Friday, March 27, 2020

Reshaping Our Lives

This morning my husband turned to me and said, “This really hasn’t been so different from normal except you’re around a lot more.”  That is essentially true for him. We live in a household of two, both with lots of interests that much of the time involve only ourselves. But unlike my husband who is content to paint, bike and play guitar, I’ve normally got a lot more on my calendar that has now fallen away.

It was only a week and a half ago that I had a meeting with several members of a family for whom I am doing genealogy research. It seems a lifetime ago. Since then, except for a brief venture to the grocery store and to pick up carry out, my only face-to-face interaction has been with my husband.  The week’s events began to cancel. One by one, the emails appeared. Soon I was up to nine cancellations and was wondering how my schedule ever got so crazy in the first place. The gym was the last place to close and I must admit I was glad they made the decision for me. I felt as if I was entering enemy territory whenever I entered its doors, washing my hands continually, fearful of inadvertently touching my face. I didn’t want to think that hard about how I functioned in a space.
So, what have I been doing since then? The activities that I enjoy are largely solo ones, reading, writing, painting and genealogy research. But after I engage in those solitary activities, I come up for air. Then I exhibit artwork, do presentations and visit with people at open studios. I enjoy those interactions, but now I was faced with reshaping my life with some major restrictions.

Working out and getting groceries have proven to be the activities requiring the most thought. I’ve settled into a routine of doing yoga most days in the living room and walking with my husband around our neighborhood park. I find new appreciation in my local surroundings. On one of our walks, I saw an ornament with a tag announcing Joy and was reminded of the beauty just blocks from my home. And of course I take pictures along our walks, hopeful that I can incorporate them into collages.

As I do yoga, I face our shelf of art books. I fasten my gaze on Bacon or Leger as I hold my tree pose. I can’t recall when I last picked them up and vow that I will study a new art book regularly, not just in tree.

A few days ago, we went to our regular grocery store. We showed up at 8AM which is a feat in itself as neither of us are morning people. It was at least as busy as it normally was midday and this was supposedly the lowest traffic point of the day. The delivery service seemed quite inadequate, but we ruefully concluded we might have to make it work. 

As much as the stock market has tanked, we are aware that our crisis is of a smaller magnitude than that of many. We considered the restaurants around us that we hope will stay in business and committed to occasional take-out orders. We’ve also contributed to support the efforts of medical caregivers and to a fund for artists whose income is  especially vulnerable to these circumstances.

I have a good friend who is a Holocaust survivor and I have been meeting with her weekly to record her story. We’ve moved that to the phone and are trying to do it a bit more often, a touch point between us. I’ve also been working on how to do a genealogy presentation via Zoom and have that scheduled for later this week. I’ve been finding new ways of doing things and am pushing through the discomfort that accompanies that newness. Along the way, I am seeing new practices that I may want to maintain even when this crisis ends.

There is also unease underlying these efforts. There is a reason for this slowdown and it is frightening. I am suddenly in the age group where risk begins to rise, a rude shock for those of us who are active and engaged in our world. Age is just a number until it isn’t and you feel as if you have a target on your back. I read today that the virus affects one’s sense of smell and taste. I must confess I pulled out a minty shampoo as a test and was relieved to inhale its strong fragrance. We walk in the park each day, eyeing fellow walkers cautiously as they approach, nodding hello, but moving on. We are still trying to figure out this new way of being. We are all in this together, yet others can pose a threat to our health. How do we integrate these two opposing concepts?  The world feels more precarious and more precious. I have a new appreciation for the beauty of my neighborhood park, for the friends with whom I stay connected in this virtual world and for my husband who is my companion in this life raft I call home.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Tree Time

In my last blog on artwork, I had written of the Ghost Forest, the name I had given a painting until I discovered there really was something called a ghost forest. I've since given it the working title of Ghost Trees. In the painting the white trunks hover overhead separated from the stumps forming a ghost-like community with their branches intertwined with those of their neighbors.

I then went in search of imagery to reflect what is truly known as a ghost forest.  They are often found on the coast where with rising water levels the salt water kills the trees. They stand in the middle of water in various states of decay. Below you will see my effort as I imagined one. It has a bit of a swamp-like feeling.

I still had not yet had my fill of tree paintings. A friend sent me an article on the oldest trees in the world. The oldest is about 4,700 years old and is found in California. It has been named Methuselah. They  posted a sign originally, but in order to keep away the paparazzi who kept taking pieces of wood from it, they gave it back its anonymity. Kind of a witness protection program for trees.

These long-lived trees are bristle-cone pines and are pretty scrappy. They survive in climates that many trees cannot and look a bit twisted and gnarly.  The age is determined through a science called dendrochronology. They insert a rod into the tree and take a cross-section of it where they can count the rings and determine the type of seasons through which it has lived. I love that the meaning of dendrochronology is Tree Time. Trees obviously have a different kind of time than we do. Think of us as more akin to dog years, but on an entirely different scale. Let's assume an average life span of 80 years. While each dog year is worth 7 human years, each human year is worth about 59 years in the life of Methuselah. In addition to age, the rings can detect the changes in climate, rain, volcanic activity and frost.  It is through these witnesses that we know that climate change exists. The trees themselves are often personified with names like sage, elder and sentinel.

I was intrigued by their role as witness and recorder and wanted to do a painting that captured their significance. I began by just painting the tree against white sky.

 The starkness of it appealed to me and I liked the linear elements that formed the tree, but I still wanted to reflect the idea of witness and scribe that the tree plays in recording the seasons of its life and our world. That meant perhaps destroying a perfectly passable painting.  It is always a bit scary to take brush in hand when you like what you have in front of you, never certain if you can recapture what you have successfully if you don't like the alternate version. I have often longed for an undo button. Some people do multiple versions to free themselves up to experiment. I just dive in and hope for the best. I reminded myself I could always paint over the background if it didn't work.  Just as the tree grows in layers that create rings, I often paint on top of paintings, building layers of history as I explore alternate possibilities.

  I decided to create tree rings behind the tree, a backdrop that would suggest the multipurpose role of this ancient tree.  After several iterations, I had created the image below. I'm pleased with the result, enough so that I am wondering if I can find a spot for it in my home eventually. For the moment I’ve named it Tree Time to reflect the longevity of this very unusual tree.