Love and friendship

A friend is a friend, and love is love, no matter if it comes by airmail or through the internet, or in person.

My mother and her cousin Gabriel on her last trip to Australia.

My brother gave me a thumb drive containing about 500 scanned slides from my childhood. They’re very interesting, but they are largely of an era when my parents still only had three children—my sister Ann, my brother John, and, eventually, toddler me.

They went on to have three more—my brothers David, Robert and Daniel. Then John and Ann died in two separate, horrible accidents. My children have only heard stories about them, so their interest is natural. But I could almost not bear the pain of those photos. They’re gripping images of another life entirely, before my family was blown apart by cataclysm. We were miserable for so many years that I’d almost forgotten that we were once happy.

My brother John, me, and my sister Ann kicking up our feet in the Niagara River.

On the other hand, Doug and I are in Albany with our own four adult children and three grandchildren. They’re nice kids. All of them are productively employed; three of the four are happily married. They love each other enough to want to live in the same city. I understand exactly how blessed I am.

Last year’s blog on this date was called, Joy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. It was about our first COVID year, but it’s universally true. We lose people we love, and then we gain new people to love. The cycle grows more marked over time, but none of us are immune. Grief is the price we ultimately pay for love.

I have friends who have never escaped the acute phase of grief. I lived there for several decades myself. Faith helps, but it comes with its own questions.

For me, the key to surviving has been to keep my pain in a small box and resolutely look outward and forward. I wasn’t always this way. After my father died, I took on the role of ‘memory keeper.’ 

Our lovely boat, now long gone, on the wall at Rich Marine in Buffalo.

Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to do that. Happiness wasn’t somehow disloyal to the past. If there is omniscience from beyond the grave (and I doubt that, on theological grounds), I don’t think they’d want me to be permanently miserable.

My husband and I don’t exchange Christmas gifts. Now that our kids are grown, there’s seldom anything under our tree. This year, however, I received a package from one of my online students. It contained a cute little ornament that looks just like me. There was also a package marked ‘do not open until Christmas.’ It was squishy and for some reason I decided that it was a stollen.

I was wrong; it was a collection of fine oil-painting brushes from a group of my online students. To say I was speechless, shocked and moved is an understatement. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would give me such a lovely gift. “We call that being ‘surprised with love,’” said the instigator.

I haven’t met all these students ‘in the real world.’ I’m no longer certain that such a distinction even exists. The line between real-world and internet contact is now so blurred as to be almost meaningless.

You young’uns may have never seen an airmail letter. It was a thin, parchment paper and you filled every inch of it with script, because it was expensive to mail. (Courtesy ebay)

My mother and her cousin-in-law in Australia wrote to each other for five decades, starting in the early 1960s. They never met in person until middle age, but they were always friends; decades of indirect contact forged intimate relationship.

I remember telling my youngest that his online friendships were not ‘real’. I’m afraid I owe him an apology. A friend is a friend, and love is love, no matter if it comes by airmail or through the internet, or in person.

In a few minutes, I’m going to head over to my eldest daughter’s house and play with my grandkids and look resolutely forward and outward. Have a blessed, happy new year, my friends.

The maddest, gladdest event of my year

Partying cuts into my painting time, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice.
It’s going to be called Little Toot, if I can find enough time to finish painting the boat in at the top left.
Castine Plein Air is always fun. I see my friends who live here, and many painter friends. Among them is Ben Pahucki, the son of painter Chrissy Pahucki. For years, Chrissy has been bringing her kids to events. This year, Ben took first place in his age group at Easton Plein Air. That’s a stellar accomplishment.
Of course, those of us who’ve watched him grow up are very interested in where he’ll end up. It may be gossip, but we’re talking about him when he’s not around.
Like most young people, he’ll be under strong social pressure to do something other than art—not from his parents, but from educators and his peers. There’s a pernicious lie in our culture that artists can’t make a living. I hear it often when I’m outside working. I just smile and say, “you’d be surprised.”
Laura Martinez Biancotold me a wonderful story from her teaching days. Her principal challenged her about encouraging kids to go to art school. “You were a science teacher, right?” she asked. “Tonight, we’ll each go home and draw up a list—you of people you know making a living in science, me of people I know making a living in art. We’ll see whose list is longer.” The next day, he forfeited. Even though we (properly) emphasize the STEM curriculum, very few people make a living in pure science.
Water Street, by Carol L. Douglas
Last year, I was painting on Battle Avenue when Laura stopped to talk. Her phone had been ringing incessantly while she was trying to work. Finally, she gave in and answered it. It was a call to tell her that she was going to be a grandmother. We both cried. This year, I got to see photos of her grandson, now six months old. I teared up again.
I’ve had dinner with Kirk Larsen and Kirk McBride two nights in a row. That’s because our hosts have taken it in turn to feed us. Since both hosts are good friends of mine, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.
“Do you guys all know each other?” I was asked. In fact, that’s much true. The plein air circuit is a bit like professional rodeo. There are lots of people doing one or two events, but the core group see each other over and over every season. I’ve known some of these painters for twenty years.
My host and I were unsure whether this was the event’s sixth or seventh year. Since it marks the start of our friendship, I was keen to know. I asked organizer Don Tenney as he stamped artists’ boards on the Common on Thursday morning.
“Seven,” he answered. “You can tell how long it’s been by how much Ben Pahucki has shot up in height,” he said.
Kirk Larson, who was in line in front of me, smiled wryly. “We’ve known that kid since…” and he made a rocking motion with his arms. It’s a slight exaggeration, but most of us have watched all three Pahucki kids grow up.
All this partying cuts into my painting time, of course, but I’m sanguine about it. I don’t get to see my Castine friends that often, and one painting more or less isn’t going to break my career. In the end, friendship is infinitely more precious.

Sorry this post was late, but I had no internet this morning and had to get painting.

This has not been one of my better days

It only takes a moment to change your frame of reference.
Down the Reach, by Carol L. Douglas
My father said, “This has not been one of my better days” nearly every day. When I’m having a difficult time, I tell myself that. Then I laugh, remembering that all discomfort is relative. That invariably restores my good humor.
I was hot on the trail of a painting and refused to stop for anything. My pal Berna brought me scones and coffee in the morning. Chrissy Spoor Pahucki and her son Ben brought me cake in the afternoon. Still, I should have taken a break. I stumbled around in the wind and sun breaking things. I tore the end off my tube of ultramarine blue. I broke my framing gun for the second time. I was a filthy mess myself and got blue paint all over a frame. In trying to clean it off, I scoured the frame corners raw. As I fumbled, the wind blew my umbrella into my painting. Yes, it was one of those days.
I’m usually pretty mellow about problems, but I was incandescent, ready to take easel, paints and brushes to the cove and dump them in. A car pulled up. It was an old friend with whom I’ve painted and shared digs at Adirondack Plein Air.
“This has not been one of my better days.” I told her, but this time saying it didn’t help.
Tom Sawyer’s fence, by Carol L. Douglas.

“I was painting something really good,” she responded. “But my phone kept going off. Finally, I checked and the calls were from my new daughter-in-law. They’ve only been married a month.”

We love our families, but we don’t necessarily want to talk to them when we’re working. It’s hard to answer the phone when you’re covered in goop. They generally don’t call unless it’s an emergency, so I completely understood her worry as she looked at her screen.
“She wanted to tell me she’s pregnant,” she explained. I had to laugh, because I fully appreciated what was going through my friend’s head.
“That’s wonderful,” she was thinking, along with, “Now hang up and let me finish this blasted painting.” Well, the painting didn’t happen; instead she burst into tears. Mazel tov, Grandma!
Jonathan Submarining, by Carol L. Douglas. The kids raced around in their 420s while Poppy Balser and I stood in the surf painting. It was a magical day.
That completely restored my good humor. I went home and had dinner with two teenage boys and their grandmothers. One of them modeled in the best painting I ever did at Castine, Jonathan Submarining. That day, he was a little kid bouncing around on heavy seas. Just a blink of an eye, and he’s now a young adult, teaching in the same sailing school.
“You’ve gotten so old,” Berna exclaimed.
“It’s a good thing they don’t say that to us,” I laughed. Castine may be Brigadoon in many ways, but even here, time doesn’t stand still. It’s a reminder that the work will keep; treasure the ones you love.

The Poetry Pole

The Poetry Pole in the depths of Spring.

Of the lovely things to sprout in my neighborhood, the one with the longest-lasting bloom is the Poetry Pole around the corner. I first noticed it on March 18 while walking with friends; the poem was Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, a seasonal and apposite statement, for when women walk in flocks, they frequently “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

And, what the heck, here are some of those wild geese.

At the beginning of last week, the poem had changed. Once again our neighborhood Poetry Vendor touched not only on the season, but (quite innocently, since the world hadn’t exploded into violence yet) on the spirit of the week* to come.

Suddenly the archetypal  
human desire for peace  
with every other species  
wells up in you. The lion  
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,  
queen of the weeds, revives  
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt  
there is a leaf to cure it.
(from Amy Gerstler’s In Perpetual Spring)
I don’t know who the Poetry Vendor is; I know who I could ask, but I like receiving this generous gift from a stranger. As I sort through my complex feelings about this wonderful little town in which I live, I wonder how common Poetry Poles are, anyway. Do you have one, or something like it, where you live?
The leaf that cures my hurt flow in streams of living water…
*This being the age of rapid communication, we no longer have time for any “spirit of the age.” A week is all we can remember at one time.