My thoughts regarding “All the Lives We Ever Lived” by Katharine Smyth

All the Lives We ever lived Katharine Smyth

Katharine Smyth’s book All the Lives We Ever Lived, Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf is lovely and benevolent book, it is a perfect companion to Virginia Woolf’s, To the Lighthouse. This book is a human condition treasure. I knew I needed to read it after I read a blurb about it somewhere, possibly Poets & Writers, The New York Times, or the Boston Globe—but wherever or whenever I read about it, I immediately bought it and placed it on my ever growing To Be Read pile along with my battered paperback copy of To the Lighthouse—that was before the great inconvenience of the COVID Pandemic. So, the pair sat gathering dust along with other books on this precarious TBR pile, while I navigated working from home, doom scrolling through the news for whatever might resemble news, and keeping my over-active brain reined in by filling pages and pages of sketchbooks with quickly executed scribbled pencil drawings every night before going to bed for the sake of clearing my cluttered brain of daily worries. Anyway, around the time that I went on a medical leave from work this spring, I picked up To the Lighthouse and All the Lives We Ever Lived from the dusty To Be Read pile and set to reading them.

If you’re not familiar with To the Lighthouse, you probably should have a nodding acquaintance with the characters and the unique vision of Virginia Woolf’s writing—or perhaps, reading Smyth’s book before reading Woolf might inspire you to read it. Although it was not necessary for me to reread To the Lighthouse, I did so in preparation for reading All the Lives…

Goodreads thoughts about To the Lighthouse

After this recent reading, I discovered that To the Lighthouse is a different book for me now that I’ve gone through the life changing event of losing my parents. I’ve always loved how books can change for you as you gather life experiences. There is the before and then there’s the after; before while the beloved is alive, meaning not yet expected to die and/or the moments before death when it is expected at any time. And then after they have died, whether it is unexpected or expected, death is final—there’s no reset button. You’re not going to talk to this person again in the flesh, but you will still “talk” to them, or they will “visit” you in some form (dreams or a flash out of the corner of your eye) to refer to the lyrics from the song Lost by Amanda Palmer (she always has an interesting thing or two to say about death and the dead.)

No one’s ever lost forever
When they die they go away
But they will visit you occasionally
(Do not be afraid)

No one’s ever lost forever
They are caught inside your heart
If you garden them and water them
They make you what you are

(For an amusing performance of this song by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra here’s a link to the YouTube video)

I have dog-eared many pages of All the Lives…underlined a few passages, as well as quotes from To the Lighthouse, and the author’s epiphanies about life and death, and the grieving process. As I indicated in my thoughts about To the Lighthouse, there is no mold in which we can pour our grief into so that it looks like everyone else’s grief. Each of us grieves differently—there is no right or wrong way—however you do it, it’s your way. We can commiserate together, shed tears, cry out our anger about the unfairness, scream out the shock over the loss, bereaved that we did not get to say all those things we should have said before they died, feel numb, go fetal and quiet for hours on end, but in the end, we move on, uncurling, pulling ourselves together, and going forward in spite of ourselves and our grief. It’s not easy, it’s awful, it sucks—and you feel so alone in this uncomfortable limbo. It’s part of growing up—no matter how old you are, or what kind of relationship you had with your parents, when you lose them, you’re orphaned, and truly on your own. Death is part of life—life goes on in spite of how you feel, and the stages of grief will filter through, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (not necessarily in that order, mind you.) “I’m fine,” or so you say, but really, you’re so fucking unfine it unreal, right? It’s totally fine to feel that way. Just be good to yourself. Breathe.

There comes a point in the grieving process when suddenly you “forget” and then “remember.” I always kept a photo of my parents on my desk at work, one day I saw it on my bookshelf, and it hit me “I haven’t talked to you in a long time—I miss you.”

Wordsworth’s poem Surprised by Joy is the perfect reflection of this:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Between my early retirement and reading these two books, I rediscovered the grief from the loss of my parents. It was healthy. Revisiting the sorrows wasn’t a bad thing because I was healing old wounds and the fresh ones. Our society barely allows us to properly see to ourselves, we’re too busy going forward no matter what that we don’t make time for contemplation. Our small footprint. Our blip in the timeline. Our stories. Gone in a blink of time.

“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.”    

Quote from Charles Elton, A Garden Song (Luriana Lurilee)

I must note, the cover design beautifully echoes the cover illustrated by Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, for To the Lighthouse. I love it when the book cover is well done.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, is the quintessential biography about the author, and Smyth references it multiple times.

I also recommend The Sisters’ Arts, The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell  by Diane Filby Gillespie (Syracuse University Press) It’s hard to find these days, but not impossible.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

Ducks, Newburyport Lucy Ellman

The fact that I finally finished reading it on 1/28/2022 (approximately 1 year 7 months, 18 days), the fact that it was a long term investment to read this book, the fact that it’s stream of conscious, except for the passages about the cougar and her cubs, the fact that I don’t mind it being stripped of all the structure that holds a story together because it’s not just a story, the fact that it’s what it’s like being inside someone’s head (or your own head for that matter, have you ever listened to yourself?) The fact that our brains rattle around thoughts all day and dream all night, constantly processing sensory data, the chaos of our consciousness, the fact that the inner voice unnerves us, our random thoughts are stray cats, thoughts lurking around in the dark corners of who we are, the fact that this book is hypnotic, the fact that I never learned her name, the fact that no one ever called out to her to say “Hey                        ! How the heck are you?” Not even once, it is a little sad, but it’s okay, I don’t mind not knowing, not having the anchor of an identity, the fact that I won’t lose sleep wondering what her name is, the fact that my left wrist hurts, the fact that it will get better, the fact that it’s a weird book, the fact that I couldn’t NOT read it, the fact that it was a tense, intense, an emotional freight train, OMG this is how our brains carry on, jumping from one thought to the next, fixating on words, think of one word and a string of others that sound like it follow, turning into another spill of words, words zig-zag through subjects, thoughts, associations, the fact that we dwell on the shit that still haunts us, eats at our guts, years and years after the fact, the fact that none of that shit matters, but it does matter, the fact that it’s the shit that made us who we are in this existence, the fact that it sucks the life out of you if you let it, the fact that we grow from that sadness, that fear, that awful moment in time we all want to forget, that embarrassment, that bullshit, that bully, that mean girl, that broken heart, that accident, that regret, that failure, the fact that the list of bad shit seems to outgun the good, and the fact that we barely chew on the happiness, the fact that we need to turn that ship around within ourselves to count our blessings and stop focusing on the wrongs done to us, the fact that people need to be kinder to one another, the fact that especially now, the fact that this book came on the cusp of the pandemic, softly whispering the prediction that it might happen, the fact that it was just a matter of when, the fact that our world has changed, the fact that Ducks, Newburyport is a bit unnerving when the nail is hit squarely on the head, the fact that it is a good read, the fact that you must be patient, patience, go with the flow, hypnotic, the fact that I have several pages dogeared, ducks, bumblebees, the Abominable Snowman, Jesus of New Philadelphia, baking pies, cinnamon buns, tartes tatin, Spaghetti O’s, Sound of Music, South Pacific, Oliver! Now Voyager, Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Fonda, Donald Trump, Open Carry, Adam Lanza, Sandy Hook, fake news, Western expansion, survivalism, self-defense, stepping on children’s toys, the fact that the Ohio River is polluted, Lake Erie, the fact that the ice caps are melting, the fact that the birth of our Nation was a blood bath of wars and massacres, the fact that there’s been a sighting of a mountain lion, the fact that everyone thought all the cougars were long dead because we killed them all like everything else that we thought no longer exists, the fact that given time, Nature takes back what we’ve taken, the fact that you want to scream “What the fuck just happened?” The fact that I’m done with reading the book, I enjoyed it, it’s special, and I highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t intimidated by 1000 pages, the fact that it was the perfect pandemic read.

The Christmas cookies that Mom used to make

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I love these Christmas cookies—they are the best ever, I swear by them. Yes, indeed.

(They are known as The MoFo X-mas Cookies. Named as such because they are a pain-in-the-ass to make, but damn they’re delicious. Very worth the annual hassle.)

FIRST— make sure you have a fresh roll of wax paper (or parchment paper), trust me on this, you’ll need it—I’ve been caught short before— it isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a matter of “oh shit, I’m fresh out of wax paper” or not. Live dangerously if you wish, that’s your problem, not mine.

SECOND—A glass of wine is helpful, but if you don’t drink, that’s okay—wine has absolutely nothing to do with the success of making the cookies. It’s just a good “pause button” if you know what I mean.

THIRD—Please note, this recipe isn’t carved in stone, you can substitute ingredients to satisfy any moral, political, or health issues, it’s fine, just don’t hate on me for using stuff I have in the recipe, dig? It’s just a recipe for awesome (but pain-in-the ass) Christmas cookies. (And they don’t have to be called Christmas cookies, you can call them anything you want, they don’t have to be associated with a holiday, they’re just cookies that are delicious, cut them into shapes, bake them, decorate them (or not) then eat them, enjoy them!)

Here are the ingredients:

  • 3 cups sifted flour (gluten free works too, adjust accordingly to your preferred white powdery baking substitute.)
  • 1 cup sugar (If you don’t want to use sugar use whatever granular sweetener source you prefer, hopefully that shit you’re using doesn’t cause cancer.)
  • 1 tsp salt (ummm…if you eliminate it, this changes the sweetness, just sayin’…)
  • 2 tsp baking powder (gosh, I don’t know, is there any reason that baking powder can be bad? I have no fucking clue.)
  • 1/2 cup Bluebonnet Margarine, softened (The original recipe that Mom used called for it specifically. Honestly, it was probably from off a Bluebonnet Margarine box for all I know. You can use anything equivalent. Personally, I like to use butter. But you can use whatever you prefer.
  • 1/2 cup of Crisco (I’m not a fan of Crisco, it’s white and weird looking, and looks suspicious. I’ve been using Smart Balance oil or coconut oil instead, which makes the dough a little bit stickier and a bigger pain in the ass to deal with, I always add a wee bit more flour to make it less sticky to deal with.)
  • 3 eggs (or whatever—if you can’t abide eggs, use whatever you use instead.)
  • 1 tsp of vanilla (is there an issue with vanilla? I only ask just because it seems there’s a trigger on everything these days—I can’t keep up with it all. I’m old and the wolves are after me.)

Putting it all together (using whatever kitchen device you use for mixing cookie dough)

  • Beat the eggs
  • Cream the sugar into beaten eggs
  • Add salt, vanilla, baking powder, mix well
  • Cut in the softened margarine and Crisco (if using oil, you can add it after the eggs and sugar are creamed together.)
  • Slowly add the sifted flour until well-blended (the dough should be only slightly sticky and nicely firm to handle into a big doughy ball, split it up in smaller portions, wrap in wax paper and foil to set aside to…
  • Chill dough for at least an hour, overnight is best, dough is easier to handle while chilled or guess what—it’s a pain-in-the-ass.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven at 375°F

Ungreased cookie sheet(s)

Rolling out and cutting the dough:

Roll out dough on floured wax paper (or whatever preferred surface you use)

  • Advice: Don’t roll them too thin or they’ll burn, but not too fat or they’ll be too puffy (my second batch is always the better batch.)

Once you’ve rolled the dough out, you may cut it into desired shapes with your favorite cookie cutters (I have a kitty cutter that is a personal favorite. I love the Christmas trees and Stars. Angels are good. I have had difficulties with the gingerbread boy figure and snowman shapes losing body parts; donkeys, horses, and goats lose their legs, ears, horns.) Little crescent moons are awesome shapes to fit into the last bits of cookie dough real estate to top off the cookie sheet.

  • It is important to keep flour handy to sprinkle on the dough and rolling surface, and rub onto the rolling pin, or to dust the cookie cutters cuz as the dough warms up it gets sticky and becomes such a pain-in-the-ass that makes me drop F-bombs and other unlady-like words that I can think of for the occasion.
    • It is a fact that I am more creative with cussing as I grow older and especially while going through menopause—dude, the filters are off.

Place cut cookies on ungreased cookie sheet

  • My cookie sheets are ancient—they have all the scars and patina from years use, one of the edges is disintegrating—the poor thing. My Fred tells me that I should throw them away, but they are the best cookie baking cookie sheets!

Bake the cookies in the preheated oven (375°F in case you missed the earlier nudge to preheat the oven) for 8-10 minutes. 9 seems to be the magic number in my oven.

  • Advice: Try baking at 8 minutes for the first batch going in to see how your oven does. They should be pale, soft, but firm cookies, lightly browned on the bottom. It’s best to bake like shapes together, anything like gingerbread boys, Santa, and/ or snowmen with arms and legs (donkeys too!) will likely burn if baked with the bulkier shapes such as stars, trees, or angels that need a little more time.

 When they’re done, place the cookies on a wire rack to cool.

  • The bake time never seems long enough to roll out and cut the next dozen or so for baking, it’s amazing how fast time flies! When the timer goes off there are more expletives.

Once they’re cooled you may frost and decorate the cookies as you please.

  • Sometimes I wait until the next day because I’m exhausted from the cutting and baking, these bitches are a lot of work.

Frosting recipe that my Mom used:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 lb. confectionery sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

(If you’re extra creative add green food coloring for the Christmas trees!)

Or you can use a boxed white frosting mix.

Or if you’re exhausted like me, buy the already made frosting, less fussing, less cussing. (Vanilla cream or cream cheese frosting are always good with these, but it’s up to you how you want them.)

Decorating the cookies:

Colorful sugar sanding sprinkles on top, cinnamon, and the little red hot cinnamon candy dots are good, the silver balls too—decorate to your hearts content, this is the fun part, so knock yourself out. Mom used to set up an assembly line, she’d frost them, and we’d decorate them. It was hard NOT to lick our fingers in the process. (I promise, I DID NOT lick my fingers while making the cookies.)

Store in an airtight container or a big roasting pan

  • Advice: put wax paper in between layers of cookies so they don’t stick together, because they will.
  • Pour a second glass of wine, you deserved it!

Happy thoughts and Merry Christmas!

Early morning ears…and other stuff

Early morning ears 10 17 2021-2

This is the start of my day…every day, this my sweet little donkey, Elizabeth, she was standing at the gate when I came back from dumping out the water buckets, huffing and hawing, demanding breakfast… I sleep in on the weekends until 6am…yes. That is sleeping in for me.

I have many projects in the works. Still working on the editing of Drinking From the Fishbowl, I’m taking my sweet old time with it, I know…but I want it to be right. I’m currently staring at chapter 25…it’s fine.

One of my poems, Truth, has been accepted to be part of an anthology coming out sometime next year…I had posted a raw version of it a year ago in March 2020. I’m pretty happy about that…I’ll let you know when it’s out and how to find it.

It’s been stressful lately, life while navigating this pandemic world, and the associated bullshit. Writing comes in fits and bits. Poe-ems begin as notes on my phone, words and phrases collected.

I’m mostly drawing, I’ve started another sketchbook for my nightly sketches, the titles lately have been inspired by W. S. Merwin’s book The Shadow of Sirius. Some are just titled by words in my head at the time…

This is the pencil that I’ve been using for some of my scribbles…literally, I do scribble.

9 29 2021 pencil

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I’m also splashing with watercolors in a blue book with some fabulous paper (I love paper, you see.)

10 9 2021

I need to finish the COVID Calendar project, that one is emotionally draining because I’m having to deal with a year’s worth of facts, events, numbers of cases and deaths…so, it is what it is, I guess. I’ll make a point to see to it now that the garden is pretty much done for the year, and I’ll be hunkered down again for another winter.

Knowledge Crowns Those Who Seek Her

Sometimes I do dumb doodles…make of that what you want…or not. Lilith on her pedestal that we made concrete with scallop shell impressions

I acquired a gargoyle for my garden, I named her Lilith…and we made a nice pedestal for her. I glued scallop shells on the inside of the mold so I could have these cool impressions… turned out better than I hoped!

And I took an old diary that I had in high school and I’m turning it into another (yet another) art project…

9 11 - 12 page spread 19 11 - 12 2021 page spread 2

So you see…I’m still out here, keeping busy, making things to drown out the noise inside my head, and if I have no words, I mark up paper with graphite, or flood paper with ink and watercolors, there are some things I have no words for…

I’ve recently discovered Hilma Af Klint, and have been quietly looking through Notes and Methods. I like reading an artist’s words than the words of others who are puzzling over what the artist meant. Goodness knows, if I thought about what someone would say about anything I made after I’m dead and gone, I’d be too paralyzed to do anything at all… with that said… I do what I do, and I just do it.

Hilma af Klint Notes and Methods

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”  Words of wisdom from Georgia O’Keeffe

Peace be with you. Be safe. Now, go make something you’ve always wanted to make, and do it no matter how crappy it might look at first, just keep going, you’ll do it. Make it yours, make it right.

Late Summer

Sunshine of two kinds

Sunshine of two kinds…

It’s been one of the rainiest summers, so seeing actual sunshine yesterday was a treat…today we’re back to gray and rain.

I’ve been stringing some words together lately and have dug deep into editing Drinking From the Fishbowl with hopes to get it finished before year’s end. We’ll see, keeping focused has been a see-saw event, some days are better than others.

The nightly sketches help clear the brain at the end of day. I am not kidding when I say “I’m scribbling,” it’s what I can manage these days. The titles are often pulled from my bookshelves, a fragment of poetry, from songs, titles or lyrics, the weather, or seasonal celestial events. Circles are sacred, so they’re very present in my artwork…here are a few from this year so far, I draw and finish one every night, so imagine how many that means… my sketchbooks are nigh bursting:

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Most nights, my wee kitty, Sooty Little-Little, hangs out with me while I’m drawing, and she always has to “touch” the works in progress..today she is 10 months old, she’s growing up so fast!

Those were the pictures, now here are the words that I’ve been collecting in my phone’s notepad, a phrase at a time as they came to me over the last month or so:

Picking through salad bar choices –

phantom limbs, feral thoughts,

random trauma, stray security,

golden silence when it’s available.

Unpredictable days, the dead of night.

It appears a misfire happened during the process of becoming.

Words bumping through doorways. Good news, bad news

keeping everyone awake.

Pandemic frustrations – it’s a sign of the times

when the four-year-old princess says,

“Motherfucker”

after she gets lipstick on her dress.

A sign of triumph along the way home reads:

“The road to radiation ends here…”

With that, there is still hope.

 

And so that’s all I got for now. Happy thoughts!

(post updated 8/4/2021, I tweaked the poem a little bit.)

 

Summer

20210628_113908

It is my favorite time of year…summer. Once my garden is planted, the weeding and maintenance is ongoing, done in the early morning, the afternoons are spent making art or writing… I set up my sun porch for the rainy days. The desk was one I loved when I was little. I pulled it from my parent’s basement when we cleared out their house…even tho’ it is small and the chair child size, I don’t mind at all, I’m so perfectly happy sitting there, looking out at the garden, the bird feeders, and it’s another place for me to sit and keep making things.

The 4th of July is over, the fireflies have been at their peak every night, but soon they will slowly disappear for another year. I have loved watching them this year.

I’m back to editing my third novel, Drinking From the Fishbowl, it’s been untouched since December 2019. It seems now that the pandemic is “winding down” (I guess that’s somewhat true as more people are getting vaccinated) and the new version of normal is wobbling to a start, my lack of inspiration to revisit what I had worked for so long and hard to make is “thawing”…just the thought of working on it this past year was too overwhelming. I couldn’t do it. I thought about it quite a bit on and off, I love the book, it has matured a good deal since I first started it in or around 2001-ish. (I keep finding notebooks with entries sketching out ideas for it.) I’ve become a better writer for the long wait.

I have finished a large art project, a portfolio of works on paper named The Book From My Acre of the World.

Pages

I posted a page dedicated to it on my art website Artwork From My Acre of the World, this piece took about 2-3 years to finish, and is incorporated into my Rare Book Library Project as Volume 10. Its themes cover climate change, politics, social media, the sense of “too much information” of the 24/7 news cycle and American lifestyle, and the pandemic. Each page has handwritten words, hand-stamped phrases, the written words have been layered over and over until they are no longer legible. The hand-stamped words are at times off register and drift. Honestly, it was therapeutic because being older in our culture has become complicated, and most days I feel like I’m running a marathon, but I’m standing still. I’ve voiced more than once “I want to retire.” If I could afford it, I would…I’d have to work part time for a while if I did. I’m not old enough yet. I wish there was a way I could “dial it back” so I’m not keeling over from the stress.

There is a second project in the works, The COVID Calendar.

The Covid Calendar snap shot

This collection of pages came into being at the tail end of the The Book From My Acre of the World project. It’s going to take some time to complete it as it involves research into the pandemic, the tracking of the numbers of cases and deaths locally, national and international. It’s difficult to say the least.

I’m still drawing every night, it’s been 18 months of steady sketching. My more recent sketches are literally scribbles. Many of these sketches receive their titles from books on my bookshelves in the studio, this one is from MZD’s House of Leaves.

7 2 2021 It's Still there isn't it

I sleep better at night and I need that.

I hope you’re well. Thank you for reading me.

A Few Words…June 12, 2021

I live in fear of Windows

updates.

I know I’m not alone in this

Merry-go-round bullshit.

My poor old crappy laptop

Can’t take much more of this…

Nor can my heart.

My digitized archive

of worries and happiness;

creativity and recipes;

hopes and dreams

are stored on the

Hard drive

Even though they’re all backed up

On various external devices,

Still—I can’t bear to lose them

Because rebuilding it all again

and again is more fuss than I can take.

The week-to-week, month-to-month

Technical bracing for the latest

Impact—

Fuck damnit!

Will they make a patch for that bug?

Or am I left adrift waiting for the

Next update on Tuesday that might

Fix it or make it worse?

Dude,

It’s a conspiracy against the

American consumer

that nothing is built

To last.

The money-grubbing bastards

Expect us to jump to the next new and improved

Gadget—

Just because they made it.

I know damn well it will be obsolete in a year.

I’m unplugging myself to disappear

Into the summer garden to

Meditate while I pull weeds

because

There’s another update this morning.

Your guess is as good as mine if I will have a

Functioning laptop when I come back.

As I take my first breath of outside air,

I quietly ask the Universe to be

Kind.

Expectations

It has been a pleasure to be alive and in this world.

Embracing life—scratching out a living;

Hand to mouth—paycheck to paycheck

Worry.

Anxiety.

Happy days—in spite of hard times.

Making art on my own time

Hopes and dreams under different circumstances

than expected, but then again,

I’ve learned to expect the unexpected.

I have to laugh

at the assumptions that are pinned to my skin

by people who don’t know me from Eve—or Lilith.

I have never done all that was expected of me.

I have never been whatever anyone expected me

to be—or not to be.

I’m an F-bomb away from blowing up everyone’s expectations.

I make no apologies.

I am not your construct.

I am not your bitch.

I do my thing—I go with the flow,

Or I go against the grain.

Not meaning to be contrary, but I’m on my own path.

Go your own way if you must, leave me to my own.

I’ll get it done, whatever it is—fuck it, I’ll get it done.

That’s how I roll.

Written on my cellphone 5/6/2021 copied down on 5/16/2021, posted here today 5/28/2021