Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

In the morning Tom goes out for an early walk then brings home croissants from the pasticceria on the corner. We drink coffee and talk about where we want to go today.

Then we lace up our boots and head out for a walk around the island, astonished at the wild surf and deep green-blue sea, storm-tossed and agitated.

In the summer these rocky coves beneath the sea wall are crowded with bathers. It’s hard to imagine today.

It is cold and we walk on, our backs to the rising sun, and keep on walking until we have crossed the causeway and found our way over to the Archaeological Museum, then from there the ancient Greek Theater, and below it the natural cave they call Dionysus’s Ear.

By the time we reach the top rung of the theater the sun is high in the sky, the sky is robin’s egg blue, and we are happy to unzip our winter parkas, pull off our sweaters, and bask in the sun.

Tom sketches, and I sketch too, picking one spot out of the scene to concentrate my attention on. It is an old building, a bit incongruous as it juts up above the stadium seating. I pretend it is the caretaker’s cottage, and imagine what it would have been like to live there a thousand years ago.

Ten minutes. A line drawing in pencil, a few washes of color, some time to let the watercolor dry.

It is almost one and we are hungry.

Like locals do, we enjoy a delicious lunch – thin crusted pizza, a salad of fennel, onion, orange and olives, followed by a leisurely rest back in our apartment. Then it is time to head out into the streets again to take in the sights of the evening.

The setting sun kisses the clouds, turning them cotton candy pink, then blood orange, then the deep red of pomegranate.

This is the island of Demeter and Persephone – the goddesses who gave us winter, who gave us the concept of hibernation and rest rather than continual productivity and harvest.

On this, our last full day in Ortigia, we have at last found our rhythm of sight seeing and resting, activity and repose.

In those precious “down” hours, before heading out and between wanders, we absorb and digest and are restored to ourselves.

Sometimes, it seems, we have to leave home for awhile to get the message.

Taormina

The path of stones is crowded with wild parsley, yellow sour grass, pink and magenta sweet peas, prickly pear cactus.

The stones are uneven, the path built on an ancient trail dating back a thousand years.

At the end, what will we find?

There are many stories, but the one I like best includes a wild storm, taking shelter in a cave, and a mystical vision.

Wandering the streets and trails and pathways and byways of Taormina and its environs, beauty stops us again and again, astonishing, ever present, from the looming presence of Mount Etna, an active volcano that has been rather more active of late, to the massing clouds overhead, to the brilliant Mediterranean light, to the ruins of the Ancient Greek theater in the heart of the town center.

Later in the day I will stand on the edge of the ruins and look north, east, and south, gazing as long as I can, before finally sitting on the top rung of seats and pulling out my sketchbook.

Just 10 minutes, I say, and that’s exactly what I do – ten minutes of sketching after an hour of looking.

Blue Sky, purple mountain, ruined stone wall, columns in half light, the deep green of the Italian cypress – and there the minutes have flown by.

The wind snatches the pages of my sketchbook and Mount Etna ripples, the sky drips into the greenery, the shadows merge with light.

So be it.

No storm, no refuge, no mysticism.

Just taking in a day with all my senses.

Taking time to look, to record, to listen and smell and taste, and all the while I am thinking, remember this.

Remember this.

Wild Yeast – a New Year’s Desire

Last year my wild yeast starter was accidentally tossed away.

It took me a year to summon the energy to begin a new one.

Did I have the time or attention for daily feedings, maintaining a constancy of nutrients and the proper temperature? I didn’t think I had it in me last year.

But this January I tried again, setting aside flour and water in a bowl, whisking it all into a paste, and letting it be.

And the yeast began to grow.

And I fed it and watered it, daily, discarding most and nurturing what was left.

It is like a pet, someone said. Indeed it is.

The yeast already exists – in the air, on the flour, and on your hands.

And what I realized was that the culture, the mother, the starter, the now bubbling leaven living on my counter top was simply a well taken care of home for what was already there.

Which reminded me of my painting practice and my yoga practice and my writing practice.

The daily practice is the regular creation of space for the thing that is already here to have a place, to be nurtured, fed and watered, aerated.

In bread making, it is the discarded portion that becomes the bread, or the beginning of the bread.

A lot of time is needed for the yeast to power up the loaves into risen edible delicious food. There is mixing and rising and waiting, and shaping, and more waiting and more rising, and more shaping.

But when you smell the loaves baking in the hot oven — when you take a bite — when you feel the loaves alive in your hands — the reward is immediate.

Inviting The Muse – Beginning

Some days ideas crowd around struggling to get my attention.

Other says I have set aside the time for work and there is only emptiness.

Beginning – even setting a loaded brush to a fresh canvas or pen to paper with absolutely no idea in mind – is a daily practice that short-circuits the second guessing and self-criticism that that void invites.

Begin anyway.

Push the paint around on small pieces of paper or large canvases.

Begin anyway, allowing words to flow and choosing to allow them rather than second guessing or editing as you go.

Begin anyway.

Who was it said “there is no writer’s block if you just lower your expectations.”

In writing we all aspire to literature of some sort. The brilliant metaphor, the well turned phrase, an unveiling of some profound truth.

But in actually putting pen to paper, that desire for brilliance and depth can bar you from even writing a first word.

If you remove the expectation however, it is quite easy to write. A laundry list, a stream of nonsense, a political rant. Eventually, there is a shift. Eventually you have something on the page. To discard, or burn, or edit.

In painting, these beginnings become markers on the road I am stumbling to find. I look at them as they come into form around me and observe where they are strong and pleasing and where I find them lacking. I see them as guideposts for the next iteration. Sometimes they surprise me as being quite lovely in their own right.

I cannot find my way in painting without painting.

I cannot find my way in writing without writing.

Day Three. The Meditation

This month’s focus has been on building the structure of my days. Habits toward health. Habits toward peace of mind. Energy. Well being.

Peace.

Patience.

Purpose.

This morning I got up earlier than usual to bake off two loaves of sour dough bread I’d left to rise overnight.

Tom, up even earlier, had already preheated the oven to 500 with four cast iron skillets in it, and all I had to do was gently pop in the risen loaves, score their tops, and invert a hot pan over them to catch the steam.

But the loaves wouldn’t have been there to bake off if I hadn’t worked the dough the day before, and given them the time they needed to rise.

And the rising loaves really began the day before that, when I mixed my starter with water and flour and left it to develop the yeast it needed to rise.

And the starter, the mother, a mix of water and flour with naturally captured yeast and bacteria, began weeks before that, as part of my new year’s resolution to start baking bread again.

And the knowledge to capture yeast from the air was acquired by reading an article over 10 years ago and spending months and then years nurturing my starter and practicing my recipe.

All this to bring us back to where I began.

Habits.

Meditation.

Structure.

Peace.

This month my third daily habit is to meditate. Even just for a minute a day.

Because I was up so early and had to wait for the loaves to bake before my first morning appointment, I set my timer and sat.

The sun hadn’t risen yet and as I sat and breathed in and breathed out I became aware of a growing light in the sky.

So I moved my chair to the window, pulled aside the curtains, and meditated on the sunrise.

I noticed the colors changing. The water mirroring the light of the sky, shimmering silver to its pale rose.

I noticed that the furthest mountain ridge was a slightly paler and bluer purple than the one closer to me, and the one ever closer was deeper blue, and almost the color of India ink.

I meditated on color. Observing, noting, noticing, breathing.

Then the timer went off and the bread came out and I headed off into town for an early appointment with my endodontist.

Did you know that an endodontist is a dentist who specialises in root canal treatments and other issues relating to the interior of the tooth?

If you’re looking for an endodontist in colorado, follow the link, or, alternatively, search online to find one closer to your area.

I’ve been experiencing a lot of tooth pain recently, so was relieved to hear that everything seems to be healing well.

I was also grateful that I was up early enough to watch the sunrise over the Big Sur Valley.

Grateful that I was almost the only one on the highway and because of that had time to pull over and photograph Point Sur. And to watch the cows graze. And to breathe in the smell of the sea and the wet earth.

The meditation gives my daily life a structure like the turning of the dough gives structure to my sour dough bread.

There is action, and then a long pause. And then action, and then a pause.

In the process of making a painting, a similar structure is revealed.

Meditation – even just for a minute a day – let’s me see that structure, be patient with it, breathe through it, and become more tolerant of myself and my process.

What do YOU do to structure your days? Or do you? I’d love to know!

Day Two: The Second Habit.

The Walk

The walk.

In Cornwall on Hudson we walked through a quiet neighborhood of brick houses and groomed lawns breathing in the rich saturating sweetness of laundry, so present it was almost visible in the icy air.

We walked up a narrow country road to a lookout from which we could see miles and miles of the Hudson River Valley, winter trees bare of leaves mostly, with the occasional blush of dusty pink or burnt orange.

One morning, Christmas Eve, it snowed and Matteo, 10 years old, gathered snow in his thin gloves and experienced the intense delight of snowball

Making and throwing followed by fifty minutes of freezing fingers.

Too proud to allow us the loan of our warm gloves or the extra pair of clean socks I had in my pockets, he suffered in silence until we were back at the house, and then confessed his fingers were really really really cold.

The walks in New York City the following week were often punctuated by subway trips, standing in underground spaces with masses of fellow travelers, some visitors like us but mostly locals.

Descending the stairwell in Queens, 45 minutes later we would pop up in Brooklyn or Manhattan, entirely different worlds. Then walk some more, up to 8 miles a day, following our noses and the endless opportunities to experience what is here and not at home.

The Guggenheim.

Central Park.

Shop windows filled with fantasy.

Our last day, particularly frigid, we left a patisserie uptown and stumbled into a man in a wheelchair on the street corner whispering “I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry.”

I walked by him, as did dozens of other hurrying souls, then turned back, dug a twenty dollar bill out of my wallet, and pushed it under his scarf into his gripped hands.

Rejoining Tom and Emily across the street, I thought about my father’s many many years sleeping in New York City alleys with a piece of cardboard for cover, the generosity of strangers who gave him money from time to time, the halfway houses that offered him coffee and warmth if he would stay for the sermon.

Home, now, the walk is along Highway One, in California, above the silver sea, black crows gathering, a storm just gone by drenching the greening hills and another one brewing.

The walk is the daily skeleton, in tandem with Tom most days, the daily deep breath, the daily prayer.

It is the second habit, the second essential action of my day, without which the day feels a bit forlorn.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the third of the seven essential habits I have adhered to for years now, as well as new ones I’m trying out.

What are yours? I’d love to know.

Planning The Day The Night Before

The new habit, day one.

Planning my day the night before.

The night before, when I am in the midst of my winding down rituals, my sleep hygiene protocol, my end of day doings.

My sleep ritual begins by going to bed an hour earlier than I normally would, plugging my cell phone into a charger in the kitchen, taking a hot hot Epsom salt bath, and writing down my Tomorrow To Do’s before settling under the covers with a good book.

I’ve also been practicing 4-7-8 breathing (inhale to the count of 4, hold your breath for the count of 7, exhale through your pursed lips to the count of 8) twice a day, and whenever else I feel a little anxious. This is a yogi breath that is said to reset your central nervous system.

Waking up this morning, I glanced at my hand written list and began with the slowest sleepiest activities listed on it, ones that I could do in bed.

It was still dark, but Tom had left a pot of coffee for me, and so I passed the first hour studying Italian and sipping hot black coffee under the covers, in a room the temperature of ice. I love that juxtaposition – a cold room helps me sleep.

Then onto yoga, and then six minutes of jumping jacks and heart warming movements courtesy of The NY Times Wellness Challenge, then the tasks of laundry and housekeeping that seem especially time consuming after the holidays and a long time away from home.

Today my work is this: to settle back in, to clean and sort and organize. Laying a foundation for the work of tomorrow, and the next day.

Today I’ve begun a new sour dough starter for sour dough bread for the year ahead, a new recipe from Tartine Bakery which is promising.

I like beginning with something like this, something that won’t show much in the way of results for a long while, but that is quietly and invisibly fermenting.

I’ve built a fire and tended it carefully all day. The house is warming up at last.

I’ve taken many breaks during the house work to sit and sip tea and listen to podcasts and to think about what needs thinking about.

What is still on my list?

A walk.

Actually working.

A few other things I probably will defer to tomorrow or another day.

I like the feeling, though, of space on this day, this first day.

Like air bubbles in a rising dough.

In yoga, our foundation is breathing.

In this day, I find my breath again and again.

Breathing in. Breathing out.

Being present.

10 minutes.

The creative warm up: 10 minutes

8:04 am

In my workshops In Mexico last week I gave automatic writing assignments as warmups before painting and collage.

I always think everyone will be familiar with this concept, and there was one girl who nodded her head and looked ready to jump in, the standup comedian from NYC.

Otherwise, though, not so much. A puzzled look, shaking heads looking around as though someone else could explain better.

But what do we write about?

But what if nothing comes?

What if I run out of things to say?

What if?

Let’s try it, I said.

Just keep your hand moving, repeat the prompt if you run into a wall, repeat it again if the block persist, stop when the timer stops .

And we began.

And we wrote.

And everyone’s pen or pencil flew across the page.

One woman read her piece after, hitting a wall in the first sentence and repeating one word – “an” dozens of times. And then the idea emerged and carried the day, and she finished reading smiling, shaking her head, amazed. Later at lunch she told me she came back every day for the writing.

At dinner the last night a water massage therapist sat with us and explained his process.

How if one way is blocked, he uses the water to coax movement and opening in that area. If someone resists moving the shoulder for example he will move them through the water so that the water is the agent of force —- and they relax and allow the shoulder to open.

He went on with examples for a while and they all mirrored how I teach art.

If this door is closed, I said, I try another door.

You don’t beat the door down? he asked.

No, I said. I don’t beat the door down. I climb in a window.

The automatic writing is often the window.

Into the creative subconscious space where the energy is trapped.

It’s not that my paintings will be of the subjects of my dreams.

I am not one to paint a visit from my old long dead friend Kevin, who showed up last week and kept saying, “10 minutes. 10 minutes.”

I will not paint the people I talked to, the ocean cove full of sharks I swam in, the young child I was tasked to protect, or the other scenes I saw.

It is the access to energy, emotion, connection that makes its way into the conscious mind in this method and into the wok.

It is the best way I know.

And it’s ten minutes.

Just ten minutes.

The last day of the workshop, after my dream of my beloved friend, I thought of what he’d said – “ten minutes.”

And so I offered up this prompt: “in my dreams.”

The rules are simple.

Set a timer.

Ten minutes.

Keep your hand moving.

Stop when the timer goes off. If your hand stops just repeat what you started with. As the great teacher Natalie Goldberg says, feel free to write the worst shit in America.

Just ten minutes.

Go.

The Art of Now at Esalen Institute

A painting and creativity workshop for non-artists

May 12-17 2019

What if you could connect with a sense of peace, power, and meaning just by taking ten minutes a day for creativity? What if this became a daily habit? There are profound benefits for every person in crafting work with your hands. It is not solely for professional artists to enjoy the deep pleasures of time spent in art-making practices. These practices bring us into the “now” and ground us in the present. They bring us into direct contact with color, play, and the natural world. They invite us to stop, focus, and respond in a personal, immediate, and joyful way.

In this workshop, we’ll use simple materials and techniques including sketch, watercolor, free writing, and torn paper design. We’ll pause, sit, and become grounded again and again in a space without fear, judgment, or anxiety. While learning key skills to record and interpret your environment, you’ll also learn to express what you see, what you think, and what you feel.

By week’s end you’ll have made artful pieces that bring you satisfaction and express your creative development, and you’ll feel the joy and serenity that come from making with your own hands. Your sketchbook will be full of paintings, writings, drawings, and notes that will inspire your return to daily life.

This creative immersion is designed for people of all skill levels and experience. Whether you are a working artist seeking to deepen your own practice, or a novice who has never picked up a paintbrush, in this workshop you’ll find a safe, creative space to experiment with new ideas.

Details at www.esalen.org

Don’t Fall in Love!

It’s not for sale.

Why not?

Here’s why.

Sometimes you’re working on something and you make a discovery but you don’t know exactly what the discovery is. In other words, the outcome is pleasing but you don’t know how you got there, or what the elements of your successful execution were. Or why, exactly, this works when something very similar doesn’t.

This painting is one such example of this experience. I am holding on to it because I think it has something to teach me. I will hold onto it until I think I’ve gotten the message.

With still life paintings, I think a lot about the relationship of the rectangles – background, foreground, middle ground – and the values – the relationship of light and dark. And color – pure shots of gorgeous color, chroma vs. neutral, shades of gray.

But today the aspect I keep thinking of temperature. The painting shifted for me when I repainted the background in a warmer neutral than I’d had before. That change, moving from a cooler gray to this warmer “pancake” neutral, was a “bingo!” moment.

It caused me to reexamine all of the other paintings in this series.

It caused me to reflect on the concept of painting relationships between things vs. the things themselves.

Broken Gladiolus, Cobalt Blue Jar, Tangerines is one in a series of “teachers” I’ll be showing at my Holiday Open House Friday and Saturday November 23 and 24.

Sketches, paintings, photographs, books prints and cards will be for sale, but the “teachers” will be on display in my special cabinet where I keep them to look at from time to time and to reflect on their lessons.

Interested in what they might have to teach you? Come by! We can have a conversation!

Does this concept resonate with you? If you are a “maker” are there things you make that you consider your teachers as well? Please share and comment below!

Blessings!

Erin