Christmas Journey

Cold rain fogged the windshield as we pulled into a rest stop on I95. I said to Judy, “Well, at least there won’t be any bugs.” (Every time we journeyed through the Peach State, insects swarmed and attacked when we left an enclosed shelter.) The rain eased. Sleet-resistant midges surrounded us when we stepped out of the car. One tried to fly up my nose. I shrugged: Georgia had struck again.

We stopped for the night in North Carolina. We reached the outskirts of Washington, D.C. in late afternoon just as traffic on the beltway began to clot into snarled knots. Judy and I decided to take a route west over the mountains. We’d approach eastern Pennsylvania via northwestern Maryland.

We climbed up slope after slope as the sun set. We neared the top of a long incline cutting its way through dark woods. Judy gasped, “There are icicles on the tree branches!” I saw a winter fairy land forming all around us: crystalline beauty; dangerous roads.

Judy white-knuckled our descent into Hagerstown, Maryland. We decided to find a motel before the roads turned into ice rinks. We noticed vacancies at a motel situated along a strip of restaurants.

After unpacking, we held our son’s and daughter’s hands to lead them across an icy parking lot between the motel and the nearest restaurant. Annie and Alan kept slipping, falling, landing on their bottoms. Judy picked up Alan. I picked up Annie. We carried them into the restaurant.

Snow fell that night. Slush slowed traffic on Pennsylvanian roads the next morning. I discovered that our rental car had been stocked with water instead of windshield wiper fluid. Every time I tried to clean after a passing truck sprayed icy muck, additional layers of ice obscured my vision. Cars and trucks speeding ahead and next to us began to look like ghostly shapes and blurs. I pulled off onto a country road to scrape the windshield clean, parked in a deserted lot. The wheels spun when I tried to rock the car out of a drift. I had visions of hiking through three feet of snow with a six and four-year-old over my shoulders while Judy dragged suitcases. We finally got traction, fish-tailed out of the lot, and headed east.

Judy’s parents and brother welcomed us when we arrived 12 hours late. We gladly shrugged off our coats, stepped out of boots. The house smelled like cookies. Dry heat steamed the windows. A hot lunch waited for us on the dining room table.

Christmas had finally started.

Selling Out

Bougainvillea Looking West

An artist walked through my warehouse studio during an open house fifteen years ago. I had landscapes hung in a small room, narrative figure paintings in the larger, better lit room. Steve pointed to the landscapes and said, “This is where you sell out.” He turned to the figure paintings and said, “This is where you’re telling the truth.” I replied, “I haven’t been able to sell more than a half dozen of the landscapes. Please tell me how I can become a sell-out.”

Approaching Storm
U.S. 27-Lake Louisa

I’ve often divided my practice into different subject matter and styles. I painted landscapes to spend time with my fellow painter and friend, Brenda, and to find peace. The figurative paintings took a lot of physical and emotional energy out of me. Painting at a remote location, taking notes from nature, calmed and recharged me.

Haunted Meadow-Lake Woodruff

I haven’t headed out with my French folding easel and a blank canvas in a couple years. Painted the last completed landscape from a cool spot under my front yard magnolia in 2017. But I received an e-mail recently. A colleague recommended my landscapes to a city art director. A slot had opened in the schedule at the main house of Leu Gardens in Orlando. I agreed to deliver 30 framed paintings on November 21st.

I pulled paintings off a studio rack, gathered them from closets and corners in the house, and made selections. When I looked at the chosen group, I noticed that color harmony and softer light had become more dominant throughout the twenty year span of work. The early landscapes had more edges and tension. The latter pieces gave off a sense of peace.

Then I remembered another reason why I painted outdoors all those years. Sometimes, when annoyances, distractions and concerns about outcomes fell away, I felt like I had begun to become immersed in nature. I felt part of a bigger flow, a current in a broad stream.

Winter-Lake Woodruff

And that was good.

Moments of Grace

Several months ago, I paused to study a crepe myrtle’s pinkish purple blossoms. The gray-tinted sky following a rain gave a limpid glow to the street, houses nearby, the mail box at the end of my driveway. I had a stack of flyers in my hand and nothing on my mind as I turned toward clusters of blossoms, round buds and wet leaves. Fuchsia flamed against vibrant jade. I lingered though I had supper to cook and a class to prepare. It’s wrong to turn down a sudden gift of wonder.

I rolled on a mattress and tried to fall asleep. My forty-year-old heart fluttered in my chest. Panic settled in deep as I tried to reason away fear. I thought, “These spells come and go. Nothing dire ever happens.” I wasn’t convinced. A loving but noncorporeal presence entered the room and settled inside my body. I didn’t know who or what had come to visit, but the panic thinned and seeped away. Comfort and peace flowed through me as my heart calmed into a steady beat. I felt the gratitude of a small child for a loving parent.

Twenty-nine years ago I sat with a baby on a blanket. My son crawled to the edge, grabbed a tuft of grass and stared intently at the blades. He crammed a handful into his mouth and got a taste before I plucked green mash off his tongue. He wanted to experience the tangible reality of whatever came before him. An early memory from my childhood popped up: thin clouds in a powder-blue sky vaulted high; purple roses in my father’s garden gave off a dark perfume; the wash fluttered blindingly white on the backyard line; my mother looked like an angel. Everything was new.

Judy told her father a story as we sat at her parents’ dining table. We had become engaged in February, 1984. In April we drove ten hours across Ohio and Pennsylvania so that Dick and Audrey could meet me before the wedding. I said nothing as the conversation darted back and forth between father and daughter. Instead I listened intently to the music of Judy’s speech. It struck me that I would be hearing those notes for the rest of my life.

I stared into the bathroom mirror. Ten-year-old eyes darkened sadly as the mouth sagged in a Charlie Brown frown. “Rats.” Grievances trudged across my mind to offer proof that no one had it worse. Then a sense of detachment interrupted the internal melodrama. The pathetic boy in the mirror looked like a stranger. A more mature voice popped into my head. (It might have been a future me.) The voice said, “Oh come on. It isn’t all that bad, now is it?”

The Studio vs. the Gallery Wall

Today I went to the gallery at Valencia College’s east campus to view a faculty show. (I’m in it but couldn’t make it to the opening.) The exhibition looked formal, elegant, dignified. The presentation said, “This is a serious endeavor. Respect the work.”

One of my paintings looked good enough to me, but doubts resurfaced about the other as I studied it. The lighting was brighter than in my studio, so the colors and tones looked different in the gallery. The paint seemed too thin under the hard glare. I wanted to take it down to start reworking it right there. A different setting and a juxtaposition with other artists’ work allow me to see that piece differently, to be more objective.

Climb the Stairs

I’ve visited artists’ studios and seen work in production hung on paint-spattered walls. The floors are cluttered with dirty rags, empty paint tubes, dead brushes. A fug of turpentine, linseed oil, raw canvas, burnt coffee and cigarette smoke pollutes the air. Finished work might be hung on other walls but usually in jumbled, hastily tossed up arrangements. Cartoons and reproductions of other artists’ work are pinned nearby. (They compete for attention while revealing sources.) Finished (discarded?) paintings might also be stored in roughly carpentered racks, stacked in a corner against a wall, hidden under drop cloths.

Seeing work at the site of its creation provides a completely different context. The thoughts and emotions captured on one canvas argue with, cozy up to and repel work leaning against a nearby wall. Rough sketches, paint smears on an easel and an encrusted palette add more to the story. The existential buzz of one painting gets amplified in its family setting. It’s like reading a novel’s back story chapter that explains a protagonist’s character.

If you want to know your future with a fiancée, go meet her mother. If you really want to understand a painting, go visit a studio.

Oldsters: I Join the Club

The check-out line at Publix: 70-ish couple (wiry, white-haired man with well-padded, gray-haired wife) unloads groceries onto the belt. Young bagger assumes they’re half-deaf, calls out: “IS PLASTIC OKAY?” Old guy grins at the wife and says, “Steel-reinforced plastic, please.” Bagger doesn’t get the joke, gives them a blank look.

A church lady sits back on an upholstered chair in a fluorescent-lit box of a meeting room. Her face and body sag as if gravity has mounted a personal attack. She leans toward me and says, “I’m having one of those days. I keep making stupid mistakes and forgetting things. Nothing seems to go right. My husband actually noticed and said, ‘What’s the matter with you?'” I nod in sympathy. I’d spent so much mental energy remembering to buy unusual items at the grocery store that I forgot to get a sandwich for Judy. I had to go back on the fly to get it before the church gathering started.

Ex-Coast Guard sailor tells me that he ran missions up Vietnamese rivers during the war. “I bet you didn’t know the Coast Guard did that.” I didn’t. He also served on an ice-breaker stationed off Greenland. “We ran into ice fields all the time–you never knew when. Sometimes we’d wake up in our bunks below deck to the sound of ice scraping along the side.” I say, “I bet you thought about the Titanic and cold seawater rushing in.” He replies, “Oh, we thought about all kinds of things all at once!” He goes on: “One time we got stuck in the ice and had to dynamite our way out.” I say, “So, you stood at the bow and tossed sticks over the side?” “Pretty close,” he says. “We had to drill holes in the ice, drop the dynamite down, and detonate.”

I tell a college class that I’m giving them a break from homework in honor of my granddaughter’s birth. A few smile. Some study me carefully. They’d thought that I was old, but now they know for sure. A student in her late forties asks me how many grandchildren I have. “Just one,” I answer. “I’ve got five,” she answers. “Now you’re just showing off,” I say.

Is It Okay to Argue with God?

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, Jack Levine

Some believers talk about a personal relationship with God. Their thoughts reach out to the Supreme, and God answers back. But all relationships eventually lead to conflicts. Is it okay to argue with God?

I attended a series of talks in which representatives from different faiths explained core beliefs and unique features of their religions. A Jewish woman proudly declared that the descendants of Israel had a right to argue with God. Jacob wrestled with an angel, God’s representative, and won a blessing. Job pointed out to God that his fate did not match his state of piety. Hadn’t he done all the right things? And for this he loses family, property and good health? God chose not to smite Job for impudence, but answered at length and restored good fortune to His faithful servant.

St. Theresa of Avila once chided God. She fell into a ditch during a rainstorm. She sat in the mud for a minute, stood up and shook her fist at the sky. She said, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”

I was raised a Roman Catholic, and the priests never based a sermon on St. Theresa’s soggy moment. God might be our Father, but no one thought it was a good idea to question the Ultimate. Privates don’t sass the general.

But wouldn’t it be a relief if we could vent once in a while? Would the world end, would our souls get fried to crispy bits if we gave an honest reaction to God about the latest unexpected misfortune plaguing our lives?

I’ve heard some theologians promote the idea of unquestioning gratitude. They suggest that the response to every vicissitude should be, “Thank you, God.” The argument goes, “If we’re grateful for the pleasant things that come from God, then we should be grateful for the painful things too. It all comes from the same source; it’s all part of the same plan.” That position might be fine for fully realized spiritual beings, but what about the rest of us?

I don’t thank God at funerals. Don’t feel gratitude when unfortunate phone calls announce upcoming tragedies. (My prayer during these times is for endurance. I don’t want to become a bitter jerk in the face of harshness.)

Sometimes I let Him in on the misery I’m feeling. I pray, “Here I am, Lord. By the way, this sucks!” I don’t blame God after registering my complaint, but I do ask, “What’s the point of this? Was this the only way this could go?” Those are the only genuine questions I can ask.

Gramps and Gram Visit for the First Time

Annie and Ava
Bryant and Ava having “tummy time”. Sedgewick pondering the changed state of affairs.

Driving to Miami is no one’s idea of a picnic, but Judy and I had a strong motivation to make the five hour trip from Orlando. We wanted to hold Ava, our first grandchild.

I had a two-day gap in my schedule this week, so we loaded up the car and took off this Thursday. The turnpike holds a few mysteries for the uninitiated. Some stretches are covered by photo plate reading, and others require tickets. Some entrances are clearly marked. Others, especially at the jumbled service plazas, inspire puzzlement. Some exits only properly service cars with transponders. Folks bearing paper tickets must travel on to other exits, visit towns they had no intention of visiting, and double back. Traffic gets progressively more cutthroat once one travels south of Palm Beach. Construction zones multiply.

Annie, Ava and Bryant seemed properly exhausted. A new way of life requires tough adjustments. Ava mostly slept and ate. Her cries were plaintive but not unreasonably demanding. She calmed down readily once basic needs had been met. She kept her eyes closed for the most part, but peeped at us occasionally. When unwrapped from her swaddling blankets, she stretched her arms, legs, toes and yawnnnnnned. The world, if I’m interpreting her reactions accurately, appears unexpected but untroubling. She’s too bleary to worry much about anything.

Judy and I spent a lot of time holding her. We marveled at how small and frail she seemed. We’d forgotten over the last 30 years what newborns are really like. I felt calm and peaceful once she settled in on my stomach. I wanted to join her in baby slumber land.

I walked her around the apartment, rocked her in my arms, sang a few songs. K.C and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” worked well. Steady rhythms and innocuous lyrics soothed her. Might have to sing soft 70s rock at the next visit. I draw the line, however, at “Muskrat Love”. My sweet granddaughter will never experience that horror if I’ve got anything to say about it.

Unexpected surges of happiness and mellow joy struck me on the drive back to Orlando. I had a bit of extra pep in my step during class yesterday. Ava is here, and we met her.