Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’

mary’zine #62: June 2013

June 8, 2013


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.


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;
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
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 

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


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, 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

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 “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 #42: January 2010

January 21, 2010

The decade began with Y2K and ended with WTF. —Andy Borowitz

Where has the time gone? I started writing this ‘zine 10 years ago, as the world held its breath in anticipation of the great computer disaster of all time. On December 31 I was partying like it was 1999 (cuz it was) when a client in Austria e-mailed me to say that his midnight had come and gone with no apparent problems. The first crisis of the new century averted (the only one, seems like).

I have mixed feelings about being old(ish). I’m glad I’m not just starting out in life, facing the dearth of jobs and the imminent loss of the polar ice caps (5 years, according to Al Gore). But I would be very curious to see what Earth and the human race will look like in 50 or 100 years. In the New York Times Magazine’s “The 9th Annual Year in Ideas,” I read about “building a forest of artificial carbon-filtering ‘trees’…” and creating “leafy-looking solar panels that could one day replace ivy on buildings.” These “treelike devices… resemble giant fly swatters.” The illustration that accompanies the article looks like a landscape from a video game, and it occurred to me that nature itself might be the ultimate endangered species. If life as we have known it—we lucky old-timers from the first 200,000 years on the planet—is found to be unsustainable, then our future environment could consist exclusively of manmade landforms. When all the wild places are gone, the wild animals will follow. Humans will be so conditioned to living and communicating by means of breathtaking, unimaginable-to-us technologies that what used to be known as “the outside world” or even “the human body” will become quaint memories, like the time before mass transportation. For years we’ve taken for granted eyeglasses and dentures and artificial hearts, but the possibilities of replicating Life in ever more efficient ways must literally be endless.

Most visions of the future are dystopian, all doom(sday) and gloom: Humanity will be reduced to its most crass, selfish tendencies (i.e., the Republicans will win in the end). Computers will inevitably enslave us, like Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But I like to think that the good in people outweighs the bad—and that our future counterparts will still be “painting for process” in 100 years, or, if it has become a lost art, that the paintings and writings we generate now will be found, or intuited, or recreated, simply because the expression of deep feeling in form and color will always be part of the human experience. Recently, the oldest known art rendering of a penis was discovered. And are we still portraying that overdetermined, ambiguous organ in our art works today? You betcha!

snow banks too big to fail

Here comes the [snow] again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new emotion

Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that I was regaling you with stories of shoveling, tipping, sliding, and slipping in the great white world of winter? Well, it’s baaaack….

When I returned from the 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco, the world was white, with black tree branches standing out in stark relief against a grayer shade of pale, the sky. My sage green house provided a soothing spot of color.

The birch tree in my back yard, which has three trunks, was bent over three ways, almost to the ground, by the weight of the snow and ice. I had to go out and clear a spot on the ground to sprinkle seeds, nuts, and berries for the birds and other critters. I haven’t been able to plug in the bird bath heater because the outlets on my porch are frozen.

My unemployed nephew had plowed my driveway and front walk (and half the lawn) to a fare-thee-well with his new ATV, so Jim Anderson Knows Best has lost himself a job.


Home never felt so good. The cats gave me a somewhat bemused reception, alternating happy romping with sudden disappearing and then coming closer and sniffing. Finally, Luther curled up in my arms in my big red chair, squirming and kneading and purring and waving his lobster claws at my face and neck, as I downed 2 Aleve and settled in for a long winter’s nap. Brutus was a little more standoffish but finally settled on the ottoman, and the three of us basked in our togetherness-at-last. When I woke up in the dark, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Pulled out my trusty cell phone. Ah, it was 5 a.m., so I happily padded downstairs to make coffee.

Now, you’d think that I would have experienced some degree of culture shock when I returned home to the land of trees and snow and unsophisticated kin, but that didn’t happen. In my heart I held both the urban/creative joys I had experienced in S.F. and the down-home ones I returned to in the U.P. I was glad to hear Barb’s voice when I called to let her know I was on my way home from the airport. MP had had knee surgery while I was away, and a complication had sent him back into the hospital (which they have the temerity to call “Bay Area Medical Center”). When we all congregated in his hospital room for a  visit, it felt completely right to be in the company of my sisters and brother-in-law. In fact, I had them all in stitches (though MP already was, haha) describing various aspects of my trip, including feeling embarrassed to have gotten so fat compared to my friends. I said I felt like the Homer Simpson balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and I mimed not being able to buckle my seat belt on the plane—I was going to hold on to the two seatbelt ends like controls on a jetpak and take my chances, but the flight attendant made me attach an extender that would have been sufficient to connect the pilot with the passenger in the last row.

During MP’s hospital incarceration, they had forgotten about their own wedding anniversary, and K said they weren’t going to do anything for Christmas, it’s “just another day.” But since Christmas was on a Friday, when we usually get together anyway, I mentioned that I could contribute some precooked frozen cheeseburgers, and K said well, in that case, she could make potato salad, and when Barb stopped to think about what she could bring, I made the case for deviled eggs.

As it happened, I got sick as a dog on Christmas Eve and so missed out on all the festivities and, most important, the deviled eggs. I was starting to feel better on the 27th, when Barb had her whole grandkid gang over for chaos and the opening of presents, but by then my back was in spasm and I could barely hobble around the house with a cane.

this little piggy went to S.F.

I was dreading the travel part of the trip, as always, and there was plenty to justify my fears. Green Bay to Chicago was quick and uneventful, but then I waited in O’Hare for 9 hours before they got their hands on a plane that worked. The first one was delayed for some reason—the day was bright and clear, so they couldn’t blame the weather—and someone later said that they had taken “our” plane to haul some other people to their destination, but who knows. It’s not like you get a full accounting later. You just keep moving forward, or trying to. After an hour or so, a plane appeared, and we all filed onboard. We sat there on the ground for I don’t know how long, but I didn’t mind that so much because (a) the seat was more comfortable than the ones in the terminal, (b) I could direct the overhead air vent at my face, and (c) I learned that you can indeed use the toilet when the plane isn’t in the air…. I had always wondered about that.

After time had been rendered completely meaningless, the pilot came on the blower and said the plane had no food or beverages on board. Oh no! And I was so looking forward to that 6-course meal! More time… drifting, drifting… and then he came back on and said that the cargo door was “bent.” So we all had to get off the plane and go back to sitting in the hard plastic seats. There followed many hollow announcements of apology and thanks for our patience. I don’t know that patience is the right word for it. They should say, “Thank you for not advancing on your captain and crew with pitchforks and flaming torches.”

I had a weak moment when I wished with all my heart that I could just get on a northbound plane, get in my Jeep and go home. I called Barbara and told her that the delay was surely a sign that I shouldn’t come out there this time. She talked me down, but I knew I wasn’t serious anyway. I’m pretty good at resigning myself to fate when I have to. While we were on the phone, a teenage boy with a bright blue Mohawk walked by, so I said to B, loud enough so he could hear me, “There’s a beautiful young man with a blue Mohawk here.” He turned and gave me a goofy grin, which kind of made my day. I loved that just about everyone waiting for the flight to S.F. looked like they belonged there. Like the San Francisco diaspora returning to the homeland.

All right, plane finally arrives, flap flap flap to S.F., and I get into the city at about midnight local time. The Walgreen’s near my hotel is closed, so I go looking for a store that’s open all night so I can get some supplies. I drive around and around, but they’ve rolled up the sidewalks like some hick town. I finally go all the way over to the Safeway on Market, where the dark parking lot is full of men sitting in cars, surely up to no good, and the store is dimly lit. It feels like one of those dystopian futures, though there is plenty of food and drink, and I don’t have to sell my body in exchange for the last 4-pack of Frappuccino. In fact, I brazenly move among the late-night denizens in my skull-and-harlequin t-shirt, feeling oddly safe and untouchable.


The painting week was strange but compelling, as always. I seem to understand less and less about this process the longer I paint. I don’t even know how I’m going to describe what went on. But here goes.

All week my conscious mind was lagging behind whatever was happening on the inside. At one point I told Barbara I wasn’t interested in what I was painting. We sat down together, and she asked “if there could be some feeling under there.” I had absolutely nothing to have “feelings” about, but my eyes immediately flooded with tears. It was bizarre. I used to have explanations for why I was crying. I went back to my painting, and suddenly I was hit by the thought that if my family were all to die, I would be alone in a way I’ve never been before. It felt so primal, something about my biological ties being cut. So I painted my 3 closest family members dead in their graves and cried like a motherless child. I couldn’t believe there had been no feeling on the surface and then POW, something completely unexpected popped up. It was the first of many times when I realized I had no idea what was going on.

Something is triggered in me when I leave my secure, cozy life in the U.P. to head for San Francisco for these intensives. Even though I take the same bloody airline, stay in the same hotel, and rent the same car, there is an essential quality of the Unknown in the experience. Of course, the Unknown exists in the U.P., too, but in my own home it’s easier to delude myself that I’m in charge. When I drive down to Green Bay, leave my Jeep to weather the elements, and enter the bizarro world of air travel, I am embarking on 10 days of adventure, which to me is just another word for lack of control.

There’s also the matter of sensory overload. To go from the bucolic quiet of a small town to the stimulation of the big city—plunging right into traffic on 280 in my rented Chevy Cobalt, joining the dense stream of cars down 19th Avenue—is exciting, even after 18 hours “on the road” and 4 Dramamine, but I’m looking ahead to 7 days of painting, which is as unpredictable as anything I’ve ever done—even a roller coaster has a defined route and a safe landing. And regardless of how well or badly the week goes, I then face the trip home, with its inherent insecurities. So I’m both thrilled and terrified and not entirely sure why I decided to do this at all.

As the days went on, I became increasingly overwhelmed by everything I was feeling. Being away from my familiar routine… having to sleep and eat according to a schedule not of my making… seeing more people in a day than I usually see in a month… it all just seemed like too much. But aside from the various stressors, I was enjoying being with friends I hadn’t seen in a year or more. Knowing the time would be over soon, I would gaze at Diane(s) or Barbara or Terry (etc.) and try to be here now (an imperative from the ‘60s). But there was no way to capture the experiences and hold on to them, except in dim, useless memory. Then there was the food—burritos from L’Avenida!… mu shu chicken at Alice’s Restaurant!… fettuccini carbonara at Bella!… quesadillas at Lakeside!… avocado BLTs at Chloe’s!… beef skewers and Caesar salad at Asqew!… pasta at Osteria!… more pasta at a bistro in Hayes Valley!… Stop me before I spend the next 5 pages talking about food!


At one point I was painting a building that started to look like a mosque, and I told Barbara I was painting a religion that “wants to kill everyone who doesn’t believe in it.” I became quite worked up over it. I took my notebook into the sharing room and scribbled down an emotional rant, which began: Open Letter to the Muslim Terrorist Brotherhood: FUCK YOU. (The Anglo-Saxon words are still the best.) But when I talked about it in the group later, I realized that my strong feelings weren’t really about the terrorists: Something else was going on. “Something else” was always going on! I could have ranted just as vehemently against American bankers: These days, their arrogance inflames me like nothing else.

Whenever I tried to hang my feelings on some external hook, I discovered I had no idea what was really happening. I bemoaned the fact that “I”—the “I” I think I know and want to keep abreast of any inner tectonic shifts or volcanic activity—wasn’t getting anything out of this. It’s putting the cart (you) before the horse to think that the important change ought to happen to the cart, that the cart is in charge and the horse be damned. But if you’re sitting in the cart and the horse is taking off for parts unknown, what are you supposed to do with that? All you know is the cart! You know, intellectually, that the horse is also “you,” but it’s a “you” that has a mind of its own and doesn’t necessarily stop to graze by a stream and let you catch up and rearrange the halter around its neck. In other words, you can take your horse to water, but you can’t make yourself drink in the reality of life on the tip of this iceberg—that “you” are only the visible tip sticking out of the water, and the horse is the rest of the iceberg, if icebergs could be equine animals. Forgive me for the mixed metaphors, but I think those metaphors need to be shaken up now and then. By the way, if you stare at the word “mix” long enough, you wonder how it ever ended up in the English language (15th century, from Latin mixtus).

Where was I? Oh yes. Painting, feeling, overwhelm. Mid week, Barbara had me paint on 8 taped-together sheets of paper, making each painting a little larger than 4 x 6 ft. I did four of those paintings over the last 3 days of the intensive, with little sense of its doing me any good, though Barbara kept saying I was having “huge movement” in my process.

intensive care

But in the midst of all the confusion and the mysterious highs and lows of my emotional thermostat, I felt loved and cared for all week. I received so many gifts, some physical but mostly emotional. The kindness of friends. When I discovered that Chloe’s café wasn’t serving Coke anymore (“No Coke! Pepsi!”), DD went across the street to a small market and bought me one. On the way back to the studio we visited a new gourmet chocolate shop (Saratoga) at 16th and Sanchez, and after I had already picked out 3 truffles, DD declared she was buying. Whenever she drove, she and DL had to help me get my seatbelt fastened. I felt like a big, bundled-up kid or a semicompetent adult on a day pass from the Home. One day we stopped to browse in a cookbook store (Omnivore) on Cesar Chavez nr. Church, and DL was inspired to buy a cookbook of lemon desserts. She went home that night and made some wonderful lemon biscotti for the whole group, and a few days later made another batch for me, T, and DD to take home.

Terry, of course, was endlessly helpful, generous, and a joy to be around. We had good times laughing our respective asses off in her hotel room, where we noshed, watched TV, and checked our e-mail on her laptop. On our way to and from the studio, she helped me avoid killing numerous pedestrians, who would saunter past my car at stop signs in the night, wearing their all-black clothes, and of course many bicyclists, who blithely streak through stop signs while exhorting motorists to follow the rules of the road. Whenever I seemed oblivious to a person in the middle of the street or a car pulling out in front of us, T would gasp and then apologize, but I told her it was better to warn me than to remain silent. I fear that she took years off her life, riding with me.

DD’s hilarious “Table for one!” when I got too rambunctious at lunch still makes me giggle.

One day at the Lakeside Café I was seated facing the windows, and I interrupted by own diatribe (topic lost in the mists of time) to note that a truck with “Wolves Heating” on the side was going by. D and D, both social workers, pointed out that I was “stimulus bound,” meaning that my attention is constantly being diverted by new sights, sounds, or thoughts. I think it’s one of my most endearing traits, actually, but then I doubt I’m fully aware of the difference between endearing and annoying when it comes to my own traits. But it was fun to imagine people huddling up to wolves to stay warm.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that “multitasking” is suddenly considered a bad thing. It’s as if one-track-mindedness got itself a publicist. In the past, we were assured that being able to juggle several tasks at the same time was a useful skill. Now all I hear is that multitasking makes you less efficient at everything you do. I’m suspicious about this. It seems that women are the ultimate multitaskers, to the point where we can be carrying on a conversation in one booth in a restaurant while eavesdropping on the people in the booth behind us. Men, on the other hand, are the ultimate one-track-minders. In the 1970s, women were said to be suited for only the lowest-paying jobs because we’re “good with details.” (Women were librarians; men were library directors.) Well, who decided that details are important when, say, cataloging books but not when writing computer code or launching missiles into space? I’m not saying it’s a conscious conspiracy that women’s natural gifts keep being downgraded, but there seems to be a male-engendered biological “law” that keeps a distance between men’s and women’s status in society at any cost. The latest appeal to tradition and male hegemony is the cry that “men are being turned into women,” like god forbid. As if women, those powerful shrews who have been pretending to be downtrodden all these years, have been pulling the strings all along! All those mothers of young sons, all those female elementary school teachers, with their emasculating rules and biases, are finally succeeding in their quest to turn men into weeping wimps! Where will it end? With women in the driver’s seat? Making decisions in society? Acting—what—all independent??? Well, I have known a few men who have made giant strides toward not being assholes, and they didn’t do it by becoming wimps and crybabies. Masculinity is not lost when a man respects women, when he doesn’t rely on some mythical “superiority” to justify throwing his weight around.


All week my body was in protest mode. My back and legs hurt whether I was walking, lying down, or getting in and out of cars. Just stepping up on a low stool to paint the highest parts of the big paintings was painful enough to elicit a tiny, ladylike grunt. When I made the mistake of sitting on the stool to paint on the lowest parts, it took forever to haul myself off it without sprawling on the floor. I blamed the long flight and the hotel bed, but I suspect I’m just entering that lovely time of life when everything hurts, always. I’m reminded of those experiments they do with high school kids where they bundle them up and simulate blindness and deafness so they’ll feel compassion for the oldsters, but I fear this is no experiment, this is real life.

And emotionally, I was torn between the desire to have more time with my friends and wanting desperately to be home. I seem to equally crave the security of habit and the excitement of the new. In a way, it’s been the pattern of my life, but I’m feeling it more acutely now. Considering how much I complain about painting and about the anxiety-provoking air transport to get me to S.F. and back—and the money, of course—it’s amazing that I continue to do it. It’s not all good food and good times. But it’s the only place I feel that strange, compelling mixtus of mystery and challenge and love that gladdens my heart even as it puts a strain on my body. Even though I can’t mindfully retain the experience, there is a lasting impact down deep that even United Airlines can’t destroy. Following close on the heels of my great relief at being home again with my kitties, I started fantasizing about going back for the May intensive. I’m crazy, yes. But you knew that.

Being newly sensitive to how I shouldn’t “comment” on other people’s experience shared in the group, I regret that I cannot relay some of the more hilarious and touching moments that took place during the week. Can I just name some people, and they’ll know of what I speak? Alyssa, Amanda, Martha, Sima…. OK, this won’t do. There’s no way to convey the richness of it all, and the more specific I am, the more I’m aware of leaving people out who were just as essential to my experience.

On Thursday night, I had an out-of-painting experience when I met my friends Peggy and Cally (who were stopping over on their way to London, lah-de-dah), Jean, godchild Kelly, and Kelly’s new husband Duncan for dinner. It was a short but sweet evening, and I was relieved to find that I liked Duncan, whom I had never met. I don’t think I embarrassed myself by getting all painting-weird, but my friends are used to me after 20-30 years, and Duncan has read the ‘zine so you couldn’t say he wasn’t warned.

On the last day, the painting was easy, our foursome had our final lunch together, and we had our final group sharing, which generally consists of multiple expressions of gratitude to Barbara, the rest of the group, and “It”—the creative process itself, the “indefinite antecedent” that no one can truly define. It’s a two-edged sword, this final sharing, because sometimes you finish the week feeling happy, fulfilled, and in love with everyone, and sometimes you’re left feeling out of sorts and impatient with the long slow process of listening to everyone else talk about how happy they are.

As it happened, I was feeling uncomfortable, somewhat estranged from the group, thinking about having to get up at 2 a.m. to start my long slog home—in other words, already gone. As the feeling built, it became more and more physical. I started to feel nauseated, so I got up and went to the bathroom, locked the door, and started crying hard. Again, I had no idea why I was crying. It wasn’t as simple as (a) I want to leave or (b) I don’t want to leave, but it was probably a combination of the two that tried mighty hard to defy natural law and occupy the same space at the same time. I won’t go into the Archimedes Principle of Displacement, aren’t you glad? (I like how I blithely cite scientific principles without having the slightest idea what I’m talking about.)

When I finally came out of the bathroom, the group was disbanding. The time after the final sharing is always chaotic, with people gathering up their belongings and their paintings, cleaning their palettes and brushes, and saying good-bye to everyone. I blubbered my way through all that, and when I finally came face to face with Barbara, she took one look at me and said, “Finally! I knew it had to happen sometime.” Of course, she couldn’t tell me what had to happen, what it meant, or what I was supposed to do now, but at least the locks had been opened and the boats were rising (your basic dam metaphor).

this little piggy went oui oui oui all the way home

All week, the weather reports from back East had been horrendous. One report said Wisconsin had taken all snow plows off the roads because the snow just blew back after they plowed it. I had no trouble conjuring every possible horrible outcome.

I got up at 2 a.m. in order to get dressed, eat a hard-boiled egg I had saved from the day before’s continental breakfast, return the rental car, and get past security to the gate for a 6 a.m. departure. I highly recommend this schedule. The 2 a.m. part is hard, but the airport is nearly empty in those wee hours. However, I had been used to airport staff being everywhere, herding me and others into the proper lines and following the proper procedures.

Sidebar: I just had a brilliant idea. They should hire Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who made slaughterhouses more humane by seeing the process from the point of view of the animals, thus reducing their anxiety. Since we feel like cattle in airports anyway, why not streamline our process?

When I had successfully navigated 101 to the rental car center—having managed not to be fooled by the tricky San Bruno/San Bruno Ave. split—there was not a soul in sight. I followed a sign pointing “through the glass doors and to the left,” but when I got there, no one was there either. So I followed another sign that directed me to go up one floor, which I did, and then I had to go back almost as far in the opposite direction to reach the main car rental area, where the Avis counter was empty as Jesus’ tomb…. (did you know you can find a recipe online for Empty Tomb Cookies?….). I was already sweating profusely, my legs hurt, and my big toe was about to turn gangrene from walking in new shoes all week. I decided to hobble down toward Budget where a few people were hanging around. When I got to the very end of the Avis counter, there sat a quiet little employee whom I hadn’t seen because he was blocked by a big sign saying I don’t know what, but I don’t think they “try harder” anymore, and when he greeted me—did he not hear me galumphing along with my rolling suitcase and dropping my painting tube and cane?—I said, “You don’t make it easy.” I didn’t bother to explain, but then again, he didn’t ask.

I had had an epiphany the day before that I was only responsible for getting myself through each step of the process, I could do nothing about the airplane or the weather, so that cut my worry by 2/3, at least in theory. I next took the air train back to the terminal and hobbled downstairs to the United check-in counter, where there was a line of passengers but no employees in sight. Slowly, slowly, the workers started trickling in, and I managed to get a luggage tag and a boarding pass. On to “security,” which is the Unknown with X-rays. (Remember when “security” meant feeling safe?) I put my shoes, jacket, bag, painting tube, cell phone, and cane on the conveyor belt (I wished they had a conveyor belt for me), successfully passed through the metal detector, and was specially chosen for an extra pat down! I spread my arms out for the TSA lass, who said something I didn’t hear except for the word “up.” So I looked up, and she half-giggled and said “PALMS up!” I am such a dork. But at that hour of the day you can get by with a lot by stating the obvious—“It’s so early!”—as if, “You should see me mid afternoon, I’m quite the Einstein!” The pat down revealed nothing more extraordinary than my sweaty armpits and flabby love handles, so I was allowed to proceed. I made it home by 4:00 that afternoon. Sweet, sweet homecoming.


A few days ago, we had a rousing good time at my family’s Friday night get-together. Yeah, I was surprised, too. It started when my nephew and I got into a ridiculous argument about prison overcrowding. My solution was to stop incarcerating people for simple drug possession, and his was to shoot everyone on sight who wasn’t “useful to society.” I don’t know why I kept trying to reason with him (“Someone could decide that you’re not ‘useful to society’”), because he kept coming back to his favorite point, which was that drug users will eventually/inevitably “kill a family of 4” either by breaking into their house in their desperation to get money for drugs or by plowing into them on the highway while under the influence. Voices were raised, gunshots were simulated—POW! POW!—and I finally just got silly and agreed—“Kill ‘em!”—whenever he raised his hypotheticals. I did assure him I’d come to visit him in prison, though. At one point K ostentatiously tried to redirect our attention to something on the TV, and of course that got my usual dander up, and I said, “At least we’re having a ‘discussion’ for a change, it’s better than just sitting here!” She said she didn’t want “the tears to come” (mine, presumably). And from there, we left off the drug&killing talk and went on to enjoy a rollicking evening of outbursts, blowhardy opinions, off-color commentary, and humorous asides—and I occasionally let the others get a word in, too. MP was feeling a lot better since his knee surgery, so he joined in on the hilarity instead of falling asleep in his recliner. He told us a few things about his time in “Nam,” but it wasn’t heavy (he’s my brother-in-law), it was mostly about how his knee got fucked up. K finally joined in, too, and so did my nephew’s girlfriend. I want to be more specific, but it’s mostly a blur—I only know there were more dick jokes than mindful, meaningful communication, and MP claimed to be “scared” by my paintings, and K brought out a long cardboard tube she had gotten from work, and visual humor ensued from that. MP and Joshua talked about all the “assholes” in town who put a plow on the front of their too-small “light trucks,” complete with hand gestures showing what happens to the truck and its ball bearings. There were riffs about heating bills, temperamental energy-saving bulbs, physical therapy, really really fat people, the right way to cook “brats,” health insurance, the sports teams of our youth, and a two-lane bowling alley behind a bar on 13th St. that I had never heard of. Barb cracked herself up with a long joke about the Minnesota Vikings and shared a teaching moment involving oil reserves and a pile of Starburst candies. The important thing is that we talked. It was stimulating and fun, and I daresay a good time was had by all.

The evening also gave me further insight into our respective roles in the family. Barb is a monologist (every room is a classroom to her); K is a hall monitor/peacekeeper; I’m a performer; and the guys do and say whatever they want. Barb and I clash when either of us hogs the floor; K is happy as long as no one disagrees about anything; and the guys do and say whatever they want. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #9 December 2000

July 20, 2009

I read the following letter in Miss Manners’ column the other day and was quite shaken by it.


Dear Miss Manners: Recently I’ve received letters without any personal touch. These writers discuss activities, life and the future, but never mention personal views relating to the recipient and never answer questions nor issues raised in past letters to them. It is not a one-time thing. One young writer has sent five such communiques—four pages each, informative, insightful, incisive, but with zero “sharing” and/or a sense of one-on-one communication. This may help high-track movers fulfill their social responsibilities to communicate with others, but to the recipients it becomes another sample of Christmas-letter indifference and laziness.

This letter is real. However, I have fabricated the response I wish Miss Manners (who instead agreed with this misguided soul) had made.

Gentle Reader: Get over yourself. Not everything is about you, you, you. These impersonal letters are called ‘zines. The high-track movers who write them work long and hard to make them informative, insightful, and incisive. Kwitcherbellyachin’. If you want “sharing,” get a dog.

But seriously, folks, thanks for renewing. My audience is small but very hardcore. Speaking of hardcore, I was going to surprise (shock) you with an X-rated issue this time, but then I realized it’s December, the time of little children and sugar plum fairies, the time of that other X—the one who put the X in Xmas—and I decided to postpone the profane revelations for now. Consider this a naughty tease.

Of course, an X rating would have been one way to distinguish the mary’zine from those other mimeographed (aesthetically speaking) “Christmas letters of indifference and laziness”—but this way you’ll have something to look forward to—out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.

Xmas-wise, I mostly turn a blind eye to the goings-on and just wait for it to be over. I fully support the Buy Nothing movement and would like to extend it to Do Nothing. I get so tired of all the hype about how well (or badly) the merchants expect to do this year—now with the added suspense about whether people will continue to buy via the Internet—with follow-ups after the 25th on how well they did do and what it all means to the continuation of Western civilization as we know it. But I have to admit, I’ve had some lovely Christmases, spiritual ones, mostly with people who weren’t Christians, come to think of it—where we were able to touch into what Deepak Chopra meant when he said, “We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences.” This is a place I often touch through painting, and maybe that’s what I miss when I look around and see so much hoopla about commerce and so little of the contemplation and reverence that should be the basis for a holy-day of a major religion.

But just on the level of navigating the highways and byways, I always breathe a sigh of relief on January 2. Back to real life, when I can go out and buy socks or toothpaste without fighting the frantic holiday crowds. Funny, when I had a job, I used to get really depressed in January—all those nice paid holidays were over. Now I don’t get paid for holidays (or sick days or vacations); I work 6 days a week. I bill by the hour, so I only get paid for the time I actually work (vs. the average 4 hours of work that most employees do in an 8-hour day); I have no guaranteed income—I have to accrue it $100 or $300 at a time and hope that the work will keep flowing my way; and—guess what—I’m not only happy as a clam but my favorite day is Monday and my least favorite day is Friday. How’s that for weird? I can’t really explain it. My world has been turned on its axis, and it seems to suit me just fine.

Being self-employed isn’t for everybody, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s for me. I don’t have nerves of steel. I’m not super well organized. Discipline is not my middle name. I love working at home, with no one looking over my shoulder, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the tide of household distractions from washing away the sand castle that is my daily accrual of Billable Hours. When you work at home, home becomes this enormous sinkhole of energy and demand. You wouldn’t think so if you saw my house, because it’s not like I spend much time cleaning it, but all my stuff is here, and it calls to me. The washing machine calls to me to put a load of clothes in while I’m fixing my morning snack of peanut butter and rice cakes. The cat box, the cat dish, the cat water bowl, the cat—all of them call to me to take just a minute or two away from that fascinating manuscript about the phylogeny and evolution of low-G+C gram-positive bacteria and scoop, feed, water, or pet. My bed calls very loudly from the next room, especially after lunch—Maaaaary, you are getting sleeeeeepy. I don’t dare open the mary’zine file until my workday is done, because I’ll get sucked in and won’t even notice the hours slipping by.

I do miss having coworkers to hang out with, but I try to take up the slack by e-mailing my colleague Ellie on the other side of the continent. Mostly, we talk about the project I’m currently working on for her, but there’s always room for a weather report (S.F. and D.C.—always opposite), a story about the family (her) or the cat (me), or a joke about George W. Bush.

And of course, Pookie is always a force—sometimes for good, sometimes for eleven smatterings of throw-up across two rooms, which I found when I went downstairs today. He mostly likes having me around, but sometimes I think he sees me as the retired husband who’s always underfoot. He’ll be resting quietly—lounging on a piece of cardboard, as if it’s the finest satin sheet—and I’ll go up to him, all cooing and petting. He’ll crack one eye open, and his look says it all: “Don’t you have work to do?” But sometimes he really seems to get a kick out of me. He likes it when I sing and dance for him when a good song comes on the radio. One day I was doing my serenade routine, singing along to a catchy new song with my arms spread wide, addressing him at high volume—which always makes him perk up, if only to look for an escape route—and I suddenly realized that the lyrics coming up were: “BE my… beeee myyyy… pussycat…pussycat…” and I collapsed in giggles. He gazed at me, pretending to be captivated by my performance, but I knew he was thinking, “Somebody’s bipoooooolar….”

People who work regular jobs have no idea how fast a day at home can fly by. I used to picture myself going out for breakfast, dawdling through the hours I saved by not commuting. Ha! I swear there must be a special subsection of the theory of relativity that covers the paradox of Home Time vs. Job Time. At my job, it was all about finding ways to relieve the boredom—talking to coworkers, running in the park, going for coffee, playing computer solitaire. I still watch the clock at home, but it’s for the opposite reason: Damn, I’ve only worked 1.5 hours this morning, and it’s already time to go for my haircut—or to the dentist—or shopping for dinner—or going to the ATM, post office, Fed Ex, library, bookstore, drug store, or a million other destinations. Suddenly I’m Errand Girl. When did I used to do errands? Did I even have errands? Now, errands are my life. When Home isn’t calling me, Stores are calling me. Life suddenly wants me to be everywhere but at my desk working, and all I want is to be at my desk working. It’s insane. The few days when I have food in the house and have no appointments or other reasons to go out, I’m in hog heaven, if hogs liked to work.

And at the end of the day, I’m like Silas Marner, counting up my gold coins. I guess I would feel more secure having a regular salary, but there’s something about having to earn it one drachma at a time that adds a little spice to the working life. When my job ended, I honestly thought I was going to end up a bag lady. Who would have thought I’d enjoy living on the edge?

ferry tale

If you do not compare yourself with another, you will be what you are.

So can you stand to hear another travel story? It’s pretty exciting, and I don’t want to overstimulate you.

I recently had a birthday. I had decided that this year on my birthday, I was going to take the ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco, no matter what. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 27 years, and I had never taken the ferry, except for a short jaunt on the Tiburon ferry to Angel Island many years ago. I have wanted to do this for a long time but kept putting it off, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to buy my ticket, where to board, where to get off, what to do after I got off, etc. Face it, I am a big chicken, sQUAWWK.

But my trip to Massachusetts (zine #8)—mundane as it may seem to a seasoned traveler—taught me that, first of all, one person’s comfort zone is another person’s scary unknown. Risk is relative. Some people, crazily enough, would find it scary to write a one-woman ‘zine and send it to all their friends. Ha-ha-ha! And some people, sad to say, find the thought of any form of travel that is not conducted from behind the wheel of one’s own car quite daunting. So let’s not judge.

One of my projects in middle life has been to learn the belated lesson that, when you try something new, mistakes are not only surmountable but inevitable. So when I planned this birthday ferry trip, I gave myself permission to make all the mistakes I needed to. I decided it would be a fact-finding mission, an initiation into the mysteries of watery public transportation. I wouldn’t have to do anything earth-shaking (which is the last thing you want to do in S.F. anyway) or glamorous upon arriving on the far shore—just getting there and back would be enough for this maiden voyage. If I managed to walk around for a bit and find a place to eat lunch, that would be the icing on the birthday cake.

It was a good thing I had given myself this permission, because my first mistake was to think I could blithely drive up to the ferry parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday and park. What was I thinking? The commuters fill the place up by 8:30. A uniformed man turned me away but said I could probably find a spot across the road at the Marin Airporter lot. Fortunately, I had parked there for the Massachusetts trip, so I knew what to do. It was a relief to hustle back on foot (threading my way through the acre of cars), find the ticket window, and still have a little time before they let us board. Just that little victory left me feeling flush with success.

On the ferry, I immediately headed for the outside deck. There was less chance of getting seasick out there, and the main point of the trip was to enjoy the view of the bay and the skyline, smell the sea air, and all that. Within minutes, I was joined by a youngish guy wearing shorts, polo shirt, and baseball cap and carrying a knapsack. He asked me if this was the only deck, and I said I didn’t know, I’d never ridden the ferry before.

“Oh, so you’re a tourist too?”

“No, I live here, but I’ve just never….” I trailed off, embarrassed.

To my surprise, we fell into a conversation. I asked where he was from—he had a Spanish accent—and he said “St. Louis.” So much for assumptions. Marty said he loved the Bay Area but that he wouldn’t want to live here because of the way Latinos are stereotyped. He told me he had been driving around lost in his friend’s car that morning, looking for Larkspur Landing (he had driven over to Marin from Oakland! And I had been nervous coming from a couple miles away!) and he had ended up on that strip of Bellam Blvd., in my neighborhood, where Hispanic men gather every morning, hoping to get a day’s work. He had gotten out of his car to ask a passing pedestrian how to get to the ferry, and before he could finish his sentence, she had said, “Yes, this is where you stand.” Obviously, she had assumed from his accent that he was one of the day laborers, even though he was dressed like a tourist.

Marty said to me, “I was offended by that. I am an educated man. In St. Louis, I am treated with respect.” That surprised me, because I would have expected California to be a more hospitable place than the Midwest for any person of color. My assumptions were crumbling fast.

But I immediately understood the seeming discrepancy, and I told him about how, in the Midwest, no one would look twice at me, but here, in the supposed gay mecca, I get harassed all the time. He couldn’t believe it. Turns out he was gay, too (my gaydar had failed me), and he wanted to believe that San Francisco was the Shangri-La he had always thought it to be. But it was exactly as he had been saying about Latinos. The more exposure you have as a minority, the more crap you’re going to get. I think I really burst his bubble.

Marty said he owned three doughnut shops in St. Louis and paid $400 a month rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in a nice area. I oohed and ahhed but politely didn’t say, “But you have to live in St. Louis.”

So we talked all the way across the bay, and the ride was over much too quickly. He had a big day planned—even though rain was threatened, he was going to take BART to the Castro, rent a bike in Golden Gate Park, and ride to Land’s End to check out the nude beach. He hugged me and said, “I hope everyone is as friendly as you are.” I almost choked. I guess it’s true what they say about travel—even 30 minutes of travel a few miles from home—you can be whoever you want, because no one knows any different.

After we landed, he took my picture, and I decided to accompany him up Market to Powell St. So we found the Embarcadero BART station, bought tickets, and descended to the lower level. I had shared with him my near-native knowledge of the BART system, except that I had gotten it confused with Muni and gave him entirely the wrong directions. Fortunately, I realized my mistake in time, though I felt like a complete idiot. (Fact-finding mission, I had to remind myself. Fact-finding means you can’t get the facts until you find you don’t know them.)

On the train, he mentioned that he was always looking for a boyfriend, and I teased him about meeting me instead. He said, “I don’t talk to men, they’re too intimidating.” I said, “I don’t talk to lesbians, either.” We cracked up. Despite gender, age, and ethnic differences, we were totally in synch.

Finally we bade each other farewell, and I got off at Powell and started walking in the direction of Folsom St. I had cut out a newspaper article about restaurants in the city and decided to try to find a place called Mo’s Grill. It turned out to be inside Yerba Buena Gardens, a fact it took me quite a while to find. But I felt so proud of myself when I was finally seated at a table by the window. My favorite singer, Van Morrison, was singing “Brand New Day” in the background, and I smiled to myself, an in-joke in my crowd of one. I had arrived, I had navigated my way across miles of water and city sidewalk to this oasis of urban delight, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Unfortunately, the Dramamine I had taken “to be on the safe side” in case the bay was choppy started to take its toll on my energy level, so I decided to head back to the Embarcadero right after lunch. I passed by the Museum of Modern Art, so I went into the gift store and bought myself a t-shirt—hypocritically, since I have zero interest in what the “art world” is up to these days—then wound my way through the lunchtime crowds—9-to-5’ers, eat your hearts out—and retraced my steps to the waterfront. For the last two blocks I got drenched by a sudden rainstorm and instinctively cringed from the rain until I realized it didn’t matter if I got wet—I was wearing my new microfiber, weather-resistant jacket.

By now I felt like an old hand at this ferry-riding business, but I congratulated myself too soon. After handing over my return ticket, which I had carefully placed in a special compartment of my satchel, I sauntered around, waiting patiently to board. I was pleasantly full and not unpleasantly doped-up from the Dramamine. A uniformed man came along and said the Larkspur ferry would be leaving “all the way to the end of the pier,” so I marched down there, suddenly full of myself and my new travel smarts. Way before the place where the ferry was docked, there was a little closed gate barring the way, so I blithely lifted the pole that kept it in place—proud that I saw instantly how it worked—and was immediately yelled at by the ferry workers, “Go back, go back! Close the gate!!” as if I had wandered onto a firing range. Trying to maintain my cool, I replaced the gate pole in the slot and turned to see about 15 people behind me, people who all knew to wait behind the gate and were no doubt thinking what an idiot I was. But who knows, maybe there was someone in the crowd who would have done the same thing and was giving silent thanks that I had gotten there before she did. Soul sister, this mistake’s for you.

I enjoyed the ride back to Marin. This time I was alone on the deck, so I got to watch the S.F. skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the beautiful storm sky. It started pouring rain halfway across, so I went inside, where it smelled like a bus and was full of silent, world-weary—or at least ferry-weary—commuters working on their laptops. I went back outside as soon as the rain cleared. The sense that I could move, change my mind, make decisions, not know in advance what seat to take or what gate to go through seemed terribly liberating, though of course only on the tiniest of scales, and mostly in principle. I am not yet ready for India.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Marin, home sweet home. Trudging through the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge, and over to the Marin Airporter, I was exhausted and my feet were killing me, but I was feelin’ fine… until I got to the counter where I had to give the man my parking stub. Oh oh. I had thought I’d put it in the special compartment of my satchel, but no, that was the ferry ticket. I started frantically looking through my bag, with a horrible sinking feeling that I had somehow managed to drop my parking stub instead of my ferry ticket in the ticket receptacle at the ferry. If I showed the airporter guy my ferry ticket, would that convince him that I had made an honest mistake and didn’t have to be charged for 30 days of parking?

Me: I don’t seem to have my ticket.

Him [with the most impassive face I’ve seen since Mt. Rushmore]: I need it.

What made it 1,000 times worse is that he was the same guy who had witnessed my losing of the bus pass when I went on the Massachusetts trip. I was even wearing the same clothes. Surely he wouldn’t remember me, surely this sort of thing happens all the time? He continued to stare at me, giving nothing away. Finally, I pulled the stub out of my jacket pocket, where I had carelessly stuck it instead of preserving it in a special compartment. Thank God. Thank you, thank you, beneficent God Almighty.

I can’t help it that everything in my life is a big deal. And actually, there’s an up side to that. If the smallest venture out into the world is difficult for me, then even a small adventure will reap great rewards. It’s that relative-risk thing I mentioned earlier. I see it as a kind of emotional homeopathy. Other people have to jump out of airplanes or climb mountains or seek out dangerous rivers in the jungle to have a feeling of adventure. All I have to do to push the envelope is to lose a ticket or go through the wrong door. My skydive, my mountaintop, my Amazon river is all around me. I’m just living on a smaller scale than some people—like that species of moth or butterfly that only lives for 24 hours.

In my defense, I’ve faced many big challenges on my own—I’ve moved to other states, bought a condo, had a successful career, started my own business—and, of course, I live alone, which creates all sorts of opportunities for bravery—but in some perverse way, the small unknowns can be more daunting than the big ones.

the heart of creation

…when I picture my mother playing the piano, I think of a stillness, a pinprick of a place inside her that is profoundly still. I wonder if a sublime quietness is at the heart of creation.
—Jane Hamilton,

But the unknown can get even smaller(bigger) than taking a public conveyance across small waters. Change and movement can be, quite literally, a walk in the park. I went to painting class one Wednesday morning and started a new painting. I had no idea what to paint, so I started with myself—a peach-colored blob for my head and peach blobs for torso and hips, and longer peach extensions for the limbs. I was supremely not knowing what to do, but for some reason my guard was down and I wasn’t too worried about it. I just let it develop any way it wanted to. One thing led to another, and I ended up in a kind of trance state, painting my internal organs—stomach, heart with tubes sticking out, plus lots of imaginary organlike structures, none of which followed any rules of color or shape or function. I spent two and a half hours painting this strange body, or rather, letting it paint itself.

In the group sharing afterward, I felt stoned, deeply touched. I looked around, and everyone in the circle looked like a heroin addict after getting a fix—but it wasn’t lassitude, it was a deep, quiet presence. No one was preoccupied with being somewhere else, no one was putting on a façade or resisting the silence.

I’ll never get over how strange it is that when you go deeply inward, you connect up with everyone else who is deeply inward. You’ve all been in your own worlds, literally with your backs to each other, for 2 or 3 hours, and when you stumble out of the painting room and try to find words to express what happened, you find you can just look in people’s eyes or make a tiny joke, and you’re all right there, together, as if you’re all the same person with many different faces. Strange that it takes diving into your uniqueness to discover your commonness with others on a heart level. This is what the “creative process” is about, not what ends up on the paper.

It’s not that painting always manifests as this stoned bliss of connectedness, but when it does, it’s a gift. On this day, the afterglow lasted for hours. I didn’t want to leave the studio, but at 1:30 I couldn’t ignore my hunger pangs any longer. So I went off to get my usual burrito and eat it at my usual spot—Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. But what wasn’t usual was that I wasn’t in a mad rush to get home to take a nap or check my e-mail. I felt like I was in love with everyone I saw—it was as if everyone was a walking archetype, vulnerable and simple—part of the human family. The young people, the old people, everyone so perfectly themselves. In some cases you could see the pain etched in their faces and in their posture. This one bent old woman walked toward me as if pushing into a steady wind—well, it was pretty windy that day, but she looked like she’d been pushing for a long time. I ached for her in a way that (needless to say) I don’t usually allow myself to do. We think it would drain us to feel so connected to other people; we don’t realize that that connection is what keeps us alive. What’s draining is to insist on our separateness.

It was a beautiful day in San Francisco—cool and sunny, with a fresh ocean breeze that ruffled the treetops and filled my lungs with cool air—and I lost all unfaithful fantasies of moving back east. After I ate my burrito, I walked around the lake, loving every sight and smell. I wanted to drink it all in—the cloudless blue sky, the ducks floating peacefully in the water, the trees moving in the wind. It’s not that I felt like a different person—I was aware of my usual reactions—but I couldn’t be mad at anybody, even the woman who went into the men’s bathroom by mistake because she saw me coming out of the women’s. I walked toward a sea of pigeons on the sidewalk, getting ready to be annoyed at the man who was feeding  them, but just as I was about to gear up for my internal diatribe, I came closer and we looked at each other, and I was struck by the kindness in his face. He was wearing green scrubs; there was an old woman in the car, dozing in the front seat with the door open while he fed the birds. Was he a nurse? I took all this in in a millisecond, and then I smiled and said “Hi,” and he smiled beautifully back at me. Was this his usual smile? Was he just naturally sweet? Or did I give him something to which he was responding? It was the briefest possible encounter. Is it really possible to make a difference in the world with just a smile at the right moment? It’s so easy to think of all the times our kindness or generosity fails to transform a moment or to have any effect at all—but I suspect we don’t even know, most of the time, what sparks we emit or what encouragement we give just by being aware of each other.

It was like that—magical—all afternoon. I didn’t even mind the other cars on the road. The radio kept playing all these sweet songs—“What If God Was One of Us?”; “Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now….”; U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I was going to take a nap when I got home, but there was work for me by e-mail. So I spent 2 hours editing a business plan for a biotech startup instead, and even that didn’t bother me. I just felt grateful for having a successful business and having the freedom to schedule my own work and take time to drive to the beautiful city and paint gory, beautiful self-innards, and see my beautiful friends and feel that deep connection that seems so elusive and yet is so available, why do we not always feel it?

To me, that day was a day spent traveling, though I walked in the same steps I’ve walked many times before. It wasn’t about covering miles or discovering cultural differences. It wasn’t about being a stranger in a strange land—except, perhaps, the land of Love. It wasn’t about bearing discomfort or proving one’s fortitude. It wasn’t about going out at all, though I felt I extended myself. Mostly, it was about opening up to the vast world that lives inside of us. It’s not a world you can buy a ticket to, you have to have faith and be a little diligent about gaining entry. Sometimes travel isn’t about conquering the world or confronting strange customs or difficult terrain—it can be about making a small inroad on your own sense of isolation, and discovering that the world will come to you.

[Mary McKenney]

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