My dear border collie’s body had been cold less than 30 hours when a friend and I went to an art exhibit by faculty members of Virginia Wesleyan College. My friend, a specialist in digital photography manipulation, was one of these artists.
On display were photographic images etched into stainless steel; large glass animal figurines, both whimsical and dark; small houses made of a medium unknown to me but washed with color and adorned with strips of what appeared to be bamboo or wood; photographic mélanges narrative in nature; and more.
What really grabbed my attention were objects on three rectangular tables that ran down the center of the gallery. They held an array of various shaped pieces, arranged in groups or alone, all, made of clear glass. Several reminded me of bacteria I’ve seen under a high-powered microscope. Another suggested gray matter, but my favorite series looked like artfully arranged bottoms of hand-blown bottles spit out by the sea. All of these pieces contained what looked to be sand.
But it wasn’t. It was the ashes of the artist’s dead dog.
I learned this from my friend who read aloud the statement by glass artist, Charlotte Potter. I would have read it myself if I had not been caught up in the ethereal beauty of the objects that lay before me. Or if I had know that I would fall asleep later that night and wake the next morning thinking of this exhibit titled, “Cellular Reliquary,” wanting to write about it. Why didn’t I pull out my cell and snap a photo or two? Why did it take me so long to understand the glass shapes symbolized parts of a cell and a dog’s body?Maybe I should have been freaked out or feeling guilty that for the first time in my adult life I did not save my pet’s body or ashes and lay them somewhere special. When my Australian shepherd died three years or so ago, I kept her remains in a tin on top of the microwave because she loved food. I moved them when we renovated out kitchen, Now, I have no idea where they are. Because of that, I did not ask for the return of dear Gracie’s ashes, which would have required me to find a large dead fish on the beach on which to sprinkle them.
The artist’s dog weighed just over 84 pounds, which provides a good amount of ash and bone chips with which to work. With that in mind, the total weight of her exhibit equals the weight of her dog less the weight of the soul, a human one, which in 1907 was determined to be 21 grams or .74 ounces. Since then a number of scientists and physicians have debunked this, citing there were too many variables regarding the weight and quibbling about whether a soul is energy or mass or hocus-pocus.
I will not confuse you with all I’ve read about dark plasma, electron accelerators, how energy can become mass and subject to the laws of gravity, the science of Noetics, etc.
Just know that like any good art will do, this exhibit by Charlotte Potter send me searching for more information. Even though most of it has been contradictory, the possibility that a soul has weight comforts me, and the artist’s creative way of memorializing her dog continues to awe me.
And I hate to admit it, but I’ve taken to looking at my remaining two dogs and one cat as potential works of art.
Potter’s work and others’ will be on display in the Hofheimer Library at VWC until Oct. 5, 2013. If you would like to see her work online, go to http://www.charlottepotter.com/Artist.asp?ArtistID=29721&Akey=Y44GHA99.
Cooley & Rose update: The Goodreads.com giveaway has ended. Three copies of Cooley & Rose are on their way to readers in Connecticut, Florida and Colorado.
Nine books clubs that I know of have chosen to read Cooley & Rose. One of these is a couples reading club. That should be an interesting conversation.
It’s the same answer for anyone who comes to our house, and, upon seeing the stately 1934 upright in the corner of great room, asks. I can’t play for others. I haven’t been able to since I quit lessons at age 14.
My love for the piano started when I was four and sang along as my grandmother pounded out hymns on my great grandmother’s piano in her small bungalow in South Norfolk. She played everything by ear, from the cheery “Jesus Loves The Little Children” to the heart-wrenching “Just As I Am.”
When I was seven, Santa Claus brought me a piano, an old, flat black- enameled Charles M. Stieff upright, and I was thrilled. My parents placed it our remodeled garage and hired a piano teacher for my older brother and me. No one asked if I minded sharing. If I dared touched one of his gifts, I could count on receiving an Indian burn on my wrist or even, worse, a tickling until I screamed from pain and someone grew tired of the sound. Little did my brother or I know that, in time, he would receive his comeuppance, and so would I.
Our first teacher was a minister’s wife who taught us in her home a few miles from where we lived in Princess Anne County. After we got past the business of learning notes, playing basic scales, and flying through a series of piano primers, we started on hymns. But they didn’t have the pep of my grandmother’s music, and I told her so. She showed me how to add a zippy swing bass. I took the most dirge-like songs from the hymnals and put my own spin on them until they became joyous and almost danceable. In another time and place, such as on The Voice in 2013 , Blake Shelton or Adam Levine might have been praised interpretations, or not. But this was back in the 1960s South.
One Sunday when the pianist for the Sunday School assembly didn’t show up, I was asked to play for our group of nine- to twelve-year olds at our Southern Baptist Church. Both the teachers and kids had a hard time with my unique pacing, and as I played “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” I could feel and hear their struggle as they stumbled over the words. Afterwards, one of the teachers suggested that maybe my style wasn’t what Jesus had intended for hymns.
During my third year of studying piano, my mother switched my teacher to a woman who had moved down the street from our house. She was not a preacher’s wife. In addition to being a pianist, she was the concertmistress for the Norfolk Symphony, a first-class violinist and member of a well-known chamber quartet. She also commuted to New York to teach music at Julliard.
For a couple of years, all went well, even though she had banned the playing of swing bass during lessons. Instead of church music, she brought out sheets of classical music, compositions from Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok. It was soon after that my brain lost it ability to grasp new musical concepts and mathematic formulas and to understand much of my science texts. It was as though something in my brains had frayed. I went from being a good student to borderline mediocre one.
Exactly what happened, I’ll never know. Perhaps I was tired from the nine-hours days of school and the travel involved, or the lack of sleep from coughing night after night for no reason that our family doctor could discover. The hour of daily practice, which I was never allowed to skip, felt like a slow never-ending torture.
My teacher, whom I admired greatly and hated to disappoint with my lack of progress, threatened to send a report card to my parents, and I thought that was a fine idea. Maybe my folks would see it was time for me to stop lessons, to stop wasting their money. But my teacher didn’t follow through on her threat. I slogged on, even though my brother was allowed to quit.
By the time I was 14, my pleas to give up lessons had worn down my mother. The last time I intentionally played before another person was during my last lesson. I don’t think my teacher was sorry to see me go.
But I didn’t stop playing. A friend I visited in D.C. had a lovely-sounding piano. While she ran her son to afterschool activities, I stayed behind to play it on the sly. One of these times I played for a least two hours the music I heard in my head, and when I stopped a moment to rest and breathe, I was broken from my trance by the words, “What was the name of that?” She had been listening for almost an hour, astonished to hear me play for the first time in our decade of friendship.
One of my brothers also had a fine baby grand, and on holidays when the family was gathered in another room, I would slip off to play until I was swarmed by kids, at least two of them crawling onto the bench with me. I’d stop what I was doing and hammer out Jingle Bells so they could sing or teach them how to play “Chopsticks,” but I played nothing more.
Once I had a house with enough room for my upright, I had it moved to there. For years I played it out of tune before calling Charley “The Tuner” Garrison, whose father had done the job until he passed. Charley came again last year for the last time. Not much later, he, too, died. I cannot look at my old piano without seeing Charley seated on its bench, hearing him praise the workmanship that went into the making of such an instrument. He never minded its yellow keys.
I still play when I am alone. Not everyday. Not every week. I play at times when I need to be calmed, to stop from thinking of the past or future, to be in the moment. Sometimes the music comes from my head. Other times it comes from sheet music I’ve downloaded and tinkered with. But I only play when I believe no one is around, listening, breathing, because it’s the only way I can.
Notes: Want to win one of three free paperback copies of Cooley & Rose. The Goodreads.com First Book Giveaway continues until Sept. 15, 2013. Surf on over, and add your name to the drawing. Here’s the link: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17997446-cooley-rose.
Cooley & Rose is available in ebook format for all readers and in paperback from all online stores. You can also order paperback copies from your favorite neighborhood brick store.
By the way, the library bookcase in the Presidential Suite of one of the world’s most famous hotels has Cooley & Rose on its shelf! How cool is that. . .
If you’ve read and enjoyed Cooley & Rose, please help the indie cause by spreading the word or writing a review or two. Such kindness would be greatly appreciated.
Maybe it was the fish tacos and too much pinot gris at dinner. Or the craving for dark chocolate and crushed peanuts that followed. Who know why I, or anyone else, spent Tuesday night tossing and turning between fits of waking and sleeping
That was the night I found myself in the living room of an old two-story house with a stoop, its exterior shingled in navy squares of asbestos. Inside was a group of people who were dressed as though they were going to church, one that required dresses for women and suits for men. A woman in a royal purple wrap and black patent leather pumps, sat on an olive green couch. She looked familiar, much like someone whose face I knew from Goodreads.com but had never met in real life.
I didn’t know what I was doing in this place more than an hour from my house and feared it was a start-up church, the kind that focused on the Old Testament, perhaps used the New Testament in ways Jesus would not have liked. I’d been done with bad news churches for decades and had no interest in squirming through a sermon that would leave me snippy.
Now, the good news in this story is that these people, all middle-aged and white, had gathered in the middle of nowhere in a starkly furnished house to play a kind of charades that involved no alcohol or shouting. Even the silent gestural clues were modest. Such civility intimated me into silence. I had no idea a party game could be so dull. When there was a break, I plotted my getaway and stood to leave, but something amazing happened before I acted on it. As I opened to door to leave, President Obama and the First Lady came through up to the door and entered. I decided to stay a while longer.
Rather than shake hands or politicize, the Obamas, too, came to play charades. They were crazy about the game. Before taking a seat, Michelle said to me, “I heard about your novel, Cooley & Rose. I want to read it.”
Thrilled – how did she know me? – I excused myself to go to my car to grab a copy, even though, until that moment, I had no idea how I’d driven there. Dreams are like that. Details come when you truly need them. All the way to the car and back, I reminded myself to take a photo of Michelle holding my book, to ask someone to take a picture of the two of us. Once I was inside, however, I was so awed by the power of word-of-mouth, especially the mouth that knew a First Lady, that I forgot my intentions. I left with no recorded memory of the moment, and nothing to help sell my modest indie undertaking. The disappointment was crushing.
And it was the next morning, too, when I woke from my dream. I still wanted those photos.
I had gone outside and started tying the first of fifty or so shiny gold ribbons on the fig tree when a mockingbird landed on the nearby split-rail fence and started, well, mocking me, as though I were a fool who credited him with less than a birdbrain. I tried to scare him off by duplicating the sound of a shotgun blast, but that came out as a soft pop of air and failed to ruffle even one feather.
He continued to taunt me. I paid him no mind as I moved from one branch to another cutting and tying on streamers. It wasn’t until a blue jay settled into a high bough, cursing, that the idea came to me to curl the ribbons so they might dangle and dance on a breezy day or appear as snakes on a calm one.
Sadly, neither of these threatens a blue jay which loves bright shiny objects. Already she was probably planning to feather her next nest with them, a nest that would be built long after she and her family and friends had eaten the figs and the leaves had fallen and been raked.
I am willing to share, but I have my limits. Several years before an arborist came to prune the tree, three herding dogs barking from the windows of the man cave and long silver streamers twirling under the leaves discouraged wild life from eating the fruit hanging from the lower branches.
This year I had not even gone through a spool of gold before a squirrel leaped from the roof of the house onto a branch opposite the blue jay. That is when I understood two things –these animals, which were not made to mix, no longer feared the barks that came from within our home, and they had formed an alliance to shoo me from this goddess of all fig trees.
Just last year my 89-year-old Gene had made a short video in his backyard of a fox and raccoon eating leftover spaghetti from the same bowl. It was a scene from the peaceable kingdom. No one made a fuss. Especially not Gene, who prefers the food prepared by The Golden Corral to his own.
But I can’t say there will any quiet here for the next three weeks. Maybe if I channeled my Native American ancestors, I would waive ownership of the tree and give into these greedy critters, which will soon be drunk from the sugar fermenting in their tiny brains. But since I, too, have a passion for figs — plain, broiled with prosciutto and cheese or preserved. I won’t.
It’s time to let the dogs out.
Last week, a friend went to Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore and stayed at an inn for a few days and met the couple who was running the inn while the owners slipped away to to a Jimmy Buffett concert across theChesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach. After my friend learned the wife grew up in South Norfolk, she told her of my novel, Cooley & Rose, which begins and ends in her hometown.
The substitute innkeeper downloaded the e-book and immediately read it. What follows is a portion of the email she wrote to my friend.
“Just finished reading Cooley & Rose. I love it and imagined the place she wrote about to be places from my childhood. My sister did the same. She even mentioned a Mrs. Dowdy being “saved.” That was my maiden name, and my great grandmother was extremely religious . . .”
If you think this is a shameless plug for Cooley & Rose, you’re only half right. There’s a story here.
Because I thought the reader would be interested, I wrote her the following:
“I think that your religious great-grandmother was probably the woman that my grandmother referred to as “Sister Dowdy.” I don’t think I ever met her, but my grandmother talked about her often, and the name stayed in my mind for all of these years. I liked the sound of “Dowdy,” so I used it.”
I went on to give her some of my family background – the names of my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great aunt and her husband who was the local pharmacist.
She replied to my email. The first line read, “I think we are related!” Then she told me why. In short, our great-grandmothers were sisters. As adults, they lived only three houses away from each other.
Now, I also have unknown cousins on my mother’s side, and only the Chesapeake Bay separates me from this one, whom I hope to meet soon.
What I haven’t told her is that about 15 years ago, my HOBL and I went to the town where she lived and looked at property, and we came across a charming old brick church that was for sale. In my mind I began envisioning it as a house, then as a home, but my HOBL nixed that idea when he learned that the town didn’t have a clay tennis court.
If it had, my new cousin and I might have discovered each other sooner.
NOTE: Goodreads.com is giving away three paperback copies of Cooley & Rose. Deadline to submit our request is Sept. 15, 2013. Paperbacks are for sale at Amazon.com, and e-books are available for all readers. Visit your favorite online store.