Battle Hill

From a hill in Brooklyn the Roman goddess of wisdom and justice waves to the Statue of Liberty. And not just from any hill, but Battle Hill, where not just any old battle was fought, but the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27th, the first and the largest major combat after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. We lost, and the British had control of the Port of New York for the rest of the war.

Now it’s peaceful on the hill which is part of Green-Wood Cemetery. The bronze Minerva, or Athena as the Greeks knew her, was unveiled in 1920 to commemorate the 144th anniversary of the battle. She was originally a goddess of war—defensive war only—before she became a patron of music and poetry, sponsoring the arts and trade, medicine and wisdom, justice, law, victory, weaving and the crafts. And there she stands at the top of the hill, the highest elevation in Brooklyn, waving to the Statue of Liberty 3½ miles away in New York Harbor.

Two strong and fearless women, one in a glorious helmet and armor decorated with snakes, the other designed after the Roman goddess Libertas, her crown of seven spikes a symbol of the seven oceans and seven continents of the world, her tablet a book of law.
Their eyes lock. Lady Liberty raises her torch with her right hand. Minerva salutes back with her left.

In 2005 another battle brewed. Now it was between Green-Wood and the real estate developers who would have blocked their view of each other. The city intervened in 2008. Their interlocking gaze was preserved. For now.

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The Color Orange

On a gray day I went to the greengrocer for orange bell peppers and carrots to eat and to color and draw and digest. Ol’ Blue Eyes said, “Orange is the happiest color.” Van Gogh said, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange.”

Throwing off the cloak of Either/Or, Life or Death, Dark or Light, Pro or Con, Right or Wrong, Red or Yellow, I choose the fiery blend of Orange. Or-ange which is angel in French. Because, “Orange is Red, brought nearer to Humanity by Yellow.” ~ Kandinsky

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The Green-Wood Trolley

Ding-ding-ding goes the trolley… Except when it doesn’t. Because we did not want to wake anyone sleeping in the Green-Wood Cemetery. Cemetery is from the Greek word for “sleeping place.” This spring when I took the trolley tour we rolled slowly and quietly along the paths and rang no bells. These are some sketches I made of the day.

Having no interest in cemeteries, it has taken me decades to finally visit the famous cemetery in Brooklyn, and even then I found the trollies more interesting than the stones and mausoleums. Still it has a fascinating history.

“Founded in 1838 and now a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood was one of the first rural cemeteries in America. By the early 1860s, it had earned an international reputation for its magnificent beauty and became the prestigious place to be buried, attracting 500,000 visitors a year, second only to Niagara Falls as the nation’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked there to enjoy family outings, carriage rides, and sculpture viewing in the finest of first-generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.”

“Green-Wood is 478 spectacular acres of hills, valleys, glacial ponds, and paths, throughout which exists one of the largest outdoor collections of nineteenth-and twentieth-century statuary and mausoleums. Four seasons of beauty from century-and-a-half-old trees offer a peaceful oasis to visitors, as well as its 570,000 permanent residents, including Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, Charles Ebbets, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Horace Greeley, Civil War generals, baseball legends, politicians, artists, entertainers, and inventors.”

“A magnet for history buffs and bird watchers, Green-Wood is a Revolutionary War historic site (the Battle of Long Island was fought in 1776 across what is now its grounds), a designated site on the Civil War Discovery Trail, and a registered member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System.”

Read more:

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Snoozing on the Subway

Sleepy in the spring with the rocking of the train and time to kill, having a little time-out, catching a few winks between here and there, somewhere in a Brooklyn tunnel.

I’m a subway voyeur, taking photos to labor over later in the comfort of my home. I started these before the subway shooting earlier this month, then became too sad to finish till now. But I’ve been on the train again since the 12th, and found there were still those who could relax and drift off with nary a qualm, setting us all a good example.

So sleep away gentle souls, though the seats be hard, and don’t miss your stop. I’ll step over your legs in the aisle because I see them and you, and me over here keeping watch.

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Drawing People on the Subway

I’m still at it. I don’t have the wonder and awe I had in my 20s, but I remember how exciting it was learning to draw people, every subway ride an opportunity for study. From my latest (not yet published) “Nancy Who Drew” book:

“If I was standing, holding onto the rail above, I could look down at a seated passenger and mentally calculate the distance between nose and ear, eyebrow and eyelid. Or, if I was on the platform waiting for the train, I took out my sketchbook and drew people standing still for a few minutes. I filled a whole sketchbook with quick drawings of coats, pant-legs and footwear, hands clasping shopping bags or briefcases. After I took an anatomy class I was aware that beneath the coats and skirts and jeans were femurs and fibula, patellas and tibias. Under deltoideus and trapezium were clavicles and scapulae. Skulls behind faces. Black holes instead of eyes. I saw death in life, life pared down to the bone, an ever-present mortality, a deeper design permeating ordinary life I had never thought about before.”

Now, all these years later I find myself looking at my fellow travelers again. If those early sketchbooks (which I can’t find) have an immediacy my current efforts (done at home) lack, the pleasure is the same. Seeing the ordinary as extraordinary, simply by looking.

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Seated Humans

They are in Brooklyn, though they could be anywhere, sitting on a subway train, waiting in a doctor’s office. Waiting to be called, waiting to get somewhere, waiting for their stop. Passing the time in thought, or scrolling, or texting.

Of course I had my phone out too, taking pictures to draw later. These two sitting conveniently nearby caught my attention, yet I looked at them no differently than I would look at anyone while I was out and about, noticing my surroundings. I didn’t take any particular interest in them. I had my own thoughts and concerns. They were merely part of the scenery. It was only later when I was alone, sitting down to draw them that I really looked at them.

The man across from me was so interesting I didn’t even notice he wasn’t wearing a mask. His nose and mouth were uncovered, and the hoodie pressed close to the sides of his face signaled privacy. Yet his body language, those long legs spread so wide apart, seem to signal the opposite. Unless he was claiming his space, sitting there still as a statue, preoccupied with his thoughts. He never looked at his phone, never took a sip of his coffee. During those five stops I shared with him on the train, he never moved.

The woman in the doctor’s office was off to my side, preoccupied with her phone. Obviously wanting to be by herself, she had taken a seat at the end of the row by the wall, and placed her coat on the seat beside her. She was also claiming her space in this crowded city, in her own world like the man on the train, but she had a purposeful air. She had to wait, but the time was her own. Until I took out my colors, I didn’t notice her sweater was bright pink. She was just another woman in my vicinity, sitting conveniently still.

I will never know their names or their stories, and they will never know that I drew them, then sought to draw your attention to them. But it struck me again how drawing, which is really only taking the time to look, breaks down the barrier of separation. Taking the time to look, I saw their humanity. And the more I perceive the humanity of others, the more I feel my own.

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How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

By Paul Klee – Swiss-born German artist (1879-1940)

The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he guides the vision on into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and space, so with his work.

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root.

Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce divergences.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion.

And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree,

he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths.

He neither serves nor rules — he transmits.

His position is humble.

And the beauty at the crown is not his own.

He is merely a channel.

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It’s been years since I’ve had a stack of newspapers on the coffee table, and seeing it there made it look like home. As if this was what the living room had been missing. The papers. And to think I only ordered a subscription again because I didn’t have anything to put down by the front door for wet boots this winter. Or crumple up and stuff into a box to cushion the cookies or whatever it was I was packing to send off. Newspaper had also been handy to have around for repotting a plant indoors so the dirt wouldn’t get all over the floor. I once volunteered to give away a stack to a woman who posted on the app ‘Next Door,’ saying she needed them for the bottom of her bird cage.

Apps are great. Phones are wonderful too. There’s no end of news to read on my phone. I have several digital subscriptions with up to the minute reports of what’s going on in the world. It’s quick and it’s easy, but touching a screen and scrolling down isn’t the same as holding a paper in your hands, turning those unwieldy pages. Having to read near the window or turn on the light. There was a knack to folding the pages over and back and folded when riding a crowded bus or subway in the morning. You could tell a lot about a person not only from what paper they were reading but what section. Now everyone’s looking at their phones you don’t know what they’re seeing. Of course it’s none of my business, but I can’t help wondering anyway.

We’re all in our own world now, our own reality. But this isn’t about that. And neither is it about the difference between having to get dressed and leave my apartment to pick up the paper tossed on the front doorstep of the building, versus picking up my phone or looking at my computer to find out what sort of news the day has brought. It’s about home, and what feels like home used to feel. Like the touchy-feely newspapers that piled up and had to be tied in bundles for the recycling bin. I’ll have to go buy some string now.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep the subscription. I get it for half-price the first year. I remember when the paper cost a nickel and I was the paper-girl in high school, making half-a-cent for every five-cent paper I sold. It wasn’t enough to even buy my lunch, but it was fun, and I got to wear the green canvas apron with pockets for change. I remember when the ink used to come off on your hands, and the paper was fat and bulky, thick with advertisements. It’s a lot thinner now, and a lot more expensive, but I can feel it with my fingers. The news itself won’t be any different from what I can read on my phone. It’s only the sensory experience that changes. But isn’t that everything?

The feeling is everything. When sight goes, and touch and smell and taste and hearing, it’s the feeling that remains. The feeling I once had. It’s why I keep drawing. It’s simpler and faster to take a picture. But my eyes have already taken a picture and sent it to my brain to figure out what it is, and my brain sent it back, said it’s a pile of old papers, end of story. Whereas when I draw something, even if it’s just a pile of newspapers from last week—old news you might say—I’m doing more than replicating an image. More even than picking up the feeling I get from looking at the pile of papers. Because once I have the eye-hand coordination going on, it goes through my body. It’s all about expressing the feeling my brain sends through muscle and bone with magnificent speed until it comes through the hand holding the pen or the brush. And somehow the feeling is stored in the cellular matter, and I’ve got the memory in my body, in my heart, and in my feeling body. When the body goes and the watercolor fades, and these particular newspapers are long gone, what will be left is the memory in my heart. Because I touched the papers.

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Achilles Heel

If you woke up with a pain in your heel, would you automatically think of what needed to be healed? Would you think of Achilles, and wonder if it was a message to look at where you were vulnerable, where your Achilles Heel was? Or, would you immediately Google “heel pain”? Only misspell it in your nervousness, and type “heal pain.”

Sunday, December 12th—or 12.12 as I like to see those digits that appear only once a year on the calendar, yet call us daily to noon or midnight, signifying the 24-hour cycle is half-done or half-to-go—I woke up with a soreness on the heel of my right foot. I couldn’t imagine what had caused it since my foot had been perfectly fine before I went to sleep and all I had done was lie down for a while. Though it was a minor discomfort, it changed my walk, and I decided it would be best to do as little walking as possible that day. Then as I sat around, I thought of Achilles, and wondered if it was a message to look at where I was most vulnerable.

It was that old bugaboo—Time. Will I have enough? Will there be enough? Time that rushes on, no matter we slow it down or stretch it or ignore or bend it. While it’s true we can step out of Time in dreams or meditation, or by getting into the zone that is timeless, here in the physical, “Time and tide wait for no man.”

I had the same concern when I passed the signpost of 30 more than half a lifetime ago, and it felt just as pressing then as it does now. But before you pipe up and tell me, like a friend of mine did back then, that I’ll have all the time I need and not to worry, let me say that I need the idea of limits and lifespans, of timespans and time-ups. I can’t take forever to finish my book. At some point it has to be done. Not necessarily finished, every questioned answered, but done.

So, I’m telling myself not to think of Time. Rather think of Space. Just being in Space in the Now. If anything needs to be healed, it’s the fear of running out, not having enough. It’s always Now. The Now is endless. I will let go of lack. I will stop counting the days. I will trust that if I do the work, it will be done. And no matter if I write The End, there will be something more after that. There are still SO MANY, so many days left until the end of December.

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Time Pieces

Time. It’s always time and there’s never enough. 
Except when there’s too much in this place where we’re all doing time. 
Time me, ti-me, tie-me-to-time. 
Or let the battery run out, let the ticking stop. 
But not my heart. 
Let my heart go on ticking when time has stopped. 
I’ll keep time to the beat of my heart. 
My inner biological, psychological, psychic clock, 
with its own logic that puts me in the right place, 
at the right time and never runs out. 

This is the clock that rests on the shelf above my desk. Its battery, which seemed to have endless life, finally slowed down.

I had to wait a day to get a replacement. What surprised me was how often I found myself looking at the spot where the clock no longer was. I had no idea I was so dependent on this clock. It’s not as if I don’t have a clock on my laptop and phone. But I’m not used to looking at them for the time when I’m at my desk. I’m used to glancing at a certain spot on the shelf that was now empty. The disappearance of the clock threw me. And then I realized that this was the time-piece that reined me back into Time.

Laptops and phones are connected to the internet where it is too easy to lose all track of time and even to know what day it is. This old battery-run clock of mine, so solid looking and simple to read, purchased before anyone ever heard of a smartphone, brings me back. And I need that.

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