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Afghani Girl, oil painting by Mary Chamie

A young Afghani girl, perhaps 10 years old, tries to see the group of foreigners who are traveling through her village. The walking paths between the rural homes are small which does not allow her to get close enough to see what is happening. Other curious onlookers, who also want to see, crowd around the team leaving the young girl on the periphery.

I was leading a United Nations team of international demographers and statisticians, visiting Afghanistan on a potential census assessment, when the frustrated and curious little girl caught my eye.

I noticed her as we were walking a very narrow path when she ran through a back alley and moments later appeared on the roof of a low building next to us. As our team moved forward to visit homes, she kept showing up on the next straw roof. I saw that she was jumping from roof to roof in order to keep up with us. The distance between homes was not far, but she was still brave to be doing so. I was amused by her persistence and quickly photographed her while she knelt down on the roof to watch us. She gave me a shy, satisfied smile, knowing that from her position she could see everything.

Here I am with Kabul, Afghanistan in the background. Photo from census mission, 2003

Since then, I have wondered many times what has happened to her. It was 2003 and she must have been about 10 years old. Now, if she has survived, she is close to 30. Time has marched on, but things are still not easy for the people of Afghanistan. I often wonder, where is she now and how has she fared? Women have recently been ordered by the Taliban, the current government, to cover their faces once again. She is likely wearing the burqa, or bright blue robe that is worn over a woman’s face and body when she is outside of the home, or in the presence of strangers.

When I paint such memories, I am not sure whether to call them paintings, or portraits, or illustrated short stories. But whatever they are, they are often about children whom I care about and wish that I had a better way to keep track of. These children, like the clouds that float by after a heavy rain, or like quick creek waters in the spring that noisily rush by, come and go so quickly, yet they leave lasting effects on the mind. Painting this Afghani girl portrait brings her back to life. I see her wonderful smile again. I remember the palette of her life colors.

Children at Work

Yes, there is artistic beauty in the faces of these rural Afghani children, in their soft beige clothing, adding interest to the modest brown environments in which they live, the mud huts, the clay homes, the straw roofs. The sky above shoots light streams through the nearby foothills of the mountains adding reflective color which further contributes interest to the even-toned homes and softness of people’s clothing and faces, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Below is a combination of photos taken during that 2003 United Nations mission showing the palette that I chose for my painting of this Afghani girl. It is a palette largely of soft browns composed from earth reds and marine blues, with the added bright blues of a woman’s robe.

Palette chosen for this painting

So, here she is, my little girl, this high achiever, who was curious, interested and ready to learn, and certainly very motivated to see what was going on in her unusually disrupted rural village by these teams of foreigners.

I exaggerated the color of the sky to juxtapose it more seriously against the girl’s soft earth reds and browns by mixing marine blue and bright cobalt, to highlight the feeling that one has when one sees the enormous contrast between the color of the sky above and the foothills, the mudded homes and the brown-toned clothing of many people walking the streets.

In this particular painting, I use this improbable blue color to suggest her possible future as a woman tucked under a blue robe, face covered, rather than as she is seen in the portrait, young and free and covered by the bright blue sky.

Photo from United Nations census mission, 2003

For the first part of this blog on painting some of the children I have seen, go to https://marysgardens.blog/2021/05/25/painting-children-on-the-edge/

My home in 1956

I wish to comment on a really wonderful article written by David Brooks that reviewed how American Christians, expecially evangelicals, have responded to “three big issues that have profoundly divided them: the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, sex abuse scandals in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, and attitudes about race relations, especially after the killing of George Floyd.” David Brooks, NYT

Having read his thoughtful article, asked myself this question. Is it legitimate to blame much of the current stress in our society to the failures of modernity?

Below is David Brook’s quote that provoked me to thinking about this.

Finally, Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.

David Brooks, NYT,

To contrast the quote from Brooks, I offer a second provocative quote from years ago, and one that changed my life along with many others.

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”

Joseph. R. McCarthy, Lincoln’s birthday address to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950

When I was ten years old, my family fled a small village in rural Ohio after my father was threatened with a lynching. I remember the men coming to our door at night, threatening him. It was described many years later in a tiny little church bulletin that I found on line while digging up my past and trying to understand what really happened. For several years, my father had been the pastor of this little church. We fled the small village, leaving all behind but for a few things that we could take with us in our brown paper grocery bags that we hurriedly packed.

It was 1956 and feelings were still politically hot in our country. Although the power of Joseph McCarthy’s false accusations in the Senate had begun to fade, there still was a strongly held belief among many Americans based on McCarthy’s political charges, that there was an infiltration of communists, socialists, atheists and civil rights activists ruining our God-loving American church way of life.

I am not really certain which of these activities our little community thought my father was involved in. Perhaps all four? But in any case, it resulted in my mother, father, brother, two sisters and the family dog having to escape this small village and live in a used school bus in which we rambled the roads from central Ohio to northern Michigan for a number of months until my father found another job and our family could get our feet back on the ground again. From our point of view, my father’s transgression was that as a soldier returning home from WWII, having been in the Asia-Pacific region for almost 10 years, he was out of tune with local attitudes and practices and thought that his small community of constituents would be open to thinking about the importance of “turning the other cheek”, pacifism, racial equality, equal opportunity and civil rights as part of Jesus’ teaching. My father clearly erred.

As a result of our exclusion, this old school bus became our sole home and form of transportation, it was everything to us. Unfortunately, it had no running water, toilet facilities, closet space or communications technology such as radio, television or phone. Most of the school bus seats, but for the first two rows, were removed leaving sufficient footage for us to put down our sleeping bags. Since we had no car, we children had a choice between standing on the road and playing under trees while waiting for our parents to drive the bus to the grocery store and come back to pick us up, or we rode the bus to the grocery store with them, while hauling everything that we owned with us, on the bus.

We felt that we were an item. Our father talked us into believing that we were on an adventure, looking for an exciting new place to live while roughing it in parts of Ohio and Michigan county and state parks. Often we stopped at the side of the road and spent the night at roadside picnic stops. This went on for a number of months.

Neither of my parents had a job. So, in today’s terminology I guess we would be described as “homeless” or at least “houseless” and our parents were certainly unemployed. That year I learned to pick cherries, filling big wooden crates called lugs, along with the rest of my family in partnership with Spanish speaking migrants, to bring money for groceries. We ate a lot of bologna sandwiches with slices of American cheese on white Wonder bread while standing outside next to our bus, as we had no table. Our hands were our usual plates. Our fingers were our forks. We had a small kerosene stove that we carried with us for heating up water for oatmeal. We ate oatmeal and drank from old navy tins. We had little money, and therefore stopped often to keep from using too much gasoline while our father was driving the bus.

However, frustrating and lonely the experience might have been, it was also an eye opener. My family felt the powerful sting of what we now often call the “religious right”, and its list of proscriptions, intruding on my family’s ability to survive. In their eyes, my father’s support of racial equality and religious freedom were threatening, so threatening that we were expelled from our community.

He avoided being lynched through fleeing, but interestingly, we have never as a family ever discussed what happened to us that year. It was an incident without an explanation. It was a huge block in the road that we slowly maneuvered around while experiencing some hardship, never to mention it again. There must have been some shame for my parents associated with what happened as we never spoke of it, or even referred to it. But the threat of a lynching of our father that we experienced, the rejection and injury, and the silence that followed, shaped my life forever.

I realized, even as a child, that other people’s traditional religious beliefs were being involuntarily imposed upon us. Our expulsion was a result of Christian traditionalism telling us explicitly how to behave and that if we did not follow their instructions, we would be in danger. This same religious traditionalism wanted women to be guided by their husbands, to wear traditional clothing and hairstyles such as braids and bonnets, to reflect their intended modesty. Women were expected to not show their bare legs or arms in public and they often wore longer dresses with long sleeves that covered their arms as a show of modesty. In our small community, men sat separately and first, while they waited for the women to serve them their food and drinks.

There were other important distinctions in the traditions of these local religious institutions that I observed as a child. The churches for white people in our communities were separated from churches for people who were referred to as “coloreds”. The term “colored” covered a lot of ground including people of African origin, people of Asian origin, people from specific parts of Eastern Europe and often referred to as Roma or gypsies, and people whose origins were from South America and the Carribbean. In northern Michigan, where our family visited in the summer, there were separate but “similar” churches for whites and Indian tribes. In any case, as a child growing up in the various comunities of Ohio and Michigan, I was struck with the fact that there was not one universal church for an entire community, without distinction to ethnic or racial background, or sex of person. Racial and ethnic segregation and strict differences between men and women were openly practiced in many churches when I was a little girl.

As a pastor’s child, I was told by other children who were being brought up Baptist, or Catholic, that they were sorry that I could not go to heaven. They were sure that I was going to hell unless I converted to their beliefs. This is what they were being taught at that time. It was not enough to be Christian, one had to be the right kind of Christian. I wondered back then, was there a Methodist heaven, and a Baptist heaven, and a Catholic heaven? Was there only one hell where everybody else was dumped? Was it possible that a protestant could be in a Protestant heaven and at the same time in a Catholic hell? I wondered, what if no one ever introduced someone to the church, and they never heard the words of the Bible, did they go to hell too? Was that considered just? Was that fair?

My childhood did not suffer from so-called “modernity”, but from the lack of it. I confronted at a very young age, the power of small church proscription traditions and their potential for negative consequences. I saw the traditional power of religion was being used to keep people out. Traditional power was used to expel people from the church for being different, for appreciating differences, or for embracing a dialogue covering a wider range of ideas.

In my public elementary school, once a week we received bible school lessons. There was no separation between church and state in this little town. When my parents protested that religous teaching did not belong in the public school as all children should be welcome there, regardless of their religious beliefs, I was expelled from the classroom and made to sit in the hall during the children’s bible school study period. I was punished and excluded because of my parents’ opinions about the separation of church and state and rights to religious freedom.

This dynamic of proscription, inclusion and exclusion brought about largely by religious traditions played out in small villages and in big cities. Church groups maintained their traditional identities through hair styles and clothes worn, especially women. As a child, I saw women who were required to cover their hair with specific kinds of scarves, hats, and white bonnets as a way of identifying their religious sect. Some covered their heads so that no hair showed at all. In some cases, they wore long sleeved dresses. Bare arms in church were proscribed for women. Dresses were mandatory, but without knees showing. Dress pants were not allowed. In some cases, for women, their were proscriptions for wearing lipstick or makeup, smoking in public, publically smiling as they might be associated with “loose” women, no playing cards in public, and the list went on. Not only were women dressed uniquely so as to be identified correctly, so was the church leadership. Among some groups, as a way of recognizing the religious sect, religious leaders wore long flowing robes of specific colors, special collars, scarves and patterns in order to be identified as leaders of a specific Christian sect or group.

My question is, why must we blame modernity for this fix we are in? Were we actually better off without it? What is modernity, anyway? Must it take the entire blame? Modernity, as I understand it is reflected in when we shifted from a predominately agricultural society to an industrial one, eventually recognizing a broader range of social and economic classes that reach beyond solely religious and/or ethnic identity and which opened economies to some aspects of capitalism. This shift to “modernity” made way for people to be recognized according to such characteristics as occupation, economic status, and educational attainment, in addition to religious affiliation or ethnic identity. It also made way for people to be more socially and economically mobile.

I find it difficult to believe that modernity is the cause of our current moral drift and surging mental health crisis. Perhaps we have taken modernity too seriously and given it greater credence than it should rightfully have.

Aren’t the traps associated with moral drift more likely to be from participating in immoral acts that may or may not be associated with any particular religion, race, ethnicity or social class? In my mind, narcissim, consumerism and moral drift are reflections of old-fashioned, traditional, human greed put to purpose and strengthened through the lust for power. This hunger for power is also humanocentric, denying all other aspects of importance beyond human life.

If it is true that millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning, then why not walk away from proscriptive tribalism and religious proscription, and uncontrolled narcissistic consumerism and head instead toward participating in education through scientific observation and mathematial reasoning and philisophical dialogue when seeking a larger truth?

To better understand the concept of a communal belief system which many of us now desire, we might look to other cultures for ideas. For example, in the earlier practices of the native tribes who lived and worked in the Americas, many tribes were taught to respect all aspects of life including the lives of plants, all animals including humans, and to be respectful to air, water, land and sky. The early American tribes did not embrace humanocentricism but instead, embraced a broader respect for the community of all life forms across many earth and even the universe.

Perhaps we should explore our potential for living in a post-humanocentric society, allowing room for consideration to the environment.

I would like to see narcissim, consumerism and moral drift brought under control through a communal system of public education, available to all. I believe in thoughts and ideas being respectfully shared through books, libraries, schools, universities and public media. I believe in the importance of learning how to objectively conceive of, measure and test ideas and hypotheses while offering multiple ways to present the results using respectful and objective public dialogue educating and informing us about the results. These educational activities should encourage improved questions, broader discussion and respectful comparisons of life’s many options.

Then, perhaps, we may seek and share more meaningfully, life’s transcendency.

In the last six months, I have painted the same canvas numerous times, to reflect on my feelings during this Global Pandemic. It is an old, used canvas that I purchased at Goodwill for a couple of dollars. In the beginning, I painted the entire canvas white with Gesso and then began to use my oils to describe how I feel.

It all started with a celebratory painting filled with color and exploding with light, when things were looking good, the first major surge of COVID illness subsiding,  people standing in long lines to get vaccinated, distances softening and it looked as though the pandemic was coming to a conclusion….but

Early Sunrise

It followed with a shift in color and emphasis based on the fact that there was a significant portion of the population refusing to be vaccinated even when vaccines were offered for free. Ironically, there are numerous individuals in other places eager to be vaccinated, without any access to vaccinations at all. The blues began settling in.

The Blues

Pausing with bright colors to consider whether the fog will ever lift, whether we will ever make it to the other side of this global pandemic, whether it might be better to soften colors and expectations even further.

Fog Settles In

Gliding softly into sadness about what would happens next, darker blues, softer light, yet still appreciating the silence of ever shifting remoteness.

Night of Darkness

Stuck in gloom as reality hits hard, floating in dark waters, far away from realizing the end of the pandemic. Many more lives are unnecessarily lost, years of schooling missed, food sources cut short, distribution systems weakened, life expectancies shortened, quality of living amended again, even farther, bending to the severe isolation and rapid surge of hospitalizations and deaths, mostly of the unvaccinated, during the pandemic.

Doomed

Hope is lost, the painting reflects on shapeless darkness. In some ways, this particular painting was very satisfying, as I lost myself in the darkness covering the entire canvas in dark blacks, reds and blues.

Then, the painting returns to shape and form, but this time, without much sentimentality. This time, it is based on the assumption that life is short, and that today is all there is.

My conclusion? Any painting we may do about this pandemic is true to life, each varied color and mood may be augmented for differential emphasis on our interpretation as to how things are going.

Not a Chance, But Life is Short

These are my ups and downs of painting during a global pandemic.

I hope that you enjoyed this reading these short notes on painting my way through pandemic blues and may consider sharing your own experiences on this notably historical event as well.

We may no longer write long paper letters, but we do know how to blog our way through tough times.

What’s your story?

A big part of the enjoyment of art for me, is playing with ideas.

Front yard in moonlight, Abaco, personal photo
Edited version, more focused on light

Interpreted scene, oils
Interpreted scene, ink
Interpreted scene, Water color
Personal Photo of our front yard, Abacos

Do I go forward with an oil painting of this, with more vivid colors?

Or should I play with something even more abstract?

What will be gained from taking this to a different concept of artistic thought?

Will anything be learned about its value as a setting?

If I do take such a leap, how can I add to the idea of luminescence?

What is it that lures artists to repeat paintings, differently?

Perhaps life, itself?

Me TOO!

Personal Drawing and Story of my Grand Daughter

Me TOO!

I went to the Park
And a little boy was at the park
When I did something
All he said was “Me too”.
“Me too.” And that’s what
I do to my brother.

This is a poem and a drawing of my grand daughter, inspired by the idea that we should save stories of our childhood that have great meaning to us so that we will have stories to tell to our future children so that they may laugh and learn from them.  She had just experienced, for the first time, what it is like to have a younger child around who wants to do all the things that the older child is doing, while the littler one incessantly shouts  out,  “Me too!”  She whispered to me, “I can’t go up the big slide because if I do, that little boy tries to follow me and I don’t want him to get hurt.”  

She smiled and then added, “I do that to my brother, too. “It had never occurred to her before, to consider how her bigger brother felt about being trailed by a frustrated smaller child who wants to do everything that he does.

We both laughed at the discovery.  I hugged her and said, “Why don’t you write a story about it?”

Winter Bridge

Winter Bridge, Oil Painting, 12″ x 16″ birchwood canvas

Here she is, my winter bridge painting. She has gone through a number of transitions, on her way to becoming. Now that she is here, I cannot imagine how she looked before.

I wanted the sky and water to mingle and reflect in this painting.. And I wished the Winter Bridge painting would highlight the Willamette River’s natural beauty while staying real to the sight of industrial pressures that such city rivers also bear.

I hope the viewer enjoys the sky, soft background hills the river flow and water reflections. I also hope the viewer considers the port side, the big buildings, the ominous boats that cover up the natural ridge of this beautiful river, dominating a once pristine cove.

May we never forget how this river flows so naturally under the bridge, the left bank tucked into trees and soft sky. And may we also remain concerned when we see that it flows on the other side, past the industrial messes we make.

Our Front Garden, July 2021

Part of the beauty of gardens are all the hiding places for baby birds who can’t yet fly, for small animals seeking safety while nibbling at low greenery, protecting busy bees and butterflies settling into cooler places during the hottest part of the day. I find when painting these darker places, that they point like arrows to colorful flowers, often contrasting the showers of light that shoot carefree through grasses, and sometimes pointing straight up to daisies announcing, “over here”, “over here” to thirsty birds in need of the bird bath.

This is an oil painting on canvas, 20″ x 24″. My husband asked for the painting before I even took it off the easel in my art studio. I think that he likes it.

We form a book club of two. She lives in NYC. I live in Portland, Oregon. The distances between us are magnified by the pandemic. We did not see each other this past year, as travel is severely limited by the ongoing global pandemic. We decided to share readings about pandemics of times past while staying in touch via the internet and phone. Each of us brought books and articles to the table and our first reading list looks like this.

The Great Influenza, by John Barry; The Plague, by Camus; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Books; Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter.

The books we choose tell stories of pandemics occurring in the last 400 years. We read of plagues and pandemics between the years 1660 and 1918, seeking to understand the one in 2020. The stories we read might just as well have been written about the plague we confront today. Reading them is proving cathartic. It is somehow reassuring to learn of other pandemics, of plagues past, and how lives were lost. Yet eventually, the incidence of illnesses and deaths subsided and things went back to normal. That is, if you can call enormous loss and experience with paralyzing fear, normal.

Previous plagues did not subside without stress, tragedy, conflict, pubic protest, political in-fighting, devastating illness and untimely death, family upheaval, lonely migration treks, escape attempts and economic loss.

It is clear from these stories that there are ways to prevent or reduce the numbers of deaths and illness even under the direst of circumstances. But it requires community cohesion, respect for the rights of others and acknowledgement of one’s community and family responsibilities.

During one of our discussions, I asked her, “Did you ever study the history of any pandemic while you were in high school or college?.”

She said, “No I did not.” I agreed with her that I did not either.

We both remembered references being made by teachers to a “plague” of some time or place, but what was missing was an historical description or analysis of what happened. We remember no required readings in our coursework of historical or fictional accounts about pandemics. Perhaps there were some readings and we did not take note of it, figuring such horrible experiences were all behind us?

Thus, it would seem that when our global pandemic was officially announced on March 11, 2020, we were not prepared. One would have thought that it was the first pandemic humans had ever experienced.

“It is happening over there, not over here.”

“It is their fault.”

“It will never get to us.”

“It will be brief”

“It will take a while”.

“It looks like it is increasing but it really isn’t.”

“It will be resolve quickly by medical technology.”

“It cannot be managed unless we all participate in this together”

“Data are being repressed”.

“Do you know anyone who has had it?”

“Do you know anyone who died from it?

“No need to change our behavior.”

“Our rights are being taken away.”

“Our responsibilities are too many.”

“I am so sorry for your loss.”

“Glad that you are feeling better.”

“Will it ever end?”

“It feels like it is coming to an end, but how can I be sure?”

“We have a vaccination, now.

“When will I get it?”

“For how long must wear masks and stay socially isolated?”

As time marches on, the seriousness of what is happening cannot be ignored.

What can we learn from reading books about pandemics? I would say, just about everything. Through books and book discussions we can start to come to grips with what happened. Reading these stories offers a better understanding of how we might cope. It offers a way to imagine our future during these bleak hopeless times. It suggests the healing process that we must go through when the pandemic subsides.

Below is a Poem from the Irish Times sent to me by a friend of mine.

When, by John O’Donnell

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly

and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace

loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those

it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for

laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in

to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,

although a time will come when we’ll forget

the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh

of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;

a time when we may even miss the old-world

arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,

the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open

all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices

reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

When, by John O’Donnell

It isn’t over yet, the pandemic still rages in parts of the world. Many of us have only shyly begun to return to our former selves. 

Or at least what we think is our former selves.  

I  wonder, once this global pandemic subsides even further, what will we remember?

Photo taken during “Stay at Home” measures, November 2020.

Landscapes

Landscapes we paint, no matter how big or small, are wondrous moments witnessed through our abstraction.

When thought of this way, there is nothing real about a landscape, other than the fact that light is shifting, objects are reflecting and atmosphere hovering, and we experience constant movement of ideas and thought, while traveling through these variable, natural compositions.

Nature is for painters, our most wild and beautiful challenge. Lucky for us, nature is everything, and we have many opportunities to paint, to write, or simply observe its amazing show.

There is no right or wrong painting or poem as all abstractions are personal.

Knowing this, brings freedom of our own thoughts and choices of shifting moments we remember.

Watercolor

Oils

Oil

Watercolor

The Bird Won

Alone, oil painting

It wasn’t so long ago, but almost forever and a day, before the sun fully lifted into the sky.

The light broke, and now Freely into Blues.

Together alone

Variations of the same oil painting while playing with glazing and color mixing on birch wood.

Oil painting variations were completed during the period of time that I participated in an art class called Painting on the Edge taught by Michael Orwick, offered through the Oregon Society of Artists.