My mom died in her sleep. Her heart could not pump as it once did, and fluid collected around her lungs. When she could speak, she assured me there was no pain, so we spent as much time with her as we could. I can remember thinking that watching her disappear was actually beautiful, although I can’t remember why I thought that, anymore.
I would make best friends and lose them. I would leave for school, come home again, get married, change jobs, and have babies. Through all of it, I always had a mother. I hid on the couch with the sheet over me like a tent for a few weeks. My kids walked around the makeshift rabbit hole and prodded me, but in the end, climbed in and hunkered down. My husband padded around in socked feet, numb and in a fog because he had loved her, too, and time was watermarked by ramen noodles meals and tv shows.
Two best friends, the most organized people I know, traveled up the coast to be with us, twice. They brought casseroles, helped dress my kids for the service and pinned photos of my mother to the board we would take to the funeral home. There are no words explaining how critical they were to my family’s health at that time, but more than likely they already know. The kind of people who don’t judge when you forget to bring your mother’s ashes into the house and the urn stays in the backseat of the car overnight because you drank a bottle and a half of chardonnay after the service. Another friend, someone I hadn’t seen in a lifetime, sent condolence via email and shared how he had coped with the early and unexpected death of his brother. It was such a sincere gesture I decided to send him something. It took all the energy I had to send it, but once I finally got that parcel to the post, my ascent began from nothing. Later that day, I sat in front of my computer.
There was an opportunity on the New York Foundation for the Arts website. It read, a week-long summer workshop in printmaking, offered at the Women’s Studio Workshop, WSW, located in Kingston, New York. In the fine print, there was a blurb describing ‘a crash course’ in bookbinding and letterpress. The title of the course included the words, Boot Camp, and in retrospect that would have implied some level of difficulty, but the idea of sitting around in a circle with other women (in shawls) making picture books had already been planted in my brain. I made the call and charged the course to the card.
By mid-July, I found myself driving over a covered bridge in upstate New York. Asphalt graduated to a winding bend toward WSW. It is an institution that was established in a farmhouse decades ago, and there’s a warm, Catskills feeling I associate with this place. A frayed, Wabi-Sabi style that looks like Patchouli smells. Despite some of the exchanges I experienced while visiting, let me point out that this is a great studio with great people, and I have every intention of taking another workshop there as soon as I have a chance.
I hustled in, slightly breathless with my new canvas bag stuffed with Moleskine notebooks and felt tip markers, ready to bind books and shake off the emptiness that had lodged itself between my throat and abdomen. It still had not occurred to me that when I’d registered for the workshop I had no experience with bookbinding or letterpress. When it comes to making art, or anything, really, my attention is rather feral. But the one thing that did bring some comfort was the smell of the place. Art studios, no matter where they are, have a distinct smell- slightly metallic, oily, and maybe a little chalky. In that way, it’s like coming home.
Some of the ladies had already bonded. I have never understood the undercurrent of female bonding. At best, if I can stay within the safety zones and off the radar with women in a group, I’m happy. This is a scandalous admission coming from a self-proclaimed feminist, but the thing is, some women, and in this setting, trust me, feminists included, have yet to read the memo on inclusion. I scuttled to the back of the room and pulled my bag up to an aluminum work table, taking in the space and noting all the good chairs had been taken. An intense blond woman who had absolutely no time for pleasantries, just had to get down to the business of whatever it was we had signed up for, was already writing something down and as far as I could tell, no one had started teaching, yet.
Someone did start speaking, eventually. A brunette, about mid-thirty, with a buzz cut started describing her work in detail. Her voice oscillated from monotone to burnt as she advanced upon a display of texts set before us. These were her books, hand-printed and bound, stunning in girth and cleanliness. Although the content of each is now lost to me, there were illustrations that looked like blueprints on the opposite pages of text. Really good-looking, put-together stuff. Intimidatingly, so. In a short expanse of time, maybe twenty seconds in, the lightbulb went off and alerted me that I absolutely should have scrutinized the workshop description. Some experience with elaborate measuring and extensive folding would be necessary, if not a prerequisite, moving forward. Immediately after thinking this, another woman who had traveled all the way from Australia to take the workshop, something that she would later share over lunch, turned, curled her hand dramatically around her mouth and announced, “She’s AWFUL!”
We obediently fell in line and followed the instructor into a narrow space. The walls were lined with antiquated, pencil thin drawers, each with the name of a font mounted in pressed tin on the facade. Within each were miniscule lead stamps, each one with a raised letter of the alphabet, all nestled tightly as puzzle pieces into teeny, tiny compartments. We were expected to pull these drawers out after picking a font of our choice by oh so carefully arching around one another, gently removing it and balancing this loaded drawer back to our work stations. The blond had managed to carry back three. She reigned from New Hope, PA, had commandeered two more tables, three in total, and set all the tables up in front of the bathroom. If I had any complaint, and it would only be the one; there was no clear path. This would be considered, by some, problematic in an emergency. Three tables lined up in front of a bathroom could be deemed a potential hazard and it’s inviting trouble by most standards. Everyone had their heads down, frantically working, so for a split second, I thought we were being timed and maybe that was another part of the description I had failed to read. It would have explained all the competitive energy.
I crammed myself into a corner, just a diagonal stone’s throw of the bathroom. A young woman who turned out to be an intern was super sweet and friendly. She had only been there a few weeks, but answered my questions and didn’t seem to be critical of my obliviousness. For the rest of the day I sketched drawings on a thin film that would later be superimposed onto a linoleum block by way of a darkroom. There were chemicals, a heat lamp and a see-through machine that I’d convinced the super sweet intern to turn on for me.
We were expected to spend most of our time in a room that housed an expensive and complicated piece of equipment- a printing press. It seemed exceedingly delicate for such a large thing. I found myself feeling as though I really did not want to mess with it, so I wrote it off and zoned out, possibly missing some pertinent information. One reason I may have been distracted is that my husband and the kids had driven up with me. We had rented a beautiful cabin about a half hour’s drive away, a charming place set off of a remote dirt road that was hidden by a copse of trees. Upstate New York is absolutely beautiful. So, at four o clock, as soon as the workshop was over, not that there was any kind of time limit, I would high tail it out of there and meet up with the family. In my absence during the day, they were catching salamanders and whittling. One evening, I enjoyed the bucolic landscape by drinking a bottle of white wine under a gazebo, and threw up a lovely risotto dinner out the second story window. I cut the workshop the next day and travelled with Marc and the kids, green gilled, around Phoenicia.
When Marc and the kids walked into the studio one day, the instructor asked me, ‘Which was planned first, the workshop or the family vacation?’ I thought she was annoyed because I always left earlier than everyone else, translation- I wouldn’t stay all night long. I was just starting up a conversation with the resident artist over coffee the next morning when the instructor walked by and quipped, ‘It’s a good thing I’m not grading this class, because you’d probably end up with a C-.’ My 46 year old self recoiled as if I’d just been stabbed with a plastic utensil in the junior high school cafeteria. I mentioned this comment to the Australian. She rolled her eyes toward the instructor and then turned back to me. ‘She is unfit to teach.’ I fiercely nodded. ‘I’ll say!’ The relief the Australian’s eye roll afforded me was as close as I would get to suspending the grief I’d walked in with. Australians are so totally my favorite, now.
By the end of the week, I had been pigeon-holed into a helpless, goofy character, a simple woman from Long Island who knew nothing of the nuanced intricacies of printmaking, bookbinding, letterpress or that other thing I’d been doing all week with the chemicals and the light. I had, in my defense, signed up and paid for the class based on all the enjoyment and merriment I would be having and that plan took off just about the second I pulled the car in the driveway. Because of my low ranking as had been defined within the confines of our advanced workshop, I found the interns were speaking to me a little slower than they had earlier in the week and they made sure, I thought, to make eye contact with me while they spoke.
On the last day, we were instructed to walk out of the main house, into the sweltering heat and cross the road, and visit a wilder part of the property. Through stalks of grass and dappled light, wildflowers peeked out along the edges of a path. Someone in front called out for everyone to check for ticks and then, inserted against a wall of old growth, a barn appeared that was barely standing. The instructor walked in first, and we followed, stepping over a threshold and into an older part of the barn. There in the way back, sat a towering piece of machinery.
This was a gargantuan relic of a paper cutter that had been previously owned by a publishing house. It could cut a ream of paper twenty inches thick by way of a sheer, blinding Samurai blade. Of course, there were about fifteen steps just to turn it on and like everything else, a litany of rules that needed to be memorized before touching it. In that respect, it was similar to the other machines we had been expected to use, but the difference here was that if someone maybe screwed up because she hadn’t been paying attention, instead of hurting the expensive equipment, this thing was quite capable of shredding everyone to pieces. Another plus was that it made a deafening, whiny howl that shook the barn to it’s rafters. After the instructor turned it on, she turned it off and asked who wanted the honors of turning it back on. Several hands went up.
While it sliced and diced sheets of hand-made paper into smithereens, I shimmied through the crowd in order to tell the instructor I was leaving. ‘I’m not cutting the line! I’m not cutting you! I just have to tell her something!’ You’d have thought I was stealing their babies. Considering the complete ordeal involved just to turn it on-I think I had to sign something-and the racket that ensued, it should have been able to do a lot more than just cut paper. It should have been able to cut out gigantic snowflakes, or a humongous line of paper dolls, like in cartoons. That would have been well worth it. I spent some time thinking about all the fun things it should have been able to do while waiting patiently for the instructor to turn to me. I didn’t want to distract her from what she was doing, or I would have been liable. The others were transfixed and in the trenches, proving to themselves and to each other that they were definitely a cut above, hence, the ‘Boot Camp’ in the title. Now I got it. I made my move and yelled over the roar while tapping her on the shoulder, ‘Hey! I’m not messing with that thing! I’ll lose an arm!’ and under my breath I said something like, ‘Holy sweet Christ’ just as the machine turned off. My standing fell a few more rungs with the faculty and staff after that- super nice interns included.
Long before we were married, I would stay over the house my husband and his friends had rented. I can remember watching re-runs in the warmth and safety of their living room while a blizzard was happening all around us. There was an unexpected knock at the door. The landlord was this young, extreme sports guy and he convinced all of us to go outside in the frigid cold and build an igloo. We did. It took hours. I never understood why we did that, how we were roused on a Sunday night, convinced to leave the comfort of the living room and follow this lunatic’s vision, but we did. I don’t even remember enjoying it.
I’m here to write that the same kind of phenomenon was unfolding in that barn over at WSW. The old story comes in many forms, but the characters were defined that day by the caffeine-fueled, hyper diligent, slightly lost, over-tired worker bees who were ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for their instructor Queen under the threat of a sharp-edged, ten-foot-long, six -foot-high, impending disaster. I bolted.
They found me in the main house, packing up and minding my own business. I nonchalantly fiddled with my papers before heaving it all into a manilla folder. I had started making handmade paper earlier in the day and when I ran away from the group, decided to keep playing with the pulp. I hadn’t washed my hands and had all kinds of troubled getting the paper into the folder, but it was the last day and in truth, I was anxious to get out of there. I was hoping to leave before anyone got back from the barn.
‘How was the paper cutting?’ I asked. Silence. My cowardice must have been discussed on the way back. And then,
- Fantastic. I’m so glad I gave myself the gift of trying something new.
- I so agree! I’m inspired to go home and build one on the deck.
- Really, really wild. I’ve got some great pieces of paper now, some with ragged edges and some with straight edges.
- Me too! Can we trade?
I discreetly tip-toed past the group with hands encrusted in a gritty wheat paste, effectively dripping chunks of it in my wake. As my hand was slipping off the doorknob, I turned to see if anyone would notice my exit. The interns smiled and waved, the Australian nodded my way, said, ‘Come visit Sydney!’ and winked. It was good in the end. I finally made peace with the door, opened it wide and walked through.
The year before my mother fell into steep decline, I would try to get out to see her with the kids at least one night a week. I’d have a lasagna or ratatouille ready to put in the oven, or some kind of casserole. While I was busy in the kitchen, my mother would sit on the couch and watch tv with her grandchildren snuggled up next to her.
During one visit, mom held up a well-worn toy, a pony with glass eyes and asked my daughter what his name was. My daughter answered, and I quote, ‘His name is guilty, and I don’t want him.’ Amen, sweetheart. Me, neither.