When I visit or talk with my father these days, the conversation turns to our shared stories. Several times he has with joy and relief told his version of a story about a day when I was three years old. Here is my version. Perhaps it was the call of the wild, but when my dog escaped, I followed, determined to bring her back home. Too young to venture outside my yard alone, but that fact never occurred to me. Single-minded, with purpose, I tracked my dog; when she crossed the creek, I walked into the water, unaware of the coming baptism. In a new world where the rules of gravity and locomotion no longer applied, my feet lost contact with the ground. Possessing no vocabulary to describe my new emotions, my grown self now describes the situation: panic flirted with me, but an increasing sense of calm flooded my body. Water felt like home, not enigma. I moved my arms and legs and reached the shore where my dog looked on; I grasped her collar and we began the walk home, my clothes completely soaked. Closer, fire engines wailed and police cars flashed. Neighbors ran excitedly in all directions looking for something. My frantic mother was yelling at my distraught father. I didn’t understand what was going on. Walking up to my speechless parents, I said, “I got my dog.” Suddenly strong emotions of happiness came from my parents. Once grown, I came to understand that adults thought I was lucky; they were probably right. But somewhere deep inside, some part of me understood my life’s journey had begun.
“Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the misermerman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps…”
“Only in the heart of the quickest perils; only within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out.”
Yesterday I returned to Chalk Hill. It’s been a year since my artist residency at this glorious Sonoma County vineyard. Twelve months ago we were happily besieged by winter storms bringing the desperately needed rain ending our drought of many years. At that time, mountains and hillsides were deep green and the skies dark grays and blues. My painting Mount Saint Helena after the rain describes this past. The storms replenished springs, and rivers and creeks fueled by the deluge, rushed powerfully to the sea. But the generous rain did not protect Napa and Sonoma County from the ravages of fire, indeed, the rain may have accelerated growth, fueling the devastation; it will be a long time before our memories of Atlas Peak and Tubbs firestorms dim.
And today’s Mt. Saint Helena watercolor captures Spring’s awakening, but my colors are pastels, the result of this season’s dry Winter. Last year’s oil paintings of the mountain tell a different story, intense dramatic Spring color born of a wet winter. The season cycle reminds us of our fragility, humbled by the earth’s beauty and power, aware of life’s precious gift.
“History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago. It is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago…what survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of the human voice confronting it’s own mortality…the story painted on the old walls and printed in the old books is our own.”
Texas was my home when I was very young; I was born not far from the Chisholm Trail. Images of cowhands, cattle, big skies and prairies where you can see storms approaching for miles shaped me. Coupled with Western films directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks, I have a rich mythology that feeds and inspires my imagination. And somewhere along the way, I gave my father the mantle of JohnWayne, taciturn hero, wise in the ways of the world, a man of justice who could always be trusted to save the day. Myths. The truth would be revealed later. Maybe, it was easier to survive living in a fairy tale. Grown now, I realize the unfairness of saddling my father with that unrealistic responsibility; humans are human: beloved and flawed. But you cannot blame a child seeking safety in heroes.
In today’s world, where leaders make rash decisions and speak loudly and endlessly about their strength and prowess, I imagine the mythological “Duke” as Pilgrim John of Guadalupe the perfect Yin and Yang balance of the masculine and feminine come to save us from destruction in our desolation. Did I say I have a good imagination? And I hear John Wayne in the character Tom Doniphon from the film The Man Who ShotLiberty Valance say “Whoa there, take ‘er easy there Pilgrim,” as if to say, let’s calm down, take life a step at a time, and think about what’s really important, the impact of our actions, and what would be best for all concerned. Amen. A myth, but a grand one. Life is never as simple as a Western film; the solutions Westerns offer will not resolve the complicated challenges we face. But what we truly value is often expressed well in the clear and simple myths we enjoy and share. Yes, please “take ‘er easy there Pilgrim.” Hold steady…the planet’s future rests in our hands.
A grave illness resides with my father and we, his family, breathe on, our minds plagued with a dull ache that cannot be suppressed. But what goes through a person’s mind at this time? Is death as simple as opening a window? Do you have a clear view of what lays beyond or are you adrift in the darkness?Czeslaw Milosz writes in his poem Winter:
“…when the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death,
I already see the mountain ridges in the heavenly forest