Montana, October 9, 2016—

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Right now I’m sitting on the porch of my old college friend Stacey Kimble Fitzgibbons’ summer home in Virginia City, Montana, 5,761’ above San Francisco-level. I’m looking out at the peaks of what are either the Greenhorn or Gravelly Mountain Range(s), to the south, just across the top of a log cabin built in about 1866, the residence of the then-acting governor. From the corner of Idaho and Fairweather St, three blocks—and one-third of the length of the town—up from here, you can do a 360-degree survey that likely at least glimpses the Ruby Range to the West, the Tobacco Roots to the North, the Madison Range to the East, and back around to the two G’s. I believe V.C. is located in what would be the corseted waist of the hourglass that is Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest—or it might be a pocket of state land, connecting the two sections of forestland—not entirely sure how to read the map.

V.C. is a ghost town, established during the Civil War, a frontier gold-mining outpost. It was once the largest town in the inland Northwest with a population of over 10,000, heavily Confederate in its loyalties. It is now home to 132—and I think that’s the summer population; winter is probably half that. I believe I may be, at present, its only living ghost.img_7004-1

The temperature has been swinging between the 30’s at night, and the high-60’s during the day. The rains have started—a challenge, on dirt streets—and I expect to be gone before the snows stick. But that is one of many uncertainties in play at the moment.

It is easier to get groceries, personal necessities—even a pair of jeans and a sweater—via Target delivery, than by going to a store. The nearest to cover all of the above is an hour and a half’s drive away. And as you may recall, for the first time in decades—and the first time ever in my adult life in Montana—I no longer have a car. Which makes me reliant on the kindness of strangers. And old friends. And new ones.img_7377

This has been largely the way of these past twelve months: both beautiful—eliciting generosity and bonding moments, and uncomfortable—sometimes grating on my sense of self, and making me bitchier than I’d like to be, ever, with good people.

I came here to say goodbye to a beloved friend and former Theater Professor, Ben Tone. He, along with a couple of friends, established the Virginia City Players, a summer vaudeville and melodrama company at the historic Opera House in 1948. He was being first memorialized on and then interred under the boards he once trod.

I was Cordelia to his Lear, by the way; or he was Lear to my Cordelia–not sure which is the properly deferential way to say that. Whenever we met, right to the last, more than thirty years after that production, he would exclaim: “My Cordy!” Unlike Cordelia, I was never so unlucky as to suffer the loss of his care, and that was precious to me.

 

I stayed in Virginia City first because Stace roped me into working at her Old Time Photo Shop the last two weeks of the season. And then because she offered me a stay in her house to paint, think, what-the-fuck-ever, once she and her husband Michael returned to Arizona for the winter, in exchange for cleaning out and winterizing her refrigerator. And, as it turns out, chasing away the bear that broke into the house—with me in it—but that’s a story for another day.

This country is beautiful, in the way of my old Montana romance with the landscape. Though, in my old age, it has a less-heart-pounding effect than it used to. I am quieter now. It has a quieter effect on me. One that makes me feel almost as old as the land.

I am listening to Cascada de Flores’ “Live!” album, and Malagueña para Pasatono is putting my heart back in my chest—which is a good thing, as it seems to want to desert me…or hide from me…just when I need it most. I am in a strange wandering phase, trying to be present to the truths I know I am pursuing, but still very much seeking the “how” of it all. An anchor, a base in Montana has been my dream forever, and I’ve come to feel that that is something I just can’t establish from somewhere else. So I am here, a big step closer, but still no grasp on the key. Never in my life have I been so unstructured, so dependent on the next possibility, whatever it may be, moment to moment, of just getting through, and hopefully, somehow, repositioning art at the head of the pack of wild dogs, loves, obligations, abilities and influences that is my life.

When I left my job a year ago, I knew very clearly what I was reaching towards; and what needed to be put behind me. But there have been many, many logistics to deal with—and pulls at the heart that have come with some of those logistics. And there have been opportunities to extract some value from the rubble. By way of a government-sponsored re-training program, I have been able to take a bungee jump into the deep waters of the graphic and web-design software and principles that I have been jonesing to learn for years. A fast, deep dive, but a good one; so I have taken them.

A lot has happened, but for now, I want to offer a quick-ish answer to the question I keep getting, and just don’t have the energy to sum up on Facebook or in a phone call, the where the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing? question.

From my Alameda apartment—which I relinquished last September, putting my things in storage—I went to my friend Amanda’s house in SF. Amanda was my neighbor in the 6+ art-foundation years I lived in the McCune’s basement apartment, post-Oaxaca, pre-financial crash. She bought my artwork—one a very personal piece I would only sell to a friend, my Days of the Dead Family Portrait. (Amanda spent childhood years in Mexico as the daughter of an ambassador. The combination of a musical mother and Mexico’s vibrant culture produced a red-headed child of privilege who can belt a ranchera sob to match any paisana.) She loaned me the $800 to pull my car out of the city lot after it was towed from in front of that house, so I wouldn’t have to wait for an expected check and accrue additional storage charges (which were, at that time, something like $100/day; rotten, money-grubbing SF). She timed commissioned work—one a big gold dragon mural in the Chinese-crimson bathroom of her objet d’art house in Cow Hollow; another a series of dog portraits—to coincide with a couple of real fiscal nail-biters following the economic crash.

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Amanda also has Stage IV cancer. And a fractured family, who moved out of the objet d’art house three or four years ago. She’s a resilient soul, and I think we’ve always appreciated one another on that level. That, and we share a powerful sense of the absurd. She was right there to offer a place to stay when I put out the call.

Now, when a woman with Stage IV cancer, who has no care-providers or visiting medical assistance engaged, invites you to live in her house for as long as you need to, for no other stated expectation than occasionally helping out with walking the dog, you know there will be more to it than that. I was aware that my own coping mechanisms were strained—not the ideal for supporting a friend in such challenging circumstances. But it was what the universe offered. And I am trying to listen to the universe, and believe that where it puts me is exactly where I am supposed to be. That’s often proved beautifully, bigheartedly true. And sometimes painfully, punishingly so. Learning—dare I hope, wisdom?—does not always come in gentle packages.

This is how I, who have avoided partnership, who have lived alone to ensure room for art, in whatever form I can manage to make it, who have rarely been required to navigate the tricky waters of intimacy, situational or otherwise, in the last 20+ years—and whose solitude has intensified in the painting years, as I have both lived and worked alone—landed in what turned out to be a masterclass in relationship negotiation.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher, literally life and death, or the circumstances more fraught. Amanda’s family was distant or absent, working through their own complicated issues with her, and she with them. When I moved in, she was facing the holidays for what she was certain would be the last, at best next-to-last, time. And then there were the many vulnerabilities of a terminal illness. Myself, I was on a knife’s edge, trying to make order and direction out of a possibly-fortuitous/possibly-disastrous rupture in my life. I had my own vulnerabilities, emotional and logistical. My belongings were in storage, my artwork and supplies were stored at Amanda’s—a house that was occasionally a family battleground, with myself in the cross-hairs, just by being there. I could not have been a less apt fit for the situation.

And yet, I had become aware over the last several years that the isolation of my life was taking a toll. One of my most immediate goals was to change my living and/or working situation to provide more human interaction. So there we are: The universe gave me exactly what I asked for. In spades.

To say it was a challenge to provide Amanda with what she needed, without sacrificing my own needs, to establish some boundaries and mutual understanding, is an understatement. Amanda and I come from very different backgrounds, with very different expectations of what the world requires of and owes us. And we had to negotiate that difference. I wish I could say I always led with kindness, but the truth is that frustration and my own fears and uncertainties, and sense of inadequacy to the task at hand, were out front as often as the other. But still, I’m proud of both of us for digging in and working it out. I don’t think it was easy for her to acknowledge what she needed, as she fought to live the end of her life on her own terms, in the comfort and satisfaction of the home she had so excellently made, that she wanted to enjoy and share. We were able to establish and understand that this really was an exchange. We each needed something vital, which the other could provide. There was honor in the giving, and comfort in the taking. It was a time I can only call poignant.

It was very, very hard. Seeing a friend wasting away at very close range. Witnessing her struggle for independence while becoming more and more incapable. Watching her acuity come and go. Constantly worrying the problem of when and how to intercede, whether my offerings helped or hurt. The very real fear that the end had come, over and over. Tending to wounds; finding a way to address the essentially self-inflicted ones; holding onto empathy and care while trying not to succumb to guilt or perceived manipulation. Channeling the heartbreak of a decline less visible to Amanda than to those of us observing from the outside into practical action. Hard doesn’t cover it. As I know anyone who has done this knows.

It was also tender, often, and hilarious, frequently. I wish I could adequately describe the morning I was driving Amanda to a chemo treatment. She was angry with me for having confronted her about the need for more straightforward dealings around her basic requirements—a conversation I seemed to be unique in broaching, and one we had to repeat several times, though they got easier and better, for the most part. But this was the first time, and she was pissed. After driving for several gloomy minutes, I had to do something to ground the charge in the air. So I sang, a la Wizard of Oz: “Weee’re off to get some chemo!”…

Without missing a beat, Amanda responded with the Sound of Music’s So Long, Farewell: “Doot doodle loot doot, doot doot doo!” and we finished together: “Doot doodle loot doot doooo!”

The whole trip turned into one of the blackest, most side-splitting mashups of show tunes and cancer treatments you could imagine. We arrived at CPMC wiping away tears. And we got on with it.

I think it was good for Amanda to have someone to talk with who was not only “there for her,” but also a friend in need of what she had to offer. Not just her home, but the same caring I felt for her. Just the simple stuff of friendship. I consciously insisted that, to the degree she could, she be there for me as well. I didn’t allow all conversations to be about her—her issues, her health—and I believe she wanted that, to have something to offer to someone else. And at the same time, I made myself ask, even when sometimes I didn’t want to open that can of worms, what she needed and how I could help. Coming from such different places, these conversations were frustrating to both of us at times; but also genuinely interesting, for the same reason. We were both open to the exploration of why we each saw things differently; and sympathetic to what we each learned.

For all my boldness in leaping off the train heading nowhere, an underground river of terror flows beneath my life…as, I believe, it does for all artists. It has been far more intense—more powerful in its pull—in recent years, than before. In my years in theater, there were other people at least tangentially like me. There is comfort in not feeling completely alone. I worked constantly, and I got paid for it; not much, but enough to pay the bills and hold onto the lease on my tiny studio. Enough to stay afloat, as long as nothing really big went wrong. When I chose painting, and I knew I had a lot of work to do to teach myself to paint better, to build a body of work, to understand that great unknowable thing, art in America, and my place in it, I made a choice not to go back into the Real World job market. I knew if I did, painting would end up my hobby, and I would be back in the grip of yet another worthy cause that barely paid the Bay Area bills.

But taking myself out of the line-up in such an extraordinarily competitive environment came at a heavy price. I was unprepared to return to art-induced poverty, for the fact that it was even more impoverished than that of theater. I was unprepared for the absence of community. I was unprepared for the incredibly limiting consequences of falling out of the technology stream. I was unprepared for the financial crash. The fear those years instilled—and that this leap intensified—is well-founded. I am now often aware of the outsized portion of time I dedicate to either working out the financials, or—and I hate to admit this part, because on some level, this is at the crux of all art—shrinking into anxiety, overwhelmed in those times by an echoing absence of options. Achieving peace of mind, equilibrium, acceptance of and faith in the ups and downs of life in art is the trick, the thing we all face, no matter what our privileges or lack thereof. I have my better moments; I am a pretty determined customer. But there is a firm line across which I cannot hold very well to my sanity; and I’ve spent more time on the other side of it for the majority of this last decade than not.

Amanda would identify that fear in me, in our moments of conflict, and assure me she would never kick me out on the street. That I had a place with her for as long as I needed one. And it was a blessing to look that understanding in the face, in the empathy of another human being, and allow myself to breathe, and to lay down my toughness and terror, just for a moment.

 

As in all relationships, we consider and reconsider the terms, as we determine and redetermine in what way we will be together. In May, one of Amanda’s family issues came to a head. There were things she needed to open her heart to, and I appreciate both her willingness and need to do it. But they were also things I could not be there for.

 

It was a bit of a shock, but it shouldn’t have been. This whole passage has been a lesson in letting go. In working with my whole heart to do my part; but also accepting that what I have done, up to and including the moment of reckoning, is enough. And that it isn’t always up to me to carry it, whatever it happens to be, across the finish line.

I hope I gave Amanda some validation for articulating her needs, some perspective on what that might involve, and some honor for her good heart; but this it was hers to complete.

It was also a reinforcement of the lesson I had learned 8 months earlier at UCSF: I gave the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment an administrative and organizational foundation; I put the right conversations in motion; I got the right people on board and into that effort. The time had arrived when my continued presence was, arguably, a distraction. It was the right moment to let someone else take the baton from my hands and continue the run.

So now I am in Montana. After Amanda’s, I bounced between hastily arranged house-sits while I completed a smattering of design & web workshops at the Bay Area Video Coalition. And then, in August, when there was no longer a next bounce waiting, I decided to take a trip to Montana. Ben’s memorial was the 12th, my Uncle Steve’s turned out to be the 20th, and I really wanted to be there. Two of my dearest loves in the Bay Area have left this world without, for me, the comfort of shared mourning. It has been one of my great sorrows in these later years. And the thought that I could not only share this loss with people I loved, who had known and loved these other loves of mine, but that I might actually offer some comfort in return—it got me. I came.

So, in August, I bounced again: a few days each between my Dad’s in Great Falls, my sister Bert’s in Missoula, and my sister Jami and her husband Erik’s ranch outside Dillon. At the end of the month, Stacey came over and collected me and a couple of boxes of random art supplies I’d left at the ranch from various trips, and brought us back over to Virginia City. That first weekend in V.C., she gifted me an acrylic impasto plein air workshop for my 58th birthday with Missoula artist Laura Blaker. Acrylic is not my thing, but I slogged through it, met four delightful new people, and learned a few really useful things. I worked a couple of weeks at Stacey’s shop, dressing up tourists in cow-boy/-girl, floozy, preacher, saloon dancer, card dealer, or Victorian period costumes, watching Stacey and her right hand woman, Liza, do their thing. They make it look easy, but there is absolutely a fine art to it, both handling people and their expectations, and taking excellent photos, quickly and with minimal need for editing. Then Stacey and Michael and their two dogs and my 28-lb lover of a cat, Rabbit, loaded up and headed back home to AZ.

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Once they left, for almost the first time in a year, I cracked out the paints. While I was at Amanda’s, I’d had a moment where I thought I might be able to move a couple of works-in-progress forward, and I spent a little time on my friend Karen Smith-McCune’s piece, La Abuela Pietà, and I’d put my friend Emma’s portrait on deck. But there were just too many other distractions, and I didn’t get far.

So this is where I have landed: physically, in Montana; spiritually: thinking, sorting, reading the Buddhist Four Noble Truths to give me some ballast, and Ta’nehisi Coates for some perspective. Strange as that may sound, there’s a lot of courage and clarity in Between the World and Me…and that resonates. I’m taking a look at my home state, meeting some lovely people in the arts, reconnecting with old friends and an old self I’m not entirely sure I remember. Thinking through next steps, possible logistics of next steps. And painting at last. No grand design, just oil to canvas. I didn’t bring any brushes and had only a short set of paints here. So I’m experimenting with a single palette knife, some craft brushes I got for a kid project years ago, and plastic dishes for palettes. I’m playing with some of the techniques I learned from Laura. And figuring out what comes at the end of the month, when it is too cold to live in this house any longer.

My dream is—has been, forever—to establish a studio space in Montana. I want to be closer to my Dad and the rest of my family. And I want the chance to really explore what I can do with Montana in paint, to at long last answer that calling. I’d like to do studio exchanges with other artists in the other places in the world I want/need to be: Oaxaca, Seattle, Oregon, LA, Arizona, San Francisco…maybe even NY. As you’ll probably recognize, those are the places I have lived, or where people and art that compels me live, and, in my own weird and wandering way, I want both my time and art with them. I want to be able to do portrait residencies; in particular I see SF as a place for this, as I still know so many people there I want to paint. But I simply will not be beholden to a Bay Area rent again. It removes all other life options from the range of possibility, and it’s just not worth it.

That said, I am hoping to get back there in November to vote. This one I want to do in person, to take a mental snapshot of every second, for that story we’re all gonna be telling some day. I’m going to have to make a concerted effort to sell some artwork, both to get there, and to get my artwork and supplies out of Amanda’s—just to relieve both her and myself of that concern—and my personal belongings out of storage, though I still don’t know the “where to” part of that plan.

I have an opportunity to go back to Seattle Nov 10-20 to support the CoCA Art Marathon again, and even more exciting, to do a week-long residency in Sara Everett’s studio in exchange for bird-sitting. I have been wanting to do a next pass at my Meditations on Trees series, and adequate, dedicated space and rainy skies are exactly what I’ve been needing to do it. So if I can sell some work, I’m hoping I can grab that moment. I also want to visit UW while I’m there, to talk about their MFA program. I know I’m too old to be a great investment, and I know I suck on paper, but I love their program and I really bloody want to do it. I know it’s probably crazy to consider again—the heartbreak of losing Parsons Paris lurks. But I’ve got an itch to take one last look at that idea, so I’d like to go explore whether or not there’s any way UW could be convinced to take me on.

I may or may not be able to take the last 3 courses to finish my Graphic & Web Design certificate at BAVC, but if I can’t, it’s ok to let that go. I’d like to be able to give both the Richmond Employment Development Office and BAVC the tote for their records, because they have been exceptionally accommodating with me, as I’ve had to reschedule around my various disruptions. But I got the knowledge—most of it—and that was the most important thing to me. And, in three months, I will be the recipient of the one good thing UCSF ever did for me (besides some excellent friends and colleagues, and the opportunity to do good works; I’ll give ’em that): I will have a teeny tiny retirement income. Not enough to live on, even somewhere cheap…but, I hope, enough to help me do what I want to do.

 

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There’s plenty more to share: Oaxaca for Days of the Dead, Seattle for last year’s CoCA marathon—as a supporter, rather than artist, that time. Montana deserves its own chapter: the dry, high-mountain air that’s turning my long hair into a Rasta mat and cracking my fingers so badly my thumbprint ID no longer works on my iDevices; the bear on the porch; the Fall wasps casing the joint for a winter nest that I’m pretty sure is taking shape in the rafter closet off my bedroom; the giant black flies that are so plentiful and slow, that their swatted bodies pepper the floors like carpeting; the boxelder bugs moving in for the winter—and gravitating to my nighttime computer screen and bed covers; spiders, spiders, spiders: the indoor ones, the outdoor ones, the huge brown scary but not dangerous ones, the smallish black scary but very dangerous ones; 6 o’clock hail after a 70° day of muggy clouds; walking home at midnight under a cobalt blue sky during the harvest moon; the characteristics of different breeds of working ranch dogs; charming elder rock-star neighbors.

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I’m missing my loved ones from “home.” I have personal totems along to keep me grounded: the earrings Guio made me in Oaxaca; the beautiful blusas hand-woven and embroidered there; a ring I bought w/Adrian in SF; the bracelets I share with Nancy; a ring from my sister Maureen; feathers in my bathroom bag that my friend Lee’s daughter Emily preciously doled out to her and me a summer ago; remnants of art projects with my sister Jami’s kids; a pillow from my sister Bert, and others. Things holding memories, connection. Meanwhile, I am casting about to reinvent, once again, what “home” is, can be, should be, for me.

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Through a remarkable bit of serendipity, my friend Tammy Dunaye is sitting here with me on the porch of Stacey’s house. I’m joining her for part of this week in Bozeman at a conference by a local software company she works with. But I’ll come back to that and all the rest in future posts.

For now, just know that I’ve made baby steps in the direction I want to goand there are miles yet ahead. But at least I have been able to move most of the way out from under the boulder holding me down in SF. And at least I’m painting again. I haven’t even completed a piece—it’s fitting in around writing this and finagling rides for groceries and juggling survivalist strategies and reading thought-provoking literature and sinking into the occasional Netflix-filled fright-fest—but when I pick up the paint, it deepens my breathing and centers my mind…just as it speeds both up and puts me on edge. For better and worse, it’s the edge I want to be on; and I respect and acknowledge the dance between the two. That’s something.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Days of the Dead Art — Montana 2016 | montana murdoch

  2. Pingback: The Gift of Art | montana murdoch

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