Saturday, December 29, 2007

Backing into 2008

I was born breech. As my mother says, I entered this world "fanny first," and since then, my sense of direction has always been a bit strange. I seldom approach anything head-on but am more apt to get a vague sense of the lay of the land, then back my way into a given situation.

The heyokah is an indigenous sacred clown who does things backwards. His purpose is to remind the rest of us to take ourselves somewhat less seriously and he is called to this purpose by an encounter with the Thunder Beings. Purportedly, the heyokah, after this powerful encounter, can influence the weather himself.

Last summer I was working on my heyokah collage. It was the height of our desert monsoon season and rain was falling in torrents outside my studio. I was backing away from the easel for a longer view of my painting, when a flash of lightening swept across the floor, knocking out my computer modem. The ensuing crash of thunder was deafening. My little encounter with the Thunder Beings was sufficient for a lifetime. I knew I'd rather paint a heyokah than be a heyokah.

"Heyokah" is the only painting I ever made that works equally well in any orientation. You can turn it upside-down or rotate it 90 degrees in either direction, and it'll look reasonably balanced, or at least I believe it does. In that way it lives up to its name. "Heyokah" is custom-packaged and awaiting pickup by DHL for its insured journey to Argyle, Texas. Here's hoping the driver doesn't have to go the distance in reverse, that his encounters with thunderstorms are few and far between.

I am happy to report that the Santa Sales Spirit has been good to me of late. "My Misplaced Wings" will be flying to an entryway in Oklahoma City. And "The Alchemist's Dream" is bound for Tucson, where it is destined to hang on a bedroom wall.

The paintings, once they're in the gallery, have a way of holding out for the right person. When that certain person comes along, it's a sweet, inevitable encounter. It's always a pleasure to send a painting to the proper home.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Two Recipes for World Peace

"Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me." I sang that as a kid, especially around Christmastime, and the older I get, the truer it is. Peace marches and public prayers for peace and the repeated proclamation that one wants world peace are wonderful in themselves. Then again, what kind of clown isn't in favor of world peace? I mean, do you ever hear anyone saying, "All I want for Christmas is a big world war."

What I want for Christmas is a smattering of peace within my own heart. It is so tempting to play back the dwindling year and count the ways I've failed: Didn't make as many paintings as I'd intended. Didn't sell as many paintings as I'd intended. Didn't eat healthily enough. Didn't exercise enough. Didn't pray enough. Fell behind in church attendance. Fell behind in bookkeeping. Spent too much money. Argued too much with my spouse over silly, inconsequential matters. Kept too quiet over more important matters.

But it's done. What good will it do to mourn these shortcomings now? It only eats up today, and today is what I've got. Today I'll listen to Joseph Rael's "Song of Peace." A friend of mine says that a group of people have been listening to it daily for several weeks. They will continue to listen until the dawn of 2008. It's one of those "let's attune our hearts to peace and see what happens" kind of things. Me, I'm game. I'll listen for that inner song of peace.

And I am most definitely game for making and eating World Peace Cookies. Dorie Greenspan in Baking: From My House to Yours (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), relates that her neighbor, upon eating these cookies, (the creation of legendary Parisian pastry chef/peacenik Pierre Herme), vowed that they were so completely satisfying on the most basic human level, that one cookie, consumed once a day, by each person inhabiting the planet, would result in world peace.

Know how they proclaim a worldwide ceasefire for a period of time on Christmas Day? What if they passed out cookies while they were at it?


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips
1. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more.

3. Turn off the mixer. Pour in the dry ingredients, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don't be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you've frozen the dough, you needn't defrost it before baking — just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.)

Getting Ready to Bake:

5. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

6. Using a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. (The rounds are likely to crack as you're cutting them — don't be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them.

7. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes — they won't look done, nor will they be firm, but that's just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature.

Haven't tried the recipe yet. Flannery discovered it. She and I will be testing it later this week. We'll see if Monsieur Herme is Nobel Peace Prize material.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Blogger Header Chainsaw Massacre

A couple or so weeks ago, my header photo got cropped beyond reason. The mountains up and vanished, as did most of the sky. Some of the words took to hiding behind what was left of the foliage. Worst of all, Lily's chair lost its legs. I'd noticed this but hadn't realized it was happening all of the time. Thought it had something to do with the fact I was putting more images in my posts. Got an email from Lee asking what was up. Next morning the blogger troubleshooting email feed I subscribe to came rolling in with tons of complaints from fellow bloggers:





F*#@ YOU AND YOUR CHAINSAW TOO! (Me too. Well, not really. But it should have been.)

Seems someone at Blogger had decided to make all of our headers the exact same dimensions. A one-size-fits-all mentality so flies in the face of why we blog.

I've noticed that some of you, such as Daphne, have fallen victims to the massacre. A more symmetrical, repetitive image such as Daphne's, luckily, doesn't look quite so foolish in its truncated state as did mine.

Hiram, the rakish spirit who frequents one of our spirit chairs, (I highlighted his name, so you can read about him, if you're curious) has been livid. He was already sulking about my decision to leave his chair out of the heading, but to see Lily's reduced to a shadow of its former self simply unnerved him beyond belief.

Me, I'd gotten used to his incessant clanging on the roof in the early afternoon, but now he's come inside the house. He's taken to setting the little vintage horse rocking in the wee hours of the morning. Waking up to that hateful thing swaying back and forth on the bricks of the living room floor, night after night after night--it's like being trapped in a David Lynch movie. Nonsensical, dark, never-ending, and annoying. I'm a rag.

Tis the season for miracles. Mine arrived in the form of one Mishka, a brilliant troubleshooter who speaks my language. Follow this link to Mishka's blog and you'll see an explanation on how to get your amputated headers up and running again.

Mishka. Patron Saint of Cascading Style Sheets.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What I Did During My Blogger Vacation

I was touched when Bennie forwarded an email from the gallery the evening before last. It was from Paula. "Are all of you OK?" she asked. "You haven't blogged in a while."

As I told Paula, I've been home and in the stores and on the highway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and my vintage laptop doesn't allow me to post. This is what I've been doing instead:

1. Purchased presents for relatives in Alabama, California, and Illinois. Was in particular pleased with a set of "gnarly teeth" I found for my great-nephew. A kit that comes with teeth for a host of personalities--the Six Faces of Kade--Werewolf, Grandpa, Clem (country bumpkin), Mad Scientist, etc. Almost kept them myself. After all, we give what we'd like to get.

2. Wrapped presents. Discovered a plastic bear that poops jelly beans is a bitch to wrap.

3. Wrote annual Christmas letter, wherein I condensed 2007 into two pages, 10-point, single-spaced.

4. Addressed Christmas cards, inserted letters in cards.

5. Did some cleaning out of drawers, in anticipation of the arrival of new space-occupying stuff in the form of Christmas gifts. Was stunned to discover medical records from 1984. This means I hauled all that from lower Pacific Heights in San Francisco, to Laurel Heights, to Parkside, to Pacifica, to the southside of Santa Fe, to our current home outside of town. Why? Am I that sentimental about my old blood lipids readings?

6. Went to see the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men." Thumbs up! Maximum creep factor! Gnarlier than gnarly teeth!

7. Went to see Flannery's African dance performance. Totally gnarly, and in the very best way. STANDING OVATION.

8. Went to see Andre Rieu Orchestra with my in-laws. Somewhat gnarly.

9. Rearranged furniture to make room for Christmas tree.

10. Found this poem I wrote, published in 1982. I retroactively dedicate it to Heather, since she's an Einstein adorer:


in Einstein's house, in the closet
every corner is singing

the black, explicit song
of the closet

the hat boxes
the lyrical curves

of the violin case give way
to corners, the closet's

boxed-in, singing
angles. or are they

are there angels, singing

in the corners?
are there angels boxing

in the darkness?
if angels, will they hold

against the darkness?

will they take bows
against thin air?

is it air we hear
when we hear

that singing?
if air, are the angels why

this unstrung music?
are the angels why music

goes on falling
from nowhere?

why the violin case
hums and hums?

are they why the insides
of shoes

and the pockets of clothing
fill with song?

are the angels why
Einstein's overcoat hums along?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sweating the Smalls

Tuesday evening of Thanksgiving week I participated in a sweat lodge ceremony. I'm a relative newbie to the practice, having been in only a dozen or so. Someone told me "each sweat ('sweat' is short for 'sweat lodge') is different from the others." And I've found that to be the case. I once read a rather sensational account of a woman's first sweat lodge experience in Mexico. She described the intense heat, so hot she had to tear off the necklace which was burning her skin. What I wonder is why she wore a necklace into the lodge in the first place. People don't wear jewelry in sweat lodges, or eyeglasses, or contact lenses. It's extremely hot in a sweat lodge; it's also pitch black. Someone with extremely poor eyesight, such as I, can see as well as anyone in the lodge. We're all equals in there. That's part of the appeal.

The sweat lodge ceremony is of course indigenous in origin. The details vary according to tribe, but for me, the sweat is the best way I've found of releasing stress, worry, guilt, anger, and that sense of frantic rushing most of us are so familiar with, especially this time of the year. The lodge is about re-connecting with Mother Earth and Father Sky, our bodies and our spirits. Prior to the ceremony, large stones are heated in a fire, which is maintained by a firekeeper.

It is customary to bring an offering to the firekeeper and to the leader of the lodge, also known as the pourer. An altar with sacred objects is set up between the fire and the entrance to the lodge. People smudge themselves with sage, or are smudged by another, before entering the lodge. Sage is a sacred herb known for its purifying properties. To direct the smoke from burning sage around my body is, for me, a way of focusing my intention to cleanse myself of clamoring concerns that might steal my ability to be one with the approaching ceremony.

When it's determined that the stones are sufficiently hot, everyone enters the lodge on our knees, humbly, as a baby returning to the womb of earth. It is customary to say "All My Relations" upon entering. This signifies our connection to the others in the circle, to all of humanity through all of the ages, to all of the animal kingdom--the Four-Footeds, the Winged and Finned Ones, the Creepy Crawlers--to all of the Plant People, in fact, to All. The lodge has been constructed to face a certain direction, usually east. It is made of saplings covered with tarps. (In the past, animal hides served as coverings.) People crawl in a clockwise direction to sit in a circle around a pit in the center.
The pourer speaks to the circle of people. He/she expresses the purpose of this particular ceremony. Then the firekeeper delivers the first group of heated stones. They are borne in, one at a time, on a pitchfork or on a set of antlers. Often the people inside greet each stone: "Welcome, grandparent!" This is an acknowledgment of our origin in the earth, an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to reconnect with the very bones of the earth, where we came from, to receive the teaching to follow. Each stone is usually blessed by the touch of an herb, such as lavender or bear root or cedar. The touch of herb to hot stone, earth to fire, creates a heady aroma that begins to permeate the air. With the arrival of each stone, the anticipation mounts.

When the determined number of stones for the first round has been delivered, the pourer requests that the firekeeper close the door. (Traditionally, there are four rounds of ceremony, each with a fresh group of hot stones added to the pit, after which the door is opened for a time to allow people to catch their breath and cool down a bit.) It is when the door closes for the first round and total darkness suddenly envelops the circle, that I get a sense of whose company I share. If I'm with a group for whom the sweat is a customary part of their lives, there is a peaceful sense of settling in to the sweet quietude. If, however, there are many newcomers present, the fear and sometimes, outright panic, is palpable.

I'll never forget my first experience. I had been fearfully anticipating the heat. A concern over possible claustrophobia or fear of the dark hadn't even entered my mind. Those two things don't generally bother me. But that day, on the Cree reservation in Saskatachewan, when Victor the firekeeper closed the door, and the darkness descended, I felt immediately overwhelmed by darkness and the closeness of the other bodies. I honestly thought that if I didn't leave right away, I would surely smother. Then John, the elder who was to pour the ceremony, asked for people to take turns praying. I sat in silence, completely mortified with the knowledge that I would be the first person to ask Victor to open the door so that I could exit. (Participants in a lodge are always allowed to ask to leave if the discomfort becomes unbearable.) Then I heard a man somewhere in the lodge--I'd lost a sense of who was sitting where--begin praying fervently that his "heart of stone" be able to love again. I had never heard anyone pray for such a thing with such sincerity. He was pleading actually. I was moved and began to sob. My claustrophobia and fear of the darkness vanished as quickly as they'd came. I was amazed. I welcomed the newfound closeness to these other people. I knew I was going to be OK. Talk about the power of prayer.

Since that first experience on the Cree reservation, I have sat in Ojibway and Lakota ceremonies, in all-women sweats under the new moon in New Mexico, and this past Easter, in a very special ceremony that included every member of my family. These ceremonies have featured song and chants in various tongues, including English, although hearing it all in one's native language isn't as essential as you might think. As Maria, an elder, once remarked, "If your ears don't understand the meaning, your spirit will." I completely agree. There is drumming and rattling, and depending on the leader's background, there may be a passing of the pipe. Above all, there is warmth and prayer.

The warmth is physical and is created by the leader's pouring water over the heated stones, repeatedly. With each round, more stones are brought in. More water is poured. The body's temperature can rise to around 105 degrees. We have carried towels with us, to protect our faces from the steam in the later rounds if necessary. As the steam rises, ever hotter, from the stones, so do our prayers.

I have prayed for much in the dark womb of the sweat lodge. And I have listened to prayers. I have sat beside those who prayed for their loved ones with cancer, I have sat beside those who were about to undergo surgery for cancer, I have wept with a mother begging forgiveness for her perceived shortcomings towards her now-adult child. As Maria also said, "Forgive yourself and the others are taken care of." I have mourned alongside those saying goodbye to beloved sisters and mentors who have passed on. I have felt the earth literally begin to sway, gently, beneath me, as the sweat streamed from every pore in my skin, soaking my clothing and hair, soaking even my towel.

I have also heard prayers for the ecological health of the planet, for world peace, for a return to reverence for the earth. Although I don't doubt, for one minute, the sincerity of these prayers, I tend to agree with my friend Lewis, who advises people to keep their prayers "finite," to pray for something which might bring results within four days. 4 is a sacred number for Native Americans, and I have personally witnessed what I call a "sweat lodge event loop" in the four days following a lodge.

I will speak of this in made-up terms so as not to betray the confidentiality of what transpires in a particular lodge: I might, for example, feel led to pray for one of my gallery clients whose wife has taken seriously ill. Four days later, that client calls me out of the blue, to say that he is feeling quite at peace and wants to purchase a painting he saw in the gallery a while back. Now, had I set out to pray for a painting sale, I very seriously doubt this same sequence of events would have occurred. Such a prayer would have been selfish, a kind of grasping prayer, and that's not what the sweat is about. Although I am very capable, more often than not, of the grasping kind of prayer, that's just not what the sweat is about.

The sweat is about letting go. As the water flows from our bodies, so do our fears, our grasping desires, our anger. When I feel the earth gently rocking beneath me, I imagine that a river is flowing underground, a river of all of the tears that have been shed as long as humans have been around to cry. I feel that Mother Earth is crying with us, receiving our tears and our sweat. We are sweating our "smalls." We have entered the small contained space of this womb to think small, and personally, as human beings, as humus beings, made of earth. We are reminded of how very small we are. But in our smallness and humility, we are comforted.

And when, after the final round, we shout in unison "All My Relations!" that is the signal for the firekeeper to open the door. That's when we crawl, one by one, out of the door and back into our lives. We have suffered a bit, and now we are reborn after those hours in the lodge. Our skin is softened, our defenses down. We are ready to enter the world again.