Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Veil of Fog

16"x16" cold wax, ash, milk paint powder 

This morning the landscape is hugged by a deep, white fog. The trees and barn that usually greet me have slipped into shadowy outlines as if I have grown thick cataracts on my eyes overnight. A curtain of white has been drawn softly across the distant view.  I hear the Skeena Queen's passage traced by her fog horn receding through the thick air at methodical intervals.

My mind is like this fog much of the time, thick with thoughts and opinions. The filter of belief through which I peer often allows me to only see the shadowy outline of people, of situations, of things. I know this to be true for several reasons. Sometimes I bump into something in the fog of self that pierces me in a way that wakes me up. Suffering is like that, it wakes you up. Brushing off my hurt, I see how the self protective fog I've pulled around me has prevented from seeing things as they are.

Retreats can be fog melters.  There can often be a brightness, a clarity to everything after a period of prolonged practice.  The sitting, the slowing down, somehow melts the fog, a de-fogging solution for the window of the heart/mind.  There can be a brilliance and beauty to the simplest object, a sharpness to sounds and a wider net of acceptance cast over everything. And then as the days pass I slip back into the fog like the Skeena Queen, methodically sounding the old horn.

20"x20" cold wax, ash, dirt, milk paint powder

And sometimes for reasons unknown, the veil can lift. I know you too, have seen this fogless landscape. I might be standing at the sink washing dishes or working in the garden and the view out becomes brilliant. Maybe I am gobsmacked by the brilliant fierceness of a tiny hummingbird or the spiny armour of a pill bug. Maybe an insight into some difficult situation pops into view. The prevailing fog lifts for a minute or an hour and I  see fog free.

On the art front I spent a decidedly fog-free afternoon with Jeane from ART IT and her special guest Rebecca Crowell on Wednesday's ustream broadcast from the shed. I have been exploring a little jar of cold wax that I've had for ages to my sheer delight, mixing it with wood ash and plaster of paris and some white milk paint powder. Cold wax doesn't mix with acrylic paint or watery things so I have been rustling up whatever things I can find and having so much fun!

I am also looking forward to exploring some natural pigments and perhaps finding a less toxic version of cold wax. Leslie Avon Miller in this post reminded me of the toxic nature of many art materials including the acrylics I use all the time and though the look of cold wax calls to me, the smell tells the tail of toxic mineral spirits. I am so careful in my home about cleaning products and paint and food and gardening and yet I am drowning in toxic art materials. Another example of fog.

Wishing you a happy fog-free weekend.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


8"x10" Vancouver Morning
I woke up this morning to the sound of rain crinkling.  Instead of being instantly dismayed I simply listened to the sound of water falling from the sky. I did not flavour it with the sweet taste of goodness or the bitterness of bad.  It sounded like someone gently crinkling paper, that's all, a simple sound. This could be the year the west coast invents a whole dictionary of rain. The Inuit purportedly have many words for snow, not just one. So it could be sogging out there right now or damping this afternoon.  And of course it was crinkling this morning. Apparently the number one topic for polite conversation in Canada is the weather, so there's been lots of chit chat about the rainy cool, greyness here. At least one local has decided to make a personal appeal to the sun by dancing. Some have taken to calling this month Juneuary.

Archipelago of the Heart 12"x24"

But the word that the rain whispered to me this morning was "washed". It wasn't oh #!%* it's raining again (seems I've caught punctuation mouth from my daughter).  It reminded me of a blog post I read at Mystic Meandering recently. Sometimes when we find ourselves repeatedly in difficult situations, there is a thing that happens inside.  Sometimes we can get so bombarded by life that the whining and wanting drops away. If you've ever been besieged by a series of difficult circumstances, especially big ones, it's like our ground gets "washed" away. We can become someone we hardly know as we enter a "groundless" space. We stop bargaining and hoping and just do what needs to be done. We might feel like we are drowning, we might feel like we're not handling it very well or we might not think about it at all. A little bit of self has been washed away, maybe momentarily, maybe forever. RM Jiyu Kennett from the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives used to say something like "the karmic washing is excruciating but the bathing is exquisite." I may be way off on the quote but I think she was speaking to how difficulties can "wash" away things like hopes and fears and leave us with an equanimity, an acceptance of what is. In a small way all this "weather" has washed away a little bit of the sun whiner in me (at least for now).
20"x24" On the easel

So if we are lucky life will offer us a "washing" every now and then. And perhaps if we take small washings on a regular basis, the bigger washings won't scrub us so raw when they arrive. Because, inevitably a little or a lot of rain is going to fall on us all some day. May your "washing" be gentle and come with earth friendly, non toxic ingredients.

I will end with a bit from my current read, "Gardening At Dragon's Gate by Wendy Johnson: "Three-quarters of the body of the earth is covered by water, alive and circulating, while our own bodies are at least 60 percent water. "Chemically speaking" runs a passage from the 1846 Farmers' Almanac, " a human being is 45 pounds of carbon diffused through 5 1/2 pails of water." From the depths of our cells, in the moisture of blood and sweat, tears and saliva, water speaks to water."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How To Get Settled

 work in progress - not sure what it needs

I have been thinking about "settling" lately. I have been noticing this phenomena I think of as "settling" when I paint, when I garden and in relation to my life on this island. I noticed it as I painted the other day. It wasn't a well formed idea, but I became aware of  the busy thoughts and the stories of how I needed to add something to one painting and fix another. I felt the edgy energy as I picked up one canvas and looked at another and wondered what I should do next. And then finally after a bit of sparrow mind, of wanting mind, I settled and worked without need.  A small blustery "head" wind had simply blown itself out.

The strength of this idea really took hold later when I went out to garden. There was an almost manic sense of getting this weed and picking up that stray branch and oh my god, this needs to be done and that needs to be cleared away. And there is so much work to do. But then Self said to self, "this is silly" and I realized the complete lack of urgency of the whole situation and I settled into the lovely chore of weeding and planting and watering.
Mapping The Heart 6"x6"

And as I wandered, I saw a thread trailing from studio to garden. And as the thread sewed intself into a thought, I realized it takes time to settle. I know this is not revolutionary or rocket science (kids, don't try this at home!, no go ahead, really), but it seemed important, the simple fact that the mind needs time to make the transition from one activity to the next. Busy, wanting mind needs time to settle. It's like the old "dirt shaken in a jar of water" story. When we move from one activity to the next, especially a busy task oriented one, to a slower, perhaps creative endeavor, the swirling continues for a while.  And the thing I realized is we can't "make" our minds settle. We can offer the conditions for settling. We can put the jar down but the settling happens on it's own. Trying to make the mind settle is just another form of swooshing the jar.

And as I picked weeds and marveled at the beauty of the treed hillside and the rolling meadow below I realized that I had finally "settled" in a very tangible way, here on this island. I'm not quite sure exactly when it happened but after 2 years here there is a deep sense of home. After many forms of wanting and swirling, I can see the small ways that tell me I've settled.  When I walked past the barn last night on the way from picking kale in the garden, I thought that my former home no longer was my idea of "home", that this place was much more "me". I have started buying things that indicate to me I'm staying here, farm things. The push lawn mower from city life has finally been replaced. I have given up telling people I have a back up plan. There are so many small signs of settling.
 small work on canvas paper

In small ways we are like the earth. When the earth settles in a spot sometimes it cracks or heaves to accommodates the terrain in quirky ways. And so it is with us. We have no idea exactly what will happen when we settle, momentarily or otherwise. But to be sure it is like our whole being breathes some sigh when we settle. Something in us relaxes. Our mind quiets, we stop asking for more, we stop wanting to know and we just are. Settled.

Sometimes we are explorers filled with the energy of excitement and sometimes we are settlers, setting our heart roots deep into the landscape, into our selves, into life and relaxing into what is.  I wish you good settling.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Our Real Work

Forest Buddha 14"x18"

It is raining again. I am always amazed at how much the human mood is tied to the weather. Go into town on a sunny day and everyone is all smiles and chat. Today there is a dark calm, an even light that the white sky casts over the landscape. Every shade of Spring green is available to the eye.  There is a calm, contemplative feel to the day. Still my little self calls out for sunshine. The energy inspired by bright sun waits somewhere out of sight. The hum of the heater reminds me of how cool the air is outside. A sagging pine branch just outside the window dangles in the breeze. Even the hummingbirds zing about with less ferocity.

I have spent the last few days getting ready for the summer art show here on Salt Spring. I count myself in with the slackers and stragglers who will submit their inventories at the very last minute of the call, today at 3pm. I have my excuses. We all do. And reason tells me they are true. My heart tells me they are not important.

I have been painting in a new way so not really producing much finished work; lots of thrashing about and the occasional piece that escapes the gesso wand of thick white goo, marking it for repaint.  I am frustrated when I produce a painting I like and then go for days before another hits the mark. Yesterday I joined the "Painting Rescue  Society" in the effort to safe a few old pieces. I implore you not to join their ranks if they come knocking at your door, with their tatty little membership forms. This I learned is pretty much a waste of time but it took me a good part of yesterday to realize my efforts to rework old pieces were not panning out. I learned that the brew mixed up by hope and delusion is rather bitter and best poured down the sink.

In the end I always stand back and ask if I would be happy with my name on a piece. It is about some internal integrity that gets stronger the more I work. It's like the dharma, isn't it: the clearer we get, the less we feel okay settling for the lazy, "good enough" effort?  We get to know the tricksters that haunt our craniums. There is so much to learn standing in front of a canvas. I might have said standing in front of a "blank" canvas, but in this case the learning comes from standing in front of an old canvas.

Painting, I was going to say, is like practice but actually it would be more accurate to say it is practice. I have learned a lot by my thrashing about this last 6 months, by venturing out into new paint ground. I work with a new eye, new faith in the process and a sense of "it's all okay". That's been a big lesson for me, to work for days, months and have little to show for it. It's sobering and honest making. You get to see what you're all about. In looking at what I accept as presentable work this weekend, I can see that there has been some movement, there has been something going on underground.

I also learned that I don't work well under pressure, actually I know that, but the weekend was a sturdy reminder. As much as I told myself I would not go into the studio with grim determination to "produce", the old habit became my shadow. It hovered and lurked, sucking all the fun from a painting afternoon. I learned that the process for me is a mysterious one, sometime a painting emerges and sometimes there are just paint rags on the floor and a whole mess of dirty brushes. I learned that I have become better at leaving the failures behind when I leave the studio, not to come into the kitchen filled with the glumness of an empty hand.

And so that was my weekend, one new painting and lots of inner etchings.

I will end with this quote I found on tumblr that speaks eloquently to where I am now:
"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."
—Wendell Berry