Don’t be a fair-weather painter

You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful.

View from the Beech Hill summit trail.

Since the first of the year, I’ve hiked every morning up to the top of Beech Hill. This has replaced my usual lunchtime walk to the post office, which is difficult right now with the sidewalks fouled with snow and ice. Beech Hill is slightly more strenuous than the aisles at my grocery store, so it’s perfect for first thing in the morning.

I’ve been walking for exercise since cancer forced me to stop running twenty years ago. With very few exceptions, I lace up my shoes and go out six days a week. I have a perverse liking for the days when normal people stay home. The world is empty and quiet, and strange things happen.

It was hard going at first.

One of the few things that interferes with my walks is travel. It’s fine when I’m teaching, because teaching plein air involves a lot of walking anyway. But when I’m just driving and looking, I’m also sitting. It doesn’t take long for my muscles to forget how to stride. I usually spend the first three days after any trip complaining bitterly about joint pain. Yes, it gets worse as I get older.

What doesn’t usually interfere is weather. My rule is to not go out if it’s below 10° F, but this year, I’ve pushed that down to almost zero. The new dog is part of the reason, but he’s just reinforcing my tendency toward routine.

Cloud shrouding Lake Chickawaukee.

There are mornings when I question my judgment, of course. Yesterday was one of them. We had a severe-weather warning, but it didn’t appear to be coming down much. It was sleeting instead. There was a quarter-inch of ice on the windshield and more in the air.

The first part of Beech Hill’s summit trail winds through the woods, and it was, frankly, unpleasant. But the great thing about routine is that it carries you through even the parts you don’t enjoy. Half way up the hill, I turned to look back across the valley towards West Rockport. It was a stunning, low-light vista, the young birches glowing maroon against an angry sky. As I climbed, a cloud settled, shrouding Lake Chickawaukee. I realized we’d soon be up in the same cloud.

Beech Nut in its cloud.

It’s very rare to climb up into a cloud when you live at sea level. I wouldn’t recommend it as a sensual pleasure. Thousands of tiny shards of ice whipped through in the air, stinging the skin on my face, icing up my glasses. But it was also energetic, subtle, and fascinating, and I’m glad I experienced it.

I wouldn’t have done that had I not been schooled to walk daily, regardless of circumstance. That’s also true in painting. You need to get through the heavy weather in order to experience the rare and wonderful—in fact, it’s the heavy weather that produces the rare and wonderful.

It’s a simple matter of showing up regularly, so what stops people from really pushing the limits of their ability? They worry about the outcome, instead of just experiencing the process. Most of us make a lot of dreck on the way to something good. Acknowledge that, and just get back to work.

Use your inside voices

This trip perfectly combined work and fun. How can I bring that attitude back to my regular routine?
White sand, by Carol L. Douglas. This is the best photo I’m going to have of this painting; it’s staying in Scotland.

When plein airpainters stand in one place for a long time, we melt into the scenery. It’s a great job for eavesdropping. This week, I’ve heard chatter from all over the world. As I stood near the landing, I realized that visitors were coming off the ferry in national waves: Americans, then Scots, then Germans, then French-speakers. There are a lot of Americans in Scotland right now. The dollar is strong and Outlander has many die-hard fans.

Americans can be exuberant, but no more so than the Scots. I’ve gotten to hear bits and pieces of conversation I should never be privy to. You may feel as if you’re alone, but outdoors on a small island, there is always someone nearby.
Daisy chain: a photo of a photographer photographing me painting something else. Courtesy of Douglas J. Perot.
Because I’m part of the scenery, tourists take my picture while I’m painting. Occasionally they’ll ask, but that isn’t necessary. I’m outside in public, so I’m fair game. A few days ago, I posted the photo above on Instagram. “That is me! I hope you don’t mind I took some pics of you… How embarrassing!” wrote user surfeandovientos.
Let that be a lesson on the power of hashtags. People really do search and follow them.
White sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas. The water is turquoise in Iona Sound.
I generally get in my 10,000 steps a day. Even that is not enough to keep up with the typical middle-aged European. My friends and husband averaged 25,000 steps on their Iona ramble days. Even in town they walked to most destinations that we would grab a car for.
The average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, or roughly 1.5 to 2 miles. If you don’t up your game significantly, you won’t enjoy visits to places like Iona, where there are few cars and roads. The time to start exercising is now, before you ever book a ticket.
You’re not getting as much value out of the scenery of your home country, either. The world looks very different on foot. Your heart, your soul, and the environment will all thank you if you start walking every day.
Resting place of warriors and kings, incomplete, by Carol L. Douglas.
I painted every day it wasn’t raining, and I still managed a decent daily ramble. I went to an auction preview, out to dinner, to Rosslyn Chapel, and traipsed around after my friends on one of the world’s most scenic golf courses. There were no golf carts; one had climb stiles over barbed-wire fencing and dodge the sheep to get from hole to hole. If golf was like that in the US, I’d find it irresistible.
“I know this is your opportunity to paint on Iona, but you don’t have to work all the time,” cautioned my husband. So I didn’t, merely keeping a pace that was comfortable. The challenge for me is to take that attitude into my summer season.
Yesterday, we moved along to Glasgow, where we walked through the city center before bed. I can’t really say I’ve ‘seen’ Glasgow, and I—sadly—missed the Kelvingrove, but that’s the nature of travel: you always want to come back for more.
This morning I’ll repack my luggage and head to the airport and home. I have an appointment with the town assessor to look at our sewer connection first thing tomorrow morning. There’s nothing like returning to reality with a thump.

New drug boosts creativity, cures hypertension, depression, and diabetes… and it’s free!

A young walker in the Duchy.
A Stanford studyearlier this year found that walking boosts creativity. This is a real-time effect, and it lasts during the time you’re walking and for a short while thereafter. It gives legs to the idea that we get our best ideas while walking.
This will come as no surprise to people who walk regularly. I have no idea how it motivates the circuitry of one’s brain (any more than I understand how it massages the gut or how it strengthens back muscles) but as a lifelong walker, I’m convinced it works. It certainly reduces anxiety. I’m finding myself walking upwards of six miles a day this month, and it’s done much to assuage my grief and worry over the upheavals in my personal life.
Walking every day has the perverse effect of making me like winter more, although I’m not always keen on the way sidewalks are maintained here in Rochester.
Although I’ve been a dedicated walker/runner/hiker my whole adult life, about five years ago my doctor started making noises at me about cholesterol and high blood pressure. I realized that I needed to ramp up the pace. Now it’s the first thing I do every day, and I’m willing to spend at least two hours a day exercising.
The biggest objection people make to walking is, “I don’t have the time.” On the other hand, the average American watches five hours of television a day.
I’m self-employed, so I can set my own schedule. I walk my husband to work every morning. Most married couples have very little time to talk to each other; we are guaranteed the better part of an hour together. (Since the average car in the US costs more than $9000 a year to own and operate, we save a lot of money, too.)
Later in the morning, I walk with a small posse. Who shows up varies by the day, but we’re all self-employed or telecommuters.
Walking is gentle on the environment. This is the annual salt collection at the side of our street after the snow melts. It’s a miracle anything grows here.
It’s paid off: I’m apparently the only middle-aged American who isn’t takingsome kind of prescription drug. Nearly 70 percent of Americans of all ages are on at least one medication, and more than half take two or more. Among women in my age cohort, a stunning one in four are taking antidepressants.
Walking is cheap. It makes you creative, it makes you happy, it gives you great gams, and it mitigates many diseases of aging like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.