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This Weekend’s Medicine

It was a bit of a scramble finding somewhere to go this weekend, but I did manage to get away. I’d contacted my friends Colin and Niki in desperation – they have a house upstate they rent out, and I was hoping they’d kept it for themselves this weekend so I could visit. No such luck; but they’d found a cheap motel nearby in the Catskills, and gave me the number and I got the last room. (There aren’t many rooms in the place, really.)  We ended up with next-door rooms, so we’ve been having a bit of a college dorm-ish weekend, traipsing back and forth into each other’s rooms and sharing food.

And it was a weekend we all needed to get away. I’ve had a week full of deadlines and last-minute fire drills both at my day job and with writing work, and also at one point was trying to support another long-distance friend cope after some very bad news, a task which at one point had me considering contacting a doctor in a completely different country. Colin’s also had some rough news recently and has had to go on a couple of solo contemplative walks.  We were each hoping to get some hiking in anyway – but about an hour after we checked in a huge cloudbank brought rain which lasted 36 straight hours.

We did tough it out, though, for a trip to a horse rescue an old theater friend runs upstate. They were having an open house, at which they said a “Navajo Healing Ceremony” would take place, and people were welcome to watch. About 20 or 30 of us had turned up, and were milling about for an hour, trying to wave at the horses in a distant field and picking our way cautiously over the muddy ground (“although I’m not sure how much of this mud really is mud,” I muttered to Colin at one point) and curiously stealing peeks at the two brothers who were conducting the ceremony, too shy to ask about their tools and eavesdrop as they spoke to each other in soft Dine.

They huddled us all into a side barn when the rain got too heavy, and the brothers each spoke to us a bit; one told us the creation story of the horse, how different nature spirits were used to create each part of its body. They both spoke a lot, though, about the kind of healing they were doing – the energy the horses would draw from the eagle feather they stroked it with, from the smudge smoke they used, even the good will of all of us there today. And the horses would be healing us too – taking any of our negativity and discharging that into the land, and taking healing energy to the land as well.

The energy-transfer stuff was the kind of talk that is a little easy for Western-canon college educated folk to be skeptical about; Niki joked afterward that “I’m pretty sure if someone stroked me with feathers and blew smoke in my face to get me high, I’d be feeling pretty good after that too.”  But it was probably lurking in all of our subconscious; we were a bit more reserved and mellow that evening, and turned in early.

And it was on my mind when i got up this morning. Early, despite my trying to lull myself back to sleep. But I was wide awake by 7:30, with no hope of falling back asleep; and no chance of Colin or Niki being awake. I puttered in my room a bit, then suddenly found myself pulling on a jacket and jeans. Maybe there was something to this healing-from-the-land stuff, I thought. I’d take a walk, find some corner of the woods surrounding the hotel and just sit for a while.  The road to the hotel ended in a dead end, but a dirt path continued further into the woods; I started down the path, seeing a few houses scattered along its length, and turned back when I saw a “no trespassing”.  Then I realized that there was something I hadn’t  seen – cars in front of any of the houses.  I turned back.

The night before, part of the conversation turned to grumbling about our work. All three of us are artists of one form or another, and all three of us are at that frustrating stage where a handful of people know about you, and there’s even a tiny bit of money coming in, but nowhere near enough to live on, so you have to either have a day job like me or scramble for money or take on side work that exhausts you.  No one really following you is what frustrates me the most; sometimes it feels like I’m Emily Dickinson, tapping out some words that no one is really going to know about until I’m dead. What’s the point?

The thing is, though, that isn’t even what I was thinking of as I followed the dirt road into the woods.  I was thinking more of having to get ready for work the next day, deciding when to get the bus home. I passed a couple of houses in different stages of repair; one that looked in good shape, one festooned with blue construction tarps.  I gave them only the quickest of glances as I walked, before looking back to the road in front of me, seeing but not seeing as I thought.

Then at the next house I stopped. It was also under repair – the whole side wall was stripped of siding and had drywall exposed. A couple of other blue tarps fluttered from a couple of the windows. But what stopped me was the arch over the path to the door – made of old scrap wood, broken glass, and tinfoil.

I stepped closer. The whole front had been painted like a gypsy caravan, with flowers and vines and leaves twining around each window and along the door frame.  Tiny yellow stick figures chased each other through the flowers, and here and there a skull leered as well. A huge sign stretched the breadth of the house – “Super Art Company”. The letters had been painstakingly molded out of sheets of tinfoil rolled into snakes. The window panes were either stained glass, or clear glass with “leading” tracery made of the same kind of tinfoil snakes, while more tinfoil lacework graced the windows on the second floor and the porch.  A dollar sign of tinfoil hung in one second-story window, and a huge devil mask was hung beside one front window.  

There was a “fence” around the property – I was now standing inside it – made of more scrap wood, stuck haphazardly into the ground like wildflowers. A couple of the taller posts had crosspieces at the top, from which things dangled in a sort of mobile – glass Christmas balls, a toy truck, a doll.  Many of the posts also were painted with the same flowers and stick figures, or flattened tin cans.  Some had the same phrase “Super Art” on them.  There were another couple of “Super Art” signs littering the yard, some of scrap plywood, some of cardboard, one of a big sheet of drywall. A couple tables were set up in the yard; one had a box with a new-looking seashell collection on it, the other had a big box of empty cat food cans.

There was no clue who lived there – or whether anyone did live there – and there was absolutely no way that anyone could even find the place, tucked in the middle of a small Catskill town down a dirt road with no-trespassing signs running its length.  It was exactly the kind of shack you would expect a somewhat mad hermit would be living in. And yet, the whole thing was a riot of color and decoration and art, even if the person who owned it was the only one who would ever see it.  He wanted to make “Super Art” signs and grinning devil masks, so he made them.  He wanted an iron scrollwork screen for his top floor, but he didn’t have iron, so he used tinfoil.  Simple as that.

I had no idea until I saw this house that it was exactly the medicine I needed to see. Even if you are the only one who knows about the art you make, it’s still out there in the world. It’s made you happy, and that’s sometimes enough.  But just make it anyway. It does you and the world no good if it just stays in your head – it has to be out in the world, because you never know when someone else may stumble along it.  And even if they don’t, well, you’ll still get to see it every day, and that’s good too.

That was only about an hour ago. I immediately came back to the hotel, took a quick shower (during which I actually even sang), and turned on the computer because I had to write this down. And now here it is, outside my head and in the land.

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