Cape Hedge is a beach that suits me well. There are few people. The surf is strong enough to dislodge all shapes and sizes of stones from the ocean floor. It has the rhythm of everlasting eons, the all-pervading and soothing sound of an eternal force.
I have come here today to rest and walk. This time I have my walking stick to prevent the strong receding tides from pulling me off my feet. I’ve brought a higher than average beach chair from which I can extricate myself easily
. I have my phone for safety and for taking any photographs that may occur to me. I’ve been collecting material for a series of paintings on ponds and shallows. The shallows here are magnificent. This part of the process leading up to the time when I immerse myself in the work itself began many months ago when I was telling people that, no, I wasn’t painting anything at present. And I’m not. I’m simply preparing. I’m making a map.
Because of many family obligations during January, I won’t be able to get to this particular project until February. But last week I got the supplies I’ll need and began to rearrange my space. Nothing spontaneous here until I put paint to canvas or board and pastel to paper. After that, anything goes.
There have been` a number of times when life events or ill health prevented me from working. Sometimes I have had the time and opportunity to pursue my muse but lacked the inclination. When I was younger, I would have fought against these deadlocks, concerned that my talent and creativity were fading away. At this time in my life, however, I am better able to see the purpose of such extended periods.
When fields lie fallow, we know that the land is resting, conserving moisture and energy over one growing season so that the next crop upon this same land will thrive. Just so, the artist in any medium, sometimes needs to step back and merely observe for a time. Your creative powers are not asleep; they are merely resting and refortifying themselves. You may find, as I have, that when you return to your art form, it is with renewed vigor and understanding. In the meantime, you will probably be more inclined to study the work and process of others and may begin experimenting with different mediums or new ways of seeing or describing what you see. You may discover directions in your older work that you hadn’t recognized at the time. If you keep your artist’s eyes open and don’t rush this period of growth, an unexpected fallow time can produce many surprises and rewarding results. I am in such a period with my painting, but for the first time in my life I’m feeling no guilt and am allowing my still field to exist in peace, knowing from experience that it is not still at all but rejuvenating itself to better nurture the seeds that will be planted at the proper time.
Last winter was exceedingly snowy and cold. Those of us who live in the Northeast don’t need to be reminded of that. People who have experienced few such winters think it was the worst ever. At my age you know that there have been others as bad or nearly so. Though the Farmer’s Almanac thinks differently, this winter promises so far to be an easy one with little snow. Trying to prepare for the unknown and what it may hold is like attempting to prepare for old age. It will be different for each one of us and, just as our lives in the past, will have good and bad days, months and years. Young old age prepared me for middling old age and both had their ups and downs. It wasn’t until now on the cusp of oldest old age, that I can truly say I am beginning to get the hang of accepting all of it and am somewhat in sinc with its peculiar rhythms. One day is not like any other, but is often an adventure if I maintain my curiosity about what it may hold. Sometimes it holds a letter from a friend I haven’t heard from in a long time, a reunion with former students, lunch with a fellow writer or artist. It often presents me with a complete surprise such as a documentary I happen upon that speaks to me on a deep level or a spontaneous visit from one of my grandchildren. Many times it’s when the writing or painting is going really well.
If creativity has sustained you throughout your life, there is no reason to think it can’t continue to do so. Physical restraints can make us rethink the way in which we have worked in the past and what is possible now. If you are a visual artist such as myself, you may have to make do with a smaller studio or paint on smaller canvases that are easily transported. Instead of rushing right into a project, you may find yourself thinking long and hard about what it will entail. Once begun, however, the process will take over and be full of the same surprises that you’ve counted on for years.
I am also a writer, and, for me, I’ve noticed only a few changes in the way in which I continue to pursue that craft. Ideas still come unbidden and the excitement is still there to develop them. Because my first love is historical fiction, however, it has become more difficult to do the primary research on site. I have found that I can solve this by making a number of short trips instead of one long tiring one. For instance, in doing research for my book Turning set in the Shaker Village of Canterbury, NH, I discovered that the planned tours involved a pace I couldn’t keep to and too much standing. I did the best I could with the most encompassing tour and returned on other days to visit places such as the schoolroom and the print shop by myself. This gave me an opportunity to question a single guide within these rooms at my leisure. I memorized the village map so as to know where to place the action. I bought the CD by Ken Burns called The Shakers, and played it over and over. In addition of course, I read extensively on the religion itself and its history and immersed myself in Shaker diaries, Shaker cookbooks, and many large and beautiful books on Shaker architecture and crafts.
When I was about seventeen I sat across from someone in the waiting area for Bullocks Westwood lunchroom, and the memory has colored much of my life. She seemed very old to me at the time, but might actually have been in her sixties even though her hair was white. What struck me about her was that she had an open portfolio across her knees that contained pages of empty scores, and she was clearly composing music – looking off into the distance at times and then putting pen decisively to paper. I don’t remember who was with me, but this picture of an unknown older woman doing such a remarkable thing while waiting for a table has never left me. I recall very distinctly that I decided then that whatever my talent proved to be – and I wasn’t terribly sure at the time – I would pursue it in the same way that she pursued hers, at all times and in all places, and I would continue to do it no matter how old I might become. Sixty seemed near death at the time. How young it appears from my present vantage point. When I realized that I had two muses to satisfy I did indeed sketch or write poetry during concerts, at train stations and at the beach. I drew my children awake if willing or asleep if unwilling. Often a poem would appear when out walking. And I did a good deal of my research and writing of Daughter Of Winter while sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms when my husband was being diagnosed and treated for dementia. I recently ran upon two portraits of him that I did when he was in the early stages of this desease.
And over time there have been other persons who have struck me with their determination and focus. Few were actual teachers of mine; a number have been colleagues equally unaware as that woman of how much their presence in my life has meant to me. I have supported and praised their work, but have not yet found a way to adequately thank them for how they have changed me. At this point I am still discovering some of these mentors. There are too many to thank individually, but you will meet many of them within these pages.