Art and Writing from the Domestic Front by Rachel Barlow
So, I know it’s almost midnight and still over 70° in Vermont and the first week of September (when it’s supposed to be 70 during the day), but somebody at the country store said the magic words, “Pumpkin Spice,” and it was time to take a whack at painting some foliage.
I know I’m really after something more than WiFi.
Saturday morning is sunny, the cool air a reminder of a vicious storm the night before. Our south-facing, earth-sheltered house escapes the effects of even the worst winds. If not for last night’s pink lightning and intensifying winds following me and Thing1 home from the Tux shop, seemingly targeting us for annihilation, I would only note a few left-over rain drops minimizing the late spring fire hazard that threatens after the snow melts and the trees are still naked.
I hit the radio button but promptly turn down the volume as I head out our long, rocky driveway. A grouse family now lives at the top of the driveway. The territorial ‘dad’ often tries to flutter inside or attack the car, so I listened for him instead of for news .
The county store is quiet when I arrive. The first round of coffee-klatchers has already been by, sharing farming and turkey hunting gossip before abandoning the gingham oilcloth covered roundtable behind the register. I grab a seat by the deli so I can enjoy the smells of frying and baking and enjoy a view of the giant antique roll top desk and the window.
“I’m operating on four hours of sleep.” The store’s matriarch sits at the desk going through bills. She stops to prop her elbow on the desk and her head with its crown of silver-white hair on her hand. I rarely see her sit, let alone sit without moving. Normally she’s brightly chatting with coffee-breakers while answering questions about where the restroom is and if she carries a certain kind of ammo as she manages the paperwork.
“Tommy has a tree on his house, so I switched with him today,” she says.
It’s my first news of the day. Coming from the Midwest where tornado warnings regularly accompany summer storms, I’d rushed to get us home Friday night. The storm moved over our mountain and river so quickly that I’d laughed at my fears. Last night fears were realized for other people, however.
Another store regular strides past the register and round table to the hunting license counter to use the phone.
“Are you out, Margie?” the owner asks.
“We are and so’s the Pipers.” The new arrival’s sweatshirt is wet down the front, her hair is wild. “Mark had to chainsaw a tree across the drive so I could get out. Have you seen any power trucks yet?”
“A few went by, but I think they were headed up into Sandgate,” the owner answers. She looks at me. “Are you out on your road?”
“No,” I answered. “I thought the town had power.”
“The east side does apparently, but everything’s out above the notch,” she says. “Cambridge is even worse.” Cambridge, NY, the next town over from Arlington, VT is where Tommy lives.
Margie dials the power company and reports outages for herself and for neighbors she’s already checked in on before driving down her mountain. The store owner asks if they need any other help, but Margie smiled and shook her head no.
She heads out the door as the red-headed son of our plow guy saunters in. Not too long out of high school, he already has his own landscaping business. He also asks Margie if anyone on her road needs any chainsawing, and I think how unfairly the popular culture maligns kids of his generation.
Margie left. The young man grabs a coffee and a chair, telling us which neighbors have power or trees down on houses or cars. A store employee, a student at the local community college, comes from behind the deli to sit and nervously tell us about a tree on her grandfather’s car. The young man offers his help and leaves.
A few customers from Cambridge filter in. They tell us they think they were hit by a tornado, rapidly recounting moments spent huddling in mobile home bathrooms and later chainsawing trees to get out front doorways. Their voices pitch higher as they remember the panic, illustrating the magnitude of the storm more fully than any news reel.
Over the next hours, more regulars file in and out, making their calls to power and phone companies. The store owner always asks do they need help. They regularly answer with inquiries about her house. Other self-employed landscaping guys stop by for coffee breaks.
This morning customers are simply friends and neighbors who need to be safe. Later in the day, my Facebook feed features photos from friends and of New York’s governor stopping by to survey damage and make what are hopefully not empty promises.
The visit and a confirmation that at least one microburst caused the extensive damage may make the local news. What likely won’t make the news are the reports of people sending pizza to homeowners and power crews working to clear trees from a local street. I doubt I’ll hear on the radio about our plow guy helping someone out of a house or the countless offers of help and favors done — big and small — made by the country store employees.
But that’s the way it was this afternoon, and that news was just what I’d gone looking for, even if I didn’t know it.
Saturday our writing group met at my house. We had all been looking forward to this for weeks and even months, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing these people. But when an invitation to a friend’s Origami Days celebration appeared on my Facebook page, I felt more than a tiny bit of conflict.
Leyla Torres, a gifted illustrator had recently revealed on her long-time interest in Origami on her Facebook page, and she joined the community of Origami users in their global, on- and off-line celebration of the art last weekend. But writing group is now sacred to me, and I contented myself with the hope that I would see the results on Facebook on Sunday. Fate and my family had other plans, however.
The Big Guy took command of the kids for the afternoon so that grownup talk could happen at our house. I expected them to return about the time the group ended, but it was getting dark by the time they bounded in the door. The Big Guy usually finds something fun for them to do – hardware stores, Lego exhibitions, and welding shops – and today was no exception.
This man who has avoided Facebook like crazy had discovered Origami Days as he was driving by our friend’s studio in Arlington, VT. He took a chance and dragged the kids into the tiny gallery, and they emerged an hour later brimming with a different kind of energy. Their excitement still showed by the time they glided in the door, pockets full of Origami swans and toys. In two minutes, Thing 2 apprised me of their day, of the entire history of origami, and of the generosity of their hostess. The Big Guy then told me that she was holding the gallery open just a little longer, so I grabbed my keys and out the door I went.
The gallery was in an old carriage house behind the big stone Church in Arlington. Petite with a sometimes soft-spoken demeanor but a feisty spirit, Leyla shares gallery and studio space with her husband, John Sutton, a multi-talented artist and gifted photographer. Heated by an old wood stove, the simple rustic gallery was decorated with John’s black-and-white photos (in frames he built himself). But it was the riot of color on the table at the center of the small space that grabbed my attention and held it.
Strewn across the table were dragons and roses and butterflies and intricate boxes made of folded, interwoven pieces of paper. Some of them seemed (deceptively, I’m sure) simple; others clearly had taken hours and years of practice to learn how to construct. Leyla cheerfully shared the history of her interest in this craft and in a community of paper artists dedicated to sharing peace through art. But it was the colors that caught my heart as they reminded me of a gift/prize I had received from another artist earlier in the day.
Maria Wulf, a fiber artist and the wife of our group leader has been joining our sessions, and she serves as a gentle sounding board and resident joyful spirit. That spirit is evident everywhere in her art. She designs quilts that are colorful and somehow contemporary and traditional. She had created a giveaway contest on her website, and I was the lucky winner of two colorful potholders.
My prizes were, like Leyla’s origami, a marvelous combination of connecting shapes and colors. But they were each reflections of their creators, spreading happiness and peace. I knew the two of them should meet at some point, and I told Leyla about our group and about my potholders. I asked if I could link to her site (I’ve linked to Maria’s site since I’ve had this blog), and I could see her excitement rising. We talked about art and writing and encouragement, and, suddenly, she stood up and went to the basket full of origami art at the end of the table. She started rummaging and pulled out seven or eight flat pieces that could be easily carried home and said, “Here take this to your writing group as a gift from me.”
I thought about the other gifts she’d already given my kids this afternoon. They were bits of paper, and they were art, but they were also trophies of a world made just a little wider in the space of an afternoon. And when our group next meets to widen it’s world, I’ll bring these trophies, and, with them, (I hope) the encouragement that feeds not just the artists but the communities they nurture.