Sunday, April 29, 2012

Of Glass and Stones

The way it is with my husband and I is this: he's got his shop to fix and assemble his works of art and craft, and I've got mine. Only sometimes we overlap and I take over some of the space in his shop (though he never gets any of mine). Fair, right? The surest path to complete and utter happiness in a marriage is having your own space in which to meditate and create, without interruption (at least that's how it is in our family).

He bought a connex (a connex is a really ugly 8' x 40' steel shipping container), plopped it onto our property and fashioned it into a workshop. That is where his genius lay; he can make anything out of the most meager materials. I insisted he put a roof on it so it would at least look like a regular building; or something other than an ugly steel shipping container; but that didn't work. It's still ugly. And it still resembles a rusted steel shipping container.

But oh, the magic that transpires inside. I've been working on this mosaic for almost a year (minus 6 months of winter when the shop was not heated), and I think we may be nearing the home stretch. It is cut glass that, once assembled, will be grouted. It is mounted on plexi-glass so light will shine through the colored glass.

The pattern looks somewhat hodge-podgey, but vastly improves once the grout is laid in.

My husband is a born geologist. He loves rocks. There are rocks all over our house, which to me, don't look like anything special until after he cuts and shaves and tumbles and smooths them into stones for jewelry. 

A few of his specimens are petrified wood collected from the banks of the Gallatin River, Montana, where friends Gordon & Peg Lehman fish for trout and raise horses on their ranch. I've known Gordon since college days when a gang of us used to go camping at Grass Lake in Michigan. Back in those idealistic days, we talked about living off the land and building our own houses and gardens. Looking over the group dynamics, we had a nurse, a couple teachers, an artist, a sociologist, a business man, a pre-med student...just about every occupation was covered to form our own hippie commune.

We could create a beautiful community, with a common garden and meeting area where young people would interact with their elders, where we'd help each other with day to day chores, make healthy meals, and play music together. Just think...we could imagine and construct a personal hands-on micro-culture!

Or as Austin Kleon put it, "you are a mashup of what you let into your life." All of it acts of creation.

But I digress. We've all been scattered to the wind and let the current lead us to where we are today.  

Still creating, still wrought with compelling conceptions bubbling below the surface of our minds. I keep pen and paper next to my bed to catch ideas born of dreams. Only thing is, I could use another lifetime to fulfill the long run of stream-of-consciousness ideas.

More time to fancy the art of creation; to romance the stone. To love each and every new piece.

I went digging around behind the light box (in the big, ugly connex) and ran into this piece of glass I bought last year, or maybe two years ago, but I'd forgotten it. For a scant second, it took my breath away.

At least for now, I can't cut this's aesthetically pleasing and too darned beautiful just the way it is. The exciting part is dreaming about what piece of art this sheet of glass will someday inhabit. Who knows?

We're always a work in progress; ourselves...and all of our grand ideas.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cabin Mystery

Copper River break-up

The ice has not yet gone out on the Copper River.  I’ve come out to our cabin to spend time working on my writing, without distractions, but nature itself is a behemoth wondrous distraction, or at least it can be. Some may see it as repetitive and empty; “you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all” type thinking. But there is life and death to evidence just beneath the surface if you can sit still long enough to see.

Did you ever have a feeling you couldn’t quite place? I’ve got four days to write, yet my mind is as stubborn as the river ice; hardened and unable to flow. Something is bugging me but I don't know what. I couldn't put pen to paper like I'd planned to do...this, after being interviewed just a couple days ago by a local magazine about writing and creating an artful life. My declaration was clear:  I don't believe in writer's block (I refuse to give the term so much power). Never one to procrastinate, I set my schedule and was determined to get to work, but when I arrived at the cabin, after a 3 hour drive up and down and around tall mountains, along a snaking riverbed, and across a white-washed pass where snow-machiners were enjoying their end-of-season thrill rides, I felt nothing but a swelling of gratitude for the wondrous, picture postcard world I inhabit each and every day, and all this without a single RV in sight.

But I didn't want to work. I just wanted to sit in the sun and watch the river go by. I just wanted to daydream and make a fire, and kick my feet up and listen to the chink chinking of ice breaking up right  in front of my eyes. I just wanted to watch the clouds barrel in, watch the afternoon rain gently falling, and hang out with the dog in the fresh clean air. So when the sun parted the clouds and continued its burning of huge cracks in the river ice, I didn't do one damn thing but sit there, and feel grateful.

So me and the dog were sitting around the fire, watching the river flow, when I spotted a dark shadow moving over my head. Ravens are big birds, really big birds and this one was barking so loud and his buddies were following close behind him, so I decided to follow them and see what all the ruckus was about. I walked upriver a ways and there I spotted an eagle swoop down and chase all those black birds sky high and outa there while he protected a cache of foxes. Dead frozen foxes. One, two, maybe three foxes, all in the same small area, atop chunks of unmoving river ice. I don't know how they got there, or why they were congegrated in one small area, but I had a few hunches. All in various stages of decay, perhaps they were cached by the eagle, then floated down the river a ways before being stopped by cakes of ice. Or maybe the eagle brought them to this spot, one by one, dropping each one from the grip of its talons and was protecting its hard earned prey. You see, I wasn't present to see what had happened beforehand. 

I figure I wasn't meant to get any work done on this trip. I was meant to witness this mystery, this peculiar scene, this strange event.

Sometimes it's hard to look at fallen animals...

But the scene just reinforces the fact that we are a part of the circle of life. The world is beautiful and sad and scary and peaceful and violent...every contradiction and every paradox that baffles and makes me wonder about the answers to the big questions has informed me of this much: We are not separate from the whole of the natural world; we are not bigger, better, faster, stronger, smarter. Someday we will all fall prey, human and non-human alike, churning and turning, creating and destroying as the wheel of life keeps circling on and on. Like those squawking ravens barrel rolling above my head. 

Like me and the dog, sitting by the fire, watching the river roll by.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Poetry Arrived...Faces

Poetry search of me. I don't know...
I don't know where it came from, from 
winter, or a river.
I don't know how or when...  -Pablo Neruda

I love words. 
Margaret Atwood, best known for her novels, The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin, once said that if she were to pick a favorite word, it would be "and," because it is so hopeful.

And I love faces. How we learn to hide behind a smiling face; tuck away emotions, disguise or mask how we really feel. So I decided to combine my love of words and my current art project, which is drawing quick sketches of faces (using oil pastels) with an exercise in word play, to create a poem to accompany each sketch. This is like a dart game. I don't know where the dart's going to stick; I just aim my attention at the target and follow whatever word or image slips out.  So here goes.

little patience
I wanted freedom
babbling to the bus driver
pitted concrete, muddy water, yellow daffodils
please sit.
quiet down, down

river rock, early morning thunder
gas station parking, cheap hotel lobbies
listless, averse to crowds and
drunk on ice, love

                                                                           I'm George
                                                                          or Littlefish
                                                       I had a father who didn't say goodbye
                                                      my mother has a lion heart, strong legs
                                                                 and tiny cooking hands but
                                                                        her tail, I'm afraid,
                                                                            is thinning.

There is not one Truth, but
many truths. One is:
white people don't share.
Two: stones are alive.
Three: I have seen the sunrise, and that is all I need to know.

Maiden: wildflowers, angel hair, fire in the belly
Mother: midnight feedings, cognitive dissonance, apologetic children
Crone: borrowed candles, barren trees, 

a black dented pot

Monday, April 2, 2012

Kelly on a Wyoming Ranch

I wrote this story when I was 24 years old, after working "round up" at a friend's family ranch near Rawlins, Wyoming. My first third rate romance, or maybe a low rent rendezvous. Either way, it is the first and last "sizzler" story I've ever written.

Hang on to your hats, cowgirls!

Why does this story haunt me today? I'm now 59 years old, and in June will be joining Page Lambert's Literature and Landscape of the Horse, at the Vee-Bar Guest Ranch in Laramie, Wyoming. We're going to ride horses and read and write about the adventure and beauty of the western landscape. I haven't seen my friend from Rawlins in 35 years, and she's been long gone from the ranch but I hope to find her, and at the very least, take a drive past the old place where I experienced a fierce love in my young bones (OK, lust) steeped in the romance of driving cattle in the dusty Wyoming sun. 

So I'm going to be a brave writer, and share Kelly on a Wyoming Ranch (don't laugh too hard at the worn out cliches...) 

"Did you know Annie Oakley could cut a playing card in two at thirty paces?” We lay flat on our backs; legs dangling over the dock and with stretched toes tapped the glassy surface of the water. Bare Pond was the only hint of moisture within the hundreds of cracked dry acres of Ferris Mt. Ranch. Laura flicked my elbow.  “Annie made special bullets; packed the pellets with sand and beeswax so they’d spread further into the air.  Better to hit flying targets.”

I didn’t mean to, but I ignored Laura. My mind was solidly on John who lay silently next to me, eyes half closed. John Kelly was his name, though everyone called him Kelly. He worked for Burlington Railroad in Gillette, but came down south every year to work as a ranch hand for a few weeks during “round up”. I remember the first time I saw him one night in Deadwood. I walked into the Old Style Saloon and there he was, his tall muscular body leaning against a wooden post, arms folded against his chest. We both did a double take, held each other’s gaze for a moment, and my feet almost slid out from under me on the sawdust floor. Lightly he grazed his cowboy hat with two fingers and slowly said, “howdy ma’am.” That was all. I was with James that night, and we had just gotten back to town after the Dusty Chaps did a gig in Tucson. I rarely traveled with James, but made this one exception in an off-handed attempt to try and keep things together, something I was not so sure I wanted to do anymore.  

Laura bumped my elbow again. A light wind kicked up and dust swirled in small squalls across the flat, sun-scorched land. On our first day at the ranch, the twelve of us hands were split up and given assignments; some at the branding corral, others working the cattle. At lunch, we met at the main house and sat down at a long table heaped with sandwiches, snacks and lemonade. The room was abuzz with introductions. To my great surprise, there I met John Kelly formally, and again he responded with a quiet tip of his hat. Did he remember seeing me that night in Deadwood?

The next morning the crew started at the crack of dawn, the only cool time of the day. With a bridle on one arm and a saddle over his shoulder, Kelly emerged from the tack room and began saddling up the horses. He wore a blue bandanna around his neck, blue jeans and a ragged denim shirt.  Side by side we worked as the cool of morning began to wane and gritty sand blew across our faces. Once all saddled, we led the horses into trailer trucks where they were driven down the dusty road to the main corral. 

Kelly didn’t talk much; he mainly observed. He’d take his hat off, ruffle his hair and stare up at the wide blue sky for a while. With hands on his hips, he’d mumble something to the horses and stroke their smooth, lean bodies. His eyes, like cold blue steel, were clear and penetrating. Sometimes I’d catch him looking at me, then he’d turn away shyly like a little boy caught red-handed with his fingers in the cookie jar. 

“We’ve got a hundred healthy calf-breeding cows and half as many breeder bulls out there we got to get in today,” one hand shouted to the others.  The riders fanned out in the early morning heat and rode out towards the winter pasture. Laura and I helped Maggie pack a dozen sack lunches, and then drove out to the branding corral to await the flow of cattle. By mid day, some of the riders returned and slowly the cows began surging through the branding gate, the riders herding them into place.

A quarter horse can stop and turn in an instant and run at breakneck speed for a quarter mile, then stop and turn again without tiring; the best kind of a horse for rounding up cattle. Kelly rode Shiloh, a chestnut quarter horse with strength, agility and a calm temperament. The muscular legs, shoulders and rump of Shiloh glistened in the afternoon heat. I fantasized riding off into the sunset with Kelly; Shiloh in a gallop with his head high and his feet sure on the rough terrain, taking us to Bare Pond. There, with little or no guidance from Kelly, he would wait patiently under the cool moonlight while Kelly and I eagerly made love under the smell of leather and sweet sage. 

I caught my breath and looked down at the ground, kicking dirt with the toe of my boot. Kelly and Shiloh dashed around me with the other horses and with sticks in hand, the workers tapped the rumps of cows as they streamed into the branding corral. Shiloh had “cow sense”. If Kelly wasn’t fast enough with his commands, Shiloh appeared to know exactly what to do. The cows funneled in at a rapid pace, and I climbed onto the fence and watched as dust spiraled, men shouted, and the animals grunted their way into the corral.

Laura and I and several of the other hands took our places at one end of the corral while the cattle bunched together in one corner. Kelly pointed Shiloh’s head at the calf he selected. He swung his lariat with care so it landed just in front of the calf’s hind legs. The calf stepped forward. In an instant, Kelly jerked hard on the rope closing the noose around the calf’s legs and dragged it in my direction. Immediately I hit the ground and grabbed the calf’s tail while Laura pulled back on the rope, lifting the calf off balance. As the animal fell over, I released its tail and gripped its top front leg, lifting it so the calf couldn’t rise up. As I struggled to hold on, the calf thrashed wildly, and I felt Kelly’s hands on my shoulders, pressing in, giving me support. I looked up. Shiloh stood nearby, waiting. Another wrangler freed the rope from the calf, grabbed its top hind leg and stretched it taught, exposing its left hip.  Within seconds, there was a hissing sound and the smell of burnt hide rose up in a white billow of smoke. The calf screamed and bawled, scampering back to his mother at the far end of the fence. Within seconds, Kelly swung himself back onto Shiloh and was roping in another calf for branding.  

On the last day of “round-up”, my muscles ached and my skin felt warm with sunburn. Gritty and tired, we saddled up the last few horses and rode them back to the main house, while the others were transported by truck to the corral. The sky in the west shone a muted mauve and yellow, the sun passing like a skipping stone on the horizon. Laura and I would wash up and get ready for our drive back home to Spearfish after supper. The other wranglers would go their separate ways, and I was resigned to the fact that the man for whom my heart and body so dearly ached would be gone forever.

Back at the house, Kelly took off his hat and shook his head under a spigot, letting the cool water run down his back and soak his shirt. I crept up slowly behind him, picked up a dried cow pie from the crusted ground and let it fly, hitting him squarely in the back. He turned. I took another shot and just missed his head as he bolted towards me. Grabbing another pie, I cocked my arm back and Kelly charged me at the waist, held my forearm in a steel-like grip, and shook the pie loose. I collapsed into his chest, breathed his sweat, and felt my cheeks graze the coarse hairs on his neck. He laughed and held me tight and we swayed, just a little, before he let go.

Two weeks later I had another job in town as a barmaid at the Back Porch. The Dusty Chaps had a gig to play there, and semi-reluctantly, I would be spending a lot of time with James. Laura went to work in the sawmill at Whitewood for the rest of the summer.

It happened one lazy Saturday afternoon. I was home alone, cleaning the place up; the wind rattled the screen door in its hinges. A tall blond man parked his black pickup out front and slowly strode to the door.

“Hello house” he said to make his presence known as he walked up the front porch steps of Doris’s Cottages. I opened the door. Kelly smiled, tipped back his hat and in a soft low voice said, “howdy ma'am”. He drew me to his chest and kissed me softly. I kissed him back and pressed my heart into his and we stood swaying in the doorway. Then I grasped his hand in mine and led him through the archway and into my bedroom.

Like Shiloh, Kelly has good instincts. He’s agile, strong and carries his head high. He never asked about my past (a cowboy code of honor?), but eagerly told me of his future. “I’m going to college to study stock breeding,” he said. “So someday I can run my own round-up.” I nuzzled into his neck. I didn’t care to hear about next month, or next year or even tomorrow.  For me, it was enough to just lie back in his thick strong arms and make love…the rest of the long afternoon.