This morning, while walking the dogs, I thought about the “April A~Z challenge.” Last year, I participated, writing every day of the month, with posts guided by the coordinating letters of the alphabet. Should I do it again this year?
“I should do it again this year,” I said to myself. I could do posts about art, now that I’m getting some time in the studio. Art in general, Block-printing, Collage, Drawing, Encaustic…the topics ran through my head. Or, I could do a month of lists! I have missed making lists! Aspirations, Books, Complaints, Daily Duties…possibilities are there.
It was later, after I’d showered, dressed and was on my way to work, that I realized it is already, today, the last day of March. Maybe it’s too late to sign up. In any case, it might be too much for me to take on. This is spring.
Spring, already, with all that it brings. There are, of course, all the spring activities. When the snow melts away, there are flower beds to clear and garden beds to plant. There is raking to do, wind-fall to be picked up, grass to mow. There are also a dozen things that were supposed to be winter activities, that are not yet finished. If they are going to get done, now is the time, before the rush of summer. Plus, I have a new commitment to studio time. And a new exercise regimen. And a new dog.
Still, I like the idea of this new challenge. I’ve missed writing regularly; this would be a good way to get back in the habit. Even if it’s too late to sign up, I could do it on my own. And maybe I will. Only maybe.
This little guy is a brand new addition to my household. Blackie Chan was one of five puppies born into my daughter Kate’s household, the progeny of two rescue dogs she had taken in. My grandson Brandon came up with his name. He was a litter-mate of my own Rosa Parks, older than her by just a few minutes. He spent his first eight years with Kate’s family of assorted kids and dogs.
Kate’s life is soon going to be changing drastically. Her children are just about grown; one will go off to college in the fall. Kate’s nursing contract will be finished in June; she plans to then take on short term nursing positions that will allow them to travel and explore the country. She and her husband intend to put their house on the market at that time. At least until it sells, they will be renting.
As we talked about all of these changes, she mentioned that she still needed to find a home for Blackie Chan. I told her I’d be happy to try it. I already live with two spoiled dogs, so I was certain there were plenty of things that could go wrong. Before our conversation was finished, though, I had changed my mind. “I’m not going to take that little guy out of the only home he’s ever known just to ‘try it’,” I told her, “I’ll take him. We’ll work it out.”
I already had a trip to the mainland planned. Saturday, I was attending the birthday party of a dear old friend, Emma Jean. My best friend, Linda, was meeting up with me, then, for a couple days of shopping and visiting. If Kate could work it into her schedule, it would be a good time to get the little dog.
So, Monday, just a few hours before my scheduled flight, my daughter, her husband Jeremy, and little Blackie Chan met Linda and me at the airport. We had time for lunch, several little walks and lots of cuddling with the little dog before we had to say good-bye. I held the dog on my lap for the 15-minute plane ride, where I hoped my hands in his fur would help to allay his fear of the strange and new experience.
Home, then, just the two of us. I’d arranged to leave Rosa Parks and Darla in the kennel for one extra night, to give the new guy time to become familiar with me, and his new home. It was a good night. He responded to my voice, wagged his tail as we walked the yard, and was quick to ask to be picked up or petted. He slept in his crate, which is what he is used to, but came right out, tail wagging, to get me out of bed this morning. He seemed very happily settling in.
I picked up the other dogs, with high hopes that introductions would go smoothly. I was especially worried about Rosa Parks: she is most possessive of me, and she doesn’t get along well with strangers, whether people or dogs. Darla, having spent most of her first six years in a no-kill shelter, is more social, and generally good with others.
Turns out, it was big Darla that had the strongest reaction. She set all of our nerves on edge when she went in for the attack first thing. Luckily, Blackie Chan was closed in his crate, but all of the dogs were madly barking and growling as I pulled Darla away and insisted she “sit” and “stay.” I put her outside, when she refused to stop posturing. Blackie was frightened and defensive by that time, so wanted nothing to do with Rosa Parks. She, surprisingly, seems curious, and willing to make friends.
So far, my day has been spent walking dogs. First a walk with Darla and Rosa Parks, so that Blackie Chan could calm down and feel safe. Next, a walk with Blackie Chan, to remind him of the fun we had yesterday, and to reassure him that he has a place in this household. Also, to let Darla and Rosa Parks know that they are going to have to learn to get along with this little guy, if they want to come along. Finally, a long walk with Darla, to let her know she is still loved, despite all of my yelling.
During that time, Rosa Parks and Blackie Chan had the house to themselves. They didn’t quite make friends, but Blackie had not retreated to his crate, and they both came to welcome me. Now, all three dogs are inside. Darla is sprawled on top of my bed, her usual daytime spot. Rosa Parks is sound asleep on top of the pillow on the edge of Darla’s big cushion.
The new guy is napping, too, inside of his crate, but with the door open, and just a few inches away from his sister. Right now, all is calm. That gives me hope that we’ll be able to work this out. And, despite all of today’s turmoil, I think Blackie Chan is a wonderful addition to my family!
Last week, with the sun shining on Beaver Island and a little extra time, I decided to make a batch of paper. An idea has been playing around the edges of my mind, and I was anxious to begin. Anxious, because sometimes beginning is all it takes to prove to myself that the whole idea was crap…but also for the possibility that it would work out. That might mean that it goes as planned, or that it leads to something even better, or simply that I learn something.
I’ve been toying with the idea of a series of handmade paper bowls to be used as a basis for encaustic painting. Keeping an open mind to the idea that they might be beautiful on their own, without embellishment. Also allowing for the prospect that the bowls might not be strong enough to be used as a painting surface, or even to stand on their own. Papers, especially those made of hemp or abaca fibers, are extremely strong. My materials, though, might not be so. Only in getting started would I get any answers.
The material for my first bowl would come from a large bald-faced hornet’s nest. The size of a peck basket, I’d picked the nest out of the snow several years ago when it fell out of the high branches of the maple tree in my side yard. Because the nest is a kind of paper, I saved it to show to classes when I taught paper-making. It was getting fragile, though, as well as being quite a dust-collector. It was time for metamorphosis!
I started by breaking the nest into fist sized clumps and piling them into my kettle. Covered with water, I simmered the paper for an hour to begin to break down the fibers. Then, the paper was poured through a wire mesh colander and rinsed. One small handful at a time, I blended the paper with fresh water to make pulp, and collected it in a pitcher. When the pitcher was full, I’d pour it through a screen so that the water could drain away.
The resulting pulp, I used to line a mold. I have a large beater bowl from a retired commercial bread machine that was my first choice. Less than a third of the way through, I could see that the sides were too deep and straight; the paper was collapsing to the bottom. I switched it out for a broader, more shallow mold, and continued the process.
When the bowl was complete, I used a large sponge to draw out as much moisture as possible. While the sun was shining, I set the bowl out into the snowbank to help. For the rest of the time, which was more than a week, it sat near the heater, where I changed its position regularly, so it would dry evenly. It’s dry enough now to handle, and to contemplate where to go with it from here!
Once, a long time ago, in one of those crazy conversations that happen between siblings, it was determined that I was the most likely, of all of my brothers and sisters, to survive in prison. Not that any of us were intending to be incarcerated…but still. That conclusion was arrived at based on several factors.
I can sleep in uncomfortable places. I have managed to sleep while stretched out in the back seat of a moving car, or in the front passenger seat, with my head leaning against the door. I have slept on buses, trains and airplanes, none of which offer the best accommodations for rest. In my own home, I have napped on the sofa, or curled up in the armchair. I’ve had a series of old and uncomfortable mattresses. The key, I have found, is to settle into a position, and not move around.
I can entertain myself for hours with the simplest activities. That has always been true. I know several games of solitaire played with a deck of cards, but I have also managed to turn other games into competitions against myself. I’ve played both Yahtzee and Scrabble with four players, all of whom were me. Other games can be made more challenging by trying to beat my best score. In my life as it is, I chastise myself for wasting too much time on games and puzzles; in prison, I’d have lots of time to waste!
I am a reader. I seriously worry about people who don’t read, either because it’s too difficult, or because they don’t like it. From my perspective, a life without reading seems like a sad and small place. And a love of reading makes any situation better. It would make prison bearable.
I am a writer. This was a big advantage when I first moved to Beaver Island. Though my family hated to see me go, they knew I’d keep in touch with long letters detailing my adventures. This blog is kind of the same type of communication, and it suits me. Though I’m the only one doing the “talking” (other than rare and short back-and-forth discussions in the comments), it feels kind of like a conversation, and it helps to allay loneliness. That would be advantageous to prison life, too.
I like institution food. I was thrilled with anything that was offered at my high school cafeteria. At the time, I thought it was simply a welcome change to the packed lunches I’d had to carry all through elementary school. But then, I also loved the cold buttered toast we were served at break time when I worked, during senior year, at Suncrest Convalescent Home. I liked the cafeteria food at the hospital when I worked there, and later when I was a patient there. I enjoyed anything served up in the cafeteria of the community college I attended. I like TV dinners. Now, I have never had prison food, but I feel that I’d at least have a good attitude about it, to start.
I have always loved being alone. Even as a very small child, I would seek out corners or closets or cubbies to be away from the boisterous activity that was common in our busy household. I would sit for hours under the kitchen table. I would climb, with a book, onto the deep top shelf built into the wall of the bedroom I shared with my sister Brenda, and relish the idea of being above the fray. I’d take a flashlight to the farthest corner of the attic, to enjoy the quiet. As a young adult with a husband and small children, I’d get up in the middle of the night, just to have some time all to myself. I enforced a bedtime for my daughters no matter how old they got, so that I could have a little time alone before going to sleep.
I was reminded of the prison conversation this morning. I was near the end of a good book, and trying to finish it while drinking coffee and before going to work. The dogs, wanting my attention, were going outside and back in, first one dog then the other, in tag team fashion. Over and over. I finally picked up my coffee and my book, and closed myself in the bathroom. Then I, who live the most solitary life imaginable, said to myself in total exasperation, “I just need a little peace and quiet!”
Yes, technically, I know, the “dog days” fall in the summertime, when Sirius, the dog star, rises at the same time as the sun, and long days of steamy, sticky heat cause lethargy, inactivity, or indolence. Dog star aside, this long, cold and snowy winter has brought the same result. I am frustrated, and so are my dogs, Darla and Rosa Parks.
The dogs wake up eager to go outside but, after seeing what is out there, often decide to wait. It could be another extremely cold, below zero day, of which we’ve had several. It could be high winds, sending ice crystals swirling and making me shiver when I open the door. Or snow, more snow, coming down in large wet flakes that pile up everywhere, obstructing views and slowing travel.
Still, the dogs look expectantly at me, even when they can’t bring themselves to step outside. To acknowledge them for having made the effort, I’ve initiated a new reward category. In addition to giving treats for going outside and back in, for sitting when told to sit, or staying when told to stay, there is now a small treat given just for checking the weather.
Our walks this winter are dependent on the conditions, and have been often foiled by extremes of ice, snow or cold. Darla always starts out strong and, other than on the very coldest days, has the most endurance. She usually dips her head in disappointment when I make the call to turn back toward home. Rosa Parks has no interest in walking this winter. She has to be coaxed down the driveway, and bribed to continue down the road. She’s the first, always, to decide we’ve gone far enough.
Rosa Parks loves snow, so I’m not sure what the problem is. She’s a small dog, so the high banks of snow on the roadsides offer her no view except straight ahead. She has lost her vision in one eye; perhaps that makes her more timid. Maybe, understandably, she’s just tired of winter.
Back inside the house, both dogs look discouraged. “Oh, that was it?” their expressions ask, and their disappointment is clear. On good days, I bundle up again, and set out once more through the weather. Two or three walks are better than just one, even if they’re all short. Other times, I opt for a rousing game of “Sit, Stay, Give me Paw.”
As I move on to my own activities, the dogs settle in nearby. They show varying levels of interest in what I’m doing, depending on whether or not it involves food. Sometimes, movement outside, whether bird, chipmunk or road truck, will set them off into frenzied barking at the front window. There are plenty of brief treks outside and in, or simply putting their nose outside to check the weather. Mostly, they sprawl.
Near the warmth of the heater and close to me, they flop down on rugs and cushions that are plentiful in my living space. When I see them laying there, eyes wide open, with furrowed brows, I feel my own frustration reflected in their body language. And I recognize these days, without a doubt, as the dog days of winter.
“Only those with tenacity can march forward in March.”
~ Ernest Agyemane Yeboah
I am struggling, this winter, to continue moving forward. My exercise program has become anything but “regular.” My daily walk takes me, many days, no farther than to the end of the driveway and back. “Morning Pages,” three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing that I recommitted to last year, has fallen by the wayside, beyond a few occasional fits and starts.
This writing, too, has been sorely neglected this year. Since I committed to this blog post – now more than seven years ago – I have published at least one essay every week. I’ve taken on mini-challenges within the larger commitment: there were a few month-long challenges; I wrote a family history, in installments; I dedicated one day per week to a Timeout for Art post; I went through two books of weekly “List” prompts; and I published a blog post every single day in 2016.
It often seemed like I may have run out of things to talk about. I noticed my writing was often devolving into complaints, to-do lists, and an inventory of frustrations. I set a new goal this year. My plan was to work my way through each of the writing prompts in Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away.
Maybe it wasn’t the best idea. Or, perhaps, that task would be better suited for my private journal pages. Does anyone really want to read a ten-minute essay about jell-o? Or dishes? Or nuts? With doubts running through my mind, I contemplated leaving this year’s plan behind, but had no clear idea of what to replace it with. So, my default was to just neglect it altogether.
This morning when I got up, the temperature outside was 13 below zero. The view from any window is snow, snow, and more snow. Under the snow, there is a thick bed of ice, that will throw me off balance if I don’t watch my step. When the sun comes out, gigantic icicles form along the eaves of the house.
The dogs have forged a network of paths leading from the back door, to get to the places where they choose to do their outside business, or where they can bark at the neighbors. Bored with the pace of this cold season, they spend a great deal of time going outside and coming back in, just for the sport of it, and the possibility of a reward. Today, they are sprawled together on the bed, grumbling their displeasure.
The long term weather forecast promises better days. By next week, we should see temperatures in the 30s, and into the forties by the end of the month. Undoubtedly, spring will eventually come. St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner. That celebration brings big excitement and an influx of visitors to this Irish island. It won’t be long after that before the warm weather residents and tourists arrive.
With that assurance comes new frustration at all the things I have not yet gotten done. Though today’s weather might seem to contradict the statement, time is running short for all of my winter’s plans. It’s time to make the big push, while there is still time. That, along with my feelings about the quality of my recent posts, has brought me to the conclusion that it’s time for a different tack.
“Don’t settle: Don’t finish bad books. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant. If you’re not on the right path, get off it.”
I’m not giving up on this blog; I’m not going to quit writing. What I’m giving up are all previously conceived notions and obligations regarding it. I will publish regularly, but not on a pre-planned regular schedule. I’ll write whatever I feel like sharing, even if that happens to sound like complaints, to-do lists, and an inventory of frustrations. It may take a surprising turn, as I direct my attention more to my health, art, or my home projects. I don’t know yet, but the possibilities are exciting to me. For now, that’s good enough!
My sister, Sheila, missed – by one day – being born on February 29th, in the leap year of 1956. She missed – by one – being the middle child in our large family. “Just slightly off-center,” was how she once described her position in the family. That could also describe Sheila’s position in life.
Sheila lived her life in a way that was often filled with uncertainty, challenge, adventure…even danger. She was the champion of the underdog, the greatest supporter of those with the biggest disadvantages. She was a fiercely loyal friend. She fell in love easily, and she always fell hard. I often worried that Sheila set herself up for a fall; certainly, she experienced more than her share of failures. I’d cringe at her struggles, and wish that she’d set herself on and easier course.
Sheila’s one true north was her love and loyalty to family and friends. Each of her brothers and sisters enjoyed a unique relationship with her, but it was with our children that Sheila truly shined. The favorite aunt to many nieces and nephews, to them she was friend, confidante and constant supporter.
My own relationship with my sister Sheila was a mixed bag. I loved her always, and worried about her often. Even as adults, though, she could hurt my feelings, and make me just as angry as when we were both children. In the last months of her life, things were good between us. We enjoyed heartfelt conversations and shared good memories. I’m very thankful for that.
Today is my sister, Sheila’s birthday. Though she’s been gone now for over seven years, she always has a special place in my heart…especially on her birthday.