PEEK The story of an underpainting

peek Oct 04, 2018

Yesterday I sent off an old "canvas friend" to her new home.  My daughter (almost 3) very sweetly kissed her goodbye.

I'm so happy that she'll be in a new home but I really am going to miss her. She's been a work in process since (this is shocking to me) 2010.

I had been thinking I would be slowly working on her this year as a backdrop of my Siren Series but once she became a mermaid she moved quickly to completion

The underpainting was created during Legend in 2010. Leading a Legendary Life is the core Cosmic Cowgirls curriculum. You paint a larger than life painting, write a mini adventure story and explore your own poetic landscape.  Here's the under painting:

Here's me dressed for the part

And here's the story I wrote

PART ONE THE CALL

Everything was grey. Tansy looked down at her hands.  They were wrapped around the nondescript coffee mug so tightly that even her skin looked grey in patches. Outside the jackhammer paused for a single breath and then started again.  It had been this way every day since she’d gotten the news and the repetitive sound pressed on her thoughts and on her patience.  Tansy knew this cold ugly neighborhood was doing its best to push her out.  

She stood slowly and walked over to the window.  If she pried it open, as she had that first day, it would groan, crumbling paint, raising arthritic and against it’s will.  And if then she leaned out, way out, over the phone wires and broken bottles and the din (“from 7am to 8pm, see says right here on the city ordinance that I can jackhammer Miss.”) she would be able to see the ocean that gave the street its name: 147 Ocean View. Apartment 67.

Tansy took the two steps back from window to the linoleum table, carried the cold coffee in it's beige mug into the sink and took the four steps across the room to the side of her futon where she gathered: her set of keys, her wallet with the three pictures she called home, her back pocket notebook and her cowgirl boots.  Everything of importance on her thin person, Tansy went into the bathroom and looked at herself.  Her untamable hair was attempting a break for it, but what struck her most was how sad the woman looked in the mirror.  “Tansy my love, we’ve got to get out of here or its going to be the end of us.” She said kindly to her reflection.  Opening the ugly chrome and mirrored medicine cabinet she grabbed toothbrush and the horrible natural anise toothpaste she’d gotten on a whim.  She started to remove the lid but changed her mind, dropping it directly into the trash can.  

Tansy was already taking the apartment key off her keychain as she walked towards the door.  She double checked the apartment lock, descended the stairs two at a time and dropped that key stamped 67 into the mail slot of Edith, the chain smoking surly landlady of Ocean View.

Undoing three chains and straddling her old school orange bicycle, Tansy suddenly couldn’t get out of the neighborhood fast enough. She peddled fiercely towards the ocean, relaxing only when the sound of the jackhammer faded into the honking of Thursday commute traffic.  She slowed and pulled over to the coffee shop which had been her sole haven since her job had ended six days ago.  Here by the ocean, in front of this little cafe where everyone seemed to know everyone, Tansy slipped one of the three locking chains over bike and meter.  

“Finally!” said the red headed beauty slouching on the freshly artified bench at the cafe door.  Tansy raised one eyebrow, a trick she had learned from her older brother in the days before the ugliness.  “Finally?  What are you talking about Jezzie?” she said, dropping down beside the curvy artist and reaching unsuccessfully for her new friend’s cup.  “Nuh Uh, no you don’t! I don’t care how cute you look with those boots and ink smudge on your nose.  No WAY you’re having any of this extra foamy goodness.  That fluff behind the counter finally got my order figured out.  It's a sign for sure and I’m not sharing.”  Tansy rolled her eyes and thrust her hands in her own jean pockets. Finding, miraculously, a $20 she had forgotten.
She got her own perfect latte plus two of those cherry danishes that Jezzie was always wanting. Balancing them carefully she made her way back to the bench where Jezzie had her eyes closed, sucking in the morning sun.

Her eyes still closed Jezzie said, “Glad to hear you’re finally ready” and Tansy came close to dropping the danishes on Jezzie’s red cowgirl boots.
“What?”  
Jezzie opened one eyes taking in Tansy’s shocked expression then closed it again, laughing.  “Fast as a crow flies, Tansy.  I hear about things fast as a crow flies.”  
“Isn’t it straight as the crow flies?”
“Never did abide by straight.” said Jezzie with a chuckle.

Jezzie had appeared at the little cafe on Monday, hired by the sweet but absentminded lesbian owners to beautify the benches on either side of the door.  Monday had been the third day of Tansy’s “new leaf” complete with signed declaration that she was finally going to be the writer that everyone was always prodding her to be.  As was typical in the beginning of her resolution streaks, Day three had meant a grinding halt to the writing attempts of the previous 48 hours.  So when Jezzie strolled up to Grace & Beauty Cafe with a quilted backpack full of images and paint and started the bench transformation, Tansy abandoned her stubborn experiment with the spiral bound notebook and bought the redhead the first of their series of laughably horrible lattes.

“What did you mean, you’re glad I’m finally ready?” asked Tansy tracing the spirals of the thick dry paint on the bench with her fingers.  Jezzie opened that one eye lazily and then handed Tansy a little book.  On the cover was a picture of Jezzie and a group of women, taken maybe a couple years ago, in a silver hued desert, large spiraling mountains in the background.  Flipping open the novella Chapter One was entitled Jezebel. Tansy read:

Imagine standing in the center of a great slow rhythm. Imagine, if you will, awaking as She did and slowly opening her eyes. Thump...thump...thump the great heartbeat everywhere perfectly matches her own. Her breath in and out is in time to millions of others. As far in every direction as her young self can see, standing absolutely still, all eyes are closed and all the faces upturned. Imagine waking up in this landscape tinted red, as if the light flowed through the lids of a great eye. One hundred years and a child awakes destined to break the rhythm of the breathing...

She removes one hand from the soft hand of her mother, still and peaceful, removes the other hand from the hand of her father, face placid and content. And begins to walk from the center toward the edge.

Standing at the chaotic edge, She feels, despite the desperate rise and drop of the fabric of this place, even despite that, she feels the peaceful thump thump thump of the great heartbeat still, feels the peace and contentment of those upturned faces. And she raises her arms from her sides, the only shape to form a cross instead of a line and lets herself fall from the edge.

What kind of beginning is that? People don't come from the heart of matter, they come from Nebraska, from Nicaragua. Yes yes, I respond, hands upraised in placation, I'm sorry, I've gotten the story wrong.

Jezzie was born to a content couple in Lebanon, Kansas, the center of the United States. Her father, a carpenter, spent his days in the hardware store next town over. Her mother enjoyed her quiet role as the part time librarian. Jezzie was born after easy labor with no fuss. She never cried, said please and thank you. Played with her dolls, loved cherries. Jezzie got straight As and liked to climb trees. She was friends with everyone. Homecoming queen and always in the newspaper. Everyone loved Jezzie. And then one day she started walking down the road and never came back. There, is that beginning better?

She walked and walked and encountered every kind of person and loved them all. I could tell you the tales, the adventures of how she took the name Jezebel as her own, how she found her place as a lover of people but that is a long and different story. For now, know only that she kept walking until she walked right off the edge into the desert of destiny. And once in these lands, she kept walking until she reached the spiraling mountains. And only then did she sit down and listen.  She listened to her heart beating. She listened to her heart as it beat a tale of a band of women. The women of the red thread. She listened as her heart beat out the rhythm of a story of the years full of the growing group and beat out the rhythm of the songs that would come and the passionate nights and warm days. Jezzie sat and listened to her heart's tale for 100 nights. Each day she collected a strange red material that coated the desert. Each night she listened to the tales of what would come. And each day she would weave what she collected until she had a great ball of red thread. And after the 100th night, Jezzie tied a strand around her neck, so the knot rested above her heart, still beating in slow perfect time. And on the one hundred and first day, Jezzie washed herself and made tea and prepared to greet the ladies who would come.

The second chapter was entitled Moi but as Tansy went to turn the page the book gave a twist and leap out of her hands and fell onto the ground. Reaching for the book, it registered to her senses that the ground was actual a dusty ground, not the cracked pavement of the city. Tansy’s eyes widened as she took in the absolute change in surroundings.  She and Jezzie were still on the red bench, the blue bench still stood empty a door width to their left.  Two latte mugs stood next to two crumb covered cafe plates.  But all of those pieces were somehow, inexplicably, standing in that same silver hued desert from the book cover.  To her right Tansy spotted her orange bicycle, its single chain tossed over a cactus instead of the parking meter.  

 “I meant, I’m glad you’re finally ready to meet your destiny” said Jezzie now on her feet and extending her hand to help Tansy up.  Tansy placed her right hand in Jezzie’s and as she did they both watched in wonder as inky words climbed in spirals from her finger tips up her arms until her skin was almost black with them.

“Ah,” said Jezzie, “looks like you’ve got some writing to do.”

PART TWO THE ADVENTURE

There on her first day in the desert of destiny, neither you nor I would have believed that words were Tansy’s strong suit. She wandered through camp, mouth agape barely stringing a sentence together.  As Jezzie introduced her to each of the Ladies of the Red Thread Camp, she was kind enough to cloth Tansy’s wordless wonder with her own stories of the Cafe near Ocean View and how she had befriended Sy and her backpocket spiral notebook. Midmorning Tansy quietly asked about the numbers of the Ladies of the Camp and Jezzie’s reply came casual “Oh there are just oodles of us...but everyone lives such busy wild lives that we’re never aaaaaaaaaaaall here at once.  Why I bet if you could see us from space you’d think we were the best spread constellation on Earth!”  Tansy couldn’t believe all the women and....all the talent.  Each time she leaned over one of the ladies’ paintings or crafted doll or sketch or at lunch sipping her bowl of steaming soup she found herself wishing that she had something tangible to contribute too.  And each time she had that thought the words on her skin snaked and multiplied growing wider and tighter. Until standing in front of Dita’s gorgeous colorful tapestry tent, Jezzie’s twinkling eyes grew serious as she forcefully grasped both of Tansy’s shoulders and started her down. “Stop it right now Sy, the more you deny what lights you up, the more it collects. You shout No and it only hears you calling. It does not matter what specifically any of us create, only that we do.” The red headed leader let her hands drop and continued “Sy, it isn’t always necessary, but given the amount of words collected on your skin here I’m gonna strongly recommend a vision quest before you do any more interacting with any of the women here.” Tansy watched her start walking away then take two quick strides back and plant a kiss on Tansy’s mouth. “There’s just no use getting jealous over other folks talents when you’ve got so much to offer it's seeping out your pores.”  Jezzie said kindly leaving Tansy to press two fingers to her lips mystified and just a bit scared.

To say that Tansy was a writer was not exactly true.  She was, if we are precise, a collector of words.  Her favorites were short sets strung together tangled and odd.  Words that made one think about the words themselves.  Reading her words it was almost impossible not to  feel them as shapes in your mouth.  And people who meant well were always saying things like: “Tansy, you should write a novel, your word choices are just divine”  Or “We’ve got a short story contest, you should submit.”  People just figured, the way that Tansy was always opening her notebook to scribble, that she must be that kind of writer.  And Tansy would just smile and shyly nod.  But when she imagined trying to write a story or, god forbid, a novel, she would feel an empty place inside.  And the only way to stop it was to ride.  

Which, in the late afternoon of her first day in the Desert of Destiny, is just what she did.  She headed in the opposite direction as Jezzie, back to the bench, strangely mirage-like in the sideways afternoon light and, feeling only slightly foolish, unfastened the lock from the cactus and climbed on her bicycle.

Hair streaming behind her she found a kind of freedom that she’d never felt in the city.  The desert was remarkably flat and the cactus seemed to mark the creases in the land which she figured to hold rivulets during the short rainy season. Tansy rode and rode and only when she was almost to the spiraling mountain did she stop and plunk herself down on a rocky circle.  

She wondered whether to think about how she, and for that matter the benches, got here but decided it was just too world shifting to tackle with her head still a jumble.  So she pulled out her little notebook and lifted her pen.  

A small jackrabbit nearby twitched her ears at the glint of sunlight off pen but kept going in search of dinner for her young.  Thirty minutes later a curious bird glided just a touch lower attracted by the movement of Tansy’s hand skittering across paper.  Tansy wrote and wrote until the final dusky light showed her hunched over the last words of a poem.

this siren song has
lived in
my blood
in my bones

long before cells
knew the shape and
feel of movement
against the wind

this siren song has
lived caged in
my blood
in my bones

waiting and gathering
hope for
your laughter
and that kiss

So absorbed was she in molding stanzas into form that looking up she was startled to find an open hand extending toward her, offering greeting.  She let her eyes move from the hand to the woman above her, cowgirl hat tilted back and glint lighting her eyes.  “I’m Jumpin Joy. Jezzie sent me to check on you. Said you’d be out here somewhere with nothing but a bicycle a notebook and a pen.  Looks like she has your number.”  Inexplicably Tansy found herself blushing at the reference to Jezzie and covered the last two lines of the just recorded poem.  Jumpin Joy tilted her head to the side examining this poet with flush coloring her cheeks.  After considering her for a few seconds Joy threw her head back with a laugh.  “Oh me, looks like our favorite Jezebel has gotten under your skin.  Lets take a look and see whether it was a good trade.”  Jumpin Joy reached for and gently lifted Tansy’s left arm and examined the spiraling tattooed words.  “Mmmmhmmmm.  Looks like your afternoon was well spent.  The wording on your skin is considerably less constipated than Jezzie reported.”  Tansy watched Joy stride over to a tall horse and she tucked her notebook into her back pocket with a stretch as Joy returned with camping stuff and what would turn out to be the best chili Tansy had ever tasted.  

That night Joy & Tansy talked long into the night trading stories.

 Joy shared her journey from the small town where people called her Stel.  Both laughing through the story of how she’d had no choice ‘cause her boots they had a mind of their own and walked her right out of town.  How they marched into the Desert of Destiny and brought her to her husband Luck’s lap.  Tansy told Joy about reaching for that book and the way pavement had become dust. Joy talked about her time down the hill learning to paint portals living in the land of the starlight thistles and growing accustom to the deer gradually growing accustom her.  Tansy told Joy about the poems she collected under her futon in the apartment without an Ocean View.  

As the moon made its journey across the starry sky, Tansy and Joy dipped further back trading deep stories one for one.  Tansy whispered out her stories of the ugliness.  And Joy offered back her stories of lost and lonely.  Until as the moon disappeared from view those two lapsed into that comfortable silence that bookends real connection.  And when the sun rose gentle on the horizon it lit two new friends leanin against each other.  Joy’s mouth hung open with soft snores and Tansy’s arm draped over her eyes...her skin pale and clear of words.

The Ladies of the Red Thread called her The Poetess.  And grew used to the flip of her notebook pulled from back pocket in the midst of conversations.  They found themselves enjoying trading words with her, the way she seemed to take their hand, and slow language down.  The words beautiful in themselves.  

Tansy wrote and wrote and wrote until her back pocket notebook grew so full each page looked solid black.  And when it couldn’t hold another word Tansy knew it was the end of her time in the Desert of Destiny.  


PART THREE THE GIFT

The sand made an unavoidable creak as Jezzie attempted her silent approach.  The crashing of the waves and call of gulls covered some of her lack of stealth.  But as she got closer to Tansy’s reclining form she realized she needn’t have tried so hard- the poetess was clearly in another world, oblivious to movement around her.  Jezzie slung an arm around Tansy’s shoulder and the two sat in silence.  “I heard the good news.” said Jezzie.  And Tansy shyly pulled the newly published dense book of poems out of her backpack.  On the cover  was an image one of the ladies had taken of the Sy with her curling words in front of the spiraling mountains.  The title read Love in the Desert of Destiny.  “Any in there about me?” asked Jezzie playfully.  To which Sy replied truthfully  “All of them”.   Jezzie’s play dipped to solemn. “We miss you in the desert Sy.”  “I know Jezz, I miss you ladies too but, truth be told, I’m a two cat and a notebook kind of girl. And I’m real happy in my cottage.  You’re staying for a while right?  Let’s go home.”  
Arm in arm the two friends walked the length of the ocean view and climbed the hill to Sy’s writing cottage near the orchard.  Sy was a good listener now that the words flowed regular and Jezzie found that a monthly visit straightened her thinkin and visioning.  The two had fallen into a rhythm and Sy appreciated each time together, how the air would become electric in Jezzie’s presence.  Sy always had writing to do when the visit ended.  And in her sleep her skin would show new curling words waiting for an outlet.

It had been a long journey back for Sy.  In the desert she had fed the part of her that wrote. And, growing strong, that part no longer gave her an option of not writing.  But Sy had had to learn new skills away from the safe community of the red thread camp.  She had learned when to share her poems and who to ask advice.  She had been through three publishers before she found the one who didn’t try to change her into something she wasn’t.

Something blossomed in Sy as she both tended and protected her creations.  She grew a soft confidence that seemed to attract a new kind community.  The woman who rented her the cottage had simply walked up to her in a cafe where she was writing and offered it to her.  Even her family felt changed.  The taint of the early years loosing some hold as Sy and her brothers made new agreements and undertook new ways of engaging.  At night under the starry sky, Sy would sit in gratitude at how much a simple act, the act of stepping towards her destiny, had changed her world.

“Whattcha thinkin about Sy?” Asked Jezzie drowsily.  “Just how lucky I feel” whispered Tansy back as they slipped into dreamland hand in hand.

And on the nightstand that little book of Jezzie’s grew a new chapter. And on the cover the picture of Jezzie and the ladies of the red thread got another smiling face: a wild haired word covered poetess in the Desert of Destiny.

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