Lost Dog

Mount Saint Helena after the rain. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

This morning brought another glorious day of painting here at my Chalk Hill Artist’s Residency. For the last three weeks, I have walked acres of vineyards cradled between the Russian River and Mount Saint Helena here in beautiful Sonoma County. During this time, I’ve forged deep connections with this beautiful landscape and the people, animals and birds that call this place home, and I’ve tried my best to put those feelings into my paintings.

The morning also brought a couple of “lost” dogs: Okie and Shadow. Out in my yard, I found these two out and about. They weren’t really lost, they were just not where they were supposed to be. But that said, I was happy they graced my porch and gave me their joy and friendship on such a beautiful day. Dogs and people soon all fell in to place, and they were on the next stage of their journey, and I was off to my studio to paint and paint some more!

Recently, my good friend Pam introduced me to a very talented musician Sarah Jarosz who is also a gifted songwriter.  I can’t get this beautiful song Sarah wrote out of my head: Lost Dog. Maybe it sticks with me because all of us, bury old bones and find new ones, and all of us lose ourselves, and with determination, talent, good friends, and a wee bit of luck, find ourselves, again.

“ Lost Dog.

Where did you sleep last night?

Under the cold street light.

Who last called you by your name?

 

Where did you leave your peace?

Other half of your broken leash.

Why did you run so far away?

 

Lost Dog.

Something ‘bout you breaks my heart.

Why you burying bones out in the yard?”

you are my sunshine

Bad dreams. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Bad dreams. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

September brings cooler nights and turning leaves. The fruit trees are bringing forth figs, pears and persimmons and our thoughts turn to the harvest holidays. Morning skies are gray and foggy and afternoons are blessed with golden sunshine from a southern exposure. A melancholy rests lightly on my shoulders, realizing we’ve nearly completed the ritual cycle round the solar system, another year gone, mourning lost loves, preciously cradling what we hold dear, the future a mystery.

Picking on the guitar, I start to sing You Are My Sunshine. Bob Dylan called it our best American Song, and he recorded in with his friend and fellow roots musician Johnny Cash in Nashville, Tennessee, 1969. I speculate Dylan’s high honor stems from the sprightly tune in a major key, strong contrasting imagery of bright sunshine/gray skies, happiness/tragedy, and because it touches a root deep in the American psyche: lost or unrequited love.

The song’s roots lay in Depression riddled Georgia, written and first performed in 1933 by Oliver Hood, a poem to lost love. A local bard, Hood’s authorship remained anonymous for many years, a man who loved music and making music every Sunday after church and dinner, sitting on his front porch with his friends and neighbors sharing songs and tunes. As Alan Lomax writes in The Folk Songs of North America  describing the white ballad singer of roots music “carefully tune [s] his voice…his latent emotions must be kept under control…his solo…an act of memory, almost ritualistic.” A sharer of songs, Hood was not concerned about copyright in the early years of his music writing. Governor Jimmie Davis, bought the rights from the Rice Brothers, who recorded the song in 1939 claiming authorship.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

I’ll always love you and make you happy,
If you will only say the same.
But if you leave me and love another,
You’ll regret it all some day

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between.
But now you’ve left me and love another;
You have shattered all of my dreams

 

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
In all my dreams, dear, you seem to leave me
When I awake my poor heart pains.
So when you come back and make me happy
I’ll forgive you dear, I’ll take all the blame.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

 

down in the valley

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

The White Mountains are a high desert range situated between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin Desert and overlooking Death Valley to the South and the Owens Valley to the West. White Mountain Peak at 14,252 feet is third highest mountain in California following Mt. Whitney and Mt. Williamson. A big, empty, solitary place, created by dynamic geologic forces; it is a place where, Ancient Bristlecone Pines teach pilgrims about a higher consciousness. Time stands still, and peering down in the valley, pilgrims can see life’s journey, the forks in-the-road ahead, and path choices, guided by the wisdom discovered amongst trees – like the Bodhi Tree –  over four thousand years old.

In the late 1930s, the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax preserved for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song Down in the Valley. Captured in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, the song is written from the perspective of an empty, solitary, place – prison – where time also stands still. Peering into space, cut off from the earth and sky, the prisoner sees deep into life’s chasm, the forks in the road behind, and reflects sadly on choices made.

Down in the valley valley so low
Hang your head over hear the wind blow
Hear the wind blow dear hear the wind blow
Hang your head over hear the wind blow.

Roses love sunshine violets love dew
Angels in heaven know I love you
Know I love you dear know I love you
Angels in heaven know I love you.

If you don’t love me love whom you please
Throw your arms ’round me give my heart ease
Give my heart ease love give my heart ease
Throw your arms round me give my heart ease.

Build me a castle forty feet high
So I can see him as he rides by
As he rides by love as he rides by
So I can see him as he rides by.

Write me a letter send it by mail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail
Birmingham jail love Birmingham jail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail.

 

Blues in the Night

Blues. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Blues. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Going fishing with Dad was fun. Hot & humid Saturday mornings, piling into the station wagon with our poles, thermos or two, and bologna sandwiches. I had a spincast, pretty basic, the kind you had to bait yourself; the worms squirming in a Styrofoam cup filled with a bit of dirt and old coffee grounds. Dad was a fly fisherman; I was fascinated by the hours he spent tying his own flies in his basement workshop; I was also captivated by the ballet of the line striking the water. What an elegant and enigmatic ritual of rod and line dancing on the surface, breaking the serene plane. We fished in lakes and rivers of our Southern homeland, first Texas and later Virginia. I never caught many, and I know he spent hours helping me when he could have been fishing. But I remember the early mornings, alone together adrift in time, the sound of still water and rich dirt, the smell of dawn, before the fish bit.

Driving home, my father always sang to me, and I loved his tenor, cigarette scratchy. Sometimes, he made me laugh with a song from his days in the Air Force; “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he, and he called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his privates three,” laughing and singing our way through the ranks to the general.

But more often than naught he sang Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s The Blues in the Night. For me it was a song of mystery, filled with exotic places, the sound of whistlin’ trains, of pain, darkness and loneliness beyond my age of understanding. But I felt the sadness, the melancholy, and the blues in his voice. It touched me deeply. He explained to me that Natchez and Mobile, Memphis and St. Joe were all cities on the deep and long Mississippi River with headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota rolling all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf, the land of dreams. Our river, became the river of song. Magic. Later, when I was able, I purchased a recording of Louis Armstrong singing and playing his trumpet with Oscar Peterson on piano. Listening now, I bring my own archaeology of understanding to this song and what it says about the space and time from which it sprang…a place limiting relationships between genders and races. But Louis’ deep growly voice always takes me back to the riverside where song began for me.

My mama done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants My mama done tol’ me…

“son, a woman’ll sweet talk,
And she’ll give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin’s done
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night”

Now the rain’s a-fallin’, hear the train’s a-callin,
“whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) hear dat lonesome whistle blowin’ ‘cross
the trestle, “whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) a-whooee-ah-whooee ol’ clickety-clack’s
a-echoin’ back the blues in the night
The evenin’ breeze will start the trees to cryin’ and the moon will
hide it’s light when you get the blues in the night
Take my word, the mockingbird’ll sing the saddest kind o’ song,
he knows things are wrong, and he’s right

From natchez to mobile, from memphis to st. joe, wherever the
four winds blow
I been in some big towns an’ heard me some big talk, but there
is one thing I know
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night

So, let me give ya fair warnin’
You may feel fine in the mornin’
But look out for those blues in the night

 

exalt, soar: a love supreme

Exalting in the moment. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Exalting in the moment. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

It starts with the sound of a gong, and the tenor saxophone begins to glide like a hawk soaring on the winds. The piano an asymmetric counterpoint, a successive burst on the cymbal, and then the foundational heartbeat of the bass begins, the vibrations a syncopation. Led by John Coltrane on sax, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass, exalted and soared. A Love Supreme, was born. A masterpiece in four movements: Acknowledgement, Resolution. Pursuance, Psalm; a spiritual path. Elvin Jones wrote “every time someone hears it, that music touches them somehow, even people who are churchgoers and have always thought that popular music or jazz was influenced by the devil.” John Coltrane wrote a benediction in the album’s liner notes: “I will do all I can to be worthy of thee o’ Lord. It all has to do with it…thought waves – heat waves – all vibrations – all paths lead to God. His way – it is lovely – it is gracious – it is merciful…one thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God. Everything does.

Last weekend I read Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air; a book with tremendous impact in which Dr. Kalanithi grapples with the meaning of life when diagnosed with a fatal cancer.  Cherishing every moment with his wife and baby, he closed with the following: “everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind indeed.” Instead of chasing the wind, may we soar on the wind, exalting in each moment’s wonder as we travel our spiritual path.

Not to tarry, not to roam. We said we’d join her, she said she’ll meet us when we come

Winter plum. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Winter plum. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

On his recent bluegrass album, The Happy Prisoner, Robert Earl Keen recorded the Wayfaring Stranger with Natalie Maines. The plaintive lyrics haunt me:

“I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe. 

Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger. In that bright world to which I go.

I’m going there to see my mother. She said she’d meet me when I come.

I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.”

A classic American folk and gospel song, it resonates with one of Buddhism’s four Noble Truths that all is suffering, all is woe, and impermanence is one of the great causes of suffering. But a bright world exists to which we can go.

Last week the rains stopped and the fruit trees blossomed, a month before expected, but nonetheless spectacular for their early arrival. The plum trees in my yard shimmered in the February sunset, still winter by the calendar. The blossoms will not remain long. But long enough to tarry in my dreams, haunt my imagination, and find their way from brush to canvas to capture the beauty of impermanence.

This weekend we will say goodbye to a good friend, my second mother, who has gone over Jordan. There is no sickness, toil or danger, in that bright world to which she goes. Someday we’ll join her, going there, no more to roam. She said she’d meet us when we come. She said she’s only going home.

Shall we gather at the river?

Santa Cruz lagoon. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Santa Cruz lagoon. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

The sun was high in the sky: the light blinding and the air hot; no breeze. The egrets gathered as a rookery on the fallen trees by the lagoon in the Santa Cruz watershed, collecting themselves in the cool of the Eucalyptus trees, like sinners awaiting their baptism to wash away their sins. For a moment I lost myself in the other, the landscape. Quietly, I started to sing “yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.” Shall We Gather at the River was a signature song for John Ford the filmmaker famous for his westerns shot in Monument Valley; the song became soundtrack in some of his most famous movies including My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and Stagecoach. Ford often used the song as a means to define the boundary between the anglo-churchgoing community “civilizing” the frontier, and the “other ” community defined by their racial and ethnic differences; the “other’s” music emanated from saloons and was typically defined by Ford as minstrel songs and Spanish California folksongs.

Art and poetry are means to give voice to the other, be it individuals, communities, or the landscape. In his book, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, the poet Octavio Paz wrote “all poets….if they are really poets, hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one and everyone. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but these moments – rare yet frequent – in which being themselves they are other.”