Sunday, January 16, 2011

Day 8: Art is Therapy and So Is a Sweet-Faced Dog

by Zinta Aistars

Blue Friday … would the weekend heal? Waking to snow is a hopeful start. The flakes are falling slow and thick and lazy, and I stop for a moment just to watch the snowfall from the kitchen window. I wish I didn’t have to go … drive that long hour home from my temporary home … but I’ve made a promise to help my father, artist Viestarts Aistars, deliver 15 paintings to the Portage District Library, and I don’t break promises. Especially because I know he would pay in pain if he were left to lift the paintings himself. After four back surgeries, in chronic pain, any lifting costs him days of immobility. The art exhibit begins on Wednesday, January 19. This is our last and only chance to deliver.

My son calls, still sleepy voiced, and warns me, “Sure about this, Mom? Lots of snow. Could be tricky driving. Be careful?”

“I’ll be careful.”

Always touching when roles are reversed. Child watching out for Mama. But it’s not long before I am pulling out of the barn and down the long driveway to the snowy road, and on my way. 

Was this drive always so long? How quickly we adapt to ease. House sitting at a location just minutes from work, one week and I have already gotten myself un-adapted to this hour-long trek, and in snow, it will take longer. 

I don’t mind the snow. Just a matter of slowing down. Gradually, I am back in my old groove. The road mesmerizes a bit, and my mind begins to wander. The day before still weighs heavy on me. It was a day of harsh realization. Straw on this camel’s back. One more financial hit, a hefty one, that drove the point home to me—my reserves are wiped out. My retirement plans aren’t going to happen. I had started too late and had been in a hole too deep to dig out in time. My finest dream is crumbling to dust before my eyes.

The miles wrap into my tires. I can feel the back two shimmy and vibrate, and the vibration is increasing. I need two new tires, and had put that aside week after week. With a shorter daily drive to work, it matters less. The tires could wait. 

I wanted to stay put this morning, stay in my warm, worn out sweats, stoke the fire in the wood stove, pull out those paints, paintbrushes, stones and pads of paper waiting for me. They would have to wait for Sunday.

I drive, thinking about the art projects I want to work on. I am preparing a portfolio to send in with a package of materials to apply for an artist residency up north. It involves living in a rustic cabin in the mountains for two weeks. With my dream of living in a cabin in northern wilderness waning, this residency is fast gaining importance to me. Two weeks couldn’t compare to being permanent resident there, but if bread crumbs are all that are left, I will search for every last one with appetite. 

The house where I am “sitting” is perfect for artwork. Quiet, with a large picture window for long hours of daylight, table beneath, it is ideal for writing and painting. I am eager to begin. And by now, I need to. When my heart is aching, nothing heals better than being immersed in something creative. 

So I muse, and so remember how it was that I had become more or less accustomed to this long daily drive. It gives me time to dream. I need a new dream. A much smaller one, in far less bright colors, but it is impossible to keep putting one foot in front of the other without a dream to pull me forward. 

And then I am home. My home. Blue house with white shutters, set up on an incline, and I find myself smiling as I drive up. Good to see the old place. I open the garage, and there is my son, covered in grease, working on a stack of car parts and unidentifiable machinery, dissected beyond recognition. 

“Hey,” he grins.


That hug, grease and all, is sweet medicine. Needed that. 

He follows me in and I tromp up the stairs to the kitchen, looking for the old chow pup. 

“Outside,” my son detects my mission.

“Guinnie Pig!” I shout, opening the sliding door to the snowy back yard, where my old chow pup, Guinnez, is leaping around in the snow, up past his red-furred belly. His eyes get wide, he stops in his tracks, then comes leaping over like a cross between rabbit and deer and fox. I stand shin-deep in snow with an armload of red fur and a well-licked face, laughing.

“Has he been good?” I call back to my son, standing in the door.

“Course not.”

I don’t visit for long. My father is waiting. But I skim through the stack of mail, then hoot with cheer. A check! I had thought that freelance assignment already cashed in, but had apparently forgotten… it isn’t much, but every bit coming in will mean less borrowed. Then there is a retirement fund update. I tear that one open with less enthusiasm. Not so good. Not even half good. My last dream rolls over and dies. 

Sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, even when you’ve lost the focal point on the horizon. I don’t know where I am going anymore, but I do know I have to stop by and help my father. For now, that would do. That would be my focus. When you don't quite know how to help yourself, help someone else. I give him a quick call that I am on my way, and I am on my way. 

Portage District Library, Portage, Michigan
Fifteen paintings, delivered to the busy library. Marsha, kind and attentive librarian who had planned the event, meets us there. I stack the paintings on a cart and wheel them in, five trips and done, and my father sits on a bench, head down. 

We have lunch together afterward, and I don’t argue this time when he picks up the tab. I tell him about the quiet place where I am living for a few weeks, the silence of country surroundings, the herds of deer I have seen, the evenings of reading by the fire. He smiles. I tell him about my upcoming Sunday and the ideas I have in mind, what I want to paint, and he leans forward, listening with interest. 

“I’ll warm up by painting on some of my gathered stones,” I say. “That’s what I know. Then I’ll gather courage to try something on paper. Something that will be image to my words. They’re called broadsides.”

I tell him about the artist residency, the rustic cabin in the northern mountains, and that if my submission is judged worthy, I might earn myself two weeks there. He understands. It was my father that introduced me to the northern woods, planted that dream in the heart of a little girl.

I hadn’t expected to get homesick from such a quick visit, but when I turn back onto the country road leading to my borrowed home, I feel the sadness return. Wish that old chow pup was here to grin at me. Wish I’d gotten an extra hug from my son, or three. Wish I could show my father a new painted stone.  

Then I am greeted again. So many of them, so many deer! How many this time? I stop in the road again, and count: 22. A new record. The deer walk peacefully across the white fields, calm. I sit and watch them, soaking up their calm. 


Sunday … and I wake too early. Haven’t slept well. Should sleep more, the night is still edging the morning, but my mind reels with thoughts, dark dreams, fading visions, the grief of a lifelong dream. I drag myself out of bed, feeling stupid with fatigue. 


I blink when I switch on the kitchen lights. 

The kitchen table is covered with my art supplies. Pads of paper, palettes of paint with rows of tiny paint tubes, and neat little brushes with fine points. Books with favorite images to inspire me. And the day—the day is all open, with no obligations, no promises to keep but the one to myself. 

Jiggy, my 15-year-old tortoiseshell cat, along for the stay, winds around my ankles, crying for breakfast, and I feed her. 

“Well, old girl, let’s get to it. Sunday. Our day. All day. Yes?”

She purrs and stays close on my heels, watching to see what I’ll do next. 

The kitchen window is dark with pre-dawn, then turns deep blue, and I can see the shadows of the pines and the evergreens outside emerge. Slowly, the light seeps into sky and sweeps away the last of the shadows. 

Somewhere the time slips, like silk, smoothly, away. I don’t notice it. Even my cup of coffee grows cold. 

I paint a fish, a large bass with plump fish lips, smoking a pipe. It’s a larger stone than most that I paint. I had started it a long time ago, put it aside, and on this Sunday, at long last, I finish it. 

Sitting by the fire late afternoon, I cradle the stone in my hands, pondering last touches. My fish has solved nothing for me. Nothing has changed between morning and oncoming evening. My heart still feels like it is carrying a stone. Letting go takes time. But dipping a paintbrush in a dab of color, walking outside in the snow to gather more wood for the fire, tickling my old cat’s caramel belly, and listening to the deep silence of a Sunday in the country—it all moves me one step, two steps forward. Toward someplace, toward something, perhaps even to a yet unseen solution, yet unknown. 


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