The White Room

Whar are You Waiting For?The walls are not actually white, but a not totally unpleasant pale taupe. The sheets are white, though I supplement them with a blue and white geometric print comforter, which I remove from the closet, unfold, and put back at the foot of the bed every time the aides fold it up and put it away. And it’s true, he is warm, and the room is warm, but I know he likes it this way, and I know the blue and white comforter has been on his bed since 1978, and it’s pretty and ordered and architectural and civilized, and he would like that, not to mention the whole normal-life-ness of it all.

If he could see beyond the blue and white comforter folded over the footboard, he could look beyond to the grinning cherry-lipped sock monkey sitting on the desk, and behind him the full-size French flag pinned to the wall. The flag is new. Not new but newer, and still the red edges which hang toward the floor are a fringed jubilee of red threads from so many summers high atop the rafter at the peak of the beach house, burnished by the sun and whipped into a Marseillaise frenzy by seabreezes and Northeasters and summer suns. Our older version, which we still have, split into thirds at the color joins one winter, the white section ripped completely apart. My father sewed a white pillowcase between the blue and the red and ran it right back up the pole, undeterred, until one of us gifted him the new version, which was perhaps less fitting but rather more socially acceptable among some of the less imaginative locals.

The drawings that fill the walls are black on white, an aging white that claims an “I’ve been around the block and I’m still the best looking gal you’re liable to lay eyes on” cachet, and it’s true. The houses, varied and elegant and in no way restrained, are all hand drawn (“there is no art in a straight line,” my father said), and show evolutions of design and clientele and becoming and grabbing back and unleashing again. Above them is a long rectangular work made my grandmother, a Paris art student who spent her later years tearing up perfectly nice books to make collages that are rather stunning.

The large and exuberant artworks on the not-quite-white walls were made by his children, of which I am one, and framed and hung and moved from house to house and office to office by my father over the course of 49 years. That’s love, or at least the love I know.

And so the room is not very white. I won’t let it be white. But white is for beginnings and I see them everywhere here: the once blank pages, laundered and bleached sheets warm from the dryer, the cord for the call button, the slats of blinds that let in or keep away the light.

There are moments when he looks like he’s praying, and you might think prayer is white, but I think not.

I wonder if there is enough to hold him here, but he was never one to walk away from a challenge, or sit quietly. Never one to be bored or tired or to say “I’ve done it all” because when you’re game to take on the world, there’s always always more and backing away is never even a smidgeon of a thought. And you can say, “but there is fatigue,” but I’ve never seen that, or any kind of “been there done that” because creators can’t not create, can’t stop making the world new and bright and more than it was.

Some find it hard to wait in rooms like this, to watch and breathe the breaths and count the seconds between, to dampen the forehead and smooth the ruffled hair, to watch the face I’ve known for 60 years morph through the day from the rattling of an 86 year old man with pneumonia to a man of 40 taking a 20 minute rest between the morning feat and the afternoon magnificat. The familiar snore that might stop of a sudden with an abrupt sitting and then a booming voice and jubilant invitation to walk the beach or lay a terrace or thrust fingers into fresh-boiled crabs or hoist a kite.

The pillow is white. His hair is white. His breath comes in staccato bursts that punctuate the Rachmaninoff like a practiced bow. The watching and holding of a heart is joyous, and not unlike the watching of his children as they slept in early days, or my mother through her final nights. This man who almost never slept is sleeping, and I watch, and I’m not sure what this is like, other than a heart breaking.

Fifteen years ago I bought a house with white walls, which had come into vogue again and were shown in all the crisp magazines. I whitewashed the floors and gave it a good go, but within a week I had bought paint in pretty greens and set about glazing the walls until they sang, or perhaps more accurately, until I sang. It’s funny that we can love something without being able to live with it.

One day soon, and perhaps tonight but no longer than next week, the room in which I sit and he lies will be white again. Not because I have removed the colors of a life but because he is gone, with his fully-feathered largeness and 86 years of stories. There are little breaths now in my ears — a soundtrack of life. They sit with me while I wait outside the door during changes or turnings, and sing with me while I walk to the end of the hall and back to get the blood moving.

It’s funny how many times you can think, “He’ll be fine as soon as we can get him home.”

For Sherman Pardue, 1929 – 2015, child of New Orleans, who loved my mother and his, architecture, travel, music, New Orleans and French cuisine, furniture design and fabrication, cooking and family, spending many weeks of the year sitting on the lawn of the family home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He was a spirited pianist, playing entirely by ear, a prolific writer, a determined gardener, and a lover of fish ponds, designing and building them for every home of every family member throughout his life. He took joy in everything he did, researching the process and going at it full throttle, as comfortable laying bricks and digging drainage ditches as taking pencil to paper and designing estates or writing poetry. He shared his love of exploration, both territorial and philosophical, with his children and grandchildren, and was delighted when his eldest grandchild Jason followed him into the field of architecture. He studied at NC State School of Design and Harvard, attending small groups with Frank Lloyd Wright and studio sessions with Buckminster Fuller, and received a national award for Classical Design in 1992.

Know Thy Selves

Our Bodies, Our SelvesRemember when it was all the rage to sit on the floor of the campus gym sans pants, whip out your compact, and examine your vagina? No weewees, no woohoos, no girliebits; we were hot to call a vagina a vagina, and we were determined to get up close and personal enough to be on a first name basis. Our Bodies, Our Selves was the handbook, although I seem to remember the 70’s bearing a rather unbalanced focus on the Bodies half of the equation. Frankly, it was a whole lot easier to find a group of women ready to shed their clothes for Enlightenment than to find one who actually carried (or owned) an actual compact. Makeup was for sissy girls.

Women 1970's via ourbodiesourselves.orgWe were a Gung Ho sort, and even if we read our Sartre naked in the bathtub with a guy we’d met at the falafel house only an hour earlier, we were hungry to know it all, do it all, feel it all, read it all, live it all, conquer it all, save the world, free women from centuries of silence, get it out there, and live it real. We were ready and primed to Make Life Our Bitch. We all looked like Ali McGraw, and we were determined to be taken as seriously as Gloria Steinem. We brought womanhood, for a time, from darkness into light, and it all started with a fierce determination to know ourselves, vaginas and all.

When did we lose touch?

A year ago today I sat in my kitchen with a close friend that I see only twice a year. She was waiting for test results from a biopsy, which would be positive. I had cancer too but didn’t know it — didn’t suspect — and wouldn’t until much later that spring. When did we move from living our lives armed with mirrors and books and knowledge and experimentation to living our lives with long and mostly irrelevant To Do lists, blindfolded against our innermost secrets? When did answers become written in water, and taking care of Our Selves become a second fiddle melody? When did we move from Knowing to Not Knowing, because Knowing has become so damn hard?

Contrary to popular belief, Our Bodies Our Selves was not about sexual liberation, even though most of us seemed to read it that way. In fact, it was about women learning to care for their own health. Forty-ish years later, we pretty much take care of others instead.

We march; we speak out; we advocate for free mammograms; we rally; we sit with each other and shave our heads in sisterhood; we refuse to be talked down to; we have each other’s backs. But we still never quite know what’s inside us at any given moment — a sobering reminder to seize the day.

Cousin Cousine 1975In many ways, 18 was bliss, wasn’t it? Knowing our bodies was largely a pursuit of pleasure: learning to kiss, trying exotic new tastes from multicultural gems near college campuses, teaching our muscles to scale mountains on weekends with adventurous new friends, getting silly with markers or grimacing under tattoo needles. At 56, knowing my body means something else entirely, and mostly what it means is discovering how much of what I’ve learned to love is now on the list of things that I’m forced to un-love (exotic tastes and climbing mountains high on the list). Making peace with the woohoo was a hell of a lot easier than making peace with organs that mutate in silence, and oh, how much more fun!

And so these later days reprise that urge to know, deep down; to feel, deep down; to live, deep down. If there is no magic mirror to show me what monsters lurk inside or to predict which cures will simply kill me another way on another day, I need to be in tune enough with my spirit to hear the longings of the body I yearn to heal: feed me; love me; take me out dancing; sing me a song; let me spend the afternoon painting my body with daisies and then giggle loud and long enough to wake the neighbors; or linger in a field of wildflowers way past time for dinner. Feed me a daily moment of bliss. Or three.

P.S. Dedicated to Carol, Susan, the MoHos, Jeanne Beanie, Carol H, the Duke Forestry School, my Love, my family

A Word for the Journey

Star Provisions AtlantaBlasphemy, to be sure, but Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. Of course the food rocks — nothing twitters my tastebuds like turkey and cranberries, and I can’t wait to get a nibble of my sister’s 2012 dessert: Sugar Cream Pie (thank you Indiana Quakers!). Pretty leaves crunch and crackle, the crisp air is set to a tolerable chill, apples abound and the smell of mulled cider is blissful. Group cooking (if you’re lucky), family (if you’re lucky/unlucky), hugs, smiles both genuine and forced, too much TV and the lure of deep sofas and downy throws round out the day. And then there’s the thanks-giving, which is lovely and meaningful, though for me more of a personal exercise than a group-share. I never show my heart in group-share. Sometimes I don’t even show my heart to myself.

A friend asked me yesterday if I’m living the life I want to live. Now that’s some hefty food for thought.

2012 has been a year of surprises for me — some good, some not. Today I’m thankful to be alive, to be loved, to have options, to have the ability to change.

I don’t consider myself a risk-taker. Others do, but they’re wrong. I’ve been able to do some Big Things with my life because I’ve thought and researched and dreamed and imagined and researched and thought and tested until I’ve found ways to make Big Leaps comfortable for a Small Step girl. In other words, I’ve discovered, or created, the exact formula that allows me to grow in a certain instance. Did traveling overseas alone for the first time at 41 free me from fear? No. Did opening a gallery alone at 53 free me? No. There are still oodles of things I can’t or won’t do, but the difference is that now I understand that there’s a way to be comfortable with the new and to thrive — I just have to find it. It’s like having children; you learn as you go.

And so as I think of this year of dancing with cancer, my family, my art, the gallery, the future and my own unknowing, I’m wondering: am I living the life I want to live? Am I growing into me?

For the most part, yes, absolutely. But there are always passions on hold, dreams that slip up to me in the darkness and tug on my nightshirt: “Is it my turn yet?” I think I’m getting a little old to keep saying, “Shhhhhh, not quite yet.”

And so my word for the rest of this journey was gifted by the photograph above, snapped eighteen months ago in Atlanta at Star Provisions. It’s time to stop maintaining and get back to growing. It’s time to get uncomfortable with comfort and snuggle up to surprise. It’s time to get dreaming again and researching that special alchemy that handholds reluctance into reality. It’s time to crawl into my heart and ramble around, and then to crawl back out and trample the shell, burst at the seams, strain towards the light. Time to Grow. And Grow some more.

Back to Center

Mossy Rock

I’ve always been pretty much of a rock — at least on the outside. This is perhaps more calculated than natural, since holding steady comes more easily when you don’t give in to drama. I’ve rarely been a shrieker, if you don’t count the child who likes to jump out of closets, or a flinger, if you overlook that carton of Chinese food that sailed across the kitchen. And after all, that was only once. I used to be a door slammer, but someone-I-can’t-quite-remember guilted that out of me. So yeah, pretty much of a rock.

Lately I feel less rockish and more like, oh . . . seaweed maybe. Stringy, riding whatever wave heads this way, unable to keep all of my tendrils pointed in the same direction, but still afloat, still green, still vital. It’s a nice image I think, and serves me well in uncharted waters, but lately I feel the need for a little more control. For feet, if you will. Feet to plant, to walk, to run. Feet that allow me to choose a path.

This isn’t altogether surprising, of course.

It’s a funny thing about finding your feet, your heart, your center. I sometimes feel like I am least myself when I’m in my “element” (read home/job/loves/routines/chosenactivities). I tend to fall into patterns of behavior that work in Situation A or Dilemma B. Don’t we all? I find that I most closely resemble myself, my center, when I am far from home in novel situations with strangers and unfamiliar sights and sounds. I am most myself when I have to look, to see, to hear, to discern, to think in new ways about new concepts, to grow.

Essentially, I have a yearning to get lost. Scrape some moss off. Let some sun in. Let that wild hair reign a bit.

rewrite

the world is topsy turvy on me now
and i am left to wonder
if my center is askew
or simply old
and hardened,
and seeing these new days with eyes
unable or unwilling
to adjust
from my accustomed way
of watching doing caring.
asking soft if i will need to (want to) (or be able to)
re-right (rewrite)
myself ,
or if the universe
will find her quiet balance
now
at last.
or maybe
we will both fly off our axes
toward
the twinkly
stars.