Spring break: Rejuvenating my muse

There is no place for grief in the house which serves the Muse.
– Sappho, Greek lyric poet

A portrait of Kathy's daughter Fiona, surrounded by her mask (in frame) and vintage collection of vessels.

A portrait of Kathy’s daughter Fiona, surrounded by one of her handmade mask (in frame) and vintage collection of vessels on the desk.

On my last visit with my friend Kathy five years ago, we had talked about writing a renga together – an ancient Japanese form of poetry comprising a series of short verses linked into one long poem and composed in a collaborative fashion. When I returned to the Bay Area, she sent me detailed instructions on how to write a renga, along with a beautiful blank book. The idea was for me to start the first verse, consisting of three lines, and then send the book to her, and after she wrote her lines, she would send it back to me, and we’d start the process all over again.

The book sits on my shelf, blank. Even the band around it has never been removed. The rules of the renga seemed too complicated for me at the time, and then I was overwhelmed by my work and constant, snowballing deadlines and family obligations. When I reminded Kathy about the collaborative project, she didn’t remember. Despite the failed attempt to creatively collaborate and inspire one another, with the blame rightfully on me, this time we parted with another poetic project to dive into, though it was purely an act of spontaneity (more on this in a later blog entry). My stay with Kathy was meant partly to lift my flagging spirits and find my muse again. Little did I know that Kathy would be my muse this past weekend.

Kathy's mural in the living room.

Kathy’s mural in the living room.

New music to listen to
I listen to the same limited playlist of artists – okay, mostly nostalgic bands from the 1970s and 1980s – on Pandora when I hop on my wind trainer-equipped bike in the early mornings. As the rain came down outside in Mount Vernon, we listened to what Kathy categorized as indie folk music. She introduced me to a handful of her and her son Patrick’s favorite artists via YouTube: John Butler Trio, The Decemberists, Mumford & Sons, and Zoe Keating. We were treated to John Butler’s Ocean on YouTube, and later on Skype Patrick, who had spent months learning the song, played it for us. It’s an amazing piece of music and quite the workout for the fingers.

Taking a peek inside Kathy's homemade sketchbook.

Taking a peek inside Kathy’s homemade sketchbook.

New books to read
Kathy is a voracious reader, and through the years she has recommended books to me. She has a penchant for fantasy, and I remember some of her favorites in high school and college were The Hobbit and Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This time around, Kathy recommended poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Woodridge and Buffalo Yoga by Charles Wright. I was most interested, however, in Indiespensable, a membership program she belongs to through Powell’s Books. Every six weeks, she receives a newly published book, with a nod to independent publishers. The book is signed by the author, slipcovered, and accompanied by a unique surprise. One book had some connection to honey, and the book was packaged with a jar of honey. Another surprise was a box of chocolates. What a great program and a way for an indie bookstore to differentiate itself from the likes of Barnes & Noble and be just as mighty.

Steampunk-inspired wall art in Kathy's living room.

Steampunk-inspired wall art in Kathy’s living room.

Kathy's latest sketchbook, which she bound by hand.

Kathy’s latest sketchbook, which she bound by hand.

When we were at Village Books (1200 11th Street, Bellingham, 360.671.2626) a few days earlier, I relished leisurely walking through the store – something I haven’t done in years. I picked up the latest novel by Ruth Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being. It was signed and the clerk told me Ozeki had just given a reading at the store the weekend before! One of my recent favorite novels is her All Over Creation, which dealt with genetically modified organisms, among other themes. I made a vow to Kathy that I would dedicate time for reading, which means I have to schedule it, put it on my to-do list so it doesn’t get pushed aside by other pressing tasks.

Detail of the mural Kathy did for 1st Street Cabaret and Speakeasy, Mount Vernon, Washington.

Detail of the mural Kathy did for 1st Street Cabaret and Speakeasy, Mount Vernon, Washington.

The cover of Kathy's hand-bound present to Peter.

The cover of Kathy’s hand-bound present to Peter.

Binding books by loving hands
Lastly, I was inspired by Kathy’s artwork, which is displayed all over her home – paper mache masks, murals, a wall hanging constructed of fiber and other mixed materials, an easel holding the early stages of a portrait of her 22-year-old daughter Fiona. She has painted murals for various community organizations and her most recent one is on display inside the 1st Street Cabaret & Speakeasy (612 S. 1st Street, Mount Vernon, 98273, 360.336.3012). Kathy took a class in book binding, and now binds her own sketchbooks. She recently finished her sixth book, which features a picture of her mother in a frame cast out of clay from another frame. She has covered other sketchbooks with thrift-shop finds – leather from old jackets and knits from sweaters, complete with the label tag on the cover. My favorite is a hollowed-out “book” she made for her husband Peter. Titled Peter’s Midnight Musings, the book features a working light, a notebook nestled in a box, and chains and gears, giving it a steampunk vibe.

The inside of the book Kathy made for her husband Peter.

The inside of the book Kathy made for her husband Peter.

I’m in awe of her talents and creative energy. My restful time in Mount Vernon seems long past, now that I’m in the middle of deadlines, soccer and baseball practices, an orthodontist appointment, tae kwondo lessons, tax season, and trying to squeeze in time for a blog. As Kathy and I hugged goodbye at the airport, my muse took a long drink from the well before diving back into my being. Refreshed, I meet those obligations head-on, muse on my shoulder.

Saying goodbye at the airport, while my muse leaps from Kathy back to me.

Saying goodbye at the airport, while my muse leaps from Kathy back to me.

With sad eyes and flattened ears, Jeely, the family dog, says goodbye.

Meanwhile, back at the house in Mount Vernon, Jeely, the family dog, says goodbye with sad eyes and flattened ears.