Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Patron Saint of Obedience...... Lessons Learned Restoring the Statue

The Patron Saint of Lost Items ever helpful St Anthony & child

When the restoration of the church statues  began, I found I loved coming into my studio more than ever, saying good morning to the 6 vintage Saints that were waiting for me. I imagined what each one said in return. When I misplaced a tool, St.  Anthony, Patron Saint of Lost Items, was quick to intercede. The child in his arms seemed happy to hold whatever was most important to me. Their beauty hit me hard every time I looked at them.

On the long days when nothing seemed to get done, I would ask St. Therese to help me to be thankful for the small things I accomplished with good intention and not to be overwhelmed by the big unfinished tasks that lay in front of me. The St. Anne statue was getting the most attention because every speck of paint had to be dissolved gently and carefully before she could don a new outfit.  Patience reigned and no one complained.  I would move from one to the other, waiting for a repair to dry while I sanded and sculpted a finger for another then moved on to wash St. Therese's face with a soft cloth and cleanser as the gold leaf edge on a robe dried.                

St. Therese "The Little Flower"
Several months of hard work had passed and Father Bill asked to visit my studio.  It was kind of fun to have a priest visit my paint room. All sorts of antics came to mind but he's young and I'm old. Who's the adult here?  I didn't need to upgrade my ticket to Purgatory.  I was well on my way already. He seemed genuinely interested in the progress. I was curious how he had so masterfully mobilized support in a community that didn't know they needed a new church. He told me he found people willing to let go of their personal issues and support a bigger purpose. It was a nice chat and then he dished the dirt. He said "Personally, I don't have trouble with the things you might think like the vow of poverty or chastity. It's the obedience part I struggle with."  I filed that morsel away in the recesses of my ADD brain thinking 'Interesting but what's obedience got to do with ME?' 

Weeks later, all of the other saint statues had been completed.  It was time to face the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue I had avoided. One morning I came into the studio greeted by my very excited assistant, who had spent the entire night tediously removing the old paint, uncovered something totally unexpected. The original finish on the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue wasn't what I thought it had been at all. Instead, a highly detailed gold leaf over cream robe revealed itself. The statue was much older than I had thought. She traced the design, then like an archeologist, filled in the missing parts of the border so I could duplicate the pattern during restoration. She had unearthed pieces of the original finish hidden from view for years. As an artist, it's beauty took my breath away. I saw clearly what the Italian sculptor had worked so hard to achieve. The folds on the robe created a flow of gold that drew your eyes to the most important part... the Sacred Heart of Jesus and his outreaching arms.  Even though the subliminal artistry was immaculate, the colors weren't the traditional ones Father Bill and I had agreed on. As an artist, I was torn by the need to restore the statue to the sculptor's original intent and Father Bill's wish for tradition. So of course, using current tradition, I texted Father Bill to visit.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus statue in midst of restoration
He took his time looking at the artistic beauty. We talked abstractly about the liturgy of the church versus the art of the church. I explained my surprise at what I had uncovered and how I saw the intent of the artist. He asked me to wait while he thought about the colors. I continued my own research thinking I could convince him of the need to stay true to the history of the art. Instead, I started to see the deeper meaning of the crimson robe of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Not once did Father Bill insist on how I did my job. He left me believing he would get back to me with his answer. I found the answer early one morning several days later while having coffee with the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. He looked me in the eye and said "I'm fine wearing a red robe.  It's not about you.  Let it go." 

Again, I texted Father Bill. "The Sacred Heart of Jesus statue gave me permission to be painted as you wished". Realizing I had just experienced a lesson in obedience, I added "Thank You".  He replied "Obedience creates humility".  I choked silently as I humbly ate my words. 

The Sacred Heart of Jesus statue was about 64 inches tall and his precariously attached arms were outstretched with palms open. I intensely focused for hours repairing broken hands and arms, wanting this statue to exemplify the deepest meaning of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As I filled, sanded and painted, all while stabilizing his out-reaching arms, his palms were exactly the same height as a certain part of my anatomy. I didn't seem to have enough hands and he seemed to have too many. My chest needed to be in the same spot as his hands much of the time. It took such intense concentration to work on the statue that his hand placement was rarely noticed until after a long day of work when I found myself conversing with Him as if He were actually present. Apparently, He was. I gained an understanding of "my cup runnith over" and "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". It was all good between the two of us.
I had thought obedience was listening to someone's words and doing what they told me to do. After all, I came of age in the era of feminist enlightenment where obedience was a four letter word. I realized now it's actually about listening with intent. Often, it is the silence between words where true meaning is found. I hadn't thought I needed to learn about obedience or humility but like cutting a steak with a scalpel, it may not be necessary but it's profoundly effective once you experience it. Who knew? Father Bill and The Sacred Heart of Jesus knew exactly what lesson I needed.            



Thursday, November 29, 2018

Witnessing the Crucifixion While Restoring the Corpus...... From the Diary of The Saint Painter

Over a year ago I was asked to restore the statues for the new church being built to replace the childhood church of my youth. I was thrilled for the chance to work on statues of this magnitude. They were extremely old and damaged but beautifully designed Italian statues, taller then me. The idea of transforming them to their original splendor was something I was eager to do but I didn't know that in peeling off their damaged layers I would be transforming myself, as well.

I was going to be working on at least four statues large enough to look me in the eye.  I needed to get them settled and get to work. They arrived one by one in the back of my SUV.  I carefully evaluated each and made a plan. St. Anne with Child Mary had taken at least one header sometime in their 90 plus years and both needed a nose job and lip reconstruction. Child Mary, like many kids had bumped her chin leaving a gash big enough to warrant a trip to the ER.  The many layers of chipped and flaking paint would have to be painstakingly dissolved before I could even consider repairs or new paint. 70 year old St. Anthony had some missing fingers and a poorly healed broken wrist. The Child he held had large decomposed areas, water-damage and poorly matched but well intended touch up paint that resembled roofing tar. It all had to be removed while salvaging as much of the original finish as possible. The 88 year old St. Therese statue still had her beautiful face but chips and discoloration left her with an unpleasant complexion. She was starting to show her age. The broken edges, peeling paint and sporadic gold leaf on her robe told me her outfit needed updating. The statue I avoided was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He came to me having been repainted in an unusual pearlized color and I knew Father Bill wanted traditional colors. It was apparent that Jesus had taken a few tumbles using his arms to break his fall. Instead the falls had broken his arms. Some brave soul had made difficult major repairs to reattach his out-reaching arms. Now the repairs needed repairs. With broken fingers, wobbly arms, plastic peeling paint and a heart that needed mending, I wasn't ready to think about the monumental task of resurrecting the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Off he went to the back corner and patiently watched over us.

"Oh, did I mention that our two large Corpus statues need to be painted? One is for the crucifix behind the main altar. The other is for the crucifix in the small chapel. I would like them to be painted realistically, instead of the current wood finish. They need to be done first."  No, actually, Father Bill, that wasn't mentioned but what the hell...might as well be trial by fire right from the start, I thought as I smiled back, nodding. I didn't bother to tell him I had never painted a Corpus statue realistically, not because I am not skilled enough as an artist but because I am not skilled enough spiritually to face Christ's agony. I didn't even like saying the word Corpus out loud. I have purposely avoided the discomfort. I shook my head as I heard my mother's voice "You get the lesson you most need when you need it most."  So, I loaded the two of them into the back of my SUV for a road trip to their new accommodations.  Surprisingly, no one called shotgun. 

I started with what I had been trained to do... preparing the ground, repairing the broken parts, re-sculpting the missing pieces. I mixed hide glue with gypsum to create gesso that was close to what had been used 90 years before. It fills the imperfections and prepares the piece to accept the painted finish. I used natural bristle brushes like those traditionally used. Gradually, the two Corpus statues transformed into a smooth paint-ready surface. As each layer dried, I mixed 10 colors of flesh tone, 6 colors of blue for the robe and 4 colors of cream for highlighting and more colors for the beard and hair. I waited for drying time then viewed each under a variety of light. I labeled, remixed again and again until I was satisfied I had exactly the right colors. My next challenge was to put life into the Corpus statues or in this case, life and death. 

I held the statue of the body of Christ in my lap falling into a trance as I carefully painted the flesh tone around the five wounds associated with the Crucifixion. I could feel the pain they must have caused. In the process of glazing and layering shadows and highlights on arms and legs, torsos, cheeks and chins, the face and body transformed as my skills as an artist were surpassed by my emotions. I began to see in a different way. I was overwhelmed by the thought of being nailed to a cross as if an animal. Tiny cracks in my heart opened with each brush stroke as I painted the details of the eyes and the mouth.  I envisioned how excruciating the torture must have felt and what it took to endure it.  I felt the wind and heard the murmur of a crowd. How quickly would Christ's tears evaporate and the blood from the Crown of Thorns dry in the breeze?  I felt a chill as the clouds passed in front of the sun. I had let go of  protecting myself from the "reality" of  the Crucifixion.  It had always been easier to deny living in a world where someone, not just Christ, but anyone could be crucified for what they believed. Exhausted by the painting, I had to step away frequently.  Each time I returned as an artist but now I was an artist who was seeing through her heart.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Patron Saint of Uncondidtional Love, St. Anne. ....Part 2 "How to Faux Finish a Cat"

Note: This is Part 2.  Please read the previous post "The Patron Saint of Unconditional Love, St. Anne"

Part 2  "How to Faux Finish a Cat"

My mother was in her 80s, living by herself on our family farm, selling bales of hay out of her barn ten miles from town.  She loved the land more than anything and even though my father had been gone for more than 10 years she missed him every day.  The ranch remained a powerful connection to him and the life they had shared.

She was helping an elderly couple who lived in town, visiting with freshly cooked meals and groceries, paying and mailing their bills. One particularly rainy night, she was getting ready to drive the 10 miles home when she heard a pitiful meow.  A tiny starving, rain-soaked kitty pleaded with her.  Not one to disappoint, my mother couldn't say no to an animal in need. She named this beautiful dark tiger striped cat "Teeny".  Teeny had won the lottery for homeless cats as my mother nursed her back to health, their bond flourishing and deepening like nothing I had seen before. Teeny was with her every minute, walking miles on trails together as my mother hunted mushrooms, picked wildflowers or blackberries depending on the season.

On a chilly winter day in late November, a nice man left my mother's with his horse trailer full of hay and Teeny was nowhere to be found.  My mother called him to see if Teeny had gone home with him accidentally.  No, he hadn't seen her cat.  My mother continued to hunt and call for several days around her property until the nice man called telling her Teeny had been locked in the trailer and darted out when he opened it.  Relieved, my mother immediately went to their house to get her cat.  Teeny was too scared in an unfamiliar place to come to my mother.  For over two weeks, two or three times every day, my mother would drive to their house and call for her beloved kitty.  The kitty was simply not to be found.

St Anne statue fully restored by Chris Hart Studio
It was December 18th, my mother's 87th birthday and I was planning to take her out to dinner to celebrate. It was dark early as I worked faux finishing a custom ordered kitchen island in time for a Christmas gift.  I could hear the rain chattering on the metal roof of my studio when the phone rang.  It was the nice man, saying he had found my mother's cat. Happy to hear the good news, I said I would come to his house and pick her kitty up.  He hesitantly told me the cat was dead then slowly, he added that his dog had killed her cat.

I hoped to put an end to the unpleasantness of the situation and called my mother to let her know her kitty was found dead and that was that.  She was insistent that she get her cat back, dead or alive.  She wanted Teeny to be buried on her property, not somewhere strange.  I called the nice man back and told him I had to pick up the cat right now.  He hesitated and said "I already buried the cat".  I kindly told him I would bring a box and a plastic bag but to please dig up my mother's cat.  Then he told me "I had to shoot the cat to put it out of its misery".  Thoughts raced through my head as I remembered my mother's refusal to abandon her search for Teeny.  I marveled at the size of her heart and her ability to love all living things unconditionally, including me. I knew if I didn't pick up the cat, my mother would. 

It was wet and cold as I stood in the dark with Teeny in a cardboard box. I could not give this cat to my mother, bloodied and covered in mud.  I couldn't bare the pain my mother would feel every time she envisioned Teeny's last moments. I am my mother's daughter. I'm an artist who specializes in faux finishes and restoration. I am, if nothing else, extremely creative.   

I took Teeny back to my studio, shampooed her beautiful dark tiger coat then blew it dry so it was silky and fluffy like it always was.  I wiped the dirt from her eyes, ears and nose with a Q-tip.  I touched up the bite mark on her neck, minimizing the visual disruption. Then I dealt with the bullet hole in the back of her skull.  I filled and cleaned and repainted the flesh tone, fluffing the fur over the top of it. I couldn't bring her back to life but I could make her just as beautiful as she had been in real life, the precious companion my mother had loved and would always remember.

My mother happily holding her baby, Chris
When I carried Teeny into her kitchen, my mother had prepared a box with her favorite jingling ball toy.We had spent hours laughing as Teeny never lost interest in chasing it.  My mother painstakingly inspected every inch of Teeny before wrapping her in a sweater that smelled of her lavender soap.  She hesitated at the neck and then again at Teeny's skull.  She turned slowly and looked at me. Our eyes exchanged one flicker of understanding.  We both needed to protect each other.  We knew the meaning of unconditional love and it had come full circle. Very quietly my mother closed the box and we went into the dark to bury Teeny together.

I will never forget my mother's 87th birthday and the gift I was able to give back to her.  Thank you, St. Anne.              



Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Patron Saint of Unconditional Love, St. Anne

Close up of  the St. Anne statue being restored
at Chris Hart Studio
I was one of those children that did not look forward to kindergarten. Actually, I hated it. I disliked the first day, the second day and all the days that followed. I simply didn't understand why I needed to leave the quiet bliss of the outdoors and sit in a stuffy classroom. I much preferred going barefoot in warm powdery dust to wearing shoes on a waxed linoleum floor. I would rather pick wildflowers while exploring a creek bed that read a book about picking wildflowers while exploring a creek bed. I was easily brought to tears by Sister Martha's strict humorless teaching style. There was not one thing about going to school I liked.

My mother would cheerfully drive me every morning as I begged her to let me stay home.  She would patiently walk me to the door promising to pick me up in the afternoon.  I was determined to never let her forget the anxiety and misery I felt.  Finally, one especially exasperating morning she walked me into the church on our way to class. It was empty and dim with that familiar smell only a  Catholic church seems to have.  She stood in front of a St. Anne statue and told me the story of St. Anne, explaining that she was Mary's mother and Jesus' Gramma. 

This particular statue was about 5 feet tall and depicts St. Anne teaching her young daughter, Mary to read.  My mother told me that Mary was born late in St. Anne's life just like I had been and St. Anne felt her daughter was a blessing, not an inconvenience just like my mother felt about me. She said St. Anne valued education over stuff just like she did. She explained that St. Anne wanted only the best for her daughter just like my own mother wanted for me. I looked at the statue for a long time.  It had beautiful deep rich colors with shining Gold leaf accents. I was mesmerized by the faces and how their eyes reflected the same deep love I saw in my mother's eyes every time she looked at me.  In that moment, I realized how much my mother loved me.   

St. Anne statue in the early stage of restoration
This Mothers Day, almost 60 years later, I began the task of restoring a very old damaged St. Anne statue for a nearby Catholic church. It seemed like a good day to work in my studio since my mother has been gone almost 4 years and I still feel sad on this day. Even now I find new ways to miss her, remembering things I forgot to ask and forgetting she isn't here to call.  I held part of the statue in my lap and I patiently dissolved layer after layer of old paint, touched up by many well-intentioned people over the years.  As I carefully removed the different colors, parts of the original finish began to show through. As damaged as it was, I recognized something as a wash of tears came over me. I was working on the same statue my mother had introduced me to years ago. How masterfully my mother had used the story of another mother, St. Anne, to help me understand what is most important. Just like the layers of paint I was removing, she had peeled away the layers of excuses, showing me the meaning of unconditional love.                                                                                                                               

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Patron Saints of Forgiveness...

St. Philomena statue in process from Chris Hart Studio. 
My New Year's resolution for 2017 had been to learn how to forgive.  Actually, forgiving has made it onto my list for many years since I had never really understood what it meant no matter how hard I thought I was trying.  I've struggled with forgiveness for a long time, to understand it and to feel it both.  I have asked friends and family how it is they were able to forgive others and make it look so easy. At every mass, I have prayed to the Divine to open my heart, helping me to let go of the resentments, anger and fear I hold on to so tightly.  On my knees after communion, I ask "What is taking you so long, God?  Just kick my butt in the direction I most need, please."  At times, I have fooled myself into believing that forgetting is just as good as forgiving.  Other times, I've told myself I can't forgive because it feels like saying what the other person did was OK after all. There have been times that I didn't want to even explore the possibility of forgiveness because to do so meant I would have to acknowledge the part I played in being wronged, the part of wronging someone else. It's complex and something that has puzzled me much of my life.  Of course, I can ask for forgiveness and receive it through confession or other means but how do I find the path to forgive those I feel have hurt me unjustly?  The act of forgiveness seems to be a hallmark of martyrdom and sainthood, neither of which I aspire to at this stage of my life.  I didn't need a book called Forgiveness for Dummies.  Instead, I did it the hard way.   

Many years ago I had read a news story about a snake who mistakenly ate a heating pad thinking it was a rodent.  After all, it was soft and furry with an infrastructure resembling the feel of a skeleton.  It was warm with a nice long tail which provided the appropriate resistance because it was plugged into the wall.  Even if the snake had a momentary doubt about eating the prey, it's teeth curve backward toward it's body, making it nearly impossible to pull out. I had become that snake, choking on the heating pad.  For years I was absolutely certain that I was tightly holding onto a rat, with my teeth curved inwards, unable to let go.  I clung to my indignation like a sheriff's badge and righteously flashed it whenever the criminal got too close.  Every single word, every silence, look, turning, breath, sigh, sneeze or blink was filtered through my anger, fear and feelings of rejection all the while missing the truth.  I was so sure I was right that I couldn't even begin to think there could be any other way to be.  Then in a flash, my heart cracked open and I saw the infinitesimal possibility that my reality wasn't the reality.  The heating pad was just a heating pad and not a rat after all.  In that moment, like splitting the atom, I was turned inside out, unable to see things the same again.  That's when I understood forgiveness.

It didn't matter how many times I prayed to be able to forgive others or how many stories I read about how martyred saints had forgiven their persecutor even at the moment of death, I still couldn't apply it when it came to my own life. It amazed me that St. Maria Goretti could forgive her murderer as she lay dying from her stab wounds.  St. Philomena, Daughter of Light, could steadfastly stay true to her beliefs while being tortured and finally beheaded, miraculously able to forgive her persecutors.  What about St. Sebastian, martyred twice and still able to forgive.  I am grateful to have not been beheaded, stabbed or shot through with arrows in order to let go of my iron grip on being right about being wronged.          

Detail of the serpent on base Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Statue
I am humbled by the long circuitous route I took to learn about forgiveness. I'm not sure I will do any better the next time I believe I am wronged by someone but now I am open to the possibility that something I was so sure of in one moment can, in the blink of an eye, be seen in a totally different light. It didn't happen like I thought it would when I prayed at mass for God to open my heart.  It didn't happen like the example martyred saints set for us, embracing their abuser on their deathbed.  Nope, not for me.  It was as simple as the snake.  My reptilian brain was sure I had a rat when in fact I was choking on a heating pad.  I was so blinded by my need to be right that I couldn't see my heart. Let go of the rat. It's not what you think it is. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Stages of Alzheimer's Disease and How It Progressed With My Friend Over the Years

It has become more difficult these past months to visit my friend at the memory care center where she has been living.  As she declines, the good days are less frequent and the bad days expand to fill the empty space. Each time I go I hope for just one more bit of insight that can help me understand what is going on inside as her mind gradually loses it's foothold. Now...all of the things that have caused both of us angst in the past seem totally meaningless. For the most part, she has lost her ability to speak, remember past experiences or people, recognize food or care about where her dog is. Without a past, who are we?  I seek the answer at every visit.

          This morning's sunrise on the hike I always made my friend take with me when she visited. She would  humorously complain the entire time until we finished with a latte from Dutch Brothers.  
There is a certain look she always gave me that made my heart dance. She would tuck her chin down and raise her eyebrows, tilting her head then look into my eyes as a way to separate herself from the other residents, as if to tell me she was not one of them.  That was my cue to give her a conspiratorial smile and nod. It was something we did in college.  No words necessary.

I knew my friend had memory issues when she was in her 40's. She had always had a voracious appetite for words, spoken or written.  We both saved our books, trading bags of them several times a year when we visited each other. Then suddenly she didn't bring any more books and wasn't interested in taking any of mine. She was unable to keep the story line straight any longer, having to start at the beginning each time she picked up the book.

She began asking simple questions, repeatedly with no recollection of having ask the same thing just a few minutes earlier. Even hearing the answer over and over didn't trigger her memory.  At one visit, each time she ask me where I got my sweater, I asked if she recalled having ask me that earlier.  Even though her declining short term memory was frightening for us both, her sense of humor showed when from then on she began saying after every question, "I already asked you that, right?" followed by a gale of laughter.

We had many conversations about what her future looked like after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  At first she insisted it wasn't true but there was no denying the scan that showed her brain beginning to atrophy.  She was angry with many people. She was resentful and depressed at times. She was upset when the woman who coordinated the local Alzheimer's Association told her there would be a day when she would not be able to find her car in the parking lot of the grocery store.  She talked with me about what this would mean as she aged.  She obsessed about where she would live, what would happen to her dog and how she would spend her days, afraid of not knowing what was going on around her.  All I could say was "You are my friend. I will be there. I will hold your hand and make you laugh like we did in college".

Today I was there as her future became the present. I held her hand and tried my best to make her laugh but it wasn't what we had pictured years ago when she first learned of her disease. Tears ran down my face as I watched her struggling, drifting in and out of sleep.  It seemed best to tell her the story of her life as I knew it, about how we met in college and the crazy things we did and how hard we laughed, how our lives evolved with each other through
The sunset from the deck where my friend and I sat many times
relationships, job changes, moving closer to each other then farther away and then finally closer again. I spoke about how we ended up right here...right now.  I  told her about the journey she was on and that I would be waiting for her to let me know she arrived safely.  She squeezed my hand as she tucked her chin down, raised her eyebrows, tilted her head and looked into my eyes.  I gave her that conspiratorial smile and nodded just like we did in college.  Yes, you are my special friend.  No words necessary.     

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Alzheimers Disease......Sometimes Not being Able to Remember the Past or Worry about the Future is OK

I'm not sure how long I spent crying in the parking lot of a memory care center earlier this week. I just wasn't able to drive home after I visited my college friend of 45 years.  She lives there now in the highest level of memory care they can provide.  The change in her physically was shocking.  No longer remembering to eat or even to feel hunger, she has lost close to 80 pounds.  Nothing and no one can entice her to eat.  Food just isn't interesting to her any more. Six months before she was eating ice cream out of the carton for breakfast in her own home when I stopped to see her.  It made us laugh because we used to do that together in our dorm room. Two spoons and one carton. I was never a big breakfast eater but ice cream worked well for us both. I would give anything to get her to enjoy one bite of ice cream again.

She has her own language now, using a combination of sounds, hand gestures and her eyes to impart her feelings.  It takes some skill to decipher but you can figure out her message if you take the time.  She does not consider it rude if you finish a sentence for her.  Instead she is relieved.  She doesn't like questions because she has no answers.  She doesn't like names because she knows no people.  She doesn't care what was served for lunch, how her clothes fit or who visited her yesterday.  That information is simply not relevant to her any longer.  Instead she vigilantly watches the other residents for subtle signs of distress and is intuitively drawn to help them. All she can do is stand close by and worry her hands but that is how she shows her concern.  She is present with them.  She is in  the moment, no baggage from her past, no memories of being wronged, no resentment toward family or friends and no wishing she were somewhere else.  I was amazed as I watched her interact with simplicity and honesty.

The irony of it was not lost on me, having just come from a session with a counselor where I had dumped a boatload of unresolved feelings, being wronged and wronging others, feeling inadequate and small for not being able to rise above it, not being able to take the high road of forgiveness and open my heart. I have spent a lot of money and countless hours to learn what my friend showed me in 45 minutes. It is simply better when we forget past wrongs.

My friend at Stephens College in Equestrian Class
I met my friend the very first day at Stephens College because our dorm rooms were directly across the hall from one another.  Oddly, the private women's college we attended recruited a small number of women from each state and many foreign countries as a way to expose the students to a myriad of cultural differences.  We both were from small towns in Oregon, had received partial scholarships and student loans and needed to work part-time jobs in order to attend what was considered at the time a very expensive college.  We were accepted for different reasons. She had extremely high SAT scores.  My SAT scores were not as high but I was extremely creative on my college application. We were best friends for 45 years.

She loved to intimidate others with her extensive vocabulary, making it very difficult for me to win a debate or even a game of Scrabble. Her witticism could cut right to the naked truth, painfully accurate and revealing at times but never cruel.  Her cleverly crafted expressions between ideas and unique observations were endlessly entertaining whether we were in class, at a college mixer or flying home to Oregon together for the holidays.  I smiled as I wondered what she would have to say now, living in the highest level of memory care available with others who were no longer able to live on their own.  It would have raised  her sense of humor to a new level, I'm sure. To her the world was a canvas for intellectual amusement and verbal banter was her medium.  Asking a rhetorical question and answering herself with a creative oxymoron was her calling card. Believe me when I say there is a plethora of raw material where she is now.   
My friend in the studio we shared at Stephens college
Crying in the parking lot wasn't because I felt so sorry for my best friend.  Yes, I miss her terribly and I can't imagine what her acerbic wit would say if she could for one second see the craziness going on  around her. The tears were for the beauty and simplicity of the value she was able to find for herself.  Seeing her concern for those she lived with now and her inability to get bogged down with past grievances, I realized that remembering is not always best. She showed me it's better to just be present and not waste one second being regretful of the past or frightened by the future.

Thank you, my friend, for the 45 years of crazy fun we had and thank you, my friend, for the 45 minutes it took you last Wednesday to show me what really matters.  I will see you at breakfast.  Two spoons and one carton.       


Friday, February 24, 2017

Patron Saint of Purse Makers, St. Brieuc of Brittany

It is standing room only again at the Saturday 4pm mass led by the charismatic Father Lincoln at Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert.  In spite of the crowded seating, I noted that many women brought their handbags to mass.  There are 4 large purses taking up seating space in the row of seats in front of me.  I am simultaneously obsessing over the people forced to stand and the huge purses that couldn't be locked in the car parked in a church parking lot guarded by security for one hour.

After communion, I kneel, give thanks and pray my usual prayers. I pray for determination in keeping an open heart for those I try to love unconditionally, including myself. I pray for the strength to be supportive and kind to those who cross my path daily no matter how busy I am. I pray for help to be selfless in my grace while serving others even in the smallest ways.  I pray to forgive and to be forgiven.  The Divine certainly knows this to be quite a challenge given my personality but I'm hopeful my prayers will be answered over time.  As I kneel, I am sucked into the gaping maw of an open purse on the seat in front of me.  It appears to have a voracious appetite given it's size.  I tried to focus on prayer, love and centering my soul but I  found I couldn't look away.  It presented an excellent opportunity to see what was so important they couldn't free up a another seat.

Looking into the voracious maw of a designer handbag
Just like my mother, Kleenex seems to be the primary ingredient, even in an expensive designer bag. Next is a cell phone, water bottle, lip gloss, Tylenol and  wallet, a variety of coupons, paper, envelopes and pens, followed by a general mess that looks akin to an unmade bed.  Even my ADD brain knew not one of those items was necessary to attend mass. What is this addiction to our purses and why are we so insecure without them?  There must be a saint or two that can help out.  

As my mother aged and became more forgetful, she frequently became concerned with where her purse was....believe me when I say we spent many hours looking for it.  With caregivers in the house, she was convinced it was necessary to hide it even though by then it didn't hold anything of much value.  We prayed to St. Anthony so many times for help  I thought we wore him out.  "St. Anthony! St. Anthony! Please come 'round.  Something's been lost and cannot be found."   He answered our prayers more times than I can count.

St. Breiuc Patron Saint of Purse Makers
After some research, I found the Patron Saint of Purse Makers, St. Brieuc....educated where else?....France? Oui! Mistakenly, I thought Givenchy, Louis Vuitton or Yves Saint Laurent might be the Patron Saints of Purse Makers from what I saw leaning over the pew at Sacred Heart.  St. Brieuc was born in Wales around 420 AD, moved to France and is known as one of the seven founding saints of Brittany.  An official medallion found in Seine shows him to have a purse in hand, slaying a dragon. Most often he is shown holding a staff with a column of fire above him which was said to appear when he was ordained. It's an interesting and somewhat unsettling combination. 

So between purse-maker, St. Breiuc and purse-finder, St. Anthony, I can only hope that those of us who can't be separated from our purses for an hour long mass may find solace in praying to at least one of these two saints.  I'm certain either would be delighted to intervene on our behalf, bringing us enough security and peace to leave a purse at home, downsize or lock it in the car, instead of giving it a seat in the pew at a standing room only mass.  Think of it this way...the saints can help us lighten our burden and feel confident enough to take only what is really necessary to attend mass, our souls. Plus, I'm sure there are many who will give thanks when they are offered a chance to sit down. Mercie! Oui? 






Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Patron Saint of Communicating for Those with Dementia. St. Gabriel, The Archangel

Somewhere in the deepest crevices of my brain I have stored the love I still feel for my late mother. I put it somewhere near my enchantment with tulips and close to my infatuation with creativity, in the special place where my heart still dances. While I am not a brain scientist I do know I have one and like my car, I've learned more about it the longer I use it. Once in a while you hear the sound of a different engine.  You look to see a Maserati humming past. Sometimes my brain runs like the Maserati and other times it runs like a clunker in need of a tune up. I like the Maserati best.

There is the executive function part of my brain where I have stored the memories of the challenges taking care of my mother presented.  This is the part of my brain that deals with lists and procedures, figuring out how best to care for her, the area where it seemed black or white, right or wrong, healthy or sick, either/or.  Unfortunately, it is not that simple when the one you care for is gradually losing their mind. Blending the bittersweet love I felt for her with the intellectual process of providing her with care was hard on both of us.

St. Gabriel, Delivering a Message from Heaven
The Archangel, St. Gabriel is the Patron Saint of Communication and has a long history of delivering important messages from heaven to earth. I like to think of him as a sort of Press Secretary for the Divine. Unlike most saints, St. Gabriel was never a human being living on earth but instead he was an angel in heaven who was declared a saint for helping people on earth.  His most preferred method of communicating was through dreams so as not to frighten the recipient. He is known to intercede on behalf of those who pray for his help to communicate with others and is known to assist anyone who's work involves communication like postal workers, journalists and telecommunications workers, diplomats, ambassadors and clergy, to name a few.  I figure he has become extremely busy in modern times given the internet, email, cell phones and texting.

On occasion, mother would want to go home to her parents, even though she was already home and her parents had passed away years before. Stopping her with logic only made her want to leave more, focusing her anger on the one keeping her from "going home".  Questioning her was confusing and added to her insecurity. Lengthy explanations created bad feelings, not solutions. It seemed all I did was make her more agitated and angry. Everything I knew about communication skills was worthless.

At night I would lie in bed, ruminating over and over in my brain how to keep my mother safe and happy since the two seemed mutually exclusive. I was confused by how my best intentions only served to make her feel more frightened and anxious, the opposite of what I wanted. I prayed I could find a way to communicate with her that made her feel comfortable. It was St. Gabriel who showed me the way.  It occurred to me that I used words with limited feelings and she used feelings with limited words. I realized it wasn't her inability to make sense of my words.  It was my inability to communicate in a way that made sense to her feelings.

As a teacher I knew that you had to reach every student at their individual point of readiness in order to have success. There were no disadvantaged students, only those who were "differently advantaged". Once I saw my mother as "differently advantaged" St. Gabriel gave me the answer.  If the scrapbook of her mind had pages torn out I couldn't fix that but I could work with it.  There were particular events that simply didn't exist anymore for her. I had to accept where she was, not remind her of where I thought she should be.  
I knew the concepts my mother still understood and it occurred to me I could use those to help her make order out of chaos.  She always valued eating meals together so telling her we would do something after dinner could often delay her concerns. If she wanted to call her mother, I would say her mother was using the bathroom and would call when she was done. Using the bathroom was another concept my mother understood. If she was looking for my father, dead 25 years, I would explain he was feeding the cattle.  She knew how important it was to feed them because for many years they had owned a cattle ranch together. 
St. Gabriel, Patron Saint of Communication

Delaying and distracting her worked better than trying to get her to accept my reality. "I'll take you home after we eat lunch" even though we were already home  "We have to wait until the bus comes at 2:00, then we will go" even though there was no bus line where she lived now.  "Your mother and father are still at work.  We'll go when they are home" though her parents had been dead for 30+ years.  If she ask to call her parents, I found reminding her they were dead would cause her to react as if she was hearing it for the first time because for her she was.  It could cause hours of crying. It was a nightmare for us both. My truth was no longer the best choice because her brain simply couldn't hold onto that truth.  Instead it caused agonizing emotional pain and I couldn't bear to be the cause of it.

It's like this...our memories are a long sequence of events that run in chronological order and they give us a reference for making sense out of the present.  In my mother's case she had blank areas in her brain that had once held memories. It seemed I was always the one to remind her of what she had forgotten.  Once I stopped forcing my reality on her, our happiness quotient immediately improved and our collective anxiety disappeared.

I thank St. Gabriel for showing me a way to communicate with my mother that made her feel safe and happy.  I thank St. Gabriel for making our lives easier and less painful as my mother declined.  It is believed that St. Gabriel will blow the sacred trumpet at the Last Judgment and it is then that I will be judged for how I cared for my mother. I look forward to it.    




Saturday, December 24, 2016

Patron Saint of Peace. Our Lady of Fatima

It is Christmas Eve and I am exhausted by the retail frenzy that begins for me at my studio in October.  I have the most gracious, kind and caring customers any business could wish to have.  There isn't a day that goes by that I don't give thanks that I can do what I love for a living because of the many who have supported me. I enjoy the people who come in once a year just to appreciate the decor and get caught up on our lives. I enjoy the customers who buy lots of things from me but I, also look forward to the ones who come just to buy a bar of soap and chat. In the 25 years I have had a working studio, my customers and I have shared our lives.... divorces, caring for an elderly parents, loss of loved ones, happiness of finding a new love, children and their successes and failures, tales of travels all over the world, stories of our beloved pets, defeating cancer and other illnesses,  loss of jobs or houses, finding new careers and new homes, fears and uncertainty about our community and country, our dreams, hopes and successes.  Over the years, as we have become friends, we have found support in getting to know each other and sharing our stories. 

Gold Leafing details on Our Lady of Fatima
I recently received an order for a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and as I always do, I read her lengthy story again from beginning to end.  I like to remind myself of the story surrounding the statue so as I paint I can stay present with it's meaning.  In the past I have discovered I telegraph through my hands and paintbrush what ever mood I'm in and that can make for some disgruntled looking saint statues if I'm not careful.  You certainly don't want a saint that looks like she has PMS or is bad-tempered because she skipped a meal.  Our Lady of Fatima needs to have a serene, quietly reflective and deeply spiritual face which helps to impart her message of salvation and peace.

Almost 100 years ago, Our Lady of Fatima appeared six different times to three peasant- children in Fatima, Portugal during 1917.  Her visits were preceded by three apparitions in 1916 by an Angle of Peace who prepared the children for Our Lady's visits to come. The details are lengthy and the debates, discussions and interpretations have occupied many theologians and scholars for years.  I encourage you to read the details of her visits and of the messages she shared.  Generally, most agree the purpose of the apparitions was to help people grow in faith, hope and love.  Since the birth of Christ, we have had the option to choose what is good and to know evil doesn't have the last word.  "I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world."(John 16:33)  Our Lady of Fatima asks us to trust in this promise.

The base of the statue before gold leaf is added
The gold leaf details added

Our Lady of Fatima statue is usually shown standing on a cloud-like base, wearing a white gown and mantle trimmed in gold with a rosary and often a crown.  The statues can vary depending on the simplicity or embellishment of the clothing.  I use gold leaf on the edge of her gown and on the statue's base and other details.  To keep her story authentic, I then glaze and age the painted surfaces to look like all eternity.

Christmas Eve is a time to remember the events around the Holy Family and the birth of Jesus.  It is also a time to gather with family and friends and a time for gift giving.  It's a time when I reflect on how my life has been filled with so many people who are kind and good and have met the challenges of life steadfastly and honestly regardless of what their faith may be called.  It's a time when the message of Our Lady of Fatima speaks clearly above the din of the busy Holiday retail season to trust that no matter how many challenges, sorrows or burdens we carry, it is our choice to choose good over evil.  Her message of love, hope and peace is seemingly, more profound in 2016 than it was a hundred years ago.