To read more by Shirley Dawson, go to: rochesterartreview.blogspot.com
To order Ceramics Art + Perception: http://www.mansfieldceramics.com
To read more by Shirley Dawson, go to: rochesterartreview.blogspot.com
To order Ceramics Art + Perception: http://www.mansfieldceramics.com
Thud. Pause. Thud. The cardinal bashed against the picture window of the group room where the twenty or so of us were gathered for a retreat. “Second Blooming, Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be,” was held at the Homestead Education Center in Mississippi and I was invited to present a workshop by the owner, Alison Buehler, and the editor of the book on which the weekend theme was based, Susan Cushman.
The cardinal bashed again and again. March in Mississippi has birds and flowering trees. Where I come from, Vermont, we have ice, more ice, and windows we can’t see out of as the snow still rises to at least midway. It was nice to see a red cardinal despite the eccentricity of his behavior, because I’m facing at least two more months of winter.
When we went downstairs to do yoga, the cardinal threw himself against those windows too. Alison calls the bird a “he” and thinks he is drunk on the red berries outside the window. She thinks it’s the same bird who has done this for years. I don’t know, is he drunk or is it just his imprinted need to belong? I think about that goose who imprinted on that guy in Oregon and follows him everywhere. The man didn’t ask for it, but the goose chose to belong to him.
So here’s the thing. I wasn’t sure, when invited to present at the retreat, that I would belong. Or want to belong. Because–here it comes–it’s Mississippi. I am from the bluest state, a sober northern pro-choice Jew, a soul shattered anti-Trumpster who says ‘motherfucker’ (a lot) and on top of all that, agnostic. I have an anxiety disorder. I wear mostly black. My writing can be pretty bleak and my artwork follows no guidelines. In my day job I deal with suicide, addiction and trauma. I often do not “belong” so I rely on snark and sarcasm as a defense. I’m psychologically clumsy and pretty transparent. The opposite of a southern belle.
And I’m scared of the divisions in our country.
And clearly, a cultural profiler.
But I trusted Susan and we had a frank discussion about any fears she might have that I’d flip into batshit political provocateur. She did not. I prepared a slideshow of my art work and two dozen little glass reliquaries for the participants of the retreat to fill with treasures and even had to switch planes in Chicago without incident, careful to leave the underwires in my carry-on so I wouldn’t set off TSA.
The participants were glorious. Within minutes we were sharing stories, hugs, kisses on the cheek. This is the warmhearted south, not the reserved and disengaged New England I now call home. Politics were not the focus, but when they came up I was sweetly surprised, kindness and decency prevailing. Throughout the weekend each presenter offered creative, professional information about how we as older women can find ways to bloom on, second/third/fourth times through as many decades as we have health and energy for. Despite the losses–the oh so similar losses–we have all faced. How creativity and encouragement will drag us forward.
I wasn’t in the retreat center ten minutes before I heard someone say, “I just love her. She’s not bad for a Yankee.” I turned to find Kathie, a woman my age with the mischievous affect that, had we grown up together, we’d have raised some hell. She’s laughing and already embracing me, my anxiety turning to humor.
And so it goes.
Linda confides. Jeri drums. Pam and I practice wrapping her hair like a gypsy with my scarf. A different Susan and I talk shop. Alison leads yoga. Another Kathy reads. Wanda’s eyes are non-stop beauty. Another Susan throws out one liners we wish we’d thought to write down. Patricia lists our emails, Corinna connects to rebuild. Brenda drinks it in. Everyone of us offer up jewels, bring us to tears. We all eat.
My red state experience is red like a cardinal. Red like heartbeats and intoxicating berries. The group is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The book: “A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be,” is edited by Susan Cushman and published by Mercer University Press.
My piece, “A Couple of Bad Nights in Brindisi,” talks about rebuilding after a close call, “a night that can change a person,” about diligence and trying to age with grace.
The Homestead Education Center, Starkville, Mississippi:
And the presenters were:
A SECOND BLOOMING, introduction – SUSAN CUSHMAN
USING GROUPS TO SUPPORT YOUR CREATIVITY – ELLEN MORRIS PREWITT
LITTLE ALTARS EVERYWHERE – NINA GABY
HOW OUR STORIES SHAPE US – JENNIFER HORNE
PUSHING UP THE SUN – KATHY RHODES
Closing drum circle-Jeri Van Winkle Mangum
Kristoff St. John was found dead in his home yesterday. For many of you it will just register as a quiet “who?”
If you know me you know that I have been a Young and Restless (Y&R) fan since the first day it aired in 1973. (I’ve been a soap opera fan since the days when I sat on my Grandma’s lap and watched Young Dr. Malone on her black and white TV while chicken soup simmered in the kitchen.) That was followed by As the World Turns (ATWT for those of us in the know) and Guiding Light and the one about the Irish family in NY, and so many others. I was not, however, a fan of Luke and Laura, although I did appreciate that their drama brought the soaps into the mainstream. Back in the days when I was in my studio cranking out production porcelain for 60 hours a week, the soaps kept my ADHD brain satisfied from 12:30 to 4 pm (focusing on two things at once helps) and then I switched over to All Things Considered (ATC) from 4-6 on my boom box radio. The psychological underpinnings of my addiction is beyond the scope of this blog, but Katherine Chancellor did get sober shortly after I did and I cheered her on every step of the way. It was like I had my tribe right there in the studio. And sick days when I was little? My soap opera family drowned out what my real family was doing. And it got me through two months on pregnancy bedrest and the subsequent post-partum depression.
I’m not going to pretend that I liked Kristoff St. John’s character, Neil Winters, on Y&R. He was the ultimate mansplainer. But when he fell in love with Drucilla in 1990, a ballerina (a black ballerina) the show took on yet another social thread. And the tension between the bad girl and the good boy was delicious. And then the story line quietly wove him in as a black CEO (or something similarly important) and in typical soap opera fashion, the narrative was way ahead of the rest of TV.
So yeah, I cried yesterday when I heard that Neil Winters, I mean Kristoff St. John, was found dead in his home. And that his real life son died by suicide a few years ago. And I’m DVR’ing the show today so I can see how his televison son is doing, because he’s going through a lot. And Neil’s daughter is in jail. And Billy Abbott stole the company jet without asking Neil’s son so he could visit Neil’s daughter in jail. And that’s just half of it.
For more on writers and their soaps, check out Suzanne Strempek Shea’s:
A year ago today I walked out of a beloved job. I just want this to be a reminder that things do get better. Much better. I quit the job that I loved because a corporation bought the business and created a hierarchy that I could not live with. This was not my fault but I took it on as though it was, this maladaptive but typical defense that we use to give ourselves an illusion of power and control when power and control do not exist. And in this corporate world with its greedy governments and destructive institutions, we have less control that we even imagine.
I quit without another job lined up. So there were months of hoodie/PJ bottoms Facebook posts and appeals to Unemployment (“yes your situation was bad [dearie] but not really that bad”) and catching up on Young and the Restless (ok yes Bold and the Beautiful as well). (OK, Game of Thrones.) The ‘dearie’ is mine, Unemployment didn’t say dearie, and the judge denied me any recompense for my pain and suffering. But that was a year ago.
After I walked out of my office for the last time, I drove to an opening at a gallery in another town with an artist friend. It was a good way to end the day. Fewer tears since I had my mascara to think about.
The winter unfolded, and the friend and I fell out of touch. The relationship devolved. (Like I lost a limb.) I had an iffy CAT scan and my primary care provider quit and there was no one to tell me what was going on. This, as one can imagine, added to the desolation of the winter. In these parts, winter can hang around till May.
Anyway, I had a soft landing. That’s the point. I do not have cancer. I have a job in a clinic that is the type of clinic that should define health care. Tonight that friend and I are going to an opening at the same gallery, a gallery that offered me my own show last September and for it I produced work that I actually had some time to do since I wasn’t working and was no longer desolate. Today’s hoodie is the powder blue one but I’m wearing it because I’m heading for the gym and the TV is off. I still check in with my soap opera families occasionally, but basically I am OK.
So. Give it time. Be OK.
Us creative types, when we can’t sleep we write. When overwhelmed we try to make some sense of it by creating our own narratives. But I don’t have to tell you that. I watched Oprah on TV last night, campaigning, reminding us that NOT voting is disrespecting our ancestors. A great-grandmother I never knew inspires me in this piece. And here we are, on the eve of the midterms. I am repeating myself to comfort myself as I did when I wrote this piece in 2016, still in shock. It happened right here.
THE NIGHT BEFORE I VISITED the clinic for the last emergent appointment available that week, I had the rabid squirrel dream (the one where I rip them apart with my bare hands as they puncture me with pinpoints of venom) and even though I lay safely under my high-thread-count summer blanket, my pulse was erratic and the pressure on my collarbone was punctuated by the dull airless thuds of skittering squirrel toes. I had been diagnosing these symptoms on my own for two months as anxiety, humidity, heat and Donald Trump. No more than any normal sensitive person’s reaction to the politics of the summer of 2016. It is summer after all and my tiny office, where I work as a psychiatric nurse practitioner amid my many careful relationships, is missing an AC vent. I am more worried about the vicarious trauma truffle in my brain than any missed squeezings from my heart or the struggle to pass air into my lungs in what I describe not as vertigo, not as dizziness, but as a sense that I am simply going to drop. I decide that I have reached maximum saturation from work and worry and that I have to tough it out because that’s what people like me, pink bunnies and women in pantsuits, do.
So I wait until the very end of the week to schedule my own appointment so that I don’t have to cancel any of my patients. My trusted nurse practitioner has retired after indicating to me that maybe it’s time for me to, as well. It is the last appointment of the week for the clinic where some provider who will probably look twelve years old (probably a Bernie-or-Buster because we are in Vermont, or maybe a rural of the old Take-Back-Vermont ilk who means well but whose family has always been Republican and why stop now) will check my blood pressure sitting, then standing. The youngster will glance at the picture of Hillary’s proud bicep pinned to my chest, will tell me to drink more water, stop working so hard, exercise more. Relax. Maybe get a quick rhythm strip. There may be a hint of condescension. Because of my advanced age, my weight, my politics. I think I already know how this will play out.
“So it’s a thing.”
“Yes,” agreed the kindly gray haired male physician. He could have been a healthy- my-age or an exceptionally well preserved decade older. Not the youngster I anticipated, whose clinical reasoning I could have ignored. This guy was Norman Rockwellian. He tipped the glossy red and white graph paper of my EKG towards me.
“So, like, it’s not stress. Not the heat. The humidity?” Not even the stupidity I thought but didn’t say because I was batting back big sloppy tears and nothing here warranted
humor. Certainly not the kind expression on this Marcus Welby’s face, and I am over- whelmed with gratitude for this. “Not Trump?”
“No. Not stress. Not Donald Trump.”
As I leaned forward I tapped my hand over my sternum. As we spoke my platelets sticky with fibrinogen slid along as they had always done, plasma propelled by the electrical current of my now suspicious septum.
I refuse to go to the hospital.
It gets worse, doesn’t it. Now that it’s November, wrapped in similarly high-thread-count sheets, seasonal flannel, but with the same element of privileged catalogue acquisition as my summer ones. The air has changed. It is no longer humid. The world has tipped off -axis, like the left-leaning deviation of my now not-to-be-trusted heart. Nothing is recognizable here. As if my lungs don’t understand oxygen, even though I am told by a host of cardiologists and beeping machines and documented values that I am stable. It’s nothing I did, with words like “inherited, idiopathic.”
“Lucky you,” my leading men say. I am “supremely sensitive” to the beta-blocker, says the one who reminds me of Omar Sharif. “You’ve taken good care of yourself.” Another assures me that my chance of sudden cardiac death is under one percent as he smiles and suggests I buy those odds. But I do not feel perfused. I am choking. Dropping. Everything is wrong. The cell phone on the nightstand tells me it’s 4 AM and the election is over, the floor listing under my feet. These are not my slippers. Not my squirrel toes. Not my Golden Retriever who trips me in the pre-dawn gray hoping for a treat.
There must have been a moment when my great-grandmother in Russia woke with a weight of anticipation, thinking to herself, “something’s really wrong here.” As the weight that she would slowly, one by one, say goodbye to her family as they left to escape the Pogroms settled in on her in one dark morning. A weight that maybe made her feel for a moment that she would drop, but maybe she couldn’t. People like us don’t just drop. Maybe she stumbled outside for one last look at a vegetable garden or clothes hanging on the line. Tripping over a dog, slapping away a squirrel.
I take some Tylenol and wonder if an extra Metoprolol would help despite the one percent risk of more nightmares. I pull the flannel covers back over my head and commune with her, this great-grandmother whose name I never knew, who died in a suspicious fire soon after sending her youngest daughter to America. Whose anxiety follows me through generations, gnawing at my septum. A sudden shared geography.
https://brevity.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/mirrors-and-microprose/I am excited to see my interview with Maine artist Lauren Gillette up on Brevity this morning. I was also excited to have presented my panel discussion at the Burlington Book Festival this weekend, “Exploring Dimensionality in Narrative.” And I’m excited to be doing hybrid visual art. All of this exciting NOT just because I’m an artist and writer who thrives on recognition, but because any means of crossing bridges, any way of stitching together genres becomes a metaphor for healing the malignant divisiveness in our world today. The creative process can save us. Or at least help us survive.
Workshop offering at AVA Center for the Arts
Saturday Sept 15 and 29 from 12:00-3:30
The first session will be a tour of the current shows in each of the four gallery spaces. Focusing on my exhibit “Other Alphabets: Dimensional Memoir,” we will explore the use of numerous elements to visually create a sense of memory from combining objects in a variety of ways to tell a story, and we will tour the concurrent exhibits which also work with text/subject/object. Participants are encouraged to bring a sketchbook or journal to jot down ideas for their own creations. From there we will go to the studios where each workshop participant will be able to create their own clay vessel to contain their objects and text. Participants should collect small meaningful items: photos, poems, and favorite phrases to use on their containers, or as prompts, and feel free to bring other things that inspire you–books, images, objects from nature. Be creative–think of things you can bring to impress into the wet clay as well as those you will use in your own personal project. Your piece can be as simple as a flat slab on which to decoupage a photograph or as complex as a lidded container to hold ashes of a precious pet.
When we meet back for the second session, the containers will have been fired and we will be ready to “narrate.” We will work with prompts and develop our stories and how to visually suggest emotion and connection. Before we adjourn, we will spend some time experiencing each other’s work and how we will use this workshop to jump more deeply into our future projects.
About the photograph:
In the summer of 2017 I attended the BayPath University writing conference in Dingle, Ireland. Organized by Suzanne Strempek Shea, she brought on board a group of instructors and staff including Dinty Moore, Charles Coe, Ann Hood, Elinor Lipman and the inimitable Tommy Shea. We wrote hard every morning and I produced pieces in both Dinty and Charles’ workshops that I’m reproducing as memoir for the exhibit at AVA.
“Why We Are Artists in 6 Chapters, a prayer: Chasing the Dragon,” is testimony to the creative process. The writing prompt was to end the micro piece with the words ‘for ever and ever, amen,’ after reaching into our memory banks to find a moment in time that deeply influenced us as writers.
I was only about four or five years old when I was blessed with the awareness of artistic ‘flow’, and have been traipsing around after it ever since.