Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hell and beyond

A very tiny woman, no kidding she wasn’t taller than 4 ft, was in the road when I parked, around sunset. The woman, I guessed in her 80s, was walking down the street wearing Chinese pajamas, leaning on a thin stick. I thought she might be Chinese. I looked at her and smiled; she said hello. She had a deeply resonant voice— it boomed among the branches— projecting a much bigger presence than her small frame. Definitely not Chinese. Was I seeing things? A neighborhood cat walked over to her. She didn’t want that cat anywhere near her. She took her switch and whacked it 3 times on its nose. Whack whack whack. Her aim was true. I was stunned at how precise she was, like she’d been practicing hitting a tennis ball against a wall. 

Later I found out that her name was Diamond and she wasn't a figment of my imagination, but a former actor who lived up the street at Rose Villa.


I’d driven to Astoria to see my friend Susan who’d just moved there and was still in the midst of unpacking boxes. Astoria is on the edge of the world, looking out over the wide bay of the Columbia River leading to the Ocean, with football field-long cargo ships floating by, fog rolling in, gulls balancing on chartreuse studded beams, old wreckage from days gone by. 

The town protects itself from the ravages of gentrification by being vigilant about its past. Historical plaques appear in strategical spots around town, with words like, Logging Baron! Cannery Magnate! Ship Captain! Other plaques tell the story of aging structures. Here’s one I found up the hill from Susan’s:


When I got back to Milwaukie (20 minutes south of Portland) I was so happy to be in my woodsy little cabin again, so quiet and remote. Okay, not that remote and not so cabin-y, and not exactly in the woods, but surrounded by tall firs, overlooking the Willamette River. I heated up the take-out, put on the music, looked at the work I’d done the week before as part of my 10-day retreat. Nothing great, but I'd started working again, which is something, better than nothing. Although, don’t mean to downplay nothing. Nothing has its place. Old age has its place. Death has its place.

Speaking about death, one of the first things I did when I got to Portland was buy a copy of Dante’s Inferno, which describes the 9 circles of Hell. Limbo, the first circle, I'd come to learn, was the worst kind of hell— being unsettled, undecided, not knowing what you wanted, being torn hither and thither, repeated a thousand times over, was hell. As Jews we don’t believe in Hell, but I believe in Limbo, and Limbo is Hell.

pasted up at Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland, OR

(A little bit about Lone Fir Cemetery, one of Portland's oldest cemeteries: westward pioneers, Eastern European immigrants and Chinese workers, who came to Oregon to do the most dangerous jobs, were all interred there. A totally volunteer core keeps the cemetery going and raises money for it's upkeep. It's a beautiful place to walk, and the next day after pasting up the rat, Janet and I strolled slowly among the headstones.)


Which takes me back to death and Dante's Inferno and the beautiful wood engravings by Gustave Doré...


Not that I plan to imitate him, or could, but in my own fashion I set out to sketch some circles of hell, which I hope to later work on as wood cuts. Here are a few from the week:

Geryon and wild dogs


Thanks to Martha Banyas and Michael Hoeye for the incredible space and time I was given at Far Lookout retreat. They've created a very special place, a gift to artists and writers.

Thanks to Janet and Chris for being such gracious hosts, and Susan for tour of Astoria!

And thanks especially to Bill and LeBrie for being my partners in crime. Couldn't have done it without you!