Many Happy Returns

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Eighty eight years ago, Grace and Lamar spent the first night with their new little girl – Barbara Anne Downtain.  She lived in a caretaker’s house with her 2 brother and 2 sisters, squabbling and playing, and hiding from the adult forces beyond her understanding.  She saw this pitcher on the dining room table, watched her mother fill with flowers countless times.  Sometimes, she was the lucky girl who snuggled under this quilt, recovered enough from a summer cold to sit in the living room with the family, and listen to the opera from New York.  At some point, she made a firm decision that life, for her, required art and flowers.

And she grew up to be my mother.

Happy Birthday, Mom.  I miss you so much.

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Grateful Does

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It isn’t getting any easier to write about giving thanks.  Each encounter with the friends who kept my little ship afloat makes the picture brighter, sweeter, and closer, closer, closer to the heart.

Thursday, when I took my phone out of my coat pocket, the dialer already displayed a number – 8.  Infinity, reciprocity, the mathematician’s answer to yin and yang.  The phone had matched that number to a single name – the friend who helped me start my career.  The friend who I discovered to be a shared (and much loved) acquaintance between me and two women I met for the very first time on Wednesday.

I dialed her number, not yet sure what the purpose of the call would be.  (When you get a sign like this, you don’t screw around – you make the call.)  Surprised to hear from me, my friend listened kindly to the tale of unexpected meetings and magical numbers.  “I don’t believe in chance,” she said matter-of-factly.   I knew she didn’t.

As my friend excitedly detailed her volunteer work – filling shoeboxes with everything from notebooks to toys, to be distributed to millions of needy children in countries around the world – her happiness glowed right through the phone.  Her purpose, her fulfillment, her joy in having a way to make her love for children real, filled me with happiness, as well.    “You have millions of kids now,” I said.

At last, I realized the true purpose of the call.  “I just want you to know, in case I haven’t said it enough before, how much I appreciate you helping me get started.”  “I did?”  she answered.  “I guess I don’t remember.”  I reminded her of each step where her friendship had opened a door along my path.  “It’s because of you, I found a way I could support and take care of myself,”  I told her.  “I didn’t ever believe I would be able to do that.”

The help my friend gives all her new children far outshines, in her eyes, any favor she did me – that much is beautifully, necessarily clear.  No reason to make a big deal out of it.  But the fact remains:  her ordinary generosity started my ball rolling – and to me, it is a very, very big deal.

You can’t anticipate the outcome of the good you do.  That is why you have to do any little bit you feel you can.  You just never know.

How Do I Work This?

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“Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.”  – Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Making images started out for me as an almost exclusively solitary enterprise, yet almost as soon as I had made a few photos that felt “real” to me, I wanted to know if other people also could see something in them.  Since my main goal in looking at the world through a camera is to leave behind some trace of my actual self, my wish for confirmation from others felt urgent.  Fraught, you might even say.  No matter how opaque, or amateurish, or ham-fisted my picture world appears, it remains the most real thing I am able to create.

I imagined encouragement or admiration, or response from others would guide me further along my road.  I wanted to enjoy the pure pleasure of being seen as myself, through the lens I have turned on my own world.  But pleasure and I are not such easy companions, and now I find that the more people I show these images to, the less seen I feel.  As a personal matter, this isn’t such a tragedy, but as a matter of self-consciousness when I picked up my camera, it is at least as inhibiting as loneliness or disappointment – possibly even more so.  Whatever it was I wanted from an audience, I don’t think I can get – at least not that way.  Or to say it differently, I already have what I needed from the work itself.  My personal need to be seen is a different problem altogether.

This realization complicates things.  I may need to get back in the cocoon for awhile, spinning out pictures just for myself, repeating things, going over old territory – because my new eyes just aren’t ready yet.

Heres and Theres

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In the twinkling of an eye, my habit of lunchtime blogging has vanished, replaced by scurrying to dress giant Barbie dolls on photo sets exiled far, far away from the reach of wi-fi.  I’m afraid this picture isn’t much of a reward for your visit, since the re-workings at work have drained my tank so thoroughly, there’s no gas left to spark my creativity and photography on the weekends.

This ball of thread is just as I found it, imperfect rewindings overlapping the pristine criss-crosses formed the day it was made, telling the story of a project begun and unfinished, perhaps.    Its core remains unexposed.  A spool like this is full of contradictions – you only find the emptiness at the center core by using it up completely, reconstituting the perfection of machines into the imperfectable and priceless work of hands.

And if that isn’t a metaphor for the life I live –  popping dozens of tops and pants and boxer shorts onto mannequins, luring innocent human beings into imagining themselves somehow improved by wearing the output of factories wherein our brothers and sisters toil – then I don’t understand what a metaphor is.

The Little Heroine

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She thinks she thoughts in butterflies
that floated on the breeze
Where weightless words their clamor sound
she sinks the deeper on her knees.
                              Sometimes, I just take the dictation, folks.

So, yesterday I spotted the unmistakable contour of greyhound ribs as I approached the coffee shop.  Sorja (or something like that), was sitting on the long covered porch outside the cafe, with her friend, the black lapdog Slick (this name I am sure of), and two humans whose names I never did ask.  And when I say sitting, of course, I mean she was standing with her nose at exactly the height of the table top, looking hopeful with large, dark eyes.   Slick, being about 10% Sorja’s size, was nestled majestically on his human’s lap, looking serene.  I gathered the details of Sorja’s life while scratching her white velvety haunches – a breeder, from Dubuque, finally adopted at age nine.   Her life had not involved any table top surfing, of that I am sure.  Not wanting to be too much of a greyhound stalker, after a brief mention of my own retired racers, I left Sorja in peace and went inside to get my coffee.

As I waited for my 3 espresso shots (and yes, I let them give me the fourth for free),  a little tide of loss and joy surged through me.  I thought of Sorja waiting so expectantly for Something Good to Happen for Dogs.  I know just how this feels – I experience it myself, an emotional undercurrent so deep I have to close my eyes and focus on it more or less everyday. (I call this lovingkindness meditation, though Sorja might call it A Nap.)  I looked around the cafe for something that could make Sorja’s dream come true.  Not quiche, not a peanut butter sandwich.  In the cooler, below well ordered rows of colorful cans and bottles of organic bubbling sugar water, I spotted Something Good for Dogs.  String cheese would do nicely.

“Can Sorja have string cheese?”  I asked her Mom.  “Oh, yes!” she said.  Sorja had her wide, dark eyes already fixed alertly on my hands.   She had felt the connection of expectation engage between us, like the moments before the gates crack open and all the world is just this chance to Catch The Bunny.  The promising crinkle of plastic peeling apart held her attention.  Here was Something Good for Dogs.   With flat, polite teeth, she took a pea sized nibble from between my fingers and looked back up at me, as I gave Slick a little treat, too.   I laid the remaining cheese in front of her Mom. “You can give her the rest,” I said.  (No one appreciates a stranger who makes their dog sick from too many treats).  Sorja moved her head towards the cheese, drawn magnetically to the hope of the next nibble., completely ignoring me as I said goodbye and left.

The obvious truth, that Sorja had not stopped expecting that something good might happen, no matter how long the wait, stirred up a painful loss – that I have come to the edge of my willingness to help where I see things have gone beyond me.   Sorja the Greyhound gave me a few moments of certainty that I knew how to make some creature happy, knew how to be good enough.   All it took, for both of us, was a little cheese.

Lady of the Lace – The Beginning of the Tale

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I don’t remember exactly when, so lets say April 4, 1971.  I’m turning 7 today, and so is my twin sister, Pammy.

I don’t remember exactly where so lets say lunch at the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s.  We are sitting ladylike at a table close, but not close enough, to the giant spring display at the center of the dark paneled room.  Mama is miffed.  She says something like “I told her, its your birthday.  We should have a table where you can really see the tree.”

Oh the tree.  Yes, the Tree.  Blossoms and twigs gathered into a towering replica of a spring hillside.  Easter lilies crammed around the trunk, hyacinth crowding daffodils, most likely a delightful family of Easter rabbits in giant scale, with baskets full of eggs –  pink, mint, butter yellow blooming below the vault of the ceiling that rises at least two stories, a sort of retail cathedral.

Let’s say Pammy orders chicken croquettes.  She always eats these, which means I have to eat something different.  I don’t know what to choose.  “Will she like the macaroni and cheese, you think?”  Mama asks the lady in the black dress with a white cap pinned in her grey hair.  The lady nods, and takes the order slip Mama has marked using the little pencil left on the table.  When we come here with Daddy, we always draw on the paper placemats using this pencil.  We have never come here with Mama before.

Lets say Mama is wearing a pretty dress, with a gathered skirt, and a supple wide black belt.  The fabric has tiny red and white checks that look like the new bedspreads for our new canopy beds.  Mama ordered it all from the Sears catalog for a surprise.  If Pammy and I had known, we would have asked for pink.  Mama likes blue better.

The macaroni arrives.  The cheese tastes tangy and sour, not like the salty orange tubes we fix in a pot at home.  Mama is a little miffed at me for not liking the macaroni.  I am in trouble for not eating it.

At last, a piece of cake arrives for each of us.  The frosting is pure white and called buttercream.  It is as dense as a deck of cards and tastes like velvet.  Mama is talking:

“When I was a little girl,”  she says, “My mama took me to the tea room at Block’s Department Store.  And for dessert they brought something special…”

Mamma’s voice is sweet and lonesome, like the feeling I have when I sneak into the hallway late at night to watch her watching television, waiting for Daddy to come home from a guitar job.  I can’t pay attention to my cake anymore.

“…there was a little china doll on top…”

Mamma makes a space between her thin forefinger and thumb.

“…and her skirt was made of ice cream…”

Pammy and I  have both stopped eating now.

“… covered in flakes of fresh coconut…”

A doll with an ice cream skirt.   My own dessert is forgotten, replaced by a picture of something so beautiful and impossible, it is like a fairy tale.  I am trying to believe what Mama is saying.  I know I can never taste or see it.  I want that doll dessert more than anything I can actually have today.  Stronger still, I want that sound of happiness to linger in my Mamma’s voice.

“You didn’t finish your desserts,”  she says, including both of us in her judgement now.  “Didn’t you like it?  If I knew you didn’t want it, I wouldn’t have ordered it for you.”  She is miffed again.

“Ok girls.  Lets go look at dolls.  Would you like to do that?”

We nod.  We know where the dolls are, two escalator rides down.  The tiaras we have be oggling are close by.  Maybe today, Mama will buy us the ones we really want.

Arrival

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Everyone starts with the same things:
One Papa, One Mama
Someplace to rest.
Not everyone arrives
with two hearts
beating not as One but

Always Together.

I love you Pammy!  Happy Birthday!

Fool You April!

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Snowy earth, you can’t hide the garden forever.  I can make flowers and butterflies, too.  All I need is a little light and an open heart and just the right magic words, and here you go….I declare it “SPRING!”

Katey Sunbug and the Stars

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The green traffic arrow signaled abruptly.  I turned onto the darkening highway, accelerating toward home.  Twilight thickened around the horizon, pulling each vehicle along its pulsing connection to the road like a magnet.  In the glow-worm shine of the speedometer, I said to myself for the first time, “This is Katey’s last night on Earth.”

I had needed an afternoon of errands and coffee and denial to let it sink in.  Craig had finally asked the vet to come the next day to end our greyhound’s life.  Now, all at once, southbound on Hwy 18/151, my whole body and mind knew what was happening.  Whatever this precious place is – our home full of sidewalks and stars and grass to nibble on when no one is looking – Katey’s time here was passing into the softness of night, counted in hours and minutes and seconds.

There was only one thing I wanted to do, but still I hesitated.  I drove all the way home, mentally listing the reasons why I could not spend this night with Katey – powerful fears masked as excuses so pitiful I can’t even remember them now.  When I got home, I heated some dinner, and stood in the kitchen, eating.  The fork, the stove, the counter, the dish – all seemed solid and somehow alive.  My mind cleared, and I gave in to the certainty that filled my heart.  In all the world, there was nothing else for me to do but get in the car and drive back to Madison, and spend as much of tonight as I could with Katey Sunbug.

For a few hours, I curled up next to her bed in front of the radiator in the living room of the Victorian house where my ex grew up.  Katey’s caretakers hovered around, wondering outloud if she wanted attention or needed the incontinence pad changed.   As always, Katey showed what she wanted with her gaze.  We had only to follow her eyes toward her water bowl, less than a foot from her head.  It might as well have been in the other room, she was so helpless to reach it on her own.  After a few licks at the the bowl held under her lips, even the power of her thirst failed, and her head dropped back against the cushions.

Worried that his Sunbug might get cold, Craig covered Katey in soft fleece throws.  I thought of my own father’s last hours, when he had used his remaining strength to kick off the blanket and sheets, saying, “These things keep tangling me!”  We set aside the blanket, and in a few minutes, Katey settled down, nothing but skin and fur between her and the air.

Soon I knew I had truly done all I could for Katey.  Her body only needed a little while longer to catch up to the freedom of her heart and spirit.  Sunbug and I had seen Night together for the last time, and no distance she would cover in the next hours would give her anymore of me than I already had.  I put on my double-down coat.  Outside the cozy airlock of candy dishes and family portraits, the world was below zero.  Mammoth icicles, helpless against the piercing light of the cloudless sun, had melted despite the temperature.  The water they spread puddled, frozen across the front walk.   Rather than scramble over jagged snowbanks along the curb, I sidestepped the ice flows, and walked to the corner to get to my car.  The darkness shivered inky black and thin in a way that comes only with bitter cold.   I breathed in sharp dry air, knowing Katey might not live to see the light ease into tomorrow’s sky.  The sun was already waiting for her someplace else.