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Recently, I participated in an excellent online art workshop designed and led by Ruth Armitage called Land Lines. It was a “three-day exploration of personal mark making inspired by the landscape”. The workshop offered an opportunity to experiment with using a variety of marks and lines in new ways. For the duration of the workshop, I decided to focus on my backyard garden as the art topic.

I brought my own piece of landscape art of my backyard garden to the workshop, figuring that I could use it for comparative purposes.

Backyard, oil painting

In the workshop, I tried to get a better grasp of Ruth’s techniques and perspective regarding the use of lines and marks in art, as she is a well-known artist of abstract paintings. When we received our workshop painting assignments, I chose to continue painting this same scene of my backyard garden, more abstractly, using as many aspects of Ruth’s workshop techniques as possible.

After a number of presentations and short tasks, Ruth asked us to paint, relatively quickly, several paintings using varied lines and marks. For her workshop assignment, I submitted three of the assigned paintings for review, all inspired by my garden backyard scene. The three pieces are shown below.

Painting 1, Garden Sanctuary, ink, acrylic, watercolors.
Painting 2, Winter Garden II, mixed media
Painting 3, Garden Springs, watercolor and ink

You may ask, “What happened?”

These are very different from the oil painting I carried in to the workshop depicting this same garden area. Let me explain.

The entire purpose of this exercise was to reach out into new territory. So I did.

Ruth’s focus on marks and lines at first sounded simple. But in fact, it was very challenging, and often left me wondering, what exactly is a land line? When is a mark or a line not a land line? Do lines or marks have multiple meanings in the same art project? Why do I need them at all? What if I just avoid marks and lines and work in smudges or color? What about texture? How do marks, lines, texture and color work together and when are they failures to communicate?

At times, this resulted in me being more puzzled than I was before I started. Taking a workshop can be a humbling experience. It is true of every excellent course or workshop that I have ever taken, that I leave knowing much less than when I arrived.

For her assignment, I started to describe the garden scene by using bold geometric lines using a large yellow Y shapes of sunlight to divide the chairs and table from plant life. I viewed these landscaping lines as compositional

Then I decided to add marks and lines into the painting to depict plant life, over the larger composition of light streams that I had used to shape the painting. At this point in the workshop, I started to lean on lines and marks, along with color, to express how the garden varied.

At this point, I took time out to paint a watercolor version of how the garden looked from a plant’s perspective which turned out whimsical and just plain fun. Without realizing it, I had also changed my perspective on what I was doing from the original oil landscape painting to imagining other perspectives.

This watercolor sketch that I did is painted from the perspective of looking at a plant almost from the position of the ground.

Garden Plant, watercolor

After that, I made a more complicated sketch of trees, plants, table and chair. Not particularly happy with the end result, I decided to cut it up into pieces and see how it would look in a collage. Now that was brave! But it was also a reminder to not get too serious when trying to learn something new. From that experience, I decided that I was busy making lines. However, I needed more work on the meaning of lines.


Collage made from cut up pieces of my painting

At that point, I moved to imagining my little garden as a sheltered place bordered by fences, and edged with wild flowers, tiny branches and bushes. I felt the presence of the streets surrounding our fenced in garden. I thought of the garden surrounded by city streets and at one time covered with spring snow. Hence the painting titled Winter Garden.

I moved to viewing the garden from the perspective of our bungalow home, and considered the way in which the sky and the land related to early spring. See the painting, Garden Spring.

At that point, I decided to paint the garden as an oval sanctuary, or an icon.

Pink over brush of icon

Frustrated, I brushed in a larger set of compositional lines by adding a large pink shape over the garden. It was a personal statement on my part, saying that I needed a more stable place to describe the inner sanctuary aspect of my garden.

Then, I decided, over the same painting, to bring color, texture and line into the iconic inner sanctuary of the garden using the color blue and adding marks to show the garden’s intricacy. The painting ended up being simple in line, highly textured, using acrylic, water color and ink. See the painting, Garden Sanctuary.

My conclusion is that there are many more ways to depict a little backyard garden, and many more paintings to go.

It turned out that Ruth’s assignment to paint three or four paintings simultaneously while considering lines, marks and landscapes was very helpful, reducing the need for perfection and enhancing the need for experimentation.

Art, for me, is a continual process of learning, sketching, and imagining new ways to relate to my surroundings. Having painted a place, I feel much more intimately attached and familiar with it. Seeing it through multiple perspectives via this workshop has only strengthened my attachment to it. Added to this enjoyable process of painting my backyard garden, was the additional pleasure of learning new approaches and techniques of abstract art while doing it.

With respect to the workshop being conducted via the internet, I am grateful that Ruth and other artists continue to go forward with art workshops using the internet while under the current conditions of a pandemic where we are all under stay at home measures and social distancing. Under these new conditions, I found certain aspects of an online workshop very enjoyable. First, there was no commute. Second, I could walk away from the workshop and come back and continue at my own pace without interrupting anyone else. Third, there was time for thought. I was less hurried. I was also less self-conscious because if I did’t like what I was doing, I could pitch it and do it over, sight unseen.

There are some obvious disadvantages, as well to an online workshop. First, it required a quiet place in my home, without distraction, so as to not be interrupted by our regular activities of daily living. Second, I lost the opportunity to meet new artists. Third, we used text messages to speak with each other, thus losing the spontaneity of facial expressions, gestures and voice.

A Zoom meeting at the end helpfully brought us together for review of our work and allowed a more interactive discussion of each artist’s work with the instructor, while allowing other artists to observe.

Trying to use other artist’s perspective and techniques may feel awkward at first, but it leads to new understandings and broader perspectives on what is possible. I will be drawing and sketching for months to come, and no doubt will refer back to this workshop on lines, marks and landscaping, many times over.

Coincidentally, I got a Mother’s Day package in the mail a few days ago from my children and when I opened it up, it was a beautiful book, The Human Planet, Earth at the Dawn of the Anthropocene. The book highlights over 30 years of aerial photography across seven continents, completed by George Steinmetz, exploring the human imprint on climate and the natural world, with explanatory text provided by Andrew Revkin. The arrival of this book could not have been more timely. The landscape is both photographically real and artistically abstract, offering many opportunities for imagining new ways to paint landscapes from an aerial point of view, with lines.

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Staying for many winters on a small and beautiful island of the Bahamas has taught me respect for water, energy and food supply lines. When the boats come in, we have groceries. When it rains, we have clean drinking water. When diesel oil arrives in ships, we generate electricity. When the sun rises, we see that it is our greatest source of energy, along with the tides and winds. Our agricultural lands are limited and our water for drinking is shallow. We view our great tradition of catching fish and crawfish to eat is a glorious luxury as our schools of fishes diminish.

We live in two places. In the spring, we return to our home where we are on another island of sorts, called North America. Although geographers would refer to it as a continent, I have come to see that we all live on islands. There are small ones, big ones, even some called continents. But they are still islands to me. They all defined by finite natural resources, limited water and food supplies. Our islands, all of them, confront the wild forces of nature, be they drought, storms, earthquakes, or pandemics.

We are students of islands.

On our little island in the Atlantic, when the wind blows, we feel our vulnerability as the waves roll wildly on to our beaches, sometimes ripping cliffs and taking them back into the ocean. When we step out at night and look up into the unlit sky, the stars and the moon literally hover over us. They are right there, smothering us with soft glow of light and opening up our world to the real possibility of imagining infinity.

Nature’s forces are abundant and everywhere, although often out of our reach.

On our huge island, or continent of North America, we do not necessarily sense this intimacy with the ocean the same way we do when we stand on a hill on our small island of the Abacos in the Bahamas and see the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, east and west. However, we feel the power and presence of the ocean as we wander along the beaches of the Pacific.

Yes, North America is in actuality, a well-defined body of shifting land surrounded by a shifting massive body of water, although its boundaries east and west cannot be seen simultaneously when standing on a hill, like we do in Abaco. If we were standing on the moon and look down on the planet Earth, however, we might see the east and waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans surrounding North America. We would also see that the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are one body of water, not two.

SONY DSC

Our islands are on a single planet. Now, that is a different matter. The planet Earth is surrounded by other things than water, holding even more possibilities of massive immensity. This whole act of thinking about who we are and what island we are on is a humbling experience.

On all our islands, we are impacted by the immediate danger of pollution from other places, as well as our own, as the plastic and detritus roll in onto our beaches and creep into our water and air. We see that abrupt shortages limit what people eat, and determine the time they must spend searching for food. We may not see it so clearly, until something like a global pandemic comes along, or droughts, or other big shows of nature that bring it to our attention very clearly, that things might change in a minute and our life lines are fragile.

Knowing this makes me appreciate my life even more. I am surprised and awed by the fact that I even exist, midst all the other options available. These chemicals and cells comprising me could instead be part of an apple tree, or buried in sands, or drifting in a large body of water.

I could have died before I was a year old. I might survive as a person for twenty more years.

Right now, I am living on an island, as is everybody else.

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The Author as a Child

It started out as an attempt to write my life story and has instead become a fictional novel about the end of the world. Writing my memoirs has turned out to be a journey, first in truth telling, then into fiction, and finally into the unknown.

Writing my memoirs seemed like a simple and rewarding task. I believed that I had the proper writing skills although it was not really the same kind of writing to which I was accustomed. Up to this point, my published writings were scientific, written with objectivity and largely data-driven. The subjects in my studies were anonymous; my memoirs would be deeply personal. I was writing about my family and me, in the first person, in a highly subjective manner.

Yes, I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to write my memoirs. It was after all, it is still a writing assignment. In fact, it sounded pretty simple and far less data-driven than what I usually did. It sounded like fun, an adventure of sorts. It seemed like just the type of thing I wanted to do to celebrate my retirement. I was looking forward to being free of objective methodology, constricting datasets and footnotes, and to write more freely.

A memoir seemed in order. But in fact, the struggle to put down my life story on paper has continued to plague me for a number of years. In the process, I have learned to blog, write poems, tell stories, make illustrations, sketch doodles and work in other art forms such as watercolor and oils , even basket weaving. But my memoirs are still not yet fully written.

I continue to work on them, from time to time, and will probably continue to work on them for as long as I can, primarily because it is too enjoyable and rewarding to ever stop writing them.

When I first started writing my memoirs I had just retired from decades of research and travel with most of my career spent working on survey research in the social and economic and environmental sciences. While doing so, I wrote and published on a regular basis.

Working in international statistics for the United Nations was very exciting. I traveled to numerous countries in many regions of the world while collaborating with the statistical offices of governments. In the process, I took on tasks and followed trails that few have ever taken. My work in demography and statistics was exciting, personally rewarding and humbling. There was so much to do, and so little time. Although my readers were highly specialized and my audience limited, I loved working with these incredibly interesting teams of statisticians on problems of survey research methods and was deeply engaged in the work. Those decades of working and traveling in numerous countries, while married to a great guy and together bringing up three wonderful children, could not have been more complicated or rewarding..

Upon retiring from the UN, I considered my next steps. Without knowing what to do for certain, I decided to start looking at the world from a completely different perspective. I decided not to take an emeritus role in my field, but to reach out to new subjects instead, to find a different voice.

One thing I had wanted to do since I was a young woman, was more personal writing. At my retirement party, my now adult children gave me a book on how to write a memoir, and a blank book to go with it. They were great gifts, encouraging me to start writing about some of the many things I had experienced over the years.

I started writing my thoughts about my childhood, only to discover that the deeply personal nature of the task prohibited me from going forward and posting it up for others to read. I thought about all the other people, mainly family and friends, who might be affected by my making their lives public along with mine, and decided to take another approach.

I started over, this time by writing fiction. I decided that precision of history was not what I wanted to write. Rather, observations about life were becoming more important than complete objectivity in telling my personal story. It made more sense to let fictional characters do the talking.

I am finding writing to be so powerful of a tool when using fictional characters, where one may explore new areas and experiences. Moving to fiction actually frees me up to say what I want more readily.

Writing in fiction leads me into thinking about so many things while pondering directions to take. For example, should the story be written from the perspective of one person? Or should I let a multitude of characters speak for themselves? How would this affect the story?

Why am I writing this fictional book?

I am still trying to address that question. Do my ideas flow, is my text clear? Are my main characters evolving, is the plot thickening?

About that plot.

My first fictional book has stubbornly stayed on telling my main character’s story about her survival after an apocalyptic event. Her story reverts back to her childhood through her thoughts about the times when she begins to realize that numerous species of flora and fauna are disappearing, and the destruction of clean waters and air are happening, right in front of her eyes.

Now, back to the plot.

What is the plot, if my main character is the last person on earth? How complicated can the story get? Does this mean that there is no plot, but futility?

Oh yes, I do have a plot. I’m still struggling with it, but think that a book focusing on these last days of human existence on the planet earth remains a worthy task. My main character is free to say what she wants. After all, it appears that most others are already gone, disappearing in the extinction process. There is no one is left to be hurt or insulted.

Perhaps it is because my main character is telling her story, I am free to listen to her and to see the world through her eyes in all its beauty and complexity. Through her actions, I experience the shock and fragility of being an almost extinct animal.

Through my main character’s wonderful descriptions of loss, a love of life and all its abundance emerges. Through her descriptions of the remaining environment as it begins to evolve into some sort of healing process, and her joy of discovering the beauty of what remains, leaves me hopeful for life on the planet, even if humans are no longer a part of it.

My main character’s ability to weave her own memoirs into the telling of her story, brings me freedom, as a writer, to consider the joys, tragedies and hilarity of my own life.

Plot, characters, text, wording, illustration. I love the potential of them all and hope for them to stay with me on this journey to the end of human existence on our planet, plainly seen through the eyes of my fictitious characters.

You may be wondering at this point, what does this have to do with writing memoirs?

The old adage, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” rings true. I am not yet ready to write the last chapter of my memoirs, nor can I. Because I am still here, alive and changing.

Fiction is offering me many more possibilities to express my thoughts, as long as there are some people alive to read it. Without interested readers, what will remain will be simply small etches in the sands of time.

It is my hope that we people will continue to exist in some sort of form, for hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Perhaps we won’t, given the slippery slope we are now on.

But I think it is worth wondering what the world would be like if we were almost extinct, if we became as rare as some other species have recently become.

In the story that I am writing, I focus on the days when most everybody disappears on earth, but for a few struggling characters. Fiction offers this opportunity.

Then I ask, what if I actually knew this one character intimately and could write about her while she and her partner confront the end of human existence on the planet earth?

What would I learn from telling her story? I am about to find out.

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Many decades ago, when my husband Joe and I were in our early 20’s, we joined the Peace Corps and lived in rural, northern India for several years, during a time when our village was experiencing famine, where rains had been very limited, and nearby crops were terrifyingly scarce. 

Water source in our village.

When we moved into our new little village, several hours away from the state capital of Patna, Bihar, we tried to strip down to what we thought was simple living. We wanted to show our respect to those around us who were enduring a famine, and yet we failed to appear to our neighbors as anything but privileged.

We worked to prove to ourselves and our neighbors that we were living a minimal lifestyle and realized in the process that we needed to learn what minimal actually meant. We lived minimally, while others lived in deprivation. The difference between the two is enormous.

Our simple life with minimal consumption that we chose was still much easier compared with the stress from hunger and danger felt by our new neighbors.  We, as young Americans, had promises of future water, electricity, and food.    Our situation was temporary.  The situation of our neighbors was not.

Most of our neighbors had a simple life. They lived with dirt floors. Some had cement homes, but not many.  They rarely owned chairs or tables or much furniture of any kind.  They squatted on the ground instead, using the floor as their table.  The squatting technique was very efficient, as we never had to carry chairs with us in order to sit down and relax.  When our neighbors said, “Sit down, please.”  We all just squatted to the ground and began chatting.  It saved a whole bunch of time and money.

It turns out that we probably never did completely succeed in fooling them into believing that we were actually deprived. Because in fact, we were not. As Mohatma Gandhi taught, we were living a minimal lifestyle which is actually a relatively comfortable way to live.  While Gandhi supported a minimal lifestyle, he fought against deprivation. Deprivation meant lack of resources for even the most basic items of food, shelter and water. He fought against inequitable distribution; against the massive gathering of resources to fewer than 1 percent of the population while the rest starved. We are not deprived when we live simply. I learned this to be true many years ago. It remains true today.

Mohatma Gandhi’s simple living arrangement in Mumbai

Some families in our little community used banana leaves for plates.  Most ate with their hands. The food tasted just as good no matter what tools were used for eating.

After eating, they brushed their teeth with a stick from a Neem tree. Their water carried for teeth brushing often brought to their home in a small brass or aluminum pot, pumped by hand from the nearest tube well.  There were no manufactured tooth brushes, no tubes of toothpaste.  Just the branch, and scrubbing of the gums.

Some slept on small beds made of woven rope called “charpuoys”, often sharing the simple bed with others.  Others took to the floor, unrolling a cloth or woven straw mat on which to sleep. This was simple living.

During a famine, such as the one that we were in, almost none had sufficient food, including ourselves. This is because the markets did not sell much food. This was deprivation.

The year that we moved to our little village, there was a serious lack of rain which limited food supplies. People were thin and although I was 5’6″ and weighed 110 pounds, my nickname was “Moti Mary”, or “Fat Mary”.  They didn’t mean it to be rude that they referred to me as fat,  it was just a fact that I was fat, by their famine standards.  Powerfully fat. It was obvious that even thought we had less food than usual, our food supply was minimal; it was not deprived as was our neighbors.

We were living at the time, on the Peace Corps salary and saving half of it.  This was because there was little to buy. Supplies were limited.  Our local market sold matches, cigarettes (one at a time) , some spices, lentils, rice and vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Sometimes there was a basket of fish to choose from, hauled out of the Ganges River and toted the long distance to our inland village, without refrigeration. It didn’t look so good by the time it arrived.

Our villagers were weakened from the lack of food, dehydrated from the severe heat of summer, and many, including our government co-workers had difficulty walking more than a block or two before becoming exhausted. They often asked to sit for a moment by the side of the road to catch their breath.

They all needed food and water and had little. The seriousness of this calamity slowly overtook all other concerns. Mothers had difficulty breastfeeding; children had difficulty thinking about school; workers had difficulty walking to work.

Many times, as we walked from village to village, young mothers offered their tiny infants, or asked me to stop and see their baby, then pleaded with us to take the baby. There is no way to describe my sadness and astonishment to witness a mother holding her child out and asking it to be taken from her, in hopes that it would be fed. 

I was 23 years old at the time and had no way to explain to them what I would need to do to take care of all the infants in my village who were famished. I felt powerless, and ashamed that there was so little that I could do about a massive famine.   The infants’ shallow breathing and visible ribs, their frozen faces and sad, weary looks were difficult to experience. Yet, I knew that eventually I would leave and be going somewhere where there was food, shelter, wealth. My situation was temporary, theirs was not. Many of our families fled to other areas, seeking food.

We followed some of our families who had fled to the streets of Calcutta and we spent time with them to better understand what happened to them when they fled their homes seeking a better situation.  

We found our migrating villagers living on the streets of the slums of Calcutta, as a group, without proper shelter.  We found some who had made themselves a home in large drain pipe.  One of our saddest moments was finding women from our famine area who was standing on a huge pile of animal feces that had been shoveled up from the street. She was with her small children fastidiously separating the grains they found in the animal waste, one grain at a time.  They placed each tiny grain that they could extract from the waste and placed it in their basket so that they might later grind it by hand, using two stones, and make it into an evening meal. 

There was no place to run from this famine. It pervaded everywhere.

We frequently visited our local market in the early morning or late afternoon and found little to buy; perhaps a few tomatoes no bigger than the top of ones thumb; potatoes equally small; perhaps an unrefrigerated fish carried for miles from the Ganges River.  We learned that if we could put our finger through the already rotting fish, that we should not buy it.

Most of us were ill from the hot weather, limited safe water, lack of food and unsanitary conditions.  

We lived for several years in three rooms above a small cloth shop in the middle of the market. The building was made of cinder block. We had no electricity, no stove, only a small kerosene single burner, no running water.  In a tiny room in the back, there was a  hole in the floor, used as a toilet, flushed by the buckets of water we carried from a tube well shared by hundreds of families, located several blocks away.

We carried our water up the stairs and into our apartment using a bucket, using each bucket of water carefully and respectfully.  We boiled some of the water for drinking.  We might use a couple of cups of water to wash some dishes and then collect the rinse water for flushing waste down the toilet, or for mopping a floor.  We tried to use no more than a bucket or two of water per day, for all purposes, owing to how hard it was to carry the water for several blocks and up a set of stairs to our place.

Water was a scarce resource.  The water we used was not available to someone else. The lesson we learned in this little village, was that we actually owned much less than we thought of the absolute essentials such as water, air and energy. They were shared by all, shared with humans, plants and animals. We were all in this together.

One curse that we felt, was that no matter how egalitarian we tried to be, our particular kind of wealth, that is that we were people from a rich, “developed” country, was obvious. We all, as a people of the United States, consumed too much, very quickly, and without apology. It was our signature statement, as a people.

The fact that we had a bathroom in our simple apartment made us seem wealthy, to others who made the early morning visit to the fields.

But there were other signs of our wealth as well. We carried pencils and pens and had paper notebooks that gave us away.  People observed our obvious wealth when they came to visit us and saw plates, silverware, pens and pencils.  When we first arrived, Joe wore a watch.  Eventually he took it off and put it away as it caused so much distraction.

We put our things in a locked trunk  leaving only the essentials visible, such as a cup, a plate and a spoon, a pot or two for cooking, one blanket or a sheet on our wooden bed.  A pillow, a mosquito net, and that is it.

Yes, we still seemed wealthier than others.

Such a life as we led for two years, brought to our attention repeatedly, how much we had consumed, how recklessly we had consumed, before arriving in this little village.

We were amazed to learn how much we could live without.  As our lives got simpler, our needs diminished.

I will never forget how it felt when after several years, after we had developed good friends, had sat through numerous evenings listening to their tall tales, their music, their traditions and meals.  We left that little village, saying goodbye to people we knew we would never see again, wondering how they would ever survive the lack of rains, the excessive temperatures. On the day we left, everything felt so out of control because heavy rains had arrived and were splashing over the empty fields, creating great gullies where land used to be.  In a matter of a few hours, our people went from experiencing not enough water, to too much.

The day we left, cattle were swimming in the fields, backs barely showing above the water. We watched from our train windows, as  our coal-stoked train slowly crept onward towards Patna, seeing both sides of the train surrounded by flood waters, looking out at houses sinking in the water and mud.

We felt guilty and deeply saddened leaving our village, knowing we would probably never see anyone again. We  realistically comprehended how powerless we were to  do anything about their situation, given that the forces they were fighting were so ferocious and also acknowledging that although we had survived in this little village for over two years, we always knew it was temporary, that we had backup.

When I left our state of Bihar, I weighed 99 pounds, skinny and luckily still reasonably healthy.  Joseph and I were lightweight, wizened by what he had learned, and humbled.

It was our first realization of how little control we actually had over world events.    We felt deep respect for the families we left behind, and saddened by our lack of abilities to do much for them other than to reassure them that there were other parts of the world not yet in this sad state of affairs.  It was not like this everywhere, we told them.  It should get better.

We were trying to assume that “this too, shall pass.,” encouraging ourselves and them, to keep going.

And we said goodbye.  However, this too, has not passed. The unequal distribution of resources, the increased scarcity of clean air and water, the drastic growth of the human population at the expense of other plants and animals is continuing unabated.

Our memories of our villagers live on, inspiring us to live simply, in honor of these families we once knew and loved.  We have learned the importance of safe water and air, secure food supplies, and the necessity of proper distributional systems for shared resources, for education, health and quality of life issues such as welfare.  We all see what life is like without this safety net for the planet. Evidence surrounds us. We just have to look and see it, read the facts and comprehend the implications.

Our situation is not completely hopeless. We all have a little power and potential to live simply and give back to our environment as much as we can, knowing that in the future, it really could be dangerous if we do not conserve and replace our natural resources and use an equitable distributional system.

We all need to learn how to share more, to live more simply and wisely. We should acknowledge that famine, war, extreme consumption of limited resources, and the unfair or maldistribution of necessary resources anywhere, is happening to all of us. Deprivation can also become a shared experience, if we do not take care of our planet.

Trust me, living simply may be comfortable, deprivation is not.

Street living under deprivation

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Letters of Endearment

A big brown office envelope arrived in the mail from an old friend and inside I found, much to my surprise, a bundle of letters written by me fifty years ago when my husband Joe and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in South Asia.

At that time, we were living and working in a deeply rural village that, one might say, rode tight against the earth’s surface.  We felt the tight ride while we experienced several years without electricity, running water or flush toilets, among other things. We encountered food scarcity along with our neighbors, witnessed the horrible power of famine and drought followed by flooding, malnourishment and disease.  We felt this tightness to the earth while simultaneously learning to appreciate our neighbors’ courage, affection, and strong community spirit which helped them to survive and sometimes even thrive, under such tough conditions.

These letters brought it all back, like a flood.

Joe and I felt guilty, knowing our situation was temporary and that we would leave our village after several years.  We worried about what would happen to the many friends and acquaintances we left behind, who did not have the freedom to walk away, as we did.  Our youthful hand-written letters confirmed our affection for our community, told stories of friends we had made, and also pointed out the many frustrations of residing in impoverished circumstances.

In those days, we wrote letters on pieces of paper and sent them via the postal mail.  From our village, roughly half of the letters we sent managed to arrive. We often waited months for a reply and our letters declared our frustration with having to wait so long.  At least half of the letters that family and friends wrote back to us were also somehow mislaid or lost by the postal system.

After several years in South Asia, Joe and I returned to the US, to more schooling, then returning again to Western Asia for several years, then back again to the US for more graduate training and new jobs and responsibilities.

When we returned to the US for the second time, Joe and I had started a family.  On top of our jobs, we had three children over a five-year period, taking up any extra time we might have used for writing letters, especially since during these same five years we moved back into the United States and then back out again, this time to Western Asia.

Once, during an emergency, we were evacuated with our two small children back to the US, due to heavy street fighting.  We were instructed not to return until things quieted down.  Our friend who shared the letters helped our family set up a temporary place to live.  She also helped us locate blankets, pots and pans and spoons and forks to use while we waited for word that we could return.

I owe her many letters of thanks, and I am about to write them.

Each time Joe and I have moved to new places we gathered more responsibilities, gained new friends and lost others.

Although we had the privilege of enjoying technically challenging and very interesting jobs, we confronted complicated administrations and large inter-related bureaucracies that sometimes held projects back, messed up plans and created stress.

During this period of heavy work responsibilities and young children, we wrote few personal letters.

These same complicated bureaucracies gave us the power and support we needed to our family to continue our work in the area of international development, an area we both wanted to work in.

I owe numerous people who worked in these administrations with me, letters of appreciation, too.

I have unfinished letters to write.

Letters of condolence.
Letters of love.
Letters of appreciation.
Letters of thanks.

Letters to my wonderful adult children, expressing gratitude and pride, telling them how much I love them;

Letters to my grandchildren, leaving word tracks for when I am no longer here, to make them smile and trust that life is good.

I owe thank you notes to people who changed my life.

A letter to my husband, thanking him for all the love and affection, fun and adventure, hilarity and frustration, devotion and friendship, for his mightiest protection, biggest debates, most delicious omelettes, ever.

By the way, dear, thank you as well for all those morning cups of coffee.

I owe a letter to myself.  It may be the most difficult one to write.

I owe letters to the people I thought I hated but really didn’t.  Letters to people who suffered unfairly.

Letters to those who reached out and received no thanks.

Letters to the privileged and seemingly spoiled who would not know why I wrote, even if I did.

In addition, I owe a note of appreciation to the small boy, wearing just simple cotton shorts who used a broken branch with leaves to sweep under the sacred banyan tree, making the dirt smooth;

I owe a letter of affection to that little girl who told me her stories of being married at the age of twelve, and the uproarious tales of how she outwitted her husband and got to come home to her widowed mother;

I will send a letter of sorrow to that dead body I saw lying in the streets waiting unceremoniously to be picked up by the early morning carts;

I have written numerous letters of thanks in my head to those men holding machine guns who stopped our bus and who read all correspondence we held in our purses and backpacks and left without killing us;

I owe a letter of amazement to the midwives who delivered village babies on rope-woven wooden beds with no running water and no clean towels;

A letter of love to the villagers who sang all night to us while we sat together on dirt floors and listened to a tiny wind-driven accordion wailing to the moon.

It is time to write a letter to my mother to tell her she is forgiven for not noticing;

A letter to my father saying that I view him with compassion and realize it might have been worse, he could have become President;

A letter to my brother, saying goodbye, sorry it did not work out;

Letters to my sisters reminding them of how much I cared.

A letter to my childhood dog whom I miss greatly, especially since he was my nanny.

Letters to my hair dresser saying thank you for getting me out of the sixties look.

Letters to the grasses and trees that welcomed me on mountain slopes and

A thank you letter to near clear blue lakes and to all bright stars of the night.

Letters of appreciation and awe to the unknown for all that it holds.

Thank you, my friend, for keeping those letters for fifty years and then sending them back to me as a gift.  They are provoking me to write what I had forgotten to write, until now.

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We have a guest in our house.  It is Pickles, our grand children’s family dog, who we are dog-sitting while the family is away on vacation.

Pickles
Lucky for us, Pickles is an exceptionally easy dog to take care of.  First, she is elderly and rarely barks; second she eats and sleeps a lot.  Her attention span is good, especially when it comes to watching us open the refrigerator or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  

She loves to eat home cooked food, and will stare at us for hours if she thinks we smell like a hamburger, or a good piece of cheese.  

If I rub her head affectionately, she incessantly licks my hand to tell me to “keep going.” I have to order her to stop.   If we lean down to pet her, she rolls over and asks for a belly rub.  It actually isn’t very lady-like, but after all, she is a dog.

Lucky for us, Pickles prefers short walks with long breaks while she takes time out to sniff blades of grass and tree trunks.  One really doesn’t have to go very far, or very fast, to make her happy.  

Lucky for us, our eldest granddaughter wrote down the instructions for how to take care of pickles, and the notes aren’t that difficult or too demanding.  

Instructions

Not so lucky for us, we attend to everything on that list, even using good manners and picking up the dog’s droppings and taking them home with us to put into the waste container.  This is not my favorite task, but it is the law.

We do not have to put her to bed or read her a bedtime story.  At exactly 9pm every evening, she voluntarily hops into her indoor “dog house” and curls up and goes to sleep.  
  
When we first arrived, she was nervous and stared at us, wondering what’s next, I suppose. 

Dog Staring at Spouse
After a while, she relaxed and now spends her time sitting on the couch and lounging about, or lying on the rug and rolling around.  She will yip if she thinks we might step on her by mistake, but we never do.  But she yips, anyhow, just in case.

She might best be described as a fully, unkempt ball of white fur, with a mouth and long ears and significant eyes.  

When she curls up beside me, she kind of looks like a smurf.

What has Pickles taught us?  

Here goes:  
  1. Food tastes better when it is not served in a dog dish;
  2. Walking at a very slow pace soothes the nerves and makes one relaxed, unless one is in a rush or actually has somewhere to go;
  3. Loud sirens cause one to howl; and, last but not least,
  4. Sleep is everything.


Pickles the Smurf

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Celebrate Openly

I do not sufficiently show my gratitude for being alive. What an off chance it all seems to be, what a lucky coincidence.  

I haven’t yet  sufficiently expressed my appreciation for the beauty and wonderment of raw, wild nature.  


I need to celebrate more openly the pleasures of learning, of conducting research, of reading and writing, of painting a picture, of observing shapes, colors, designs and patterns of life.

Alain de Botton recently wrote about the importance of culture in helping us to develop traditions and rituals for celebrating life’s meaning.  

Even in the most dire circumstances, life can be filled with spirit and grace. It can be celebrated. I have witnessed this while living in desolate rural areas and in densely populated urban areas, in villages suffering food scarcity, in places of war, and political unrest.  I have seen life celebrated in many languages and in various ways, through learning in educational institutions, museums and libraries, and in simple community rituals, showing it in the way they line up in meaningful ways on the sides of hills and deep into valleys. sharing traditions of language and culture and song.  

I see ritual and celebration in the way animal herds gallop, the way birds fly in flocks, the way fishes move in the waters.  I see celebration and meaning in cloud formations, and in the many stars that shine in the black night of the sea.

Susan Gubar wrote about ways of seeking the gift of grace by being receptive to a sense of beneficence or loving kindness.  This might be acquired many different ways such as engaging in quiet meditation, through dance or breathing and body exercise, by taking long walks in nature, bike riding, running alongside a road, or while painting a picture, making a craft or playing music,  in the simple act of appreciating literature and the arts.  

It may be felt in the results of a magnificent piece of research, or in the development of a new technology or in the discovery of a new way to do something.  All offer the need for morality, appreciation of spirituality and community; a feeling of grace. 

It may even be felt simply through the execution of routine acts of love and friendship such as a ritual sharing a glass of wine at sunset, or a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise, or hugging a child, patting a dog on the head.

Leaving it at this.  I say, I wish to learn to be positive about all people who celebrate life and who seek to understand its meaning whether they do it through cultural expression, education and learning, scientific discovery and/or religious practices.  


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