I blame my parents.
Usually, this would be too bland a statement, the equivalent of a sixth grader shrugging her shoulders in response to every goddamn question, statement and choice she’s given. In this case, however, I mean it. It’s true. I absolutely blame them.
I blame them for making the most out of their youth together, waiting to start a family until they’d learned “enough” lessons the hard way, built a house in the middle of nowhere with their own hands, and gotten up close and personal with turning forty. I blame them for having their heads on straight by the time my brother and I came along. For wanting to raise honest kids instead of spoiled dipshits. For having the moral fiber to be hard-assed when it was warranted.
Sometimes even when it wasn’t.
To start, I blame them for not getting cable. Jeremy and I grew up fighting over everything EXCEPT the television remote, because we both were equally excited about getting to watch the animal of the week on Nature on PBS. We both wanted to see what Norm would improve next on This Old House. I was pretty damn sure that Hyacinth on Keeping Up Appearances was the funniest woman alive and her male equivalent was Red Skelton. I was also convinced it was “Skeleton” and not “Skelton” until I got my dad the VHS box set for Christmas in junior high.
At which point, I should mention, we still didn’t have cable.
I blame both of my parents for hiring a babysitter who wore flannel and taught me about Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette. I blame them for hiring a piano instructor when I wanted to be a musician and for not letting me quit when I got it into my head that being talented wasn’t cool. I blame them for letting me make as much goddamn noise on that piano as I wanted.
I blame my mom for being so damn classy, getting it stuck in my head that the demure silhouettes of 60s film stars were the epitome of sex appeal and that the vinyl shrink-wrapped pop stars of 1998 were roughly as interesting as the sticky sandbox dwellers with lollipops melting in their pockets and grime collecting in their dirty ears.
I blame my dad for never, ever looking at a map.
For taking Jeremy and I out of school early to go to Vermont so he could capture the perfect photograph.
For tuning my ear to guitar strings.
For putting me in my first pair of western boots and for bragging about the fact that both of his kids smelled like hay, horses, leather and maple syrup for their first ten years of life. For building a wooden swingset instead of buying one. For yelling at me when I tried to read in the car, demanding instead that I look out the window. For getting my boots really, really, really dirty and calming my mom down when she came home to kids who smelled like a Vermont farm.
I definitely blame my dad for the no-maps-not-now-not-ever thing, enough to mention it twice.
I blame my dad, because I can find my way anywhere without a map, going by the sun. I blame him for the pictures I take. I blame him for my ever-expanding boot collection. I blame him for the fact that once the leaves start to turn I can’t sleep unless I’ve gone for a drive and turned the radio to a country station. I blame him for my wanderlust.
I blame my mom for my pencil skirts.
You see, it’s really not my fault. They’re the one who messed it up.
Life would have been easier if I’d been the kid who was up to speed with the latest TV shows and music, who wore the same clothes as the popular girls and never, EVER cut off all of my hair. If I grew up thinking of alcohol as a way to escape rather than a thing to be explored – knowing what icewine was and why it was so difficult to make because the grapes had to freeze and that made more residual sugar and it’s still sweeter than reisling and dry wines are this and red wines are that and blah blah blah…
Life would have been easier if my parents hadn’t expected so much.
Now I just can’t imagine settling for anything less.
Car lights in the distance, blue-black and white-gold, something like feeling joy through soaked eyelashes.
I can’t help it if the goosebumps on my skin give away my thoughts. Thank God my skull holds itself together. Thank God for a good leather jacket and boots, for a battered copy of Catcher In The Rye and really, really high speeds. For the way sunlight looks through eyelids.
Lids, lashes, light, all these fragile things.
All they do is make it so easy to let the whole world slide off my shoulders. They make it easy to strut around like an asshole, convinced that most people walk around sleeping their lives away, convinced of a handful of ideas about hope and cynicism being related – one protects the other.
I still catch myself coming to stillness while moving at top speed.
The mind will go blank not for lack of thought or feeling, but rather because it has come to absolute center. Behind a paintbrush, piano or pair of trustworthy arms, I find that place. I could possibly be full of shit, but that would just be what someone said about me…
What they say is just what they say and only what they say and only an echo once their teeth are done gnashing and their words are all drawn out like graphite lines in the air. I imagine other things such as what it would be like to have lenses for my eyes that would allow me to see growth in time-lapsed photography. I imagine how other people feel when they breathe, because I breathe so slowly.
Ten miles, even eleven miles around the fields and tobacco farms and strawberry patches – soon to become retirement communities – eleven miles of running and my breath still hasn’t picked up its pace. Strange. I am no Lance Armstrong. I don’t breathe with the same self-righteous exaggeration as my father. I try not to make noise unless a piano is involved…
…the satisfying scrape of a palatte knife over canvas. The sound of a heartbeat as felt through someone’s shoulder playing home to my ear.
My first memory of my father: I had been napping on his chest and wanted to wiggle away because he had fallen asleep and his breathing was too loud. Not snoring, not wheezing, he was just too loud. I wanted nothing to do with him, wondered where my mother was, butI was afraid to move and wake him up. There have been no improvements.
My mother made no noise and I thought she was some sort of angel, immune to human clumsiness and imbalance. She floated everywhere and smelled like Shalimar perfume and lace. She healed fevers and headaches with her cold hands on our foreheads – my brother and I – and made the kind of hot cocoa that you would crave even in the middle of July.
She gets a little lighter every few months, noticeably so. She doesn’t wear Shalimar anymore but everything she wears, touches or cooks smells incredible. she floats with more and more ease. Eventually she might just disappear; she’d smile coyly at her own clever trick and stand a bit straighter with pride for having pulled off such an exit.
She and I are very much alike.
Today I get to keep my clothes on and not worry about creating all the appropriate negative space, flexing and arching all the right places. No, today is just a portrait day and instead of fighting to keep my body still, I fight to stay awake and keep the same significant expression. I don’t know how long I slept last night – because I don’t think I did. What does it take to stay awake? The room is too serene to escape the seduction of rest.
All of these baby artists with their new sticks of charcoal, having only just learned about willow versus vine, having only just gotten the hang of perspective and having only just bought a few expensive sheets of cold-press paper… having only just cause to be exactly where they are. I used to wonder what our models thought about when I was still in school, on the other side of this equation.
“Baby artists.” I read that expression in a Janet Fitch novel and liked it too much to leave it alone. It’s affectionate. Honestly.
They seem to be struggling with my nose, when I take a break from posing and walk around the room to loosen my legs. Looking at their work makes me want to get back into portraiture because my work has lacked this sculptural approach for over a year. The places where I see the students struggling are the places where I used to feel uniquely skilled. I love hands, chins, eyes, noses… why waste so much time “trying” when you can just lay it down and be at peace with it on the first shot?
For the first time in years, I want to do the kind of work that tells people where to think, what part of their minds to open up. The beauty of abstraction is also its downfall.
I can see my next paintings in my head; I can taste the colors and feel the tactile quality of the oils, how it will be when it’s finished.
The painting stays in my head until I’m done posing for the morning. When I get home I already know I’m out of canvas… that’s when old bedding gets stretched, primed and recycled into a work of art. I wonder if Sam is still stretching his old shirts so he’ll still have a few dollars for coffee and cigarettes. I wonder if Evan is still using discarded windows instead of canvases. I wonder if Paige still paints with broken glass. As class draws to a close, lyrics circle my head:
There’s a lake, and at the bottom you’ll find all my friends. They don’t swim because they’re all dead. We never are what we intend or invent…
I hope that you would do this for me.
I want to know where the fireworks in my chest go, in the form of smoke, when the colors and lights get too blurry to see. Runny makeup is glamourous to some and when I was someone else I would have looked like this on purpose.
The perfume on my shoulders smells like a memory of someone else’s bed. Someone’s morning after a beautiful thunderstorm, someone’s salt. Like someone who has known much of passion and little of trust.
I am telling myself that I am safe and immune.
I sleep twice a week now. It gets rid of the sense of obligation as it relates to time, as though I’ve satisfied some task that I hadn’t yet gotten around to. The morning hours, I swear they’re such amazing kissers. Watching the sun rise, I usually feel like someone’s lover, close enough in proximity to see their sleepy eyes in the morning. I wouldn’t miss sunrise for the world. Sunsets are cliche.
My hair looks like a baby animal in the morning. Baby artist. We age in reverse because only AFTER childhood do we abandon having fushia/blue/pink plumage. I look like this if I sleep….
Musing Post E. Annie Proulx
It was the way my ears crackled with the volume of the folk band’s speakers, the specific timbre of steel strings that signaled the arrival of fair season, music in the basement wood shop – that’s what sparked my musical inclination.
People always look for the roots. They want to see the delicate white underbelly, the place where something started. Whether it’s a knack for mathematics or the bone structure of a ballet dancer, people want to know who gave a child his or her attributes. Whose nose do you have? Was your mother an artist? Did your dad teach you to write? How many generations does your temper go back?
Neither of my parents is a fan of writing. My dad only started using email two or three years ago. My mom is an accounting genius and I scraped by every math classes I took in high school. Neither of my parents plays an instrument. My hair is white because of chemical products rather than genetic intervention.
The list goes on; it also stops.
Certain things are my dad:
I am convinced that I can find my way from one place to another without a map or GPS. If I know the general direction, I can get 5 miles SSW without a problem. Usually.
I am nostalgic for a lifestyle I never lived – something resembling Wyoming in the 60s.
I hate wearing shoes. Frye boots don’t count.
I love extremely moldy and/or creamy cheeses, sweet rieslings and raw honey on a spoon. Amber maple syrup still hot from the boiling room, sipped straight from the little paper cups people use for condiments.
My idea of a perfect morning involves sitting on the porch, watching the sun rise, sipping coffee. Sleeping in is overrated. I watch for details and colors.
My first lessons on art and color came from sitting on my dad’s lap as he flipped through his latest stack of photographs. He was drawn to flowers and farms, lots of landscapes. I lost track of how many hours my brother and I spent playing in Vermont cow fields while my dad spent all evening setting up the perfect photograph of the moon rising at sunset, over a sugarhouse near Brattleboro.
My first lessons on texture involved sawdust, freshly-cut grass, the warm steering wheel of dad’s John Deere, the honest grime of his yard work-jeans, and the sheep skin seat covers of his GMC pickup.
My appreciation for all things hardwood, handmade and homespun comes from my dad.
Then certain things about me are my mom.
There is nothing delicate about my bone structure. It’s all strength, all squares. Small but strong.
I have a deep, inner need to know the people I love are okay.
I fall asleep with my mouth open.
I always look at the structure of a garment, the way it’s tailored, the way a pair of shoes is constructed.
Confidence, drive and determination are something I learned from my mom. She’s a go-getter, a girl who graduated high school early, left the Canadian border of Maine to go to Washington D.C. during Vietnam, then came back to Connecticut – all on her own. She’s braver than I am even though it would appear I’m following in her ambitious footsteps.
I miss Connecticut with every fiber of my being. Certain things about me are strictly facts.
What comes from me? Paint. Piano. Questions.
How these are handled…those things have more complicated roots than any of the above.
When I open the back door to my apartment, the smell of grass and mesh screen flows in on the breeze. When I was little, I would press my nostrils to the screen in the sliding glass door and drink in the air, yell out to my dad or Jeremy to come inside for dinner. The soft flutter of insects’ wings against that screen, drawn to light and human flesh. Mosquito bites. Deet.
We’d spend evenings shelling sugar snap peas into Rubbermaid bowls and Ziploc bags to be frozen later. The braided rug left zigzag tattoos on my ankles from the way I sat, always indian-style.
“Those have to last through the winter,” my dad would say. Everything in the garden was for some other time, it seemed. We ate our peaches, but most of them were canned. Vegetables were frozen fresh, occasionally pickled or cooked into casseroles, shredded into salads or kept interesting with assorted vinegars. My mother’s jams had drug-like qualities, an opiate sweetness that made my head spin. They glowed in the jars.
I had friends who didn’t know what vegetables looked like unless they saw a can of origin.
There’s a stretch of childhood when life cannot be imagined in any other way. The future is nothing more than Christmas, summer vacation and a glittery response for the question, “So, little girl, what do YOU want to be when you grow up?”
There is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t give for just one more vegetable-summer.
I was there. And then I wasn’t. I signed dotted lines, moved furniture, bought produce and spent afternoons wandering Route 3 and the Cranberry Highway. I told myself it could be home, and then it wasn’t anymore. Just a few days after just a few important goodbyes, people wanted to know why I was back. What went wrong. What slipped between the floorboards. What the hell I had me with my tail tucked between my legs and my head slung low for once.
The better question would be, “What didn’t?”
The Occupy protesters in New Haven were hauled away yesterday. Disgruntled intellectuals who would rather camp than persist. Fixed-gear bikes, mummy sleeping bags, Mountain HardWear supplies, duct tape. I took a few walks around downtown when they were first assembling – meandering adventures around Yale with a would-be-more-than-friend-but-wasn’t. The Occupiers reminded me of very educated potheads, and yet we were in the same boat.
We still are, except my criminal record is still squeaky clean.
Coming back home was like having my ribs punched in, then being hugged by the assailant. I’m going back to the same job I did before I even finished college. A job I was qualified for because I passed a $500 certification test, and because I had the right body. The right mix of insanity and pep to get a client to bust out ten burpees and twenty pushups in a superset. I had the right hair.
I quit the fitness life to go back to school, get a Master’s, and be something greater than a bleach-blonde meathead-slash-artist-slash-musician-slash-writer, and did extremely well. I was the first one to get hired in my class, first one to speak up with an ample one-line comeback, the first one to get away with murderous jokes just by smiling. Funny, I’m more educated than ever and I find myself suddenly back in a place even worse off than I was when I started training.
In a tweet, “FML.”
Well, not exactly. The truth is I’m extremely lucky. I’m lucky no one I love has died when they came close to it. Lucky my best friends have been there for me in every conceivable way.
I am lucky to have the opportunity to surround myself with other creative, entrepreneurial people, lucky to have a fresh start in the place where my deepest roots first sprouted. Lucky to have found a clot of like-minded, non-Occupying, goldenhearted people with incredibly worn and dirty hands who know what it means to dig deep to make a difference.
I’m lucky, because the supreme pile of misfortune that has been the last few months has somehow stripped me of any ability I had left with with to feel fear. Things could easily continue to worsen from here, and if they do, so be it.
The best part about the bottom is being able to look up.
Musing Post T.S. Eliot
There are a few things I know about spirit. About love. About what fills the space between what we speak and where we pin the words together. Once in a while I lose the ability to speak because I can’t see the words. I can’t hear them in my head and I’m not ready to hear them out loud.
There are a few things I know about the consequences of speaking and not speaking. Of acting and not acting. All I can say is that I’m always honest, and it has been a long time since I felt I had much of anything to lose. The beauty of living wholeheartedly is that there’s usually very little left to tear from my fingers. I love quickly and fiercely. I react and recover and move forward like every day is a fury of summersaults. I don’t take time, and when I do it’s spent behind 88 black and white keys, with the crystalline intention of taking it slow.
I know a few things about pulling a story out into the open. A melody. A chord progression. I think it makes more sense in music than it does between people who are inherently less predictable.
I know how it feels to miss a beat and how it feels to skip one. To drop one. Or two. To cut time, syncopate and repeat.
None of these things involve fear. Fear is a separate animal. Fear is what happens when you begin to worry about what is happening. It’s what crawls into the space between thought and speech and digs its porcupine self into the most tender words before they unfurl. Regardless, I’d rather not believe there’s such a thing as feeling too much. It’s not a question of sensitivity so much as perception. I’d rather perceive as much as possible.
I know a thing or two about getting to know a thing or two.
I met Jon Luke and the rest of the 560 house by accident; I’d gone to pick up Lily for a night downtown and ended up in a house full of half-dressed rag dolls, the air filled with hookah and paint on the walls. Eventually everyone was in skin and paint; Animal Collective vibrated through the floorboards and Jon was the one with all the ideas. He was the ringleader. The storyteller. Was. He was the one who grew his own tea and never ate a single pesticide. He was the one who got a handful of us together to go watch the meteors from the water tower in Thornden. Was.
I think he’s still telling amazing stories from somewhere underground. Not everything about a person can die.
Tara left more of an impression on me in two hours than most do in two months. We sat on the front porch and talked about what it’s like to shape a body… at 3am. I remember something about raw milk, something about yoga not being enough.
I saw DR every week for one year. Just one year. No matter how much time has passed since I soaked up graduate Media Law, I will never forget his voice. If he’s still around the next time I’m upstate, I’ll probably still melt into a swooning schoolgirl the minute he starts talking about the free-flowing, wide-open …marketplace of ideas. An immune press. The damn establishment. Honesty. Every time I finish a piece, it’s not finished until it’s been through my internal “What Would Professor DR Think?” wringing.
Lola with her pearls and translucent crepe skin, her fabulous frown of disapproval. Brad with his wine and camera lenses. Lily with her laugh. Diep with her dresses and the kind of walking-talking insights that make it worthwhile to take the long way, on foot, in June, in South Carolinian heat. Sam with his wayfaring ways, free and alive.
The thing is, how long you’ve known a person is irrelevant. People are like cherry juice from concentrate and I have no problem with the unpredictable splashes. I love the stains. Come, leave, whatever. I will do the same, and if I can affect you as strongly as I have been affected by others, well, it’s been an honor. Life is too much fun to waste on the experiences that don’t stir you from the inside out.
The buttery feel of the word, its scent, its texture, its sound like a low D on an old, warm guitar, thrumming like a muscle, golden is one of my favorite words in the world. There are a few words that trigger full-bodied synesthetic responses, evoking every sense at once. Only a few. Golden is one of them.
Golden is what my heart does in the morning. Especially now.
For Paul, Dec. 23, 1985 – September 23, 2014
Paint me a picture
a narcotic canvas of recycled mornings.
I need to recapture
all the minutes blinked away,
cobwebbed in eyelashes,
flooded through static charged veins.
The amber glows, and whirring wheels,
the smell of turpentine and acoustic strings’ metal,
all of our rhythms, collective heartbeats
of dancers, artists, kings – we are
the crust of a party.
We peel the glow off of our skins
still burning from within.
We are without
reason, direction, form.
Then for a moment we are molten.
We slip back together and saturate home.
We are gold and, even as dust,
our gleam cannot be quenched.
©2014 Jesele M. Z. Paragone
If I was a child still, this would be the week of loading artwork into my dad’s red pickup and driving to Harwinton to set up the art we’d crafted for the fair. Every year it’s on the first weekend in October.
I’d have a few drawings, Jeremy would have some kind of carving or metal work, and my dad would enter photographs. We were a competitive bunch, and the year my dad won Best in Show for one of his photographs it suddenly seemed like blue ribbons weren’t worth reaching for. I was jealous. However, all of us had a Best in Show year or two as time went on, and when his turn passed my dad was never the jealous type. He bragged to anyone he could whenever either of his children was recognized, proud as hell. I fell off of his bragging list years ago, possibly because he doesn’t understand the details of what I do for a living, or possibly because he hasn’t heard me play piano in at least five years.
A hurricane is supposed to pass through this weekend and I’m sure the Harwinton Fair will carry on, rain or shine. My dad will be there in his cowboy hat and boots, with his silver belt buckle polished like a moon, every bit the spitting image of a cross between Peter Fonda and Robert Redford, tall and bandy like all of the Germans on that side of my blood.
I won’t be there this year. I haven’t been since college. I’m not into cheeseburgers, fried dough, or cotton candy the way I was as a kid, but damn if I don’t wish I could get there for one hour, for a hot apple cider and to listen to my horse whispering great-uncle Arnold critique a pull.
Things like that make me wish I still had the old Canon AE-1 I borrowed from an aunt. That simple machine was a brick, but a classic. I could still unload it, wrap the film into a spool, develop, and print the photos blindfolded – or in a pitch black room. I still remember the way the developer smelled. The immediacy and accessibility of photography now is lighter, but it creates so much visual noise. Instagram is so much litter and so little substance. I miss doing it by hand, waiting for just one shot because there was a finite limit to how many frames were available.
And I miss the darkroom. And later, my studio in art school, where I built a tree on which to hang my painting clothes. The thighs of my painting jeans were so caked in a confetti of oil colors that they could practically stand independently.
Maybe it’s the memory. Maybe the fragrance. Maybe the freedom or academia, the proximity to other artists, but I can’t find that anywhere. I’ve lost it.
And I can’t create that here.
There was pillow talk,
some hunger and some habit.
There was rhythm without bruises
of passion where I wish there had been.
There were headlights,
they tracked across the basement.
They caught me,
translated what the stillness of my face meant.
Carved, illuminated, thirsty,
Drink me, dearest,
there are worse things
© 2015 Jes M. Z. Paragone