Saturday, October 3, 2015

Granddaddy's Library

I wrote this last March, but am posting it now, since yesterday, October 2, would have been my grandfather, Goodwin Batterson Beach's, 130th birthday. He was one of the people who gave a solid foundation of love in my childhood and who inspired in me a love of learning, particularly a love of language and languages. Granddaddy often spoke to me in Latin, and his ordinary English was sprinkled with many now-archaic words and expressions that were archaic even then and have given me a love of beautiful and seldom-used words. Here is one of my many wonderful memories of Granddaddy:
It’s March 31st, but it’s snowing pretty hard and feels raw outside. Inside, though, Steve has just kindled a fire, so I get my book and head for the living room. As I enter the room, I hear the crackling of the fire and I smell smoke. Not the kind of smoke that burns your eyes or makes you cough. This is a warm, homey smelling smoke that takes me back through time, back almost five decades and east about 75 miles to West Hartford, Connecticut. I step into Granddaddy’s library and am in another world. A world of books, of warmth, of quiet, a world of love, though I don’t think to call it by that name. It’s just Granddaddy’s library, and it’s one of my favorite places. A fire roars and crackles on the hearth, bright embers occasionally popping against the screen-- a metal mesh that slides across the front of the small fireplace. When the fire dies down, one of us grandchildren gets to use the wooden and leather bellows to blow air at the base of the logs to revive the flames, filling the library with a smokey smell peculiar to this room. The smell of this room is the fragrance of peace to me.
Everything in this room speaks peace-- the wallpaper with its subtle pattern, the wood paneled cabinets below the bookshelves, the oriental rug that muffles my steps, the table with brass letter opener neatly in its place, and the books. Books that line the walls, neatly arranged on built-in shelves up to the ceiling, bindings drawing me close to look, tempting me to run my finger over the soft, worn leather; titles promising knowledge and adventure, if only I could read Latin, Greek, and other ancient languages.
The best part of the room is Granddaddy, sitting in his armchair with the coarse, tan tweed upholstery in the corner with bookshelves on both sides and a small end table beside his chair. He can’t see me very well, but when I nestle into his lap and lean my head against his chest, my cheek against the scratchy tweed jacket, he wraps his long arms around me. I hold still and listen to his heart beating slow and steady, feel his arms strong and gentle around me, smell the comforting smell of tobacco, and know I am safe and loved.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Next Year's Words

I had the privilege of reading a selection of my writings two days ago at Next Year's Words: a New Paltz Readers' Forum. This was my first time reading any of my writings in public, and I was a little nervous beforehand. Once I started reading, though, I stepped back into the worlds I was sharing through my observations and musings, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Susan Chute, one of the founders of Next Year's Words and the coordinator of the evening this week, is an artist with words, and she wrote a very affirming and encouraging introduction for me with information she drew information from writing I have done in workshops with her, and from my blog and art website. She has given me permission to share that introduction here, which I do to show Susan's way with words and also to comment on what her words did for me.

For some time I've been puzzled about how I can best combine my interests in writing with my sketching and painting, and Susan's words were like a key that unlocked that mystery for me. After hearing how Susan perceives my words and paintings, I have a clearer picture of how I would like to move forward with my artistic endeavors. It is a gift to have insights and encouragement from others. Thank you very much, Susan, for this wonderful intro and also for inviting me to read!
After we admired Broken Arch we continued on the trail, which turned out to be much longer than we had expected. We passed by some marvelous formations that begged to be climbed on, and the children and I climbed way up. The view from the top of some tall fins was fabulous, and I felt like a mountain goat as I stood in the wind with my hair flying around my head. —Journal page, Melissa Fischer
 To say that Melissa Fischer is an avid observer of nature is a colossalunderstatement, like saying New Paltz has a little college. From my 30-year-NYC urban perspective, Melissa Fischer IS nature. She is a goat, she is acreature “launching herself down the eroded hill, leaping from rock to ridge,ricocheting to the next narrow ridge beside water-gouged gashes.” Like many inthe kingdom of fauna, she has a wide and keen field of vision, which she uses towrite and draw, and her words and watercolors visualize on paper what I movedto New Paltz to notice. If you want to see what I mean, find her blogs on theweb, and you will enter an exquisitely rendered marriage of word and image. 
Melissa spent many happy childhood hours immersed in the world ofnature and animals that she found at a nearby wildlife sanctuary and at homewith her devoted pets: passions that have only become more intense in her adultlife. In recent years, Wallkill Valley Writers has inspired her to reconnect withthe realm of memory. She has exhibited her artwork in many libraries and galleries and shortly will be leaving for Acadia National Park in Maine, where she has been selected as an artist-in-residence.
Turn to your right and follow Melissa and her dog on wide, dirt trails tounexpected places. You will see things you never noticed before. Pleasewelcome Melissa Fischer.     

 Here are the pieces of my writing that I read:

I am going to read five short pieces I wrote that are my musings about times either at or near my home or my parents’ home. I’ve ordered them according to the time of day they are about, starting with the wee hours of the morning.

3AM Walk
The soft sound of rain lures me from my bed. Never mind that it’s 2:53 AM, or perhaps because it is, I’m drawn outside. With dark pajama bottoms, raincoat and Muck shoes, I’ll be pretty much invisible in the warm, wet night. Petra is the obvious choice of a walking companion. The quietest of my dogs and with almost no white fur, she also will be invisible and unobtrusive.

I flip off the motion sensitive outdoor lights so they won’t intrude on the darkness, slip into the night and look around, Petra quietly by my side. Fireflies twinkle over the swamp… not many-- they’re just getting started for the season, but a sight that always fills me with wonder and that I can’t bear to miss. A pinprick glows in the grass at my feet – glowworm?

I walk slowly, Petra padding by my side with an occasional foray to sniff where some animal has crossed. A Tree Frog trills as I walk by the maple and another answers from across the stream. Then another, from farther back in the woods and yet another from the lilacs. I’m surrounded by animal life, mostly hidden from my sight, but going about their lives on their land. The night is theirs; I am just a visitor in their world.

Fall in a Field
I grumbled a bit as I grabbed my keys and headed out the door. Why, oh why does some neighbor have to play a saxophone by an open window starting at 6:30 every morning? I didn’t really feel like going out, but I wanted to find out who was so inconsiderate, so we could ask them to please shut their window before practicing.

Well, I didn’t find out who our morning musician is, but I did decide that, since I was already out anyway, I might as well go lay a track for my Beagle Milo. In theory I love going out to lay a track for my dog first thing in the morning. In practice, it’s hard to get dressed to leave the house, when I’m usually still padding around in pajamas and bathrobe with a steaming mug of tea. And actually, I scarcely qualified as “dressed” this morning, which I realized when I got back home and looked in the mirror to see my hair unbrushed, my shirt askew, with the collar cockeyed, and my nice blazer now covered with stick-tights. I don’t normally wear a blazer to lay a track. In fact, I don’t normally wear a blazer at all. It just happened to be the nearest thing when I grabbed for something to keep me warm in my not-quite-awake state. I was also wearing crocs, not hiking boots.   

The field was heavy with dew and had a magical feel in the early morning quiet. Apricot colored clouds piled high in the sky, shimmering in the sunrise. Given my atypical garb, fortunately I was alone in the field—always a plus for this nature-loving introvert. I looked at the distant trees and found two points I could line up to help me lay a straight track and I walked, then looked back to see my path clear and dark green through the lighter-colored wet grass. Choosing two more points, I walked in another direction, laying a second leg and then another and yet another. Birds called, but otherwise the morning was quiet. Too cool for insects to be on the move yet, but scattered wildflowers were raising their pretty faces to the sun. I lost myself in the joy of being out alone, and didn’t notice the stick-tights or the wet pant legs and socks until I got back to my car. And I didn’t care then; it had been the perfect start to my day.

Three and a half hours later I returned to the field with my happily dancing Beagle, both of us eager to run the track. The fields were now dry in the sunshine, the fragrance of fall-on-a-warm-day filling the air. A fragrance that instantly brings a kaleidoscope of memories to mind—riding my bike through leafy paths as a young child; running through cabbage fields for cross-country practice in high school; toting a heavy bag of apples across campus from an orchard to my college dorm room. I paused to relish my memories, then was brought back to the present by my gleeful Milo, who could hardly contain his excitement.

We ran the track, Milo tracking enthusiastically and well, me enjoying the connection with my dog, the connection with nature, and the connection with the part of myself that thrives on the simple pleasure of being outside fully immersed in the present moment.
Perhaps tomorrow I’ll find our saxophone alarm clock and lay another track.

I wrote this next piece sitting on a bridge over the stream that runs by our house.

The water strider works his way upstream with effort-filled jerks, then turns and strides gracefully back down, each tiny foot barely dimpling the surface of the water in little bowl-shaped depressions and casting shadows on the streambed—darker ovals on the golden brown mud lining the stream. He repeats this endeavor over and over. Once when he nears me, I glance down to look more closely at him. Instead I notice two tiny eyes pointing in my direction… miniscule eyes moving slightly from side to side on the tips of small stalks down under several inches of water. 

It takes me a moment to determine what the stalks are attached to, since their snail is covered with algae and is moving very, very slowly, across an algae-coated rock under the water. He is moving so slowly and apparently gently that he doesn’t even disturb the pearl-like bubbles on the rock’s surface. I watch, engrossed, over the next several minutes, as the snail moves about a centimeter closer, first sliding his foot a millimeter or two, then pausing before hitching his shell along to catch up with his foot, all along slowly moving his eyes on their stalks. Is he watching me watching him? 

I hold my cell phone down by the water to take a close-up of the snail in hopes that I can see him better that way than I can from my perch on the steeply sloped stone of the stream’s bank. I carefully align the phone and snap a photo. The snail’s stalked eyes still watch me, moving slightly in the current. The water strider strides purposefully upstream again, his shadows, magnified by the water, moving along the golden brown mud. 

Rocking back on my heels, I lift my phone to look at my photo of the snail and the shadows …and look again… There is no snail on the screen of my phone, no golden brown shadows… Instead the screen is all blue and white… 

I look again at the stream and there is the snail and the golden brown, oval shadows now moving downstream. I look up; blue sky and clouds. I look back at the stream. Water strider, snail, shadows. Looking again, I slowly draw my focus up from the bottom of the stream and finally see blue sky and white clouds, perfectly reflected from above on the surface of the water.

 My Chestnut Stump – This next piece is about a favorite childhood spot where the stump of a chestnut tree stood. Almost all American chestnuts had been killed by a blight before I was born, but until then, much of the Northeast was covered with chestnut forest.
I approached the stump slowly. The skeleton of an old chestnut tree, it stood with smooth, curved ribs pointing to the sky. Hidden deep in the woods, far from any path, my stump rose high above a precipice, the evening sun making the grey wood glow golden.

I always felt a sense of awe as I approached The Stump. I had never seen a living chestnut in all its glory, but this stump stood with a dignity not common among the trees in the sanctuary. Majestic even in death, my chestnut stood with purpose, connecting heaven and earth for me.

Bedtime Musings
I close my journal, lay down my pen and turn off the light. Bedtime after a full day. But… I cannot resist the call of the night, so I step out, quietly shut the door, and slip into another world.

The half moon shines bright over the heavy silhouettes of the maples flanking the orchard. The Evening Star—Venus—is still hanging above the western hills, brighter than any of the stars that shine from unimaginable distances. I scan the sky until I come to the Big Dipper, a familiar friend I’ve known since childhood. Tracing a line through the two end stars of the dipper and beyond, I meet the North Star, and from there find the Little Dipper. Some of its stars are almost too faint to see; I can only discern them because I know by heart where they have to be.

I search the sky again and think that perhaps I’ve found Cygnus, the Swan, but I’m not sure. It’s odd how I barely remember the constellations I learned in more recent years but know well the ones Papa taught me so long ago. Thank you, Papa, for this, among many other things you taught me of the world of nature.

The nearby rushing of the creek draws my attention, and I listen—to the water running endlessly over smooth rocks between mossy banks, to the crickets singing in the night, to the lack of traffic noise. This last pauses my mental meandering, and I savor the absence of noise and the clarity of the sounds of nature—the music of creation with my ears tuned to its subtle melody. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Van Gogh and Nature

On Tuesday I went to The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to see the "Van Gogh and Nature" exhibition. It was wonderfully inspiring, as I expected it to be, with many drawings and paintings I hadn't seen before. I particularly enjoyed seeing and studying Van Gogh's trees and his studies of moths and one of a bird. 

After going slowly through the Van Gogh exhibit, I walked up the hill (a beautiful, quiet, woodland walk) to the Lunder Center, where there is an exhibit of James McNeil Whistler's paintings and etching's, "Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black, and White".

After going through the Whistler exhibit,  I went back down the hill and went slowly through the Van Gogh exhibit again, focusing on my favorite pieces. Then, feeling inspired by all that I had seen, I braved the heat outside and sat in the shade under a tree to sketch the beautiful hill rising up behind the museum. Altogether a delightful, educational, and inspiring day.

My sketch from behind The Clark

Monday, August 24, 2015

Some recent sketches

I haven't posted much recently, partially because I've been trying to get out and sketch more when the weather had been nice, which means less time online. It's funny how the internet exerts such a siren call, enticing me to spend time online, but when I just get outside and start sketching, I feel free of that pull and immerse myself more in the present moment. Here are a few sketches of some such recent "present moments," some alone and some with Stephen.

Looking downriver from Shadows restaurant during Stephen's birthday dinner
Bowdoin Park oak tree

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Outer Banks Meandering July 2015

I folded what is sometimes called a meander or maze book from a single sheet of watercolor paper (22" x 30") and filled it up (32 pages) on our Fischer family vacation to the Outer Banks. I love the word "meander," since that is what I do when I have a sketchbook in hand and nature aplenty to observe, so I am calling it that, as "meander" describes both form and function for me. I followed Cathy Johnson's Youtube tutorial and folded the whole meander book in about ten minutes-- very satisfying for this craft-averse person. I will definitely be making more of these!

We had a wonderful time with Stephen's family, as we always do. We stayed in a house on the Currituck Sound side of the Outer Banks (as opposed to the ocean side) for the first time this year, and I spent hours every day walking and sitting observing the flora and fauna of the Outer Banks. I had planned to do a lot of people sketching, too, but I ended up only sketching people a few times, as I was mostly in conversation when with the family and otherwise was outside observing birds, dragonflies, and plant life. One afternoon a few of us attended a fabulous dragonfly identification workshop, which was very timely, since I had spent the previous afternoon sketching dragonflies.

Below are photos of my meander book-- both sides of the whole book unfolded, then closer scans of some of the pages. You can click the images to see them large enough to read my notes, if you so desire.

Sunset July 22 from Currituck Banks Reserve
Sunset July 23 from Currituck Banks Reserve

Friday, June 19, 2015

Happy 12th Birthday, Rowan!

My Rowan is twelve today. In some ways it is hard to believe he's that old, but then I see him get up slooowly from one of his frequent naps, and I'm reminded that he is no longer a youngster. We spend more time snuggling than playing these days, but every now and then Rowan looks at me with a gleeful glint in his eye and then leaps into the air and darts back and forth in front of me. He did that yesterday when I walked to the car and back; he was overflowing with joy that I hadn't gone away without him. I overflow with joy and gratitude every time he does that.

No matter how deeply Rowan is sleeping, if I say the magic words, "Do you want to go with me?" he leaps to his feet and runs to the front door, where he dances impatiently until we go out together. He flops into his spot in my car (the floor of the passenger side), always facing me, and happily stays in the car until we're back home, sleeping some of the time, but frequently opening his eyes to check on my. If I reach down at a red light, he rests his chin in my palm, and sighs contentedly. So do I; it feels so good to have my boy with me wherever I am. Now that the weather is warming up, he can't go out with me often, since he is retired from formal Service Dog work for the most part, but whenever I can, I schedule errands for cool mornings.
Rowan in his spot in my car
As I type, I hear Rowan snoring behind me. I know no matter how quietly I get up to leave the room, he'll open an eye to see what I'm up to. If I turn off the light as I leave the room, he'll get up and follow me. If I don't turn off a light, he'll wait in his comfortable spot on the floor to see if I'm coming back, but inevitably within just a few minutes he'll come find me, flop down near me, and fall asleep again after watching me closely for a minute or two.

On a recent walk-- my faithful, happy shadow
These days with an older dog are challenging both due to aging health issues and because of the backdrop of uncertainty that hangs heavy at times, but they are also wonderful in a way unique to a connection forged over years of time growing together. Rowan has long since shed the reactivity of his younger years and has become the most connected, intuitive dog I have ever known. I have grown in more ways than I could write, thanks to what he needed from me to help him learn and grow from an impulsive young dog to a steady Service Dog capable of traveling around the country with me and thanks to his faithful, loving presence in my life. I don't know how much longer Rowan will be with me, but I treasure every day we have together, and hope we still have years to enjoy the connection and partnership we have grown.

Happy twelfth Birthday, Rowan! I am so thankful for you.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Quiet Day

Today has been my weekly Quiet Day, a day each week when Stephen goes to the office instead of working from home, so that I can have time home alone. I cherish the silence and solitude to read, pray, putter, sketch, muse, and just be. It's actually not silent today-- the birds are singing their spring songs of love, the stream is gurgling as it courses by the yard, and a light breeze has been whispering through the slightly greening shrubs all day. Those sounds have enriched my day from the very start, when I awoke at 5:30 to the sound of a Phoebe vociferously calling forth the dawn, with the faint burbling of the stream in the background. I listened briefly, then dozed a while, the birdsong a peaceful lullaby until I awoke again, ready to rise and rejoice in the gift of a new day.

I've spent most of today outside walking the dogs, reading,  sketching, and sometimes just enjoying the peace of an unscheduled day. To cap the day off, Stephen and I are going out on a date after he gets home from work. A perfect day that will leave me refreshed for another week of dog training and other work.
Bridge over our stream (Wolff's carbon pencil)
Locust Tree (Pen & Ink)
Robin's nest on a ladder
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