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The Striped Towel

The Striped Towel

My brother and I traveled from Missouri for my sister’s 70th birthday bash.  We both stayed at my other sister’s house in El Cerrito, where I have had the pleasure of staying many times.  I know her small home and most of what’s in it very well.  The felted wool children’s slippers from someplace in South America and her partner’s childhood teddy bear on top of the book case.  The small painting of a dog, made by one of her clients.  The small perfect seashells lined up below the bathroom mirror.  The ever-changing photo gallery in the hall, including, at least when I visit, photos of me and my two dogs.  The round French tablecloth with its weights for eating out on the deck.  All the little niceties.  I even know her bathroom towels.

The Striped Towel

On this visit, there were two bath towels hanging in the guest bathroom, since two of us were visiting.  On the top bar was a new striped towel, in various lovely shades of sky and sea glass blue on a white background.  Oh, I loved the look of that new towel!  It just had a soothing, calming air to it, reminiscent of the ocean and easy summers.  Thinking I’d be first in the shower next morning, I set my sights on using that new towel.  My brother wouldn’t care two hoots about which towel he’d use.

But to my chagrin, I found that towel damp and crumpled the next morning when I went in for a shower.  I could not help but express my disappointment when we were all together.  Don had claimed the striped towel.  Oh, the look of bafflement on his face!  It said, How could you possibly care which towel you use?  Always the gentleman, he had very considerately used the towel that was hanging highest, since I am not at all what you would call tall.  My sister Mary completely understood my view.  It is a very nice towel and aesthetics matter very much to me and to her.  

Here at home I notice myself examining the forks at dinner to choose the least tarnished one.  I like to have the curtains drawn in such a way that the curtain rings are evenly spaced apart.  Even now, at home all day due to the coronavirus, I consider which earrings I will wear.  I like a certain spoon for ice cream, a particular other type of spoon for soup or salsa.  My son delights in pulling the curtains across recklessly, offers me a long-handled iced tea spoon for ice cream (if you can believe that), a dessert fork for dinner!   

At Mary’s house I wanted not just to see the striped towel hanging in the bathroom; I wanted it for my towel for the week.  

This is both a curse and a blessing, the curse being little disappointments–but oh, the blessing!  I take pleasure in all of the small things–the striped towel, the artful shape of numbers on anyone’s address, the curve of a blade of grass, the fallen leaf caught in a shrub, the interesting rock, the clouds moving across the sky, the scent of my dog’s fur.  I could go on.

You might suggest that I go out and buy myself a striped towel.  But no.  I want to enjoy that striped towel the next time I visit my sister, which won’t be soon, I’m afraid, but will happen one day when all the craziness is over.

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My son had the brilliant idea of purchasing an above-ground pool a few years ago.  It is 12 inches in diameter and approximately 30 inches tall.  Each year we put it up and then every fall there’s the more challenging job of emptying it, cleaning and putting it away.  That is, each year except last year, when we both tired of the whole idea.  

This year, with Covid-19 upon us and my oldest son coming from New York City for a prolonged visit, I felt we should definitely have the pool up for all of us to enjoy.  And this year, pools are at a premium.  Everyone, it seemed, wanted a backyard pool, if they could get one.  I felt lucky we already had one and I felt once again that this was the most brilliant idea Oliver had ever had.  We’d be going nowhere this summer and a pool would be just the thing.

The other day I was in the pool, skimming stuff off the top and attempting (probably futilely) to stir up the tiny particles at the bottom that were escaping the filter, a constant battle and frustration.  But it was a hot day and I was also planning to have a liedown on the mesh pool float.  However, a honeybee seemed to have the same thought.  It kept hovering around the float and then alighting again and again on it, often on the pillow.  It seemed to be drawn to the mesh.  What was it doing?  Did the mesh remind this little bee of honeycomb?  Was it wanting a drink of water?  Why did it stay so long?  And WHEN would it go away, so I could have a liedown??  

I gave up, went back in the house and reported to my sons that there was a bee bothering the raft and it would not leave; thus, I could not have a liedown.  They offered little sympathy.  ONE bee? I detected a smirk.

The next day I went out again to attend to the pool.  They do take a lot of maintenance, even or quite possibly especially a small one like ours.  As I skimmed I found the bee, drowned.  Apparently, the little thing had been contemplating suicide on the previous day.  I had not intervened.  The hovering and bothering had been its tiny, silent cry for help and I had done nothing.  I went into the house and reported on this to my sons, who found me mildly amusing.

When I went back out, intending to have a bee-free liedown on my raft, I noticed another bee hovering, lighting, hanging about.  What the hell?  I went into the house and reported to my sons that the bee had set off a series of copycat suicides.  Next thing we knew, there were two bees spending all kinds of time on and around the raft.  And people say cell phones are killing the bees.

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Be a Dog

This morning I needed to take my car in to my mechanic. When I do this, my dogs ride along with me and we walk back through town. We forego our usual walk in the woods and have an urban walk, instead. And we enjoy that, too.

Dogs enjoy walking. They have a good time wherever they go. I’ll modify that statement a tiny bit. My 16-pound poodle mix, Rufus, does not enjoy walking in the rain very much and today we did get caught in the rain. His tail drags and he does look pretty miserable. However, in every other sense, dogs have a good time wherever and however they go, leashed or unleashed. They find new things to smell and taste and pee on, even on the same street or trail they’ve walked a hundred times before. The world is their oyster and it doesn’t matter what sort of world it is or how often they’ve been there. They are intrepid explorers. They are curious scientists. They are all in, wherever and whenever they go.

Dogs can encounter the same tree, sign post, or boulder, and find something fascinating about it. Of course, their fabled sense of smell gives incredible nuance to everything they encounter. The great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, about a man who suddenly found himself with a highly enhanced sense of smell. He compared himself to a dog. He told Dr. Sacks that he was utterly unable to get anything done because he was so completely distracted by the smells around him. Eventually, the phenomenon faded and the man went back to his regular life. But the story always made me think about the vast possibilities that exist in our brains. We are clearly capable of all kinds of things that we cannot even imagine.

Imagine finding the world and every scrap of thing in it as fascinating as dogs do. Imagine being all in every time you take a walk, even from the door of your car to the door of the grocery store. Imagine checking out each object you encounter as if you’re seeing (smelling) it for the first time, with the open mind of an exceptionally curious scientist. Or a dog. Imagine being enthralled by every scrap of thing, wondering what it is and whether or not you might want it. Try being a dog scientist, exploring every tiny bit of your world. Sure, you can’t do it all the time. You’d get nothing done. But just for a little while, maybe on a short walk, try a little experiment.

Be a dog.

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The Ephemeral Nature of Nature

The first day of summer, our summer solstice, put me into a mood about how very quickly everything in nature passes through and on. All through the spring I was recording the time of sunrise in a small book I’m keeping on my woodland rambles. DSC08572I so enjoyed seeing the earlier and earlier time, felt a little thrill at each new entry. 6:43 on the last day of February (Leap Day this year), and then disappointingly, by mid-March, back to 7:23 with the switch to Daylight Savings Time. Oh, the slings and arrows! But then earlier and earlier, so that by June 20, the sun was rising at 5:43. Lovely! DSC09146Somehow I had not thought ahead to things moving in the opposite direction. So on the longest day of the year I was feeling a bit moody about the falling away.


In the woods and really everywhere, things bloom with such verve, new things popping up all the time. IMG_5166While it’s fun to see them come, it’s always a bit hard to have them go. And I know that if these ones didn’t go there mightn’t be room for others–or the time for the others might never come. Everything in nature has its time. DSC09336Still, it’s much easier to breathe a sigh of relief that the ice storm is over or the temps have finally dropped from the high 90s to the low 80s than it is to watch a thing that you love fall away. And sure, I’m grateful that those couple of difficult years have gone and I’m so much happier now. I’m glad the coyote is no longer dogging us in the woods and I’m happy for this steady fall of rain soaking the earth today.DSC09934


Time does zoom along without checking in with us. I grow older, my sons are far older than I ever imagined them being, my lively little dog suddenly has arthritis troubling him and I can do nothing at all about any of it. The days are growing shorter without my permission. DSC09945Even though I am someone who enjoys all of the seasons, this summer, probably because it’s a happy time of contentment for me this particular year, is moving along too quickly. Nothing for me to do but observe the changes, enjoy the new sights and sounds as they come, pick the ripening blackberries, savor the tomatoes and corn showing up at the Farmer’s Market, and fill up each day with whatever’s available. And I’ll allow myself a little mood over the ephemeral nature of nature. After all, I know the mood will pass.

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New York, New York, What a Wonderful Town!

I have just returned from New York City, where I visited my two sons who’ve settled there. Almost always I wish I had just one more day there. Always, there is so much to see and do that part of my list goes unchecked. This time we did manage to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We took in the Brooklyn Art Museum, the Whitney, MoMA and the Met. But we did not get to the Guggenheim. The amount and quality of art that one can view in New York City is amazing–and not just in the museums. There are galleries, too, of course, but street and subway art abounds and can be as uplifting or disturbing as gallery art.

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Doors, panels and fences are painted by their owners. Garage doors are turned into huge canvases. People find ways to make art and express themselves all over the city.

The City itself is a work of art, of course. Skyscrapers backdrop Central Park and Bryant Park, the Empire State Building is lit up in whatever colors are appropriate to a holiday or for no particular reason. Subway walls and halls have become mosaics, paintings, sculpture galleries. Art is featured on the subways and buses.

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Yep, NYC is a feast for the eyes and an inspiration for the creative soul. A New York art critic once remarked that he chose to regard the trash on the sidewalks and the detritus of this ever-moving, on the go population as art, for in this day that finds artists searching for novelty, a pile of leftover furniture and lumber might well be found in the Whitney or MoMA as some artist’s statement on urban life. But why not try to see everything as art? It can only make life more pleasing. Why not? It’s easy to do with nature–but why not try it with the rest of our surroundings?


And why not do what we can to spruce up our own corners of the world with chalk, paint, yarn, bits of lumber, branches, stones, whatever falls to hand. We all have the ability to create art out of very little in our own yards and homes, on our streets and sidewalks, front stoops and porches. Why don’t we all do a little street art and bring a smile to a passerby’s face? I’m inspired to do something grand on my own property. Maybe I’ll paint something whimsical on the concrete foundation that shows on the sides of the house or do chalk art on the steps–make the steps an ever-changing work of art. My fence is a perfect backdrop for all manner of things, and the deck railing, too. My shutters are plain old white and really need to be replaced. Maybe I’ll put on something cool that I’ve made and painted. Rock towers and cairns, woven tree branches, odd sculptures from found objects, fairy houses . . . it’s anything goes if it’s on my own property. And then there’s the wider world. One could leave Andy Goldsworthy inspired works of art behind in woods and parks. I say let’s get on with it! Let’s make art all over the place! What might YOU do?

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Waxing Nostalgic

Many of my artist friends are set up in booths right now for an outdoor art show in Springfield MO that I used to do. Rain is predicted. I drove through there a few days ago, 12 years to the day since a tornado tore through the area just north of there as we were tearing down on Sunday evening. Just north of there is where I was headed in my old Chevy conversion van, essentially a large box on wheels. But intrepid and foolish show artist that I was, I headed that way without really checking on the weather.  (This pre-dates iPhones.) By the time I arrived near Camdenton MO, the tornado had already torn through there, uprooting big trees and smashing homes. Downed trees lay across the road and I had to turn around. But had I gotten there maybe ten minutes earlier, I might never have gotten through. I might have ended up beneath one of those big trees. Instead, I was only delayed. I took a very long way around, dogged by rain and downed trees and managed to make it home eight hours after I’d started out on what would normally have been a 3-hour drive.

Shows can be difficult, to say the least. I have never had my tent blown over by a storm or blown into a neighboring tent, never had all my inventory smashed to bits (as some potters and glass artists have), never been robbed. But I have sat through many a rainy show, many a searingly hot show, many a cold, windy show. I’ve endured a Harley Davidson parade through a show, heard The Cowboy Comic make farting noises into the microphone, and once I was given a booth space with a tree in the middle of it.  “We were hoping you could work around it,” the young woman said.  Um, and how exactly would I set up my tent?? Once I sprained my wrist from a fall while trying to outrace an oncoming thunderstorm. But I never had a heart attack inside a Porta Potty, as a woman supposedly once did, at a show.

It was 95 degrees the first weekend in May the last time I did the Springfield show. The following year, it snowed, but the previous fall I had experienced four in a row cold, wet, rainy shows and decided I was through. The joy that I’d experienced for so many years was dissipating. Time to change things.

When do we finally decide to make a change? I think for me the time had come long before I actually made the decision. I had once loved doing shows! I loved being a sort of gypsy artist, traveling to new places, staying in hotels, meeting amazing and quirky artists from all over the U.S., seeing the great art they’d made, chatting with my effusive customers. It was easy to imagine that I might love them once again. Maybe the next one . . . ? But after more than a decade, the bloom was off the rose. I had certainly seen the signs, knew that I wasn’t happy. But I resisted making that final decision, as is my way. I think we all make choices like this in our own baffling ways. I need to be given a bazillion signs, omens and portents, need to think and think and think before I finally make up my mind. (See my earlier post, Decisions, Decisions.) Some people snap to a decision just like that! I envy them–but I like to think that no one way is better than another.

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First Place, Second Place

Artists are quite familiar with rejection. We submit images of our work for review by unknown expert jurors and steel ourselves for rejection. Sometimes we submit an actual, physical piece of work for judgment (and rejection) by a stranger. One needs a pretty thick skin to do this again and again. Recently, I remarked to my son as I was preparing to enter a piece for jurying, “I’m paying fifteen dollars for the opportunity to feel the sting of rejection.” Wondering why I do it. (As luck–and I–would have it, that time I was accepted.)


DesertWhy do we do it? Well, it’s very nice to have a piece accepted into an exhibit, to go to the reception, have a glass of wine, nice hors d’oeuvres, to have the piece viewed by others, to be in the running for an award or even sell the piece. We do need to eat, pay the gas bill, etc. There is the possibility of a monetary reward. And it’s quite validating to get into a good show, to have a whole booth full of work, pin one’s hopes on a particular weekend to have the heady feeling of having one’s creative attempts admired, loved, gushed over (and to pay that gas bill). In 2008 I got into the St. Louis Art Fair, a show that is notoriously difficult to get into. Fifteen hundred applicants for something like 120 spots. That was definitely the high point of my artistic career. At the time I said to myself, “Enjoy this weekend!  It may never happen again!” And I did so enjoy it.


Recently I’ve begun playing pickleball. People ask, “What is pickleball?” and I always say, “It’s the fastest growing sport in North America!” It’s a wonderful sport that takes place on a court that’s smaller than a tennis court, with a similar net to tennis, played with oversize paddles and often played as a doubles game. Pickleball players are notoriously good-natured. When I say, “Sorry!” to whatever partner I’m playing with, I’m usually told, “There is no ‘Sorry’ in pickleball.” And quite importantly, we do not say Winners and Losers. We say First Place and Second Place. How nice! How lovely! I’d like to think that every time my work is not chosen for a show or exhibit, it merely came in second. Not rejected. Not horrible. I am not a complete failure as an artist (and a person), not deemed inferior in every possible way by a total stranger who knows nothing about me and cannot possibly know what this means to me, my loved ones, my friends and my dogs.


So let’s follow the lead of pickleball players. Let’s do away with Acceptance/Rejection in the art world, especially this little tiny corner of the art world that so many of us inhabit. And if we can’t make this change outside of ourselves, we could at least attempt it within ourselves. I could imagine that sometimes I’m in first place and other times I’m in second place. That’s all. Never last place. Never awful. Never utterly rejected and therefore dejected.

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En Plein Air

DSC08452 This term (French, “open air” or “in full air”) is normally used to describe artists painting or drawing outdoors, rendering what they’re seeing at a particular moment in their medium of choice. I wonder if we couldn’t all consider ourselves “plein air artists” when we’re out in the woods and meadows taking in the fragrance of spring, the constantly emerging and changing colors and shapes of flowers and plants. I say we could. I definitely say we should. The act of truly seeing is a creative act, whether we try to recreate what we’re observing or not.

I particularly love the translation “in full air,” since oh my, isn’t the air just terribly, achingly full in spring? There is a woods here in my town, a ten-minute drive from my house. (I know, I am incredibly lucky.) Lately, I’ve been taking extra long walks with my dogs there, since it’s just so beautiful right now and since I can. I can! Again, very lucky. We take the less traveled trail along the creek and then we cross the creek by scrambling down a bank, winding up in the most remote part of the woods, where again we have our choice of trails to follow.  Since it’s spring and new wildflowers are popping up daily and opening up to greet the full air, we climb the big hill, where flowers are plentiful and where we see no one else. I do love people but I also very much LOVE having the woods to just me and my dogs.


I am overwhelmed right now with gratitude. A little bit baffled, even, at my good fortune. For I have the time, the ability and the freedom to do this, morning after morning. Many do not. I do not take this lightly. I realize that at 7:00 or 7:30 a.m., the other cars are taking their owners to jobs. Indoors. Possibly jobs they do not even like. I’m quite certain that many, if not most of them have much better incomes than I do–but I’m quite sure, too, that I am the lucky one. I don’t need many of the things that money can buy. I’m hoping my car, at 180,000 miles, will give me 100,000 more. I don’t mind finding out. My house will be paid for in a few more (10??) years, if I am lucky (which I am). I thank Franklin Delano Roosevelt for helping me live more securely at this stage of life. I thank my sister (my CPA), for making sure I paid in. I am lucky all the way around.

DSC08572My gratitude lately has been immense. I feel personally blessed by the revolution of this glorious thing that is Spring. I know it’s not actually here for my benefit–but in a way, it is. I benefit from it. I am healed by it. I marvel at it–right here within my grasp. Free of charge. Amazing. Glorious. Spring is a creative act. And if we partake in it, we are creators, too.    

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The word “understory” refers to the shrubs and plants growing beneath the main canopy of a forest. Where I live, most of the understory in the woods is, unfortunately, something called bush honeysuckle. While it is bright green and looks like a cheerful thing in early spring, popping into life after the bareness of winter, it is a non-native, invasive plant. Plants like this choke out the native shrubs and plants, filling up the understory of our woods with something whose main virtue is that of shelter for birds. A good thing, for sure, but bush honeysuckle also offers bright red berries that are tasty and appealing to birds but offer no nutritional value. So this is a pretty bad deal all around. Parks and conservation departments urge us to destroy the plants if we have them in our yards, so that they don’t continue to spread.


On a long ramble in the woods the other day, as I enjoyed the long view, I was struck by the similarity between a forest’s understory and what I will call our own understories. Deepak Chopra says that my core self (what some would call the soul) is perfect and cannot be altered or damaged by life, circumstances, or anything I or anyone else could ever do. It (I) will remain perfect for eternity. Oh, I find this amazing!  Mesmerizing. Liberating. My various good and bad traits, my little peccadillos, strengths, vulnerabilities, all of the negative and positive aspects of what I call my personality, he says, are not part of my pure, true self. My pure, true self is perfect. YES.


I usually think of myself as the fully fleshed out self that I present to the world, and for that matter, to myself, with all those traits and characteristics, all my various circumstances and all of my history. But to believe Deepak, I am part of the forest–the sycamore, the eucalyptus, the redbud, the maple–perfect just as I am. My understory is all kinds of other things. I want my understory filled with authentic, true-to-me, polite, i.e., non-invasive, elements that belong in and peacefully coexist within the forest. I want my underpinning to be strong but not invasive. I want real and true growth springing from the ground I’m rooted in, a bed of beautiful plans and ideas blooming in me, creativity blossoming, wandering, daydreamy thoughts, innovative ideas that foster, rather than inhibit my own and others’ enrichment. I do not want repetitive, negative thoughts, petty grievances, old slights and hurts choking off all these positives.  I do not want circular thinking, assumptions or fear winding themselves around me and preventing my growth. I want true grounding, unimpeded by my own unwillingness to let go and open up. This is what I want my understory to be.


So, just what is my understory? What is yours? Can we alter them? I say yes. Will we? I say yes, at least, for my part, I will. I can and I will alter some things. I can and will do some pruning. For the sake of the forest.

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Decisions, Decisions

Decisions Decisions – March 24, 2016

Last week I wrote about my difficulty deciding on a series for my online art class with Carla Sonheim, “Y is For Yellow.”  I was really struggling with the idea of settling on my project.  At the same time, I was perseverating on whether or not to visit my sons in New York City over Easter weekend.  I’d been to the Easter Parade once before–a crazy IMG_6541gathering of fabulous cross-dressing men and extravagantly dressed women, wild hats and accoutrements strolling along for several blocks of Fifth Avenue, without any particular form or direction.  Just loads of freewheeling fun and spectacle.  I hankered to go again, dressed to the nines.  But for a variety of reasons, I wavered.  Maybe the weather would be better later in the spring?  But one never knows.  We’ve had a very temperate winter.  My boys were here in early March–maybe I’d want to space these two visits with them further apart.  So I waited long enough that flights were too expensive and I couldn’t go.


Some would say I did actually make a decision.  If so, I later regretted it.  Wished I were going.  Felt the need to get away and be there.  Then it seemed as if we could not find a time that worked for all of us.  Oh, I blew it, I thought.  Wringing of hands. But in the end things fell into place and now we have a plan for May.  All is good.  I wrote my sons saying I was very glad they had not inherited my indecisiveness.


As to the other issue, my series or project for the class, I’ve settled that, too.  I’ll do a set of Dog 1 Kay Foleyblack and white drawings of dogs for my upcoming book of dog poems.  This was my first idea and it suddenly became my final one.  I can’t even say how it happened.  It just did.  It fell into place in my heart as the thing I want to do.  So now I’m scribbling away on index cards, drawing dog after dog after dog, hoping for ones I love to appear.


The thing I hate about being indecisive is the huge waste of time and energy, mostly energy.  My brain gets in a rut of thinking–trying so very hard to make a decision–that I think of little else.  My mental energy just pours into these questions, as if I were da Vinci, studying architecture or astronomy, when all I’m doing is making up my mind about something actually quite small.  I want to be using my brain for loftier things!  I would love to be more da Vinci-ish, pondering the big mysteries of life.  (I even own a book called How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael J. Gelb.  Excellent book, by the way.)  I understand that life is short, very short and getting shorter by the day–and I want to LIVE it!  I want to see and do and read and experience and learn as much as possible, all a little difficult to do when one’s thoughts are wrapped up in an endless loop of what if I do thus and such? or what if I do this instead??


But I know enough about myself to understand at least part of why I’m indecisive.  I’m moody.  I know full well that if I plan something in advance, I could easily not want to do it when the time comes.  I’d like to be sure that I will still love the idea when the time comes. This requires seeing into the future, which I obviously cannot do, so I consider very carefully all of the possible ways a thing could go–a pure waste of time.  Even knowing how utterly delicious it feels to have made a decision, I seem unable to make one without the struggle.


Ultimately what I need, I believe, is to first, accept this about myself and not agonize over it. I am fairly certain that absolving myself and allowing things to unfold is my best answer. It is the incessant thinking and perseverating that is the true waste of energy.  I need to allow myself to stop thinking–and just wait.  The answer almost always comes, not as a result of all this crazy thinking, but just from some shift that happens, almost outside of myself–definitely outside of my over-active mind.  I happen upon a quote or a photograph or a song, maybe without even registering it consciously, there’s a softening within me and the decision slips comfortably into place. The aha! was there all along.  It was right there in my heart.  And I was looking for it in my cluttered up brain.