

On the last night of the intensive, after going out for a Kahlua drink and a fish sandwich at an Irish bar in the Mission with Diane L. and Diane D. (geez, I never mentioned how much fun I had with them this week), I dream that Barbara has file folders with lots of my old stuff in them, including several old pairs of glasses. It does seem as if the painting process—with the help of Barbara and my fellow painters—has taken away some of my old ways of seeing.

***

The next day, at home, like the proverbial morning after, I feel hung over. I wander from room to room in a daze, trying to remember what I normally do with my life. Taking some time to get back into my routine, I dawdle over the newspaper. The events that have taken place in the world in the past week are unreal. The story about John Walker, captured while fighting with the Taliban—the world cannot be that strange. They’re going after a fanatical foreigner and they come up with a kid from Fairfax?

Wandering around the house some more, I investigate the fridge. There is little there besides half-empty soda bottles (oh, OK, half full). Part of an old burrito. Green beans from another life. Clearly, I need to buy groceries. I’ve been pigging out, I mean eating out, no I mean pigging out, all week, so now would be a good time to start eating sensibly, ah-hahahahaha.

The house is a mess. The carpet is crunchy with cat litter bits that lodge between Pookie’s fat toes and drop like bread crumbs wherever he goes. And during the painting week, I have not had “time” (i.e., inclination) to clean up the stains from his latest barf episode, so there are tissues covering all the spots. I’ll never be one of those old ladies who keep dozens of cats, because I can’t even keep up with one.

But I have to put off my housekeeping duties for a while longer, because I promised Daniel, a doctor in Zurich, that I would edit his paper on perioperative transesophageal echocardiography this weekend. I find it pleasurable in a somewhat masochistic way—rather like driving while stoned—to try to comprehend the words of this German speaker as he explains the intricate workings of medical machinery and the human heart. But today scientific and even regular English words are escaping me. I have to use a thesaurus to find the word he means when he writes “stand against.” Hinder, block, impede, foil, parry, defeat, frustrate, thwart. Nothing works. I finally find “prevent,” and I realize that I’m the victim of dueling brain hemispheres. My right brain has been king of the hill all week and wants to retain its dominance. But my left brain is the half that brings home the proverbial bacon and must reassert its control. My solution is to alternate serious medical editing with rambling stream-of-consciousness riffs into my microcassette tape recorder, playing Pong with my fluid consciousness, or, I should say, being Pong as played by the Unnamed Source.

***

Skip is doing OK. A few days after he got home from the hospital, he left a message on my answering machine, thanking me for my concern about his health. With that reconciliatory gesture, and the softening toward him that I’d been feeling since painting him, a tremendous burden was lifted from me. My horoscope in the Sunday paper that week read as follows:

If you’ve neglected someone close, now’s the time to heal the split, Recognize that resentment may be justified on both sides, but you can afford to be generous. After all, you’re supposed to be the spiritual, enlightened one. Be honest with yourself. How much are you capable of giving? Then go for it—no more, no less!

***

Well, Pookie is still napping—quelle surprise—so I’m going to tiptoe out of here now. I want to be sure I get the last words in—it’s called the MARY’zine for a reason. Happy new year to all, and to all a good night.

dont let the bedbugs bite

heh heh

[Mary McKenney]


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