Sharing Sacred Space
I recently shared about a painting my sister and brother in law purchased. Here’s the back story to another. I was very fortunate to be able to travel to Peru last fall, with a wonderful group of fun adventurers, on a retreat coordinated by Jill Loftis and Gabrielle Kidd of Uttara Yoga Studio. We specifically visited several ancient Inca sites high in the Andes, in the region known as the Sacred Valley, in deference to the indigenous beliefs. The remarkable ancient stonework and structures are the conspicuous foundation of the intermeshed contemporary and old Quechua cultures. It was a fabulous experience all around.
In my view there’s no downside to travels. Beyond the expected romanticizing of the Inca sites and tchotchkes marketed for tourists, there was still much to glean from these powerful remnants and equally potent geography. As we adapted to the altitude and climate, we savored the food, took in the distinct smells, fondled fine alpaca wool weavings, and wandered amazing landscapes and structures. We were able to gain a sense of a people rooted in their past and making do in the present.
Their heritage includes not just the famed Incan empire, but several cultures in these vast mountain ranges that had already refined the crafts and skills before the Inca gained control and shrewdly incorporated them into their empire—much as the Romans had on another side of the globe. It was also interesting to see, especially in the more accessible places, the influences and affects of the relatively recent conquering Spanish Catholic culture. Our trip straddled two worlds, we were comfortable in our AirBnB stays, yet sincerely able to get a sense of the more modest local traditions.
As an artist, I felt like I’d been taken a plunge into a vast, comfy wellspring of colorful sensations. Many of the weavings still use traditional colors, which were derived from animals, minerals, and plants in the region. I.E.: the characteristic reds, maroons, deep pinks and purples are in fact derived from cochineal, a small aphid-like bug abundant in the Sacred Valley area. They’re collected, dried, ground and used as a dye in traditional weavings. The unique golden mustard yellow/orange originates from the bark of yanali trees, a small tree able to grow in these high altitude.
Although the trip as a whole remains a lustrous kaleidoscope of sensations and experiences, despite its populism, Machu Picchu was a highlight. In particular a few timeless moments stand out when we visited the ancient geographical wonder that’s accented by an incredible human-built edifice. Typically, my dear friend Jill Loftis, founder of Uttara Studio, somehow amid all the touring visitors, managed to find a small secluded yet open terrace on the less frequented side of the ancient site where we each had space to individually yet collectively sit quietly, meditate, and/or “be” for several minutes. It was especially moving to do so on the very site which had been established, at least to a degree, to center people into their place within the cosmos. I can’t speak for my companions, but for me it was in all ways what Maslov would label a peak experience, and will be forever etched onto my being.
Life rolls us forward and we’d barely seen each other since that trip. Then COVID-19 isolation kicked in. So I was delighted when Jill contacted me recently, interested in looking at my art with the express intention of purchasing something. We shared a special connection during that meditative moment that somehow transcends anything I can put into words. With some regret I admit we haven’t gathered since that trip. So it was especially heartening when she selected this painting to purchase, explicitly derived from our journey, and a fond reminder of that brief yet timeless bonding on Machu Picchu. Her sincere interest in extending and forwarding our earlier shared experience, and her conscious desire to generously support local artists in this time, also nudges me toward my own larger purpose. I am extremely grateful and rich in ways that can not be measured.
During this strange and seemingly endless time of viral uncertainty, I’ve found it challenging to get centered. I’ve let go of some of my old routines and habits, some by circumstance, others because when the ground under one’s feet feels unstable it gets me calling into question where I apply my energies. I realize this sort of problem is for a privileged person like me; here and across the globe many are struggling just to get by. They don’t have the luxury of philosophizing about purpose. Very fortunately I’m surrounded by dear family and supportive friends. Their stability is helping me recover my purpose.
Though my travels have rarely been beyond US borders, I recognize how traveling to other regions “fills me up” with new sensations that are inevitably revealed in my art. This was absolutely true following a wonderful trip to Peru last October with Uttara Yoga Studio. During these times of isolation and limited travel, It was great to connect to a fellow sojourner recently and be reminded of that colorful experience.
It seems to me there’s a certain “palette” of colors in all parts of the world. At least those places not yet totally homogenized (as so much of America) by Walmart, Coke, and McDonald’s. I feel such a cultural palette evolves from a people’s connections to a particular place on the earth. The flora and fauna, the necessary clothing, the indigenous foods, all are part of it, even the weather affects and subtly dictates the colors that come to epitomize a culture. So it was high in the Peruvian Andes.
Aesthetic traditions are never entirely static, and continue to adapt and be affected by interaction with other cultures. They sometimes add their own accents and spices to the dynamic mix. Colonization and religious domination often have leave their heavy marks over the ages. But so did and does the more peaceable marketplace—hence one may see Pink Floyd T-shirts or turquoise Chuck Taylor All-Stars in another part of the world as status symbols, or because the particular colors have an appeal or aren’t available locally. In Peru, we traveled beyond big cities to some regions barely westernized. In most places there was electricity, plumbing, cars, and internet service, yet few highways, air conditioners, or clothes dryers. Very many people were still living simply with few material things and little means. I don’t judge their situation as “bad” or sad, nor do I romanticize the challenges of their trade-offs. It’s just what I saw. Beyond catering to tourists, I had the impression it was not a “consumer culture.”
As a visual artist I was dazzled by new chromatic harmonies everywhere — influenced by the dramatic mountains and skies, plant forms, delectable local foods, the stones, streets, and architecture, even the subtle shades of skin colors. But especially prominent were the incredible weavings that abound. More than any flag could ever characterize a culture, the lush beauty of this traditional art form resonates in my memory still today. I took some notes, recorded imagery with my iPhone, but didn’t create while there. There was simply no time—my eyes and being were too occupied absorbing all the fantastic wonders. When I returned it still took a few months to digest what I took in, only revealing itself as I began creating a new series of works related to my travels.
Although we certainly have our own views, and may at times approach things differently, my sweet sister Helen and I are often on a similar wavelength. She makes quilts and, typical of her, generously has created one for each of her nieces and nephews as they graduate HS. It’s a wonderful “heading away from home” keepsake. Every recipient has fondly embraced their treasured quilt as they headed to college and grown into adulthood. She sensitively works with each graduate to determine the color scheme of their choosing.
I find it fascinating to consider colors as wavelengths of light, and the impact on us of the unique wavelengths of energy interacting within an arrangement on our being. How and which colors affect or reflect our souls? And further, am curious how this relates to a culture. I know it’s a generalization, but the local Quechuan people in the areas we journeyed radiated a quiet contentedness. In this reduced-oxygen altitude, everywhere we traveled they seemed to not waste energy — especially on things that in most other places I’ve been, would have elicited cursing or at least exuberant hand gestures. Yet these same people also had the energy to build amazing structures mostly out of immensely heavy stone, largely through human labor—I’m not referring to long ago, in many areas, they were still not using heavy machinery or earth-moving equipment. They also have incredible stamina to spin wool, dye it, and weave very intricate swaths of cloth.
Clearly there was a vitality cultivated within their soft-spoken restraint. To me, their presence and cultural colors spoke of the ever-shifting skies that within an hour could go from bright sunshine to heavy clouds dumping hail; in a moment transforming umber and gray pebbled stone streets into shimmering silvers and slate blues, opening buds on dusty moss green plants to reveal bursts of bright fuchsia-toned flowers, or turn greenish streams into rushing cascades of misty white water.
When I posted this painting, which alludes to that weaving, and used a detail as the image on the invite for an upcoming exhibition, Helen immediately messaged me to mark it “sold.” I was very happy, and very honored. I told her I’d need the painting through the show’s scheduled run in April. But very soon after, COVID-19 arrived, and the planned large show of new works was postponed a full year. As with so many things, my art was now consigned to hover in limbo. IDK, maybe it was my “Aries” impatience that kicked in; or my familiar desire to try to solve my discontent by actions that would “change the picture.” Whatever the catalyst, during these cautious, restrained times I engaged in a spontaneous gesture and shipped it to her. It felt right and empowering. She and my brother in law Scott could enjoy the beauty of Peru and flavors of Cusco and Pisac sooner rather than later. Their interest and support felt a profound affirmation of my creativite endeavors, so getting the painting to their home kept the flow of energy moving. Especially in this moment, it brought some light to the vague bleakness, and eased my frustration about the show being put on hold. I’m so very fortunate to have been born into this wonderfully supportive family.
After years of quilting for others, Helen finally is readying to embark on a making quilt for herself and her spouse Scott Morlock. This spring she began considering designs and color schemes. She’s also a kind and reflective soul, and on a spiritual retreat a long while ago particpated in a creative workshop exploring expressive colors. She painted a small abstract sample of her favorites, which she saved — I pasted it below in the comments.
Rocks are silent. I often lack this skill. Rather, I’ll eagerly express my views, even if based on hasty assumptions. Despite my age, I’m embarrassed how regularly I’m unable to hold my tongue. Even when but a few moments would give me a fuller, more mature view. I reveal my arrogance by offering how to “solve” something (asked or not), or share my opinion in a way that appears authoritative. Sometimes I leap to conclusions based on my misinterpretation of another’s words. To be fair, digital communication complicates things. Like a cryptic, carved message on a stone wall, there’s no tone of voice, no body or face “cues” to take in from the author. On screen words can be read without any context. Where someone is coming from rarely prefaces the exchanges. Amid the isolation of COVID-19, coupled with these charged social justice times, just sharing thoughts publicly can be like wrapping on another’s eggshell armor. Sometimes I discover so only after a comment I’ve made has inadvertently cracked someone’s invisible shell.
“I am a rock. I am an island... a rock feels no pain, an island never cries,” ~ Paul Simon
Yet we ache to interact and share, it’s what makes us human. Which, despite all the “keep independent from govt. overreach” rhetoric being tossed about, I think may unconsciously underlie why the protocol of isolation is so hard for us to put in practice. Partly my personal response of the last few months has been to try and listen more, absorb, rather than express. I’m fortunate in that being a visual artist, taking a retreat and taking things in is a familiar technique. Still I’m struggling to change my interpersonal habits; to learn through practice how “sharing space” in which I only listen and offer no view, something I’ve never been great at doing.
We all (hopefully) are looking to find healthy ways to adapt and cope to challenges that don’t harm others. I’m in less of a crucible, less frustrated than many, so I can chill by walking, reading, gardening, or biking. In warm weather I especially prefer floats on the river. Maybe it’s because I’m aware of my habits that the shift into a less-peopled environment. As an introvert I feel less pressured; it “speaks” more softly. moves more slowly, feels more steady. It’s not static — things keep moving on the river (including me and my humble tube, without any effort). And changes occur along the waterway from season to season, weekly, daily, even around the next bend. Occasionally it’s dramatic, like sudden storms, or our recent floods. But most of the time, I feel like I get to take my time and recognize the shifts. I can spot the rock poking up and raise my rear end to avoid injury. Isn’t that part of what we all crave — time to adapt to change with the least pain? But that’s written by someone choosing to float, not being shoved into rapids.
Along the stretch of river through my neighborhood, many banks are punctuated by boulders. The large ones are rarely moved, even after the incredible power of the floodwaters beating against them. Because the currents usher me past, only by taking the same route repeatedly (and snapping photos) do I start to really see them. Funny how that works. Like when people have to repeat something over and over in order for it finally to “sink in” and for them to be heard.
Many of these great hunks of stone seem totally inert at a glance, yet to me they have a presence. Looking closer, they host vibrant mini-ecosystems, worlds unto themselves. Vines and saplings and mature trees that have seen decades interweave. Almost like our little neighborhoods. Over many years, trees may steadily wrap their roots around the stoic stones, in a contradiction of both accepting the tough circumstances and yet gaining support against the inevitable floods. It’s a slow intertwining of lives and life. Wondrous and fascinating and beautiful and deserving our attention. Just like those often-overlooked neighborhoods, perhaps tough but teeming with life. Trying to grow, slowly changing, and holding on through terrible storms. Still, sometimes trees that spent generations gaining a foothold get washed away in one unforecast storm. Some are stunted and never reach full potential. Some lives end, the energy they embodied transferred into other forms, contributing to the lives to come...
Once in a great while, the old seemingly solid rocks break apart and give way.
This Roanoke River that I’ve come to so appreciate doesn’t have a birthday—Buddhists might say nothing does, we all are in, and only a part of, a larger ever-unfolding process. But because I’m also within and part of this literal-minded, discreet object-identifying culture, having pondered these ancient stones, I asked some experts about the age of the river. A “safe” guess is the Roanoke River has been flowing at least 100,000 years, its basic path possibly a million... !
Imagine, or try to, that water has rippled and splashed against this stone day after day for thousands upon thousands of years! Beyond trees and plants, how many millions of critters, multi-legged crustaceans, multi-colored flies, winged beetles, butterflies, and birds, slick amphibians, slimy snails, slippery fish, alighted here? What sticky pads, hoofs, paws, claws, even toes or hands have briefly steadied a life on this very rock, contributed to this unmarked but remarkably fertile island?
The waters urge us all forward. So how do I begin to mesh this millennial history with our millennials and the multi-generational troubles of our times? I’m not sure. Floating is a good practice in humility (and in keeping quiet) in that rocks and rivers don’t much care whether I utter a word. I don’t want to pretend I have solutions, nor do I want to disregard history. I want to know the context of this river path, and the road where we are and what has been. For sure we need to get better at sharing our vessels, knowledge, and resources. And our love.
My dear friend and mentor Charlie Brouwer just posted about some of his sculptures and referred to learning to row his grandpa’s boat as a child, where he “first experienced going forward by looking back.”
We can’t stop life’s flow but I hope we can try to help each other guide our shared vessels from crashing against more rocks, especially ones we’ve hit before. I know that making the space to BE, wherever that is for each of us—alone on a river, hanging with our kin, being creative, engaging in conversation with a friend, tending a garden, laboring responsibly at whatever task, waving at a child, petting a dog or stroking a cat, making eye contact and sharing smiling eyes with a masked stranger can all be ways to recharge and reconnect.
In addition to the river, I so appreciate all my friends who help me grow. I don’t want to arrogantly float through those seemingly uninteresting places in my city or neighborhood anymore. I want to slow down and really see people in all their varied circumstances; talk less, look with softer eyes, listen more deeply, discover new things, hopefully learn. I don’t have quick solutions, but I do know it feels right to be aware, to try to listen carefully, and experience each place and moment with a full and open heart.
Circumstances had me working until 7 PM so for a moment when I got home I considered not going on the river. But it was hot day, I was still warm, and nearing the longest days of the year—so I downed a snack, hydrated, swapped paint clothes for trunks, donned water shoes, grabbed my trusty tube and headed up the alley toward my muse. It was already nearing 7:45 by the time I put in the water. The splash of the first dip after coursing over the small drop just beyond Memorial Bridge was bracing, especially as that section was already in the shade. But my body quickly adapted and soon the water felt soothing on my limbs.
Within five minutes I realized my late start was actually a boon. I’ve been happy to see many folks frolicking in the river and hanging out along the banks this spring. My hope is the more people are in the water, the more they’ll come to appreciate, understand, and respect this great resource. Tonight the only sounds were bird calls and currents rippling against rocks. Fewer humans usually allows for connecting with more critters. The swallows were out in abundance, gracefully weaving swoops along the glass-like surface of the river as they vacuumed up invisible flies. Some genuine twittering directed my attention to the treetops, where I spotted a little pair of winged friends with yellowish coloration — perhaps vireos? Grackles were poking in the crevices and sand around every bend. Their stunning yellow iris vivid against their deep black purple plumage.
I’m always captivated by the ever-changing array of colors before me on the water. Several factors affect the show: the rays of the sun, the clouds, the foliage of the season, the wind (who knew!?), the time of day. This was my latest start so far this spring, and the evening’s golden light enhanced everything in spectacular fashion.
I was delighted to come upon a familiar friend, a black-crowned night heron, our first encounter this year. Dramatic black and white head markings, lovely slate grays, showy tassles, umbers and striking red rimmed eyes made its elegant form a gorgeous contrast to the glowing foliage and reflections. It eyed me warily, obviously cautious about this strange human-frosted donut flowing past. Maybe it didn’t remember me, or maybe it was not one of the ones I’ve seen that nest in this stretch the last few years. (Or maybe it DID remember me and that’s why it was wary—!) Either way, I kept a space to respect its privacy. It watched and held its post. I clucked at it only after moving a comfortable distance downstream. It responded by ignoring me, and set back to work feasting on minnows. The views around several other bends offered feasts for my eyes.
I’ve been waiting for a certain confluence: daytime temperatures to warm, the river to clear, a relatively sunny day, and being able to end my workday at a reasonable hour. Today they arrived! I topped off my inner tube, and was happily reunited with the Roanoke River this evening on a float.
As I walked to the bridge where I put in, my path crossed a toad, then a bit further a skink; signs I was headed where I needed, I thought to myself. It was a delight to set into the currents again, see old trees in a new season, and be quickly swept away with the familiar bridge growing smaller in the distance. I leaned back, heard a vertebrae make a satisfying “Crack” and extended my worn arms spread-eagle so my fingertips touched the water in my version of a dead-man’s inner tube float. For several moments I watched river and land and sky meet upside down and roll along like a surreal film as the top of my head touched the water and my mind let go.
Yet given the circumstances in this moment in America, where so much seems a-jumble, I couldn’t entirely let go. I’ve been trying to keep caught up, but have felt caught—uncertain what I can contribute to the community conversation, even my own community’s conversations, these days I’m mostly reading and trying to listen. I try to empathize but am very aware my “white” experience will never relate deeply to the experience of being “black” in America. I get that we use these terms in differing ways: for some the concept of “race” is real and defined by skin color; nor do I want to remove someone’s sense of identity; but I admit I hate using these words: race. black. white. To me they are vague generalizing labels that often seem to encourage more of the same. In an ideal world, if we must “specify” I’d rather people identify by “culture” — idk whether that means ethnicity or geography or interests or even neighborhoods, but I like how these feel more specific to me than an abstract skin-color. Still, I know we’re obliged to first work through this moment by listening to those who have been and are still being abused. And I am very grateful for those courageously protesting, imperfectly aiming for a better society. It’s hard for any of us to take all this in, on the heels of a pandemic, and isolation; between these issues and our sadly inflammatory POTUS, my head has often felt very full lately.
Fortunately, since the river is so full, I didn’t have to concern myself with usual floating issues, like bumping my rear end; the only attention required, due to the swiftness of the current, was the potential to ram tree limbs, random debris, or roots that been “planted” anew by the recent flood. Although lush spring greenery abounds, the banks were dusty gray fairly high up from the recent sediment-filled high waters. Scraps of our cultural debris hung randomly everywhere, even high in the trees. The trees mostly looked a bit tired. I know it will all recover and that such things actually replenish and renew the natural buffering strip, but it was a good reminder traveling along the heart of what was the flood ground zero, seeing how everything here was severely stressed and ravaged a few weeks ago. Sure many folks are feeling similar in 2020. The waters were refreshing and are settling down, but in several areas they still are a bit choppy.
I didn’t come across many critters, the most conspicuous, perhaps fittingly, were the wise pair of ravens that hang out under the Main St. / Elm Ave. Bridge. They made their presence known, or raucously announced mine. I DID come across far more people than I normally encountered last fall. There were several dipping in or on the banks, a few in vessels, and so many folks fishing from the bridge where I pull out I had to stop myself by grabbing the bridge ceiling and slow my way under to avoid being hooked when I popped out. But then the currents were so strong I couldn’t navigate dismounting and had to let the waters carry me a bit further before climbing out a steep bank. All of which obliged I walk a bit extra along the Greenway.
As I was pulling out, a pair of young men passing in a canoe asked if I needed a hand and when I “no thanked” them, they wished me a good evening, calling me “sir” which tickled me, especially given my floating uniform. Once up on the bank, I immediately noticed the concrete greenway planters, which two weeks ago had literally been underwater and flushed out, but were already refilled with blooming flowers and neatly mulched by our stalwart city work crews. Then, like a string of multi-cultural lights, an array of human vignettes kept glowing before me as I walked the 1/4 mile of Greenway toward home.
I startled a pair of rainbow-haired teens, as I emerged unannounced from the river, who then laughed aloud and were just as soon again jabbering away to each other (despite their earbuds) as only teen girls can. On the bridge, I came upon an imposingly large brown-skinned man, his female partner, and two wide-eyed girls. His large hands delicately maneuvered two toy fishing poles and one real one, the girls climbing all over him each eagerly wanting to be the first to catch a fish. On the other lane of the bridge, a dark-haired, olive-skinned 20-something, (Hispanic?) fellow, heavy on the tats, with slicked back black hair and a neatly cropped beard, was proudly foisting up 4-5 good-sized fish to his female friend, a heavyset woman of Asian heritage. Just then a grizzled red-faced older man, wearing a cap that appeared to have survived well past his wife’s imploring he throw it away, determinedly jogged by. A middle-aged woman whose hair perfectly matched her dogs’ fur, smiled as it pulled her past me, both unaware (thankfully) of the source of my grin.
A lean, too-heavily-clothed for 90 degrees, disheveled but polite teen on some sort of one-wheeled board contraption zipped by with heavy-thunking metal music, swerved around me, and waved at this lanky late-fifties dude with a rubber inner-tube over his shoulder. A few more steps and a stunning woman and her adolescent son (who I would guess were from a north African culture) shared a knowing and beguiling smile as my conspicuous passing interrupted their privately teasing each other. A red-haired youngish Mom with her break your heart itty-bitty “just learning to walk” strawberry blonde pigtailed daughter straddled the center curb between greenway lanes. I’m sure it was their pair of bicycles I saw next, as one was under 16“ high, the size you might see a clown ride in the circus, except it was festooned with pink training wheels. As I walked off the Greenway, a young woman who seemed of Middle Eastern descent, sat on the edge lacing up her roller blades.
Somehow, the spotlights hit the terrible deeds and overshadow the too-often missed daily noble deeds and intentions of so many — in healthcare, environmental activism, social justice, the basic integrity of dutiful, fair and good public servants of all stripes, and millions of acts of genuine kindness. The river banks are tired but they’re pushing new sprouts and roots and they’ll recover. As always she guides me when I pay attention. Maybe that’s why so many of us are flocking toward these natural havens. We may be frustrated and have so much hard work ahead and feel worn and tired too, but despite the powerful current of challenges we face, the simple sweetness of witnessing people of all colors peaceably interacting along our democratizing Roanoke River Greenway during these oft confusing times was more inspiring and eloquently hopeful than any commentary or ideas I can offer.