You-Know-What made a fine showing on the Long Island Sound this past Monday:

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THE FIRST SUNSET OF SUMMER!

Steve, for one, was feeling it:

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Something about the way Steve shows up regularly for breakfast and dinner on my front stone wall, and stakes out the front stoop in between meals to coerce me into handing out his favorite salmon-flavored kitty snacks, and gives me blinky-eyes like he’s practically domesticated, well, something about all that seems to hint that Wandering Steve might be ready to put an end to his free-agency, and come join the herd full time. Which would be my tuxedo kitty-dream come true.

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Steve is a Manx, a breed of cat that is naturally tail-less, which I must explain because some people do not know that cats come in two shapes, Normal and Bunny Butt.

And speaking of bunny butts in my front and back yards . . .

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. . . here are some recent sightings from the neighborhood:

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Just around the corner the other day, I envied these people (below) for having a magical, life-changing tidying up experience, which is what I saw in their mountain of joy-sparking de-clutter pitched onto their front lawn . . .

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Built in 2002, 3410 sq. feet (317 sq. meters), 5 bedrooms, 4.5 baths.

. . . but it was only (only?) a major clear-out for when, two weeks later, they put their house up for sale. So here’s your opportunity to be my neighbor, for $1.388 million!

Inspired by such spiffitude, Top Cat and Bibs decided to do some home improvements in our way under-1.388 million dollar manse:

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One of the reasons that we are in the Less Than Million Dollar part of the neighborhood is because of this:

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Yes, that is the “solution” to the gas leak of three weeks ago, when Top Cat and I absconded to the Jersey Shore to get away from the fumes. I didn’t mention it then, but it was me who called the fire department about the gas leak in the first place, which brought fire trucks and fire marshals and utility crews back to the scene of the crime (a botched installation of new lines). The upshot was that the second crew of diggers work well into the night, only to leave a bigger hole, which they covered with very large sheets of plywood, and these four handsome daleks as sentries, and new, additional ventilation holes drilled into the street:

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We haven’t seen hide nor hair of National Grid since, and there are still, albeit faint, whiffs of gas wafting around the block. Sigh.

I’m just not in the mood to call out the troops and make trouble again, which is so not like me. Current events still have me spiritually drained. When it comes to doing my part to hold the bastards accountable (in general, that is, for gas leaks and etc.), I am weary. The dim-wits, the entitled, the cynical, the half-assed, and the self-absolved-righteous always prevail. I feel tired most of the time.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to get out there and Look For Blue Jay Feathers.

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That, above, was last year’s haul of Blue Jay feathers, all from my own back yard (and a few from the front one, too). It was the Summer of 2015 and, having deposited with my editor my finished manuscript for Gardens of Awe and Folly, I was ready to re-enter the world of light and color after living in a three-year-old black hole of book-writing. During my time of darkness, I had been AWOL  as a collector of Blue Jay feathers, amassing only three or four a year — in 2014, I did not even bother to search: I have ZERO feathers to show for it. A lost Summer.

So, 2015 rolls around and I am trying to re-awken myself to the world, and I feel like a beginner in Being. I’m out of touch with the Blue Jay nature of the world. Still, I say to the Universe: Please, I’d like to find 5 feathers this year.

It was a big demand. Extravagant. Unrealistic. Totally presumptuous. I don’t know where I got the gall — five feathers! It was magical thinking at its best!

In the end, I found 40. See above.

(You can read all about the 40th Feather here.)

This year, I have a whole lot more on my mind. I thought things were bad last year, but they are even worse this year. It’s so bad that I have doubts, big and small, about Blue Jays. But, still, so far this year, even though it feels as if I am only going through the motions, I set up my Blue Jay Feather Finding Quest.

First, the mechanics of the Quest.

You have to give Blue Jays a reason to hang out in your back yard:

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It’s as simple as that– a bowl of dry cat food set up on something that gives the Jays a look-out for cats. Even hyper-nervous Cardinals like this set-up:

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You can mix sunflower seeds and bird food in with the dry cat food, if you fret about the menu, but the cat food is what Blue Jays really love.

My back yard is surrounded by tall trees, which is helpful because the Blue Jays flit in and out of them all day in order to swoop to the trash can buffet. But even if you don’t have trees, all you need is Blue Jays flapping their wings over your designated Questing Spot, because the more they flap, the more molt you will get = better chance of finding plumes. So that’s it for the nuts and bolts.

Next, there’s the mental game.

I like to watch the Blue Jays come and feed, but I also ask every bird that I see: Please leave me a feather. Preferably, a tail feather, please. I feel that this is an important part of gathering Blue Jay feathers: you have to let the Blue Jays know that you’re in the market for their cast-offs.

Now for the actual collecting:

On an ideal morning, I wake up half an hour before the rest of the house, which would make it around 5am. I’ve been up as early as 4:30 and it’s delightful to prowl in the last remains of night and watch the day break open, but you can’t quest for Blue Jay feathers in the dark, so any hour at the crack of dawn is best for feather-hunting.

Then I go to the kitchen and I make a cup of tea, black India tea, to which I add a tablespoon of honey and a drop of pure vanilla extract. You won’t taste the vanilla — but your cup will get a hovering mist of an almost angelic scent of meadows and roses.Vanilla puts me in a good mood.

Then I open the back door and step outside. It will be cool and dewy out there in the back yard, and I will take a moment to ask the Universe to Let me see the Blue Jay feathers that are scattered in the blade of grass before me. And then I remember to add, Please.

And then I start to walk, my eyes focused on the bit of Earth at my feet. I walk slowly, as if I am mowing: all the way across one way, and then all the way back the other way; repeat. My wanders. I think about other mornings, other Blue Jay feathers, and, more often than not, the latest song that is stuck in my head. I don’t try to think, or not think. I’m just paying attention, in a very relaxed way. I stop often to sip my tea, take a look around. This is the part of the day that reminds me to be happy to be alive.

I don’t visualize, I don’t expect. I just walk and wonder.

Even if you don’t find a feather every morning, it’s not a bad way to start the day.

But when you do find a feather — it is always the brightest shiniest fun moment! It’s as if the thing materialized out of thin air — as if it was dropped right there, in front of you, just for you!

The other thing about doing the morning ritual is that it puts it in your mind that you are now a Blue Jay Feather Magnet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve completed my dawn mosey, found nothing, and then, later that day, I’ll be walking to my car or down the sidewalk to a neighbor’s — and BAM. Right in front of me is a Blue Jay feather, there on the concrete or asphalt, in the heat of day, when BlueJay feathers weren’t even on my mind.

That’s fun, too.

So I began my 2016 Blue Jay Feather Quest one week ago. And how many feathers have I found so far?

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3. And none of them came from a dawn walking of the Earth.

And then again, all of them have come from a dawn walking of the Earth.

 

Go ahead, ask the Universe for something audacious. Unburden the heart, roam the mind, clear the eyes. It’s right there in front of you.

Have a great weekend, Wonder Ones.

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Oh, what an awful week. Current events horrify me, and I grew up during the Vietnam War with nightly body counts on the 6 o’clock news, and I was a mile up the road from the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. So I’ve had a long acquaintance with every day human brutality, but the world has worn me down and this new brand of evil makes me weary and soul-sick.

I just wrote, and deleted, a few hundred words on Orlando, Magnanville, and Leeds. A couple hundred words on these atrocities is too feeble — a million words wouldn’t be enough. So I’m just going to quote the poet Christopher Soto:

Who smiles when the sky swallows its stars?

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photo credit: Favim.com

When I am wrecked and racked, I paint stones.

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My favorite part illustrating Le Road Trip was painting the wonderful stones of Brittany and Normandy.

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When I paint stones I feel calm, and quiet.

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Stone work requires a lot of concentration, but not a lot of attention. I think that’s the definition of meditation.

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(This is the Winter view of (above) — from When Wanderers Cease to Roam):

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The stones are my favorite part of any picture, no matter how small:

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And, sometimes, I find a view that is just an excuse for me to paint a lot of stones:

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Oh, how I needed to paint stones this past week, and I searched all my photos to find some stones that “spoke” to me. I didn’t find any. So I turned to the inter webs and I found this photo, by the renowned garden designer Caroline Garland:

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This happens to be a very stony picture, of a garden that I know rather well: The Chelsea Physic Garden in London. So these were the stones I set out to meditate upon. First thing, I gathered my mindfulness gear:

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I am mixing chalky Grumbacher paints with Winsor Newton watercolors. I use Davy’s Gray here and there, but it is not as good as the gray I make myself, by mixing Peach with Blue, Brown, Black, and Sienna:

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Sometimes I mix the colors right on my brush, sometimes I swab them directly onto the paper, and sometimes I smear them together like this:

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I am painting a Squint,by the way. I always start with the trickiest bit first:

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I’m using black to paint negative space, which is a risky move — I’m using a size 00 brush here:

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For each face of an individual stone, I mix ochre, gray, and a tiny bit of brown to get that “stoney” effect:

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I let each face, or cell, dry before I paint the bit next to it (this prevents unwanted bleeding):

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I re-wetted this little cell here and dabbed n the tiniest among of black, and let it bleed a very very teeny bit:

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Yeah, my preferred method is to work in colors while the cell is wet, and to see what kinds of bleeds I can get:

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Each of these cells in this pillar was painted individually — yes, they look wonky and horrible now, but just wait:

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Calm, slow, careful, and with an empty mind, I painted in these dark, dark shadow lines. It was tight-wire painting, and terribly satisfying:

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I put a green-blue wash over the background stones:

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You might have noticed that I painted the stone pillar incorrectly — take a look at it here (above and below): Do you see how I forgot to make the top two stones (on the right side of the pillar) 3-dimensional?

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So I fixed it, by “picking up” the pigment (that’s why Grumbacher is so good: it lets you “erase”) and painting in the optical illusion of 3-dimensions:

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You might also notice those dabs of color in the margins. That’s how I test watercolor shades before I apply it to the pic — no damn color charts for me!

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I put in some white acrylic dots in the fore- and background, over which I dabbed watercolor, so the “flowers” would pop:

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Comparing the photo to my painting, you can see that I’ve edited the original to suit my limitations as a painter:

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Well, also, since the Squint is very small (it’s 5.75 inches x 1.33 inches. . . 14.6 cm x 3.38 cm, I think), the background must be simplified. I also wanted to make this a cheery scene, and so I made it very green — and I used the greenery in the background to define the stone wall and pillar back there, so I wouldn’t have to outline them. I don’t mind outlines, but I wasn’t in the mood for them this day.

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I call this Squint, Stonewall.

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June 14 vigil at New York’s historic Stonewall Inn for the 49 victims of Pulse in Orlando. Love is love is love is love is love is love is love. cc: Magnanville, Leeds

The other thing I do when I feel so bad is hang with these guys:

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I took this photo through the living room window — that’s Steve, of course, dozing on our stone wall in the front of the house.

Now, about Steve: the other day, a woman rang our doorbell. Which is always weird, because who does that? The woman introduced herself and said she stopped by because she saw our cat food bowls set out on our front porch stone wall and she’s a TNR  (Trap/Neuter/Realease) rescuer…OH! I said: I wondered who Steve’s angel was!

Susan doesn’t live near us; she’d been called in by a neighbor on a road behind us about several feral cats and had trapped 5 males — including our own dear Steve (and kept him under observation in her home for a week in a huge dog pen). She’s on the hunt for a female, and seeing our cat food bowls, she rightly took us for Cat People, and wanted to give us her card in case we spot Mama Cat. She and I had a discussion about trapping methods and I learned that HavAHeart is so last century. There’s a whole lot of new trapping technology that has passed me by! I don’t know why I’m exclaiming this! So you know who I’m going to call when It’s time to TNR our dear Dennis:

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And saving the best ’til last,

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I am pleased to announce the Winner of the Super Duper Quartet Triscuit Give Away is:

Maryanne from SC!

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Thank you, all you magnificent  5-star reviewers own Amazon. I confess, I read your reviews to give me courage for when I will sit in a dark room for another three years and try to make something useful and wanted in this world.

Maryanne, we all hope you enjoy your Tea Time Triscuits with a lapful of cats, a heartful of love, and a fluteful of champagne!

Have a good weekend, Wonder Ones; let’s try to hold the planet together for one peace full day.

**Next Friday, if we can get through the week unscathed, I will present the previously schedules post, dedicated to Nancy S., on How To Find Blue Jay Feathers. Spoiler: it involves cat food.

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Occasionally, I dream in French. Or, I should say, I dream that everyone in my dream is speaking French because, you know, there’s no actual transcript to check later. But many years ago, I had a dream in which these exact words, in indisputable French, appeared to me: souffle d’argent.

Souffle d’argent. Soof-le  dar-zjen, sort of like this:

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Photo Credit: Condolux.net

NOT THIS:

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Photo Credit: taste.com.au

(Souffle is not the puffy food called soof-lay.)

I woke up and wrote these words down, and puzzled over them for days. Literally, souffle d’argent means breath of silver.

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Back in Dreamland, I had been in flight when these words appeared to me (in writing, by the way), and I was soaring on a breath of air (souffle d’air), and it was silvery, like a rain that wasn’t made of water, and it was soft and comforting, and it held me up and made me feel safe. And by the way, this dream came at a time in my life when I was very depressed, not clinically depressed, mind you; just having a very discouraging time in my life. But, oh! The waking effect of this dream was that I felt lifted up, not entirely out of my despair, but up enough so I could peer over its edge and see light. And that lightness of being lasted for days, because I could re-summon the feeling of safety and comfort just by thinking of the words: souffle d’argent.

I should also say that I did not hold myself or my subconscious responsible for this message. It came from the Universe. 

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Which, apparently, speaks French. 

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Which might not be a surprise to French people, to whom I guess the Universe always speaks French.  What I would love to eavesdrop on is the Universe speaking my cat’s language. 

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But I digress.

I almost wrote about this souffle d’argent dream ten years ago when I was working on the June chapter of When Wanderers Cease to Roam, but I chickened out because if you don’t know me well and you read about the souffle d’argent, I come off like a snot-nosed twerp: Oh, she dreams in French, does she???

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But I’m telling you all about it now because it’s been a long time since I wrote WWCTR and we know each other rather well at this point, and you have found ways to overlook my snot-nosed twerpiness, and you can see for yourself, on page 88 of WWCTR, my hint of what I think is the meaning of this silver breath of wind:

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(I have a thing for blue jay feathers. Which I now capitalize: Blue Jay feathers.)

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So here it is: the silver breath of air is the ever-so slight breeze made by the flapping of your guardian angel’s wings, which to me is not a person but the awareness of the Universe’s benevolence, because there are times when you forget that kindness exists in almost every random moment, and it feels slightly cool and somewhat silvery, and very fine.

I got a little souffle d’argent, an easement of mind, the other day and don’t judge me when I tell you that it came to me while I was reading an essay written by the author Kim Barnes in which she mentioned that when her memoir came out in 2011 she got a glowing review from the New York Times, which would normally make me hate her, but then she fessed up that her book ” sold fewer than 11,000 copies in almost five years.” Those sales figures are worse than mine! (Although I’m sure that selling the rights to her story so that she could be played by Tina Fey in the movies more than makes up for being out-sold by V. Swift. )

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By the way, I want Tine Fey to play me in the movies, too. Are you listening, Universe?

Like that — *poof* — a thorn in my side vanished, the one labeled Not Good Enough For The New York Times. Phhhhht: after reading about Kim Barker’s sales figures, I realize that getting in The New York Times isn’t the bonanza validation, guaranteed six-zeros sales figures that I thought it was! For me, this is a huge deal, because writers in general are just slightly more jealous and insecure than your average 14-year old girl, and there are oh, so many ways that I do not feel Good Enough. But this particular stab wound has healed, and it only took seconds, because that’s the way the Universe works. Things can change in an instant.

I also got a spiritual boost a the other day, at the grocery store, when I discovered that there is such a thing as lime-flavored diet tonic water.

After a fraught eight-day disappearance, my sweet Manx tuxedo stray, Steve, finally made his re-appearance . . . 

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. . . and as you can see from the little clip on his left ear, he’d been TNR’d: Trapped, Neutered, and Released by some unknown but loving cat lady. Ooo, I did feel the flutter of a guardian angel’s wing when he showed up, safe and sound.

It was a sunny and breezy day early last week when a strange movement, out of the corner of my eye, caught my attention. I looked out the window in my upstairs work room in time to watch the top half of an enormous locust tree, across the street, snap off and topple 30 feet. It seemed to make just the slightest whooshing sound, and seemed to be in slow motion! Well, because this is just what I do, I grabbed my camera and ran out into the road. . . what I didn’t expect was this:

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I never heard the tree smash onto this SUV, and at first I didn’t hear the deep breaths of the woman standing at the foot of my driveway; but then I turned and saw her and all she could say was: “I thought the car was exploding. I thought the car was exploding.” I looked into the car and I don’t know how the driver managed to escape in one piece. That inside space was smashed down like a stomped-on paper cup.

The driver was shaken up but unharmed. I waited with her until the ambulance arrived, and that’s when the woman went to pieces and began to shriek “I could have been killed! Oh my god, I could have been  killed!” I helped her husband, who had arrived some minutes later, unload the cargo from the SUV (the woman is a decorator and had lots of paint and fabric books) so it could be towed away, and then I walked back across my front yard.

And, looking down, I found this:

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The first Blue Jay feather of 2016. And yeah, it’s a flight feather.

So a lot of stuff has been happening right in front of my house lately. But the very best stuff has been happening in this little corner of the Universe, where you, my beloved Dear Readers, have lifted me up with your words of awe and fine folly — kissing tigers in disguise? That’s genius!

Thank you, my Wonder ones: Monique, Casey, Susan A., Elizabeth, Maryanne in SC, Jeanie, Mo, Vicki A, Megan, Kirra, Gretchen, Janet!, Brenda, Ann, Judy, Deborah Hatt, Laura, Deb, and Bunny: I am in awe of you all.

This is not the blog post I set out to write today. I set out to write about the Super Duper Triscuit Quartet Give Away that I forgot about, in my black hole of listlessness.

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So let’s put that on the agenda for next week, June 17, when we gather here again to see what snot-nosed twerpiness I’ve been up to.

In the meantime, I hope you all have sweet dreams and feel the feather-light presence of your own cosmologically-appropriate angels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This was the north corner of my front yard at approx. 8:05 am, before I was told that “taking pictures ain’t cool.”

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Jeeze. I’m not going to sue you guys! So I went up to my work room and took this follow-up pic:

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So yes, they are digging AGAIN into the cables and such that make this blog possible. Actually, this time it was gas lines, and they hit a geyser, and “gas leak” became the word of the day. I’m sorry that I didn’t get pix of the fire engines (two) and the police are (three) that blocked off our street after we were told to just “keep the windows closed”, but I had other things than this blog post on my mind (sorry).  But after gathering the cats into the house, and setting out multiple cat boxes and huge bowls of kitty chow and shutting all the windows, we thought, What the hell. . . let’s go to Atlantic City!

So we checked into the Borgata:

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And we got a room on the 37th floor, with a view of the coming storm:

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And then, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it hit:

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And then, came the rainbow:

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(If you look real hard on the right side of that pic (above), you’ll see it.)

So here I am, in a hotel room in Atlantic City, with a heart full of gratitude to YOU, the most wonderful Dear Readers that ever was. . .

. . . and this will have to be a Saturday (Sunday for you, you darling antipodeans, Friday for you dears on the three-hour delay on the Pacific Coast).

Oh, we have so much to talk about, such as: Why isn’t Deborah Hatt writing this blog instead of me?, and: How much do I love thee, all you amazing Commentors, without whom I would be but a sad, sad girl in search of a nonexistent tiger to kiss.

XXOO, and a bientôt.

 

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In 2001 I made a list:

  1. Write a book.
  2. Get it published.
  3. Get married.
  4. Kiss a tiger.

I made this list because my life was in book-less and date-less rut and I’d heard that writing such a list would help me create a future where all my dreams would come true. Long story short, it worked.

I crossed off Items #1, #2, and #3 in pretty short order  (6 years) And then I had a third book published that did not top the New York Times best seller list, and then I sat next to a guy on an airplane who would not stop talking about his 9-year old grandson (he reads blueprints!) who made me depressed (the children of children of total strangers are of less than zero interest to me), and then I got a filthy nasty cold, which made me even more depressed (I’m a bit of a whiner), and then life looked once again to be as deeply dug into a deep rut as ever before, and then I threw myself a pity party and I blogged about it.

I should have known that all you Dear and Wonderful Readers would give me exactly the pep talk I needed to, in the words of that great humanitarian, Cher, Snap out of it. Oh, I’m still pretty sure that I don’t have another book in me, and I know that that basically makes me 60 years old and unemployed, which is definitely not where I want to be at this time in my life, but hey! I’m all grown up and I’ve got Ray Charles singing my new theme song and not cutting my bangs anymore!

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This is me in 4th grade. I am 8 years old. This top had a matching skirt. Even at this age, I was aware that childhood sucked.

Good news: My first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, currently “out of stock” (meaning, practically, “out of print”, the worst thing that can happen to an author) WILL go into a second printing! Copies should be available by Fall (Northern Hemisphere Fall, that is) so everyone can rush out and keep extra copies on hand for holiday gift-giving. My spare copies come in very handy as tea trays:

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Cindy uses her copy as night table:

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And yes, I took the time to stage two photographs because I have absolutely nothing better to do, since I’m unemployed and all.

Gooder news (for me, anyway, and this post is all about cheering me up up so it counts): Gardens of Awe and Folly is being published in the UK on July 15, which I only found out because the London office of Bloomsbury (my publisher) contacted me about it. They had been contacted by The Guardian newspaper, because apparently the Guardian cares about V. Swift and her gardens, and they want V. Swift (me) to write about the GoAaF and my 10 favorite garden books. So from hence forth my biography will read: Her writing has appeared in such name-dropping-worthy journals as The Guardian. 

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Well, some people would be impressed.

And the Goodest news: I’ve got a new ginger kitty showing up for breakfast. . . 

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Between me and Joanne, my neighbor, we named him Dennis Whiskabottoms.

. . . and I’m not even tired of my old ginger kitty yet!

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I have settled on being satisfied with smooching these doofus felines since they are as close as I’ll get to crossing off that last Item on my famous list of 2001, #4, Kiss a tiger, and I’m OK with that. About a year ago I started to seriously look into completing my list and soon discovered that there seems to be no ethical way to Kiss a tiger, any where in the world. I am ashamed to have ever let such a thought enter my mind: Whatever tigers might be available for kissing are typically drugged or mistreated into submission and I do not want to be a part of that, no way, no how. Here’s the news flash: tigers are not meant to be kissed. Or petted, or put on leashes, or kept in your back yard. They are meant to be left alone, in their native habitats, to be their solitary, apart-from-humans, and magnificent selves. So no tiger-kissing for me.

So what this means to me, the main character in my life, is that as of now, I am list-less, well and truly listless. I need a new list. 

That list of 2001 came to me in about 20 seconds. . . I suspect that my new list will take a bit longer. 

But, as you have read (above), it’s not all bad. Some of it is good, and gooder. Little by little, I’m finding reasons to wake up every day and say to myself, Oh, what a beautiful morning!

I hope your morning, this and every other one, is beautiful too.

 

 

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For example, Helen Mirren:

This is her in 1970:

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And this is her now:

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This was me last week:

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And this is me now:

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In the olden days we didn’t have blogs, and now we have a pain-in-the-ass internet that craps all over any blog you’re trying to get done, dammit.

Our street was dug up yesterday and now the internet keeps blipping on and off, so that’s why I’m at the library sending you this All Is Well teaser until our information superhiway is restored.

Good, great, and greatest things have happened since we last got together and I want to tell you all about it but, well, I need to crawl inside the series of tubes we call the world wide web, so. . . 

. . . stay tuned. 

I’ll be back.

 

 

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Why can’t every day be a sunny and unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in Seattle? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately.

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I began this line of inquiry about three weeks ago, when I went to Seattle for a book event at America’s oldest travel book store, Wide World Books and Maps :

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I can assure you, Dear Readers of this blog, that our own Commentor Linda June brought her special sparkle of energy to the gathering and helped turn the event into a salon of witty and fun give-and-take (I love Seattle readers!) and as if that weren’t eventful enough, everyone there was treated to the premiere of my one and only Gardens of Awe and Folly Book Event dress:

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See? It’s got flowers, the way gardens have flowers. Get it? I looked high and low for a dress that made me look like someone who knew her way around a garden (or a dress shop) and this number thrills me because it’s “flowery” but not “FLOWERY”, if you know what I mean.

So that was Tuesday, but I’m talking about Monday when it was sunny and unseasonably warm and should-be travel memoirist and fellow Capricorn  Beth from Seattle and I were having tea in the wood-paneled Fireside Room. . .

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. . . at the famous haunted Sorrento Hotel, which quickly became a few rounds of cocktails outside in “The Garden” . . .

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. . . and just as the gin/chardonnay combo of the second Fred Astaire kicked in and the Seattle sun was glinting all golden and honey the way the Seattle sun rarely glints all golden and honey, and all worries and cares had floated off to the place where worries and cares are told to calm the fuck down, and Beth was telling me about the Scottish Terrier she knew who could count to six, I began a serious investigation, deep in my brain, on Why can’t every day be a sunny and unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in Seattle?

Or, to put it another way, How hard would it be to create these peak moments in life more often?

I don’t have the answer, I just have the question. I also don’t have many photos from my fabulous visit to Seattle to show you because one of the side effects of this Seattle-induced rumination on the meaning of life was that I didn’t take may snapshots of Seattle this time around, although I did spend some time trying to figure out how to draw Scotties while I was in The City on Puget Sound That Has No Nickname:

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Which I will now leverage into a blog post about how I figured out how to draw cats while I tell you about the other side effects of travel to Seattle, which included dire physical consequences, but let me begin with my first attempt at painting my sweet Candy Kitty in 2006:

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This is me in one of my first attempts at watercolor, in which you can see I am very wary of the watery personality of the medium so I’m using the paint in a very dry application, almost as if it were colored pencil. After a bit more practice I got used to the slippery nature of the H2O, so I made another attempt at the same sweet  kitty about six weeks later and I painted Candy Kitty #2:

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I think you can see in Candy Kitty #2 that I’ve relaxed a bit, and that I’m getting comfortable with letting the paint do what it wants to do when it’s doing its thing with water — which is the same thing I try to do with every picture I paint. I liked this little pic so much that I put it on page 178 of my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

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P.S. I also switched paper after I painted the Candy Kitty #1, from a very heavy watercolor stock to the 90lb. Canson stuff I use exclusively these days.

I’ve been very busy since I returned to the Isle of Long from my travels to the Great Pacific Northwest, schlepping to the optometrist for a new pair of reading specs to replace the ones I left on the plane and then carting myself off to urgent care for a chest x-ray (bronchitis tends to make you wonder if your lungs are putting in an honest day’s work) and generally spending my waking moments feeling pretty miserable and eye-sore.

Between those hours on end that I spent feeling very sorry for myself I also searched high and low for the psychic reason for these physical calamities, because it seemed obvious to me that there was some element of metaphor in all this squinting and wheezing, which has nothing to do with the picture I am showing you below, which I painted around the same time as I painted Candy Kitty #2, c. 2006, which we’ll call Nino’s Winter Mind #1:

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In reviewing my recent travels, as a returned traveller tends to do, and other deep thinking, I came to an understanding of what I was trying to tell myself with this bout of ill health. It’s about being a writer who might not want to write any more.

You see, I’ve spent the past dozen years sitting in a small room with my own self, writing three books. I’ve also spent a lot of time watching Bravo TV.

Then, as a side effect of writing one of those books, I went to Seattle and experienced what it’s like to get out of the house, and it was a lot better — a whole megaton better — than sitting in a room by myself, and it’s even better than watching a Real Housewife get the comeuppance she deserves (oh hell, they all deserve to have their uppances cometh).

I got a taste of what it might be like to have a Real Life and it is as bright as a gin/chardonnay combo on ice and as sharp as a meeting of the minds with a Capricorn from Seattle.

Now, if you remember the little pic from above — Nino’s Winter Mind #1 — I want to show you how I re-worked that same idea a few years later, when I tried to paint like Maira Kalman:

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My first book came out in 2008 and I thought I had invented an whole new kind of reading experience and had the entire field of illustrated memoir all to myself, but in 2009 Maira Kalman came out with her illustrated memoir The Principles of Uncertainty and blew me and my quirky little travelog/chapbook off the literary radar into the deep space of the mid-list (where no one can hear you scream). I looked at her book and tried to figure out what made it so appealing to The New York Times in ways that mine had failed and I thought it might be the illustrations. She doesn’t do outlines. So I tried to make my pictures bigger (than a tea bag) and less structurally persnickety, and Nino Winter Mind #2 (above) was what I came up with.

This is Maira Kalman’s illustration of a scene in a foreign city (Cairo?) sidewalk from The Principles of Uncertainty (pages 32 and 33):
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So I went to Ikea in Hicksville, Long Island and came up with this:

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I think you can see why I came to the conclusion that I was a terrible fake Maira Kalman and I went back to doing the kind of illustrations that I can only do:

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left to right: Pinky, Winston, Vivian, Belle, and Nino, the gray and white kitty with the Winter Mind.

I know that, with this digression about me being a terrible fake Maira Kalman, I’m circling some great idea about authenticity and the side effects of travel, but I can’t quite put it together within the time limits of this blog post. All I really know for sure is that for the time being, I seem to be allergic to the idea of sitting in a small room for another three years, writing another book, even though the only thing that I can do half-right is sitting in small rooms for years on end, writing books.

Oh! I forgot! I can also paint cats! (It only took five years of practice.)

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For new Dear Readers, you can catch my tutorial How To Paint a Cat by clicking onto the link back there, seven words ago. (Smooches to our Dear Kitty here, Lizzie Cosette from The Marmalade Gypsy blog.)

As Dear Commentors Deborah and Monique and Kirra observed last week, getting out of the house often leads one to doing something stupid, saying something stupid, or driving 40 miles the wrong way. But ever since I let the thought of being a Three-And-Done author take up a rather comfy space in my brain I have felt as if there’s a Seattle sun beam glowing in my heart.

This Summer I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time out of the small room I’ve been cooped up in lo these past dozen years. Now, I know that real life is not like travel, where you have to make up every day from scratch and you never know if it’s going to end with epiphanies over vintage cocktails in a haunted hotel or other kinds of epiphanies over a take-away dinner of Pop Tarts and wine. Every day can’t have a peak moment as sunny and unseasonably warm as a Monday afternoon in Seattle.

Or can it?

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in America and I hope you’ll all join me in paying respects to James Alexander Malloy, 175th Inf., 29th Div., KIA June 16, 1644, the only Scotsman buried in the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach. We Will Never Forget.

 

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It crossed my mind more than once last week, as I was tooling around the Great Pacific Northwest, that I am not as good at this travel-thing as I used to be.

I still think of myself as the intrepid 19-year old who took on the French railway system one-on-one to reserve a one-way ticket from Paris to Rome and didn’t think twice about the 20-hour trip, or the strange people I’d be bunking with in a tiny, uni-sex (the horror!) couchette on a rickety sleeper train. I stuffed a baguette and some Boursin into a plastic bag and took off.

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So here I am now, approx. 40 years later in my own native land, with a rental car and good luggage and Google maps and a platinum AmEx, and I can barely navigate myself for the three-hour drive down I-5 from Seattle to Portland. And once I arrived in the lovely precincts of Portland’s NECN (Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods), after confusing left with east for the 100th time, the best I could do — for two nights in a row (in this land that invented the gourmet locavore) — was walk to the Safeway for a do-it-yourself take-out dinner of Pop Tarts and wine. I can’t help but think that my 19-year old self would look at me as proof that travel is wasted on anyone over 30.

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Amazingly, on that epic 175-mile road trip, I had no trouble finding Exit 135, and rolled easily up to the doorstep of King’s Books in Tacoma. King’s Books, in case you do not know, is famous for its bookstore cats, Atticus. . .

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. . . (whose bio states that he was once a prize-winning rodeo rider who then became a friar, and joined the bookstore staff in 2009 where he now serves as both a shoulder-warmer and a spunky bookseller). . .

. . . and Herbert (seen below at the cash register):

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Believe it or not, but this (below) is Herbert’s Happy Face:

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My scritches had the same airplane-ears effect on Portland native Mahitabel:

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Mahitabel’s Person in Charge of Happiness, who is also a Dear Reader of this blog, rounded me up one fine morning and carted me to a handful of Portland’s great sights, such as the view from the beautiful  Tilikum pedestrian bridge of majestic Mt. Hood (a mountain named after the USS Federation starship, Excelsior class, Starfleet reg. NCC1703). Thank you, Vicki!

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Of course, the reason I was in Portland in the first place was to give the good people of Rose City the Vivian Experience at Broadway Books, a cozy Coney Island of the mind disguised as Portland’s best-hued and most lusciously-shelved independent bookstore:

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As you can see, I still do that funny thing with my mouth that bugs me whenever I see myself on video or in photos (in spite of the very kinds words of Dear Reader Kirra), and that’s not counting the crap that comes out of my mouth, meaning that I have amends to make to two lovely ladies who came to the event on May 5: both watercolor artists, they asked me about how I get such good-looking greens in my illustrations (example below):

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I must have looked puzzled by the question, because they explained that they were taught to make “color charts” in preparation for their watercolors, obviously by a teacher who really, really wants to make things as complicated as possible, and, they said, getting good greens was hard.

First of all, I was flummoxed by the whole “color chart” thing, having never heard of any such thing: I think that if your teacher makes you do color charts, that’s just your teacher trying to prove the rumor that watercolors are hard and must be taught by a professional. What crap. There. I said it: Color charts are as relevant to painting as diagramming sentences is to writing.

So, when these two sweet ladies who took the time to come out on a beautiful Thursday evening to hear me yak about myself and mentioned that, in their experience, getting good greens was hard, I proved once again to my 19-year-old self that I have indeed become a real asshole when I replied by scrunching up my face and bleating: Really?

I am ashamed that I, however inadvertently (the thesis surprised me, caught me off-guard), implied that anyone who found it hard to get good greens was worth a dismissive and snotty Really??  Instead, these lovely ladies’ question has stuck in my brain as a sorely missed opportunity for me to have asked some follow-up questions, gain some understanding of another’s process in creativity, learn something.

So, dear ladies of May 5, if you are reading this, please accept my apologies for not answering your extremely thought-provoking question and let me make amends by addressing the making of greens (which, I confess, in my ignorance of academically-accepted practices, I have never thought of as “hard”) in a future post.

Meanwhile, on one of my trips to and from the Portland Safeway, I came across this fella. . .

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. . . and this completely different black and white furry fella. . .

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. . . who, for obvious reasons, reminded me of this fella, in a village 5,000 miles away:

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Cats. The world over, they think they own the place. In the case above (Dear Reader Carol S., this is for you!), the cat in question is named Gaston, and he “owns” a little road called Rue aux Juifs in the village of Giverny, France. In the case of the Portland kitty, I don’t know that cat’s name but I do know that he’s as big a smooch as Gaston is, because when a little girl hopped off her bike to chase him down to say hello, Portland Cat did this:

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I met another of Portland’s Finest on my way to breakfast — Boo Boo, it seems, “works” at a dress shop on Alberta Street and couldn’t wait to clock in:

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What a way to start the day; a selfie with a cat named Boo Boo:

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Boo Boo must have been my spirit guide because five minutes later the universe let me check off a Top Ten item on my Before I Die Wish List and I got this breath-taking encounter:

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This is the Western Blue Jay known as the Scrub Jay — really?, bird-namers? You couldn’t do any better than “scrub jay”? Considering that blue is the rarest color in nature, and that birds with blue feathers are extraordinarily found only in the New World, and that blue is an awesome color. . . you couldn’t have found a better tag than “scrub jay”?? How about “Sunset Jay” (since it’s found where the sun sets, get it?), or “Frontier Jay” (in honor of its geography)? And that’s what I came up with after a solid 20 seconds of thought. . . cries — even “Boo Boo Jay” would have been an improvement. You namers of western blue birds stink.

Contented with my cat and bird sightings, I left Portland early on a Saturday morning to make a detour to the Oregon Coast, to a place called Seaside, to a place in that place called Beach Books:

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I got there around 11:00 am, just in time to catch Book Shop Cat Oz making his commute to work:

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Oz hoists himself up onto his window seat and checks his To Do List. EAT is the thing he took care of back in the storeroom, on his way into the office. Next item:

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SLEEP is the next item on the agenda:

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Chances of him knocking off READ before the end of the day look slim.

Adieu, sweet prince, and onward: My reason for being (that day) lay 8 miles down the road– Cannon Beach Books, whose booksellers can read readers’ minds and put in hand a reading experience that was curated specifically for you. (I saw them do it, over and over.)

Another bout of travel-induced mid-life soul searching began a few hours later, as I finished my delightful visit to the Oregon coast and got into my rental car for the drive back to Seattle. I used to be good (or so I thought) at logistics, but I hadn’t bothered to look very hard at a map when I planed this trip and booked my flight home out of Seattle. When it dawned on me (just the day before) that it would have made much more sense to fly home from Portland, the penalty to change plans at such a late date would have cost me, in dollars that my 19-year-old self would understand, five-and-a-half weeks of backpacking around the South of France.

So I drove north that late afternoon, spending four hours trying not to feel like I’ve become the kind of dopey, half-assed traveler my 19-year-old self would despise, before devoting the final 90 minutes of my Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip to repeatedly making the wrong turns on the various I-5 exits to Burien.

And just think: if I had not made the blunder of flying home to the Isle of Long from Sea-Tac airport, I would not have been able to catch this view of Mts. Rainer and St. Helens . . .

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. . . and would probably not have had the opportunity to leave my glasses on the plane (rendering me functionally blind for the next week while I awaited replacement!) or pick up a nasty pulmonary infection (that has leveled me for the past 9 days!).

Now, this is only the last half of the story (of me, half-sighted and hacking). There’s a whole other first half that I haven’t even told you about yet, in which my 19-year-old self might not look at me with all that much disgust, as I only got the car on Day Four (it was the driving that done me in) and thus greatly reduced my opportunities to act like a dip shit. I’m still an awesome pedestrian!!

Next week, my Wonder Ones, we will explore that mythical city, Seattle, in a post that I will Call:

The Side Effects of Travel

Maybe we’ll even paint something green.

This Just In: I’ve been hearing from Dear Readers this morning that the Comments button to this post is not working. Serves me right, for any number of reasons, but mostly I guess it’s to mortify my grubby need for approval (You Comment! You like me!!). While my crack team of IT interns. . .

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. . .fixes this latest glitch, you can email me at vivianswift at yahoo dot com and I will re-post your dear words with tear-stained alacrity. Soon as we sort out the series of tubes.

XXOO

P.P.S. OK, it seems that the Comment thing may or may not be fixed. You are welcome to try to leave your message, or email me, or not. *Sigh*. Whatever.

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Last week I showed you how an illustration of a secret garden can go all wrong when you (that means me, I, the left-hander holding the brush above) over-do it. So this week, let’s not end with a much-needed glass of champagne consolation. . . what am I saying?? I love ending a painting session with champagne, even if it’s for consolation! Rule of Life: There Is Never a Bad Reason to Drink Champagne.

So, this week, let’s roll our painting session towards a glass of champagne just because, but hopefully not because we (that means me, I, the let-hander picking up the paint brush) have made yet another illustration go all wrong. OK?

Today I am going to paint the secret entrance to a well-known secret London garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is actually not at all secret anymore, having lately become one of the Top Ten tourist attraction  sights in all of England. As you can see below, I have penciled in a few guide lines and put down a wash of yellowish-grayish watercolor in the area where the high brick wall (that surrounds the garden) will be:

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So far, it looks ugly, but that’s just for now. Because yet to come is the part where I am painting the Chelsea Physic Garden on a sunny day, and in the background I will lay down the color of sunbeams:

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Quick, while it’s still wet, I blob in some pale greenery:

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And more greenery:

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I add some medium-dark greens for the middle ground:

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I dab in some detail foliage (but not too much, don’t want to over-do it) and add shadows, and if this were one of my famous tea-bag size miniatures, we’d almost be done:

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I paint in the two figures — for the record, a man in a grey shirt in front; a woman wearing a pink shirt in back — and in the foreground, I paint a foundation layer of greenery (I’m afraid I’m going to have to use the word “green” and “greenery” very often in this post):

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This next bit is fun for me: I get to paint some detail stuff in middlingly-darkish greens here. By the way, I practice making these itty bitty leaves in one sinuous stroke before I put them in this picture — think of it as calligraphy: it only looks good if you get the stroke right, and you only get one chance to get the stroke right:

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Using the same stroke, I add contrast by using a very dark green (which is regular green that I’ve mixed with black):

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And here is where I lay my brush down because here is where I DID NOT OVER-DO IT!

Yay for me!

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Next: The Wall.

If I had drawn these penciled-in guidelines (see below) directly onto the watercolor paper before I put that ugly yellowish-grayish wash over on top of them, the pencil lines would be fixed permanently by the paint. But O Clever Mio, I instead I let the wash dry completely and put the pencil lines on top of the wash, where they are fungible and I will be able to erase them all off after I paint in these bricks:

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Oh, how I love painting bricks. Yes, you have to concentrate on getting the teeny tiny spacing of these teeny tiny dashes of paint right, but it’s a pleasantly mindless concentration that permits you to paint while also listening closely to  talk radio, or following the CD of the cast recording of Hamilton, or creating in your head the perfect put-downs to the jerk who was loud-mouthing against Boston Rob being the greatest champion of Survivor in history (He is. So shut up.) at your brother-in-law’s barbecue; it’s that kind of meditative, calming pondering that I only get done when I have a lot of bricks (or the like***) to paint. Ahhhhh. . . . I could paint bricks all day.

But sadly, the brick painting comes to an end and I must finish this task. So, lastly, I hold my breath and paint the grille. Yuk. I have to paint straight lines, in an uniform, unvarying width, with a 00-size brush. If I screw up at this final step and do something blobby and/or squiggly, I will have ruined the illustration and wasted hours and hours of work:

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Whew.

DONE:

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Except. . . look at this closely:

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The whole time I was painting this illustration, I kept thinking how odd it was that the entrance to the Chelsea Physic Garden was surprisingly un-symmertrical. Well, duh. Upon looking at other reference photos than the one I was stupidly fixated upon further research, of course I saw that the entrance to the venerable Chelsea Physic Garden is of course symmetrical.

Luckily, my superpower is The Rescue of Watercolor Illustrations. (Really. You can look them up, in the side bar to the right, under Rescues. )

I do what I gotta do. I cut out the offending non-symmetry, I Elmer’s Glue-in a new piece of paper, and I paint in a new symmetry:

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And the rest is history, on page 142 of my book, Gardens of Awe and Folly:

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I don’t know why I can not get a good photo of this illustration — sorry, but this is the best that I can do!

P.S., I also decided to switch the people in the pic, moving the guy in the grey shirt to the back and the girl in the pink shirt to the front. It was a necessary edit to preserve the continuity of the narrative, or just a whim on my part.

So that’s how it’s not over-done, my Wonder Ones. Thank you all for your delicious stories In The Defense of Names two weeks ago — I have been traveling and have not been able to respond as I would want BUT. . .

. . . I am home from my roaming and I have so much to catch you all up on. I went to the Great Pacific Great Northwest and I met Dear Readers in  Seattle! I met with Dear Readers in  Portland! I happened upon Dear Readers in  Cannon Beach!!!!

Next week it’s just you and me, catching up on life and adventures. Warning: There Will Be Cats.

*** The Like: I have a future blog post all about painting bricks and the like [stone walls] set up, for the perfect frantic too-busy aggravating day when we all would like to achieve a little Zen in our lives. Which should be real soon.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

 

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See you in Cannon Beach (Oregon) on May 7!

If I had not run out of chapters in my book Gardens of Awe and Folly  I would have taken the extra pages to give you all a tour of some of my favorite every day Secret Gardens, like the one my neighbor Joanne has in her back yard:

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This (above) is the entrance to the Secret Garden belonging to one of the most excellent Chilled Wine Cocktail On The Patio Hostesses I know.  Step into that wooden archway entrance gate (below) , and you are treated to a more complete view of the pathway that leads to Joanne’s hide-away around the corner (that you can’t see in this pic because it’s secret):

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Well, it’s a GOOD THING I am an illustrator and in possession of an Artistic License so that when I take my pencil and draw this illustration, I can give you both of these views at once:

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Next, I apply masking fluid with a tooth pick (because I need a really fine line):

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To start, we have to lay in some sunlight, which I will let dry before I go to the ext step:

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Since I’ll be working from the back to the front of this illustration, the next thing I do is lay in background foliage:

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All I do is dab dab dab the lightest shades of green, quickly, while everything is still wet:

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And now the plot thickens.

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I’m putting in a light green wash on the left side here because as you saw in the reference photo, this is where all the shade is:

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Dab dab dab in some nice rich greens, and then I’m done mapping out the brights and darks of this illustration:

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BTW, I really like what happened up there, when I dab dab dabbed wet-in-wet and got some nice blotches that could very well stand as is and look totally convincing as foliage. But I don’t spend much time pondering this because I can’t wait to get a move-on because . . .

. . .I  LOVE THIS PART! This is the part where I add more detail to the background:

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Oh, I love dab dab dabbing with my size-00 brush!

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And now I start adding detail to the front-ground, over-painting the wash with dark leaf-shaped flicks of my 01 brush:

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I paint bigger leaves with a fatter brush, whose size I don’t know:

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And then I work the middle-ground:

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Something tells me that I could stop here . . .

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. . . I could stop here, call it DONE, and let those nice watercolor blotches do their job, but noooooooooo,  an evil little voice urges me to go on, put in some really really dark, dark background:

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More is More is what that evil little voice is telling me:

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Time to get out the 00 brush again and make some tree branches out of all that brightness in the background:

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Let’s take a look before we remove the masking fluid:

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I hate to say it, but I’m starting to doubt that really dark background. And I’m getting a bad feeling about that bench and lantern. Where O Where is that voice that should be telling me  Quit While You’re Ahead?

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But there is only silence as I plod on anyway and sure enough, I paint over those wonderful blotches that I liked so much:

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And oh well, I guess it’s DONE:

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WHAT WENT WRONG: Yeah, the lantern looks wonky, and the bench doesn’t make sense —  I made a bad choice when I included them in the pic. Also, I don’t “get” the wooden gateway either; it’s almost invisible, lost in the more and more of the foliage. Well, it’s a good thing that I work small, so the fix-up shouldn’t be all that hard.

CAN THIS PICTURE BE SAVED?

This is it BEFORE:

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And this is it AFTER:

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Hmmmmm, I dare say that, in the end, I saved this pic, and if you had not seen the BEFORE maybe you wouldn’t even notice the heavy-handed layer of paint on the left side. But alas, we are wise to the muddle and in our heart of hearts we all know that it was a better picture when it was “half” DONE.

My Dear Readers, this is what a bad day at the office looks like to me: I spend approx. 5 hours working on this picture, for a chapter that never makes it into the GoAaF, which even if such a chapter existed I would not (probably not, depends on how tired I am by deadline time) would not use this illustration for anyway.

Well, I don’t know what would you do after such a bad day at the office, but here’s what I do to end the day on a sweet note:

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A little champagne, a blue jay feather, and the company of a cat — that’s all it takes to make it a perfect day in VivianWorld.

Have a great weekend, my Wonder Ones.

 

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