Under the Guayava Tree
When you get away from your life, even for a short time, it seems like a long time. When I got back from Costa Rica I had many memories of profound things and fine people. It’s nice to share that with others because you don’t have to tell them about it. They were there.
I met two little boys in Santa Rosa. We were taking an afternoon break from working on the church. School was already out. Santa Rosa was really a pueblo. It was no big town. Even surrounded by mountains and sugar cane and cattle grazing, even with mountains as far as the eye could see, those school kids walking up the dirt road in there dark blue pants and white shirts and bookbags was somehow universal.
It had been about two hours ago that I had taken a picture of a man whistling and throwing his arms up as he herded his cattle down the road. Off to the south the cows were knee deep in the pond or loafing in the shade. The man was gone.
The American teenagers had wrapped a piece of newspaper in duct tape and were playing hacky sack with the Costa Rican workers. I was bored with watching them so I went back out to take a picture of the resting cows. Out here in the middle of nowhere.
I squatted down on the edge of the pond to frame my picture when I heard exuberant voices. “Quieres unas guayavas?” What? “Quieres unas guayavas?” I was just getting used to the fact that I could understand Spanish so I concentrated for a second. Two little boys were bent over infront of my camera lens looking into it. “Do you want some guayavas?” Sure I did. Where? They pointed across the pond excitedly and we hiked through the mud of the bank which had foot deep cow prints in it. The boys had on high rubber boots. They knew where they were going.
On the far side of the bank was a tree loaded down with green and yellow fruit. Much of the yellow ones were already on the ground. I picked one up and it smelled sweet and aromatic. It was full of edible seeds and really, really good. One of the two got up in the tree and began to shake it. Like a monkey. The other handed me a green one and said they were better “Mas sabor”. More flavorful. I looked at the tiny hard green fruit and then at him... square in the eyes... and said “Es una broma!?” Is it a joke? He laughed. “No, no!” I liked the yellow ones better. They helped me load my bookbag. We had them for breakfast in the morning.
I spent a good bit of the rest of the afternoon with Grevin and Deiber. I gave them a pack of cards that I paint of Wadmalaw Island and told them I was an artist. I asked them if they had show and tell at school. They said they did. I told them they could show the cards at school and tell their class that an American gave them to them. And she was ugly and mean and old! Their eyes widened and then they laughed. I asked Grevin what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said a computer programmer. When I asked if he had a computer at school Deiber piped up and shook his head,“Too poor”. Well, maybe someday. They had their dreams.
I never went back to Santa Rosa that week. But of all the wonderful experiences I had during the time we worked in Costa Rica, these two little boys have become a cameo of the experience. Maybe because it was something I shared only with them.
The Lost Art of Dancing Cheek to Cheek
Before I taught art I taught art and music. I hesitate to say I really miss teaching music because they might make me do it again. One can only take on so much. We've talked about THAT before.
I will say, however, that the one thing I miss is that good old fashioned group effort. Visual art t ends to be a more solitary "sport". On the other hand, singing and dancing takes on it's ultimate power when done together. Yes, I know you closet stars like to sing and dance most when you're alone in the house with the stereo jacked up but, c'mon, be brave. Take the next step with me.
One of my goals as a music teacher was to teach young people they can have a blast without drugs or alcohol. Sometimes it's okay just to be silly AND straight. So I taught them how to dance a la Glenn Miller and all those "big band guys". We sure rocked and rolled. But the big difference was we actually touched each other and felt the life inside us. Once we adopted the credo "your dance partner is only your dance partner" the fun began. My, they started out so shy.
At the time I was only teaching elementary school and I wasn't sure just how capable these little tikes were. As usual, they out did themselves. In fact, the whole elementary school hall was swinging. Of all the music units I taught, the swing era was the most memorable. The K4 kids were sticking their heads in the door and asking "What is that music, Ms. Cali?" Even the teachers were in the groove. That was eight years ago.
Now, I don't want to blurt out my age here but I'm having a hard time finding a full grown man that knows how to really dance or isn't too shy to try. This, folks, is a lost art. And I don't mean holding on to each other and rocking back and forth. I mean, you lead and where I end up is anybody's guess.
I remember when I was nine years old my mother brought up the subject of dance lessons at the dinner table. And the lion roared. Dad was not going to embarrass himself in front of anyone, stepping on his own feet or anyone else. "No" was the answer. Being of Sicilian fortitude Mom never gave up and of course Dad succumbed eventually, as he always did, when confronted with that monstrous thing called Mom's Bad Mood. Of course, to this day he swears he was all for it because as it turned out it revolutionized their social life, and maybe other things for that matter. Every night after dinner we pulled back the living room furniture and put on that scratchy record and clumsily practiced our one- two-three step-step, one-two-three back step. Counting out loud and looking at our feet, front-side-together, back-side, together. It was months before we could have a conversation while we danced. Over the years we spent many a night huffing and puffing and laughing. Dad will always be my most preferred dance partner. He actually went on, with Mom, to win some trophies.
I recently took a "teenager friend" of mine to a contra dance. It's kind of like square dancing but there's only two long lines. The less you know, sometimes, the more fun it is. He was quite reticent to go. I told him "You don't have to go but I'm leaving in five minutes". In the end he succumbed to excitement mixed with apprehension and let himself be carried off. After sitting on the sidelines for thirty minutes he allowed a pretty girl to woo him into taking a chance. (I made sure I sent a REAL pretty one. . . whoops.) We were at the big annual Bug Stomp and a 2 AM he was still protesting our leaving. Success? I should say.
More and more of the teenagers are finding the contra dances, where you don't need to come with someone, every dance you are required to find a new partner, it's okay to dance with strangers and it's even fun to make mistakes. The only refreshment is water and there are children of all ages, from tikes to teens to mid lifers. It's almost like dancing around the fire again. People coming out together. And what a fun way to exercise. You forget that you're huffing and puffing and sweating. Exercise with a higher goal. Wow! I can't think of a better way to stay healthy.
Whenever I think back on those days at school and that wonderful show we finally did, it warms my heart.. For the finale the whole elementary school was "In the Mood" and they came down into the audience and grabbed their parents and as the house lights went up the whole auditorium was dancing. It's a memory that will always make me high. And to this day I can never forget that image of Mrs. Limehouse on a rainy Wednesday after school dancing down the elementary school hall with her push vacuum cleaner in hand twirling to the beat of Artie Shaw.
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The Illusions of Christmas
And so it begins. The lights go up, the red and green pop out on every shelf and the season begins. Long before Thanksgiving. Why, on writing this it's not even Halloween. Is the marketing blitz about Christ? A gentle man whose philosophy has touched mankind for almost 2000 years so far? Is it about the timeless power of love? Of course not. We all know that. It's about money. And so many of us dread it. It seems to be a time of year that can point up all our failures. Those of us who struggle to earn a living struggle more. Those of us who are lonely become lonelier. It seems that a season which should embrace us all too often points the finger at us. "YOU HAVEN'T ENOUGH!" The voice of the Lord? Please! None but the voice of the ego.
What a wonderful opportunity we have, at this time of year, to look our illusions full in the face and say "no" to the superficial. As usual the greatest force in existence, peace, love and forgiveness, faces off against greed and ambition. There's a beauty to it, really. It's a classic human adventure. We seem to live dual lives during Christmas and the holidays. We shop and worry and rush, and dress up to go to all those Christmas parties that we're often too tired to really want to attend, and in the lining of our hearts lurks the real meaning of it all. Sometimes, perhaps, disguised as cynical resentment. At least we're aware that we're being robbed of something.
Let's not blame this on the business community. After all, they are us. I've been killing myself constructing a web site to be ready for Christmas. After all, that's when people buy. But let's not kid ourselves. It's about so much more than that. If you don't need to be reminded of this then you don't need to be reminded that some people need to be reminded. Love is enough. Love is always enough. Without it we are left with only the illusion. Christmas is more than that.
Each year a dear friend of mine gives a lavish Christmas party. I always meet interesting new people. But it's also the only time of the year I see and catch up with some old friends. It's such an oasis for us to meet there because we really care.
This Christmas feel good about yourself. Do what you can do without losing your balance, emotionally as well as in the check book. We can all find something to feel inadequate about. Guilt is an ego trip. We most often judge ourselves more severely than anyone else could. Forgive yourself for everything and enjoy the season. Then you can give the greatest gift of all. Love.
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"Do what you love." Yeah, right.When? In between taking the kids to school and throwing out the garbage? Zen philosophy says love your chores and find true peace and joy -- easy to say. Actually, it's probably not the chores that drain us, it's just so many chores.
The luxury of free time, time to daydream . . . it's very creative. Funny, while we drag our kids to every creative workshop and cultural experience, we rail at them for not being productive, for daydreaming.
"Stop daydreaming!" We find ourselves resenting them because wouldn't we like to do it, too? We are such an advanced society -- too much opportunity, if you ask me, too many choices.
I stopped reading the daily paper years ago. I'd like to say it was some grand philosophical decision but I just didn't have time. I frankly, don't know what's going on. I don't care. What a confession -- my world was just too big for me. We are such an information society. For me it is an overload. If I can just take care of the people around me, I've had a good day.
True creativity is totally nonverbal; or, perhaps, non-thought -- like meditation. It comes from a stream of spiritual instincts. Even good writing flows from a non-thought source, I think. Did I say "I think"? Forgive me. Geez, we really can't help ourselves.
Each new school year, as I begin to teach art, I have to lay bare the fears of my students -- fear that they won't succeed. Of course, the little ones are still free, but the teenagers are possessed by the same fears as their parents. "I can't draw." If I hear that one more time I'll scream. Who cares? That's not what it's all about. Art is a search, an adventure, a trial-and-error experiment. There is no failure . . . ever. It's impossible. What an incredible freedom, there's only you and the "problem" at hand. A problem that doesn't even matter. This fearless adventure of creativity is a true and joyous giving of oneself over to the path to enlightenment. Art, like life, is a process, not a product. The only failure is fear.
For four years, every Wednesday night, I open my classroom to Adult Education. The turnout is dismal. And yet, so many parents profess a desire to participate but feel they can't. They can't find the time or are afraid they're not "good enough". The ones that do come leave refreshed and laughing and fulfilled. So many times I have to beat them up to get them to come, as they fight guilty feelings that they have so much to do or are so tired. But they are always glad they came. It's just about everyone's story. Are we all waiting around to retire?
Even in the hectic world of art, the pressure to succeed prevails. It's a business. I spent ten years resisting what I wanted to do because it wasn't important, esoteric or intellectual, feeling guilty that I loved to paint "pretty pictures", not "real art". Then I ran into a teacher who told me "Do what you love and you'll be successful." that was a great turning point for me as an artist.
I don't know why I'm obsessed with my little illustrations of island life; but I know I love it and it keeps me healthy to let THAT love flow. And, you know, it's not important. So what? What really is that important?
Creativity is a gift in our human nature. Whatever you consider your art, it's time to make it essential. Even if it's just daydreaming.
One of the first paintings I ever did was the little one of Miss Lydia's house. I gave it to her for Christmas in 1979. She and the kids got a kick out of the clothes hanging on the line out back. They recognized Craig's pants. I can still hear Miss Lydia's high, squeaky laugh that is so characteristic of her. That was long before I knew Eleanor or Rob or even before Rob's kids were born.
Miss Lydia lived across the street and Big John and Evalyn lived next door to them. John was Lydia's son. One of her eleven children. Big John got his name for obvious reasons. Only his laugh was bigger than he was. We put him in the back of our convertible VW bug and drove around. It was fun. He's passed now. Heart attack, I think. Evalyn's gone, too.
When I first moved to Wadmalaw I really enjoyed all that activity across the street. We lived in the fork in the road behind the old Cone's Grocery Store. It was a busy corner. Too busy. Like the night that Chevy landed on our front porch. But that's another story. Evalyn used to come out just a shoutin' at those kids and that booming voice of hers would blow them right out of her yard and into Grandma Lydia's. I used to go to my screen door and listen to her. Boy, was she mad. I would squint my eyes and squint my ears and listen so close and I still couldn't understand a word she was saying. It became a game with me. I'd hear her and go to the door, just sure if I listened close enough I'd figure it out. I couldn't understand how she and I could sit on my front porch steps with Sharon and Edith and Julie, chit-chatting all the time but when she yelled at those kids I couldn't make head or tails of it. I hadn't heard about Gullah just yet.
Edith would call her from Miss Lydia's house. "Ev -a- lyn!" Always three syllables with the emphasis on the third. Try it, it's fun. Ev - a - lyn! Edith's all grown up with kids of her own now. Like I say, Evalyn's gone. She was just a wisp of grass when she left us.
I borrowed the painting back to have it photographed. It was kind of moldy so I cleaned it up and framed it for her. I need to take it back but it so reminds me of those Sunday afternoons after church when the whole family got together, two households, two front porches. The elder gentlemen sitting together around the table on the screened porch in their Sunday best, somewhat murmuring until they erupted in laughter. Like men do when they're telling a "good story" the kids don't need to hear. Just like my uncles back home. And I would sit on my front porch, behind those tall crape myrtles and I would have to smile. I was so lonely. My family was so far away. How I wanted to go over and be a real part of it. But I was a real part of a family of crazy Italians and somewhere, at someone's house this Sunday they were doing the same thing. So I would take a deep breath and go paint a picture.
I read in Allen Mitchell's wonderful book on Wadmalaw about the old Nine Mile Fork School. I thought . . . where could he mean? Yup, it turned out to be right there. "Here", they said in unison as they pointed to the floor. "Right here."
Craig and Edith are all grown up and Miss Lydia doesn't see too well anymore. I did return the painting but I kept the memories.
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