The first time I painted outdoors was on the north shore of the island of Kauai, under the brooding presence of the mighty Pele. In the Hawaiian religion, Pele (pronounced [ˈpɛlɛ]), the Fire Goddess, is the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. She begets her own weather, generating rainstorms that send torrents lashing down her sides; her peak is the wettest place on earth. As I settled myself on the beach and began painting, the massive cloud cloaking the volcano darkened. Her wind picked up, lifting the paint on my damp paper—suddenly I was not only painting Pele, I was painting with her. She decided where the paint would go, not I. It was quite the initiation to painting on site—to paint with a volcano is humbling.
In this part of Oregon we often get a little February break from the cold rain, when the clouds part and warm (sort of) sunshine pours in. We got such an interim this week. I was in downtown Eugene one afternoon, temporarily free of my winter coat and comfortable in only my wool sweater, when I saw this shorts-and-Tshirt-clad young man come wheeling along on his skateboard, dog in tow with one hand, fishing rod in the other. Was that Summer passing before my eyes? What month is this?! And if he is fine in shorts and short sleeves, why do I need wool and corduroys?
4:50am PST, January 31, 2018. Clouds had been forecast, but at our house the night was mostly clear, with wisps of mist veiling over the moon, making it appear to pulse. It was fun that it happened to be a “blue moon,” the second full moon in the calendar month; it was spectacular that it happened to be a “super moon,” the full moon closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit; it was magnificent as it became a “blood moon,” with the shadow of the Earth totally eclipsing its brilliant face, painting it red.
“Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from masters.” – St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Many, many times I’ve been under this tree down the hill from our house; recently I really looked at it for the first time. It grows as one oak tree, but originally there were three individual ones. As they grew their trunks united at the base; two of them grew together again higher up where they rubbed each other, and then separately once more. It makes quite the sculpture, this intertwining dance of three trees in one. Conventional thinking usually assumes that trees too close together compete for resources—this looks more like cooperation.
So much noise this week. Aren’t we better than this? Surely? When the one at the head of the administration spews heedlessly, I could easily do the same out of my own anger and frustration.
Time to gather myself. If I want to work for good, I’d better be sure that it is out of a spirit of good that I am working. Along my news feed came this poem by Jack Ridl, which aptly settled my seething into quiet. I headed for my studio to paint with the poem.
Next I’ll start writing letters to my representatives. Again.
Come listen to me and hear my song,
The song of a wondrous youth,
I’ll sing of Olaf Åsteson
Who slept many days, ’tis the truth.
Yes, it was Olaf Åsteson
Who lay so long a-sleeping.*
The Dream Song of Olaf Åsteson, a fifth-century Norwegian saga of which only fragments exist today, describes the spiritual experiences of Olaf Åsteson, who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dreams until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. This saga has fascinated me since I discovered it years ago, and I always read it this time of year. There’s something about stepping into something so ancient that girds me for the New Year.
*Translation by Eleanor C. Merry
In these bleak days of midwinter the light glows within. The darkness intensifies its brightness, the cold enhances its warmth. It might be the most potent time of year.