Start writing before the words of the day impose themselves on you. Start while you’re still asleep, just poured the first coffee. While the dream world still holds you in sway, while your conscious mind and worries haven’t yet had time to plant themselves firmly in your mind. Start before you start playing out the arguments you might use with your boss or husband that day. Start in the dark of winter mornings, when the ghosts of the past are still present, when the darkness hasn’t yet faded, as the sun slowly spreads shadows and light and the fall leaves shake in the morning breeze, casting prisms on the floor.
Recently, I opened a notebook from a few months ago and found lovely drawings and stories that I didn’t remember doing. I had intended to write on the leftover blank pages but started viewing the work. It felt like I was looking at someone else’s work.
I often put aside writings or paintings for at least a month or more after finishing them, before editing them or making the final touches. When I come back to the work, I have enough perspective to edit words severely, add an extra line of paint, or eliminate a too busy portion. Sometimes I just note what I liked and what I didn’t like about the piece, tuck the piece away, and use that information to inform future work. Then, I move on. I figure that good work will emerge about 1 out of 10 times, if I’m lucky that day. This doesn’t bother me. My artwork is done for my own entertainment, catharsis, and meditation. The final product is merely a by-product of the process. But occasionally, when I look back, there is a lovely sensation of satisfaction of having done something well.
I love trying new things and a knitting and crochet store just opened in my neighborhood. [www.thatsthepointneeedlecrafts.com]The yarn is seductive. It’s achingly soft, with marvelous colors, from muted, natural colors to bold, primary colors, which are actually used sari fibers spun together.
The store offered a free lesson; I couldn’t wait. I had learned some knitting when I was very young, but had long since forgotten it. I recalled swirling in the navy blue ice skating skirt my mother knit for me. Lace doilies lay across tables in my grandmother’s house, crocheted by my great-aunts. The white doilies were as delicate as snowflakes.
Recently, I saw sculptures made from crocheted yarn in the Visionary Arts Museum. [www.avam.org] A mathematician friend explained that crochet actually makes hyperbolic arches. [http://crochetcoralreef.org/crochet-coral-reef-book.php] After knitting a bit, I realized the art is mathematical, and not just because of the shapes, but because I needed to count stitches so as not to lose any. Also, my knitting wound itself into a shape somewhat like a DNA molecule, which I was assured, was normal.
As I sat practicing my knitting, women stopped by to shop and chat. One of the pleasures of knitting or crocheting is that it can be done while engaging in conversation. The women were around my age, middle aged or somewhat older. They fondled the yarn, discussed patterns, techniques, and the perfect needle.They were professional women from a large variety of fields, from computers to teaching to non-profit management. They also had a wide range of interests. I even met one woman who also did aikido!
I went home satisfied and excited. This week I plan to learn crocheting.
Peri-menopause, the time in our lives from regular menstrual periods to one year after the cessation of periods, is a trip, in all senses of the word. For some of my friends, it is a time that they hardly take note of, nothing much changes. For me, however, it is a time with wildly fluctuating moods, changes in temperature regulation, and bizarre effects. As my friend Barbara put it, peri-menopause is something that no one talks about. Certainly, it was not discussed when we were growing up. Only recently, among certain women, is it now considered an okay topic for discussion, albeit, a little risqué.
Firstly, the good effects. I have always been a slender woman prone to feeling cold. I go out in a down coat when other people are in their shirt sleeves. I think I was meant to live in the tropics. At the onset of perimenopause, I’d get hot flashes and find them extremely pleasant. Finally, at least for the short time of the hot flash, I felt the temperature the same as everyone else. I could take off my coat or jacket or whatever extra layers of clothing I was wearing at the time. In later peri-menopause, I found I had trained myself to regulate my temperature somewhat by increasing the heat in my hands and toes. I also found I’d learned to relax my body somewhat, even when I was tense. For both of these, I used techniques learned from martial arts and yoga. This relaxation of muscles and temperature regulation is somewhat related, which is why they are sitting together in my paragraph.
Somewhere around the first few years of peri-menopause, I got tired of dyeing my hair and let it go gray. It was a relief, since dyeing was both an expense and time-consuming. Then, I found that I could be invisible whenever I wanted. It was like having a magic cloak that would make one disappear. People pass me on the street without looking at me, or even giving any thought to my presence. They will continue their conversation, their thoughts, whatever gait and posture they had without interruption. I could observe them carefully without their ever noticing me. I could listen in to conversations. (Yes, as a writer, I am perpetually nosy.) If I wanted to be visible, all I have to do is walk/stand purposefully and speak up. Like taking off the magic cloak.
The gray hair also allows me to call others “dear,” to speak at will to strangers and get them talking, and to immediately create an authoritative presence at work meetings. I can coo and make faces at babies and parents would smile, understand and tolerate me. People trust me. What a mistake..haha. This is particularly fun when practicing martial arts with those who don’t know me. What do they see? A tiny, old lady. She’s probably fragile. Then suddenly they are on the floor and I am giggling.
Another effect of peri-menopause was wildly swinging moods. One minute I’m crying and the next I’m laughing hysterically, or singing at the top of my lungs (in my car). It also brought some of the worst depressions I’ve had. These might have been partially due to the fact that peri-menopause coincided with a move from NYC to Baltimore, along with a change of jobs. I found myself with a new roommate (my new husband), a different job, and a city where I had some strong acquaintances, but no friends as yet. I also found I couldn’t paint as I had been doing, due to space considerations. That worked out okay though. I decided to join a writer’s group that met regularly to help each other with writing. After that, I started pottery with a marvelous teacher, who became a good friend. But then, I had another devastating depression. This was followed by nearly two years of feeling okay, but numb. I wasn’t creating and cared little about the things that had formerly seemed important. I sat in a comfortable chair and read, mostly escape literature like mystery novels. I felt little energy for martial arts or exercising. I forced myself to keep up somewhat with the martial arts and also, to walk. I couldn’t seem to do the simple domestic tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and gardening that had given me pleasure. (Actually, I did add to my notebooks some poems, stories and drawings, but I didn’t realize I did it at the time, and the output was much less than usual.) This was the scary part of peri-menopause; I thought I’d be like that for the rest of my life, that aging meant that I wouldn’t have the energy or passion of previous times.
Now, I think I may be at the tail end of peri-menopause. In any event, I feel like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, or Sleeping Beauty finally awakened by passion into life again. In retrospect, I think the time of calm numbness may have actually been a time of contemplation of my values, an evaluation of where I had been, and an assessment of where I wanted to go with the remainder of my life. I feel more committed to this world and more dedicated to acting on my own ethics. I am going through a period of great creativity. At some point, I may experience a time of less energy or creativity, as my creativity naturally waxes and wanes over time, but I’m merrily riding this wave while it lasts.
under florescent lights
into paper airplanes
After getting a cat, I am surprised to find myself getting attached to him, as he is to me. Buddy, my cat, was given to my husband by his mother. She would go into the nursing home if he would take the cat. It was a deal only my mother-in-law could broach, mafia-like he “couldn’t refuse,” ha. Now that Buddy has taken over my house and favorite chair, he has also become an art inspiration. Mind control??
Imrana Sayed and Wick O’Brien have made their beautiful house by building and decorating in and onto an existing house in Staten Island. They bought their house many years ago but over time have changed it. Wick is a skilled builder. He redid the kitchen, tore off the roof, built stairs, and made the attic into a master bedroom with attached bath. Imrana is skilled at sewing. She regularly sews clothes or makes toys (like stuffed bears) for children. She sewed slip covers for couches and chairs as well as creating all the curtains. I think the couch they are sitting in is about to get a remake! Imrana also did a lot of the less skilled work that required patience and persistence, like stripping layers of paint from the original wood and refinishing it. Then, she decorated the house with found objects and friends’ artwork. I have experienced their hospitality in the house more times than I can count and it’s always like coming home.
Dining room. Painting by Mike Hamilton. For more beautiful paintings go to his website mikehamiltonpaintings.com Disclosure: He’s the father of my children, too. Makes beautiful kids and paintings!
Below is the dining room wall opposite Mike’s painting. The cross in the corner was actually a wooden mould for metal pipes.
A corner of the living room. My painting of a lamplit street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was done at night in winter, under a street light and wearing many layers of clothing.
I saw this whimsical, carved and painted fence when I was bicycling around the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. Although this is on the outside of the house, I consider gardens and fences to be part of the house so I included it in this part of the conversation.
Betsy Bennett is an actor, comedian, writer and also my sister-in-law. She decorated her apartment in an idiosyncratic way, with family heirlooms plus objects and artwork she found at thrift stores and flea markets. I found it delightful to stay at her home when I went to visit. In every nook there was a surprise!
For a taste of Betsy’s most recent comedy, “Assisted Living: The Musical” go to http://www.comptonandbennett.com
Although I love traveling, I am always happy to come home.
Snow. It started late last night and continued ’til midday, piling up on streets, steps, trees, cars, and rooftops, bringing with it peaceful silence and a day of rest for many of us. In the morning I shoveled all 14 feet of my sidewalk. There is something nice about a narrow house on days like this! Then I shoveled many of my neighbors’ sidewalks and steps since they also have about 14 feet and it just makes it too easy to do something nice for someone else. Time to dig out the car. Fortunately the snow was light and fluffy at this time and I was able to brush it off my car, all except the center of the top, since I am only 5 feet one inch and I couldn’t reach. Neighbor John came by and offered to help me continue to dig out. Then he noted that my car had a mohawk! After he went on his way, couldn’t resist making a face from the snow that I had piled up next to my car. The face looks sort of like the father of my children without his glasses, when he was young and had a beard. Okay, so a little more bug-eyed, but hey, we were sometimes like that.
Then I wandered back home and started making a snowman. At least, I started with the idea of making a snowman. Then it evolved into a snow-woman, an old snow woman with curly hair, long ears and a wide smile. I was thinking of my wonderful grandmother, Nonne, and my mother who would be old now if she had lived, and my mother-in-law, Jane, down in Florida. My heart ached.
Jamie from next door came out and happily, we had a snowball fight. Haven’t done that since my kids were little. She told me of a great idea she read about: Fill water ballons with water, add food coloring, and place outside. Once they freeze, cut the ballon off and and you have colored balls of ice. I hope to try it this winter, but right now I don’t have any food coloring in the house. Time to get some anyway – Easter is on its way. I might color eggs with my students. It would be a nice treat when they walk in to see me.
Oh – I’m a speech-language pathologist by trade, which involves its own type of creativity and is lots of fun, at least when I’m in a well functioning school. Thankfully, this school year has been the best in many years, to a great extent because I have marvelous principals. Principals set the tone for their schools and a good one is worth his or her weight in gold. I’m in two different middle schools and enjoying both of them. For many years I worked in elementary schools but this has been a great change. As one teacher put it, “Who needs T.V. when you have middle schoolers.”
After spending some time warming up inside, I wandered around the neighborhood with my friend, Barbara N. We saw beautiful families and friends playing in the snow and some very artistic versions of snowmen. One fellow, Brad, had potter’s tools that he was using to carve a face on his snowman. He didn’t know what they really were, but somehow had them around. He was also using a scraper that he had bought from the hardware store. He also wasn’t quite sure what it was for, but bought it because he thought he might have a use for it one day. When I asked if he was an artist he replied, “Oh no, it’s just something to do. I got bored of watching T.V. indoors.” In ‘real life’ he teaches business at Towson University. Well, my friend, an artist is someone who does art ergo…
The muse goes where it wants. It perches on our shoulders at the most unexpected times. Sit awhile, have an unexpected lull in your life, and it may snake its way between your legs like a cat or hit you over the head like a mugger.