There was a time when I planned an Art & Essay show called The Blacksmith and The Beekeeper’s Boy. They represented two different aspects of life in the mid-nineteenth century and, for that matter, in this twenty-first century, perhaps all centuries. My grandfather was the last blacksmith in our long family line of blacksmiths. In 1950, my father could not raise a family as a blacksmith, so he tried many hats; fireman, farmer, grocer, union steward, jouster, and beekeeper. I am that beekeeper’s boy.
The blacksmith represents the technological, steampunk outlook of the future, where wondrous worlds will be hammered on the anvil of innovation, where invention will conquer any problem and make life an easy existence where we but ask, and invention obeys.
The beekeeper’s boy represents the timeless sense of nature where seasons drift into seasons, and life is fine as it is, slowly flowing forward as the river runs, moving to the ocean to join an even greater sea of life.
I am a child of these two aspects, searching for my place in both of their worlds; a somewhat bipolar existence, where I am content in neither world. It is this discontent that makes life painful, yet makes art possible.
The exhibit changed into the UNION, Art & Essay show that traveled the region. I may revisit the subject; I sold one of the pieces last weekend in the SKETCHBOOK exhibit at Gallery 322 and discovered that I had not photographed, or written about, the pieces that were completed.
Below are some of the notes on that series:
The beekeeper’s boy sits in the meadow,
in the murmur of the moment;
watching the movement of rising and falling;
the bees, their being, and non-being.
Watching, waiting, listening for the bees.
Was that their whisper,
was that the wind,
or just the whir of white noise.
Colony collapse has finally hit the hive.
The beekeeper’s boy, who raised this rabble,
must now give them up.
The queen is quietly mercurial;
the swarm is more like mayhem.
Still, he had seen the miracle
moving through the meadow.
The beekeeper’s boy sits in the meadow, in the moment;
the minute hours of this moment,
where future will not arrive, and past no longer matters.
The useful Arts and Mysteries, the apicultural history,
In the muted colors after morning, softened by the mask of sleep, I first saw the artist’s muse. It was the day of the amber light from the solar eclipse, and I had overstayed in bed again, eclipsed myself by dark depression, unable to draw, unable to look at my pencils and papers.
My eyes were closed, but a whisper woke me, then she flowed down around me, surrounding me with her scent, focusing me on her smile. She whispered, “Let me do that,” and started to move her hands around me, tai chi around me, long hair above me. She moved her hands through me as though I was a cloud. She knows I am vapor; her waves flow unobstructed through me and I lose my breath, lose my voice.
In my silence, she spoke again, “With the first sketch in your mind, you think that you and I are two, when we are one. Don’t look for me; I am here. I walk with you, not behind or beside, but with you, closer than a Doppelganger.” Then her hands melted into mine and we took up my pencils, drawing black and white sketches of foregrounds and backgrounds that blended together, like a teardrop in an ocean. It frightened me, for I could not see her face; as I cannot see my own eyes. I was not ready to blend together, to be one thing without separation.
From the teardrop, she again became separate and floated across the room. As I reached out to her, she moved toward the door, with my sketches in her hand, saying, “Don’t look for me, I am always here.” I did not believe her and rushed to lock the latch, but she had disappeared into the forest where there was no path. I brought out a lantern to light the day that was night in the solar eclipse, but I could not find her path.
Now my fingers reach out in the cool of the middlenight and feel her heat, but I cannot see her. I leave gifts outside the locking latch; I wait; I worry; I press my palms against my head, but until I believe her and again become vapor, I will not see her, though she is soft in sleep beside me.
I was born of this earth, born of this soil, as you were born, and there comes a time when we long to return to our first home, where we once walked the long line of follow thy father, yet we find that the border is closed; we are no longer welcome, our clothes, our skin, our name, has changed. The marksmen walk behind the long line of eastern pine, their rifle barrels catch and throw the shine of midday sun, and they watch the dead line. In the length of a lifetime, I longed to cross the border, I walked just this side of the dead line, my father's blood oiled pistol in my waistcoat, ready for the fight, my fear, forgotten in the fatigue of age, but there was a wisdom that stopped me. I remembered the pages, so I turn south, moving back beyond the tree line, to sit upon the split oak until dayend, to wait for the moonless road, when I will return to my ancient home, to the earth, to the soil of my birth.
Tucked inside a pocket of my soul coat, deep behind my weary heart, I carry the ancient pages; fragments mostly, of stories told across the oakwood smoke of low winter fires, from fathers to sons, from nursing mothers to every baby born. The heroes, whose small deeds grew like sown seeds through the generations, whose names were changed by each new ruling religion; heroes, whose love grew into compassion and invention which appeared to be magic, which begat faith, which was written into law, which forced war, which drew blood, drew borders, until love stole across the lines of limit to find itself in the face of another whose speech was foreign, but whose coat pocket contained the same ancient pages.
Tucked inside our soul coats, deep behind our hearts, we, each and all, carry our ancient pages, and cross borders, until there are no more borders, and we are all the same; born of this soil.
I am becoming more and more aware of time; the days, the months, now years spent away from home. Soon, I will turn twenty-four, but I feel as tired and worn as a hobbled greybeard, as though my life has passed; I should be home. I should have lived life, as it was promised. While this war has dragged on and on, approaching its fourth year, there are so many opportunities I have missed. I should have lived a quiet life, instead of riding with the firebrands. I should have watched the red-winged blackbird near the river run, instead of watching red blood turn black on the banks of the Monocacy River. I should have shared an ale at the tavern with my friends, not buried them there. I should have farmed with my brothers, instead of fighting my other brothers from the northern states. I should have lived by now.
By now, I should have taken on my role as adult, to take care of my mother and father, as they cared for me. I should have built my own home, a small cottage down near the Wilderness Run, where I could listen to cool deep waters of spring freshet. By now, I should have married, and danced many a Virginia Reel in the parlor with my dearest Marianna. I should have started a family; the tiny tickle of babies laughing should have filled my rooms, filled my heart.
I should have built a red bank barn and raised a fine stable of Morgan horses by now. In the three years that I have lost, I should have planted and harvested, planted and harvested, and then, planted once more. I should have seen the seasons, the spring growing, the winter resting; all that, I should have lived it.
My list of should could go on and on, but I should not dwell upon it. I will have my time to live that life of simple treasures; I will take note and honor every moment. It is a time that hundreds of thousands of boys will now never have; hundreds of thousands buried far from the life they should have lived.
I am spent; you may not see me in my winter rest, thirty steps down the bank, off the burnt hill road, beyond the long line of scrub pines, where the split-rail remnants trail off, but there I am, blending back into the breath of soft soil. My last companion is a wake of vultures, the black angels of carrion come. I am the ribcage in the cornfield.
I know I had more to give, had I walked with you; I was held back by my doubts, not in you, but in me. On every road, I turned off before reaching the ridge. This day, my will is too weak to return to the road, so I rest here until spring.
Try as I might, when I return, I won’t remember this; the days will grow longer; I will walk these roads with you again, and one day, we will reach the ridge.
Until that day, I am the last deep snow melting into a warming soil ready to receive new seed. On that day, you shall see me as the revival of rivers in the floods of spring freshet.
Raising the rising moon begins early, before the heat of sun holds it down. Commerce, with its attendant travelers, moves about the day, not noticing nature’s rising and receding, not noticing the receiving and returning rhythm of breath. It is not until the full moon rises into the night lighthouse that the weary ones, the waking ones, stop and watch for just a moment, to take in the wonder of the rising.
Often, in the last days of our winter fever, we look back at the crooked path we’ve worn in the ending season, using that same past to plan the future. Weighted down, but ready, we bring our bricks and baggage to pave a perfectly patterned road ahead. Then, as always, the earth shifts, cracks occur, and we start to stumble; yearly, wearily living along another winding path. Shift happens on this planet, we can’t plan it away. We can make scenarios, make contingencies, but we can’t make sure. There is simply no way to chart the changes that come along in a decade, so finally this year, I’m leaving my bricks behind, while I wander a bit. I still have much of my baggage, but I feel lighter already. I still have the books I carry, in my head, in my heart; the books I wrote, the books I remembered, the books with my scribble in the margins; that is who I truly am. I am as you are, we are of the ancients. We are of the now, and the forevernow. These are the books we carry; this is who we are. We are the waking; taking our first full breath. We are the words we whisper when we turn the page. Breathing in, we are the blending of all books, the scribbling pencil points, the overwhelmed annalists listening for the silence between crow caws and motorcars. Breathing out, we are this that cannot be named. Breathing in, we are the gathering of grace; the last scribes in the retinue, tallying the miracles, illuminating manuscripts of unseen symphonies from early morning mockingbirds. Breathing out, we are this that cannot be named. Breathing in, we are all that ever was. Breathing out, we are all that ever will be.
Breaking day sun slips through the thornapple branches in jagged cuts of light and night. I rise with its pain, and listen, but Courage does not call out commands, or curse from atop the porch step to the chattel below; she will not wait for reinforcements. Courage whispers, and walks toward the plank road where the work will be done. She does not ask to be Courage, as I do; she takes the task at hand and handles it now, so I walk behind her fo a time, in the early morning, as the fog lifts beyond the tree line. We are tasked this day to measure the moon, at the ridgetop, a full day’s journey, and the many that stay behind say it cannot be measured, it is beyond our scope, and the demons on the ridge are many. Courage wears the scars and creases of those demons, so I will walk behind her awhile, and ask to be Courage for this one day.
I wear my father’s butternut overcoat, and deep inside the left pocket is the Colt pistol that he turned on himself, in the war before this war. I carry the weight of that Colt, the weight of that coat, the wet wool heavy on my scars and shoulders, and every morning, I reach into its worn pocket, moving my fingers across the blood and oil polished pistol grip, knowing that I am on his path; knowing that his way was thick with thorns and tangled honeysuckle vines, with deep mud, and deeper madness, and I ask to be Courage for this one day.
Courage is quiet, and walks with a steady step through the tall grass, even as the grade steepens near the slip rail, a full furlong before the plank road, where the work will be done. I fall behind in the high noon sun, my heavy boots caked with the drying mud of years lost, trudging the circling path of thorn and vine. By late afternoon, Courage is a shrinking silhouette on the west ridge, and I am remembering the cool shade of the hawthorn and the thick sweet scent of honeysuckle, its taste on my lips, so I sit for awhile to consider my direction for tomorrow, and move the pistol to my right pocket.
On a February, cold and dreary, Wednesday afternoon, in the empty aisle of gift wraps and greeting cards, past the paper plates and party hats, a lace gray grandmother, with spectacles and a pocket magnifier, lingers alone, reading sentimental Valentines, just like the ones her children used to send her.
Be quiet now, and listen to the soil moving slowly into solstice. Come, with me, out before the new morning of the longest night to gather firewood from the deadfallen branches. Beneath a silent sentinel moon, the crows will keep the time; the red-tailed hawk atop the old oak will keep watch as we work. A new snow quilt covers the field of cut corn and the harvest is over; now is the time to rest and reset. All is still, predawn, along the buffalo road; the slight and silent movement, reflected in your lantern light, is the shooting stars of snow falling from the tall pines.
Watch for the black ice of yesterday’s storms; it will make your night mind restless and weary. Do not track that restlessness back inside the winter cottage. Put the room at rest, and settle into silence. There will be struggles ahead in the longer days, so now is the moment, in the quiet crackle of hardwood fires, for a sleep deep inside, where we may wake anew. Be not born again to make the same choices; let this be a new season within you.
Set your taper by the bedside, and move in close beneath the quilt; I will watch over you, soft in sleep beside me. Be quiet now, and listen, moving slowly into solstice.
Bill Van Doren was a Renaissance Man, if ever there was one; artist, writer, singer; he could do it all, and do it well. Just as impressive was his complete joy of life, and his generous heart. When my brother passed away, a Sunset painting of that day arrived soon after; Bill was always lifting my spirits like that, with kind words, or even his recorded version of a song we both loved. Just a couple months ago, he sent me a box of his used paint brushes, so I could use them as characters in my new l'assemblages. A simple act that I will always cherish, and he will be a part of my art for years to come.
We travel the side roads for a time, and touch as many as we can. He has touched us, and will again. Bill Van Doren is a part of us all now.
William Van Doren ~ JULY 14, 1948 – JANUARY 20, 2019