She Who Restores Me To Myself

Magpies, in their love of shininess, have an especial need to experience scintillating moments with glittery people. By glittery I do not mean shallow, brittle, self absorbed, or vain. I am talking about an honest  shine that comes from the inside all the way out, an  unconditional shine that radiates warmth over others, a brightly colored shine that pulsates with willingness to pursue novel endeavors. I am of course describing my sister Ellen.

I promised in my last post to write about our latest adventures. But first a little background. Last summer I wrote  a post about my sister in which I referred to her as L.G., or Little General. Ellen did not appreciate that appellation, so I have withdrawn that name from our lexicon. Last week, in a blaze of dervish like activity prior to boarding a plane, I referred to my sister as a hurricane, knowing that should she read the post I would be in big trouble, my kind intentions notwithstanding.

I am  now on record to say that Ellen gets things done, but she is NOT a general. She is a force of nature, but she is NOT a hurricane. What then, can I call her?  She is a person of great intellect, wit, and charm. Her droll humor and clever imagination cannot be matched. Her no nonsense work ethic and organizational skills are an inspiration to others.   Her zest for life is unparalleled, her enjoyment of it a sight to behold. Her authenticity is a beacon to my soul. AND she loves me!

I had not seen my sister since December 2012, when I spent one night with her en route to a friend’s cabin. Little did we know that six long months would pass before we could see one another again. Somehow, with our various travel and work schedules along with  family commitments, the weeks elapsed with no firm visiting plans.

We don’t talk on the phone much. We write letters by hand, on paper, to one another, and have for years. But this past semester many weeks separated our letters. I was beginning to feel like an American colonist awaiting word from the continent.  Had my letter been lost at sea, dashed on a rocky promontory after a shipwreck? Would I hear that she and her family had perished in a smallpox epidemic? Finally my impatience got the better of me. I left her the following cryptic voice mail,”The jig is up!”

That, ladies and gentlemen, got a response, and at last we were able to plan for her to come see me in my town. She flew in on a Friday night just as my husband was flying out on a business trip, making the timing just right for an All Girls’ Extravaganza. I picked up the  Hurric. picked her up at the airport and took her straight to my new midtown condo to spend the night.  She admired the condo, and we both exclaimed over the sweet note my husband had left for us.DSC_0744  Then she unpacked a few of her things.  As I watched her familiar movements and listened to her long accustomed  voice, I had this exact thought: I am restored to myself.

Our plan for the week was to have no plan. That way our plans couldn’t possibly go wrong. That evening, we wanted to eat dinner someplace where we could hear ourselves talk. I recommended a place where we chose a secluded table. No sooner had we sat down  than a large group of ladies, some under the influence of more than two martinis with more in the offing, began screaming raucously, in a way that truly rattles the eardrums.IMG_2071

What do you suppose Ellen did? She approached those ladies, put her arm around one, leaned in and had a little ole talk with them. And they lowered the volume! When we left the restaurant a waitress followed us out to thank her for helping with  the situation!!! How do you describe someone like this?

I told you she's a force of nature!

I told you she’s a force of nature!

The next day Ellen accompanied me to a Knit In Public Day at the zoo. She joined right in with these knitters, sharing knitting anecdotes from her own experiences.. And yes, she had brought her own knitting, self sufficient as always.  She patiently allowed me to show her off to these folks who may never see her again,with nary a complaint  about the heat or crowds. What would you call someone like that?DSC_0711

After knitting we stopped in a consignment store  to look for midcentury modern furniture pieces for my largely unfurnished condo. She said she did not know what midcentury modern was, but she found  me two tables, and rearranged my car so that they would both fit.IMG_2060 But that is not all! She went all the way back down to the condo with me and helped me schlep them up there in grocery carts! Impressive, right?

And wait! There's more! She moves furniture!

And wait! There’s more! She moves furniture!

On Sunday Ellen gamely accompanied me to the Book Club Brunch where she knew barely a soul.  I had actually not read the book to be discussed but by chance she had and was able to make salient comments while I nodded sagely. Though we were at a lovely function in a lovely home, Ellen murmured not  when I announced we must be moving on to the theater to see Death Trap. This allowed me to use my last two remaining season tickets and  also take advantage of the special that day for extending my subscription. All because of Ellen.

On Sunday night we dropped in to Tug’s at Mud Island to be waited upon by my son. While enjoying our meal there we proofread a paper my son was  writing for a summer school class. I am fairly sure we were the only two customers there discussing poetry. After dinner we took a leisurely stroll by the banks of the Mississippi River, remarking on the environs and how many pieces of driftwood resembled dinosaurs.DSC_0726 Thus ended another cultural evening.

After a discussion of poetry over dinner.

After a discussion of poetry over dinner.

DSC_0741Ellen did not flinch the next evening when it was time for Iyengar Yoga. Her graduate school schedule had  prevented her from going to her own class all winter, but she knew enough to know not to push herself. She has “subbed” in my class before, so many members were of course glad to see her. After yoga we spent some quality time outside on my pergola ( which her husband was instrumental in building)  before eating a lovely dinner of grilled vegetables and chicken. Prepared by Ellen.

Post yoga quality time.

Post yoga quality time.

Our chef having some well deserved relaxation.

Our chef having some well deserved relaxation.

Tuesday was my hair day but we made it Ellen’s hair day too. I told her I liked her hair better red than blonde highlighted, so she obligingly had it redone. I watched to see how the stylist blew it dry so I could show her later. We were too hungry to take pictures, so just believe me that we were two groovy red haired old ladies when we left that shop.

And Wednesday. By Wednesday I had to face a deadline – Mary Hannah’s portrait. For months I had been working on the portrait my niece  had asked me to paint. I had decided that I would have it finished as best I could by the time Ellen departed on Thursday so she could deliver it for me.  This meant that after helping me with some yardwork early in the day, Ellen would be stuck watching me paint.DSC_0751 Ellen had, however, bought some teeny tiny canvases, and tried her hand at them while I labored repeatedly  to get M. H.’s skin color to a reasonable tone. Or tint. Or something. Eventually, though her skin looked like combinations of calamine lotion and badly applied makeup, I could do no more. Ellen was suitably soothing and optimistic that the portrait would pass muster with her daughter.DSC_0758

One of Ellen's tiny canvases.

One of Ellen’s tiny canvases.

That night we again spent the night at the condo in order to be closer to the airport in the morning. We wanted to have a nice evening so I made us a reservation a place close by where I did not think there would be gaggles  of loud ladies. Ellen acquiesced when I suggested she change out of those crummy shorts, and together we walked in the blazing heat to the restaurant.  She changed into a skirt of mine that was too long, while  I was wearing a skirt I considered a little dowdy. As we walked I saw how easy it could be for the two of us to become peculiar old ladies together, going to the Early Bird Specials and matinees, careful to be home by dark.

It was a bittersweet evening. As I doodled on my side of the tablecloth, Ellen was compiling  a list of all we had done.

Now with red hair.

Now with red hair.

The list was long, but not nearly long enough. Oh, the things we would do if we had more time! Oh, how empty indeed would even the mundane events be without her! We decided once again that there was no help for it but to retire together in the same place, on the same property if possible. We’ll tell our husbands it’s the only way.IMG_2084

Ellen has gone home now. The portrait is delivered. I am trying to recalibrate myself after almost a week with this adorable creature who knows my thoughts, who finishes my sentences, who always finds something to celebrate. Now that you have read my post I must ask: what you would call my sister? How can she even be described? If you can think of anything – not L.G. or Hurricane of course- I’d be glad to know. For now, I’m just going to call her She Who Restores Me To Myself.DSC_0736

Art History

Last Thursday night was the last meeting of my painting class. That evening we were three students, and the instructor, all women. As we each worked on our own paintings, we began a leisurely  discussion on how important it is for us as humans to make art, and how we share with the world when we do so. Our time was limited, so we didn’t delve deeply into these important matters. But when I left the class I continued to think about the meaning  of art to me and to others.

My fellow painting students were aware that I was an inexperienced painter, first because I told them and second, because they could see my work. But only I was aware of how meaningful it was to me  to finally let myself take a painting class. From my earliest memories I have loved to draw and paint, but as many in my generation can attest, schools in those days did not reward creativity. Rather, they stifled it with such techniques as holding up people’s work in front of the class for a blistering critique, or withholding an art activity to punish the class. Had I had many art supplies they would not have been respected at home where I had younger siblings and not much privacy. I was afraid to study  art in high school because I thought only “weirdos” took that. I see now I would have loved to be one of those weirdos. Life kept happening, but art did not.

Fast forward to about the last ten years, when I first began to have some time for myself. I started to paint pictures. My method was to add paint, add paint, and add paint until I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Since I didn’t really know how to draw, that is all I could do. At first it was tremendously rewarding. I enjoyed the process, and though the content was primitive and poor, I had had no instruction and was therefore blissfully unaware of any  deficiencies. But after a time I had drawn all the random shapes and stylized flowers I could stand. If I wanted to go further I would have to seek instruction.

For a time I just lived with a big red ball of anxiety whenever I thought about taking a class. To a part of my mind this sounded like jumping off a ten story building barefoot, while another part yearned for the knowledge. I did not know when I would ever put my own instruction to the top of my to-do list. However, last year I got a jump start when my sweet niece asked me to paint her portrait for her birthday. An acceptable likeness here was mandatory, for an eight year old art critic does not mince her words.

Who wouldn’t want to paint her portrait?

And so for love of Mary Hannah I took a figure drawing class.  After each three hour drawing class I was so exhausted I immediately went home and and took a  a nap. At the end of the class I felt I had learned a lot, but still needed lots of guidance. When I drew I could sometimes see that something was wrong but didn’t know what it was, or how to fix it.  I knew I would have to continue to draw in order to learn. When Mary Hannah came to town this summer, she saw the sketches I had made of her from photographs. She immediately began to change them to her own satisfaction. I would count her now as a satisfied customer.

Mary Hannah makes adjustments on my sketches.

And she even did a sketch of me!

But what about getting back to painting?  What about making a nice messy palette filled with exciting color combinations? What about dipping a brush into one of the dabs of color and watching it come alive on the canvas? What about stepping away from the canvas and waiting for your heart to tell you what needs to come next?  And what about the chance to learn to do all these things while knowing what I was doing?

One morning after a jangling dream in which I was a kindergarten teacher with 50 students, I pored over the latest circular from Flicker Street Art Studio where I had taken my drawing class. I knew what the dream meant; I was taking care of everyone else except myself. It was time to take the plunge and paint.

Taking the class meant six weeks of rushing out of work at the exact time the class began in order to race across town  and be only twenty minutes late. It meant cramming some sort of tortilla wrap in my mouth  and washing it down with a bottle of water during said racing. But I got there, and the kind Melissa Dunn, our instructor, was ready to catch me up to the rest of the class.

Melissa, a working artist whose studio blog is linked above, made a welcoming environment for the hesitant soul such as myself.  My anxieties  vanished after the first class when I saw that Melissa while providing correct instruction also urged  us to listen to our own instincts. ( Note: unlike Sister Claire Marie.) I am just sure I appeared poised and composed on the outside – ahem – but inside I was grinning like the silliest clown in the world! I was doing it! I was painting! You complete me!

Friday, the day after our last class,  still thinking of the emotional fullness that comes with creativity, I ran quite accidentally across the following words by John O’Donahue:

“Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become.”

I don’t have to be a professional artist, but I do have to listen to the part of me that needs to  imagine and create. I may not know much about painting yet, but I know I can let myself take a class when I want to.  I am the only one who can be an artist of my own  days. I know I won’t regret it.