June's been a bit of an asshole so far. Teasing us with sunshine and warmth, then freezing tender grapes, apple blossoms, and blueberries – with disastrous results for hard-working Nova Scotia farmers. Toss in Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain throwing in the towels on their perceived-perfect lives, and I'm ready to go back to May. Then, yesterday, the Ontario election happened, and my new neighbour hired someone to cut down a half dozen or so wild rose bushes, forever altering the Cotswold-charming landscape of our sleepy back alley.
This morning, the offensively dirty white vinyl of her garage hit me like a slap in the face. I'd heard the chainsaw/whipper snipper combo, but I assumed she was going after the gout weed – not the decades old wild roses that provided birds, and bees, and the busy inhabitants of our block with colour, joy, and the simple scent of summer.
My neighbour's response, when I asked her, 'WTF?' was a heartless, "Well, they sometimes hung into the alley." Yes, they did, and we trimmed them, and picked the blossoms off them, and carried their prickly beauty inside to a happy vase. In the winter, we'd shake the snow off them – watching them spring back upright like obedient children. Their heaviness was a burden easily lifted by a helping hand.
She added, 'If I drove down that alley (she doesn't) I wouldn't want them scratching my car.' And to that, I had to just walk away.
I haven't been painting lately because of traveling, and work, and house showings – but I am itching to paint roses now. I am dying to paint happy things that make other people smile.
Last Friday was my birthday, and I heard from my child shortly after midnight, and from my closest friends throughout the day and from various time zones. As it became clear that I wasn't going to get a 'Happy Birthday' call or Hallmark greeting from my mother, I picked up the phone and left her a message. I knew she'd be out celebrating with her dear friend, also born on June 1.
"Hi Mom", I began. "It's my birthday! But you already know that. I just wanted to say, THANK YOU for giving birth to me – because in turn, I was able to give life to Jack, and he is beautiful, and kind, and a gift, every day." Then I hung up and gave myself a little hug.
Breaking the cycle of selfish actions (and bad parenting) is as simple as delivering a hot meal to an elderly neighbour. Sticking 100 bucks in a card and mailing it to a hard working kid. Planting flowers for a busy friend. Respecting boundaries. Overtipping the young waitress, excited about heading off backpacking. Smiling at the guy pushing the shopping cart full of empty bottles discarded from lives somewhat fuller than his own.
My son's had the words, "Give more than you take!" drilled into his head like hockey pucks.
Suicide is selfish, and tempting, and such a hurtful waste of beautiful lives. And I've never been one to take the easy way out.
Mowing down beauty because it is inconvenient and scratchy is just, fucking sad.
Pull up your socks, June. Call a friend, like July, or April if you are having a hard time. Even November can be dull and dreary, but supportive when you need him to be.
(There's an Open House here Sunday 2-4. I've had two amazing deals fall through, and the banks aren't being kind to buyers, but if you know anyone who wants a lovely little house, let them know. I have roses climbing all over the front and the sides, just as they should be.)
In 1992, I was working at an ad agency in midtown Toronto, and moonlighting as the Nova Scotia bicycle tour guide for Butterfield & Robinson. I had buns of steel, and was living my dream.
I had fallen in love with Nova Scotian folk art the moment I arrived in Halifax to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design a few years prior.
Whimsical, colourful, affordable, and so different than anything I had ever seen – I ended up doing my art history 'thesis' on the origins of what appeared to be child's play.
I became friends with several of the South Shore folk artists while researching my art history paper. Eddie Mandaggio. Clarence "Bubby" Mooers. Malcolm Corkum. And the 'you can't make this shit up' Naugler brothers – Bradford, Ransford, and Leo. The latter being the most prolific and eager to make a buck carving a goose out of a pine stump.
When my tony out-of-towners would arrive from LA or NYC for a week of cycling, part of my agenda was to rent a bus and introduce them to our naive – or what they would know as 'outsider' artists. After a day of biking around Lunenburg (and before cocktails) they'd pile into the school bus and we'd head off into the country. As we sank further into Lunenburg County the look on their faces was priceless. Horror mingled with eager anticipation as we'd pass cows, double-wide trailers, clotheslines – then hang a left and arrive at the 'gallery' – a shack bursting with carvings, paintings, and a jovial character sporting an accent I have yet to define.
Without fail, my B&R guests would buy everything. They were mesmerized by the playfulness that was such a stark contrast to their big-city lives. It was then that I knew what my next adventure was.
I quit my big city advertising job and opened Wholly Mackerel Folk Art Gallery in the spring of 1994. I had little or no money, a rented space on the Main Street of Mahone Bay, and a dream.
Once the tourists started to arrive with chunky wallets, I knew I had a hit. Folk art was flying off the shelves faster than I could gather it. Mahone Bay's Main Street was on the busy, Lighthouse Route, so I painted wooden lawn chairs in a rainbow of colours to draw attention away from the view, and on to my little gallery. Mimi's Ocean Grill was next door – and she fed me – and everyone else. Even Canadian House & Home took note and featured Wholly Mackerel in their "Storewatch" feature. I was so happy.
Then I had a beautiful, unplanned baby, (the best ones are) and suddenly driving around Nova Scotia to keep the shelves full became unrealistic and impractical. So we moved to Toronto, then San Francisco – Murray Gallant shopping bag ladies and a few geese in tow.
Last month, I delivered my 'naive' paintings to The Teazer in Mahone Bay, and Matilda Swanson Gallery in Clarksburg, Ontario. Heralded as the oldest gift store in Nova Scotia, the Teazer's owner, Sue Bourinot welcomed me to town with open arms and sisterly advice 24 years ago. Today, her business thrives as it did way back when... and it just got a wee bit more whimsical.
Go ahead, cue the onslaught of reminders that I do not have a designated Valentine. I don't care. I am in love with painting.
Gone is the mid-winter urge to blow town – a craving that normally settles in around this time and finds me, finding myself – stuck to the seat of a dilapidated bus in the bowels of rural Bhutan.
I even made it through the Aussie Open without a call to the cable guy. And last night, I painted over an epic fail without a hissy fit. Goddamnit, blue jays are hard to paint.
In a weak moment last February, I hooked up our TV and called the cable guy. The result was mind sucking to the level of The Real Housewives of Toronto. I stopped listening to podcasts. I stopped painting. And I developed an addiction to cinnamon hearts and House Hunters International. How do a British chippie owner and a school teacher save 1.7 million quid to buy a retreat in France?
Fucked if I know, but hopefully they are happy, sipping a Monbazillac that'll rot their remaining teeth, gazing at the land that surrounds my future farmhouse studio with pool and income-generating gîte. I'll get there one day.
I heart February. So far.
Above tulips painting is available at Thornbloom in Halifax. :)
If you do feel the urge to blow town for, say, Bhutan, or a bike trip around Sardinia, contact Nadine at Maritime Travel, Park Lane. She gets me places.
Call it H3N2, the grippe, walking pneumonia, consumption, or just the freakin' flu – but it's ugly – and it seems to like it here, I say, waving my hands in front of my body like a touchless car wash. But I am looking on the bright side, and this mucus madness has given me an excuse for curling up with Jerry Seinfeld and his cough-syrupy delightful, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
My son got me going on early episodes of this brilliant little show a few years ago, before it hit Netflix. It was like being unrestrained in the back – no seat belt – arms flopped over the front bench seat, eavesdropping on Jerry and Don Rickles, Jerry and Larry David, or Jerry and Louis C.K. before he, sadly, became just another creepy guy in a bathrobe. Jerry's coffee with Kramer, the actor, Michael Richards, was so raw and honest – I felt like rolling down the window and hanging my head out like the family dog, hoping the wind would blow away Kramer's hurt.
Remember rolling down the windows? Much like the lost satisfaction of slamming down the phone – memories of movement have been replaced with a little button and a flick of the finger. No wonder my car-sick puke usually ended up on the wrong side of the glass. Cranking down the window took time, muscle, and heart.
Where was I going with this? So, last night when I was hitting the 'Next episode in 4 seconds' button over and over, I was happy to end with Sarah Jessica Parker and Jerry, giggling, in a 1976 Ford Ltd Country Squire as it cruised through the memory lanes of suburbia. I grew up in the back seat of similar Ford, and last winter, when I started to paint, my second painting was of a little person (me? I can't paint faces) peering out the back window of a similar, wood-panelled living room on wheels. Who knew SJP and I would have anything in common other than a fictional love of the elusive Mr. Big, or any man in a well-tailored suit?
Keep it on the road, Cindy.
My 'happy' childhood memories are few, or repressed, or under the motel bed with our old schnoodle, Pierre – who was puking up the stringy onions I fed him from the submarine sandwich my parents made me eat in the way, way, back seat of our Ford station wagon on the way to Florida. While I did inherit my father's love of a good road trip, I was prone to car sickness and hated onions and cigarette smoke. The resulting nausea (add to that, an allergic reaction to the chlorine in the motel pool) is a childhood memory I will cherish for a lifetime – or until I can repress it again.
I do remember my father's Saturday morning routine. An early round of golf, followed by the ritual of washing and waxing our cars – his chamois leather cloth, smooth with polish in one hand – a rum and coke in the other. While I wheeled my green Schwinn around our suburban New Jersey neighbourhood, my father went about his weekend, oblivious to any form of 'parenting' – perhaps a bit lost as to what to do with the rest of his ill-fitting domestic time. If I know him (because, maybe I am him) he was longing for the Old Spice cloud of Monday morning – when he would hop on the first Erie Lackawanna commuter train that would place him safely back in the arms of Manhattan.
Decades later, I imagine my Dad cursing as he picked up the week's worth of Bazooka and Zotz wrappers, and cleared the Ford's ashtray of lipstick-stained cigarette butts.
Kent. King Size.
He would be rushing through the ritual cleansing of the family station wagon, so he could get to his 'Baby' – a 1967 Springtime Yellow Ford Mustang convertible.
My Dad loved that Mustang more than he loved life itself. He would take his time stroking and detailing every inch of body, interior, tires, and chrome – bumper to bumper – like the mistress he had tucked in his Wall Street office closet.
When my Dad left us, the Mustang fell into the same state of ill repair that we did. I taught my 13 year old, unsupervised self to drive in that car, before rust and neglect burned holes in upholstery, the floor, and as a final act of attrition – a hole in my Dad's heart – when my Mother sold his 'Baby' for $500.
Over the years that followed – and up until my Dad's untimely death at 64 – my Mom would receive envelopes from him in the mail. They came from Cleveland, St. Louis, or New York – never stuffed with cheques, but with clippings from Car and Driver, or Motor Trend. Articles neatly cut from the page falling to the kitchen table like large strips of confetti – the present-day value of a vintage, 1967 Mustang convertible circled in red ink.
I don't think he ever forgave my Mom. I know he never forgave himself.
Last night, when the flu tapped on my shoulder telling me to go to bed, instead of out for margaritas, I curled up in the backseat with Jerry and Sarah Jessica Parker. I laughed at Sarah recalling the large box of Kleenex her Mom would have perched, ever-ready on the dashboard – and the faint smell of gasoline on the naugahyde. I loved her memories of constant yelling, and their combined silly laughter as they drove away in the way, way back seat of the Ford.
I do remember being in the way, way back seat of our Ford – with Pierre – but I was probably wondering when my real family was going to come and get me. Which is why my second painting is called "It's a Beautiful Day, But I'm Stuck in the Back Seat with These People."
Hey, it's a memory. And I hang it on my bedroom wall because, for some reason – happiness maybe? – it makes me laugh every time I look at it.
And that is where I am going with this.
PS. I am going to send this to Garry Sowerby because he has a shiny red, vintage Mustang convertible and he knows I want it.
Can I tell you how excited I am to put the disappointments and revelations of 2017 behind me, and to strut into this new year with my glass sloshing and half full? I am, and I will.
A few good things came to light through the cold, wet bathing suit chafe of darkness that stuck up my ass this past year: My kid changed his path, and has never been happier; I no longer feel the need to suffer onerous individuals who take more than they give. And, I started to paint – awkwardly, uninhibited – with joy and the childlike exuberance of a kindergarten art class.
It pains me to say it was, 'decades ago', when I took Introductory Painting and Drawing at NSCAD, only because I had to as part of my BFA degree. I recall being terrified – convinced I couldn't draw, and I most certainly couldn't paint. What I learned was – everyone can draw, and everyone can paint. It's as natural as laughing and loving and breathing. But after graduating and being thrown happily into my chosen, bill-paying profession – I never drew, nor painted again.
No. Not true. I actually attempted to paint once, when Jack was small. I invested in some acrylic paint and a canvas, but the instant I set things up, he wanted to paint too – which was fine – but it became more about him than me. And it was messy. And so the paints got packed away, and eventually dried up and thrown away.
But necessity – and in my case, boredom – is the mother of invention. Last January, I had a wall that needed 'something' I couldn't afford. In a corner of the basement, I also had an old nautical chart of Georgian Bay that was steering no one, anywhere. I bought some acrylic paint and set up a makeshift 'studio' on the cast-iron radiator in the sunroom. (Ask anyone with hot flashes how fun it is to do anything standing over a heater in a sunroom, when your body temperature is already hotter than a picnic in hell – but that's another story, for another time.) The result was a ridiculously imperfect painting of one of my favourite views over Georgian Bay. (Above.)
I painted from memory at first. And I painted things that made me happy. I lost time when I painted. I listened to audio books and podcasts. All of a sudden I had more paintings than walls, and no where to put them. And then, the beautiful women at Thornbloom encouraged me to try selling them. And my ridiculously quirky, naive paintings started to sell. And that gave me the confidence to keep going, learn from mistakes, and start over... in all aspects of life. Painting took me from sad and bored, to happy and productive.
Marilyn Monroe – who was clearly having a good day – is quoted as saying, 'Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.'
Thankfully, I have selfless, supportive friends who encourage my ridiculousness, and push me to be better. Friends like Deb, who also inspired me to start writing, many moons ago. She's never once asked me to drop everything, bring her wood and light her fire. In fact, she's lit my creative fire over and over and over. Check Deb out at: decomama.blogspot.ca/.
And so, until I figure out how to buy a quirky little French farmhouse studio with pale, minty-green shutters – I am grateful for my new Christmas easel. It allows me to move freely, and to keep my cool. And isn't that what it's all about?
So, happy THIS year, everyone. May you dig out the strength inside you to win the struggles, to diffuse drama with laughter, and to be your truest, most absolutely ridiculous self.
Light your own fucking fire.