The Art of the Obituary

In September of this year, I took up the task of writing my mother’s obituary.  She passed away on June 28 from complications due to advanced Alzheimer’s at the age of 94. Previously I had never written an obituary .

An obituary announces the passing of a person’s death as a public notice in a newspaper, church bulletin, or the like.  Usually, there is a brief biography and a photo, but everything else is up to the writer’s interpretation.  An obituary can be solemn, funny, traditional, or even in poetic form.  Writing Mom’s obituary begged the question ”What should be said about a loved one when they pass?”  What was their essence? What was their legacy?

I didn’t like the idea of writing the 3rd person like a detached narrator so I made it clear this was from the viewpoint of her surviving adult children.  I had to keep in mind that obituaries can be very expensive in major newspapers.  Ultimately, my mother’s average-sized obituary at approximately 1000 words cost over $1000 in the San Fransico Chronicle for one run.  Her local paper for the same obituary cost $300 with 4 courtesy copies thrown in with the deal. (non were included with the Chronicle). So yes, a lot of money but hey, you only die once and everyone deserves memorialization. In most cases, like in my mother’s, the deceased estate covers it.

It was therapeutic for me, the author, to cut through all my mother’s foibles as we had our differences and honor her- her accomplishments and her legacy, I also decided to mention some of her hardships growing up. Hardship is a pivotal force in a person’s life.  I could see how her challenges as a child reflected in her parenting.  In her last years with her memory loss, all that friction washed away like dust in the first rain of fall. It was an honor to summarize her life for all to see.

As for the picture?  Rather than one from her youth, I chose one that was taken on her 80th birthday looking radiant with the celebration. 

Having written my mother’s obituary, I wonder about my own.  What would be written when all is said and done?  I have considered writing my own and leaving it in my will giving me some authorship.  I should include such things as

She liked to start her day with a steaming up of tea in her hand sitting up in bed with her pens & journal with a clear view of the bird feeder.

Felt complete with a dog and or a cat at her side

Liked to take adventures in the wilds, as well as  in art, writing, and music

I’d like the picture of me taken by my friend Deb we were out on the Zumwalt Prairie in 2021. Then I would choose one of my doodles to be included.

Now I may be tasked with writing my step-daughter, Heather who recently passed.  For this, I would solicit the help of her many friends to contribute their thoughts for a young woman who lived very large for her 38 years.  This is a challenge I would be honored to take up.

As I think of the many people that have passed from my life this year, I also think of the other beings, favorite trees, dogs, cats, and the like that have crossed the rainbow bridge that I could memorialize.  They certainly are deserving of an obituary as well, at least in my personal writing.  I’m inspired by this worthy genre.

Two good friends that passed on this last spring- Hilma Kaye and G.D Armstrong whose spirit lives on in my guitar…

Fishtrap- An Adventure in Writing in Eastern Oregon

I love creative retreats.  It’s a time when I can escape from the nagging responsibilities of daily life and immerse myself in the creativity of some genre.  In July I rejoined the Fishtrap experience, but this time instead of being in the remote grandeur of the Zumwalt Prairie like last summer, I attended the summer Fishtrap Gathering of Writers for five days at the Wallowa Lake Lodge.   Wallowa Lake is nestled at the foot of the rugged, snow-capped  Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon, an eight hour drive frome my home in the Willamette Valley. 

What is Fishtrap?  Founded 35 years ago by forward-thinking writers Kim Stafford, Rich Wandschneider, and  historian, Alvin Josephy this organization was created to provide support, connection, and education to West Coast writers

From their website “ Every July, readers, writers, journalists, historians, publishers, and lovers of the arts from all over the world gather at Wallowa Lake to write, to explore issues important to people of the West, and to make connections. The weeklong conference has provided hundreds of writers the opportunity to work with some of the best authors and teachers in the West including Ursula K. LeGuin, Luis Alberto Urrea, Bill Kittredge, Laura Pritchett, Anis Mojgani, Kathleen Dean Moore, and many, many others”.  

By my campsite
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Something to Do

doodle by the author

Much of my time is spent with facinations that perhaps lead to nowhere. I doodle. I make art most of which is unshown and not for sale. I play music with no performing or recording aspirations, write and don’t submit the vast majority of my pieces for publication. My blog is not monetized. This is so counter to our culture’s obsession with productivity and success- but they all make me happy.

Today I read a post by Austin Kleon riding 5 miles to mail some letters rather than mail them from home because it “was something to do.” On a link embedded in this post was another post titled the same, “Something to Do.” I found this post so profound. It put into words what I have been unable to to do trying to justify my gratutious pastimes. In short, they keep me alive. To me that’s the ultimate payoff.

My workstation!

The Zen of Showing One’s Work

Last week I had the honor of reading my prose piece, “The Orchard by My House is Gone” at the book release celebration of Paper Gardens the annual literary journal of Yamhill County, Oregon.  I was joined by other local authors that had their work published along with family members and members of the community.  The most memorable part of the evening was when adults shared the stage with writers of all ages including those as young as second grade.  We were all writers in different stages of our journeys who took the risk to submit our work to be judged and perhaps rejected.

 A close friend asked to see my entry and I emailed it to her.  She read it and then responded that how much she appreciated me sharing my work with her.  Doing so gave her a window into my life and how I view the world.  She remarked in her email that a long-ago friend was a painter but would not allow anyone else to view her work and that “would potentially impact the way she felt about her art.”  I also have an acquaintance that ceased painting her stunning watercolors as she never sold them at the one event where she exhibited.  Paintings are especially challenging to sell as it’s not only if a person likes the piece, it has to fit and match one’s décor.

I find both these situations very sad.  We are always under the scrutiny of others- the way we think, dress, or otherwise live our lives.  I don’t make art for economic gain anymore.  What is imperative is that my creativity provides a spark to my life, joy in the process of its creation, and serves as an avenue for self-expression.  There lies the attitude of non-attachment. There will be some that don’t care for what I write or create, yet there will be others who resonate with it.  It’s not a deal-breaker as I am out to please myself.  It is the nature of bringing creation to the world to see. If I am pleased with my work and it is well-executed, that is enough.  It’s like hiking.  I go out and have a beautiful day among nature and if I see wildlife, so much the better.

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Rewriting My Personal Script

I have had this unfolding conclusion that I do not have to accept my own mythology, my notions of limitations and inabilities, as written by others or by myself.

My first inkling of this concept was in my junior year of college.  One of the most popular electives on campus was “ballroom dancing”.  As a child, I was told indirectly that I was clumsy and uncoordinated by family nicknames that were not so endearing. I bought into it telling myself I could not do a cartwheel or any of the other physical badges of honor that young girls collect.  Still, I needed an elective and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Lo and behold I proved myself wrong.  I was doing the jitterbug, swing, rumba, waltz, and the like.  Not only was I good, but I also loved it!

A more difficult life script to rewrite was the notion of “I’m not good enough” which I dragged around since childhood like a large overstuffed suitcase (without wheels).  This one is rather toxic for the soul, especially if one is an artist or writer, like me.  It’s the one that tells me “I can’t, I’m too old, I’m too flawed, I don’t have the right training, I’m too this, too that.”

Three years ago at age 63, I decided that, no, I wasn’t too old to pick up the guitar again, traded in my old one for a lovely tenor guitar I love, and started to take lessons.  I don’t learn as quickly as in my younger years but I am so grateful I got over myself and started again.  What a joy music brings! A year before that I started to write even though, no, I was not an English major- but so what. I’ve gotten better. I have two blogs, I’ve gotten published but beyond all that I love the process. All from recrafting my story.

I found that I can rewrite that, ?YES, I am good enough and I will commit to honing my craft no matter where I am at be it as a visual artist, writer, musician or ____________.

An advantage of meditation is being able to recognize that old script playing in my head.  I can disagree with that voice in my head, “Sorry, you are so WRONG!”, show that voice the door and change the station with a positive script that reads…

Yes I can

I shall

I will

(and sometimes it is after I take a nap.)

Your story can always be edited.

If given the chance

Choose to dance

Courtesy “The Crossroads of Should & Must “by Elle Luna

Sunflowers for Ukraine

Sometimes when there is a tragedy in a far-off place, the only thing one can do is perform symbolic gestures.  My family had ties to Ukraine until they fled violence 200 years ago.  Today people continue flee.  Since the invasion of Ukraine, I find solace in drawing, writing, and mending forgotten tears with a needle and thread.

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The Art of the Start

“The Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with a single step”- Lao Tsu

This is one of my favorite quotes.  It’s been a mantra for my life.  I would add to that “keep going.”

Sitting down to a blank canvas or piece of paper can be daunting. Procrastination takes over. but it’s action that inspires creative energy not necessarily the other way around. Risk is inherent for a full life and with that risk comes failure.  Any type of artist will tell you that you have to be willing to fail to learn.  Just check out their recycle bins.  Only their best work goes on display.

I just finished planting my native plant garden.  It looks very sparse right now as the plants are still sleeping awaiting the arrival of spring.  I’ve been rather awed by how this project manifested in relatively a short amount of time considering my lack of knowledge.  Like the rest of my pursuits, it started with an idea followed by one action after another.  I’m sure I have made some mistakes. So be it. Completion is my preference over perfection.

Commitment is a powerful force. The hardest part is starting and getting past the fear. I wrote this poem about it.

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The Orchard by my House is Gone

Image by Pixabay

An excavator appears at the hazelnut orchard down at the corner.  It begins to push the orderly rows of nut trees down effortlessly shoving their abused bodies into great piles- a mass grave of sort.  After some acreage of trees is leveled, the towering piles are lit on fire.  The fires burn on into the night, great tepees of combustion throwing sparks and smoke into the sky visible from my kitchen windows.  It takes about 10 days to burn the five acres of trees to ash. 

It was a scene of mass destruction like a battlefield – wisps of smoke dotting the landscape when the fighting was finally completed, the troops in retreat, the dead removed.  All that remains now are tractor tracks crisscrossed in a field of ashen mud.

In the leafy months, the five acres of hazelnut trees offered a dark, cool refuge.  Beneath their crowns, the soil was swept clean like a pioneer cabin dirt floor. Thus the orchard was an ideal place to play in the heat of mid-day.  My young son would ride his bike among the trees while I walked the dogs off-leash. I would play hide-and-go-seek with them. The dogs would experience a moment of panic when they noticed me missing and then gallop back to proudly sniff out my still form hiding behind the trunk of a tree. On moonlit nights the orchard was especially good for spooky walks, the deep shadows creating mysterious passages to explore.

We were trespassing of course.  The property belonged to a farmer who later I was told had the trees removed as they were diseased and well beyond their prime production years. They were his to take whether the neighbors grieved or not.

I sigh.  The trees in that orchard had been steadfast neighbors for going on 30 years of my residence in this house. I miss them just as I miss the once quiet roads and the woodlands that have been cut down for the vineyards that now cover the rolling hills in their place.

Change follows me like a shadow that blocks the sun.  It comes and goes at will through a door with no lock.  The fires of the orchard’s demise still burn in my memory. Sky now meets ground unfettered where the orchard once stood.  The hills in the distance are oddly naked. I light a candle at my table to keep myself steady.

Authors note:  It’s been a time of great change these last few years for all of us.  Covid, climate change, social and political divides have all taken a toll. Then there are the changes we face in our everyday life How do we cope?  I write, meditate, make art, listen to music, and light a candle every evening.

The Art of Capturing Memories and Inspirations

sketch from my journal

My only big regret in life is that I didn’t take the time to document my experiences more.  I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was 16, which is admiral, but I wish I had expanded my entries to snippets of sensory experience and fascinations other than just emotional spew.  But, in my defense, I was a teenager and  I avoided language arts classes finding them tedious.

Looking back even recording one thing that made my day would have been such a precious collection to look back on.  No one told me then that those little vignettes from my life in Alaska, raising my son, and those hilarious “kids say the darndest things” moments teaching 6th-grade science would be so longed for. Of course, I have hundreds of photos but without some words as accompaniment, they are incomplete memories. I was always too busy, thinking I would remember everything.  Then “poof” those clear memories vanish like steam.  The same goes with some solution to a nagging problem or those creative inspirations I get as I drift off to sleep.

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A Road Map for 2022

From my journal. After a few years I’ve realized that the “new abnormal” is the new normal. As if the old normal wasn’t challenging enough! Here are my strategies to navigate this ever changing world, subject to change of course.

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