It is a gentle, rainy day. “Soft” as they sometimes call it in Ireland. This kind of weather might annoy some people, but honestly I like it. The coloring of things hints at autumn, my favorite season in spite of or perhaps because of inherent melancholia to be found therein.
Melancholia is a constant and faithful friend of late. I find myself thinking a lot about death.
The gardens themselves lean toward the great sleep, readying here and there for a dying back into autumnal composting and winter’s rest. Spring’s regrowth will come once more, eventually. We as humans seem to forget our place amidst nature’s seasons. Lately I find my mind ill at ease – a feeling of being consistently gaslighted by society. Over 180,000 people have died of Covid-19 in this country and few seem to even take note of it anymore. Around 1000 people PER DAY. How can this not be the day’s big news? There are even some who don’t believe the numbers. We throw these figures around and forget that behind every number is a lifetime of dreams and hopes and fears and faults. Laughter and learning, lightness and darkness. The messy stuff of everyone’s everyday. These are someone’s loved ones. How can the world just go “on”? I find it almost too much to take. And maybe this explains why no one is talking about it much. Maybe no one can take it.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
–Mary Oliver (I love this poem and was re-minded of it recently by the wonderful daily poem sharing offering of Shippenverse. Go give her a follow on the socials if you like timely poetry.)
It is a grave mistake in a well lived life not to give death a good mulling over now and then. I have at times (in the before times) been playing music with my dearest friends in a local session and have found myself so overwhelmed with a tearful gratitude that I think:
“Remember this. It’s not going to happen again. These people are a gift. Nothing is guaranteed. Pay attention. We could lose one another in an instant.”
Cheerful. I know.
But I do maintain that to toe the edges of things, to contemplate Great Mysteries, is to be more deeply alive, to live closer to the bone.
On soft days such as this one, I find myself thinking about Ireland, a land with its fair share of soft days and a place where the lines between life and death, this world and the Other, before and after, us and them, are blurred. I find myself most comfortable in a place that openly acknowledges the delicate nature of our very existence. Ireland is such a place.
Looking back on this Year of Years, we come to realize we were truly fortunate to begin the year’s wave of griefs on griefs in such a magical place. Tony’s mom died while we were over there. To explore ancient burial sites and wander the misty and mystical Burren in Clare was to feel a part of things in a very deep way. I wish I could be there again this fall, to process all that has happened – all that IS happening – but this is not to be.
Last week in the tail end of a yoga practice a thought, or perhaps even a ‘command’ of sorts came to me. “Tell the earring story” it said. And so I shall….
My friend Mia was dying. I had been lucky enough to leave my day to day behind and spend a few quality days with her before she slipped into that “between place” where she could no longer be reached by us. It was the wee hours of the morning and no one in the household had slept much that night. Professional nurses, Mia’s mom Ruth and husband Morris tended to her final moments and then, just like that, she was gone. The quiet was that strange sort of quiet that sometimes happens in a room where a birth has occurred. Dying is a different kind of birth I suppose. I stepped outside to get some air and to give Mia’s family a bit of space. I could feel the All of Everything outside. It was a beautiful morning. A bit later, Morris and one of the Hospice nurses approached myself and two other women on hand and asked if we might accept the task of washing and readying Mia’s body for viewing. Their family’s close community was to come to the house to pay their respects, share food and kinship, and bid farewell to their dear friend. Washington state allows for a family to hold on their loved ones for one full day before needing to send the body on to final burial or cremation. This was to be Mia’s day. We accepted this task with great honor and the Hospice nurse filled us in on what needed to be done. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to tend to the final physicality of someone we love. Yes, we were filled with grief, but something about the very earthiness of it all was a salve to that grief. We were mindful and in the moment. We put on Mia’s favorite music, opened the window to allow her soul passage. We washed her gently, and put her into her favorite clothes. Soon, we were nearly done. I had put in one of a pair of earrings into her ear when we were interrupted by someone entering the room. A friend in the community who hadn’t realized we weren’t *quite* finished. And just like that, the bubble had burst. Something of a strange reality had entered the room with this newcomer and there was no more that could be done. Mia’s head was turned and so no one would notice the missing earring anyway. My fellow caretakers and I had a bit of a strange laugh over this turn of events and the day carried on. I pulled Morris aside and told him of the earring still in my possession. He too found it all a bit funny. The earrings in question were moonstones. Mia and I had gotten matching sets we before she’d moved out to Washington and we liked to wear them at the same time like a couple of middle school bff’s. When the day came to an end it was time for the funeral folks to come and take Mia’s body away. I did a puppet show for the kids in the other end of the house while Morris took care of this bit of business. Later, he handed me the first earring. I took some pliers and converted that earring into a small pendant which I eventually took home with me. I made the second into a pendant as well, and left my set of earrings and that matching pendant with Morris to give to their daughter when she was old enough to wear them. (she was in the first grade if I remember right.) I still have my little moonstone pendant and keep it on my flute case as a constant reminder to live this life to the fullest. Mia reminded me always to follow my art dreams and to keep playing music. I have done and am so grateful for her early encouragement as we ran mile after mile together in between our busy lives and young motherhood.
I tell the story above as a small snapshot of the complexities of the end of a life. To remind us that once there was a time when tending to our dead was a privilege. This virus has so many dying that I believe we have a hard time really taking stock of so much loss. Our minds can’t wrap around the level of destruction. And with all of this death, comes a deep loneliness as well as many are having to die alone so as not to endanger their loved ones. The virus has robbed us of the very things through which we cope with difficulty. Gathering, hugging, singing, sharing. And these are difficult times to be sure.
A couple of artful friends in my life are stepping into what one of them calls her “final act”. They are seemingly facing this next chapter with a grace all of us might hope for in the end. They wisely advise us all to have the difficult conversations about what we might want for our own end of life chapters, how we might want things to go if difficult decisions are faced. Have you done this? Do your loved ones know how you might like to be remembered?
My friend Jeni sent this below to me (not knowing I was brewing a death-themed blog post, but this is how the muse works sometimes, eh?) And I absolutely love it. I read this and think, I might have been friends with this woman had we met.
It seems easy in these scary times to just step out of our bodies and forget we are limited beings. I think many people have really. So much anger, so little time for self-reflection or kindness. We aren’t taking the time to ask one another “How’re you doing, like really?” We won’t be here forever, this much is true. Something about turning 50 on the cusp of a global pandemic will drive this home to many of us. Much as the ads promising me the fountain of youth would like me to step away from my own sense of self, I stay put and face this age, my age, as it is. It isn’t pretty most days.
I make the conscious choice to stay in my body, as difficult as this feels in this harsh world. I run when I can, even on (perhaps especially on) cool rainy days.
I eat spicy food and cry easily. Much like old Moaning Myrtle, I am not afraid to talk of death. Perhaps it is, in the long run, the only thing left we might have in common these days.
Be kind to each other, check in with one another. Bake some cookies for your neighbors if you can.
And perhaps take some time for self-reflection on these remarkable times in which we find our small selves.
Hiya friends. Amy here, the creatrix of John Joe Badger. It’s a strange time to be drawing gentle, tuneful badgers. There are so many badgers from which to choose in this harsh, fast-paced world.
There is the screaming, spitting, distrustful American badger; the go-your-own-way, screw-everyone-else, “independent” honey badger; and of course our own John Joe Badger, based as a character more on a “European” styled badger.
John Joe loves tea and gathering with fellow woodland animals – even, and perhaps especially – when they differ from him. He is quiet, thoughtful, and believes in fair opportunity for everyone. He believes in the arts (tunes and seascapes are his favorites!) and good, local food, available and affordable to all.
A friend of mine on the book of faces ranted recently “enough of politics!!!” And I hear that. But perhaps todays’ politics are more than “just” politics. Perhaps the choices these days are about life versus death, art and culture as life-saving things. Education and critical thinking as ways forward, not things to be afraid of.
It is difficult to make art, share a joyful tune, laugh at a silly pun, when the world is literally burning. But we MUST!
Today is week 42 of John Joe Badger’s “Twist of Hemp” series. I will bring episode 43 to you when my new pipes arrive from Ireland which might be a few weeks what with one thing and another (unless another idea springs to mind which sometimes happens.) There are tunes to record with my flutilla mates and our capitán of recent weeks Kevin, and tunes to record for the start of our strange new quarter at the Riley School. There are also votes to get out, volunteering opportunities to rock, old dogs to care for, gardens to harvest.
Art is a funny thing. It encompasses so much. And it’s not always what some might consider to be “art”. Sometimes, it’s politics.
There are many mysteries in this thing we call piping. John Joe Badger has heard whispers of a mysterious thing some call ‘The Backstitch’, and he is intrigued. On occasion he thinks he can hear it, in the playing of one further along the piping path, but he does not yet know what it really IS.
Perhaps one day he will figure it out.
For now he will leave backstitching efforts to the mending basket, and merely play the little tunes he knows as best he can.
It seems an age ago that were in Maine. Coastal time, cool, crystalline lakes, like a dream.
We are now back in our own home, land locked here in our river valley, tending to house and garden, both needing upkeep, updates.
As Billy Collins’ poem above alludes, there is a certain kind of genius which accompanies basic household chores of care. This damned pandemic affords us the opportunity of time, if not inclination, to attend to matters here at home. And so we do.
A bit of harvesting.
And a few things still growing along nicely.
I’ll give the autumnal plants a head start this week I think. And put other plants to sleep for a time so they might come back to us in the dead of winter. Beauty in dark times.
I am a haphazard gardener at best, but I am pleased with the results of our efforts this year. The back garden, fenced during the first fitful, anxiety filled weeks of the lockdown, seems to be holding up. Keeping the deer at bay.
I am grateful.
The dahlias have put on a show this year. Somehow they had survived my stashing them in the garage last autumn where they overwintered successfully. Surprisingly.
They are a constant delight.
My great-Auntie Nancy passed away the day we were on the road home from Maine. She lived a long life, and did not suffer in the end, which is all anyone can ask for really. When we attended her funeral, masked and out of doors, I took a posey of my dahlias and some sunflowers too, to place on the grave of my beloved grandparents. Life has a way of marching on.
Last week I added another digit to my age line. It was a quiet day really, a few hours at the concertina shop, take out from a local brewery and a zoom call with some artful and inspirational friends. It was lovely. I even received some gorgeous flowers.
My mom gifted me the innards of a new Traveler’s Notebook for my birthday. (I made the cover myself from a scrap of leather from the shop.) I am interested to see how this journal system works for me as my own sketchbook practice has shifted in recent years. When I “go sketch”, I am actually painting and use good paper in good sketchbooks. But for the day to day, I like to have a workbook to capture ideas, quotes, poems, drawings, lists and etc. Also a date keeper, not that there is much of a schedule these days.
Perhaps this little book will help me get organized as we do some serious household renovation and reorganization in the coming months.
I already have lists going, and some quotes. Tunes I must work on……
“Don’t focus on the limitations, focus on the possibilities.”
~Liam O’Flynn (via Louise Mulcahy’s recent research)
Tomorrow morning we bid adieu to our friend Ari, the ‘little red dragon”, or “the wee man” as I sometimes call him. He’s heading back to my sister’s where she is settled into a full time position as a nurse at a hospital near Louisville, Kentucky.
We will miss him indeed, but we also know there is much work to be done around here and it might best be done with only the one aged dog along for the ride. (Plus, he is missed dearly by his proper steward.)
Thankfully, our Little Miss Charlie doesn’t climb steps and mostly sleeps the days away, so she will be the perfect dog to weather the coming months with us as we turn the house upside down a bit.
It is a good time to nestle into a great feathering of the nest so to speak. My travel journaling work – for now at least – is non-existent for obvious reasons. I keep the art-wheels oiled here with a few side projects but a bit of a domestic re-design will be my creative project for the time being. In recent years we found ourselves with an empty nest, the kids fledging to adult lives of their own. My travel journal business was where my energies flowed and I never really found the time to re-group here at home. For now – this year at least – all of that is at a standstill. Like many others, I am finding it difficult to concentrate on the usual things, and so I’m going to just take full part in this collective pause.
I’ve felt for a long while that the speed of things in this world is too much for me personally, it’s just tragic that it’s taken a pandemic to slow things down even just a bit. With this slowing down has come an opportunity to take stock, decide finally what to do with the old “back room” which has been falling down around us for a few years now. It’s time to rebuild. We have engaged a builder to begin in autumn sometime. There will be much shifting and cleaning and decision-making and things will be topsy turvy. Construction and reorganizing has a way of affecting every corner of the household and knowing this, we are taking the opportunity to reconfigure the whole place.
It’s time. Getting our home organized and making a little oasis around here will help us bring more peace to the world outside of our home. Of this I am sure. To seek beauty in a dark world is important work. Sometimes, that starts at home.
And that, as my mom says, is all the news that’s fit to print. We, like everyone, continue to adjust to The State of Things. We do the best we can. Being gentle with ourselves and each other. Following our noses as to how best to proceed.
We are returned safely from travels and settled in, but more on that later……
Recently we heard from Mickey Dunne over in Limerick, Ireland that the half-set of uilleann pipes he is carefully crafting for me is nearly complete. I am very sad that I cannot go to Ireland this fall to collect them in person, meet Mickey and thank him properly. But this is just the way of things, and we soldier on.
Meanwhile, I am as a new parent preparing a nursery with all the necessary accoutrements for the new arrival. This week’s Twist of Hemp offering finds John Joe Badger diligently shopping for all the necessities and sundries so that we will be ready when the pipes (with drones!) finally arrive.
It is week 39 of our weekly adventure, John Joe and I. I am slowly learning a few tunes but still feel clumsy and more at home on the flute. Making a drawing for this series each week helps me keep track of how long I’ve been at this pipes thing while reminding me to just have a little fun with it along the way. It’s been a very long time since I purchased a proper instrument outside of a whistle of delryn flute here or there. I am nervous about it all and trying just to treat it like an investment. In myself, in the music, in the world.
These covid times can mess with our heads if we allow them to. What are you doing to keep yourself sane, grounded and invested in the world? I’m learning tunes, painting and drawing and walking many miles.
I’ve been for a long walk this morning, some exercise before the day begins in earnest. There is a heron out on the swim dock which is great to see. Up to now, our dock has merely been a pit stop for ducks and sea gulls. Yesterday while out on the lake we spied osprey, a magnificent bald eagle hunting for fish, and many iconic loons.
Their calls to one another haunt our dreams.
It is my full intention to be firmly present in these final couple of days here in Maine, but I admit to already feeling the pressure of the journey home which we will undertake in the wee hours of Sunday.
We are steeped in friendship and gratitude, natural splendor and rest, great food, camaraderie and play. The well is nigh full and we can draw on it back in our day to day at home.
There are small projects planned which will keep me grounded in practice, as the goldening of late summer drifts down on everything. There is a wistful sadness to the time of year, always, and especially now.
Tomorrow I shall have one more quick dip in the sea (don’t worry, I’ll avoid any shark tending locales!) and perhaps another bite or two of ocean sourced food, before packing up and readying for home. Next I write, I’ll be back in my familiar haunts and settling into what could be a long autumn, what with one thing and another and so many precious plans canceled. It will be important to maintain an even keel in the months ahead. To lean into the winds in a way that fills the sails and keeps us on course.
Perhaps today I’ll have a sailing lesson.
Much appreciation for you all reading along with me on these recent adventures. I shall endeavor to keep writing, even as we settle back into normality. For there is beauty and even some adventure to be found there as well.
Skies – sunsets in particular – have been magnificent. Reminding us of our small place in the world.
Evening jaunts on the boat allow us a break from the heat on shore and affords us quality time together (at once more than we can handle and never enough – how I love this chosen family of mine).
At times we must dock the boat near the little local general store to stock up on supplies. And sometimes we forget our masks and must improvise which results in iconic fashionry.
In this time of fear and uncertainty, we see others and wish them well, while also hoping they never come too close.
The light here in Maine, from a painter’s perspective, is perfection. I take source photos for later use. Balancing the time here, trying not to be selfish. As usual, I would split the artist side of self off to go work in the corner all week bathed in paints while the rest of human self could dive into a book or a group activity in earnest. But the art always calls and there is no splitting. And so here we are. I do the best I can.
It is a gorgeous day outside, and I have a paddleboard planned with my dearest, long time friend (she birthed both my babies with me back in the day, so you get the depth of our connection.) Later, some socially distant music is planned with a fellow Irish musician local to these lakelands and I am grateful to find a tune here in the wilds, so far from home.
I realize that home is only as far away as the next tune, the next friend, the next dip into some paint of any kind.
I am home the minute I can center into a bit of music, or a puddle of paint, or a beautiful fireside conversation with loved ones (while a mysterious mink waterly wanders by with nary a splash.)
There has been daily practicing of the pipes, as the lady pipers group has done a tune trade this summer and my job was to learn a tune from my “tune fairie” and record said tune to share with my mystery tune-provider.
It was terrifying. Honestly.
But I did it, as I am keen to do this. To learn. To find my small place in this tradition. Even as an American with only distant ties to the motherland of this music, even as an adult learner with so very little musical knowledge. Even as merely an artist. Something about all of it makes just sense.
And so I dive in. Best I can. We have limited time, always. Especially when on vacation. Especially when on vacation during a global pandemic. I know this.
This limit is why I paint. Why I play. Why I write.
There is a recent article in Downeast Magazine about Miss Rumphius, a favorite book of mine about bringing beauty into the world as one lives one’s life. I highly recommend it….
” For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself. He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.”
This day is close. Like humid and slow. I’m reminded of Ohio and grateful for the lake here.
This morning, a walk before some rain. I go for some time, in order to walk off a bit of the rich food and drink vacation with friends doth provide.
I walk, hike and occasionally jog a bit as well, past Wyeth style fields…. (keen to get this barking IT band back in working order)
…..up mountain roads, and past signs of life in the outer world.
There are stony sentinels guarding these well worn paths along the way.
The humidity suits the fungi sort.
Upon returning to camp, rain has begun in earnest and I retreat to the boathouse to practice some tunes for awhile.
Soon, the sun is back out, and the instruments have had their fill of muggy conditions. I put them away and go for a swim.
Fast forward to now…. I have made a painting. It’s busier than I would like. Perhaps I have waited too long to paint. Exercising and playing music first on this particular day. All are priorities of course. I work from memory along with a few snapshots of last night’s spectacular sunset. So much going on there, so much to capture.
So I just push paints around for while. There are notes of this one I like. “It is only a study” (this I remind myself again and again.) I am finding my voice (aren’t we always?) in gouache and one can’t make a masterpiece at every turn.
It is late afternoon and dinner hour begins soon so I’ll wrap up and be fully present here at camp, as that is the business of vacation. (Also, maybe another swim, jaysus, it’s hot!)
There are books to read, naps to take, boat rides to experience, meals to share. It’s all a bright balance of good things here and now. I am grateful for all of it…..