I paint alone, I write alone, I bake bread and work in my garden alone, and find solitude as essential to my being as food and water.
But when we come together as a small group, three to thirty say, or more even, around a finite creative practice, something else as deeply integral to my well being is nurtured too.
A sense of belonging, connection, and meaning. A sense of community.
Yesterday I hosted one of my regular free plein aire paint-outs on my very doorstep, at Nepenthe, in Big Sur.
We gathered on the terrace and instead of doing a painting demo, as I usually do, we started with a brief conversation about attitude, stillness, and receptivity.
Around us hawks soared, clouds massed on the hills, and the mountains marched south into the sea. Sky and water mirrored one another, a pale silvery blue.
Instead of jumping right in, we took one minute to simply stand there in silence just soaking it all in.
Just a minute.
Breathing, seeing, listening, feeling, being.
Then, instead of immediately setting up in front of the view, I suggested we take a handful of minutes to make quick tonal thumbnails of various vantage points.
I took my own advice and found myself observing the scene from a new perspective, aware that on this particular day all the drama was in the gathering clouds.
It had been raining all night and the air was saturated with moisture. Every mountain shape was veiled by mist, emphasizing its shape over detail, and the relationship of the values in each shape progressively lightening as the ridges grew more distant.
As I began my painting, the others scattered left and right, working with watercolors, oils, acrylics, pen and pencil.
Ann spied the pond down on the Packard Ranch and captured its shimmer and shape, like an opal set between emerald meadows.
Susan’s eye went up to the eastern hills framed by old oaks, golden green now from winter rains, a favorite subject of mine to paint as well and often overlooked.
As the morning went on, in sketchbooks and on canvas lines and washes began to tell the story of curving hills and jagged cliffs and towering mountain shapes, skies merging with seas, colors moving beyond the seen to the felt.
Tom found his inspiration in an old chair in a corner, and rendered it beautifully.
Then it was time to eat. A picnic lunch followed by a gentle appraisal of the work we had done, the process of doing it, and what we saw in the paintings that we loved or thought could use some technical help.
How to make this aspect appear lighter? Surround it with darker values.
How to capture truer values when painting “plein aire”? Stand back from the work often and look at it in shade (even taking it indoors) to see if the values are reading properly.
How to keep the paint from getting all over your face? Some questions have no answers!
And then it was time to pack up our kits and head home, the takeaway more the time together and the shared stories than the actual paintings we’d accomplished. A kind of communal refueling to tackle the rigors of being an artist in a time when this kind of work is regarded by many as merely a pastime or a somewhat frivolous hobby.
To say to one another, through doing the work and supporting one another in doing the work, that this matters, that’s its worthwhile, and that it’s necessary.
In Spannocchia the fruit trees are blooming, small pink blossoms with petals that fade to white, crisscrossing the sky as though making miniature blue panes of stained glass.
One morning after walking I took a hot bath in the big tub in my room, the fragrant soap frothing up into iridescent bubbles.
The morning walk, the talk I had had with Myra, the pause in our walking as we saw the sun rise over the forest and castle, all felt contained within a fragrant bubble of soap, suspended for a languorous moment as I was suspended in that delicious hot bath, between this and that.
The castle was built in the 12th century, updated in the fifteenth, and again in the 21st. The rooms are decorated by the owners, long gone, and their descendants continue to visit, making their more modern presence felt with satellite tv and updated photos on the mantel.
But the sense of place is timeless. A family, a community of farmers, a piece of land that contains meadows and orchards and a garden and acres and acres of forest, pigs and chickens, a relationship with time that says now is the time to plant, and now to harvest, and now by the light of the full moon to hunt the wild boar that roam the woods.
In the ancient kitchen “il cuoco” makes the pasta as it was made five hundred years ago.
In the morning Daniela gathers flowers and persimmons from the garden and makes bouquets for every table, odd corners of the house where we guests might catch a glimpse, a little niche in the wall in the hallway across from her office door.
The toilets have pulls for flushing, and bidets.
In our studio, separate from the house, a farm house once used as a museum of archaeological artifacts, the windows open onto cypress trees and distant hillsides dotted with villas and “poderes”. At night the sun sets over those hills and the whole valley turns a kind of violet and then blue.
In the evening after painting and sketching and writing and walking we drink wine with the interns and staff, a welcome pause before the dinner is served.
It seems the cook is never given a pause, here. We are served breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There is one night, though, when Tom makes dinner for all of us giving the cook a night off.
If we are lucky, porcini mushrooms gathered from the forest, “finnochio” sliced into crunchy salad with oil and salt and pepper, pecorino from Magdalena at the front desk’s home dairy, prosciutto from one of our guest interns, good wine from our visit to Montepulciano or Montalcino.
This is a special night, the night Tom cooks. By now we’ve all gotten to know each other, and the fears we brought with us have dissolved away.
Too soon, our time here ends, like the bubbles in the hot bath, like the flowering of the cherry trees, like the golden glow of the setting sun.
In words, on sketchbook pages, through the practice of our arts, we contain those moments just a little while longer, to savor, to relive, to return to.
We return every year. It is an annual ritual, a vital pause before the holidays.
Our next visit to Spannocchia is with our Awaken The Artist a Within Tour and is in October 2019, begins in Florence and continues on for several days in Orvieto, and still has space for a few more fellow travelers.
Details at www.bigsurarts.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This month’s focus has been on building the structure of my days. Habits toward health. Habits toward peace of mind. Energy. Well being.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.