One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

29 August 2012

The Ghosts and the Bears

The sagebrush seems empty, then it shimmers...a grizzly walks out, swings her mighty head toward the road and moves into the open with cubs tumbling behind her...I blink and the sagebrush is empty again.

The Teton/Yellowstone parks are inextricably woven into the tapestry of my life....and therefore, they are full of ghosts.

Some are ghosts of those gone...my Dad, my old dog, the magnificent bears "264", "Blaze", "760" and others.

Some are ghosts of moments that seem to echo year after year...and each year there are more of them.

For much of the time since my first visit, Teton/Yellowstone has been my refuge. Through all my travels, it was the one place I always returned to.

When I would leave the Tetons...it felt as if my heart was being torn out by the roots...rather significant for a girl with a tumbleweed soul who has never felt rooted anywhere.

Early on, Autumn was what I associated with the Parks...bugling elk, moose in the rut, pouncing coyotes, browsing black bears, fall arts festivals and golden aspens quaking under cerulean skies.

It was years before I saw my first grizzly...a distant bear roaming the slopes below Dunraven Pass. After the bear vanished into the trees, the guy standing next to me said "I feel like my heart just fell out of my chest". I had to agree and still feel that way every time I see a bear...

One spring when I needed to run away from the world, I wound up in the Tetons and worked my way north to Yellowstone... landing in the middle of my first serious bear jam.

Little did I know that the grizzlies I watched and the people I met that spring would change my life.

The bears, in particular, seem to be the common thread through the life lessons learned in the Parks.

Seeing, photographing and painting bears might have been my "goal"...but it has been the experiences along the way that have been of real value.

During my time among the grizzlies, I have met people briefly who touched my life deeply...and have forged extraordinary friendships that transcend the boundaries of the Park.

There are the ghosts of times when I escaped to the park to sort out the pieces after one sort of heartbreak or another...and exquisite moments of wonder that happily haunt me still.

Along my many miles and many years through the parks, I have been awestruck by things I've never seen before...and grief-stricken over those I will never see again.

I've tried to hold on and, finally, learned to let go.

Maybe it is the ambient heat of the geothermal features that throws fuel on the fire of my passion and melts the sometimes broken shards of my T2 soul, turning the pieces to quicksilver that pools together into something stronger (and hopefully wiser) each time.

There are ghost bears that walk through my dreams, play in my imagination and live in my heart. They wander out of the sagebrush of my soul and onto my canvases.

The ghosts and the bears keep the Parks alive in my heart...and, maybe just as importantly, keep my heart alive in the Parks.

Originally published June 15, 2007

19 August 2012

The Blind Side

From the time I could hold a crayon, I wanted to be an artist...no, I KNEW I was an artist. About eight years ago, I discovered a love for writing...and thoughts poured out of me faster than I could line them up into words. Between bouts of painting I wrote essays, poems and songs.

Suddenly, I stopped.
Earlier this year I stopped doing other things I loved...and finally, a couple of months ago...
I stopped painting.

As I look back over the old posts here (and the dates), I wonder how one can get so far from something they love...especially when you're doing it for love. Funny how we can find ourselves so far down a path that we are blind-sided before we realize we might have taken a wrong turn along the way.
Then again...I don't really believe there are wrong turns...

There is a Buddhist saying: when you come to a fork in the road, choose the harder path. In hindsight, I remember seeing some of the breaks in the brush, game-trails and even four-lane highways that might have put me "back on track". Hindsight changes nothing, though...the experiences, "good" and "bad", are already woven into the tapestry of my soul. Whether in travel or art, I've never liked backtracking...the same applies to life, so those missed trails will be left unexplored this time around. We don't have the luxury of foresight to tell us which trail to choose, so the best we can do is choose the path that feels right and make the best of it. In present-sight, I am deeply grateful for the trails and trials that have brought me to this point in my life.

It is too easy to judge ourselves and/or the people and experiences that brought us to where we are...but the truth is that it is not our place to judge and there is no point to judgement. Seriously...does patting yourself on the back, beating yourself up with regret, working yourself up into a rage or blaming someone/something else EVER change ANYthing? It is what it is...and we, alone, choose what we do with the experience...and what we learn from it.

Every moment of our life, we make choices...including what to remember. Memory is a beautiful and dangerous thing. On a grand scale, history continues to repeat itself because of what we choose to remember...and what we refuse to see. The same applies to us as individuals. Choosing to see only the best in things (or people) is great, in theory...but maybe isn't always a good decision. By the same token, focusing on the bad is no better...there needs to be balance.

We have a tendency to put blinders on as we move through life. There are things we don't want to see, refuse to acknowledge and are at a loss to understand. Sometimes it is easier to close down the field of view than to try and look at the things that make us uncomfortable. Then again, sometimes it is necessary to narrow your focus to get through a tough stretch or attain a goal. The question is...how do we know WHEN to turn a blind eye? How do we know when we are choosing to see only what we WANT to see and missing something vital?

The hardest life lesson may be learning to pay attention to your inner voice...especially when it whispers something you don't want to hear. Listening to your intuition in the first place is not an easy thing when we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by "white noise"...the inane babble of television, the chatter of the people who surround us and so much more...not the least of which being our own minds.

How do you determine when you are thinking too much...or not enough?
How do you know whether to follow your heart, go with your gut or mind your mind?
How do we learn to take the blinders off once and for all?

We learn by trying and failing...by leaping and falling...by taking that first step and tripping over our own feet...by trusting, having that trust betrayed, then trusting again...by loving and losing...and, ultimately, by simply continuing to get up, brush off the dirt, (hopefully have a good laugh)...and then going for it again.

Maybe finding an ear for our intuition has nothing to do with filtering the "noise" around us...and is more about finding love, respect and trust WITHIN ourselves and FOR ourselves.

We have the innate ability to tap into something greater than ourselves if we just take the time to listen. Like everything worth doing, this takes practice. It means making the effort to look at our world and our actions with objectivity, love, detachment, forgiveness and compassion.

It seems I haven't got it down pat, yet...but I will keep practicing.

17 August 2012


Originally published January 13, 2006

For a long time I have seen life as a tapestry that we weave through our years. Like any weaving, it's hard to imagine the whole in the beginning...colors seem random and incongruous. Eventually though, a pattern emerges. Every experience, every encounter, every emotion is a colored thread in the tapestry.

A tapestry in progress is malleable...there may be a pattern, an idea of what you want the finished image to be...but you aren't locked into that.

The threads previously woven are integral to the whole...but the row you're weaving at the moment is mutable...and the finish can be whatever you desire.

I try to look objectively at what I've woven so far and when a pattern or color scheme isn't working, try to change it. I don't believe in trying to rip out threads in an effort to make my past more pleasing to the eye/heart/mind/conscious...but prefer to adapt the work of the moment to balance and complement the past. It is about moving forward, not getting tangled up trying to undo what's already done.

Maybe wisdom is gained in seeing the importance of every thread in the structural integrity of the whole and appreciating how the tone of melancholy compliments the tint of joy...how the hue of loss balances the value of love...and so on.

So when I look at my tapestry so far, I try to see beyond the grim mistakes and clashes in color schemes...beyond the tear stains (and blood stains)...beyond the beautiful strands, accidents of design and oh-so-rare moments of pure genius...and look only at the work overall. It is perfectly fine despite it's imperfection, simple for all it's complexity, incredibly strong because, in part, of it's weaknesses...and there is a LOT of thread left to weave.

16 August 2012

Learning to Sit

Originally published August 6, 2006

The practice of "sitting" to meditate has always confounded me. I have never been good at sitting still...literally or figuratively. None of the suggested techniques for practicing meditation have ever seemed to ring true.

It could be said that they never worked for me because I didn't try hard enough...but I don't think that is really the case. In my opinion (for what it's worth), anything we do, be it a religious/spiritual practice, an art form, a political decision, an athletic activity, or whatever...requires looking within for the path/style/technique/idea that resonates.

So it was with "sitting" for me...

This spring I spent a great deal of time watching bird nests. It began with bluebirds and flickers when I found a couple of beautiful nests with uncharacteristically large entrance holes. I was able to watch the parents hunt and feed. When the parents were away, the young would sit in the opening (as many as four at a time). I found a chipping sparrow nest, as well...and weathered hour upon hour of heat and biting flies hoping to see some of these young birds fledge.

While standing, for hours at a time, behind my tripod watching these nests...I also saw chipmunks, chislers and an assortment of other bird species working the meadow around me. Raptors soared overhead and mule deer wandered by me. One afternoon a coyote stepped out of the brush a few yards away and howled...then its mate materialized from the sage below me and the two greeted one another before trotting off together.

From this nest site, I watched a grizzly spend hours flipping rocks on the hillside above me...and on another day a black bear ambled right through "my" meadow.

One morning I drove in at dawn when the park was quiet. I'd forgotten my tripod, so I carried the big lens up and sat in the grass to watch the most recent bluebird nest I'd found. Without a tripod I couldn't get a good angle to shoot from., and, though I could sort of balance the lens on my knee, I wasn't really shooting...
just watching...

A Robin flew toward me, eyelevel, skimming the tops of the grasses. Ten feet from a collision with my face it suddenly saw me and adjusted its course. Kinglets, chickadees and warblers bopped through the branches around my head and young Ravens screamed to be fed from their canyon nest behind me. Nuthatches called from the trees, chipmunks scampered down logs, insects buzzed by and a spring spotted fawn bounded across the meadow.

In the air above me, an osprey called and played with a stick clutched in its talons and on the ground a breeze ruffled the grasses. A junco chanced to land on the top of the stump that housed the bluebird nest and the female bluebird gave it a sound thrashing. Siskins called from the pines...and over the hill somewhere a woodpecker that I never could identify rapped away at a tree. Behind me carload after carload of tourists stopped, unloaded, wandered around the pullout, looked off into the canyon, laughed, chatted and then left. As happened at the other nest sites, the world moved and breathed around me as I sat quietly...and my "other" thoughts came and went.

It was there, sitting in the grass with my camera in my lap that "sitting" began to resonate for me. It is not about shutting your mind to the thoughts and experiences...it is about letting them pour through you and move around you without "attachment". It is letting the inevitable ideas, images and emotions move through your mind like birds, wildlife and breezes through a meadow.

Maybe "sitting" is not about shutting out the world to find a greater understanding...it is about feeling the moment fully and moving effortlessly to the next one.

Maybe it is not about separating yourself from the world but becoming one with it...learning to let everything, the passing thoughts, breezes, emotions, birds, dreams, bears, loves and losses begin to move in and out of you as naturally as the air you breathe.

Maybe "sitting" is about releasing your focus to heighten your awareness. Ironically, it seems the more you let go of what you see and feel, the more aware you become of what is happening in and around you. When you let go of your "attachment" to what you WANT from the world...the world begins to give itself to you.

There is a reason they call it a practice...it doesn't come easily.

Sadly, it IS easy to let the chatter of thoughts muddy your mind, it IS easy to take things and people for granted, it IS easy to get tangled up in the details and lose your perspective, and it IS easy to get so focused on the destination that you forget to enjoy the journey.

In a way, I have known how to meditate all of my life...I have found it on long drives (what I call my "peace of the road")...in carving tele turns and casting a fly...in wandering the street markets and Wats of Southeast Asia...on hiking trails and while waiting for wild things...in the feel of a loaded brush on linen and the view between horse ears...and so much more.

Deep down we all know how to "sit", we just need to stop thinking long enough to remember...

15 August 2012

Take a Deep Breath

In his 1967 essay "Breathing the Future and the Past", astronomer Harlow Shapley wrote:

"Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Gandhi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets. We have argon from the sighs and pledges of ancient lovers, from the battle cries at Waterloo..."argon atoms associate us, by an airy bond, with the past and the future...
"Our next breaths, yours and mine, will sample the snorts, sighs, bellows, shrieks, cheers, and spoken prayers of the prehistoric and historic past.."

That concept first crossed my radar when I read it as paraphrased in "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen:
"each breath we take contains hundreds of thousands of the inert, pervasive argon atoms that were actually breathed in his lifetime by the Buddha..."

To me, the thought that we are connected to everything that is, was and will be...by something so simple, vital, and intimate as our breath...is compelling.

By Shapley's math/philosophy we are in an intimate relationship with everything that breathes or has breathed. For what can be more intimate than a shared breath?

In contrast to this inescapable intimacy, like most creatures, we are extremely territorial....and, like most other species, we mark our boundaries with sign.

Like bears reaching their height to claw mark a tree...or cats backing up to scent mark as high as possible...or Daffy Duck defiantly wrapping his arms around a pile of cartoon gold and squawking "mine, mine, mine!"...we go to great lengths to define what "belongs" to us.

Human signs may be literal: "no trespassing"..."don't touch"..."no parking"..."keep out", marking boundaries of geographical property "ownership". We often take that one, or two, or ten steps further, though...our boundaries and "territory" may be political, theoretical, theological, ideological, artistic, intellectial, social, racial or sexual.

Maybe George Carlin put it best: "My shit is stuff and everybody else's stuff is shit."

What is it that makes us so determined to draw lines and build fences on the ground, in the air and in our minds?

We clamor for our individuality and independence...but, in reality, we are a species that moves in bands, herds, tribes, cliques, teams, gangs, societies and committees. Most people seek to gather with like minds...be it over politics, religion, music, race, fashion or myriad other "clubs". Do we require "them" to define "us"...or do we need an "us" because we are afraid to stand alone?

Evolutionist vs Creationist...Democrat vs Republican...rancher vs environmentalist...good vs evil...straight vs gay...fundamentalist vs atheist...PC vs Mac...black vs white...and there it is, the bottom line...black and white.

Perhaps people long for everything to be as simple as "black and white".
From the time we are children, we begin to judge, categorize and label everything around and within us.  It begins on the simplest level...Mom/Dad, good/bad, hot/cold, inside/outside, red/green. As we gather more information, we subdivide the categories further and further...simple dichotomous forks become complex systems of branches.

If the move to a polychotomous key for labeling what we encounter isn't bad enough, there are constant variables, tidal shifts, observer effects, "new" discoveries and so forth to keep us guessing endlessly.

Black and white is far easier to grasp than the infinite shades of gray and innumerable hues of color that paint the countless planes of reality.
But what would happen if we could forget about the black and white for a moment and immerse ourselves the plethora of colors in between? If we could stop auto-labeling and begin trying to cultivate empathy and understanding?

Every individual has their own unique perspective on life...their own set of dreams, experiences, hopes, tragedies, sorrows, accomplishments, failures, beliefs, fears, desires, struggles, passions, losses and loves.

How do we learn to find some common ground via our archetypical similarities rather than pre-judging based on race, gender, religion, fashion, politics, geography, sports, ideology or whatever?

It is one thing to have compassion and understanding for "us" and the people/creatures with which we have a sympathetic/empathetic/charismatic connection. Shapley and Matthiessen speak of breathing the argon of Gandhi and Buddha respectively...but we have that same "airy bond" with the Mao Zedong, Hitler, the Kardashians, mosquitos and the guy who just cut us off in traffic.

Having compassion does not mean you have to agree with or even like someone...but rather respect that they have a different point of view and remember that they share essentially the same dreams, fears, sorrows and air as you do.

Maybe being territorial is about being afraid...a base, primal reaction to the "unknown". Sadly, many societies channel that fear into a "strike first" mentality...convert them or conquer them...and if we can't make them into "us", then kill 'em.

How sad to think of the innumerable lives and cultures lost in the name of one god or another, one political system or another, one oilfield or another, one color or another...and to what point? The fact of the matter is that, despite our best efforts to hold tightly, nothing is ever "ours" for long anyway....

Maybe, if we could let down our guard a little, fight our innate tendency to judge and label...we might just learn that "they" have a great deal to offer...and we all have a lot more in common than we'd sometimes like to admit.

And maybe, just maybe...with a little compassion and cooperation, we could channel our "superior intelligence" into finding non-violent solutions for the problems facing this planet and ALL who inhabit it.

Just take a deep breath...