By Way of Painting Backwards Forwards
I suppose it started by way of an incidental phone call, if there is such a thing, to my brother who lives in Texas. “What’s up?” Never one to mince words, he replies, “Just clearing out the attic and trying to get rid of some old stuff.” It strikes me as strange he saw this as a viable vocation, since that’s what attics are intended for-storing old stuff, stuff that you go through every five years or so as in the way one might visit a graveyard.
“Like what?” I asked. “Just old photos of people we don’t know. “Like relatives? You’re throwing away family portraits?” “Well not exactly, I don’t know who any of these people are.” I can’t imagine my mother saved pictures of strangers. Certainly she knew them and they must have meant something to her had she not cleared them out herself. “Can you tell what year they’re from?” “I don’t know. There’s a picture of some kid on a pony with like a model T next to it.” “Sounds like our grandmother,” I replied, trying hard to be sarcastic. “What else are you going through?” “Well, there are some pictures she painted-they’re not very good.” “Is there one of an orange starburst flower with a bright yellow bud in the middle with a midnight blue back round.” “You mean a glob of yellow paint in the center, yeah.” He was right, she was hardly masterful and these were hardly masterpieces. But painting was something she loved to do.
As a kid of six or so, I watched her at her easel, patiently engrossed by her actions-actions not attributed directly to me, but more an expression of her inner personal desires, never the less, and probably more so, her longings to be someone else or perhaps, indeed, somewhere else entirely. Maybe she imagined herself on the West Bank on the Seine or at some café lost in a bohemian rhapsody of her own making, having no apparent ties to her own humdrum at home. I like to think that I accepted this momentary pause in all that a child of consequence would make, however, looking back I probably pestered her, being hungry again right after finishing my lunch or wanting to play another game. In fact, this is the exact arrangement the day my father half scalded himself to death by way of an exploding pressure cooker. He was making some gourmet stew. As suddenly as the primal screams erupted, her paint brush went flying in one direction, while her body in another, jumping from her chair, grabbing my father from the kitchen floor and throwing him into a cold shower, consoling him that it would be alright. And this is where she was, I believe, when news that Bobby Kennedy was shot. My father yelling from the living room, “Oh my God Dear, they did it again!”, as she rushed in to see what was the matter.
At least that is my memory and it serves as fact, at least in my minds eye. You see, I’ve always been puzzled by non-fiction verses fiction. To me, the way I figure it, if we are the sum of our experiences with a sprinkling of DNA that trickles down of the gene pool, in the experience of recalling our own history, fact and fiction may actually blend more readily.
“You can’t throw away paintings she painted her self. That’s a living memory, the way she perceived the world and expressed it to others.” “Do you want them?” “Can’t you wait until I get down there and store them back you found them in the attic?” And as if it were some dark secret he was trying to purge or some unsettling memory that continued to haunt him through plywood and drywall, he relinquished. And it is here, visiting my brother in Texas today, that I find myself in defense of my mother’s oil paintings once again, the only really living memory of her that seems timeless, at least to me.
My first thought was maybe I could nail them to along grove of trees or a wooded path like an art walk, a journey down memory lane of sorts, however, I realized, if nailed to my brother’s trees, they would appear more menacing than in the attic. So I’ve decided to pack them up and send them to myself- memories that perhaps I also fear, but memories never the less. It occurred that they might act on my imagination, or at least help to remember my past- something I pride on rarely confronting and to this day, continue to try to forget.
I guess I could go on about the frailty of the human mind, about how, as nation collectively; we can’t seem to throw anything away. How it seems excessive and wrong, and by mass clinging to so much stuff, it’s become a verging industry-storage units-our treasures locked tightly in temperature controlled tombs, not for any eyes or for any purpose, simply because we don’t dare to trash it, or better still, give it to someone needy. But still, it seems to me, frail as I am, that something made by a loved one which at one time was considered art, if even only by its own creator, and the artist, one who you share an endearing bond, it’s worth saving. All was lost, however, on my brother’s comment, “Don’t worry though, I’m not throwing away the swiveling chair.” Memories must be of a most personal nature, the choosing of which, determines our lessons.
We’re driving to see the snow, stuff which I can see at home, some seventeen hours from my brother’s place in Texas. The car trip itself, through West Texas and the deserts of New Mexico seems ubiquitous, except for my nephew’s propensity for flatulence, and my niece’s repetition of the word, “eeww,” as a prefix, mostly; the trip was rather uneventful. I tried training him by spraying him down with “New Car Smell,” but it only seemed to make it more of a game. I did, and this was the most exciting moment for me, get blamed for a wrong turn which lead us half, probably three quarters of the way up a mountain, until parental discretion reared its ugly head and we turned back for a more reliable route-one in which tires remain in contact with smooth pavement. It did not help my cause when taking a turn, we encountered a family in a late model SUV pushing the vehicle out of some ice. It did seem that the road would most likely grow steeper and with the altitude higher, the ice and snow more frequent, making the journey more stressful for some. The impromptu change in itinerary, added just a little less than an hour to the very end of the trip, seemingly made longer by my consternation and effort to remain silent. So much for short cuts, although I wonder what happened to those people who pushed on?
Along the way, I was also reminded how dismal and dissolute West Texas is, and except for sailing wind storms and dodging wild fires, really nothing happens there of consequence, not even a vista worthy of paint. My brother likens it to, “wide open spaces,” however; I find it a bit scary out there all alone.
We are staying in Angel Fire, which is next to Taos, New Mexico a more remarkable town I’m sure, however, unlike Taos, the kids can snowboard. I noticed many Texas license plates. It appears that Angel Fire is, indeed, a Texas oasis of sorts. In fact there are three families from the Austin neighborhood who all have kids in attendance at the same school back home; a tight niche.
They are many angry looking teenage boys, at least, they look angry at me. I no longer can sneak by either incognito or within any stretch of this generation, and fear that I will forever have the words, “un-cool old patsy” permanently tattooed on my forehead, luckily it’s large enough, my forehead, but enough of that.
Many conversations have been thoroughly exhausted-mainly that I’m the poster child for what not to do and have been chastised for interrupting the kids more than once and most recently, even an adult couple I’d not known well. Parenting must be very hard indeed, if only to know when or whom to bestow it on. Basically your average family holiday boarding on the mundane, with me as perhaps the eldest kid, although that remained in question, being the eldest.
The view outside the window of our lodge looks beautiful and tomorrow I hope to explore a little more on my own and see if I can’t find more solitude, which of course, would improve my over all mood after the close quarters offered by our transportation, and all things being considered- and I use that term with far more familiarity than I’m lately accustomed to, continues to be an exercise in restraint.
I’m told I may be suffering from attitude sickness-my symptoms-general irritability manifesting itself in nasal congestion and the desire to snap the head off any defenseless victim, mainly my nephew who suffers from the disorder, even at sea level and must blow his nose regularly and particularly during the night. I’m told I mumbled some four letter word on such an occasion last night, but have no memory of it, besides which, the family members were able to seize the humor from the situation, my brother’s wife having to stifle her laughs, least I take it out on her.
As I was aware this morning began with a flurry of activity; my brother breathing at six-thirty this morning-an hour I find repugnant for any reason, the whispering of his wife shushing the children as quietly as she could, but never the less, resonated above and the recital of the listed inventory necessary to tame the beast, not me. The beast is Angel Fire Mountain which sits at ten thousand feet at its base and soars to over thirteen thousand feet at its peak, a terrifying vista if only it remains in my imagination.
Once the family was feed and suited up, they left with only the occasional clacking of ski poles to skis and snowboards, and the gentle drop of boot on carpet, which as I’ve said, was magnified, all of it being as loud as a jack hammer, having this attitude sickness. And once I located, rather helped myself to coffee from the, in my case, not-included breakfast buffet in the lobby, I returned to my room to enjoy the quiet. Our room is at the base of the mountain, its balcony giving the onlooker an unobstructed view of the slopes, which are the slopes at the bottom of the runs only. At the time of this writing, I can only imagine the steepness of those that remain unseen. As I sit, coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other, the sliding glass door opened just enough to allow a steady stream of heated air from the room to escape, and thus creating thermal protection from what I consider, the harshest elements-the freezing cold, I look up at the slopes. Up drafts of what I can’t imagine to be warm air rising, create billowy burst of white foam which often cover the skier completely from view, until as if my miracle of faith, he or she, suddenly reappears on a course one assumes is intended.
At first, I watch as the chair lifts slowly hoist well cladened figures dangling by their skis, or is it the other way around, from the chair, while it slowly chugs up the mountain side. This is my first indication, in my minds eye, that they are, in fact, not as cozy as I am at this moment. I wonder if the view is really that spectacular to surrender such comfort offered by close proximity to the hotel room door. I mean, everyone knows, once you get on one of those lifts, there’s only one way, down. You make a commitment or, if you will, an estimation of your future, that once at the top, you’ll manage to unhook yourself from the chairlift, gather up the courage and conviction required to turn your skies in the direction of down and go. At this time, from this particular perspective, that of on the balcony, close to the rest room and running hot water, I do not see where these lifts let off. I imagine my own trepidation as the chair hikes me higher and higher as my good sense suggests, that except for this modern apparatus, no man or women was ever meant to be. As I look at the deserted slopes and the chair lifts above pack with the eager and anxious, I suppose, who will soon occupy them, I contemplate sports in general.
The barren slopes seem impenetrable. They do, in fact, angle so steep, that the embarrassment of walking down would seem like a reasonable alternative, given one’s only other possibility to propelling on two skis, or worst yet, one board. I am reminded of log rolling down grassy hills on a spring day or in winter, starting as a snowy heap, developing as a snowball, rolling and gather speed and size until the end, I imagine, some hard object required to stop the momentum and me, as being hardly a competition. The disaster scenario in my mind is interrupted, as slowly, and yes somewhat gracefully, small black figures appear against the backdrop of whitewash cliffs. They’re weaving from side to side, appearing quite in control of the incline. I watch as some do go down in a heap, however, instead of a death spiral down the mountain, they seem to get hooked or hang, not too far from their momentary transgression, only to resume their course. I study the movements, side to side, not too steep a decline, but rather the way one might conquer a steep hill on a bike, but only in reverse.
So here I sit, still with cigarette in one hand, coffee in another, thinking that maybe tomorrow, I’ll feel better and take the plunge, which only reminds me more of the heated hot tub, and while not exactly a completive sport, is certainly one I’m up for today. I’ll save the beast for another day when courage and conviction seems a closer friend.
This is again tempered by my most recent observation of a small cluster on the bunny slope. As I spot a small orange flag and a snow mobile headed up the slope towards the expanding group of black figures, I’m instantly reminded of my own ride down on a stretcher sled some twenty, maybe thirty, years ago. I had tumbled myself in a mass of skis and limbs, until being pinned like a rag doll in quite the natural position for a rag doll, of skis sticking front end into the snow, limbs dangling limp, a landing of which, at least, kept me from the snow ball effect aforementioned. The eventual diagnosis was torn ligaments to my left knee, so I spent the remaining winter months that year in a thigh high cast, proving at least, my athletic inclination at maneuvering the obstacle onto a crowded city bus. Of course, having gone to school once, and being left back, so to speak, I am expecting a crash course in snow conditions and the particulars of each run once the family returns. And maybe, just maybe, I can skip the beginner’s class. I’m really too tall and I’m sure my frequent cigarette breaks wouldn’t go over well with my, probably, equally tall, but certainly younger, ski instructor.
I’m beginning to think that the real obstacle to overcome is not the mountain at all, but my own inner treacherous landscape. I am the Monster to slay this morning. Today I woke feeling more like myself and less of an ogre. Apparently I was not only suffering from attitude sickness, but also a viral bug, super sizing the effect so to speak, but never the less, appears to have finished its business. It was reported to me that I did not use any words from my previous night’s repertoire and, in fact, only grunted and tossed more like a normal human being. It has become some what of a joke and like a small dog defending its bone, I growl when any of the family comes near, and take delight in the giggles which follow.
So feeling more like myself, which has little to do with athletic prowess, but never the less, up and about on all fours, I went off with my brother and rented the equipment which seemed certain to seal the fate anticipated, mainly the breaking of a forty-seven year-old’s leg, mine. Much effort was spent on simply getting the stuff to fit and hauling it back to the lodge, requiring several stops which normally might have been reserved for cigarette breaks, only to catch my breath for a moment.
After making my brother swear that he wouldn’t leave my side, a proclamation that reminded me more of a time when we were smaller and younger, and one in which to my memory, was broken faithfully, I was lifted up the mountain side towards an unforeseeable starting line, while carefully noting the incline, or rather, lack of any surface on which I could either catch my breath, have a cigarette, or hail a ski medic taxi. I was prepared for the worst. On top of old Smokey, so the song goes, I was ready to lose my true love, myself, and sacrifice the remaining narcissistic future I had with my healthy self to a wheel chair and some sizable brain damage.
As I edged my way to peaking over the first incline that was to be encountered, I suddenly was reminded of the bunny slope and what happened the day before. Throwing caution to the wind, actually the searing snow coming up from the nights snowmaking machines, I tip my skis over and quickly snowplowed a turn, then again, then again, until I remembered from my youth that snow plowing requires much more energy than simply changing all your weight and direction from side to side- parrell skiing I think they call it. So in a matter of a few seconds, I had skipped or jumped, so to speak, the fundamentals of beginning skiing and lurched my way with minimal effort, to intermediate. That was a huge momentous accomplishment which in the time of my youth required many hours of practice. Pretty much all that I learned as a youth was contained in those first few moments on the slope and, as in a time vacuum, I began skiing where I had left off so long ago. By the end of the day I was shushing and jumping and spraying through the snow as a youngster, and in my mind, I was.
Perhaps too profound at this instance, the experiences, as so many do these days, cause me to think in the generality of life. That perhaps after many years off a given course of instruction, one cannot return with unabandoned. That just because as a youngster, we gave up on our dreams, or at least, stopped learning the lessons availed by schooling and constant supervision, that we might be able to, quite literally, pick up where we left off? Wouldn’t that add to the beauty and mystery of our existence? Where was it that our cache of experience lead us to conformity and narrow minded perceptions that we couldn’t do it- that we out grew it, or that we should of? At what point, exactly, did we stop learning from, and begin to regret, the choices we made- compromising relationships, taking the job that offered more money, expecting less from our leaders and political institutions? At what point did pessimism set in and optimism take the back seat? Aren’t we cable of having the enthusiasm and spontaneous joy found in discovering the hidden Easter egg or hardly containing our excitement on Christmas Day?
If one could find that moment where he gave up the dream of being a race car driver, or if she could define and reexamine her choice to have children at the cost of her own ambitious goals to be a CEO, and somehow make it all happen. If we could go to that place when, lead astray from our aspirations, we decide to relive that moment, take that journey and, like the ski slope, charge down and feel young again, feel what it is not to worry so much and go with the flow, become connected again to impulses, regardless of our fear and find ourselves in perseverance and dexterity, find keys to success and happiness, not necessarily, comfort. Rustle up urges long ago put to sleep, a hibernation during the cold, for I am certain, when we do this, we revive and define a way of living; we continue to fight. Somehow mere reflection seems stagnant, while engaging in the past, we might not grow so old, so quickly. With every drop of regret, we might find wisdom. Yes this is strength, and in it, “you never stop learning.” And as if this story, like the lift on the mountain, brings us back to the beginning, these are some of the last words, carefully chosen by my mother.